Killa MC, the brash, proud and highly skilled member of Denton hip-hop collective Brain Gang, enters from behind the curtain in full military regalia and takes his place at the front of the stage inside the Prophet Bar.
"I want to be all over Instagram with this outfit on, so I'm just going to stand here and pose for a while so y'all can take pictures," he says.
The audience, more women than men, begins snapping photos while Killa switches poses, ending with an upturned salute, part of the Brain Gang on-stage repertoire.
The scene is a far cry from the quiet, contemplative off-stage life of Donovan Payne, Killa's off-stage alter ego.
"I'm kind of the unspoken manager of Brain Gang," Payne says quietly in an earlier conversation. His slow Southern drawl and mild-mannered aura make it all the more fascinating to watch him as Killa MC.
On-stage, Killa saunters from side to side, shoulders slouched, knees slightly bent, cracking the microphone cord like a whip. He looks like a lion hunting his prey. Once the beat drops on "Thuggin & Mobbin," he holds up his mic and dives in.
"Let's take it to the church, in a hearse, one false move will put 'em in the dirt."
Now he's in full swagger. Watch him shadowbox the air, shrugging his shoulders while he leans. Once he has the whole audience eating out of the palm of his hand, he slices his arm through the air, barely skimming his throat. Game over.
Payne doesn't see much of a disconnect between his on-stage persona and his off-stage one. "I'm not one of those artists who feeds into the whole 'I transform into another person when I perform,'" he says. "I think that type of justification is corny."
He says he and Killa MC are basically the same person, but that his stage persona represents a different part of his id, ego and super-ego, all of whom "get along fine in my head."
To understand how Killa MC arrived, you have to learn where Donovan Payne began.
Payne was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was a nurse and his father's career in the Air Force caused them to move often. He describes his upbringing as a childhood devoid of much trauma. "My parents did everything parents are supposed to do," he says.
As Killa MC, Payne's raps exist in the present. There's no delving into the past with meditations on absent fathers, project houses and crack corners.
"Growing up, I thought they were strict but they weren't nearly as strict as some of my other friends' parents," he says. "They walked the line of being my friend and parent effortlessly."
Payne didn't start listening to hip-hop until his teenage years.
"When I finally got into hip-hop, I listened to Run DMC, Fresh Prince, The Diplomats and Rawkus Records," he says.
The senior Payne's military career landed the family in Texas, where Payne attended North Crowley High School. "I was a pretty well-rounded guy growing up, so I had friends from all different walks of life," he says.
After high school, Payne settled at the University of North Texas, where he met the other members of Brain Gang.
"We all found each other through the Internet, friends and mutual respect," he says.
Payne wanted to get into hip-hop because of his "love of music growing up. It was just a natural shift to want to find out more and become involved."
He founded Brain Gang with Brandon Blue, and from there he started focusing on the well-being of the group over his own fledgling career. He backs that up by pointing to the "strength in numbers" mentality that informs everything Brain Gang does, from performances to public appearances to marketing.
"It's as simple as the group spreading each other's music links online, or having a couch to sleep on after a long night out," he says.
To date, Payne's solo releases include Young, Black and Restless, Laptops and Voicemails and his self-titled mixtape. He's also working on material released under the group's moniker. All these records embody the rebellion against the ringtone rap that dominated Dallas, and for that matter, the national hip-hop scene. Brain Gang and its members embody the classic elements of hip-hop that were abandoned during the last decade in favor of simple, sing-along rap.
"One thing we all could agree on is we didn't like the direction of the local hip-hop scene when we all decided to enter it," Payne says. "That's what bonded us together. We have all shared the same struggles with the people, radio and venues not giving us the time of day."
Many in hip-hop and pop have embraced dual selves, from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust to Dwayne Carter's Tunechi Baby. Although Payne isn't consciously trying to experiment with split personalities, Killa MC presents a filter for Payne to vent his frustrations, dreams and fears. But when he's not performing, Payne dedicates himself to pushing the Brain Gang brand.
"I play the 'Mr. Responsible' role in the group," Payne says. "I handle a majority of the branding via social networks, some of the booking inquiries and I try to keep an open door of communication within the group. An average day for me is wake up, Internet, work, studio, Internet and sleep, in that order. I've developed a makeshift system of time management to help me hit all of my daily tasks so I never feel like I'm wasting time, or not living to my full potential."
And what does he hope to get with that full potential?
"I want a helicopter fully decked out with platinum propellers, a Delorean that sits on 26-inch rims with a different facial expression of me on each rim and to start a holiday in which people around the country receive a coupon to purchase Earl Campbell sausages for free," he says, laughing.
"Really, I want the same thing everyone else wants: Wealth and prosperity."
Payne trains for such success every day by working on his music and brand. Photographer and artist Jeremy Biggers, who directed Brain Gang's "What Ya Know" video, says Payne's work ethic separates him from the rest of the local scene.
"He's in the studio five nights a week working on something," Biggers says. "Often times after leaving his day job. He outworks most people in his lane."
Biggers sees Killa MC as a throwback to the golden era of '90s hip-hop in style and substance.
"He's '90s all the way," he says. "Everything about him lives in the '90s. He's a hip-hop historian and it's obvious he lives for the golden era of the genre."
Future projects for Killa MC include a series of tapes adding to the development of Killa MC as a persona, as well as a few EPs in between to "keep Killa MC's voice out in the public."
"There are so many vultures in this scene who take advantage of good, hardworking, talented acts, simply because a lot of artists don't understand what they are supposed to be getting in return for their contributions," Payne explains. "If we all took the time to get educated on simple things such as copyrights, show bookings and payment, the Dallas hip-hop scene would be where everyone believes it should be."
And he's not heading into these new waters alone. The entire Brain Gang clique — Bobby Sessions, X'Zavier, Ca$hmir, JT Mohrle and Blue — is at turns anarchic, proud, unpredictable. The scene has definitely, and defiantly, changed, and Brain Gang is helping to lead the charge.
"Too many cornballs and idiots have snuck into the scene confusing the masses," Payne says. "So I'm working overtime with my broom and dustpan cleaning up the mess and dumping the trash, so we can really get back to the essence."
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