Dallas hip-hop owes a lot to the Brain Gang. The influential punk-rap group helped the scene move past its early 2000s ring-tone rap phase, and produced some of today's biggest names in DFW music: Blue, the Misfit, Sam Lao, Bobby Sessions and Dr. Dre protege JUSTUS. But one member is yet to truly step out on his own, and he's hoping now is the time to make that happen: Donovan "88 Killa" Payne.
"I’m getting older. I wanted to find what I was going to be responsible for in terms of music. What did I want my message to be," says Payne, who recently released a new EP, 88 BPM, under the name 88 Killa. And he has charisma to spare in getting that message out: He drives a BMW, and onstage he decks himself out in furs and chains from his own clothing line because, as he puts it, "I want to own my own shit."
When Payne was in Brain Gang, then rapping under the name Killa MC, the group pioneered what has become one of Dallas' most recognizable sounds, raw, gritty, moshable tracks with abrasive vocals and a hard-hitting bounce. Unlike any other rap group at the time, Brain Gang was known for being featured on bills containing a mixture of noise, experimental and punk bands, fitting in seamlessly due to their highly physical and abrasive style of rap.
"I sought out the [now defunct, but legendary Denton punk band] Atomic Tanlines for a show," Payne remembers. "I wanted to do more shows like that. Legsweeper, I was a big fan of them. That’s what hip-hop is about. Everyone is from a different place, music was the main deal. I grew up with those kids, I can’t turn my back on them."
Once Brain Gang disbanded, most of the members went out on their own, with Payne forming a close kinship with Lao and her husband, artist, videographer and photographer, Jeremy Biggers. Biggers has directed many of Payne’s videos, as well as ones for the likes of Blue and Sessions. "Killa has always been dedicated to his craft and really does his homework," Biggers says. "I think people are finally taking notice."
The fact that it's taken so long for people to take notice may owe something to a humble streak in Payne. Growing up in blue-collar neighborhoods in Fort Worth — where he was turned onto hip-hop culture by the movie Beat Street and busied himself with tagging and break dancing before he started rapping — he says he had a simple upbringing, thanks to two parents who raised their son with biblical teachings of humility and wanting not. "Both of my parents were super hard working," he says, adding that they're "super religious."
That upbringing has stayed with him: When he suffered a severe work-related injury that almost took away the use of his left arm, Payne says he saw the time spent healing and recovering as a moment for spiritual reflection. "It was a turning point," he says. "I was spending a lot of time by myself being out of work. I was stuck in the house. I felt like God removed every distraction from me. Girlfriend; I wasn’t at work; I couldn’t even drive. Music, TV and the internet was it. I was able to write and observe, quietly."
That quiet and (literally) sober approach has helped bond Payne with Lao and Biggers. "With Jeremy and Sam and I, we’re really tight. We are all really good personal friends; I consider them my brother and sister. We all don’t smoke or drink so we have that bond. Everyone always kicks us out of the cool circle," Payne says. "If you see a photo shoot out or a record with someone else, that’s because they weren’t able to do it or they didn't think they would be a good fit on it. I always give them the first option before anyone else. I keep it in house."
Biggers describes Payne as having a studied approach to his music, one rooted in hip-hop history that takes cues from rappers who mix style and power, like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and LL Cool J. "He’s a student of the art," Biggers says. "He studies everything that came before and everything that’s happening now. Not just locally, but nationally. He’s as much hip-hop historian as he is rapper."
The focus of 88 BPM, however — Payne's first release for London record label DEFDISCO, and the precursor to his first-ever full-length, slated to be released in the winter — is very much local. In particular, the EP sees him showcasing his love for Fort Worth, even shouting out a shopping mall that he hung out at growing up.
"I’m looking around and a lot of people outside of the city don’t understand why we have so much pride. We don’t have professional sports. But we have a culture," Payne says. "I wanted to instill more pride in Fort Worth on the music scene. ... I feel like Fort Worth is coming into it’s own, and I want to be a part of that."