Beat down

Dallas' hip-hop scene is more vital than ever, but you'd never know it: no clubs, no radio, no major-label deals. But the musicians, some of this city's best, refuse to give up.

"There's a lot of groups from Dallas that sound like a lot of different people," says Legendary Fritz, a New York native who moved to Dallas six years ago. "As far as nationwide, Dallas hasn't developed a sound. Houston has a sound. Memphis has a sound. But there's not a 'Dallas sound'--a sound like, 'Oh, they're trying to do some New York-type stuff' or whatever. The only way to do that is have artists who make it from the area give it back as much as possible. There's people that are in the industry now, and they're gonna have to open doors for other people."

The local hip-hop community has been trying to open those doors since the mid-'80s. It was the golden age of rap, before N.W.A. turned urban radio into lyrical gang warfare, and only a few years after the Sugarhill Gang had taken hip-hop out of the parks of the South Bronx and the dance clubs of Harlem with "Rapper's Delight." Hip-hop was still in its infancy, in the midst of trickling down to other parts of the country from its original home base in the boroughs of New York.

It had already found its way to Dallas. KNON had four or five hip-hop shows on its schedule at the time, and KKDA-FM (104.1) had a playlist that regularly featured artists such as Run-DMC, EPMD, and Eric B & Rakim, as well as a weekly hip-hop show that played tracks by local bands. A handful of groups--the Fila Fresh Crew and Nemesis among them--were putting together shows in such places as Shamrock's Skating Rink in Lancaster, Down Under One in Oak Cliff, New York Connection in North Dallas, and City Lights in South Dallas.

Nemesis eventually signed with the New York City-based Profile Records, releasing several fair-selling albums. (Profile was home to Run-DMC, among others.) But it was the Fila Fresh Crew to which everyone pinned their hopes. The group was led by a young MC named Tracy Curry--better known now as The D.O.C., then known as Dr. Tray. Curry was a local superstar, rising to the top through his inventive wordplay and commanding delivery, as well as his close association with Dr. Rock, a member of the Fila Fresh Crew and host of K104's weekly hip-hop show. Everyone knew he had the skills to make it big; it was only a matter of time. Finally, it was assumed, Dallas would have a hip-hop hero to call its own. Curry would to be the one who earned Dallas groups some respect, carrying the rest of the city with him on his way to the top. Unfortunately, Eddie D says, "I've said for years, 'This is going to be the year.' It don't ever happen that way."

Curry made a name for himself as The D.O.C.--but not for Dallas. By the time his Dr. Dre-produced debut album, 1989's No One Can Do It Better, was released, he had been living in Los Angeles for a couple of years, trading in the flashy track suits he wore as a member of the Fila Fresh Crew for gangsta-gangsta all-black. His Dallas connection was next to invisible, reduced to a few words on a press release. The album's double-platinum status should have had talent scouts on the next plane to Dallas, looking for the next D.O.C. Instead, it left Curry's fans and peers in his abandoned hometown wondering what had happened to the real D.O.C. Most people had no idea Curry was even from this city. "I didn't even know he was from Dallas until I moved here," says Legendary Fritz.

Curry, however, couldn't have cared less. He had no problems leaving Dallas--and a scene he deemed derivative--behind. "When they first came out, Nemesis sounded like they were from Brooklyn or Queens, but then I came back two years later, and they sounded like they were from Compton," Curry said in an interview with the Dallas Observer in January 1996. "I'm a leader, not a follower, so I moved from the projects of West Dallas to the projects of Compton."

In Los Angeles, Curry was transformed from a Dallas star into a national talent. He was one of the principal writers of N.W.A.'s seminal 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, and also provided the words the late Eazy-E feebly rapped on his solo album, Eazy-Duz-It, the same year. But it was No One Can Do It Better that cemented Curry's reputation as one of the finest MCs in the country, splitting the difference between East Coast battle rhymes and West Coast battle lines. The album propelled him into the upper echelon of the hip-hop industry.

His stay at the top was as quick as his rise. A few months after the release of No One Can Do It Better, Curry passed out drunk behind the wheel of his car. He landed in a coma; his career, in a ditch. When he emerged from the hospital, his vocal chords were severely damaged, and so were the slim chances that Curry would ever be able to help Dallas hip-hop succeed on a national level. In 1996, he finally released a follow-up to his brilliant debut (Helter Skelter), but it was way too little, way too late.

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