Few symbols in Joel Salazar's life hold more meaning than a set of turntables.
"Música, Daddy! Música!" his 2-year-old daughter, Natalia, yells at least once a day. And when she does, her father is happy to oblige her. Salazar stops whatever he's doing and sets two chairs at his decks. Together they sit side-by-side as he picks out music and plays it with her. Natalia can already stop and start a record as well as work the fader knob between them. Her face lights up with joy when she does this and his heart melts, every time.
Hip-hop culture has given Joel Salazar much of what he values in life. For the last decade-plus, he's overcome high hurdles and taken big risks to share his love for it with everyone from his family to strangers he'll never meet.
Before he got his own set of turntables, Salazar used a dual tape deck to chop and mix cumbia and tejano cassettes as a boy growing up in Corpus Christi. At South Garland High School, he was a starting power forward on the basketball team and traveled all over the country for camps and tournaments. After a brush with the law lost him a couple of scholarship opportunities, he focused his attention on the passion for live music he was developing on weekend nights out in Deep Ellum.
"I started out doing a lot of EDM events. That's kind of where my roots are in the city, the EDM culture" Salazar says. "I started [hosting] in Dallas around 1998 at the Royal Rack -- the infamous Royal Rack on Greenville -- and just started doing shows. I got to perform at Trees, Gypsy Tea Room. I got the chance to feel a sold-out show."
Salazar understands and showcases the DJ's role in hip-hop better than most. Naturally charismatic, approachable and warm, Salazar excelled at hosting and performing. The more active he was in the scene, the more working relationships and collaborations he formed. Before long, he found his personality and knack for networking proved useful in event promotion, and he wanted to apply what he'd learned as an EDM DJ to the city's rap scene.
In 2006, hip-hop became Salazar's main creative focus when he formed Poor Vida Productions along with friends and collaborators Donny Benavidez and Colin Roy. Together, they booked hip-hop shows and events around Dallas. Poor Vida partnered with East Dallas b-boy and graffiti community staple The Rec Shop and began to throw their annual Elements of Hip-Hop festivals. They put the city's best rappers, b-boys, graffiti artists and DJs together under one roof for an authentic celebration of rap culture. Poor Vida's beloved weekly Sunday Sessions at The Green Elephant fell somewhere between an open-mic jam session and lyrical group therapy. For years, Sunday Sessions gave young local rap artists a place to hone their craft and collaborate with their peers. Around October 2010, along with filmmaker Teddy Cool, The Rec Shop's Islam Sesaalem and Media 13 Productions, Salazar started production on We from Dallas. The feature-length documentary serves as an oral history and cultural archive, including rare performance footage and hundreds of interviews.
"About two years ago, we were working on [We from Dallas], and for the first time in my life, I was able to work in hip-hop full time. The two companies I had worked for were going under and downsizing. For the first four months, our executive producer said, 'Tell me what you need to live off of for a little bit, I need you guys to work on this project," Salazar says. But the four months passed, and Salazar had a decision to make: Go back to work he didn't love to pay the bills or take a risk on Poor Vida and his hip-hop dreams. "A couple of months into that, my girl told me that if I wanted to make this transition in my career, she was willing to hold me down for three months," he says. "She said, 'Three months, you won't have to worry about bills or nothing. I got you. Make your own work.'" The proposition was a risky one. It was early in his marriage to Christina Saenz-Pasternak, and they were raising a baby girl. While Saenz-Pasternak attended school, pursuing an education degree, the young family was living on Salazar's catering and food service jobs. But she saw his potential to do great things. Together, they decided he would go all in on the hip-hop career of his dreams.
What he didn't know was that the Poor Vida brand he'd been building all those years wouldn't be the vehicle to take him there.
"Fast forward a few months ... Donny had just gotten a new job where he was going to be traveling a lot, Colin found out that he was going to be a father, and I was more hands-on with a lot of Poor Vida. I was making the transition of turning a hobby into a full-time job," Salazar says. "So I made a decision, and the guys all agreed it was best for us to go our own ways."
Poor Vida Productions dissolved, but the reputation they'd built and demand for work was still there. So was Salazar's need for it, since Christina was due to have their second child in about five months. It was then that Salazar stepped out on his own, and Too Fresh Productions was born. He surveyed the Dallas scene, asking himself what it needed as a community, what no one else was doing. Salazar was determined to bring something different to the table.
"As opposed to trying to bring in the names that are catchy, that the young kids know, I wanted to do something for my older heads," Salazar says. "When they go out, these guys wanna make sure it's a good time. They get a baby sitter, they wanna go and have dinner first, and they want to have a good show. And they're looking for things like this. "So I said all right, let's get back to more nostalgia, but with some innovation. That's been the formula so far. Like, for the longest time when I started Too Fresh, I didn't do live acts. I did straight DJs and emcee stuff. I wanted to get away from the live music, and focus on the people and the craft."
Unfortunately, though simple and well-intentioned, Salazar's ideas were met with plenty of resistance from Dallas venue owners. It's a sad tale that longtime players in Dallas hip-hop know all too well.
"I have personally experienced multiple venue owners tell me, 'Don't play that shit in here. Don't play that nigger shit,'" Salazar says. "I didn't understand, because it's like, [these clubs] are playing all kinds of shit, but that don't want to cater to this one crowd? I know some of the music can get kind of street and vulgar, but come on."
Though there are many reasons that clubs will choose to avoid hip-hop, one reason that venue owners have often given is lower bar sales. Often, hip-hop attracts a younger crowd -- it's not uncommon to see audiences filled with Sharpie-Xed hands. Just because it's not necessarily always racially charged doesn't mean Salazar doesn't take offense to this mentality.
"There's this association with alcohol and music, that you can't have any successful music event unless alcohol is sold. At all. Period. Hip-hop is notorious for not buying fucking alcohol." Salazar says. "I like to drink here and there, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, but it's so ingrained in the culture of live music. You have to have alcohol."
He also has a hard time buying into the mentality that hip-hop crowds are violent. "I haven't seen a fight break out at one of these shows in the last seven years, and yet there's still this stigma," Salazar says.
A short-lived partnership between Too Fresh Productions and The Boiler Room went south, as have most of the Deep Ellum venue's non-rock residencies over the last year. The EDM night Trillwave and Two-Tone DJ nights have since moved to Beauty Bar and Prophet Bar, respectively.
"I can see the side where the venue owners are coming from," Salazar says. "But it's the people in those positions who are willing to take risks that are going to be seeing the payoff." That payoff is coming in now for The Crown and Harp on Lower Greenville, where Too Fresh Productions found a home after general manager and head of in-house booking Moody Fuqua saw the potential in Salazar's ideas.
"Joel and I hit it off immediately," Fuqua says. "He's very charismatic, he gets really excited about what he does. I'm the same way, we're both kind of like little kids. I really appreciate his enthusiasm. He sees his vision, and he's willing to work to get to it." Too Fresh began a weekly residency made up of different monthly events, something different every week, highlighting a different strength of the Dallas hip-hop community. Depending on which Thursday you go, you could stumble onto the fiercely competitive emcee battle #FreshRhymes. Local emcees do battle, sharpening their lyrical swords as sparks fly over 16-bar verses. Or maybe it's producer showcase and beat battle #FreshBeats, where some of Dallas rap's strongest beatmakers flex their material for artists and fans alike. Perhaps it's #FreshCuts, where turntablists spar for bragging rights.
Fuqua was recently able to get an upgraded sound system at The Crown and Harp with the success of nights like the Fresh series, as well as other successful weeklies housed by the two-story venue like DJ Tony Schwa's Cool Out, Wanz Dover's Lost Generation and long-running drum and bass weekly Battletech.
"He's given me resources and connections that I didn't have, and that's a testament to him and what he's helped build at The Crown and Harp," Salazar says of Fuqua. Initially, Salazar was most excited to give a platform to what he feels are the biggest weapons in Dallas' hip-hop arsenal: its producers.
"It was really doing the research for the film that made me realize how much production talent we really have here in Dallas. That's what inspired the beat battles," Salazar says. "Right now, Dallas' biggest [contribution] to hip-hop is its producers. I think there are more industry-savvy and industry-ready producers in Dallas than there are artists right now. It's rich in the city."
Though Crown and Harp's owners were hesitant about the Fresh series at first, Fuqua was able to quickly curb their concerns with the results the shows were delivering. Thursday nights downstairs began to pack out week after week, and before long, Salazar booked his first big national name under the Too Fresh banner: Chicago house music legend Derrick Carter.
Salazar started off the October evening of the show with a Q&A panel of Dallas hip-hop experts at El Centro College. While explaining to a student the kinds of sacrifices one needs to make in order to succeed in the world of hip-hop, he referred to the three-month deal his wife made with him before he started his company. He told the audience how much she sacrificed to believe in his dreams, and to encourage his strengths. It was so important to him to see this through, he explained, that she demanded that he stay at work on this very night while she was in labor with his second child.
Salazar would go from the El Centro panel that night to overseeing his first big Too Fresh Productions booking -- a packed show, the kind that makes venue owners rethink their policies about genres like hip-hop. And he was in Medical City by 3 a.m., back by Christina's side in time to watch the birth of baby Alma.
"I've been through relationships through years, and especially in this scene, it's hard. It's really hard. She's the first person in my life who has encouraged me to do what I have to do, and stand behind me 110 percent. Who lets their husband go out the night they're having a baby?" Salazar says. "Christina is my foundation."
Salazar has now brought legendary names like Jean Grae, Derrick Carter, Spinderella, Misbehavior, Supreme La Rock, Peanut Butter Wolf and now Dam-Funk to Dallas since Too Fresh's inception in May 2013.
Late last year, local industry power player Sa'tori Ananda, impressed with Too Fresh's success, came to Salazar with a chance to bring a new level of coast-to-coast collaboration to Dallas.
"It was my birthday in September," Salazar says. "And Sa'tori hit me up and said she had a friend coming to town, and they wanted to do a 45s night." That friend turned out to be Mobile Mondays NYC resident DJ Misbehavior.
"I had kicked around the idea of doing a soul 45s kind of thing before, but everyone was kind of like, 'I don't know, man. That's a really niche thing," Salazar says.
There are few prominent vinyl nights in the Dallas area. For the most part, they draw a very technical and specific crowd. Producers, DJs and gearheads are the usual demographic. It's hard to sell Dallas' general dancing public on an all-wax party.
Misbehavior suggested that Salazar call up Salt-N-Pepa's DJ Spinderella. During her time on the East Coast, Spin had been a regular special guest at Mobile Mondays. She now lives in the Dallas area, and she was eager to get involved in the local DJ scene. The initial 45s night was a success, despite an ugly torrential downpour over the city. Spinderella enjoyed the vibe and feel of The Crown and Harp so much she told Salazar she wanted to do it again sometime.
"The DJs that came together gathered up their 45s and started rocking. It was supposed to be just that one time, and it turned into a regular monthly," Spinderella says. "The crowd in Dallas, it's like people are just hungry for something different. It's like they're inhaling it. They're mesmerized, they're letting go, and that's what we want." "Spin is really involved in curating, cultivating and producing the feel of the night. She wants people to know that she's helping on the back end," Salazar says. "She's only known commercially ... She's really approachable. Peanut Butter Wolf was the same way. He talked to every fan, he signed every autograph. Spin's the same way. She's doing her part."
Before long, Salazar was on conference calls with Operator Emz, DJ, producer and founder of Mobile Mondays NYC. The two brainstormed project ideas, and found a partnership to be mutually beneficial for both brands. Together, the two will bring 45s sets from Natasha Diggs, Just Blaze and Emz himself from the heart of Manhattan to Lower Greenville.
Salazar and Fuqua are traveling to New York this week to put some time in with Operator Emz and the Mobile Mondays team.
"I figured that since I'm hosting their night, I need to go up there and meet these people and see what the vibe is like. Sometimes the room is not in your city," Salazar says. "Sometimes you've got to go somewhere else to be in the right room with the right people. Put yourself in that room with those people."
That room and those people may not be in Dallas just yet, but that's what Salazar hopes a Too Fresh and Mobile Mondays partnership ultimately delivers. Where else would local artists like Buffalo Black or -topic have the chance to be in the same room to talk or pass along a mixtape to the likes of Just Blaze or Peanut Butter Wolf? Not only are Too Fresh Productions and The Crown and Harp giving Dallas hip-hop a home, they're giving it a direct line to one of the biggest rap music markets in the country.
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2014 promises to be a year where Salazar sees some of the fruits of his labor. The Poor Vida documentary We from Dallas will get a full red-carpet premier treatment in April. And this year he hopes to expand Too Fresh Productions into a family business. Saenz-Pasternak, who will start work as a DISD teacher in the next school year, wants to get involved with the company, applying her education background. Together, the couple plans to start a hip-hop-focused arts education initiative, providing workshops and classes for local youth.
Just as he teaches young Natalia to start, stop and mix records, Salazar hopes to give a whole new generation of Dallas hip-hop the tools it needs to be successful. "It's the talent here in the city that is holding the audience. I can provide a platform, but the talent has to make it happen," Salazar says. "They have good music, they're putting on good shows and people are enjoying it. It's just a matter of putting the right people in the right room."