This Russell Hobbs guy—the one who runs The Door and The Prophet Bar down in Deep Ellum along with a handful of other The Door entities around the region, the one who had a hand in bringing forth the Deep Ellum golden days of the '80s and '90s—he sure is something of a polarizing figure around these parts.
It's understandable to an extent; some of his behavior in the past has been a bit erratic—like back in the '80s when he turned the first incarnation of The Prophet, one of two seminal Deep Ellum venues he had at the time (along with the Theater Gallery), into a seemingly Christian music-only venue and stopped serving liquor.
That was a bit out there.
I get that. You get that. He even seems to gets that now.
Bring up the old times to Hobbs these days and he speaks carefully.
"I guess everyone has their cross to bear," he says, speaking with what sounds like a tinge of remorse in his voice.
Hobbs' crosses? That local music scene players suddenly started, almost exclusively, to see him as a Christian-music supporter when he became a born-again Christian some 20 years ago, and that the public still sees his clubs as Christian-centric, at least on some level (the large number of Christian metal and screamo acts booked to grace his venues' stages certainly don't counter that perception). But, just as has almost always been the case with Hobbs' clubs' bills, modern times find Hobbs-run venue schedules filled with plenty of non-Christian acts booked to perform.
This week's no exception.
Or, actually—check that—maybe it is.
On Wednesday, Hobbs' Prophet Bar will play host to an act you'd almost never see in a straight-up Christian venue. Brother Ali is more than just some rapper who happened to put out one of the best hip-hop albums of 2007 with the third release of his career, The Undisputed Truth; he's also a converted Muslim. He's a legally blind albino, too, by the way, which bears about as much importance in the real world as his religion should (as in: none at all). But when you start talking Russell Hobbs and The Prophet Bar and The Door and Deep Ellum, it all becomes a part of the same conversation.
Let me explain.
When you drive through Deep Ellum on a given weekend night, it's almost impossible to imagine it as it is so commonly and romantically described as once being: a place in which live music was wholly embraced and performed on every corner of the neighborhood's fan-filled streets. No, these days, the area is a shell of its former self (if even that close). Sure, it still exudes a certain bohemian chic charm, but the crowds definitely aren't there en masse, the venues are few and far between and anyone would be hard-pressed to really call it a scene.
If Deep Ellum isn't dead yet, it's about two smoker's coughs away from kicking the bucket. The contributing factors have been called out on these pages plenty before—the ebbs and flows of urban geography, the poor management of the clubs there that have since shut down, the construction of the DART railway, the way in which crime in Deep Ellum and its surrounding areas has been reported in the media, etc.—but as antsy as the crowds in the late '80s were to point an accusing finger at Hobbs' religious beliefs and blame him for the first signs of demise that they saw coming, you have to give the man a lot of credit.
He's still there in Deep Ellum. He's still hosting shows.
So does it really matter if there's a slight Christian bent on the whole thing?
Hobbs, quite predictably, argues that it shouldn't.
"We may not agree on everything," he says, "but we should all try and get along."
That's the thing Hobbs and Brother Ali have in common. While Ali may be Muslim—something media types and naysayers are quick to point out—his beliefs don't necessarily come across in his lyrics. There's a real sense of honesty and sincerity to his flow, a confidence mixed in with a pinch of humility. With a sense of familiarity, he speaks to his listeners as an outsider struggling to find his place in the world.
"Not everyone has been in the exact same shoes that I've been in," Ali says, "but I try to always convey the mood and feeling of it. Everyone knows that. Human beings are all the same."
That's something Hobbs himself might say, a very sort of "you have your struggles, I have mine, but we're all in this big fight together" type thing.
And therein lies the point: Ali gets pegged as Muslim; Hobbs and his entities are tagged as Christian; neither man would prefer that be the sole way he and/or his work is perceived; and neither man deserves that to be the case.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
If Deep Ellum is to kick that nasty cough it has and come to a resurgence, that's how local music fans are going to have to look at Hobbs and his efforts. With his The Door and Prophet Bar entities now housed in the former hallowed grounds of The Gypsy Tea Room and Ballroom, supporters of Deep Ellum and the local music scene must look at Hobbs' venues as something to proudly call their own. They will need to see that the rooms that housed the Gypsy entities are still being used and they're going to have to be pleased that they're not boarded up and wasted. They're going to have to stop rolling their eyes and start looking at Hobbs' venues long enough to see that there's some decent acts—acts admittedly outside of Hobbs' comfort zone—coming to town via his means.
They're going to have to turn a blind eye to Hobbs' words (like when, during the interview for this piece, he says, "Anyone who proclaims to be a believer should try and share that with the world around them"). They're going to have to do what Hobbs does when he books an act like Brother Ali to his stage: See the artistic merit of what he's trying to do, instead of being fearful of the message.
"I'm not afraid of Brother Ali converting anyone to Muslim while he's on stage," Hobbs says.
He's giving local music fans the benefit of the doubt. And maybe Hobbs and his venues deserve the same. After all, if Deep Ellum is to have its Second Coming, it's going to happen by embracing the good the area has, not the bad. Otherwise, it's about time we grabbed a pillow, snuffed the whole thing out, and finally just moved on.