We Got Next
At first glance, Deborah Williams wouldn't strike you as a hip-hop matriarch.
In her mid-40s, the soft-spoken Williams has a kind face and a sweet smile. A single mother of two sons, Cordero and Curtis (who goes by Junior), ages 18 and 20, she moves with a certain relaxed air, with few unnecessary movements. She accepts a cup of coffee with such subtlety, you don't realize she's holding it until half the liquid is gone. Her dark brown eyes often twinkle, especially when she's laughing with her boys, but they hint at a certain detachment, as if she's thinking of something that nobody else knows about.
By day (and by night as well), Williams is the hard-working manager of a Majestic Liquors store. She often works well more than 8-hour days, sometimes arriving home at 4 a.m. Her employees say she is a kind and fair boss, as prone to cleaning the bathrooms and sweeping the floor herself as she is to delegating such tasks. She is, by all accounts, a sweet woman, a hard worker and a good mom.
But there's something that separates her from most mamas: By night (and often by day as well) she is the president of a new Dallas hip-hop label, Steady Ballin' Records, which she began with Cordero and Junior.
Deborah Williams' involvement is not the only unusual thing about the label: The story of Steady Ballin' is not your typical hip-hop myth. It does not involve the words "thug" or "inner city" or "Crip" or any of the other stereotyped verbiage that gets attached to such things in order to make them "gritty" or "genuine." It is, rather, a quiet story of hardship and dreams, one that would border on cliché were it not for the assortment of characters who have come together to make it happen.
When most people think of Dallas hip-hop, they think of Oak Cliff, the stomping grounds of Big Tuck and his DSR crew, but it's Oak Lawn where this story begins. Just off Reagan Street, to be exact, on a street shredded to pieces by road repair crews, where brand-new $300,000 condos are squeezed in between the increasingly rare four- and eight-plexes for rent. Deborah, Cordero (also know as Cord or by his stage name, Cordeezy) and Junior live in an eight-plex, and it was here that Steady Ballin' was born.
Their apartment is on the second floor, accessed through the back door, up a flight of stairs and down the hallway, where the luster of the Uptown location is immediately forgotten. A path is worn in the fading indoor/outdoor carpet, speckled with cigarette butts and possessing a slightly moldy scent. A quick right turn takes you into the apartment, where a few random folks sit around in the spacious front room. There are three or four large TV sets, old enough to still bear dated faux-wood casings, inexplicably stacked around the room. Down the hall to the left is Cordeezy and Junior's "studio," which is actually a bedroom.
A quick-witted guy, Junior helms the production duties of Steady Ballin' as well as serving as one of its many vice presidents. He is a jokester, riffing on his friends with a goofy ease, but he also bears a gentle intensity in his broad shoulders. He has a knack for writing sharp beats and inventive, extremely catchy hooks, but for years all he wanted to do was play in the NFL. His mother pushed him accordingly. "She always used to encourage me to go outside and play football," he says. But Junior never got to play at North Dallas High School, which he attended before dropping out, "because of my grades and stuff. I was playing, and coach was trippin' on me because I'd be late because I was doing science projects and stuff, biology, so I wouldn't fail."
Cordeezy, meantime, has been freestyle rapping and rhyming since he was a young boy. Deborah recalls how she used to get him up to freestyle in front of everyone at large family gatherings. "Everybody was just shocked at what they heard," she says, "because he'd just come up with something just off the top of his head, just like that. He was really good."
Through the years, Cord started putting the rhymes in his head down on paper, and Junior began fiddling around with tracks. After goofing around with their skills and cutting a few songs, they decided, along with longtime buddy Ossie "O.C." Boddie, to get serious, to try to start making some money off their skills. The trio is honest about what motivates them: "My family is the reason I'm doing this," Junior says. "I don't want everybody to be starving." Boddie echoes the sentiment: "The main objective is everybody getting they family tight. My goal—I got a little son—is to get him into the Highland Park School District by the time he's of school age, and you can't be up in Highland Park broke."
In spring 2006, Cord and Junior asked Deborah for help. It's fitting they went to their mom, Junior says, since their dad, whom Deborah split up with years ago and who now lives in Garland, "doesn't take time to come see us." In fact, according to Junior, on the rare occasions he sees his father, "I try to talk to him about [Steady Ballin'], but he always avoids the question. He'll be like, 'Did you see Tony Romo?'"
Deborah, on the other hand, "is our backbone," Cord says. "She's our inspiration. When we see her go to work every day, we're like, 'We gotta make her the one who's laid-back in a mansion.'"
Deborah agreed to invest some of her income from her liquor store salary in the business, provided her boys remained serious.
"When they came to me with the music business, I said to them, 'If this is what you want to do in life, you have to stick to it,'" she says.
Stick to it they did: The passion, talent and dedication were there. But the money was not. Recording music, even on the low-budget side, requires a great deal of investment. CD duplication alone can break the bank, not counting the price of microphones, computers, software, instruments and studio time. The Williams clan and Boddie cobbled together money from odd jobs and contributions from Deborah and started working on Steady Ballin's first project, a full-length CD featuring Cordeezy called Solja Grounds.
"At first, me and O.C., we didn't know what we was doing," Junior laughs. "We didn't even have a [CD] burner...After a while, we started doing our thing, we started to put Cord out because he had a lot of material and bought all the equipment and went broke, eating bologna every night, bologna and noodles."
Junior and Cordeezy's bedroom/studio is clean and large but Spartan. A low, frameless twin bed adorned with random unmatched blankets is shoved against one wall; a few feet away, a similar bed sits at a perpendicular angle. A small TV with antiquated antennae sits atop a dresser, silently displaying football highlights. It's not the most impoverished place; it doesn't scream decrepitude or desperation, but it whispers struggle. The recording area is a tiny closet with a microphone duct-taped to the wall. The acoustics are best in there, but it's only a couple feet wide, just big enough to fit a person inside, so anyone inside with the door closed is basically rapping with his face against the wall. Junior works out of a tiny corner, with a computer, small keyboard and cheap drum machine. This is the room where Junior and Cord spend most of their time, working, hanging out, sleeping.
But mainly working. Junior says he'll spend hours poring over beats and thinking of new hooks, only to stay awake in bed at night planning new material. As vice president of the label as well as producer, Junior pushes his little brother hard. "Sacrifice is a big thing," Cord says. "One night, Junior says, 'Cord, get up!'—at 12 o'clock at night, I'm sick, my throat hurtin'—he says, 'Cord, get up, you about to record this song.' And it happens to be the most crunkin' song on the album."
The song in question is "Wut Y'all Niggaz Doin'?" off of Solja Grounds, and crunk it is. As Junior sits at his slapdash console, he double-clicks his mouse and the track's rat-a-tat snare busts out through small speakers. It's a straightforward beat, nothing fancy, but an almost Middle Eastern-sounding keyboard blast provides a good hook, and various heads in the room—it's almost always filled with several members of the Steady Ballin' entourage—start to bob as soon as it begins.
The song is a rhetorical challenge to all the haters and naysayers who say Steady Ballin' will never make it. As Cord raps over the track, his flow bears the mark of Southern hip-hop: mid-tempo, not quite syrup-slow but in no particular hurry. His casual air combines with the intense cadence of his words, and his flow starts to take off on its own momentum. He can't be stopped. This is a young man who believes in what he's doing, who couldn't do anything else. Even if he has to do it with a sore throat in a closet.
Right now, Cordeezy can't stop laughing.
Almost every member of Steady Ballin's group, from the bright-eyed rapper Junior High to the veteran rapper Big King Cole, who is nodding off on the couch, is here in Deborah's large living room for a label meeting. At the helm of the meeting is another piece of the Steady Ballin' puzzle, Cletus Freiburger. Another VP of the company, Freiburger supplies the group with much-needed business expertise, advice and a touch of structure. While most members of the Steady Ballin' crew are in their teens and 20s, black and speak a kind of street-smart shorthand, Freiburger is 56, white and speaks like, well, a 56-year-old white guy. So when the word "crunk" escapes his lips, there is an awkward silence, and then Cord lets loose with a spray of laughter. "Did he just say crunk?" he asks, one hand over a huge grin.
Everyone in the room grins too as Freiburger laughs good-naturedly, then continues checking off the agenda items for the meeting.
Freiburger grew up in Iowa and attended the University of New Mexico, where he received an art degree. He's an avid and serious sculptor; currently he's working on a series of bronze nude studies. He is a straightforward man, thoughtful as he squints behind his glasses, considering his words in an unhurried manner as he runs the meeting.
It's odd, no doubt, to hear the word "crunk" come out of his mouth, even odder because Freiburger doesn't make any particular effort to change his usual vernacular otherwise; he makes no attempt to be anything other than what he is. There's talk of marketing plans, schedules, promotional possibilities and then..."crunk" clunks to the floor.
That "crunk" raises the question: How the hell did this guy from Iowa—named Cletus, for God's sake—end up vice president of a fledgling hip-hop label?
Call it a Majestic fate. Two years ago, Freiburger lived on Rawlins Street, just a block away from Deborah's liquor store. "I met Deborah there," Freiburger explains. "They had a 'help wanted' sign, and I needed some extra cash, a part-time job to supplement my income, and I talked to her about it, and she said 'Yeah, just fill out this application, and you've got a job.'"
Despite their very different backgrounds, the two developed a fast friendship. "Deborah is a wonderful woman," Freiburger says. "Whatever her boys wanted to do, that's what she would be into. She's a great boss at the liquor store; she's very fair with people. She says to everybody, 'You're a part of this team—everybody does everything, we don't have these specialized jobs.' She does the same thing in her personal life."
After about a year of working with Freiburger, Deborah mentioned her sons were starting Steady Ballin' and initially wondered if Freiburger—who worked for 15 years in the graphic design industry and 17 in the printing industry—could help source the best CD reproduction deal. But Freiburger, who has opened his own business before, soon got curious. "I asked her from purely a business standpoint, have they set up a corporation? Have they registered the business? Do they have a tax ID? Is any of that business infrastructure set up?" Freiburger ended up setting up an accounting program with Junior and Boddie and helped them through the process of starting their own corporation. "And it's just kind of grown from there," Freiburger says. "They asked me to just kind of help them manage and organize."
Freiburger says he spends up to 20 hours a week working on Steady Ballin' business, depending on what needs to be done, in addition to his liquor store gig, two other jobs and working on his sculpture business. But, he says, the time spent is worth it. "[Junior and Cord] recognize I have things I bring to the party they have no experience in, and so they appreciate that I do that for them, and I get the chance to see it blossom in front of me, so that's the symbiotic relationship."
It's pleasantly strange to watch Freiburger interact with the Steady Ballin' crew, seeing two universes of race and background struggle to figure out how to make it in the music world.
"It's not a race thing for me," Freiburger says. "It's not about any of that. It's exciting to see what [Cord and Junior] are doing and that they're so committed to it and really trying to make a difference in their lives, and I like being involved in that. The cultures, sure they're very different, and I'm not one who's been shy about embracing other cultures. I'm not changing myself to fit in, but at the same time, I don't think that's necessary."
Having been around the money almost from the get-go, Freiburger knows Steady Ballin's main problem right now is cash flow. "More is going out than is coming in," he says. But, as he points out, "in the absence of cash, there are other ways to get exposure." That's where O.C. comes in.
Ossie Boddie III is a hustler.
Yet another vice president of the company, Boddie heads the marketing department. In fact, he is the marketing department. While Cordeezy and Junior stay tucked inside the studio, Boddie is Steady Ballin's man on the street, someone with the enthusiasm and know-how to strafe Dallas with a guerilla style of cheap marketing and ceaseless energy.
The 25-year-old is fairly new to the game, but he has a precocious ability to analyze trends, facts and figures. "The Dallas music scene is different, and it's about to pop," he says. "We got a saying, 'We got next,' and it's true. There's more than just Houston out there. They say Dallas is the No. 5 place [in the nation] where the hits get played or made, so there's no reason why Dallas should not pop. We're supporting everybody else's music, but we don't support ourselves. That's crazy."
Boddie got his start as a member of the street team for Dallas-based Clout Records, which led to a stint with Def Jam's Dallas office. Unlike other forms of music, hip-hop labels rely heavily on street teams as a primary method of street-level advertising; for a genre such as, say, indie rock, street teams are often an afterthought. For hip-hop, they are essential.
Street teamers are the soldiers in a marketing assault; they're usually young kids, in their teens or perhaps early 20s, who take on the grunt work. They often do it for free, in exchange for concert tickets, swag or even just the thrill of being connected, in some small way, to their idols such as Jay-Z, Ludacris or Paul Wall. (Boddie gets paid, however.) The work can take many forms, from handing out fliers and blanketing the streets in promo posters to picking up hip-hop stars at the airport to driving around trucks that have been "wrapped"—painted dramatically with images of artists and their albums for the entire city to see.
Boddie's not the kind of person one would expect to head a hip-hop crew. He stands about 5-foot-9 and looks skinnier than he is in baggy jeans and a T-shirt. He wears his long, curly dark brown hair pulled back, and oval glasses frame his eyes. He looks more like a college freshman than a music biz mogul wannabe. But he's motivated. "I wanna be known as the black Jerry Jones," he says, as the rest of the Steady Ballin' crew teases him that he can't possibly be the black Jerry Jones, because Boddie's mother is Thai.
Nonetheless, Boddie's ambition is evident. In an overlapping relationship that epitomizes the convolutions of hip-hop marketing and cross-marketing, Boddie still works for both Clout and Def Jam, both of whom technically are Steady Ballin' competitors. But Boddie sees no problem; in fact, he is learning everything he can about promotional work through his Clout and Def Jam mentors. "That's how Kevin Lyles—he's vice president of Warner Bros.—and a lot of others started doing it," Boddie says. "They all started as a street team and worked themselves up. Really, I think that's one of the best ways to start doing it, because you don't wanna jump into nuthin' where you don't know what you're doing."
The problem when it comes to Steady Ballin' promotions is that the label has no budget for marketing. None. There are no posters to hand out, no street team to hire, certainly no trucks to be wrapped. But Boddie works around it, both by hitting the pavement and by absorbing as much information as he can. "All you need to do to advertise is to get out there," he says.
And get out there he does. He's been known to cross all over Dallas, stapling Def Jam and Clout posters up with one hand and holding his 2-year-old son with the other. He often piggybacks Steady Ballin's mission on top of his responsibilities with the other labels; right now, the mission is to call attention to Solja Grounds and Steady Ballin' in general. Boddie and his crew take any opportunity they can to call attention to the Cordeezy album, including establishing a presence at a recent immigration rights rally in Farmers Branch. "We were out there, 'Si, se puede! And Steady Ballin' Records y'all!'" Boddie laughs. He goes on to note how he snuck into the press area to hand out Cordeezy's CD after putting up Def Jam posters at the Will Smith appearance at Loews Theater. "If I gotta knock on your door and wait until you get off lunch break or whatever, hound you day and night, I'll do it, everything short of illegal."
It's a bright Thursday afternoon, and Boddie is spending it traveling from the deepest parts of Oak Cliff to East Dallas' record stores to the KBFB-97.9 FM "The Beat" radio station offices at Valley View Mall. With him are Steady Ballin' rappers King Cole and Junior High and a burly guy named Robert, who's serving as the day's bodyguard. The object of all this gas guzzling: networking.
This day starts around noon. Usually Boddie and his burly crew cram into a tiny Honda, often with his young son tucked in a car seat in the back, but today they have lucked into borrowing a large Ford Bronco. His son is sick, so he's absent, but even with the car's ample space and toddler-less status, the men are smushed fairly uncomfortably together.
"When we started with the street team, there were a lot of people hatin': 'You ain't gonna do nuthin' with the street team, you gonna be passin' out posters five years from now,'" Boddie says. "Two years later, those same people still working on they first CD, ain't nobody heard it but they friends. From the street team, we got connections; it's not how much money you got, it's who you know."
At this point, O.C. knows a lot of people. At each stop, there's a lot of hanging around, a lot of sit and wait and a lot of what seems to be gratuitous chit-chat, especially at the radio station, where O.C. and crew wait about 45 minutes before anyone will see them. But they use the time well, hobnobbing with local luminaries, DJs and MCs, pushing Solja Grounds, talking up Steady Ballin'. It all seems like a lot of sitting around, but it's all part of the M.O. of promoting hip-hop, the industry's version of corporate fat cats networking on the golf course. The radio people are accustomed to the pitch; a few are politely interested, a few blow Boddie off, but he sticks with it. He's learning.
Steady Ballin' still doesn't have much money, but the group's doggedness may be starting to pay off. Cordeezy has scored a spot in a Sunday night hip-hop showcase at Tom Cats in Deep Ellum. Almost the entire crew is in attendance, impatiently smoking menthol cigarettes in front of the venue, waiting for the show to start. Cole, Junior Boy and another Steady Ballin' beatmaker named Fury sidle off and form a freestyle cipher, goofing off to kill some time. Freiburger chats with a few bystanders on the sidewalk. Deborah is there, dressed up in a sequined black outfit, a little more formal than the jeans and baggy tops worn by Cord and his crew.
After a bit, the usual Tom Cats crowd of hard rock and heavy metal fans exits the bar, and the rap fans and artists move inside. It's a dark, spacious room, filled to the rafters with a thick, choking cloud of smoke, much of it mentholated, blending with the saccharine smell of Swisher Sweets. Among the small crowd, Cord suddenly looks much younger than his age, as he shies away from a pair of girls who try to get him to dance to the Dirty South tunes that flow through a grouping of fuzzy, slightly blown-out speakers. A few of the other acts play pool or hang around in groups, swilling Corona to kill time.
Finally, the show starts. About 50 people—mainly the entourages and friends of the showcase acts—hurry out of their seats and to the front of the stage. Cordeezy is on second, and bounds onstage, clearly the young 'un in the room. The speakers crackle and come to life with the familiar drum refrain of "Wut Y'all Niggaz Doin'?" Cord, Cole and Junior High all share MC duties, but Cord is the centerpiece.
Everybody talkin' shit/But you ain't made no club hits/My niggaz leavin' tips cuz/My niggaz head ripped
Cord exhorts the crowd to throw their hands in the air. About a quarter do.
We stay real up in the streets/You stay thuggin' the Internet
A few booties bounce, including Freiburger's. Cord's confidence grows onstage.
We write the big checks/Hands go up in the air when I step up in the spot
Deborah's head nods in time, Cord churns his arm rhythmically. The song winds down to its refrain:
Wut y'all niggaz doin'?
Wut y'all niggaz doin'?
Wut y'all niggaz doin'?
And then it's over. The crowd claps more than politely but doesn't sustain the applause. Cordeezy has done fairly well, ratcheting up the energy in the room, showing that Steady Ballin' can hang. It all took about five minutes. The Steady Ballin' crew mills about for a minute or two, not quite knowing what to do, then turns back to the stage as another group starts up. Cordeezy is just one in a long list of acts to perform this night, and there are more to see. His brief moment in the spotlight fades; it was not what you'd call a moment of triumph, but it was solid and genuine. It's a start.
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