By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
It takes Jeff Wade awhile to say anything, but that's not because he's a slow talker. In fact, he's just the opposite: Sitting in front of an untouched chicken sandwich at the Angry Dog in Deep Ellum, Wade, who also goes by the handle Skinny Fresh, never lets more than a few seconds pass in silence. You get the feeling that he came by the name Skinny Fresh because he can't shut up when lunch is on the table.
The reason it takes Wade so long to say anything is because he speaks in footnotes rather than sentences. If you squint, you can almost see tiny numbers tumble out of the side of his mouth as he leaps from pronoun to definition and back again, doing your research for you. He explains every detail of every story as he's telling it, pausing to introduce you to the players, the game, the stadium, sometimes even the fans. His attention to detail isn't surprising, or it isn't after you know a little more about Wade. In an eight-page essay that accompanies Routine Insanity--the debut album by Hydroponic Sound System, the "band" Wade is in with Ruben Ayala--Wade professes his love for combing through the liner notes of records and reading every word in the production notes of DVDs. He's just a fan.
So Wade has to make sure his audience knows, for instance, that Kenny Laguna, the guy who runs the label that helped release Routine Insanity, is best known--if at all--as the manager/producer of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It's a little bit of trivia most artists would skip over, but it's important to Wade that people know the whole story about Hydroponic Sound System and Routine Insanity. He's not ready to give up on the album, even though it's been out since October, and he and Ayala are already hip-deep in Hydroponic's next record. His explanation is simple: "You work an album as long as you can."
You work it even longer when the album in question is a hip-hop disc made by a white 29-year-old former DJ from Richardson (Wade) and a fortysomething engineer who is better known for recording Stevie Nicks and Stevie Ray Vaughan than anything else (Ayala). Or when it's a hip-hop album that doesn't exactly sound like one.
"Some people don't know what to make of it," Wade admits. "I realize it's an underground record, and I'm sure a lot of people don't consider it a hip-hop record. But when I got into hip-hop, the kind of stuff I liked about it--being innovative and trying to do something different--that was part of it. That was something that groups revered. That was something they held up as something special about their group. Now, it's like, what's going to get you on the radio, and radio's formatting and programming is not very original. You have to be whatever has already proved to be popular." He waits a beat. "I mean, this is nothing new. You know all this shit."
"All this shit" means that you're more likely to hear Hydroponic's music on screen rather than on the radio. Wade and Ayala have already scored a Nike commercial and an episode of VH1's Behind the Music ("That episode with Run-D.M.C.? That's all us and Run-D.M.C.," Wade says), and a deal to provide music for some of Nickelodeon's promos is in the works, as well as a few soundtrack offers. It's a move that Wade, who's finishing up his radio-television-film degree at the University of North Texas, encourages. But that doesn't mean he wants Hydroponic to stop making records.
And he doesn't want people to forget that the duo's already made one. Wade knows that people will get the wrong idea when they see the back cover of Routine Insanity, which bears the logos of three companies: Sound Evolution, which is run by his high school friend Jason Craze; Blackheart Records; and Mercury Records; a subsidiary of the massive Universal Music Group.
"The association with Universal's been good, because it is in all of the stores--I've got some friends in California that said, 'I went into Tower, it's there, blah blah blah'--but Universal hasn't helped out at all in promotion," Wade says. "It's basically still a small label trying to promote the record."
Meaning: Routine Insanity is in record stores all over the country, but no one knows it's there.
If only they did. Despite Wade's occasional uncertainty, Routine Insanity is definitely a hip-hop record. Although, it's so different from most of what people know as hip-hop these days, it can be a bit hard to tell. It thinks bigger than most hip-hop discs, realizing that since most electronic music that has emerged in the past two decades since Afrika Bambaataa took off for "Planet Rock" is rooted in hip-hop, it's OK to incorporate it.
The result is a disc that dabbles in a variety of styles and sounds, but thanks to appearances by Headkrack, Cold Cris, MYK, and Iphlomatix, as well as Furious (the unofficial third member of Hydroponic), it never loses its hip-hop sensibility. Does it think bigger than, say, the latest efforts by Mystikal or Nelly, who make discs that leave brains almost completely out of the equation? Yes; try finding a cover of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" on either of those records. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.