Dallas Hip Hop Needs a Unified Sound to Get National Attention
Buffalo Black is one of Dallas' hottest rappers. No one else sounds quite like him
Nicholas James Harris
The most popular rapper to have ever come from North Texas is one Robert Matthew Van Winkle. You probably know him as Vanilla Ice. This is nothing short of equal parts silly and embarrassing. Vanilla Ice is the Psy of the '90s and "Ice Ice Baby" is hands down the "Gangham Style" of those times. Drop those songs back-to-back in a club and the same people will sing and dance to them both. The same people will also sit the fuck down.
It's very important to be wholly transparent right now and say that this is not the fault of rappers in Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton or -- well, those are the only places that have rap around here, right? It's all on the average consumer, who relishes a simple familiarity.
More often than not, when rap starts to gain traction on a national front, there is a unifying sound that provides familiarity to the listener. Hip-hop began as a type of music to facilitate fun: There was a DJ and an MC who rhymed into a microphone saying more or less some variation of "shake your butt" and "everyone have fun" in an intensely cool manner. This is why people like Soulja Boy will always be more hip-hop than the Talib Kweli's of the world. Just live with it.
The genre, for quite some time, had a dearth of profoundness on anything other than a sociological or anthropological level. After the genre started spreading from the mecca of New York City and adding character and wit outside house parties and clubs (consensus traces this moment back to "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five), local color separated each region from one another.
Sparse do-it-yourself, minimalist, 808s-laden production was at the forefront of the early Def Jam years with artists like perennial shirtless lip-licker LL Cool J. Once more, a rockish edge was often found among these artists. You've got the trio Run-D.M.C. (who Aerosmith owe their second lease on life to) and two acts heavily influenced by punk rock, Public Enemy and actual former punk rockers the Beastie Boys. Worth mentioning here is that Run-D.M.C. was never actually signed to Def Jam, even though the co-founders, Rick Rubin and Joseph "Rev Run" Simmons' brother Russell, produced and managed the group, respectively.
There have always been a cluster of similar sounds in rap that are tied to particular regions. Also in New York during very pivotal years in the genre was the grimy gangsta rap that's so gully you can feel Timberlands being pressed on your throat (Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep); bohemian Afrocentric sensibilities, jazz and funk samples -- basically Jean-Michel Basquiat manifested into audio form (A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, De-La Soul); mafioso's whose music is basically Martin Scorsese films but with black people (The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas). All along something similar was happening on the West Coast in G-funk, aka gangster funk (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G).
There are more recent examples of the same trend that continue to be the hotbed for hip hop even today. Chicago's hellish drill scene (Chief Keef, King Louie, Katie Got Bandz) was as hot as a freshly squeezed llama and for about 10 years now Atlanta has been pumping out rappers who are all the same exact person to anyone older than 40 because they sound so similar.
What's different between the hottest rap scene in the country at the moment (the beautifully strange ILoveMakonnen and Awful Records crew out of Atlanta) and our Dallas scene is a lack of homogeneity. It always seems as though homogeneity is a common thread when a scene takes the step from local treasure to national sensation. You'll always have your Vanilla Ices and Trinidad Jameses, but with the advent of rapid-speed Internet culture, they're here today and gone before the sun sets.
Generally, what helps rappers gain national traction is a gimmick (you can get signed to a record label because of a Vine in 2014), a cosign (Drake creates more jobs than congress), or making things easy for the consumer and blogger by having a sound that is relatively the same. It's becoming increasingly rare that a rapper earn the ear of hundreds of thousands based on talent alone.
Dallas' rap scene is arguably more talented than the few popping above the surface in other parts of the country. We won't have that debate here because we're talking about existential properties at work. Houston's rap scene is another one known for sparse do-it-yourself, minimalist, 808s-laden production, but it's soaked in syrup and twang and got so popular that New Yorkers borrowed from it. Dallas' scene undoubtedly has a host of talent. You can make a case that A.D.d+, Blue, the Misfit, -topic, Lord Byron, Sam Lao, Buffalo Black, Tunk, AV the Great and many more make more creative or better music than a majority of what's the pulse around the country.
To be clear, this hardly the fault of the musicians. As a Dallas-based consumer, variety and eclecticism plays in our favor. However, you begin to wonder what force is at play that turns the blind eye on a scene that's robust with talent. My vote is for a lack of a unified sound because most people are too busy, lazy, uninterested, or stupid to grab onto music if there's a little bit of work behind it. If Dallas' sound was more unified, perhaps there would be something for people at large to grab onto.
There's also the question of it being difficult even for local rappers to gain a large buzz and grassroots movement within the city. This is likely because the fan base here is spread so geographically thin and special thanks are in order for Dallas' innate desire (#notalldallas) to pay credence to its stereotype of being snobbish. Casual listeners anywhere can be guilty of a, "If you were any good other people would already know about you" mentality.
The rappers themselves are not above reproach here. There's a Ray Kinsella-esque idea spreading around, that if you merely build it, they will come. Frankly, if you make good music and just place it somewhere, it's probably not gonna magically happen. It'd behooves any musician to play tons of shows, send music out to blogs at a steady (but not annoying ) pace and basically hustle hard in general. Then again, there's no shortage of performers with serious hustle in this town, so that's hardly the end of the story.
Nobody is asking everyone to come together and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But, making music with the similar energy, tone and style is something that's desired. I'm not sure if having a bunch of music on this blog or being booked at this festival or that is or should be the end game. What I'm sure of are the the constant battle cries of "putting Dallas on the map." With a wide range of talented human beings making rap music here, a map should be no question, and an almanac should be in sight.
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