By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
PPT--named for members Pikahsso, Picnic and Tahiti--became the first hip-hop act ever signed to Dallas label Idol Records in August, a few months after their song "Rowdy, Loud and Proud" was chosen as the Dallas Mavericks' playoff theme song. If you didn't know better, that turn of events would sound like pure chance--and like everything that's wrong with the music industry. Win a contest, get a record deal. They got lucky. But there's truth to the old saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get. What the cliché doesn't say is most of the time you work your ass off and never catch that break.
Pikahsso and Tahiti have spent decades trying to make their own luck in the rap game. The younger Picnic is making up for lost time, as the excellence of PPT's debut album, Tres Monos in Love, proves. Every song from the album, released October 3 locally and nationwide early next year, deals with the topic of romantic love at every stage and from every angle: lusting obsession, regret of a quickie fling, demanding independence, the pain of getting dumped, taunting a jealous ex, imagining the perfect wife and ending a spat in the most pleasurable way possible.
The disc, in fact, is a musical love letter to '80s pop, funk, R&B and old-school hip-hop. Pikahsso's on-point harmonics and funky singing, Tahiti's raspy rap and soulful crooning, and Picnic's smooth flow and lady-killing falsetto blend perfectly with each other and the production. The breakneck "Clay at Your Own Risk" combines cowbell (more!), disco whistles and stripped-down drums to celebrate Pikahsso's freedom from a manipulative girlfriend. "Dumps" features live saxophone and a guest verse from the mighty Headkrack as the guys commiserate over being dumped. The album comes with a feature-loaded DVD that includes music videos for all but one of the album's songs, plus comedy bits and interviews.
Tahiti never expected to cash in on all the luck he's built up for himself.
"To be honest, I really didn't see it coming," Tahiti (real name: Walter Archey III) says of the group's sudden success. His doubts are understandable. At 38 years old, he is well past the age most musicians quit hoping for their big break. And despite his age, he is a relative newcomer as a rapper. He started making beats and videos for local crews that included Native Poets and the Free Agents in the early '90s and spun records before that. But his role behind the mike was mostly as a hype man until he decided to put out his own record. The Birth of Whack EP, released in 2005, was the result of years of work, made financially possible by bartered services and borrowed money. It tanked. Jobless, broke, evicted from his apartment and hundreds of miles from his son and daughter, he turned his self-disgust into a shockingly candid verse on his old friend Pikahsso's "Failure."
Though Tahiti planned to keep rapping as long as he was breathing, at that point it looked like his music career would be behind the camera or mixing board. 'Round about that time, Pikahsso (known to the government as Terry Jones) was seeking producers to come up with a new beat for his signature song, "Verb." Unable to pick just one, he did a few versions with different producers, including 23-year-old Richard Escobedo, known since childhood as Picnic.
A graduate of the Hirschi arts magnet school in Wichita Falls, Picnic studied video and audio production on a scholarship at the Art Institute of Dallas, spending free time on his PlayStation. But he didn't just use his PS console for videogames; he was making beats with MTV Music Generator. Encouraged by the professional-sounding beats he produced, he invested in some professional equipment. Then came some luck.
"Devin smokes a lot of weed," Picnic says. "Well, he and Drew were chillin' in his hotel room, and Drew slips in one of my beats on a mix CD he'd put on. Devin was like, 'Whoa, who's this?' It was kinda planned. Drew called me before and was like, 'Yo, I'ma do this.'"
The plan worked. A couple weeks later, he and Devin collaborated on a few songs for yet-to-be-released Devin projects, as well as a mixtape track featuring Scarface.
"Devin played me some of his upcoming stuff that nobody's heard," Picnic says. "Some people would kill for a moment like that."
The high-profile work helped establish Picnic's credibility as a producer, and Pikahsso took notice.
PPT took form when Pikahsso asked Tahiti to direct a video for Picnic's version of "Verb." Overwhelming fan response to the song and video convinced the three that they had something special. They started working on an album at breakneck pace, recording it in two weeks in February.
Pikahsso was so confident in the group he decided to perform with the others at South by Southwest in what was scheduled to be his solo slot. Maybe it was generosity, or maybe he realized it was his best shot at pulling himself out of the financial hole that had him sleeping in his Jeep (until the Jeep was repossessed while he was in Austin, that is).
Their hustle and SXSW performance led to TV spots in Austin and fantastic audience response. Riding that high, they entered and won the TexasGigs.com Mavericks theme song contest.
Enter Idol Records. Owner Erv Karwelis had been talking to Tahiti by phone and e-mail for a couple of years. Though Karwelis didn't see any financial incentive to distribute Tahiti's EP, he kept up with Tahiti and kept track of PPT as the buzz grew. He liked the idea of releasing a CD/DVD package and was impressed by the professional quality of the videos. The impressive video effects, slick editing and genuinely funny comedy bits on the videos and DVD features belie the guys' ability to do it on a shoestring budget. It was a no-brainer decision to sign the group.
"I don't know too many rock bands that could shoot their own video, let alone do nine for an album--and they do in-house production," he enthuses.
Karwelis and the guys agreed to let the album gain momentum locally and regionally, then release it on a national level early next year.
Pikahsso wants Tres Monos in Love to be the shot heard around the world in the battle for men's liberation. This isn't a liberation comparable to women's lib, that outdated term for feminism. God knows men have more than enough freedom compared to women in hip-hop. Rather, it's about emotional liberation on the individual level.
"People are going to listen to this album and say 'Man, I been through that,'" Pikahsso says. "I don't like to be in denial. A lot of people walk around the earth with a lot of emotional dishonesty. They have learned behaviors they've accumulated from birth. You can ruin relationships, you can ruin friendships, you can ruin family relationships if you don't have self-awareness, if you don't have knowledge of self."
Pikahsso wants men to listen to Tres Monos and realize they need to express themselves more: "Get FREE! Get that pain off your chest!" he shouts.
And once that's taken care of, you're gonna need love.
"A woman can complete you, if you got the right woman," he says. "That's what the whole album's about."
But Tres Monos isn't just for men. Women have a lot to learn from it too, he says.
"A lot of women think it's cool to be cold to their men," he says. "They've been misguided and raised the wrong way."
As candid as he is on Tres Monos, Pikahsso opens up even more in his solo material. He still plans to finish Blew Period, the persistently delayed follow-up to 2003's The Best of Clayface Jones. Just as the paintings of his namesake artist Pablo Picasso document the depression he suffered during his Blue Period, the songs from Pikahsso's similarly named album depict his moments of self-doubt and let him get a lot of shit off his chest. He also hopes it helps him cope with childhood issues he still deals with years after he and his mother suffered at the hands of an abusive man, as well as confess and move past his own failures as a father to his daughter, Danae.
Picnic and Tahiti agree that writing songs from such an emotionally honest perspective is refreshing. All three members of PPT use the word "therapeutic" to describe the process.
"When you're a guy, you've gotta be tough," Tahiti says. "Especially if you're a black male. You've got to be super cool, a macho dude. So it's kind of cool to be in a group where you can express things...When I hear guys rapping about how many women they can get, or what kind of cars they got and I know it's not real, it's kind of corny to me."
Tahiti has no problem getting real. He refers to his 2000 divorce and custody split as well as other relationships. "The signs were there, shoulda seen my fate/Seems like every night you're working late/Too much on your plate, you gotta clean your slate/Now you took my only son and moved out of state...You broke my heart without even trying/Now I'm walking in the rain so you can't see me crying," he raps in "Dumps."
Tahiti says he and Pikahsso joke about being the Samuel L. Jacksons of rap, getting a stardom break later in life. And like any break, it will be a combination of chance and hard work. With the recording industry in such a slump, the keys to future success for hip-hop are centered around the nexus of digital distribution, promotion and a reputation for great live shows. This crew works its ass off to cover those three bases--especially with their celebratory, fun-filled live performances. Who knows? They could put DFW hip-hop on the map just through sheer determination and hard work.
Or maybe they'll just get lucky.