By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Killa MC, the brash, proud and highly skilled member of Denton hip-hop collective Brain Gang, enters from behind the curtain in full military regalia and takes his place at the front of the stage inside the Prophet Bar.
"I want to be all over Instagram with this outfit on, so I'm just going to stand here and pose for a while so y'all can take pictures," he says.
The audience, more women than men, begins snapping photos while Killa switches poses, ending with an upturned salute, part of the Brain Gang on-stage repertoire.
The scene is a far cry from the quiet, contemplative off-stage life of Donovan Payne, Killa's off-stage alter ego.
"I'm kind of the unspoken manager of Brain Gang," Payne says quietly in an earlier conversation. His slow Southern drawl and mild-mannered aura make it all the more fascinating to watch him as Killa MC.
On-stage, Killa saunters from side to side, shoulders slouched, knees slightly bent, cracking the microphone cord like a whip. He looks like a lion hunting his prey. Once the beat drops on "Thuggin & Mobbin," he holds up his mic and dives in.
"Let's take it to the church, in a hearse, one false move will put 'em in the dirt."
Now he's in full swagger. Watch him shadowbox the air, shrugging his shoulders while he leans. Once he has the whole audience eating out of the palm of his hand, he slices his arm through the air, barely skimming his throat. Game over.
Payne doesn't see much of a disconnect between his on-stage persona and his off-stage one. "I'm not one of those artists who feeds into the whole 'I transform into another person when I perform,'" he says. "I think that type of justification is corny."
He says he and Killa MC are basically the same person, but that his stage persona represents a different part of his id, ego and super-ego, all of whom "get along fine in my head."
To understand how Killa MC arrived, you have to learn where Donovan Payne began.
Payne was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was a nurse and his father's career in the Air Force caused them to move often. He describes his upbringing as a childhood devoid of much trauma. "My parents did everything parents are supposed to do," he says.
As Killa MC, Payne's raps exist in the present. There's no delving into the past with meditations on absent fathers, project houses and crack corners.
"Growing up, I thought they were strict but they weren't nearly as strict as some of my other friends' parents," he says. "They walked the line of being my friend and parent effortlessly."
Payne didn't start listening to hip-hop until his teenage years.
"When I finally got into hip-hop, I listened to Run DMC, Fresh Prince, The Diplomats and Rawkus Records," he says.
The senior Payne's military career landed the family in Texas, where Payne attended North Crowley High School. "I was a pretty well-rounded guy growing up, so I had friends from all different walks of life," he says.
After high school, Payne settled at the University of North Texas, where he met the other members of Brain Gang.
"We all found each other through the Internet, friends and mutual respect," he says.
Payne wanted to get into hip-hop because of his "love of music growing up. It was just a natural shift to want to find out more and become involved."
He founded Brain Gang with Brandon Blue, and from there he started focusing on the well-being of the group over his own fledgling career. He backs that up by pointing to the "strength in numbers" mentality that informs everything Brain Gang does, from performances to public appearances to marketing.
"It's as simple as the group spreading each other's music links online, or having a couch to sleep on after a long night out," he says.
To date, Payne's solo releases include Young, Black and Restless, Laptops and Voicemails and his self-titled mixtape. He's also working on material released under the group's moniker. All these records embody the rebellion against the ringtone rap that dominated Dallas, and for that matter, the national hip-hop scene. Brain Gang and its members embody the classic elements of hip-hop that were abandoned during the last decade in favor of simple, sing-along rap.
"One thing we all could agree on is we didn't like the direction of the local hip-hop scene when we all decided to enter it," Payne says. "That's what bonded us together. We have all shared the same struggles with the people, radio and venues not giving us the time of day."
Many in hip-hop and pop have embraced dual selves, from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust to Dwayne Carter's Tunechi Baby. Although Payne isn't consciously trying to experiment with split personalities, Killa MC presents a filter for Payne to vent his frustrations, dreams and fears. But when he's not performing, Payne dedicates himself to pushing the Brain Gang brand.
"I play the 'Mr. Responsible' role in the group," Payne says. "I handle a majority of the branding via social networks, some of the booking inquiries and I try to keep an open door of communication within the group. An average day for me is wake up, Internet, work, studio, Internet and sleep, in that order. I've developed a makeshift system of time management to help me hit all of my daily tasks so I never feel like I'm wasting time, or not living to my full potential."