Down in Deep Ellum, the scene outside Tom Cats is a study in juxtaposition. Two members of a heavy metal band stand outside in a slight chill, hands in pockets, their two girlfriends waiting patiently as the guys talk heatedly, excitedly and sometimes angrily about what has happened to this neighborhood—the past scene we're all still so obsessed with.
Being heavy metal dudes, these guys have some of the attributes you'd anticipate: Though the era has passed in which metal kinda guys wear ridiculous get-ups made of fraying spandex held together with the adhesive qualities of V05 hairspray, these guys present an updated edginess relevant to their genre: They are white guys wearing baggy jeans and sweatshirts, tattoos and a certain boisterousness. Their voices, ragged from years of hard-core screaming, maintain the same raspy edge as an MC at a strip club. I like them immediately.
Tom Cats is a place that normally books metal and harder-edged rock bands, but some Sunday nights it transforms into a showcase for local, underground hip-hop, and tonight, as the rock folks slip out of their usual hangout, the hip-hop folks start rolling in, and a few of us all find ourselves bumping up against each other, briefly conversing near what is for one set the club's entrance, the other its exit.
While the rock dudes deal in the art of buzzsaw guitars and double-bass-drum fills, the hip-hop guys center around freestyle and MC skills, pre-recorded drum beats and samples. Most of them are black; most of them sport baseball caps, their dramatically wide brims so flat they surely must have been ironed. It's odd to note that they, too, prefer baggy jeans, sweatshirts and tattoos; somehow, theirs look very unlike their rock counterparts', a different sum of the same parts. I like them immediately too.
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The subject of the sidewalk talk is, as I mentioned, the whole Deep Ellum thing. The perception that Deep Ellum has somehow been abandoned, or is getting fucked over by some sort of conspiracy, is the theme. The concept feels pretty acceptable at this particular moment, when the loudest noise you can hear is brittle leaves skittering across the sidewalk and far down a brutally deserted street.
It's a telling moment. The rock guys and the hip-hop guys have more in common than you'd think. Though the music produced by both groups is embraced by many critics, it's still maligned by large portions of our society. Stereotypes still creep through public perception of both. And both groups have an investment in Deep Ellum's future. Many—though not all—of the clubs that embrace both genres are located down there, and Deep Ellum still holds a great deal of potential as Dallas' best hope for a centralized music district, if we could figure out how to resuscitate it. Both groups agree such a thing would bear fruit for both genres in Dallas.
For a moment it's exciting to be inspired by an impromptu little salon out on the street. But...here's where the story is supposed to wax poetic about how music brings different types of people together, how it bands disparate races under a common flag of groove, how music transforms our distinctions into diversity. Only that's not what really happens. After the initial brainstorming, the conversation takes a subtle turn to the awkward. Ever so slowly, we white folks take over the conversation. We ever so slightly curve ourselves inward and form a bit of a circle. We talk loudly about city council meetings and development code, the storied Nirvana show and the evilness of Starbucks. Bit by bit, the hip-hop kids edge away from us and form their own circle—a cipher—about five feet away. They start doing their own thing, freestyling and laughing, and it's clear the "inter" has been removed from our interaction. We've slid into two separate entities, like when a bubble in a lava lamp slowly separates and forms two new, distinct bubbles.
The cipher looks fun, and I want to watch the guys trading skills and end-rhymed insults, but I stick with the wonkish conversation and then go inside. As the show starts, I notice there are perhaps five white people—including the bartender—in the crowd of about 60 people. One of them is actually part of a hip-hop crew, and as he takes the stage wearing a baggy Tony Romo jersey, everybody cheers. Romo—the hottest hand in the NFL, the guy who just beat the Giants, the guy who might bring the Cowboys redemption. Hey, if we can't get together about Deep Ellum, at least we can all rally around him.