Feature: Wednesday, April 10, 2003
Cleaning Up the Dirty South

Which side of their mouths do local rappers really want to teach kids from?

Rapper 6two is a polite enough guy but, even he’ll tell you, he’s a thug. He used to deal drugs, and three years ago he served time. His lawless background could be why he’s so popular. What 6two has — and what other rappers covet — is “street cred,” essentially a license to rap about anything, like the right only a combat veteran has to tell war stories. The majority of 6two’s rhymes concern pimping, pushing, pulling triggers, and partying. The people who know 6two personally and know his alter-egos, Mista Tu Face, Edd Feddie, and Nutty Mack, believe what he’s saying. They know his history. Those who don’t know the Fort Worth rapper probably also believe him. When he raps “What would you do if Tu Face came to pop? ... DOA in Fort Worth is where I leave you,” you might be wise to give the question some thought. His voice rings with authority and sinister intelligence.

The rapper says he’s rapping about the gangsta life to establish credibility among music industry folk and other rappers and also to “get known.” Like rock ’n’ roll, rap is all about rebellion. Scan the Billboard Top 200 album chart and you’ll see the names of some of the biggest ballers-turned-businessmen in the game: 50 Cent, Juvenile, Ludacris. It seems that so long as there are rebellious teen-agers, there will be rebellious music. 6two’s mostly just following tradition, playing the game to prove he’s capable of working at the level of the rap artists who are occupying prime real estate on that Billboard chart.

The unspoken truth, which no one seems to want to talk about, is that rapping about pimping and playing and “ballin’” has a short shelf life — today’s young thug can easily become tomorrow’s harmless old man. 6two understands this. That’s why, when he hits the big time, he says he wants to sing a different tune, a different, lasting, and — dare we say — positive tune. “Now, I’m just getting everyone’s attention,” he said. “As it goes on, you’ll see what I’m about. We’re talking about something that makes some sense.” And then, the kicker: “I think you can teach kids through music.”

Since rap’s creation, rappers have faced the dilemma — to bling or not to bling? To rap about thug life, to glorify it in a way, or to rap about more enduring topics, like society, nature versus nurture, religion, and class warfare? Most rappers have chosen the bling-bling — it’s what pays. Here in “The Dirty South,” which reaches from Tennessee on the north, to Florida on the east, and Texas on the west and south, gangsta seems to be the only style a rapper can make a living from.

The Houston trio the Geto Boys set the bar early on: They went platinum by rapping about objectifying and sexually abusing women, doing and pushing profuse amounts of drugs, and gunning down rivals. Geto Boys followers, such as Lil’ Troy, Lil’ Keke, Lil’ Flip, South Park Mexican, and the crews of Wreckshop Records, and, in Louisiana, Cash Money Records and No Limit Records, have continued in the custom of rapping about the thug life — and have sold millions of records. Millions. Of all the “positive” rappers in the game, from Common to Talib Kweli to Jurassic 5 to Nappy Roots, not more than one or two have come from The Dirty South. None have come from Texas. A quick rundown of Fort Worth’s most popular rap acts reveals names like the High Life Committee, the Immortal Soldiers, and the Murder Boyz — you don’t even really have to listen to their music to know that these guys aren’t rapping about high tea or missing an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

“I think it has to do with a more academic, educated group of people up north,” said Dr. Elizabeth Branch, an English professor at Tarrant County College who’s closely involved with Fort Worth’s positive hip-hop community. “In the south, it’s the Bible Belt. They aren’t committed to raising standards. They’re committed to raising themselves. It’s always me, me, me. But I guess when you’re struggling you don’t make the same positive decisions. You don’t care. The commitment just isn’t there.”

There are a few people in Cowtown working toward making positive rap “cool.” The Fort Worth Public Library has held two family-friendly hip-hop symposia since 2001 and plans on offering similar, smaller panels every month. The library also provides resource information for aspiring rappers on the library’s homepage and plans to produce a “Library Idol” contest, modeled after the American Idol tv show in which unknown artists compete for prizes. TCC has hosted two hip-hop summits over the past two years, bringing together various industry people, artists, and fans to network and to discuss the state of hip-hop, locally and nationally. (The next summit is Friday, April 18, at TCC South Campus.) A few young urban professionals recently formed Southern Eve Entertainment, a record label that will specialize in R&B, gospel, and positive hip-hop. Cyberstars, part of “Comin’ Up,” the youth gang intervention program run by the city and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Fort Worth, gives free studio time to “Comin’ Up” participants. A similar project, called “Sounds of Unity ’n Determination,” or SOUND, is operated by Da Village Comprehensive Youth Development Center in Stop Six. There, Da Village students get free studio time in return for good class attendance and participation in various programs of the community-based school. Da Village director Rickie Clark is also planning on starting a hip-hop ministry at First Timothy Baptist Church. Think church, but instead of wheezing organs and choirs, there’ll be drum machines and rap; and instead of three-piece suits and shiny shoes, there’ll be baggy pants and high-tops.

All of this positive action is heartening for that large segment of the population that’s worried about pop culture’s deleterious effects on children. Part of the reason for the push is that gangsta rap has become mainstream. Conscientious hip-hoppers and hip-hop lovers feel that if something isn’t done now, the mainstream will get edgier and edgier — until rapping about killing babies and burning crosses will be de rigueur. Even though there’s no empirical evidence that links what a person listens to or watches with what he or she does, thoughtful hip-hoppers aren’t giving up so easily. “Negative hip-hop,” said Da Village’s Clark, “is destroying lives.” To give you a sense of how large the perceived problem is, The Source, the most respected rap industry magazine, devoted its entire March issue to the topic of “saving” hip-hop.

Fort Worth-based rap acts have been fighting the fight for years — it’s nothing new to them. Since they each formed about 10 years ago, Epatomed, Fort Nox, and Shabazz 3 have each been using their music and rhyming skills to unearth “truths” rather than create million-dollar fantasies. The mere fact that these acts have been together for so long and have continued to promote positive messages is a victory of sorts. They’ve just as easily could’ve taken the oft-traveled road of gangsta rap and likely scored mega-deals with major record labels. Instead, these local groups have been supporting their message-heavy art through day jobs and additional music-related work.

What these rap acts are creating can be classified as “positive,” even though it’s really a type of journalism — balanced and reflective of life’s vicissitudes, its ups and downs, not only its good qualities and not only its bad ones. This is what rap needs to be, according to Epatomed’s Jurah. If hip-hop encompasses the culture of rap — from the music to the baggy clothes to the graffiti — then rap needs to be more “hip-hop,” more aware and more, in Jurah’s words, “worldly,” less gratuitous. Balanced rap is good not only for artists who want to be able to mine their innermost thoughts and feelings and be appreciated by casual hip-hop fans, it also makes good business sense. “We can’t get too caught up in labels,” said Jurah. “If you say you’re only gonna be [socially] ‘conscious,’ or you’re only gonna be ‘gangsta,’ then you’re limiting yourself.” Feeling pressured to do one or the other, merely to remain easily marketable, can also result in insincere art. “I could say, ‘I do positive rap,’ and say stuff I don’t even mean. I’m sure a lot of people do that.”

These journalists/artists do realize that “keeping it real,” as the saying goes, can be equally limiting. A Christian novelist can write from the point of view of a Jew — and get away with it; a virginal actor can play the role of the lothario — and get away with it; a black visual artist can paint his self-portrait in hues of pink and yellow — and get away with it. But a rapper is bound by some unwritten code to make art only about what he’s experienced personally. The story is that multi-platinum rapper Tupac Shakur wasn’t a gangsta — until he started making a good living from pretending to be one on c.d. Then, he had to be one. (Shakur was slain in a gang-like attack nearly 10 years ago.) Another story is that the white rapper Vanilla Ice was vilified for playing a gangsta in his songs when the worst thing that had ever happened to him in actuality was detention. “Music is deeply personal,” said Ty Macklin of Shabazz 3. “It’s right up in your face. A novelist is kinda behind the scenes.”

The old saying goes, “Judge the poem, not the poet.” In rap, certainly, it’s always been a matter of judging both. It could be that, since its beginning in the South Bronx in the late 1970s, rap has always been a form of pre-emptive violence, a way for a regular guy — one who likely never had a “voice” or creative outlet in his life — to say, “This is my territory, don’t mess with me.” Couple this with the media’s ability to manufacture “stars,” and you’ve got quite a phenomenon — in fact, the biggest cultural phenomenon since rock ’n’ roll.

Everything from jazz to visual art to dance to literature has been affected by hip-hop. Some people, especially African-Americans, see hip-hop’s spread as an opportunity for social progress. That’s why former Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons began the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization devoted to “mobilizing” the hip-hop generation. One aspect of the HHSAN’s platform is that radio and tv need to be more receptive to positive rap. Hip-Hop 4 Peace, formed by LL Cool J’s former manager Charles Fisher and Public Enemy’s Chuck D., takes that notion a step further — they say that rappers shouldn’t be allowed to rap about the thug life, only about “positive” situations and circumstances. To Fisher at least (Chuck D. is a staunch free-speech supporter), this isn’t censorship. It’s merely an attempt to harness rap music’s power for good. Hip-Hop 4 Peace’s message to the rapper is: If you rapped only about furthering the African-American cause, instead of 24-inch rims and hot tubs, the African-American plight wouldn’t be as debilitating. The Hip-Hop 4 Peace goal, basically, is to shame rappers into helping use hip-hop as a tool to advance urban agendas.

The HHSAN held a summit in Dallas in October, thanks mostly to The D.O.C., a Dallas-raised rapper who has recorded with some of the biggest names in rap, like N.W.A., Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg. A lecture The D.O.C. gave at an HHSAN summit in Los Angeles had caught Simmons’ attention. Simmons then proposed The D.O.C.’s hometown as a good place for another summit. More than 1,000 people attended.

The D.O.C., as an affiliate of the HHSAN, wouldn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d take a shine to 6two, but the two go back a couple of years. When 6two was just starting out, rapping with another local MC, El-Dog, in the Fort Worth group GenaCide, he got word that The D.O.C. wanted to hear the 6´ 2´´ rapper rhyme. Too good to be true, 6two thought. He put off introducing himself until The D.O.C. ended up in Fort Worth for a haircut. The two rappers pretty much hit it off. The burgeoning rapper has performed on numerous compilation c.d.’s, on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001, and now appears on The D.O.C.’s latest, The Deuce. The relationship goes like this: The D.O.C. provides the connections, 6two delivers the goods.

On The Deuce, the rapper’s richest performance is on “What Would You Do?” one of the c.d.’s only tracks in which a single rapper handles essentially every lyric. The song could be considered noir gangsta — there’s a faux-symphonic synth line, like one of those drama builders heard in fright flicks, that crawls ominously throughout 6two’s rhymes of being unable to control his murderous alter-ego, Tu Face. In the song, a “bitch” is found dead, her throat slit and her body sexually violated; a “money situation” with a neighbor results in another dead body; and the suspect remains at large.

The song is gangsta, but it doesn’t find its rapper either glorifying or repudiating the lifestyle. It merely lets him tell his tale. And the way 6two delivers his lyrics, as if he were narrating a grim nursery rhyme directly to you, is strongly reminiscent of a work of fiction. You could say there’s even a moral to the story — God isn’t up in the empyrean, protecting good people or, on the flip side, striking down criminals. He or she may not really even care either way.

“I’m not Christian, but I know somebody’s up there,” 6two said. “I know I’m here for a reason — I could have been killed or locked up.

“I’m trippin’ on kids, how their minds are so much more developed nowadays,” he continued. “I don’t have any kids, but I know, ‘Teach them well, and let them lead the way.’ I can use my music to talk to them, and tell them, ‘If it rains, the sun’s gonna come out.’ Music will be the main vehicle for my messages.”

If, like most people, you never had the chance to talk with 6two and learn his deeper, almost spiritual motivations and his future intentions, you could say he’s everything that’s wrong with rap music today. You could say he’s exactly the type of rap artist TCC’s Branch wants to silence.

Like a lot of vigilant gangstabusters, Branch is inspired by having experienced, first-hand, life in inner-city Fort Worth during the late 1980s, when this city’s murder rate touched the ceiling. Branch, who’s been living and working in urban areas her entire life, said, “These rappers are shooting people and singing about it. We wonder if we failed. There were those kids, and we did nothing. I knew kids who’d come to me, wanting to get out of gangs ...” and her voice trailed off. “We got this war versus Iraq now, when we should’ve had a war versus violence then.

“It was way out of proportion,” she continued. “The number of African-American men who were dying. And we were the people going to the funerals, the mothers. The sorry fathers were somewhere else, rapping or whatever.”

The larger culture, in Branch’s opinion, worsened things — major corporations were “polluting” the urban community with cheap malt liquor, powerful cigarettes ... and rap music. “Folks thought [the harmful influences] would stay in the black community,” she said. “But they broke out.”

The Boys and Girls Club’s Steve Richmond also saw first-hand how harmful influences destroy communities. He tells the story of an East Side neighborhood icon who worked for General Dynamics, a local company that was one of the largest fighter jet manufacturers in the world. All the kids on the block loved watching this composed, always well-dressed, charismatic black man work on his car on Saturday afternoons. The man, in Richmond’s eyes, was everything good about urban potential in the 1970s. Then General Dynamics laid off thousands of people.

Richmond remembers later running into the East Side icon in the late 1980s and seeing him smoking crack. “I love Fort Worth,” said Richmond. “It broke my heart to see how it was devastated because of drugs.”

Another story Richmond likes to tell is from high school: A friend walked into biology class one day and laid $800 down on a table in front of Richmond and another friend. The moneyed youngster told his pals they could make just as much cash working with him. Richmond said no thanks — “I was afraid of jail.” His friend, though, accepted the offer. “He served seven years in the penitentiary,” Richmond said. “And the dude who offered it to us? He’s dead.

“I tell young people all the time,” Richmond continued. “You never know when a life-changing decision is going to happen. That was a life-changing decision I had made.”

Branch, who has been a guiding force behind both the symposia at the library and the summits at the college, also wants to empower young urbanites. The best way for her to pull that off, in her opinion, is by communicating with them in their lingua franca, hip-hop. “We’re generations apart,” she said. “A certain segment of the population is making decisions for people. The older generation is in control. We need to embrace [youth] culture in a positive way in order to serve them more efficiently.” Branch has created a curriculum called “Man in the Mirror” that deals with problems and issues endemic to urban communities. The program workbook offers reading comprehension problems written in a conversational language and concerning circumstances that inner-city students can relate to.

The problem with approaching hip-hop as an academic exercise is that something usually gets lost in the translation. Not one panelist at the library’s most recent symposium in February was a rapper or a person under 20. The atmosphere, consequently, was a little stuffy, like a classroom. To the young people there, it was probably just another episode of know-it-all adults giving direction and unsolicited advice. You could see how a young person’s mind might wander.

Branch even admits to not being a fan of rap music. She said she only listens to keep up with what’s “going on.” She was introduced to rap through the parents of the children at the day care center she and her husband used to run. “It really bothered me,” she said. “And with the work I do now, I’m trying to move the language and lyrics away from accepted as ‘the way it is.’ ... No matter who’s promoting violence, it cannot be acceptable. It’s inappropriate, unacceptable behavior.

“I’ll work with everything within me against that kind of garbage being given to young people,” she continued. “If I could say to you, ‘You can’t do negative hip-hop anymore,’ and it wouldn’t happen, I’d say it.” She said that artists should be more responsible. “They need to be turning kids on to appropriate types of behavior.”

“Appropriate types of behavior”? Sounds nerdy, especially if it entails never showing up late for class, drinking lots of milk, and hitting the hay by 10 p.m. every night. A rapper broadcasting those types of messages probably wouldn’t sell many records. “Appropriate types of behavior” just aren’t ... cool.

Positivity and coolness: Two words that don’t go together ... for now. Roy Richards of the local positive label Southern Eve believes the power to connect those words is there; it just isn’t being used properly: “Radio can make you like anything,” he said. “If you hear a crappy song enough, you’ll eventually like it. We’re so saturated with ‘bling-bling,’ nobody’s willing to listen to anything else, anything positive.”

“If they can make music to draw kids into that [gangsta] atmosphere,” said Manuel Anderson, one of SOUND’s architects, “then we can make music to draw them into a positive one.” The primary objective is getting enough Da Village students to think being positive can be “cool.” “If we can get enough of ’em,” said Anderson. “Then they’ll all think it’s cool.”

It probably goes without saying that the young rappers throwing down in the studio at Da Village can make only positive rap. (Note that “positive” doesn’t necessarily mean “Christian.”) There’s no cursing, no sexist or racist commentary, no gang code, and no glorifying drug and alcohol use. “If you wanna cuss,” said The Boys and Girls Club’s Richmond, another one of SOUND’s founders, “you can go to Rap-A-Lot Records,” an internationally distributed record label in Houston known for its gangsta rap. “When you’re at Da Village, it’s positive.”

“It’s like football,” Richmond continued. “The coach tells you to play running back, you play running back.”

The brainchild of former No Limit producer-turned-social worker Anderson, Richmond, and Da Village’s Clark, SOUND is pretty much a success as both a social program and an artistic outlet. Former SOUND participants, according to Clark, have gone on to college while continuing to stay involved with music. SOUND’s founders are sure they’re not creating false fantasies. Clark stresses that while the students in the studio may be preoccupied with making music, their attention also focuses on sharpening other skills, such as writing, reading, working with computers, and working with others. Whether former SOUND rappers have remained true to positive, inspirational rap or have begun dabbling in gangsta doesn’t really matter to Clark — so long as these kids are using their artistic talents instead of getting into trouble, they’re OK.

The studio is a small room in the back of Da Village’s single-story building. Inside is a recording booth, a few chairs, and a desk that holds two computers. (All the recording is done digitally.) The kids usually don’t hit the studio until after classes finish in the early afternoon. The tiny space is almost always packed. “It’s great for them,” said Richmond. “A lot of these kids are crack babies from the ’80s. They have drug-addicted parents, and people are expecting them to go to class? There’s no public outcry about that. Young people don’t ask to be born into their situations. People say, ‘You’re poor, you’re black, you’re supposed to be used to it.’ That’s what’s great about SOUND — we want the kids no one else wants to work with.”

Adult supervision at the studio is welcome but really unnecessary. The students are respectful of the opportunity, and some of them are as proficient as Anderson on the computers.

One immediate goal of Da Village is to release an underground compilation c.d. of SOUND students’ music once every six months. Student performers will be expected to sell copies of the disc door to door (or out of the trunks of their cars) for $10 per c.d. About $3 of every sale will go back to Da Village. SOUND’s overseers hope the program will become self-sufficient.

“What we’re doing is cultivating talent,” said Richmond, a former rapper with the popular Fort Worth group East Side. He also runs a local record label, The Nazzdack Network. “No crew who has started here has stayed here.

“The Metroplex is the third-largest market in America,” he continued. “They break songs here, but there aren’t any rappers here. 6two and The D.O.C. had to go to California to get big.”

The truth is that there’s no infrastructure in place in the Metroplex to support any type of pop music, including rap. There are only a handful of record stores that carry local rap, only a couple of clubs that spin local rap, and, aside from KBFB/97.9-FM’s Sunday night local radio program, there’s only one radio show that, by definition, may be predisposed to airing local rap — the “Dirty South Show” on KNON/89.3-FM. The local positive hip-hop scene has almost no outlet, save for the occasional Epatomed show at The Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas.

This dearth of activity could end up proving beneficial to Southern Eve. They might be able to corner a growing market over the next few years, especially if a backlash against negative hip-hop happens.

The company was formed roughly six months ago. Roy Richards, the person at Southern Eve who handles A&R (or “Artist” and “Repertoire”), is currently on the look-out for positive talent. A couple of hopefuls are Fort Nox and teen female rapper Sandy Redd. “We just wanted to do something different than the typical southern label,” he said. “We’re trying to break the stereotype — that all groups from the south sound the same and are talking about the same things.”

Richards was part of Fort Worth’s earliest and most well-respected positive hip-hop groups, Left and Right Shoe MC’s. Loved locally but relatively unknown elsewhere, the MC’s eventually disbanded. During his college years at Prairie View A&M, Richards formed the Magical Soul Brothers, another well-loved positive rap/R&B outfit that couldn’t break into the mainstream. People loved the music, Richards said, but it just didn’t fit into any neat category. For Richards, a dissolved deal with Virgin Records then perfectly encapsulated the futility of making positive music.

“People are putting money behind acts we’re not looking for,” said Richards. “The south is about [selling] units, not about making music that means something.

“They’re taking the art out of it,” he continued. “They’re making it more of a business. We can’t be mad at ’em, but we’re looking for artists who can be around for awhile.”

Luis Sosa isn’t a gangsta, but he plays one on c.d. He simply knows what sells — tough talk, solid beats, and the gangsta image. Take the cover of Fort Worth’s Most Wanted, the first “professional” c.d. by Sosa, who raps under the moniker Krazy-K, and his crew, Eternal Thugs. The cover depicts two well-dressed Latinos leaning on two well-appointed limos. Fort Worth’s nighttime skyline twinkles in the background. Digitally created lightning crackles through the blue-black sky. The image says, “We’re rich, we’re tough, we’re cool, and we’re from the city.”

The sound of the c.d. is a pretty precise replication of gangsta rap, like the kind that’s now all over radio. Unlike N.W.A.’s infamous coming-out gangsta party, Straight Outta Compton, or Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Sosa’s c.d. gets a little jiggy with it — like the best Tupac or Biggie Smalls albums. Big, catchy hooks and sometimes danceable beats. Even Sosa will tell you, gangsta won’t sell a ton unless it’s got a little hip-hop or old-school, radio-friendly flava. “Our sound is gangsta, but it’s not about [glorifying] gangs. It’s about life on the streets,” said Sosa. “We used to be involved with gangs, and we’re talking about what we saw.”

The soft-spoken twentysomething spent last Friday in front of Alpha Omega Entertainment’s studio/office on East Lancaster Avenue, next to the Beach Street intersection, near Best Friends nightclub and Aalfa Omega Bail Bonds. He was having a party for the release of Fort Worth’s Most Wanted. As Sosa’s dad grilled chicken on the barbecue outside, rap from the c.d. blared from humongous speakers set up in the smallish parking lot. The sun was just setting on one of the bluest skies Fort Worthians have probably seen since last spring. Most of the people hanging out, Sosa’s friends and relatives, seemed to be enjoying the tunes — that is, everything after the intro, which is a reenactment of a gunfight. The first music track, “I Got Hate,” was kind of a hit: “Hatas try and rip my name,” the voice of Eternal Thugs’ female rapper, Shorty, pumped out of the speakers, “I’ll chop you till you have no remains / Come and get it raw if you really wanna bone, man.” One of the girls helping out, who couldn’t have been older than 16, would occasionally bob her head to the sounds or sing along to a chorus. Everybody pretty much went about their business. Nobody really thought it strange.

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