Way Out

For Hydroponic Sound System, mixing hip-hop with everything else is just Routine Insanity

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.

Jeff “Skinny Fresh” Wade, left, and Ruben Ayala make music for themselves, no matter what you want to call it.
Stephen P. Karlisch
Jeff “Skinny Fresh” Wade, left, and Ruben Ayala make music for themselves, no matter what you want to call it.

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.

Routine Insanity was a long time coming for Wade, who has been involved with hip-hop, in one way or another, since the late 1980s. His first taste of hip-hop came while he was in junior high and he picked up a copy of Run-D.M.C.'s first album. "I was just like any other white junior high kid," Wade remembers, laughing. "I bought bad heavy metal, too. I had AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and all that shit. And then about the time LL Cool and Eric B and Rakim and Public Enemy started coming out, as far as new music as I was getting into, it was all rap. And by the late '80s, it was all rap."

Soon after, Wade, who taught himself how to DJ ("It's pretty easy to pick up," he says), began hanging out with like-minded hip-hop fans in the area. They were people like him--many from the suburbs--who preferred the more dynamic East Coast style of the Ultramagnetic MCs and De La Soul and Boogie Down Productions over the more popular reality raps of N.W.A. and their followers. They'd get together at clubs like Tropical Exodus, where many of the more popular national acts would stop during swings through Texas. Everyone from Eric B & Rakim, the Geto Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and De La Soul appeared there in the early '90s, before the club suddenly closed in 1994.

Most of Wade's new friends performed there as well, and so did Wade, when he began serving as DJ for Sons of Soul. This, in a way, is where the roots of Hydroponic Sound System began to take hold, as Wade came in contact with more people and fully immersed himself in the local hip-hop community, both as a performer and as a journalist. Wade first met Cold Cris and Skwod X and many of the other performers on the record when he was covering the local hip-hop beat for a magazine called Vibe (no, not that one) a decade ago.

"That way, I met Baby G," Wade begins. "Baby G's in Austin now, but at the time, this was 1990, G had just won the DMC [DJ Championships], which was a really huge deal. The guys who'd always won that thing were from New York or L.A., and this guy from Irving, Texas, wins it. He was in IGP, which went on to become Mad Flava, and that totally reinvigorated the local scene here. I met him and just started meeting people through him." He pauses. "I never really thought I'd be in a group or anything. I just thought I'd make beats or whatever. I just went along for the ride, you know? It was a lot of fun. We toured Texas a couple of times with House of Pain and did some stuff with Naughty By Nature when they'd come through. Really, I was a fan, and so it was kind of a dream. Like, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm getting to do this.'

"At the time, because the style was more East Coast-influenced and Dallas didn't really have a whole lot of people into that, the people that did do it, everyone sort of bonded," he continues. "Shabazz 3 was around back then, but they were in Decadent Dub Team. The guys in Skwod X were in a group called New Brigade. Mad Flava wasn't even Mad Flava yet. There were about 20 or 30 guys that all knew each other that were into the same stuff, and we all still know each other."

Wade stayed in contact and still supported local hip-hop when he could, but he slowly started to become dissatisfied with hip-hop in general. He had recorded some with Ayala, who at one time was head engineer at Goodnight Audio and is a graduate of the University of North Texas' music program. Ayala began to involve him in more and more projects, and Wade found himself focusing more on making beats rather than mixing records. Pretty soon, he was a full-time producer, and Sons of Soul was a band he used to be a member of.

"I guess I got bored," Wade says. "I started to get more into stuff like [DJ] Shadow and just different approaches to hip-hop. I kind of got bored with, you know, 'We need a chant chorus here,' and those kinds of things. And so I told the guys I was in a band with, 'Look, I'm basically just going to start producing. I'll be happy to produce for you, but I don't wanna be in a band anymore.'"

Since then, Wade and Ayala have been getting together at Ayala's home studio a few times a week, each bringing new ideas to the mixing board. But don't get the wrong idea: When Wade said he didn't want to be in a band anymore, he meant it.

"I guess Hydroponic Sound System isn't really a band," Wade says. "It's just whatever me and Ruben want to do and whoever we want to involve in that project. We want to keep doing records--you know, Hydroponic Sound System records--involving the same people we involved the first time around, maybe adding some people from outside the city on some stuff. It's kind of like the Chemical Brothers if they were doing hip-hop: It's producer-based. It could be instrumental. It could be vocal. It could have someone singing on it. Whatever. Whatever it needs to be. Hip-hop got to the point where every song had the same little formula, and it just got boring. It wasn't exciting as it was when I first got into it."

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