Forget Kobe Bryant. Forget LeBron James. Forget Dwyane Wade.
Yeah, this weekend is about those names as the National Basketball Association brings its annual All-Star Game to Cowboys Stadium, along with a string of events in and around downtown Dallas. Yet it's also about another prominent roster that's coming to town, one that boasts the likes of Jay-Z, Diddy and Snoop Dogg—in short, the biggest names in hip-hop.
No surprise there: Over the past 20-plus years, the cultures of hip-hop and the NBA have increasingly bled into one another. In 2004, when the league approved Jay-Z's bid to become a part owner of the New Jersey Nets, these two distinctly American entities were formally wed. So when hip-hop luminaries from Diddy and Jay-Z to the near-forgotten Busta Rhymes and the fast-rising Drake first announced the parties they'd be hosting throughout the city, no one was really caught off-guard. It was simply expected.
For better or worse, that's just how the NBA All-Star Game works.
"I just hope people aren't stunned when they see all these big stars getting on stage right in front of them," says Skillz, half of the Dallas-based, Grammy-winning production team of Play-N-Skillz. He sits in the pair's studio after wrapping up a rehearsal DJ set in his brother's Las Colinas McMansion, mulling it over. "I hope Dallas doesn't do that."
It seems an odd concern, what with all the preparations being made by city officials to gear up for the weekend. Last month, the Dallas Police Department released a plan that covers everything from extra medical care centers to traffic control and all that lies in between. There's plenty to fret about, and Play-N-Skillz are worried about star-struck fans? Really?
Yep. Because for Skillz, born Oscar Salinas, and his brother Play, born Juan, these next few days mean everything. Far as Play-N-Skillz—and everyone else in the Dallas hip-hop scene—are concerned, this is as important a weekend as Dallas has ever seen. For this subset of Dallas culture, it's the weekend when the city gets its moment in the sun. It's the weekend when Dallas, by far the largest city in America without an economically viable hip-hop market, gets its chance to reveal itself to the industry's biggest names as a city worth investing in.
A stroll down Main Street reveals Play-N-Skillz's own investment. For two weeks, their faces have been plastered all over the downtown entertainment district. Traditional billboards bear their images; the front façade of downtown ultralounge Plush, which will serve as the brothers' home base for the weekend, showcases their visages and, alongside theirs, those of the celebrities they'll be bringing in to join their party-filled weekend. They've even printed 3,000 pamphlets to be placed in cabs and hotels throughout the city in hopes of further promoting their schedule of events this weekend.
"Five years ago, when we found out that the All-Star Game was coming to Dallas, we said we've got to position ourselves to be Dallas," Play says. "We've got five years to position ourselves to be ambassadors for the city, to get to the point where the clubs would wanna cut deals with us, and position ourselves as young businessmen where we can somewhat control the market and monopolize the area. And I feel like we've done a great job of doing that. I mean, look at all the events we've got going on."
Between their events at Plush and their appearances as part of the NBA-sanctioned, convention center-hosted NBA All-Star Jam Session, Play-N-Skillz will serve as hosts for a whopping 10 events over the course of four days.
"I just hope we can handle all we've got," Skillz says. "It might sound crazy, but we even had to turn down a ton of events."
The goal, Play says while a crew of DJs, artists and associates mill about the duo's rehearsal space, is simple: "Branding."
For themselves. For Dallas hip-hop as a whole. For the whole damn city, even.
A big task, to be sure.
"We knew it was gonna be work," the ever-animated Play continues. "But we didn't know it'd be this much work. Our whole staff—all of us are working. None of us are even working on music. It's just that. But I'm excited. This is big for the city."
So, there's some pressure.
"Yeah," Play concedes. "I haven't slept for days."
Historically speaking, there's reason for excitement. It's hardly an exact science, but, looking back on the NBA All-Star Game host cities of recent memory—namely Atlanta in 2003, Houston in 2006 and New Orleans in 2008—a correlation exists between the pinnacle of a city's hip-hop successes and the year in which that town hosted the game.
Trick is—unlike, say, Denver, which hosted the event in 2005, or Phoenix, which hosted the game last year—Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans were all primed to blow. In Atlanta, acts such as T.I. and Ludacris were waiting to be discovered. In Houston, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Slim Thug were already starting to make names for themselves. Meanwhile, New Orleans' hosting responsibility helped Lil Wayne and his then-newly minted Young Money imprint bust out.
With its own recent national hip-hop successes—from Tum Tum's 2007 hit "Caprice Musik" to the GS Boyz's massive 2009 dance track, "Stanky Legg"—Dallas finds itself in a position similar to the cities that were able to capitalize on the NBA All-Star Game.
"Worst case scenario, at least we'll have a good time," says Lancaster-born hip-hop star Dorrough. Over the past year, thanks to the success of his 2009 hit singles—the almost-platinum "Ice Cream Paint Job" and his breakout hit "Walk That Walk"—Dorrough has positioned himself to gain as much as Play-N-Skillz, if not more, from this NBA All-Star Weekend.
"But I see it happening as a positive thing overall," he adds. And how: "I think it's a sure thing, actually," he says when asked if he thinks this weekend could finally propel Dallas hip-hop into the national spotlight for good.
"Weekends like this can bring a lot of attention to the city," Dorrough continues. "Like, if some people make the right moves, you can't become a bigger star than you can become that weekend. People are gonna be spreading your music and spreading your songs and spreading what they see. If everything goes right and people come down and they have a good time, they're gonna leave the city with a good taste in their mouth. Every time they think of Dallas, or when somebody brings it up, they're gonna have something good to say, which is gonna help everybody out in the long run.
"I was in Houston for their All-Star Game a couple years back, and I got to see the movement and just everything that was going on, and I remember wishing that I could do all the things that I'm doing now with the event. It's just so crazy. And now it's in my city. It's perfect timing. Dallas—and especially the hip-hop scene—has never been more poppin' than it is right now. And it's time. It's like a make-or-break moment. Take advantage of it or don't take advantage of it. Either way, there's gonna be a result. I just think it's Dallas' time, and it's time for us to show up."
Dorrough's ready for the other shoe to drop. This weekend, like so many other Dallas-area artists, he's planning on releasing a new mixtape, one he says should push along his career, at least as a warm-up before his second full-length album comes out this summer.
"I had an earlier drop date [for the tape]," he says. "But when we, y'know, thought about it and realized that the All-Star Weekend was gonna be two months later, we decided to drop it then. Because there's just gonna be so much attention on the city. And so many people in the city. I can make it a bigger deal."
It's all so exciting, huh?
Already, Dallas artists are getting airplay on radio stations around the country. In the clubs, it's much of the same. Houston has, in many ways, conformed to the Dallas movement—known as the D-Town Boogie for its often club-inspired, dance-inducing songs—by almost exclusively playing Dallas artists in its hip-hop nightclubs. Now, Dallas seems primed to bypass its long-standing hip-hop giant of a neighbor to the southeast.
Only, not everyone is as sure about the city's prosperous future as Dorrough is.
"We're not there yet," says DJ Drop, who leads the 30-deep roster of Definition DJs that run the PA systems at a mass of the hip-hop clubs throughout the area. Among them is Cirque downtown, which over the past year and a half has established itself as perhaps the premier spot to see Dallas hip-hop fans doing the dances for which the city's sound is named. "We're still looked at as being local. And not in the sense of local heroes—in the sense of the local jokers."
It's not for lack of trying. More than anyone else, Drop knows the amount of work it's taken to just get Dallas to the point where it now stands. With his direct line of sight from the DJ booth to the dance floor, Drop and his crew have perhaps the best view of the scene's frontline battles, and it's been their musical selections in these clubs that have helped Dallas audiences become so receptive to the city's club-banging catalog.
Blame them or thank them, but by embracing the dance songs put out by local artists and sticking to that aesthetic, it's the DJs who made the D-Town Boogie a big deal. It started with Lil Joe's "Watch Dis," which, in the wake of a 2006 shooting at a club called El Angel, was the first dance song embraced by Dallas fans looking to have a good time—as opposed to posturing and fighting. That was followed up through 2008 hits like Lil Shine's "Check Out My Lean," Lil Wil's "My Dougie" and Fat Pimp's "Rack Daddy," and on to songs popular in the clubs today, like Party Boyz's "Flex" and Treal Lee and Prince Rick's "Mr. Hit Dat Hoe." It's been a carefully crafted sound, mostly devoid of gang-banging thuggery. It's a good-time, if stylistically simple, sound: The first time listeners hear Dorrough's voice appear over the relatively lo-fi, synth-heavy beat of "Ice Cream Paint Job," he's chuckling.
But in a genre of music so obsessed with street credibility, that's been something of a double-edged sword. Though embraced locally—and ridiculously so, with both of the region's hip-hop-formatted radio stations playing Dallas-crafted songs as often as eight times an hour and with nightclub DJs playing Dallas music almost exclusively—the outside reactions to the D-Town Boogie sound have been tepid. National record label executives hear what's being played, sure, but they don't necessarily buy into the sound's commercial viability.
So this weekend hinges on an old adage: Seeing is believing.
"When people come down here," Dorrough says, "they're gonna see why it's so big. When they go to some of the clubs and they see the impact it has and the way people are reacting, they're gonna see that it's crazy down here. They're gonna respect what we're doing a little more than if they never came down here."
Back in his home studio, though, Play isn't so sure.
"Will people be impressed?" he asks aloud.
He thinks about it for a few seconds.
"I love the Boogie sound," he answers. "I enjoy it. With that said, I don't think anybody's gonna [go] back and say, 'Man, the next Jay-Z is here, the next Young Jeezy is here.' I don't think anyone's gonna say that the next Eminem is here—although he might exist. But I think that they'll leave knowing that there's definitely a movement. I think Diddy's gonna get up there, and he's gonna just see everybody erupt to that stuff, and he's gonna go back with that and go, 'I need some of that on my album. Who the hell is doing this?' Because that's what guys like that do.
"They're very ahead of the wave with all that. And I think that's gonna happen with Diddy. Nelly's already been on it, through us, through other people's singles, and he's very fond of it. And I think all the other bigger artists will come and actually get to capture it and feel it. They'll leave knowing that there's something going on—not exactly what's going on—but they'll leave and they'll be..."
He trails off.
"I'm not gonna say they're gonna be impressed and say these are the next million-dollar-sales songs or whatever. Not yet."
Like Dorrough, who at this past fall's BET Hip-Hop Awards show performed a remixed version of "Ice Cream Paint Job" on stage with Snoop Dogg and Soulja Boy among others, Play-N-Skillz have seen what the industry is like behind the velvet rope. At last year's Grammy Awards, the production duo walked the red carpet en route to sharing a Grammy win with Lil Wayne for their production work on the superstar's massive hit "Got Money."
While up-and-coming artists like Bone, whose song "Homegurl" earned him a deal with Def Jam, and Treal Lee and Prince Rick, who earned a deal with Interscope imprint Collipark Records (see "Hittin' Dat Hoe," right), hope to showcase Dallas as a place rich in untapped talent, Play-N-Skillz aim to show off the city as a good place to do business—a place worth setting up shop.
"Even though we're the No. 4 or No. 5 market, we still have an outlook where half the people we've got have never left the city," Play says. "We're still real traditional, laid-back. A lot of people haven't left their house and seen superstars walking down the street, 800,000 people from all over the world coming down. I don't think people are prepared. So I wanted to be prepared at least for what we can control. I can't control the traffic, I can't control everything. But I can make sure I'm in position to put on events that my city will be able to be a part of and that the people that come to town will be assured that Dallas, Texas, when you come through, you don't just want to do your radio interview and move on."
Atlanta's Michael Crooms, who made a name for himself as Mr. Collipark in the earlier part of the '00s as a producer for acts like the Ying-Yang Twins and later for signing Soulja Boy, sees Play's point.
"Everybody's looking at Dallas right now," he says. "But we don't know anything about Dallas."
That all can change this weekend, he says.
"Dallas is one of those markets that people have no idea how viable that market can be to the hip-hop community, because they just don't go!"
But when Crooms made the effort to visit and check in on a performance from his eventual signees Treal Lee and Prince Rick, he saw something worth investing in.
"What I like about Dallas," he says, "is it's a good place to be, but it hasn't been exposed to all the bad parts about [hip-hop success]. Y'know, in Atlanta, you come here, everybody's flexing like they got money. Everybody's driving a Bentley, half of them can't afford it. In Dallas, it's all so new, you don't have that level. You don't have to deal with that when you go to Dallas. And I like it. To me, I like it because they remind me of back when everybody was hungry. When you look at a market that hasn't been developed or exposed, you find a certain kind of hunger that comes with, y'know, when hip-hop was fresh.
"See, I'm in Atlanta, so everybody is doing it here. Everybody knows that they can put a record on the radio and they're gonna get a record deal. So the creativity, the work ethic, it's not like it used to be. When I went out to Dallas and I saw the level of support that I saw everybody giving each other and the amount of records I'd never heard before...it's hot. What I don't like [is that] it's very one-dimensional right now. You're gonna find different variations of it, but it's all basically going in one direction."
And that, Crooms says, is what makes Dallas hip-hop something of a dangerous entity. When asked how he feels about the future of the market, he sighs.
"Well," he says, pausing to carefully select his words, "they're just starting out. You gotta understand, at this point, Dallas is like Atlanta two years ago. At some point, it becomes a been-there-done-that thing. And especially from a record sales standpoint because, sooner or later, everybody feels like all they're gonna have is one little dance record, and it's gonna get play, and I'm gonna get tired of it and I'm not gonna buy it. I'm gonna dance to it in the club, and I'll be over it in a couple of months. It's that way in Atlanta right now too."
"See, what you've got to do as a record company is, once you see a market like Dallas with all that stuff going on, you've gotta go down there and find the acts that are doing their own thing. To me, that's when the market is gonna get its just due."
But it's a process, he says. Dallas, being such a new market on the national scene, needs to be careful. It needs to move forward at its own pace. It needs to be patient.
More important, it can't pretend to be something it's not: "I just hope that no one gets in anybody's ear and says 'Yo, this weekend we've gotta do it like this, as opposed to the way we've been doing it.' Just be visible."
Again, he pauses.
"Just be visible."
But only to a degree: "You can put on all the parties that you wanna put on," he says. "But the music that is just organically circulating around the city, that's what's gonna catch the ear. You can't pay for organic."
No, you can't. And that's where the Dallas hip-hop does have some advantages heading into this weekend.
For one, the NBA's biggest stars already appear on board. Although hosted in Phoenix, last year's All-Star festivities might as well have taken place here. On camera, during his introduction as a member of the NBA's Western Conference team, Shaquille O'Neal, flanked by the inaugural winners of MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, the Jabbawockeez, danced the "Stanky Legg" as he walked out onto the court. LeBron James similarly showcased affection for the movement during his introduction—whether or not he was aware—by performing the moves associated with "My Dougie."
The second advantage is a little more surprising: "I think people are gonna be impressed just because of the clubs and all that," Skillz says. "Just from PM Lounge and Plush and those spots. I don't think people know that places like that exist out here. Not how hot they are, at least. We might not have the celebrities in every weekend, but the [PM Lounge] and all those places? They get there every weekend."
Downtown Dallas, Play-N-Skillz believe, is going to surprise some people—especially people who haven't been to Dallas recently.
"This last year is the first time if you were ever downtown where you can say, 'I'm gonna go from this spot to this spot and this spot,'" Skillz continues.
"Think about downtown five years ago," Play adds. "It didn't look like it does now. From the beautiful hotels to the House of Blues and all that—you've got downtown and you've got Victory Park that decorates it. There's a lot going on—and all that gives people a reason to see what's happening."
"And we know that's gonna happen," Skillz says, continuing the uninterrupted back-and-forth banter of close siblings. "We know it can happen here, because people do it now. Everybody from Three Six Mafia to Bun B or whoever, they see it when they're in town and they come out with us. They're like, 'I didn't know this was here. I've never been exposed to it.'"
Play-N-Skillz are so convinced of downtown's prosperous future that they've even purchased office space not far from the center of it all in a refurbished spot in Deep Ellum—right across from DJ Drop's new digs on Commerce Street, actually, and right next door to Sankofa, the Cajun and soul food restaurant run by Erykah Badu's former personal chef.
And with all the swanky nightclubs existing not far from there, within walking distance from the NBA's two Dallas home bases this weekend—the Dallas Convention Center and the American Airlines Center—they expect big crowds to flood the neighborhood and be impressed.
"Everything's happening down there," Play says. "Right now, on a regular Saturday night, it's already jammed. Just add another 20,000 people to that. It's gonna be exciting. People are coming in from all over the world, and they're gonna see something brand-new."
Whether they're even looking for it.
Which brings this discussion to Dallas' biggest advantage—and ironically enough, it's the same thing that has record executives who haven't been through town scared of the city's sales prospects.
"We've got all this party music," Dorrough says. "And it's a party weekend. We've definitely got an advantage with that."
DJ Drop, who along with his fellow Definition DJs will be controlling some of the music played this weekend, can't help but agree on that front.
"People who are coming here, they're just looking to party for All-Star Weekend," he says. "They don't know that we're about to blindly market them. When they leave, they're gonna speak the Dallas language. They're gonna pick up on our culture as far as the Boogie movement. They're gonna pick up on the lifestyle of Dallas, and it's going to influence what they're doing. See, a lot of people are just curious. Yeah, you've been hearing about this Dallas movement. You've been hearing about the people saying that they're dancing or that this goes on in Dallas. But you wanna find out if it's real. Is it just a bunch of people that dance? Or are they really partying all the time? "
Drop knows that, in the hip-hop scene at least, the latter is the case. Now it's just a matter of proving it.
"That's why I'm glad the All-Star Game is Sunday," he says with a laugh. "People have the chance to party Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And maybe, because of that, we'll get more this year: Maybe we'll get Lebron to do the Stanky Legg and the Ricky Bobby this time—along with the Dougie."
"To be honest with you, it'd be way bigger if we could get Dirk to do the Stanky Legg, because we're crossing borders then. Once we get the white kids to buy into what we're doing—and there's already a lot of white kids running around singing 'Ice Cream Paint Job'—then it's like, OK, we're there."
Dorrough's convinced his next album will be the one to do that. Crooms is certain his recent signees, Treal Lee and Prince Rick, will be the ones to bust that gate open. Play-N-Skillz believe that one of their songs—or maybe a song from their own recent signee, Inertia—will be the dam-breaker.
Drop isn't sure who's right. And, really, he doesn't care. So long as it happens.
And even though he's concerned about the way Dallas hip-hop is currently perceived around the country, he believes that, not too long after the All-Star break, that too will change.
"Oh yeah," he says, again letting loose a laugh. "It's definitely a sure thing."
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