The Philosophy of Playdough
The writer and his muse
Leading up to our November 10 showcase, we'll be getting you familiar with some of our Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees, either via past features we've done on them, or new ones. You can vote for your favorite acts, venues and more right here.
Since moving to Dallas to attend the Art Institute in the late '90s, Doug Krum, aka Arlington-based emcee Playdough, has hustled his way to rap-battle victories, MTV exposure, label deals and, ultimately, underground respect. He's found while touring all over the globe that there's an unexpectedly broad appeal and accessibility in his mix of gritty, sample-heavy tracks and oft-spiritual lyrics.
The rapper holds both the teachings of Christ and the elements of hip-hop in the highest regard, but these days he's not afraid to set some of his humility aside.
"I try to be a humble dude, and try to find a good balance of letting people know my accomplishments without seeming like, 'Hey, dude, trust me, I'm legit,'" he says over coffee.
How did he get legit? It started with a strict Christian upbringing in Amarillo, where his family moved from the Midwest. Even at a young age, he felt like a bit of an outcast.
What were you like as a kid? What captured your imagination? I was a weirdo, dude. That's why that area was tough for me. ... Up there, it's just kind of small, kind of redneck-ish. Judgmental-style, like on some good ol' boy stuff. ... So me being a weirdo made that worse. But, to take it to the worst place, nobody in my school rapped at all. And then here I am freaking rapping.
Where'd you first hear rap as a kid? On the radio. It's such a small town that it was kind of behind when hip-hop was really popping. So I didn't hear it until it was really big. I remember jamming Sir Mix-A-Lot, "My Posse's On Broadway," and that's what did it for me. The first tape I bought was DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper." ... Or maybe it was "Rock the House." From there, it was over. I started rhyming almost immediately.
So, you didn't think it was extraordinary that you could do that yourself? Was it second nature? I was in sixth grade, and I had to do a skit with a sock puppet. I made mine about Star Wars, but I rapped the whole thing. That was the first time I did it. I called it Sock Wars. I did it behind the curtain, or whatever, and my teachers were buggin' out. I got an A.
Despite the shortage of other hip-hop enthusiasts in his West Texas home, Krum continued to widen his knowledge of the genre, eventually finding sounds that stuck to his ribs -- DJ Muggs' beats and remixes were personal favorites. He founded a duo called Ill Harmonics with Blake Knight, a friend from his church. They sent out demos, sharpened their skills and kept it going after graduation.
By the time Playdough arrived in Dallas to study music and video production at the Art Institute, he was ready to get serious about a rap career.
"Oh man, you are so hungry for a microphone when you're at that place [in your career], that it would be just, like, coffee shops. Dudes on the freakin' hippie-style, bangin' out a beat, and you just get up there.
"I remember going to a Taco Bell with a car full of my friends, because we heard they used to have cyphers outside that Taco Bell. We just wanted to rap so bad. We used to call them 'spit spots.' We thought we were cool."
One of the opportunities that came up during those early days was an open call for a new band-battle show coming to MTV called The Cut. Ill Harmonics got it together again for the purpose of auditioning, and the duo made the show in 1998, having submitted a performance of one of Playdough's original songs.
"It was almost like American Idol, before American Idol," he says. "They had celebrity judges, and four [contestants] per show. We would perform live, they would judge and actually give a number, one out of 10. We won, and kept winning, and went all the way to the finals. Didn't win in the end, but that opened tons of doors."
Ill Harmonics found themselves signing a deal with Uprok Records, a sub-label of Tooth & Nail focused on Christian rap acts. Subsequent well-received releases put Playdough in the position to attempt a solo run.
2002's Lonely Superstar and 2006's Don't Drink the Water gave him the chance to tour around the U.S. and beyond, performing everywhere from proper hip-hop clubs to churches.
"The good things are always the shows, and knowing you're about to wake up and go to a different city, and people will be waiting there to see you play," he says. "The wack stuff is trying to figure out money, and travel is so expensive. You're in a van, you've got your DJ and your drummer. And it's like, I'm kind of their employer. You have to be business-mode, and I just want to rap.
"Going indie, taking ownership and doing it for myself has made all the difference."
Krum's decision to take control of his career resulted in his first indie full-length release, 2011's Hotdoggin.
That album found him on a creative high, weaving enigmatic Bible references and narratives about his own artistic struggles into tracks that could be respected not only for their against-the-grain messages, but infectious beats and samples.
In the breakout single from Hotdoggin, "Ya Heard," he cleverly lays out his approach to rapping about faith: "It's life in a song/I disguise the topics/It's easier to take with steamed rice and chopsticks."
"CMJ premiered my video [for "Ya Heard"], which was super dope," he says. "And then it started doing really well on CMJ and got all the way to No. 2 on the hip-hop charts. Then it cracked the Top 200, and I started getting these reports, just tripping out."
The CMJ attention allowed Playdough to tour and make a modest living for himself and his 8-year-old son for more than a year. When he's home, he constantly writes, conceptualizes and records for his next projects. And his lyrical focus remains largely unaffected by popular trends.
Do you ever enjoy radio hip-hop, even as a guilty pleasure? Local radio stuff? I usually hate it. But every now and then there's something I can appreciate. But those topics break my heart ... the money-cars-hos thing.
They're building on time-honored hip-hop brag tracks, though. I don't mind bragging, but I just don't like dudes getting so caught up on money. That's just trouble. For your life, and to be all about money, that's dangerous. It just makes me sad.
Your music has a similar effect to the bangers on the radio, in a lot of ways, because you take formulas and flip them to fit your message. You talkin' 'bout some Southern Texas stuff?
Yeah, like the song about your '77 Cadillac, and also "I Got It Like." I try to do that. It's definitely the goal. Being from Texas, I dig the style. I'm an emcee. It's friggin' braggadocio all day. Even when I hear someone else doing that, it just gets my heart pumping, bro. It's like, "Yeah, tell me how good you are!"
Krum does his share of playful boasting on his new mixtape, Writer Dye: Deux or Die, the sequel to the Writer Dye mixtape he put out in 2010. Both find him sampling and re-imagining classic rock and hip-hop songs.
"I know there are people just into making all original music, and that's dope," he says. "And I do that here and there, but I really like samples."
On Deux or Die, which he'll debut at a dual release party with local rapper J. Rhodes on October 26 at the Prophet Bar, there are inspired tributes to Bob Dylan, Modest Mouse, The Beatles, Bon Iver, Digable Planets and more. The first promotional single, "King of Queens," samples an iconic Freddie Mercury lyric between rapped verses from "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"There's an art to it that some people will never understand," he says. "It's just hip-hop. We always take whatever's there and use it, flip it into something else."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.