After the jump, read Felipe Delerme's piece on the locally massive, globally underappreciated Dallas scene revolving around production duo Play-N-Skillz and larger than life rappers Tum Tum, Big Tuck and Fat Bastard.
Story Felipe Delerme
Photography Peter Van Agtmael
Over the huge but quarter-full parking lot of the Big “T” Bazaar in Dallas looms an unmanned police watchtower. The tower is a recent addition to the plaza, erected after college student Jonathon Hopkins was killed by a stray bullet last November during a shootout within its aisles. On the inside, Big “T” is more air conditioned swap meet than mall—a labyrinth of jewelry, synthetic (and natural) hair, counterfeit Jordans, Dickies suits, Chinese food and dollar bin make-up. On this early Sunday morning in June, Tha Bomb, one of the few music vendors, is hosting an in-store appearance for West Dallas rapper Big Chief to celebrate his latest mixtape, Eat Greedy Vol. 5: Chief Lucas. Behind a glass counter displaying a sign that promises, “Shoplifters will be handled on a street level,” Tha Bomb’s owners hand out free slices of pizza. Chief’s been releasing his popular Eat Greedy series for a minute now, and in September of ’07, he even dropped All About Emotions through Koch, a proper album on a proper label. Even though national fame has eluded him so far, he’s still clad in Louis Vuitton driving sneakers, Millionaire sunglasses and a bulky yellow gold rope toting a coaster-sized “Eat Greedy” medallion. The crazy thing about Dallas is that it’s one of the few places left on Earth where people still legitimately buy music. And they’re not just downloading it off iTunes either. They get in their cars, drive to the store and exchange money for compact discs whose sale financially benefits the artist. “In my city, it ain’t nere major outselling me,” says Chief, whose music is still hard to find outside of Texas, even on the internet. “From your Lil Waynes to your Webbies, I sell like them. No radio play, no video, no nothing, just off word of mouth.”?
The paper booklet accompanying Chief’s Eat Greedy Vol. 5 lacks production credits, but it does have a picture spanning two pages of Chief draped in jewelry, regal in a white linen suit and hard bottom shoes, perched in the driver’s seat of a Maserati. Pictures like these have long been common in videos and photo shoots where rappers perpetrate adolescent fantasies of wealth, but in the middle of our interview, Chief sends his assistant to retrieve some CDs from his car. My eyes follow him through the parking lot to the same pictured Maserati. Success like Chief’s is an exception rather than the rule in Dallas, but it’s clear there’s money to be had locally, and now there’s finally the talent to reap it.
Dallas hip-hop, while no less Texas (or drug) influenced than that of its brother city Houston, is currently more akin to the itchin to scrap aggressiveness of classic New Orleans hip-hop. It’s rap with weight and fangs. Full of talk about heavy stuntin and head bussin, it’s bigger and beefier than the woozy slur of Houston screw music. But beneath the anvil-heavy energy, there’s a lot of love. Artists scream “Dallas” just as much, if not more, than their own crew names, and are quick to dismiss plexing of any kind, preferring to drop praise on other local artists they support. This is a town that reps itself.?
And, as Dallas sets itself up to pop off, it’s finally separating itself from Houston. Though, depending on who you ask, Houston was built on Dallas’ dollar. “I tell Slim Thug, Paul Wall, all the Houston artists, ‘All y’all got rich off of Dallas,’” says Play, of Dallas MC and production duo Play-N-Skillz. “Houston don’t back the Houston artists.” But Dallas did. Their southern neighbors sold massive amounts of mixtapes and rocked shows here, as well as provided guest verses for Dallas rappers, building up their bank accounts and fanbases at the same time. The downside to all that unconditional support was Dallas music built in the image of Houston artists, an identity issue the city is just now getting over. “We’re not having to bite nobody’s slang no more, we don’t have to put in a screwed up hook anymore,” Play says. “Artists are singing their own choruses, with their own draw, their own lingo.”?
It is Play-N-Skillz, two brothers from a Venezuelan mother and an Argentinean father, who are the most likely enablers of Dallas’ notoriety. The pair rose through the city’s scene as DJs, but really came up after producing and co-writing more than half of Lil Flip’s platinum double album, U Gotta Feel Me. Later, they won a Grammy with Houston artist Chamillionaire for their work on “Ridin’ Dirty,” and have padded their resume with Kia Shine’s ping-pongy “So Krispy,” Pitbull’s ladykiller “Secret Admirer,” the Slim Thug-featuring remix to Hilary Duff’s “With Love,” and, most recently, Lil Wayne and T-Pain’s synth-and-string shower “Got Money.” Play is the more outspoken of the two, narrating the sights during the car ride from Papadeux’s restaurant to Dallas’ W Hotel, while Skillz chimes in only to cosign or clarify. Though only in their mid-twenties, they are already legends in the city. Their production style is precise but notoriously malleable and unafraid to fuse elements of radio-perfect ’80s pop or future-predicting ’90s techno. But Play-N-Skillz’s sound doesn’t necessarily define Dallas. Aside from a handful of tracks for the Dirty South Rydaz crew, the pair is simply out of the price range for most local artists. “Niggas is used to paying five hundred dollars a beat out here, and that’s pretty high,” says Skillz. “So you hit niggas for ten, fifteen thousand. And that’s a discount.”?
Play-N-Skillz have, however, just inked a contract that will possibly land Dallas in the national consciousness—signing a label deal with Universal to create G4 Recordz, and bringing on the hulking and charismatic rapper Tum Tum as one of their flagship acts. Coming off of his major label debut Eat or Get Ate, off which he scored the interminable BET trunk thumper “Caprice Muzik,” Tum Tum is easily the most visible of Dallas’ potential heroes. With a calculated, economical flow and wheezy voice, Tumzilla can quietly deliver a sly verse or holler into the mic like it is a megaphone. He’s also wholly responsible for the resurgence of the shag hairstyle in Dallas, unacceptable in urban landscapes since the demise of Theo Huxtable. Tum’s fame began as a member of the Dirty South Rydaz, a Dallas collective akin to Houston’s Swishahouse movement. Taking form in 2001 under local impresario George Lopez, D.S.R. essentially began as a strategic assemblage of the best rappers in the city, roughly fifteen deep at its thickest. D.S.R. has lost members over the years (like Swishahouse), but it produced the city’s biggest stars—dudes like Tum Tum, Big Tuck and Fat Bastard.?
Mr. Pookie and Mr. Lucci’s “Crook 4 Life” from 2000 is almost unanimously credited as the song that first validated Dallas rap music. “Up to now, I don’t think nobody has done what they done,” says Play. “Not us, not my man Tum. I’m talking about where white, suburban America, Plano, Texas had that album, and then the hood had it. Nobody was buying [Dallas artists] like that.” Pookie and Lucci’s double time flows found the gaps in the beat’s naked and menacing piano stabs, recalling No Limit’s Beats By The Pound productions and an altogether different era of southern hip-hop. According to Play, there was a drought of about four years before Dallas really made any substantive noise, and it didn’t end until Play-N-Skillz’s own breakout hit, “Freaks,” an after-the-after-party anthem that sampled ’80s synth ballad “Moments in Love” by Art of Noise. “That was the first time in a long time that any Dallas artists got radio play,” says Play. “But that was after the rest of ?the country was playing it, and Dallas was forced to play it.”?
Tuning into the city’s urban radio stations K104 or 97.9 The Beat, it’s unlikely that you’ll go an hour without hearing Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” but the same can be said for Lil Will’s “My Dougie.” Named for old schooler Doug E. Fresh’s move of mimicking combing his hair while dancing, “My Dougie” is currently the theme song to the city’s signature dance, The Dallas Boogie—a sticky two-step of toy wound legs and neck snapping prime for trying on clothes in the mirror. And though some may consider such moves the domain of teenage rappers and uploaded videos, Tum Tum cautions outsiders to think otherwise. “Niggas dance down here,” he says. “You’ll still get your ass whooped, but people dance down here.”?
But if Dallas has a current classic, it’s Big Tuck’s “Not a Stain on Me,” featuring Fat Bastard. Built off an outro from License to Ill-era Beastie Boys, “Not a Stain on Me” is a swaggering dope boy anthem that promises “a freight train coming” and basically sounds like it too. When Tuck shows up unbilled at downtown’s Ice Bar on a semi-crowded Friday night, he has to navigate a web of fans, well-wishers and aspiring rappers looking to link up for what they’re selling as a dream collaboration. It’s half an hour before he’s even able to grab a drink. “These artists out here said fuck the radio at one point and started going to the clubs,” says Play. “Now the clubs is banging it, and the [radio] DJs are now forced. They playing the Atlanta shit and people not reacting like they are to Dallas shit.” And indeed, during my time in Dallas, “Not A Stain” ignited every club it was played in, which was every club I visited—from Rhythm City, the premiere Saturday night hot spot where tall tees and shags abound, to the G5 strip joint, where it’s requested regularly by dancers for showcase performances.?
And it makes sense that “Not a Stain on Me” is everybody’s number one, as it’s the audio embodiment of what makes Dallas hip-hop exciting right now. When Tuck yells Get your swag on like a mantra, it’s more like motivational speaking than bragging. The sentiment, both bombastic and inclusive, is perfect for an entire population consistently riled up about themselves.
To move between clubs with Play-N-Skillz and Tum Tum is to move quickly. The three are easily recognizable in Dallas, and as such, are quickly swarmed upon. They’re greeted enthusiastically by both promoters and parking attendants (everywhere in downtown Dallas is mandatory valet). Though not traveling with genuine security, they’re driven around and accompanied by functionally intimidating associates. Citing Tum as the one of the few artists they’ve produced “basically for free,” Play-N-Skillz’ working relationship with the rapper comes across almost more brotherly than businesslike.
At Club DMX, which is more like an enormous warehouse, the scene is a bizarre stop-off for the trio, considering their visibility and local fame. Amongst the never-ending expanse, there are no velvet ropes or VIP sections, making the elevated, patio-sized DJ booth the only space where they can separate themselves. DJ Big Baby, who actually looks like a big baby, is in the midst of a set of cumbia music and has thirty five hundred people moving as one in a refined two-step, with couples pausing for the men to spin the ladies. In an unexpected transition, Big Baby drops Big Tuck’s “Tussle,” a chair-thrower from two years back. As Tuck yells, I’ma do something bad to ya!, a riotous energy begins to spread through the mostly Latino crowd. With multi-colored light beams swimming through the club, the place begins to feel like a rave on the verge of smashing itself apart. About midway through the second chorus, Big Baby brings the cumbia back in. The club has a grim history of violence, including the murder of a police officer just outside of it in 2002, so the DJs are still told to stop playing hip-hop after a certain hour.?
Leaving DMX soon after, Play-N-Skillz and Tum Tum confirm plans to meet up the next day, and between working and partying, the three spend an inordinate amount of time around each other. “That’s why I think we really finna smash the game, cause it ain’t on no, ‘Aw we rap, so we gotta fuck with each other’ shit,” says Tum Tum. “All of us was already goin over to each other houses before that, and I don’t care how rap friendly we is or nothing, you gotta be my homeboy homeboy to come over to a nigga’s crib. And they be over there.”