It's late on a Thursday evening in early November, and as the setting sun fills the sky, an old gray sedan glides down Interstate 35. Tiny Texas towns whisk by: Abbot, Milford and, home of the oh-so-famous kolache heaven Czech Stop, West. Get lost scrolling through your favorite social media network and you'll miss them.
These small towns fall along the way from Dallas to Austin, where the Fun Fun Fun music festival takes place in less than 24 hours. It's also where Dallas' own Blue, the Misfit, who rides in the back seat of that gray sedan, will perform not once but twice on possibly the biggest day of his career so far.
The first of those two performances will take place at 11:45 on Friday morning on the biggest of the festival's four stages, while the other takes place at 11:30 at night in a downtown club. Over 65,000 people attended Fun Fun Fun in 2013 and the grounds have been rearranged to accommodate this year's expected growth. More people will walk the festival grounds this weekend than live in any of those small towns.
Blue couldn't be more relaxed. His right-hand man, X, the Misfit, is driving and manning the radio, while his girlfriend Natasha is in the passenger seat probing through Instagram. Blue sits in the back seat reading an X-Men-based graphic novel (a comic book for adults) called House of M. For about an hour or so, he lifts his head only to ask who's playing through the speakers. Far removed from your typical rock star lifestyle, the inner nerd escapes into a dreamworld about superheros and mutants, only popping out to indulge his curiosity for music.
The next day, Blue reports that he and his crew partied until about 6 a.m. only to wake up a little past 8 o'clock to get ready and head to the festival grounds at Auditorium Shores. They're all awake and surprisingly animated as they congregate on the stage during a sound check. His entourage includes X, his manager Vince Chapa, DJ Imperial and a host of friends.
In the moments before his performance, Blue doesn't look any more nervous than he did while he was immersed in his graphic novel. He sits on a cooler, sipping a Shiner Bock. This degree of serenity is a harbinger for what's to come, the sign of a man completely in control of his art. But Chapa says this wasn't always the case: "He's confident. He used to be nervous of [the stage]. Now he thrives on it."
It's a part of a transformation Blue, the Misfit had to make. The loner child who once barricaded himself from the outside world with anime, Linkin Park and System of a Down has grown into a pre-eminent talent in Dallas' rap scene and his confidence onstage has played a large part in that happening. When performing, Blue, the Misfit has the ability to make strangers adamant believers. He has the magnetism and charisma of a cult leader. It's led to him becoming arguably the hottest musician in North Texas, culminating in five nominations (more than anyone else) for next week's Dallas Observer Music Awards.
Now is the time for Blue, the Misfit, and he knows it.
A spot on a major festival bill and recognition as a solo act in Dallas are a long time coming for Brandon Blue. The 28-year-old rapper and producer has been making music in some shape for roughly a decade. In 2005, while in college at Prairie View A&M University near Houston, he met Dorrough, a rapper who went on to achieve some minor success with the Top 40 hit "Ice Cream Paint Job," and began producing for him under the moniker King Blue. Through Dorrough, Blue would meet another rapper named Vincent Brown.
The two became good friends and would later start the rap duo Sore Losers. In 2006, Blue moved to Los Angeles, essentially with the romantic dollar and a dream in his mind, and lived with his grandmother and step-grandfather. While in L.A. Blue and Brown kept in touch. "He would be the first person I sent beats to," Blue says. "Back then I was in that kind of mode like Kanye's five beats a day for three summers. I was making beats on top of beats."
In Los Angeles, Blue fell into the circle of what is now a rap powerhouse. After revealing over dinner to his cousin that he was a producer, Blue's cousin informed him about a group of people he knew who recorded music at a studio in Compton. The studio was home to Top Dawg Entertainment, which includes rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, and now rookie emcee Isaiah Rashad and songstress SZA. "I thought they'd be something special but I didn't think they'd be this big," Blue says of the group.
Blue rolled through the studio a few days later and played about 20 beats, back-to-back-to-back. Impressed by his work, TDE founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith asked him to keep coming around if he wanted to be involved. Blue spent the next three years working with TDE, producing songs for the rappers in the group and soaking up knowledge from Top Dawg, who had an extremely calculated vision of the future. Blue saw the rise and growth of the label "basically from scratch."
The beats he sent along eventually appeared on a Sore Losers mixtape called Freeloaders. In 2009, Blue moved back to Texas to get the duo rolling at full force, but was quickly brought down to earth: An early show at Nightmare on Elm St. (now Elm St. Bar) attracted only four people, two of whom were Blue and Brown's romantic interests. It was an embarrassment, but it spurred hard work with shows around Dallas and Denton.
While on a visit to L.A., Blue met an ESPN representative named Timi Jordan, who was trying to get a friend's fraternity to do a step routine during a Waka Flocka Flame performance. "I was like, 'Hey yo, you need an assistant? Hook me up.' I was low-key trying to get a job for ESPN," he says.
Blue brought up the fact that he made music, which piqued Jordan's curiosity. When Jordan later visited town for a Cowboys game on Monday Night Football, Sore Losers, in a grand effort for her full attention, organized a show. They booked a backing band (which would become a permanent fixture) and promoted the hell out of it. The same bar where they'd once played to four people in was now at capacity. "We smashed that show and from that point on she ended up being our manager."
That job at ESPN never happened.
Blue moved back to L.A. to work closely with Jordan, and in turn Sore Losers landed a few high-profile shows: A performance at the Sundance Film Festival; a New Year's eve party opening for Ryan Leslie; a Super Bowl watch party in Manhattan. But while Sore Losers' profile was rising, "that distance created this weirdness," Blue says. The same formula that worked before -- sending Brown beats and him recording in Dallas -- wasn't working like it once did. Blue got bored and began making his own music, not quite realizing that he was actually itching to go solo.
The inevitable demise of Sore Losers came when Blue once again moved back to Texas in 2011, this time shacking up in Denton. The group had a show at South Side Music Hall but Blue couldn't attend rehearsals because of transportation issues. As the week wore on he found himself left out of sound checks and even band dinners. Following the show, the group had a heated four-hour exchange in the parking lot and Blue was voted out of the band. "Essentially, I never talked to them again," he says.
Blue pursued his solo path, rapping full-time for the first time in his career and releasing an EP called Numb, which gets a trophy for having a deadly accurate title. The songs are a raw, experimental take on the excess of hedonism; fan favorite "Party On" is a maniacal ode to getting hammered. Not surprisingly, it was also a pretty accurate representation of where Blue was at in his personal life.
Soon enough, Slim Gravy of A.Dd+ connected Blue with a local rapper Love, JT, and Blue persuaded him and his crew Fly Times, which included Cashmir and Bobby Sessions, to start up a new collective called Brain Gang. Brain Gang would go on to play some of the most spectacularly rambunctious North Texas rap shows in recent memory. It was a group that could rival the star power of L.A.'s Odd Future, including Blue (as Brain Gang Blue), Killa MC, Love, JT, Bobby Sessions, Cashmir, Tunk (for a short time in its beginning stages), producers Ish D, Brain Gang X (now X, the Misfit) and Sam Lao, who was added toward the end of the group's reign.
What Blue underestimated about his all-star team was their tenderness in age, which led to overly eager aspirations and clashing egos both in and outside of the group. "There were a lot of fights. It was a really dark time for Dallas hip-hop," he says. "Everybody was just going at it with everybody. At the time we were just like, 'Fuck it. We're the rebels. We're just gonna keep doing what we do.'"
Most of the Brain Gang have gone on to enjoy success as solo artists in North Texas. One of the members, Love, JT, has even found himself in Los Angeles recording with Dr. Dre. "I think that's the life he always wanted. His goals are always out there," Blue says. "I think he's finally in a situation now to where he's caught up with his dreams. Working with Dr. Dre; it doesn't get much better than that."
When Brain Gang started to fizzle -- "I never say Brain Gang's dead. We're all just doing our own thing," Blues insists -- Blue began recording his debut album, Child in the Wild, with Ish D. It was a slow process, taking two years. His frustrations began to mount after making "Love," a song he initially thought sucked.
"I was about to stop making music altogether," he remembers. "I seriously thought at that time that this is not for me. I'm putting this solo album together, and I'm about to fail so hard. I had no faith in anything I recorded up to that time."
Then one night Blue met with X at Abby Underground in Denton, where he expressed his worries. "At that time, I also was thinking about it. I just didn't tell anybody," X says.
Seeing that a seasoned musician felt the same way he did, X felt empathy and showed Blue a cartoon of two miners digging for diamonds. On the bottom, a tired and defeated man walks away from his mission. He's one fell of a pickax from treasure. On the top, the man is farther away, but in his eyes, you see a hunger. He won't quit. "You can't just give up when you're about to get there," X says.
Another boost to Blue's confidence was becoming an artist with Red Bull Sound Select, a program that uses shows to break emerging acts. The Red Bull Sound Select Show that Blue holds dearest is opening for TDE's Isaiah Rashad in September. "Out of all the shows that I've done, that's the one that I'm most known for," he says.
Throughout the creation of Child in the Wild, a piece of advice Vince Chapa gave a few years back stuck with Blue. At the Numb release party, Blue's brother introduced him to Chapa, and the two would later have a meeting at an In-N-Out Burger where Chapa pitched being his manager. "One thing you don't want to lose is the soul," Chapa warned him. "At the end of the day you're making black music, and [soul] is what's gonna connect with people."
Child in the Wild was finally released last April, and it's an uncompromisingly honest record. It has Blue's soul all over it. In many ways, it's the sequel to Numb's hard-partying, fuck-the-world mentality, with Blue the bombastic ringleader of a band of "Suburban Gangstas" hellbent on having fun and terrorizing the streets.
But Child in the Wild is also a more well-rounded, assured record. It has its moments of tenderness, and it's driven by a sense of self that Blue had yet to develop on Numb. It's wild, it's weird and it owns itself -- witness the point on "All Systems Go" when he samples the party scene in Almost Famous in which Russell Hammond announces he's a "golden god" before jumping into a pool from a rooftop. When Blue raps about seizing the day (or more accurately, the night) it's about more than just the party; it's a metaphor for his art and ambition.
The stage Blue plays at Fun Fun Fun is conveniently located near the entrance to the festival grounds, so as people trickle in, the first thing they hear and see is Blue, the Misfit. (It's the same stage that will host Ginuwine and Nas later in the weekend.) People stop in their tracks to watch him perform.
Blue hops around, dressed in ripped black jeans and a black hoodie, his dreads bouncing wildly in the air. He's constantly in motion, crouching down and exploding upwards, head back and arms raised, dancing and shimmying about. There's none of the typical posturing of a rap show, just raw enthusiasm -- the cult leader wooing his converts. The crowd, in turn, is jumping, dancing and moshing, and before the end Blue and X climb down off the stage to join the party.
After the set, Blue, for once, is anything but relaxed, critiquing himself meticulously. Minutes earlier random people stopped him, asking for pictures. Now he's overwhelmed with emotion, kneeling outside of a tent and sobbing on the phone with his mother. He thanks her for allowing him to spread himself creatively, for doing the best she could.
Later that night comes an even bigger release. He's back in his element, he shines, recruiting followers and willing the party to get started. He and X give Batman and Robin a run for their money as far as chemistry goes. As the pair, now joined by DJ Imperial, rush into the crowd, he raps the words to "More Friends and Fiends:" "Way back in '06/No one would fuck with this shit/Nobody even cared/Or even was aware/That I was up in the lair/With these hits."
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Well, things done changed. Blue, the Misfit is almost famous. He's about to strike gold. He's one fall of an ax away. There's no turning back now.
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