The line of people waiting to get into Cirque, the 18-and-up nightclub at the intersection of Harwood Street and Pacific Avenue, stretches more than a block, three or four people wide at every point. But the line, filled with night crawlers dressed in their going-out best, doesn't exist for any particular reason.
Well, no tangible reason, anyway: No celebrities are booked to be at the club, and no special party is lined up. It's just another Friday night at Cirque, which right now has the reputation of being the hottest Friday night hip-hop dance spot in town.
That's it, really.
But that's plenty. Because, an hour from now, when the line has shrunk to fewer than 10 still-patient entrants, the club, which can hold up to 1,800, will be almost filled, and everyone inside will be dancing.
More surprising, they'll all be dancing the same dance. It's a complicated array of moves that has come to be known as the Dallas Boogie, or more commonly as the D-Town Boogie, in which dancers sway their arms out before them, bend their knees, swivel their legs, shake their hips and shimmy their shoulders while leaning side to side—all essentially at the same time.
It's a move used pretty much all night, no matter the song.
The regional hits, the ones performed by artists who proudly call Dallas home, draw the biggest reactions from the crowd, with screams of "OHHHH!" and more effort poured into the carefully practiced dance moves as DJ Hustle, the club's resident Friday night party host, selects the evening's soundtrack.
It's been a big year—maybe the biggest ever—for Dallas hip-hop. More than a half-dozen songs from Dallas artists have landed on Billboard's Top 100 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs in 2008, and most of those hits are dance tracks—club-bangers that explicitly instruct dancers to do a certain move. For years, local rap artists have championed the phrase "Dallas got next" as a rallying cry for their fellow troops. But this year, with Dallas hip-hop songs now finally charting nationally, it's possible the slogan could be true—if the scene and its players can overcome a few hurdles by the time Dallas hip-hop has its moment in the national spotlight when the NBA All-Star Game comes to the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington in 2010.
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Back at Cirque, the first hurdle facing any hip-hop scene—actively engaging an audience—appears to be cleared. It's difficult to move throughout the space, and the whole club is dancing. Even as they walk about the few less-trafficked areas of the club, patrons are still dancing as they amble about.
At 11:45 p.m., a sustained calm takes over the dance floor. Actually, it's not so much calm as repetitious, organized bedlam. The song playing over the club's sound system is Dallas artist Fat Pimp's "Rack Daddy," one of the biggest club and radio hits of the Dallas hip-hop scene's past year. The proof of that fact isn't so much in Nielsen Soundscan numbers or in Billboard magazine charts, though they're impressive, but in the reaction it draws.
As the rapper's voice comes out of the speakers, the crowd follows his shouted instructions dutifully, as if he's hidden somewhere, watching and taking notes on their efforts.
Throw you shoulders out! Fat's disembodied voice commands.
In unison, the dancers bop each shoulder in time with the beat.
The sea on the dance floor bends at its knees and hips so emphatically that the club's floor noticeably shakes.
I got 'em looking at me. Now watch me Rack Daddy!
The crowd continues following suit, only this time, without exact instruction, its members break off into various incarnations of the D-Town Boogie, as it will until the next chorus of "Rack Daddy" returns.
Do the Rack Daddy! Yeah!
It's incredible. The whole scene is so well-choreographed, even during these non-instructional parts, that it looks ripped straight out of a music video, or perhaps an impromptu song-and-dance number in a John Hughes movie.
All this for a song Fat Pimp admits a) was created as a joke, b) was written on a whim about the Duncanville billiard hall of the same name, and c) was just his attempt at slapping a name on the dance Dallas club-goers were already doing.
That's the first dirty secret about the Dallas dance tracks that have made Billboard's chart this year: Each of these dance songs is built around the same D-Town Boogie core with minor differences thrown in during the chorus. For Lil Wil's "My Dougie," dancers check their hair by sweeping hands over their heads and checking the hair by their ears; for Lil Shine's "Check Out My Lean," they bend forward at their hips; for Fat Pimp's "Rack Daddy," they dip at the knees; for B-Hamp's "Do The Ricky Bobby," they freeze and pretend to be wheeling around in a wheelchair; for Them GSpot Boyz's "Do Da Stanky Legg" they shake their behinds and shimmy one leg.
Each of these songs has been a relative overnight success—likely because they're all built from a foundation that's taken a couple years to create, blending smaller Dallas dance crazes and national dances that have crept into the mix.
"The boogie's basically a whole combination, like a gumbo," explains Lil Wil, who along with Lil Shine and Fat Pimp are most responsible for the boogie's initial blow-up earlier this year, when "My Dougie" "Rack Daddy" and "Check Out My Lean" all started gaining popularity in the clubs and on regional radio circuits within a few weeks of one another.
"Now, for you to be boogying, you have to combine the Rack Daddy and the Dougie, I think," Wil explains. "It's always been around, but the Dougie and the Rack Daddy just stamped it. We put our own spin on it. That was all around the same time. We all gave it the same D-Town sound and rhythm."
The second dirty secret about the boogie phenomenon is that each beat is essentially the same, one created with high-hat hits and Roland TR-808 drum synthesizers with a few simple piano synthesizer sounds thrown in to create the melody of each track.
"It's incredibly simple," says Play, half of Dallas' premier production duo, Play-N-Skillz, which has produced and created beats for national hits including Lil Wayne's "Got Money" and Chamillionaire's "Ridin'." "There's not much to it. It's just three or four parts, over and over and over again."
It's the simplicity that's key. With their repetitious sound patterns, each of these tracks—as well as smaller local crazes and newer soon-to-be hits—has been easily adopted into the boogie dance phenomenon, which, in turn, has made them obvious entrants into local club DJ playlists.
"The clubs have been behind us 110 [percent] since the start," says Wil.
"All these dances have been around since 2002 or so," says DJ Drop, who spins at clubs around town, including Cirque. The job has given him a bird's-eye view of the dance floor crazes of the past few years. "They'd do these dances, and there wasn't a name for them. So they mix it all together. That's why it's called boogying. Nobody's doing the same thing as anyone else. Everybody does it their own way, but it's the same basic moves. There's no right or wrong way to do it."
Of course, there's more to the phenomenon than just the dancing and the beat-making. Style plays a large role in the D-Town Boogie's proliferation. The way those who flock to it carry themselves plays a part too.
"All that matters is your swag," Drop explains, emphasizing the confidence in the postures and dress of those who dance the boogie. "It's more of a swagger movement than anything else. The boogie is just part of the swag. A lot of people can try to do it, but if you don't carry the swag with it, you can't pull it off."
The craze's quick spread throughout town is simply a matter of people liking what they're seeing.
"Nobody wants to be on the losing team," he says.
With New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta and Miami each boasting a hip-hop scene that has made a national impact in recent years, Dallas remains by far the largest city in the South without a storied past. Sure, there have been blips along the way—The DOC's run in the early '90s (a time in which, to the dismay of many current artists, he refused to acknowledge his Dallas roots) and Vanilla Ice's embarrassing run around the same time (a time in which, to the gratitude of many current artists, he refused to acknowledge his Dallas roots). Tum Tum's single "Caprice Music" earned national music video play in the summer of 2007, but there has never been a sustained movement or rash of successful local hits like this year's.
Wil and Drop say this year's success is simply a matter of Dallas patiently awaiting its inevitable moment in the sun by carefully watching cities such as Atlanta and Houston, taking notes on their successes and tweaking the playbook slightly to make the music, the moves and the swagger Dallas' own.
"In Atlanta, the beat's a little bit faster," Wil explains. "In Houston, it's slower. In Dallas, it's sort of in between those. And when we dance, we do it to the music you hear between the beats. We don't ride the beat out here. We've changed."
"Dallas has become like a gumbo of everybody," Drop says. "And people wanna be proud of where they're from. That's why everyone's jumping on the bandwagon. From midnight until 2, I can play nothing but Dallas music, and the club won't miss a beat.
"I've never been able to do that before. Never."
On a recent Wednesday night in Exposition Park, B-Hamp and Them GSpot Boyz, who, with "Do The Ricky Bobby" and "Do Da Stanky Legg" respectively, have become the newest players in the burgeoning boogie trend, were in a loft photo studio prepping for an upcoming tour of Texas, the Southeast and the Midwest by taking photos for posters and advertisements.
"This is my first everything," B-Hamp says excitedly and with an infectious smile spreading across his face. "My first single. My first tour. My first photo shoot. It's like they say: You go to sleep, and the next morning, you wake up and everything has changed. I'm kind of a celebrity out here now. It's weird."
What's even weirder, though, is that neither B-Hamp nor the five-member boy group he'll be touring with throughout much of the winter has released an album. They're touring solely in support of their singles.
And yet that's enough. Demand merits it.
Lil Wil, for instance, just returned from a tour of the same regions as part of a marching band showcase tour. His debut full-length, Dolla$, TX, earned release only in June, but even so, on a near-nightly basis he served as the "halftime act" of the tour, performing a short set to tens of thousands of fans—in arenas, no less.
So, it's safe to say that Dallas hip-hop is finally breaking beyond the city limits, into the rest of Texas and beyond.
"You can't even get played in a Houston club right now unless you're a Dallas artist," says Fat Pimp, a Duncanville native who splits his time between the two cities because he still has a year to go toward earning his media communications degree from Texas Southern University. "In Houston, in the clubs, they all wanna know what the new Dallas songs are. They call it the Dallas swag, and they embrace the fact that it's different."
As a result, Fat Pimp has regularly been asked to headline and host Houston radio station parties and concerts in recent months, to the point where he's performed far more often in Houston than he has in Dallas.
"The Dallas artists have worked hard at it," says John Candelaria, radio program director for Dallas' KBFB-97.9 FM The Beat. "They've really been students of the game. They're honing their craft, they're learning from the Atlantas and the Houstons, and they're really creating their own sound. Just this past week, I had radio programmers from stations in San Antonio, El Paso and Houston asking me to send them the new MP3 for the 'Stanky Legg.'"
On Dallas radio stations, local artists are in constant rotation. Of the top 20 songs on The Beat's playlist last week, four singles came from Dallas artists. That's a revealing statistic, sure, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
Take a quick listen to either The Beat or local competitor KKDA-104.5 FM K104 during afternoon drive time, and you'll hear Dallas artist after Dallas artist blaring from your speakers.
"The Dallas appeal is at an all-time high," Candelaria says. "People are supporting their own. And we are, as a radio station, a reflection of our community. We run tests on our area listener market every week, and what's crazy is that a Lil Wil will score higher than a national artist like a Jay-Z or a Kanye West on our weekly tests."
After finishing up their half of the photo shoot, Them GSpot Boyz explain that it's more than the listeners simply wanting to support their own. They're looking for a good time—something these artists are more than willing to provide.
"We really didn't have any money growing up," says GSpot member Marc D. "So we're not gonna rap about money or cars. We grew up dancing. We like to dance. We're rapping and singing about what we know."
Dallas becoming a predominantly dance city, though, is a relatively recent development.
"There's always been two kinds of music in the Dallas hip-hop world," DJ Drop says. "Gangsta and dance. Before this movement, though, it was all gangsta rap in Dallas. The whole dance craze started blowing up in 2006, though."
In July of that year, there was a shooting in a hip-hop club called El Angel. Two people—Lendl Carey, 22, and Kenneth Haggerty, 20—were killed.
"It was a big deal," says Drop, who was working the DJ booth as the fight broke out. "They did an episode of 48 Hours on it. Everyone blamed the music. They said I was playing a Lil Jon song. I didn't even have a Lil Jon record with me that night."
Tensions flared at clubs in the following weeks—so much so that, Drop says, the hip-hop clubs stopped being fun.
"I became real conscious of the music I played," Drop says. "If it spoke of violence or anything, I didn't play it."
Drop found the answer to getting people back into clubs was in dance songs. He figured—or, rather, he hoped—that without gang or neighborhood signs being glorified by the music, people would just join each other on the dance floor to have a good time. But even that answer was found in another dark corner of society—the spastic dance moves he'd seen drug users performing in the club since the early '00s.
"A lot of people that created these dances usually popped pills, like ecstasy and stuff," Drop admits. "That was an influence of it when it first jumped off, yeah. But it's grown from there, thankfully."
The first dance song Drop—and, really, everyone else interviewed for this story—recalls drawing people out onto the dance floor in the wake of the El Angel killings was Big Los and Lil Joe's "Watch Dis," a track in which Lil Joe tells his listeners all the moves he does in the club to get the ladies to turn their heads his way.
"When I started playing it, everyone else did," Drop says. "DJs are the most egotistical people. They control everything. They can make the party, or they can break the party. But we started sharing songs and working together."
Suddenly, Drop says, everyone was having fun again in the clubs. And more important, hitting the clubs became a regular thing again.
Then came Soulja Boy, oddly enough.
In the summer of 2007, the now-18-year-old rapper had a mega-hit with his "Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)," an incredibly simple and catchy track that unabashedly beckoned listeners to dance. His rise to fame, at that point, followed a unique path. This teenager, in his Atlanta home, created a beat, song lyrics and a dance—actually, a number of dances, but that's not the point—and he recorded it all with a video camera, creating simple, low-budget videos of his performances that he would immediately turn around and post to Internet video-sharing site YouTube.
Because of the millions of views his videos amassed, Soulja Boy earned himself a major recording contract. "Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)" was everywhere: radio, clubs, television shows, cell phone ringtones, and, most notable, in hundreds if not thousands of response YouTube clips in which various neighborhood kids, celebrities and even cartoon characters offered up their renditions of the song and dance.
And it's here where the biggest stars of Dallas' boogie scene—Lil Wil, Lil Shine, Fat Pimp, B-Hamp and Them GSpot Boyz, none of whom is older than 24—took notice, following the path blazed by this rapper who has no Dallas ties, aside from an affinity for Lil Wil's "My Dougie" (Soulja Boy has created videos of himself attempting the Dougie version of the boogie and shared some performance bills with Lil Wil) and the fact that he has a shoe contract with the Arlington-based company Yum Shoes.
"He showed everyone that the Internet was a great way to get noticed," B-Hamp says. "If you put anything on YouTube and it's catchy, they'll keep looking at it."
But it's more than that, explains Tum Tum before beginning a recording session for his follow-up to 2007's Eat or Get Ate album, which spawned "Caprice Music," a more-standard, non-YouTube-supported hit.
"You can just tell when the music's about to change," Tum Tum says between drags of a cigarette. "When Soulja Boy came out, you could tell. And now the radio ain't nothing anymore. You can drop your song on YouTube and get known. Radio didn't get the Dougie big. YouTube got the Dougie big. It's not just the radio now. This generation doesn't even leave the house. And Dallas is on that YouTube, man. A lot of these guys are college kids—B-Hamp, Lil Shine, Fat Pimp. They know what they're doing. Smart is the new gangster."
"It's really us just catching onto the game," Lil Wil says. "We've got this type of music, and we've got our whole city doing it. How can we expose it to the world? The Internet. It's easy. We can't travel everywhere. But [these videos] can."
Sitting at his Exposition Park photo shoot, B-Hamp had trouble disagreeing. It's simple, but he knows why people like his "Do The Ricky Bobby" song (aside from the reference to 2006's Will Ferrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby).
"Just 'cause it's catchy and everybody loves to dance," he says. "Everyone on the Internet wants to learn new stuff."
That's certainly the case with Houston hip-hop heads who've picked up on the D-Town Boogie trends, DJ Drop says.
"In Houston, you can tell the people that are doing it right off YouTube," he says with a chuckle. "They're doing it right off the instructions."
But that's the idea, Lil Wil explains: "Everyone thinks they can do it better! You put a YouTube clip up of someone doing a dance, and then a minute later, you've got 10 different people doing your dance."
At press time, Lil Wil's "My Dougie" video has 3.3 million YouTube views. Them GSpot Boyz's "Do Da Stanky Legg" has 2.3 million views.
Want The Idiot's Guide to Making It in Dallas Hip-Hop? There it is. It's a pretty simple formula, which is why so many new artists who are following it, like B-Hamp and Them G-Spot Boyz, are just now starting to bubble up.
"Everyone wants a tight beat and a new move to go with it," B-Hamp says. "It's kind of like a video game. Once you get it done, you wanna do something else."
More or less, that's how the D-Town Boogie progressed to where it is today—and how local radio started picking up on the trend.
"When you go into radio meetings," says Fat Pimp, whose recent successes have earned him a deal with Warner Bros., "the first thing they wanna hear is if it's getting played in the clubs."
But here's where the potential trouble—and the potential growth stunt—comes into play with the D-Town Boogie.
"When I went to the labels with the 'Rack Daddy'," Fat Pimp says, "they were like, 'But it's a dance song!' The labels are after a quick buck with a dance song, but they're not gonna give you a deal."
Considering that, Fat Pimp and Lil Wil, who is signed to Houston's Asylum Records, are lucky. The former had a minor radio hit with his song "I'm Getting Money" just before the release of "Rack Daddy"; the latter had a second single, "Bust It Open," already getting requested for play on radio stations by the time his "My Dougie" was just starting to heat up—and it's turned out to be a bigger hit than "My Dougie" for Wil in the long run.
Because both artists were working on album releases when radio stations came calling, they were gleefully willing—and more important, able—to pass along any track the radio wanted to play from their catalogs.
Newer D-Town Boogie success stories, like B-Hamp and Them GSpot Boyz, haven't gotten that far; they've earned immediate club and radio spins off the success of their first serious forays into recording.
"Having all these dance songs is definitely a double-edge sword," Fat Pimp says. "In one sense, it's good because you're getting exposure. But it's tough to get more than that. You can't really name too many artists out there that have dance songs and nothing else. It puts you out there as a potential one-hit wonder."
And there's the ultimate worry: The same thing that has put Dallas hip-hop artists into a position to be heard in the clubs and on the radio, locally and beyond, is the same thing that could kill it. Because, let's face it: Hip-hop dance songs are a little gimmicky.
OK, a lot gimmicky.
"As far as the whole dance thing, I never thought it was gonna blow up outside of Dallas," Fat Pimp says. "Now, I'm not saying 'Don't do the dance music.' I'm saying you should have your whole library ready when the labels call. A dance song is only gonna get you so far, and it's only gonna get you so much respect in the industry. And that's the hardest thing to do in this industry: get respect."
Play-N-Skillz's Play, who, along with his brother Skillz, won a Grammy for his production work on Chamillionaire's 2007 hit "Ridin'" and may well be up for another for his work with Lil Wayne this year, agrees with the gimmicky concerns: "It's good for Dallas to try to create something, and I'm down with Dallas trying to make something out of itself, but I probably won't listen to these songs in my CD player. I like them in the club. It's fun for the kids. I was in San Antonio this past weekend, and all the songs everyone was playing was Dallas songs.
"It's great club music," he adds, before quickly echoing Fat Pimp's sales worries. "But club music doesn't translate into record sales. Still, this isn't 'Who Let the Dogs Out.' This isn't that situation. These guys have more credibility than that."
Tum Tum, who with "Caprice Music" bears the burden of being the first of Dallas' new class of hip-hop artists, boogie-based or not, to have a national breakout hit, emphasizes Play's point: "Every city's got 20 dance rappers. And this is a dance city. I've heard a million dance songs from local artists, and they haven't gone anywhere. So you've gotta give the artists who have gotten airplay some credit for these songs actually being good."
Then again, Tum Tum also knows the market he's aiming for. He's performed on a number of boogie remixes and, more recently, he's added a medley of D-Town Boogie tracks to his set when he's out on the road performing.
"I like them," he says. "They're all cool. That's how I get down in the club. I do the Stanky Legg and the Rack Daddy, y'know? The boogie scene is the scene right now. Now, I pick beats based on if people can boogie to them."
And, gimmicky or not, people are noticing. In June, Lil Wil's debut album opened at No. 3 on Billboard's Heatseekers album chart. It's a sub-chart, yes, completely different from the magazine's standard album sales charts. But that debut, coupled with the chart placements (as high as the mid 50s) of the singles from boogie artists such as Wil, Lil Shine, Fat Pimp, B-Hamp, Them Gspot Boyz—and even other artists, like Big Tuck, Trap Stars Clik and The Trap Squad Cartel, whose songs include a boogie beat but avoid specific dance instructions—is enough to show that people beyond city and even state borders are listening to these songs.
Dallas' audience is big, but not big enough to create those numbers on its own. The question, though, is whether we can keep the country's attention. "We're not really doing anything new," DJ Drop says. "We're selling the same thing twice. The same thing you've seen in Atlanta and Houston."
Before those cities rose to national hip-hop prominence, each boasted a similar local, bubbling dance-crazy scene. Atlanta's Snap and Houston's Chopped and Screwed movements are essentially what the D-Town Boogie, in its early stage, hopes to keep trending toward becoming. For that to take place, though, two things need to happen.
And the first—collaborative effort from the city's entire stable of artists—is already under way.
Continuing that is vital, Tum Tum says: "The boogie will keep going and open up doors. And if these artists get album deals, we all need to get on their albums and videos and everything. We need this. It's like when you're a running back in football. You need a blocker."
The second imperative is two-fold: Developing a local star and having him, along with everyone else in the scene, prepared for the spotlight.
Thing is—and this is the advantage the Dallas hip-hop community has thanks to its current success—everyone has the date of the spotlight's arrival already circled on their calendars.
Looking back, it's easy to pinpoint the precise moments when Houston's and Atlanta's scenes blew up: For Atlanta it was 2003; in Houston it came three years later. And these moments came when the NBA All-Star Game and its weekend filled with hip-hop-embracing activities arrived in each town.
"That definitely happened in Atlanta," Play says. "Big events that bring people into the city like that have that effect. But it's gonna be on the artists to make sure we make it our city when these people come into town. Like, when Diddy comes in, he needs to go to Cirque, and he has to see people doing the Dougie and going crazy, and he has to realize that he just has to sign these acts."
So, yeah, the tipping point for Dallas hip-hop is essentially predetermined at this point: It will come just more than 14 months from now, when the 2010 NBA All-Star Game visits the brand-new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
"I'll tell you what," Fat Pimp says. "If that doesn't happen by 2010, if we haven't come with it yet by then, it's never gonna happen."
But everyone interviewed for this story agrees, no thresholds will be crossed unless Dallas hip-hop can move beyond its current D-Town Boogie infatuation.
"The boogie's not gonna stop," Play says. "People are gonna keep making this music. But until we have a full artist blow up, the city's not gonna blow up. Until we have the ultimate artist, it's not gonna happen."
Atlanta was prepared with artists such as Young Jeezy, Ludacris and T.I. waiting in the wings. Houston had Mike Jones, Lil Flip and Chamillionaire. Dallas' stars-in-waiting...well, they're still undetermined, for the most part.
"It could be me," Fat Pimp says. "It could be Wil. It could be Tum Tum or Big Tuck. We don't know."
"A lot of the guys that are big right now," DJ Drop says, "a year from now, you won't even hear from them."
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So it's tough to say if, this time, Dallas does, indeed, got next. But with the All-Star game and the opportunity it provides looming on the horizon, certainly, Dallas Got a Chance, for better or worse.
"If we don't come with it at the All-Star Game, we're gonna fall," Lil Wil says. "The whole city. And the rap scene won't matter for another 10 years."
Because if the boogie doesn't succeed, it's back to the drawing board.
"Once this dance craze is over, you can't come back and cross that line," DJ Drop says. "Look at MC Hammer when he tried to be all gangsta after doing his dance stuff. It doesn't work. At this point, it's up to the artists to see if we get there. But this dance movement right now? It's just the beginning."