Dallas artist Jon Theory, who performed at the Crown and Harp over the weekend, has only played a handful of hip-hop shows. Despite this, he's very comfortable in front of a crowd. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks, and it totally works. He even rapped about the Jonestown Massacre.
Like his live performances, Theory’s life has been whimsical. He casually mentions playing piano when he was three and touring in a high school choir. He’s led performances at church and spent a lot of time in the theater as a high school student. Theory says a co-worker at Krispy Kreme taught him to write hooks, and he spent hours there writing lyrics on napkins. He started dropping singles and worked on his debut album, Visible Echoes, for over a year, only to have it disappear from his laptop a couple weeks ago. But he just shrugs and says he will make it even better.
Over the weekend, Theory dropped a new track, “OG Uncle IROH (Kabuki Dance in the Forest of Death).” The track is inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV show Theory used to watch when he was a kid. Specifically, it was inspired by a character named Iroh. “He was a really nice, calm dude who drank tea until you got on his bad side,” Theory says. “Then he would basically start breathing fire. It’s kind of a juxtaposition because rappers spit fire.” The video further explores this theme by taking cues from Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and video games, with Theory destroying some opponents.
Theory, 22, has interests beyond music. “I want to go into schools and teach children about gardening,” Theory says. “I trained under a master gardener when I worked at Home Depot. She really imparted to me the importance of growing your own food, especially in crisis situations. She was kind of a conspiracy theorist, but a lot of the stuff she said made sense. The ability to sustain yourself on things you can grow is important.”
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Theory performed three songs with a straight, but not too smooth, jazz sound he produced himself. Finishing the trio by freestyling over a trumpet, he congratulated the crowd on making it through the jazz portion of the show: “Congratulations! You did not die of a bar overdose.”
Going into the next phase, he abandoned a verse — “Fuck that verse!” — and started a song by saying he doesn’t actually like it. He treats shows more like house parties built on interaction, rather than having people staring at a stage. “People are more receptive when you make yourself vulnerable,” Theory says. “I’m just like, ‘It’s just us here. We’re just trying to have a good time.’”
Theory stumbled onto the story of Jim Jones when he was developing lyrics for a hook for the song “Purple Kool-Aid." He spent a couple hours freestyling and writing, but still thought it was missing something. Rattling off bars, he came up with “Purple Kool-Aid in My Cup.” He thought it sounded great, but needed it to mean something. A Google search quickly suggested the Jim Jones Massacre, where American cult leader Jim Jones and 918 of his followers committed murder-suicide in 1978.
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Theory read about Jones, watched documentaries about him and even found audio of him telling his followers to drink a cyanide-laced grape drink. He chopped up the audio, threw them into the beat and made his verses more about Jones. What was missing from the song was an edge and Theory wasn’t interested in something as predictable as drugs or violence.
But it wasn’t just the edge of murder-suicide that interested him. “I’m an artist,” Theory says. “I want a cult following. I want a dedicated group of people who trust in everything I do as an artist. I’m basically Jim Jonesing the game.”
At any rate, he had an audience jumping up and down at Crown & Harp and singing, “Purple Kool-Aid in My Cup.” Their devotion was all the more strange considering that they didn’t even know the reference. It may not be a cult following just yet, but he's working on it — one detour and unpredictable live show at a time.