Austin's Hip-Hop Pioneers, in Their Own Words
The Austin History Center-archived rappers and industry innovators share stories
By Rachel Rascoe, Kevin Curtin, Genevieve Wood, Kahron Spearman, and Derek Udensi, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023
Miss Manners once passed along an MP3 file to fellow KOOP 91.7FM host Ryan Blake, offering a rare recording of undigitized Eighties/Nineties Austin girl group Cooly Girls. Alongside taking over Manners' longtime Hip Hop Hooray broadcast this year, Blake works as an archivist at the Austin History Center. His curiosity aligned with the center's plans to keep this year's globally feted 50th anniversary of hip-hop rolling. On Sept. 17 at the Central Library, the Austin Hip Hop Honors Awards will salute the rappers and industry innovators who planted the world-conquering genre's local roots.
At the ceremony, Austin Film Society-produced short interviews with each of the nine VIPs will screen, alongside a posthumous tribute to MC Overlord and a nod to KAZI 88.7FM's ongoing impact. Looping in the next wave: Anastasia Hera hosts, Kydd Jones doles out awards, Pat G & the Justice League perform, and TJ the DJ spins. Behind the scenes, Blake and division manager Danielle' McGhee logged over 20 hours of oral histories, alongside posters, merch, and other retro media, to kick-start the History Center's growing hip-hop archives. As online RSVPs to the awards show have sold out and decades of culture-crafting pack a behemoth script, the Chronicle Music team interviewed the honorees, too.
As artists, entrepreneurs, mentors, collaborators, Texans, and transplants, their stories make a nice introductory mixtape. – Music Editor Rachel Rascoe
Click here to jump between the honorees’ stories: Cooly Girls | DJ Cassanova | FLOMOB | Tee Double | Mirage the Gr8 | NOOK Turner | Hip Hop Mecca | Bavu Blakes | Stanley Cobble
The late Tracy Rogers knew the world needed to hear her little sister's confident lyricism. While siblings Tracy and Erika were in middle school, they formed the teen group Cooly Girls in 1987 along with friend Nakia Stewart. Taken under the wing of grown rappers in their East Austin community, and with the approval of their churchgoing mothers, Cooly Girls became a fixture of local schools, talent shows, and community events while also crossing over to play Liberty Lunch, Austin Opera House, and Aqua Fest. Throughout their long run, the "Cooly Nation" collective expanded to include up to 25 singers, rappers, dancers, and DJs, including key Coolys Juana Marshall Esperanza, Rikeisha Ellison, and Angela Louie. The ensemble's community-minded rap and R&B, cassettes of which are mostly lost to time, shared stages with the likes of Kool Moe Dee, Geto Boys, D-Nice, Hi-Five, and Uncle Luke. Erika "MC Battlelette" Rogers, now Erika Sodie, currently makes music as MzDank. – Kevin Curtin
Erika Sodie: "The scene was all guys, and I loved my shock value. They'd be in the circle at Juneteenth down at the Doris Miller [Auditorium], and everybody would just pass me up until someone would yell, 'Give her the mic,' and they had no idea the voice, the words, the boldness, the confidence I had. And I would love to see the look on their faces. That was my thing: I loved proving myself."
Juana Esperanza Marshall: "We had music geared toward what was happening in society at that time, like we had a safe sex campaign and songs about lifting the community up and, right before I joined the group, they performed at Governor Ann Richards' inauguration. It was really about positivity and not as sexual as hip-hop today … I was young in an adult environment, but we always had a manager who looked out for us and the guys in the rap groups were like our big brothers – they kept a safe space for us. So I feel like we were able to be ourselves because it was a welcoming environment."
Sodie: "We ended up crossing over from the east side of I-35 to the west side and we were accepted. It was good, it was fun, it was innocent, and it opened so many doors of opportunity: exploring the city, being exposed to business meetings with our manager John Patterson. We were one of the first rap acts to perform on Sixth Street and once that door was open, it was open for everybody after that. So that was something I'll forever be proud of."
Marshall: "Growing up as a performer in hip-hop, speaking in front of groups, having that stage presence, it gave me a level of confidence that most people just don't have. I've always longed to continue to be able to perform, but my husband got killed when my kids were pretty young and I went to work in tech. So I've kind of parlayed that performing aspect into my work, and I've trained thousands of people at my job. I'm able to step outside of myself and speak up in spaces where other people might be afraid to do so. Being a child performer made me fearless."
Sodie: "Cooly Girls was just an outlet for us and it took off from there. I have to give God the credit for people still recognizing us today. People come up and say, 'I used to get in trouble sneaking out to y'all's shows!' or rap every word to a song of mine that I don't even remember. It's a part of a lot of people's lives, and it's amazing to be a part of something that grew those wings."
Raised in NYC, producer and DJ Cassanova was stationed in Austin while in the Air Force. With the group Project Crew, he generated the first Austin hip-hop album pressed to vinyl in 1988, including "Austin's first local rap hit" (revisit "I Am a DJ," Feb. 6, 2004). He went on to DJ at KAZI 88.7FM, the Beat 104.3FM, and Hot 93.3FM. Now based out of West Palm Beach, Florida, he recently produced ONE SON's "Outta My Mind" and an upcoming project with Project Crew's Teddy Lee. While visiting, Cassanova plays the RNBBQ at Hotel Indigo on Sept. 16. – Rachel Rascoe
"It started out with house parties and parks – Dottie Jordan, Givens Park – and grew from there. I was DJ'ing so much, I got to the point where I wanted to learn how to make music. I was still in the Air Force when I met [Clay Moe], lead rapper, and then [Teddy Lee] moved from San Antonio. It came organically, just, 'Hey, I DJ.' 'I can rhyme, can you?' We started doing cassettes and then progressed after I got my first drum machine, the SP-1200.
"We did the demo [for 'Army Man'] at my house, then went into Lone Star Studios. I got the drum machine that Friday, and it was Tuesday or Wednesday we cut that record. First thing I ever did. That's why it sounds real amateurish, but it became popular because of the Army base being here. It did its purpose for the time, but as a producer, now, I'm like, 'Oh my god, what the hell was I thinking?'
"As a DJ, I like to touch vinyl. [Project Crew] did shows live – I'd scratch up to the beats and use the drum machine, but while that's loading, we're using someone else's record. So it was like, 'We need our own.' We were the first ones in Austin to put out a [vinyl] rap record. We beat [Lady I.C. & MC K.B.] by maybe a few weeks. We actually drove the tape down to Dallas to the cutting plant and came back with the acetate.
"A lot of good things came about me living in Austin. Every time I was planning to move back to New York, something ended up happening. I got offered to go to Japan. [Project Crew was] the first Austin group to do international, DJ'ing and MC'ing there for three months. And when I was gonna move again, I got offered to work with Poi Dog Pondering in London. [Frank Orrall] didn't even know that I produced; he happened to walk by a party I was doing at the UT Union. On the Volo Volo album, I'm co-producer on 'Be the One.'
"Hip-hop has shaped my life for the better, as far as the decisions, the moves, everything. Without hip-hop, I don't know where I'd be right now. I know I'd be doing something good, but this was the starting platform, the middle, and at the end, because I still do it."
Formed in 1993 by brother duo Cedrick "Big Ced" and Carnell "Cornbread" Mason alongside emcee Mr. Critical, rap collective FLOMOB (previously Flo Mob) is best known for importing their California swagger to Austin. Their hard-hitting 1999 single "What You Know About That Wood?!" topped KAZI 88.7's year-end top 100 list, helping the group land opening slots for stars like Snoop Dogg, Bun B, and Slim Thug. The group's fourth studio album, Resilient Roots: Two Decades of FLOMOB's Austin Impact, releases on September 11. Big Ced spoke with the Chronicle about the group's origins. – Genevieve Wood
"When we moved from San Jose to Texas, I'd been listening to all of the East Coast rap, and a lot of that was party stuff. My brother was coming back and forth from California to Austin, and one time he brought back Eazy-E's 'Still Talkin'.' That blew my mind – first of all, he was cursing, and Dr. Dre was sampling all of those old soul and funk songs. Once I heard that album, I just listened to it over and over and started writing. That's how it sparked with me, and in the group.
"Over the years doing music, we always had a house or an apartment that was our home base. We called it the Mob House. There was always music going on, freestyling, somebody making beats. [FLOMOB] initially started with just three of us, but we met other people over the years who ended up becoming producers and artists with their own projects. When we get together collectively, we're the Mob. I don't know where we would be in our lives if it wasn't for music. It kept us out of trouble – we had about 10 or 12 guys all together practicing four or five times a week.
"When we started, Austin was known for country western. It definitely wasn't known for hip-hop. We'd noticed that all of the major artists that we liked would skip over Austin. They'd come to San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, and they'd all say, 'Oh, the demographics aren't there in Austin.' Our whole goal was to put Austin on the map – we wanted to be recognized. We respect Willie Nelson, we respect Stevie Ray Vaughan, but we just wanted to show there's something else here.
"In 2000, we ended up getting a full-page article in Blaze Magazine, and that was humongous for us. It just seemed like things started changing. Now Snoop Dogg was coming [to Austin], now Scarface was coming. It felt like Austin was now on the map, and that we'd met one of our goals. With hip-hop, if you don't know where you come from, how do you know where you're going, right? The [Austin Hip Hop Honors] event – that's a major milestone for me."
Terrany Johnson, aka Tee Double, practiced freestyling in the courtyard of Kealing Junior High in the mid-Eighties. A 2021 Chronicle cover story celebrated the Austin native as "rapper of over 30 almost-exclusively self-produced full-lengths, including 1999's Lost Scriptures on Good Vibe Recordings and 2000's Texas Resident, and chief mentor for his Urban Artist Alliance incubator." The "Kid from Kealing" creates in TeeTopia Studios and releases on his own Kinetic Global Media platform, most recently offering the 2021 album Local Transplant. – Kahron Spearman & Rachel Rascoe
"The 50th [anniversary] signifies that hip-hop is no longer a fleeting trend. It's evolved into a living entity with influences extending to country, jazz, rock, and global artists. When hip-hop first touched down in Austin during the early Eighties, it was uncharted territory. I recall tuning into stations like KAZI or KJCE 'K-Juice 1370' to grasp a hint of that new sound.
"DJ Cassanova from New York, a serviceman stationed nearby, fueled the hip-hop culture here. He brought the idea of pressing vinyl, hinting at the possibility of turning our passion into a full-fledged career. Suddenly, we were inspired by his connections with famed hip-hop figures from New York, realizing that if they could make it, so could we. We shifted from casual rap sessions at school to seriously contemplating producing tangible music products.
"Interestingly, I turned 50 this year, parallel to the hip-hop anniversary. Since its inception, hip-hop has fostered business, people, advocates, and has given a powerful voice to the community. My journey with hip-hop has been expansive. From working at record labels, signing with them, running my own, advocating in the community, and mentoring artists – the experiences are countless.
"Personally, during a challenging phase of my life, when I underwent a kidney and pancreas transplant in Houston, hip-hop served as my solace. Unable to move post-surgery, my drum machine and keyboard became my escape, further cementing hip-hop's lifesaving impact on me.
"However, for hip-hop to remain relevant in Austin, education stands paramount. Artists must be business-minded, understanding the intricacies of publishing, royalties, trademarks, and collaborations. I owe my business acumen in the hip-hop industry to my mentor, Cassanova. He emphasized not just the art but the business side of it, ensuring that my early efforts could financially support me in later years. True to his teachings, the revenue from my previous work helped me sustain myself during my health setbacks.
"But the industry has changed. It's more ruthless, with a recent shift towards promoting certain kinds of rappers, sometimes sidelining the essence of hip-hop. The community must retake control, advocate for independent labels, and focus on genuine artistic expression. I hear people playing all these types of hip-hop songs that are garbage and not beneficial. And I'm like, '[Listeners are] jamming at that because that's what they're pushed toward.'"
Mirage the Gr8
Signed to a Good Vibe Recordings deal alongside Keeling Junior High classmate Tee Double, Mirage the Gr8 released his first EP in 2000, just as Mirage. In 2004, the Chronicle recapped: "Sporting a local hit of its own in the form of 'Life Is a Rhythm (L.I.A.R.),' Mirage's debut EP encompasses its own adage: 'Why make excuses, I'd rather make money.'" The 78723 native now teaches sixth-grade math in Dallas. In a duo called Soul Odyssey with Arson Optics, who joined Mirage's local MelodicScience crew as a teen, he's working on a follow-up to their 2004 debut, The Offering. – Rachel Rascoe
"I used to hang out with all of these Rastafarians, and one took me to this Nyabinghi drum circle in Houston. I got so zooted there smoking good weed. We stopped at a store, and this guy comes up and says, 'How's your father doing?' I'm like, 'Man, what the hell is he talking about?' Because my father, at that time, literally just had a heart attack. He's like, 'I just see it on you. We really are mirages, only a part of what God wants us to be.' I thought about that the whole way home and broke it down to an acronym: the Manifestation Inside of a Real and Absolute God in Everyone. Mirage stuck.
"I was up in college at Prairie View A&M, and I said, 'You know, music, it's just in me. But I'm not gonna study music, I want to study the business.' So I was a marketing major, and I came home [between] my sophomore and junior year. I knew that [Tee Double] was getting his professional stuff on, so I said, 'Can you help me make a song and then we can put it out together?' He said, 'Well screw that. Why don't we actually do a label?' We were artists, and we needed a vehicle to get our stuff out. We went underground putting [music] in convenience stores, like little displays next to the cash register.
"That year at South by Southwest, I talked to Chuck D from Public Enemy and he said, 'Man, never ever sell your publishing.' So when Good Vibe sent us a contract, we went through and were scratching out stuff. We did a year deal where they could take our masters and put them on a couple of compilations. It was great. After 365 days, they sent us back our masters and we were free. We owned the artwork, we owned the music, we owned all of it.
"The newer generation shouldn't all look at being just rappers. As an artist, I always operate by knowing as much as I can about my artistry, and also knowing a little bit about a lot. We need business heads, lawyers. We need people behind the scenes that can help some of these rappers keep their money or sit them down, kind of like Chuck D did me."
Charles "NOOK Turner" Byrd created his first rap at the age of 7 for his cousin's wedding. He started out performing at Austin housing projects during events organized with his mother. The 78702 native co-founded Jump on It in 1997 as a teenager with his mom and civil rights activist Dorothy Turner. Though the programmers' splashy music festivals make the most noise, Byrd uses the annual Eastside summer series to build community. In 2020, he co-founded the Black Austin Coalition in partnership with advocacy groups like the NAACP and Austin Justice Coalition. NOOK Turner is working on his next album, The Hustle. – Derek Udensi
"Hip-hop saved my life. It gave me an expression, and a tool to be able to reach my people. My whole purpose in life is to lead my people to freedom – to get to the point where we're financially free, free from societal ills, and free from all the BS we deal with being Black in America. Music has been my outlet to do that – change lives.
"The main reason for us starting Jump on It was Dorothy Turner put out a citywide call. At that time, Rosewood Park was underutilized, and she wanted Black activity at the park and for us to understand [its] historical value. Dorothy Turner was ahead of the curve because she was already talking about gentrification and how things were going to change in the city. Jump on It's initial motto was 'Reclaim our thang.' It was about reclaiming our communities, our parks, our areas, because we were trying to go into 'let's combat gentrification.'
"I'm not going to let it die. Jump on It is one of our Last of the Mohicans. That is a tradition that's been here for multiple decades for Black people in East Austin. If we ever let that die, that's like the telltale sign that we're out of there. As long as Jump on It is alive in the city of Austin, there's an opportunity for community building on a whole 'nother level, from the youth up.
"For hip-hop to last, we have to reclaim our art form, and then we have to start making sure our art form is also pushing music with substance. It doesn't have to be gospel or all conscious rap, but it has to have substance and storytelling. We've got to stop diluting it. As long as we let these big touring companies like Live Nation and corporations control the movement, then we'll never have ownership, and it'll go by way of whatever agenda they're pushing.
"To speak specifically [about] Austin, we need to reclaim some of these venues. If you go back to Austin before it was gentrified, there were a lot of Black venues. Jump on It was cultural. [Midtown Live] was cultural. Victory Grill was cultural. When you have your own venue, you can create your own narrative, your own show, your own ecosystems. Right now, in the city of Austin, there is zero economy for Black people."
Hip Hop Mecca
Booking collective Hip Hop Mecca, founded in 1997, was centrally run by David Crump and Doug Mecca. Seguin-raised David started throwing shows after high school in Boston, while New York-born Doug moved to Austin to attend David Crockett High School. A 1999 Chronicle feature recapped: "So far, Hip-Hop Mecca has put on high-profile roadshows by Channel Live, Latyrx, Prince Po, Freestyle Fellowship, Big Pun and X-Zibit, Hieroglyphics, Organized Konfusion, Abstract Tribe Unique, Mixmaster Mike, and Keith – not to mention the GZA show at Steamboat this Friday." The promotions platform also opened two Eastside cultural centers. Doug now runs front-of-house operations at Flamingo Cantina. Based in Hartford, Connecticut, David coordinates violence intervention programs. – Rachel Rascoe
David Crump: "In the summer of '82, I was in Seguin, Texas, living with my grandparents. We would mow lawns so we could buy batteries to put in the boomboxes. My friend had a cousin from California that would send him tapes, like old Ice-T stuff. I just remember being hooked on the beats. We'd get cardboard and go up to the little town square and dance, and that turned into a love there. The vibe was coming from my friends, being young. If we had issues with people, we [dance] battled, and it would take the tension out of the air."
Doug Mecca: "I started my first job down there in the Sixth Street area when I was 15 years old, working at one of the restaurants. So I knew all those old club owners, and they knew my character. During that time, nobody would let us do hip-hop shows. It was only Mike Henry at Electric Lounge; Angela Tharp at Flamingo Cantina; and Mark Collins, who owned the Mercury Lounge. That's about it.
"A lot of it goes back to this guy Domino out of San Francisco, from a group called Hieroglyphics. We were at DJ NickNack's radio show on KVRX. Domino called up to make sure they were going to play his record. He asked, 'Hey, are there any promoters that might be interested in doing the show?' Hieroglyphics was our first [Hip Hop Mecca] event, at Electric Lounge. Seeing all the people show up, Austin was showing us, 'We're ready for more stuff like this. Put some soul in this city, y'all.'"
David: "We booked a tour for Organized Konfusion, and that really started blowing up what we were doing. From then on, I don't know how many hundreds of shows we did. I wanted to see people come together not just for a rap show, but for a cultural experience. I'm really grateful for Tee Double and Traygod and Mirage and Bavu [Blakes], and the b-boys and b-girls in Swing Team. It's really a dope hip-hop scene that we created, all together. Tee Double, and other people before him, laid down the foundation for hip-hop at South by Southwest."
Doug: "The year we came in, SXSW had gotten some bad reviews about having zero urban representation at the festival. So that's when Dave Thomson, one of the head music fest guys, asked us to come book [the venue] Bob Popular on Sixth. In 1999, we booked all three stages. We gave the patio to the graffiti writers, and the b-boys ran their circle. Dead Prez headlined, and Roy Jones Jr., the boxer, showed up. We blew that thing out the water, like there was a line down the street.
"The next year we told [SXSW], 'We want the pick of the litter.' They said, 'Do you think that people will come?' – still having to prove ourselves. So we had Chuck D hosting the Back Room on Riverside, where Emo's is now. We had Stubb's on Saturday night, with Guru hosting and Doug E. Fresh performing. We left a blueprint of how it was supposed to be done, and I feel like when we left SXSW, nobody followed that blueprint. This pay-to-play thing is for the birds."
David: "My piece in hip-hop has always been serving the community, whether working for [nongovernmental organizations] or community-based organizations. Today, I work with kids no one wants to work with, kids that shoot their guns. Hip-hop culture always creates a lane for those young people to find themselves and grow into who they really are. And now, I'm bringing hip-hop culture into the hospital. My badge at the hospital says, David (Mecca) Crump, in parenthesis. I still go by that."
Educator and artist Bavu Blakes broke into Austin's music scene as a resident artist for Hip-Hop Humpday, the well-attended weekly freestyle showcase at the Mercury Lounge. A witty wordsmith known to fans as the Scholar Emcee, Blakes became the first Austin rap act to enter daytime commercial radio rotation in 2004 with his high-rolling anthem "Play the Role." A former teacher and founder of educational agency Hip Hop Grew Up, Blakes has devoted his adult life to passing the lessons of the genre along to the next generation. – Genevieve Wood
"The way kids now are native to touch screens because they've never lived without them – that's the way that I'm native to hip-hop culture. Moving through different social contexts, school context, any context, I would always use hip-hop culture as my GPS to make friends. When I came to UT, a lot of my friends pledged fraternities, but I created a hip-hop crew, you know, the folks who started going Downtown and performing and jumping in cyphers. That navigational system has always been my primary lens to move through life, since I was a kid.
"By the time I was a formal educator, I realized that being a participant in hip-hop culture fast-tracks you in anything else you do. For a teacher or pastor or fireman or whatever, what they learn from being active participants in hip-hop always gives them superpowers to apply to this other thing. If you hold something near and dear to you, a lot of times you hear people say, 'Well, I hope this is around for everyone.' There's a sense of ownership as a first-generation hip-hopper, just to offer that point of entry.
"This is a celebration of hip-hop growing up despite the reductive lenses it was always viewed through. On the one hand, you have this culture that a lot of people reduce to just music, that represents a really long historical presence of the people that are subjugated to be inferior based on who's in power. [These are] the people who, quote, 'have nothing' getting in your face, expressing things that maybe you don't want to hear, but that demands a conversation.
"[Hip-hop] is now an adult and the loudest voice there is. On the other hand, there's me and those people that were native to that culture, and we knew it wasn't going anywhere. It's entrenched into every aspect of culture all over the world at this point."
Born and raised in East Austin, Stanley Cobble stands as a true Austin hip-hop renaissance man. The record store owner and artist made his break into the music business as a promoter for Miami-based hip-hop trio 2 Live Crew. They christened Cobble with his stage name, Baby Luke, as an homage to group leader Uncle Luke. A talented lyricist in his own right, Cobble's 1999 debut Ballers Don't Complain shot to regional popularity. His long résumé of artist promotion and management includes international superstars like Flo Rida, as well as fellow honorees Cooly Girls and NOOK Turner. – Genevieve Wood
"For me, it all started in middle school, when 'Rapper's Delight' came out. I used to go to a neighborhood store on East 12th Street called Zodiac Records. It was owned by Joel 'Curtis' Cooper, and he also was a concert promoter. In 1981, he brought the Sugarhill Gang to the Palmer Auditorium. Coming up there and being young, he had me pass out fliers for him, which earned me a ticket to get into the concert and go backstage to meet the groups.
"Around '84, I started DJ'ing a lot of the fraternity parties at Texas State, and from there I became a record promoter for local acts and acts from all around the country. 2 Live Crew was the first big act that I promoted with Luke Skyywalker Records out of Miami. Uncle Luke and Fresh Kid Ice [of 2 Live Crew] taught me how to throw concerts – a lot of concerts. I was able to open up a record store in the Nineties called Custom Cards with a friend of mine from high school, Monique Verse.
"In '99, I came out with the album Ballers Don't Complain, which sold over 30,000 copies through [distributor] Southwest Wholesale. Then I just stayed in the lane of being an owner of a store, an artist, and a promoter of both concerts and records. I helped other groups out of Austin, as far as learning about publishing, royalties, copyrights, and distribution. I was an easy person to call and talk to about the music business for other artists and labels that started up. All free of charge – I never charged a soul in Austin.
"Hip-hop has been a voice of the urban hoods, and a strong information source of what's going on in the hood. When hip-hop first came out, with its culture and clothes and graffiti, they said it wouldn't last. Fifty years later, it's the voice of every neighborhood around the world."
The Austin Hip Hop Honors Awards take place on Sunday, Sept. 17, from 2 to 5pm at the Central Library’s Special Events Center. The Austin History Center also displays Bobby Dixon of Kollective Fusion’s poster archives through January 31, 2024, with a duplicate exhibit roving among library branches. Head to library.austintexas.gov/events/hip-hop-50 for b-boy, beatmaking, and more events.
* Editor's correction, Thursday, Sept. 14, 11:36am: An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Bavu Blakes' "Play the Role" entered commercial radio rotation. The story also misstated that Blakes is a former AISD teacher, whereas he actually taught in Manor ISD.