It was a scene that was almost too hard to believe. Here, in one room, was a collection of some of the hottest up-and-coming rappers in the country, all kicking it and exchanging verses. There was Travis $cott, Vic Mensa, PARTYNEXTDOOR and G-Eazy, with current it-producer Metro Boomin' on the tables. To top it all off, $cott, on the spur of the moment, decided to debut a song that he'd never played in public.
Normally you'd expect a night like this to happen someplace like Trees or Prophet Bar — maybe, if you're lucky, in a small club like Club Dada. But no, this didn't even happen in a club. It was the unofficial after party to the JMBLYA Fest and it happened at Ash Studios, a DIY art center near Fair Park. However unlikely it might seem, it's been one of the hottest hip-hop venues in town this year.
Ash Studios is a "fine" art gallery, but its ethos is one that makes it predisposed to slide into a role like this one. Studio founders Fred Villanueva and Darryl Ratcliff intended to combat gentrification and foster a sense of community, something that sets the studio apart from its peers. The building itself is a living, breathing work of art that brings together the best of the raw and real in Dallas. It serves a purpose as a place where visual arts co-exist with poetry, live art and music, “where people can come and dance,” says Villanueva.
“The history of the city of Dallas and the country really is of racial inequity," says Ratcliff. "So I think it's really important when you want to deal with the deep seated, structural and institutional racism to look at culture and to provide spaces for people of color to have agency over their own story and to be able to build in productive, communal and joyous ways."
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Villanueva's vision for the studio really started back in the '90s. Growing up in Oak Cliff, then Oak Lawn ( “back when it was a hippie neighborhood”), he graduated from Booker T. Washington in 1991. He then moved his art to San Fransisco where he graduated art school, then spent some time in Mexico City, eventually hopping up north to Manhattan. Inspired by the hip-hop and street art vibes at art spaces like the PS1 and Fun Factory in New York City, he wanted to see something similar in Dallas. That is, a place that could represent the city and the arts community as a whole.
Villanueva moved back to Texas around 2010 when the opportunity came up for him to open a studio. That's when he began the slow process of construction, pouring the concrete for the flooring and putting up the plywood walls on his own — a real DIY effort. After two years of building the space, he met Ratcliff through an art teacher they both had at Cistercian Preparatory School and they opened it up to the public as a multi-genre art space.
“We're all part of multiple communities,” says Ratcliff. "Here you'll get this informal learning that takes place where you have an inter-generational atmosphere."
The variety of music and art at Ash is a core part of what the studio is all about, which is racial and cultural equity in the arts.That's what Ratcliff and Villanueva had in mind for the space, even opening up to graffiti artists who might be interested in moving on to the gallery world, to counter the “dominant culture” that's so prevalent. On Fourth of July, the studio's annual poetry fireworks party featured performances by Bummer Vacation, Rat Rios and Trai Bo during the fireworks festivities at Fair Park.
But the most notable music events have been the hip-hop shows. Since opening the studio in 2012, the two artists have worked with various local promoters including Art Monsters, Eric Xerda and Rico Slice of 16bars.xxx. Slice and his partner Sanjay Shrestha found out about Ash in May when they came across an ad on Craigslist to rent out the space. They were the brains behind the JMBLYA party in June, but before that they'd held another buzz-worthy party there in May, the after-party for Post Malone's sold-out show at Trees.
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Other hip-hop parties have embraced the multi-media side of Ash. The springtime #TheARTivist event, held to raise awareness and register voters for the May local elections, featured a mix of art, poetry, films and music, including rappers Buffalo Black and 88 Killa. Just last weekend, Ducado VeGa and Zenya Vi debuted four music videos and a documentary with the help of hip-hop acts like Grades of Absolute Truth, Kozmic Sisters and the Boxer's Brain.
The Outfitx, TX's MC Mel Kyle, who put Dallas hip-hop in the national spotlight on the same day that he held down host duties at the JMBLYA party, considers Ash an important piece of the local hip-hop puzzle. "It's real guerrilla, real grass roots, real organic," says Kyle. "Ash Studios is one of those spots where you can just come as you are. You can go there, kick back outside and nobody's going to bother you."
On any given night, you can have a rock show one weekend, and a poetry slam or a gallery showing the next. Later this month, they're having a showing of three plays in one night with House Party Theatre. Of course, there'll always be the classic Dallas hip-hop show, which has already become a regular thing at the studio. And hopefully it'll be around for years to come.