Blue, the Misfit and his Brain Gang crew are walking the streets of Deep Ellum like Dallas rap game's version of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. It's around 10 p.m. on a Friday and the street is buzzing with people, but this crew -- rolling eight deep with managers, collaborators and friends -- laugh and joke and shout as though all by themselves. They may as well be sailing down the Deep Ellum strip on a pirate ship, waving the black flag high to Buzzbrews.
At first sight, Blue wouldn't appear to be the ringleader of this entourage. Tall, thin and soft-spoken, his tightly kept dreads are secured under a wide-brimmed brown felt Pharrell hat. His quiet intensity is absorbed in the crowd. When he performs, those dreads bounce and shake wildly as he headbangs along to his signature sludgy and dark 808-laced beats. He's not performing tonight, though. Tonight is about kicking back.
X, the Misfit, a Brain Gang producer and Blue's main collaborator, has a plastic bottle filled with brown liquor that he passes around. As they walk into Buzzbrews, he has to stop himself from taking a swig right in front of the waitress. But without missing a beat, he launches right into hype-man mode.
"What you need to write down is how impossible it is to get this nigga to take an outside beat from anyone," X insists. His relationship with Blue is an almost brotherly one. "For him to accept it, and not edit the motherfucker," X continues, "it has to be made by God himself." He slaps the table, as though to underline the seriousness of such an absurd claim.
Blue, seeming slightly embarrassed at his friend's brashness, smiles sheepishly. Grand gestures aren't his thing. He admits, humbly, that he is a meticulous perfectionist when it comes to crafting and producing his music. In fact, Brandon Blue's art may be the only part of his life that he doesn't approach with the whimsical nihilism of an artist and a dreamer in his 20s.
This is a major moment for Blue's art. He's hot on the heels of dropping his latest project, an independently produced and free-for-download LP called Child in the Wild, through Red Bull's Sound Select series. The album has been long anticipated by the Dallas rap community. A one-time member of the popular backpack-rap duo Sore Losers, Blue released an EP titled Numb in 2011 that turned heads for its ambitious production. Until now, though, there hasn't been a solo full-length, which has only heightened expectations.
He sounds like his own harshest critic in explaining the wait between recordings. "I didn't have a job. I was basically just living reckless with my friends, partying all the time, drinking a lot. I was having way much more fun than I should have in life," Blue says. "Basically, I'm out here living like a grown-ass kid, when I should be fighting my way to the top and trying to get some kind of a career."
That drive was instilled in Blue from a young age. As the oldest of three boys (and a baby sister about 13 years behind them), he was expected to lead them along the carefully plotted path their parents mapped out in hopes it would lead to three college-educated and conventionally successful sons. Maybe they would be doctors, lawyers or business executives. But the universe would have dramatically different plans for the brothers Blue. Brandon's brother Bryan is a Los Angeles-based painter and Anthony is a photographer and video artist residing in New York City.
"It took me a very long time to let my mom listen to this album," Blue admits. "There were times [recording Child in the Wild] where I wouldn't talk to her for months, or say much to her, because I felt like she would be ashamed of what I was doing." After all, he had tried to follow the plan that they'd laid out for him, but it hadn't stuck: "I went to college and stayed in my dorm all day making beats, making friends and partying. And I dropped out."
Life after college led to a partnership with Vincent Brown (now known solo as Tony Matchbox) in Sore Losers. After that, he became a founding member and natural leader of local hip-hop collective Brain Gang (whose current lineup consists of Killa MC; X, The Misft; Love; JT; Sam Lao; Ish D; and DJ Imperial D). Along the way, his production style became more and more refined. He landed beat placements with the likes of Mac Miller, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul. Blue's cousin, Dave Free -- the president of Top Dawg Entertainment, an imprint of Interscope and one of the most dominant forces in contemporary hip hop -- put his beats in the right hands, but it wasn't enough to make Blue sign on the dotted line. Many of the beats used on Child in the Wild were kept well-hidden from his Compton-based colleagues, for the sake of following through on his vision.
"I was like, 'All these beats I'm keeping for myself. I can do something really special with these,'" Blue recalls, echoing the sacrosanct assertions of his friend, X. "I could have given [them] to other artists, and they would have done really well. But I want to establish myself, do my own thing, and not regret not doing it 10 years from now.
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Beyond the production side of things, Child in the Wild tells the story of the last two years of Blue's life. Now 28, one of the major inspirations for the record came all the way back in 2002 when he saw Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous for the first time. The record's earliest conceptual phases even had a working title of Lost in Topeka, an homage to the movie's "I am a golden god!" scene. Some of the actual dialogue is mixed into the Sam Lao- and Slim Gravy-assisted track "All Systems Go."
Child draws on plenty of guest spots from fellow Dallas rappers. Blue handles the nihilistic battle cry hook of "No Care in the World" and regret-filled spaciness of "Limited Drug Use" on his own, but the appearances of Snow Tha Product on the raw and resentful "Love" or A.Dd+'s Paris Pershun on the sanguine "Another Day" are crucial to making the record work.
In the end, Child in the Wild is more than a party album; it's the party, the blackout and the come-down. It's a dark and complex journey to Neverland and back, where the road is paved with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. At the very least, it's a world where growing up is done on Blue's terms.
"I had a song at [one point] called 'My Life Is My Job,'" Blue says. "Basically [it was] just saying I don't work. What I do for a living is just what my life is. As an artist, I just want my life to be my job. You only get one life, and this is how I choose to live it."