"I just feel like I'm fucked, haha. Everything is going wrong."
My phone lit up with a text from Lord Byron as I was heading out to day two of Index Fest 2013. The day ahead was going to be a long one, ending with Boiler Room's local rap showcase, and in it, Byron's first show. With closely associated acts like Sam Lao, Blue the Misfit, and A.Dd+ becoming the face of underground Dallas rap, the scene has become a very tight-knit community in the last year or so. Byron is a relative newcomer, thrust from local anonymity a couple months ago by his astonishingly good Dark Arts II. He was texting me because his DJ had fallen through.
Lord Byron is 21 year old Byron Neal. He spent most of his time growing up in an East Dallas public housing complex, but his family moved around a lot, spending time in many neighborhoods around the city. He did a year of college in Tyler, before realizing school wasn't the right fit. After moving back home, the self proclaimed recluse made an out-of-character decision to hit a party in Highland Park with a friend. He had been feeling lost, like he was lacking direction. There, he, among others, producer ★★★★★™, who helped inspire him to go from a closet spoken word writer to a driven young recording artist. Before long, he was moving to Denver, Colorado to record with ★★★★★™ and fellow producer Brrd for a year.
He values minimalism, jazzy boom bap beats and fine art. He's quicker to name his top five favorite paintings than his top five rappers. His style draws comparison to the lyrical prowess and effortless rhythm of MF Doom and Earl Sweatshirt, which is something you can't say about any other rapper around here. Byron is different.
I met him outside the Boiler Room shortly after 9 p.m. where local rap show shutterbug, Mariah Tyler, was taking his picture. He seemed much more relaxed, un-phased by pressure most would find overbearing. Later on, I would notice a high number of photographers in the room, and ask Tyler, a freelancer, who she was covering the show for.
"Nobody... I'm here for him. He's new, you know?" she'd say, "He doesn't have a lot of pictures. So I thought I'd come out and shoot for him."
After a few headshots, Byron got a text and told me that the DJ I'd passed his number to was here. We walked around to the front door and met Oleg Belogorsky, aka AiR DJ of Dallas' darker side of dance music, Track Meet DJ Crew. They exchanged pleasantries, and Belogorsky praised Byron's work, saying he'd been listening to Dark Arts II all day. When the two would take the stage together, it looked as if it had all been planned this way. Belogorsky, who is usually more likely to be playing to dance halls than backing rappers, hit every cue and displayed natural improvisation with Byron's penchant to drop out the beat for an a capella refrain.
Byron is an extremely gracious person, constantly expressing appreciation to people-- whether it be for a small favor, listening to one of his records, or a mere conversation.
"I just want everything to go well. I know I don't really know this scene, but I'm not trying to step on anybody," he says. "I love Dallas, and I even though I don't really know any of these artists, I want us all to get on. I just hope people can see that."
It's a very popular school of thought that there's no unity in Dallas hip-hop. But I think he'll find that when it really counts, this scene tends to take care of its own. As we talked in the venue before Sam Lao's set, we were interrupted by Team From Nowhere's Kool Quise.
"Are you Lord Byron?" he asked.
"Yeah" he replied, deadpan.
"Your shit is DOPE!" exclaimed Quise.
Then began the handshakes, the daps, the introductions, from the fellow Dallas artists and fans. Whether they had heard his music or not, they knew who he was, and they wanted to meet him. It was like a coming out party, but he hadn't quite won everybody over yet. It was time for the talent portion of our program.
During the first few songs, the crowd was sparse. Some people were outside smoking after Sam's set, some refilling their drinks in the barroom. Before long, they were drawn in slowly but steadily, close to the stage until those seated had to stand up to see. It was undeniable: Lord Byron lives up to the hype. As he graciously thanked the crowd for attending, he admitted it that the rumor was true, and that this was his first show.
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"Yeah, but you tight though!" shouted Blue, The Misfit, established producer and Brain Gang rapper.
Byron's control and presence showed a refined set of instincts comparable to a far more experienced performer. Save some fuzzy venue sound on his mic, it was hard to find anything to be mad at about this set. And nobody did. Before being called back out for an encore, he had fans calling out his song requests by name, everyone hoping to hear their favorite live.
I spotted Slim Gravy of A.Dd+. Earlier, at the bar, he'd told me he'd never heard any of Byron's stuff. Slim is notorious for having a very critical standard for Dallas rappers. Not that there's anything wrong with him setting the bar high for his community. I gave him a nudge to ask what he thought. He looked at me, and smiled.
"That nigga nice."