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.

"When D.O.C. came out of here, a lot of people were expecting him to open up doors," Mad Flava's Cold Cris remembers. "But he was perceived as more of a L.A. rapper than he was Dallas, and I think that was partially his fault to a certain extent. Because, I mean, he came out, and he had L.A. Raiders gear on all the time. But he was like the hottest rapper in Dallas in the '80s. He was somebody that influenced me. You could tell back then that he had everything it took. He was going to be so major, if he hadn't had that accident and shit. There's been a lot of situations where Dallas' scene could have came up, but it didn't."

Cold Cris, 29, knows all too well about those situations. Mad Flava was also supposed to break out of Dallas' city limits, do everything for other Dallas hip-hop groups that Curry was unable--or unwilling--to do, things that Nemesis hadn't been able to do with its bass-heavy albums for Profile Records. When Mad Flava signed with the fledgling Priority Records in 1993, Dallas hip-hop was in another boom period, ready to go public again after having its hopes crushed by Curry a few years before. Mad Flava's contract with Priority was supposed to be the first of many, the first shot in a Dallas invasion of the hip-hop industry. It turned out to be the only shot.

"It was fucked up, because there was so much anticipation here locally, because we had shit locked down," Cold Cris says. "We were the hottest thing underground here, and a lot of people were looking to us to open a lot of doors once our thing blew up. It was a big disappointment for everyone involved."

Mad Flava's deal with Priority went bad almost from the beginning. The band got caught up in a transition of personnel within the label, when Eric Brooks--Priority's national director of promotions--left to help start Noo Trybe, a subsidiary of Virgin Records and home to Gang Starr and the Geto Boys, among others. Brooks had been a big supporter of the band, putting the label's checkbook behind the act in the form of a flood of national advertisements and other buzz-creating items, like promotional weed pipes. When he left, Mad Flava's debut album for the label was shelved, its release pushed back almost a year to April 1994. By the time the album, From Tha Ground Unda, finally landed in record stores, all the publicity Brooks had helped generate had about as much impact as firing a pellet gun at a tank.

"It was a '93 record," Cold Cris insists. "We had so much pub, and there was so much anticipation at the beginning, that by the time it came out, nobody knew it was out. By that time, we had already been touring with Ice Cube and a bunch of shit, but our album wasn't even in stores."

Not surprisingly, From Tha Ground Unda sold poorly, and Mad Flava was subsequently dropped by Priority before it could record a follow-up. As Cold Cris talks, you can hear the sting of disappointment in his voice, even though it happened four years ago. It's a wound that hasn't quite healed yet, and it may never mend completely. He questions every choice the band made back then: the singles it released, the videos it filmed, the management team it hired. He knows exactly what happened; he just can't quite figure out why. Most of all, he can't figure out why Mad Flava signed with Priority in the first place.

The band had signed a management deal with the Los Angeles-based Total Trak Productions, which handled DJ Quik and "a lot of that Cali gangsta shit," Cris recalls. Originally, Mad Flava was being wooed by Russell Simmons' Def Jam label, home to Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys; it was a dream deal. But Cris says Total Trak killed the deal before it was final, and as a result, Mad Flava ended up on Priority--where, of course, the band wasn't one.

"Def Jam would have been a lot better for us, considering the music and shit," Cold Cris insists. "I can remember being in Russell Simmons' crib, and him listening to the demo and just getting immediately on the phone and start talking numbers. Fucking gave me $39 to take a cab back to Queens, which only cost a dollar. Sending me in a car down to Def Jam to dub the demo for his A&R people. I went back to Dallas thinking that we were signed to Def Jam. That was everybody's dream. I don't think being on Def Jam has as much impact now as it used to. Before, it seemed like they only had selected artists, and everybody on that label from Slick Rick to Public Enemy was just innovative. Every rapper's dream who had been making demos back in the '80s was to be on Def Jam. Just me being in Russell Simmons' crib was mind-blowing."

Five years later, Cold Cris still sounds amazed that Def Jam Records wanted to sign him and his band, which also includes The Don Kasaan, The Cut Selectah Baby G, and Hype Dawg. If Mad Flava had signed to Def Jam, the band might still be there making records, instead of here picking up the pieces. Most people probably assumed the band had broken up after Priority dropped them. Last year, the group finally showed signs of life, releasing a single on Do Damage Entertainment, a label co-owned by Cold Cris and former Dallas Maverick Tony Dumas. Mad Flava's failed deal with Priority taught the band a harsh lesson, one it has been slow to recover from.

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