Read Sam Hockley-Smith's feature on Paper Route Recordz after the jump, and download "I'm Diffirant" here.
Story Sam Hockley-Smith
Photography Gabriele Stabile
In Huntsville, Alabama there is a park where grounded NASA space shuttles stand tall and imposing—relics towering over trees and overshadowing an entire landscape of car dealerships and strip clubs. Driving back from the Decatur projects, Money Addict, a rapper on the Paper Route Recordz label, doesn’t even glance away from the road. He, like the rest of the roster of Paper Route, has been here too long to even care anymore. “I ain’t going to lie, sometimes I hate the fuck out of Huntsville,” Money Addict says. “Any time you dig a hole and you stuck in some shit, you just want to breathe and be somewhere else.” But few ever seem to leave here. Some don’t have a choice, like the six Paper Route rappers who are locked up, and some, like in-house producer Mali Boi, are content to just sit in a robe, smoking cigarettes and making beats all day.
Paper Route Recordz, known previously (and even still in some circles) as Slow Motion Soundz, has been putting out music in Huntsville for years, and even briefly scored BET Uncut rotation with the Slow Motion Soundz’s “Lacs and Caprices,” featuring a pre-fame TI. Everyone around here knows who they are. They are the kings of the city’s parking lots.
The label’s organization runs on a model similar to the Wu-Tang Clan in the early stages. The Hood Headlinaz is the super group that encompasses the entire label of nine (or so) rappers, with others hanging on the periphery, ready to be inducted at any minute. Within that structure, artists work solo or in sub-groups like XO. Dawgy Baggz is the CEO, sometimes jumping on a track to rap a verse, but mostly working on deals and trying to keep things together. Much of the music from the crew is effectively only released online. You might be able to find it locally, but physical copies are hard to come by outside of Huntsville. Really though, one Paper Route release gives the picture of the city’s scene—a tight knit group connected by Mali Boi’s prolific output of hundreds of tracks per year, and his willingness to sell beats to anyone who is interested. Their touchstones are Outkast and Eightball & MJG, the southern spacemen who never shied from innovation.
The track that perhaps best captures the crew’s catalog is the Mali Boi-produced “Rollin,” featuring Jhi Ali and Jackie Chain, a song that recently started getting pushed around the internet. Built on an ultra-cheese blip from trance crossover star Robert Miles’ “Children,” “Rollin” transfers the focus from the euphoric rush of ecstasy to the exhausting come down, as a lethargic Gucci Mane vocal sample sluggishly warbles, Rollin, rollin, rollin/ We ain’t slept in weeks. It turns illusions of glamour into a tiring concept, which makes sense, considering that Paper Route’s concept of glamour doesn’t extend past the worn roots of Huntsville.
Dawgy Baggz arrives back in town in his rental car after suffering the five-hour trip from Mobile, where he now lives. It’s a short drive over to the XO house—where the group’s members Mata, Jhi Ali and Gunt live—but Dawgy wants to play some new Hood Headlinaz tracks, a few of which will probably make their upcoming album, Still Headlinin. First is “100,” a humid cut built on Cadillac sweat and echoed-out guitar, then one that samples Weezer’s “Say it Aint So” wholesale. “This next song is crazy,” says Dawgy. It’s called “Meditation” and it recalls the deep country style Timbaland experimented with on Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance—melancholy guitar and small town strings find their way as the hand claps start, then suddenly the XO dudes kick in, not rapping, but singing in an affected Jamaican patois, I gotta speak like this because I DON’T WANT THEM TO KNOW WHO I REALLY AM/ But I will disguise my voice so I can voice my oppp-innn-eee-on. It’s obviously nothing more than a blunted studio freestyle, but it sounds so wild that they are considering releasing it.
Not long ago Dawgy and Mali Boi completed a concept album called Key to the City under the name BOSS. The idea was to feature every rapper in Huntsville, creating a network as well as a cohesive document of the town’s rap scene. Key to the City was supposed to be the realization of how Huntsville sounded, but Dawgy hates it. “Don’t pick it up,” he says without hesitation. “It just wasn’t that natural vibe you get with Paper Route.”
Later on the way to Applebee’s for drinks, we drive from strip mall to highway to strip mall, passing car dealership after car dealership. “You always surrounded,” Dawgy says. “I done seen a lot of people get trapped in the city. I wanted to get out so I could focus.” Dawgy is the only one who ended up leaving, and he didn’t even cross the state line. The members of Paper Route aren’t anchored to much in Huntsville, some of them have families, but most are waiting to see how things develop before they venture another step. At their core, the Hood Headlinaz are suburban rappers. Not walk your dog around the cul-de-sac suburban, but in the sense of the expanding American landscape that is not quite city, but certainly not country either.
Sitting in the front yard of the XO house, Jhi idly picks up falling acorns and throws them across the grassy expanse of their yard. We’re killing time, waiting for Mali Boi to finally stop making beats and show up for an interview, though he’s already three hours late. Talk turns to legendary indie rock outsider Daniel Johnston, who Jhi discovered through the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which was an On Demand option on one of the house’s many televisions. Jhi likes him for his idiosyncratic lyrics and unusual voice. With still no sign of Mali Boi we go inside to check the film out again. One by one everyone hanging around the house wanders into the living room, silently watching the life story of an obese, bipolar man who blew every chance he had to break big as he kept singing his songs about Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Mali Boi comes by later with his girlfriend, on their way to see American Gangster. His goatee is a long cone and his voice is a quiet rasp barely heard even when no one else is talking. His girlfriend silently sits next to him on the couch, sometimes closing her eyes and sometimes laughing at something he says. He’s quick to downplay his work. “I can rap or whatever, but I don’t like attention,” he says. “I like to stay out of the limelight.” He’s been hard to find all weekend, but sometimes he does make appearances on one of his tracks. On “100” he oozes ’70s soul charisma, hitting the high registers and sticking to the beat like it was the simplest thing in the world.
The members of Paper Route spend most of their days around the house—checking MySpace, playing chess, maybe driving out to get food—and then hit the studio at night. Everyone expresses vague ideas about wanting to leave Huntsville at some point, maybe to Atlanta, or at the very least, a visit to New York. But Mali Boi is looking for something different. “Really I want to be in the country,” he says. “More country than this. A little town or something.” He is one of the rare up-and-coming musicians who is looking to step away from the attention. He’s receding further and further as his recognition inches upwards, happy to spend his hours stacking up beats, many featuring samples that will never be cleared, and even more that will never be heard.
On my last day in town I decide to walk over to the XO house. I want to get a better look at Huntsville, but it takes me ten minutes to cross the street, which is actually more like a highway. When I finally get to the other side, it’s all bright green strips of grass bordering neon Chick-Fil-A signs and huge parking lots that dwarf the businesses they are attached to. I’m starting to feel like a regular here, connecting landmarks to memories. There’s the fast food joint where Dawgy had his first job so he could buy a blue Nautica sweater. That’s the strip club where we first met Jhi’s girlfriend. There’s the Apex where the crew performs. Time moves so slow in Huntsville that three days feels like a month. One year must feel like ten.
Mata is at home, lounging on his bed. Dawgy has been grooming him to be the crew’s Lil Wayne, and he plays the part well—hard to connect with, never around and a lot more cocky than anyone else. “I ain’t bankin on us to blow right now. I don’t think that shit,” he says. “I ain’t saying I don’t think we got what it takes, I’m just saying I’m doing me.”
It often seems like the members of Paper Route Recordz are waiting on the world to find them. “Legends in the making,” Mata says. “That’s what we all are.” He might be right, but it’s unclear how staying in Huntsville will help them achieve that. Maybe the local fame and creative freedom keeps them there,
or maybe Huntsville is the type of place you fall into and can’t pull yourself out of. It’s hard to tell what the Hood Headlinaz ultimately want. Whatever it is, there is something waiting to be discovered between the space shuttles and the never ending blacktop. Until then, they stay in their boredom, absorbing the raw feed of information coming from the TV, the internet and the radio—borderless and beautifully muddled, like a radio dial stuck between two stations.