Hip hop has a long history of regionality. Rap from different places doesn’t sound the same, it has different stylings and touches that make each locality unique. Think crunk (Memphis / Atlanta), screwed and chopped (Houston), or g-funk (L.A.) and each one brings to mind a region of the country. With the advent of the internet and modern music consumption, some rap has lost its sense of place, but there are notable exceptions. None better than a group out of Dallas called The Outfit, TX. Consisting of Mel, Dorian, and JayHawk, TOTX has cultivated a truly unique and intriguing sound. They sometimes call it ‘Cooly-Fooly Space Age Funk,’ and they built it from pieces of all the regional influences they’d grown up around that they then took and made their own.
Like Shea Serrano said when I interviewed him earlier this week, TOTX is one of the rising stars of the rap world, and their new album ‘Down by the Trinity’ just dropped today. You can stream it here (h/t Complex) and after even one listen, I think you’ll agree there’s nothing else like it out there. With music that sounds straight out of a John Carpenter movie, they lay rhymes overtop that deal with some heavy themes. Listening to numbers like “Revelations”, “just me”, “Highs & Lows”, or “Flame Emoji” you get the sense (and the right one) that TOTX is thinking about a lot of stuff we tend to avoid. Race, religion, philosophy, the media landscape, how to get by in a world that doesn’t seem to care much about you, and more. With the cool way that TOTX handles it all, and the heavy atmospheric beats, they truly are the Snake Plissken of hip-hop; badass dudes who see what’s going on and handle it.
The music speaks for itself, but I had the great opportunity to sit down and speak with Mel, Dorian, and JayHawk about their music and a bunch of other subjects.
(Interview edited for length and clarity. Some NSFW language below)
Your sound has changed a lot from the first two albums to this one, how do you think your sound has evolved and what influenced that?
Mel: It’s always been the intent to be fresh with everything we do. If we ever feel like we’re in the studio and we’re making the same old record, then we just don’t do that. It’s not like we’re makin’ a million, trillion dollars doin’ this; we’re not doin’ it for the money. It’s for the sake of actually making the music.
Dorian: Mel has also started being more involved production wise. That definitely changed the sound, and for the better. It’s incorporated more of our personalities into the production. Early on, I was heavy on the production end. That’s cool, but at the end of the day you get all one person’s perspective. You need to add those other things and to make it refreshing for your listener, and for you. Doing that changes things, so I think that’s a large aspect of it.
Mel: Plus, we developed as individual members of this band. Now when he get’s on our nerves, we appreciate it. Can you drop that beat? Can you do the 808s a little more, that kickin you was doin’. That’s somethin’ you want to embrace. We’re just as brotherly. Same time, he’s knows himself as a rapper, as an artist. He knows how he likes to feel in order to deliver his art the right way. It’s development.
What is it about Texas that you think makes our state unique?
Mel: It’s big! It’s our storied culture and tradition and experience. It’s a very specific experience, not like any other place. The wild wild west, that was mainly Texas. We been these cowboys, we were the first barons and mother***ers that stood on our own two, and ten step drew, and we carried that all the way to today. This was the state with the first black cowboys that were economically independent and doin’ their own thing.
JayHawk: We have this rooted culture, that we’ve always existed as our own thing. The fact that Texas was a country by itself at one time and then could still be that right now if it had to.
Mel: We’re diverse too. You go to Houston or South Texas, it’s different. More seafood, different slang, different culture period. You go to North Texas, more chicken, more BBQ, the Cowboys, different culture, different slang, all that. West Texas, different. East Texas, it’s almost like Louisiana. So it’s one of of the few states where you get a trillion different flavors.
JayHawk: The thing about it is, most people from Texas are third, fourth, fifth generation in Texas. It’s a deep rooted culture. We’ve been here, our parents, and so on. The cultures have been passed down, in a good way. Certain things in the culture like church, there’s no choice in that. You went to church, your grandmom is gonna take you to church. Those certain things may seem minute, but they’re the things that carry on with us, as far as traditions and morals as we go on into our adult life and into the world. I think that’s what makes Texas unique.
Y’all have been asked in a lot of interviews about the difference between the Houston sound and the Dallas sound. I’m curious, is there a difference in the Metroplex between the sounds? Is a Ft. Worth sound different than the Dallas sound or is it all kind of one community?
Mel: It used to be way more blatant, in the early 2000s. I remember South Dallas had its own kind of sound, its own kind of bounce. The best way I can describe it is, you gotta watch the movement of the people right? So, I remember goin’ to the club in ’06-’07, or goin’ to the parkin’ lot when I was too young, and the South Dallas boys would all have a certain way they move and express themselves. It was a lot slower, a lot more gangsta–for lack of a better term–a lot more aggressive.
Whereas, it seemed like a lot of The Grove, they would be a lot more like Louisiana weird, a lot more amped up, faster tempo type sh*t. Back then you’d listen to Young Nino & Hotboy Star from Oak Cliff, it had its own flavor to it, it’s own kind of sound. When you listen to the NFL Boyz from Pleasant Grove, or Mr. Pookie, Mr. Lucci from North Dallas, it had this minimal, kind of melodic hook, gangsta theme goin’ on. Pleasant Grove had this like real, straight to the point, you-can-quote-the-hook kind of sh*t goin’ on. Oak Cliff, it was just gangsta. I don’t remember any melodic sh*t from Nino & Hotboy Star, or anyone. It was like chant shit, “Oak Cliff, That’s My Hood.”
JayHawk: (sings Lil’ Joe)
Mel: That’s melodic though. Lil’ Joe. It used to be like, inner city Dallas had its own thing. It was a lot of commonalities [between the different neighborhoods] because Dallas has always been so minimal. Think about [Erykah] Badu. Badu is very minimal. My dad would even tell me about back in the funk era, in the 80s, it was still always straight to the point, minimal records that we gravitate towards. Now, I think that things are so different because of technology it’s hard to section off regionally.
Do you think Dallas is still more minimal than other scenes?
Mel: I think so, hell yeah. Dallas is a good representation of the South, because the South is more minimal. I believe that’s true for life, it don’t take a whole lot. Get to the point, keep it simple bro, give me that sh*t easy and nice. That’s just how we are down here. I feel like in Dallas, we’ve always loved minimal sh*t and we still have a unique sound, but it’s not as sectional or regional anymore.
Do you think it’s social media and the internet that’s led to less regional sounds and is that a good thing?
Dorian: Yeah, but you still want to be able to trace the lineage. It’s the whole thing. The internet, it does blur the lines and make the Earth flat and converge the culture, which is fine, as long as you recognize where things come from. Because there are people appropriating things, and if you misappropriate things then they’re not genuine. As long as the lineage is there, then people can pay respect and homage to where things come from. That’ll be fine. The fact that regionalism in hip-hop is kinda goin’ away…
Mel: But it doesn’t have to. Everything he’s sayin’ is legit but, for example, these boys know I’m a big fan of Louisiana hip-hop too, hell my family’s from Monroe, Louisiana. I have roots in Louisiana, just like I have in Texas. What I’m hopin is that someone like Kodak Black–he’s very Florida, he got real gold slugs and sh*t, he’s about a Floridian experience, and he’s poppin’ right now online–I’m hopin’ that more artists can take [lessons] from him. I look at the Kodak Black and those boys still have their romantic life, they’re still livin’ a Broward Co., Florida experience.
It breaks my heart that I feel like a lot of artists, if you stay in Houston, you might be livin and doin the same shit that someone in Sacramento does. That doesn’t even make any sense, just ‘cause you have a cell phone? I think about hair cuts, it doesn’t matter where you go–especially in the black community–certain areas of the country have certain styles of haircuts, of dress, of everything. Dreadlocks were something that I never saw in Dallas, Texas. Period. Nobody. We’re braids, fades, shags, southsides, ramps, duck tails, all the 80s / 90s cuts. That’s Dallas for you. Now I’m seein’ more and more dreadlocks, in the younger kids. I know why that is, I know that’s a telltale sign of where we are in this day and age. The dreadlocked hip-hop community, it’s almost its own online village, it’s not regional. It’s shared around regions.
It’s almost like an online culture?
Mel: An online culture. And I’m ok with that but we need to have our culture too, you don’t want to lose your local culture. If you move, or develop a new society, that’s what you’re doing. You want to know your culture and be in tune with your culture, but also be progressive and be in tune with 2015 and beyond. You don’t want to completely acquiesce yourself.
Hip hop at one point in time did a great job of finding that balance. Louisiana, they always play by their culture. Anybody who’s ever dated a woman from New Orleans, they know that LA don’t give a f**k about no other state. Florida don’t give a f**k about no other state. California don’t give a f**k, they keep sayin’ it’s going to detach from the country and float off, and they haven’t left. They’d be just find with bein’ an island though, “We don’t need y’all. We got weed, water, women, Dre, Compton.” We need to be the same way. We don’t give a f**k, we Dallas, we Houston, we Texas. And y’all gonna embrace it because, y’all love us? They drinkin’ lean? They ridin’ slab? They trill? What the f**k? So why we get their dreadlocks? That don’t make no sense! I mean do what you wanna do with your hair, but you know what I’m sayin’.
Dorian: And that’s what I was sayin’. As soon as the Kodaks do catch flame, there they are OGin’ with experience. The thing I fear is that somebody else sees this genuine thing workin’, and they wanna try it themselves. That’s what Earl Sweatshirt was sayin’ when he was talkin’ about Drake pickin’ up Kodak. Somebody bigger than Kodak Black to use his thing and then almost like missin’ what Kodak is. “I’m bigger, I have a larger audience, I did it before you even ever thought about it.”
That’s the thing that you have to be wary of on the internet, because it does knock down all those lines. You want to make sure that people are sayin’ where things came from. If Drake does a remix with Kodak Black, and he’s like, “This is his song, this is where it is,” that’s one thing. But if he just takes the whole thing and does his own with it, and never mentions Kodak, then that’s completely different.
Mel: I think we have to get adjusted. When you give a child a toy, or think about the monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That monkey first got that bone, he gonna bang it and not know what the f**k to do with it. Give them a couple years, all of a sudden they use it like a tool, make a weapon, next thing you know the motherf***er buildin’ structures. Crossbows. Knows how to speak, you know what I’m sayin’? When they gave us YouTube and the internet, it was a bone, we didn’t know what the f**k to do with it. Literally. I remember first gettin’ on that b**ch lookin’ at fights. Then lookin’ at cheese. Then cheese fights, fights involving cheese. Now, we’ve got to get to the point where we’re accustomed to havin’ it and we don’t think we’ve got to get on here and stop livin’ life.
We’re a sign of things to come. We’re Dallas as a mother***er, we’re TX as a mother***er, and we’re gonna make something online. But I still live in the real world, bro. I’m still livin’ a Dallas-ass experience, I still go to gas station near my grannie’s house and boys pull up shooting at each other. They pull off and I’m sittin’ there, still hearin 120 BPM gutter music. I know if I go to Wisconsin, I’m not gonna see that. So we just have to get used to the internet, it’s a tool.
I just watched your video for ‘Highs & Lows’, and it does feel like 2015 in one place. With the themes that you touch on in it, do you think we have regressed as a society and what gives you optimism for the future?
JayHawk: I wouldn’t say that it’s the people, I wouldn’t say that it’s society at all. I would say that it’s the media, that this is an agenda, it seems like. Racism is one of those things, it is an institution, it’s been there. That’s part of what we tackle, it’s part of being Texan and black in Texas. It’s part of the history of this state and slavery is part of the history of this country, slavery is part of the history of our people. You get that.
At the same time, as a young adult in the new millennium, you’re moving forward and you get it. That’s over, yeah people still have these old ideas, but they’re mostly old and they’re not gonna be here forever. Their grandchildren have different ideas, we coexist. They have the same struggles I have, student loans or workin’ at a restaurant. We identify more [with each other], it’s more about green than it is about white or black. I think that’s the way we feel and I think the other stuff is separatists. They’re trying to divide and conquer almost, it’s a media thing.
Mel: You have to be careful how you assess things. You can’t just assess things based on the propaganda that we’ve been given, then say “We’ve regressed.” Because you gotta look at the things we’re citing, what are the sources we’re citing? South Carolina? No offense they haven’t progressed or regressed! They’ve been South Carolina forever. This is where we’re getting these incidents and stories from, through the mainstream media to everybody. Motherf***ers in Los Angeles ain’t livin’ like they livin’ in South Carolina. But if we go to South Carolina to find this “public interest” sh*t that the media is all of a sudden intrigued by, and we spread that, it’s gonna make everybody feel like all of a sudden, that’s what’s goin’ on [everywhere].
We say we’re developing a new digital society right? There are certain elements of our previous society that we used to have that we’re evolving past. But if you still want to maintain control and order you have to keep people divided and for whatever reason not distrusting this person that could share information and teach them something, when they could deal with it. How better to do that than tried and true racism? It’s worked every time!
It ain’t new, but the way in which that and subsequent news stories are represented, it’s made to seem like it was a rampant trend. “Dreadlocks, vans, and killing negros, that’s just what’s in in 2015!” And that’s just not the case. Motherf***ers in Louisiana been gettin’ killed by cops. My daddy told me when I was in high school, “Don’t run from a cop, he will shoot you in your back.” That was in 2003. The same. But the way in which things are presented, the way they decide what to show us, that’s what’s new.
How is it that the Kardashians are in the headlines for years now? How is that? Are they that interesting? I got a big family, they got all kind of stories, that shit should not be headlines for more than a week! My aunt bigshot slappin’ my aunt may, one headline, keep it movin’ next family. (laughs) We tailor [as a society] the message that we’re propagating. So I feel like we haven’t regressed at all, we’re progressing, and we have to remember to goddamn say that. There’s no way we can have an iPhone, with an iCloud, and have Instagram and be able to talk to somebody that lives in Japan and feel like we’ve regressed. How does that make sense? There’s no room for that.
Racism, fam? Look at this, there’s all kinds of people out here, nobody hatin’. Everyone’s smokin’ weed, and listening to music. But let the media tell it there’s gonna be some damn n****s get shot outside as we’re walking in. Nah man.
I don’t want to tell the whole movie before our album drops, but its time to shift paradigms, even in the South. Yeah we Texas, yeah they Georgians, yeah they’re Louisianans, and it’s all beautiful. What’s beautiful about the South is the struggle, it’s the pain, it’s the bullshit that we’ve endured, and it’s time to make it through all that.
I had the opportunity to move in with my grandmom and that experience, man, you can’t buy it. The random idioms and anecdotes and wisdom. Sometimes though, I would sit down and listen to her and know, “This sh*t does not apply to me in 2015.” You gotta recognize that grandmom is 73, that’s a different generation. She wants her grandson to go get a good job with a suit, be a doctor. At the same time, she don’t know what I’m dealin’ with and what my experience is. I can’t judge though, because I don’t know hers either. We gotta recognize it’s a very different experience and we gotta embrace our time and be the future, not the past.
A lot of it feels like it’s the people in power, the media and elected officials, who’ve broken their side of the social contract, if that’s true, what do we do about it?
Dorian: We make memes about it, we post funny things on Twitter, we post Instagram pictures about the presidential campaign, because we’re tired of it. We know there’s some other things going on and we’re not gettin’ all of the information, we’re not stupid. We’ve got too many tools at our disposal to learn and to see otherwise. We’re gonna continue to be a society that doesn’t believe everything that’s shoved down our throat. We know there are good people out there. There are bad people too. It’s unfortunate that those young black men got shot and killed, and that those things happened the way that they happened, and the important thing is that the way that we respond as human beings.
Mel: We gotta disallow perception becoming the reality. Perception can easily become the reality, that’s been media. You speak it, that’s been life. Granny always said, “You speak it, it comes true. You gotta watch the power of the tongue.” It’s up to us, up to all the motherf**kers that call themselves the new regime; people that have the cognizance, know all of the things that we know, are open minded, are lookin’ forward to the future, and are not afraid.
I mean, my sister called me the other day, “Don’t go to Chipotle, you’re gonna die! They killin’ people, it’s the zombie apocalypse at Chipotle!” I was like, “Damn, I’m in line to get me a burrito,” so I left. We’re sitting there like, “Man I really wanted some Chipotle,” so we call up and it turns out that was in the Northwest. You done scared me out of my burrito bowl, she was buildin’ it, it was all full of brown rice and steak, and I left it because you scared me into thinkin’ I was gonna die and become a zombie if I ate my damn sour cream. We gotta stop that sh*t.
To radically change subjects, y’all like Wild Turkey, what do y’all like about it?
JayHawk: So we go to his [Mel’s] grandparents house, I forget what year it was, 2011 maybe. It’s basketball playoff time. So we go there and we’re chillin’ and his granddad asks, “Do y’all want a drink?” and we’re like “Sure!” So he pulls out the Wild Turkey 101, pours out a big drink. So he [Mel] goes into the other room with his grandma to fix a printer or a fax machince or something like that. We in here watchin’ the NBA playoffs, drinkin’ this Wild Turkey, drunk–I’m talkin’ about off of one drink. DRUNK. Foolish! I guess we hadn’t eaten anything.
Mel: Oh man, I gotta get the baton. So I’m in the back fixin’ the printer and I can tell which voice is my pawpaw and who is Hawk (laughs)… I’m not lyin’! My grandma came back there and was like “Get this crazy fool up outta here!” Him and this other crazy fool is gettin’ on my nerves, and I’m not even sure which one she’s talkin’ bout, which crazy fool?
Now, because of the Wild Turkey, every time she sees him [Hawk] she’ll be like, “There’s that old crazy fool.” Wild Turkey will bring that out ya.
The Outfit, TX released their album Down by the Trinity today [11/18/2015] and it’s available on iTunes and streaming services.