Highway Lunacy

Hip-hop, bad hair and bad jokes steer I-45 on a twisted joy ride

Northside Houston resident Tony Avitia was an 18-year-old stock boy at a Kroger store when, somewhere among the Tylenol, the Haagen-Dazs and the freshly watered produce, he met Billy Kinnamon. Kinnamon was a 16-year-old bagger from Greenspoint who was interested not just in bagging groceries, but in bagging as many of Kroger's female cashiers as he could.

Workplace romance, though, was only a sideline for Kinnamon. Like Avitia, he was a musician at heart -- an artist. The two became fast friends, each realizing he needed the other to fulfill his destiny. It was a destiny that included Avitia growing his hair into a heavily starched Afro/perm, Kinnamon painting his nails jet black, and the two adopting the stage names Tripp Von Slipp and Tech. Ron B, respectively. It also involved their writing tunes that sound for all the world like Cypress Hill conversing with "Weird" Al Yankovic, or perhaps 311 sampling the novelty volumes of Stan Freberg and Allan Sherman.

The neighborhood Kroger they worked at those many years ago was located off I-45, and the name of that overtaxed swath of pavement became their handle. Soon enough, locals in the know recognized them as the hardest-working white rappers on the Gulf Coast. Welcome to their world.

Tech. Ron B. and Tripp Von Slipp appreciate the simpler things in life: the meager chill of a Houston winter; a freshly paved parking lot just waiting to be broken in by skate rats and rollerbladers; the sight of two groupies, dressed in Afro wigs, ruffled down jackets and hot pants, climbing all over each other while throwing bottled water at unsuspecting audience members. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Kinnamon and Avitia take in the first two stimuli from a car window as they make their way to the Texas Commerce Tower to begin shooting a video for the I-45 live staple, "Bike Song." As for the third -- the one with the groupies -- they had had the distinct privilege of experiencing that about a half-hour earlier, when video director Jeff Gunn had run through footage he'd filmed from an I-45 show at the Abyss last summer, some of which Gunn plans to incorporate into the "Bike Song" video. There they were, caught on tape: two pale-skinned honeys hyping the crowd with a churlish Mary Jane Girls shtick. Then came the spritz of bottled liquid.

"They asked us if they could come on-stage, because they were gonna do something special," Avitia says of the fans. "We didn't know what they were gonna do, but they did it."

But then, one must always expect the unexpected at an I-45 show. Avitia, 26, and Kinnamon, 24, have been administering their kooky, kinetic, Southern-influenced hip-hop gruel -- which they've dubbed "slip-hop" -- to eager Houston audiences going on two years now. "Bike Song," a track from the group's recent debut release, The Regal Beagle, is indicative of the pair's campy, carefree brand of highly rhythmic pop-culture nihilism, right down to its freewheeling samples and the silly, super-catchy chorus, "Bitch I got a bike / So don't ask me for a ride."

"And that bitch can be a male or a female," Avitia notes.
Kicking back near the Commerce Tower, waiting for their art school video crew to arrive, Avitia and Kinnamon attempt to pick apart their musical methods.

"I mean, a lot of it is just spontaneous bullshit," Kinnamon elaborates. "Like the names of our songs come from nowhere. The names of us -- they come from nowhere. We figured since we were going to be rapping, we should have rap names."

Actually, the two first began performing not as rappers but as punk rockers in the high-profile Houston band 30footFALL, with Kinnamon on vocals and Avitia on guitar. But after only a few shows, Kinnamon made his exit; Avitia stayed on for another year and a half before making his departure. Initially, it was Kinnamon who was more responsive to hip-hop's lure, and he eventually talked Avitia into following his lead.

"It was kind of weird," Kinnamon explains, "because Tony didn't really ... I mean, he never thought about [rapping]. Not that he didn't want to do it, he just never thought, 'Hey, you know what? I'm gonna start rapping.' I know how he is, and I was like, 'Come on, you can do it. Just try and write something.' "

By the time Avitia finally did put pen to paper -- and came up with "Pseudowise" (also on The Regal Beagle) -- the pair had hooked up with an old pal of Kinnamon's from Aldine High School, Jason Mienelt, a.k.a. DJ Rudy Martinez 2000. (Mienelt lifted "Rudy" from another artist and added the "2000" because, in Avitia's words, he's the "updated, way-ahead-of-our-time version.") The threesome quickly began cutting demos. "And from there, we just started writing more," says Kinnamon. "Jason was there, helping out with production of the tracks and all that."

I-45's live debut came in June 1996, as part of a two-day, 20-band festival at Fitzgerald's. Following an enthusiastic response at that event, the trio began touring around the region. "We've toured throughout Texas and Louisiana," says Avitia, adding that the group finds itself sharing the stage with punk bands more than rap acts. "We've done three East Coast tours -- Philadelphia, Atlanta, Pittsburgh. We once did 21 states in the course of two months. At this point, we're the only ones that can really do it for ourselves. So hell, why not go out there and give it a shot?"

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