A few blocks down from the intersection of Washington Street and San Jacinto Road, outside Bryan Street Apartments, Donny Domino loiters on his phone. He's speaking to Freddy Sans, the producer/engineer-directed singer, at the Dojo 45 recording studio. It is here that the Team From Nowhere sound is created and cultivated and tonight, where Echols will arrange her set list for Daps, Hugs and Mugs -- one of the first installments of Somethin' Proper, a series of grassroots entertainment events created and curated by TFN's de facto captain, rapper -topic.
Echols soon follows Domino inside past the communal room, frequented by members of Dallas' various artistic communities, who huddle around games of Tekken or NBA 2K. The middle room is the sonic laboratory. Two workstations, where -topic and Domino can often be found back-to-back as though hidden away in a hacker's den. Office chairs litter the tight space like landmines, while keyboards, speakers and monitors reveal the ingredients of Dojo's signature mix of Flying Lotus and Hiatus Kaiyote instrumentals. After an hour, Domino has successfully arranged Echols' set and she exits after a series of embraces and good luck wishes.
Within moments, DJ, poet, photographer and friend of TFN, Simon Phoenix, who is a regular presence at Dojo 45, arrives. He and -topic have grown fraternally close over the past year, through their collaboration on Soundwaves at Sunset Lounge, an adventurous exploration of hip-hop, electronic, alternative and party music.
Phoenix is here not for the Tekken, but to help artist Lauren Woods prepare her installation exhibit The Evidence of Things Unseen for Zhulong Gallery. When she arrives, Domino is ready to help her record the antagonistic last words of victims of police violence as documented in grand jury transcripts. "You're gonna die tonight, motherfucker" and "You're too much of a pussy to shoot me," the alleged threats that preceded the police slayings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, respectively, were incanted over and over by Phoenix for hours, creating a tense atmosphere throughout the Dojo.
As the night wears on and turns gradually into the following day, Woods, Phoenix and Domino relinquish the studio to -topic. Tonight, after a half-hour of tweaking beat structures and live bass lines, -topic retired to his bedroom opposite the recording space, not likely to be seen until the following afternoon for former Brain Gang lyricist Bobby Sessions' daytime appointment.
Yes, Dojo 45 is -topic's home.
-topic is a peculiar spirit. A staple in the local hip-hop community since 2011 -- known as the charismatic, backpack rapping, back-flipping MC often found sipping green tea and palling around with his eccentric clan of roots rap aficionados -- his full story is one rarely told. His mile-wide smile is as much felt as it is seen; it's hard to believe that even as he established deep roots in the scene with the release of Finally Confident, he was living on a couch in Oak Cliff -- shared with Fresh Kaufee creator and best friend, Joonbug McIntosh -- eventually relocating to what has become Dojo 45. With nothing more than notebooks full of raps and an air mattress, -topic recorded some of his most beloved material on shaky equipment inside of his closet.
"We were recording songs before we even had furniture," he recalls. "It began with Songs About Poetry in 2012. A bunch of my friends would come over to kick it and record, I had a bunch of beats and I figured we'd put all this stuff together and see what happens. That became Songs About Poetry."
Over the last few years, -topic's apartment has become the epicenter of TFN projects and it wasn't until the past year that he and Bobby Sessions mutually approached one another about collaborative efforts. The results of this indicate Dojo 45's potential as a creative incubator of Dallas' tight-knit, top-tier hip-hop community. During the six-month-long gestation of Session's sophomore release, The Law of Attraction, Dojo 45 has hosted the talents of Billboard artist Vandell Andrew, Blue the Misfit, A.Dd+ and several other notable artists. -topic remains firmly modest about it.
"I just happen to open the channels. What people do with the channels is totally on them," he says. "If, say, Bobby wants to link up with Blue, or Blue wants to link up with Tunk, I'm glad I had the space available for that to happen. I'm gonna go to my bedroom and eat. Have fun."
Whether through Somethin' Proper, Soundwaves, Dojo 45 or his growing discography, -topic's personal sense of responsibility to the people is deeper than the content of his tightly woven raps; it's apparent in his actions and in the people's responses. He only means to set the scene for dope things to happen, and through the transitive nature of these things, dope things happen for him. Among these is his recent placement in a tri-state McDonald's ad and the opportunity to open for one of his musical heroes and influences, Thundercat, at this Saturday's Red Bull Sound Select event, the first such event of 2015.
"Whenever I do something, it's cool to have myself in mind. But I'm not alone," -topic insists. "No one person does anything alone anymore and, even if you could, why? There are plenty of people out here who don't suck. Just get people who don't suck on the same page and something amazing happens every time."
-topic was approached to provide the soundtrack for the McDonald's television spot a few months back because its director was looking for a rapper with substance and his Dallas-based connect that facilitated the placement is a friend and fan of -topic. These qualities also afforded him the opportunity to open for Thundercat, just hours after meeting him at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2014.
-topic seems to have mastered and capitalized upon the return value of good intentions. In all that he's both suffered and provided, he remains thoughtfully aware of what he owes his supporters. This debt is most often repaid through the music, creative space and community -topic lends his creative effort to.
"A lot of people rap at you," he says. "I kinda rap for you."
THUNDERCAT performs with -topic and Roger Seller at 8 p.m. this Friday, January 23, at Three Links, 2704 Elm St., $3 with RSVP/$10 at the door
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