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Forty-wide across the mixing board, bright orange equalizer lights rose and fell in sync with a blaring melody. It blasted through the studio speakers and out into the salmon-colored halls of Digital Recording Services, where legendary blues conductor and trumpeter Calvin Owens slowly paced -- as much as a 74-year-old can -- pausing occasionally to lift his pink fishing hat from his head and rub a hand through the faint traces of his gray hair. He sighed heavily.
No sign of Carlos.
Turning to the Yamaha keyboard behind him, Owens began tapping out what probably would have been a wonderful riff had the instrument been plugged in. The blaring melody inside the studio silenced, the muted thumps of deadened black and white keys resonated throughout this entire wing of the quiet warehouse.
Still, no Carlos.
Owens's idle tinkering was an eerie metaphor for the situation, so much potential in the room, but no music. Owens was standing at the epicenter of what was becoming a maelstrom of frustration. To his left stood his booking agent, Kenneth Dunn, to his right, blues guitarist and supporter Brad McCool. All three, but especially Owens, the man funding this project, had put themselves at the mercy of Carlos Coy, a.k.a. South Park Mexican. Owens had recruited the name-brand artist to rap on a track Owens wrote and arranged expressly for an album of rap and jump blues. Coy had been promising his voice for the past month. It was now 5 p.m., and Coy was an hour late.
Though Owens and his crew would later find out that miscommunication was the reason Coy wasn't showing and would once again reschedule (this time for May 1), the blues crew learned a little more than they probably cared to about the rap industry: It, like a 300-pound lion, moves at its own pace.
As the creative forces behind music's fastest-growing genre, rappers and rap acts can afford to call the shots. They are in high demand. Heavy metal bands want to learn how to program that Roland 808 drum machine. White teen suburbanites want to know how to sling that slang. And clothing designers want to learn how to cop that baggy-pants look.
Closer to home, acts from nearly every shelf in the local record store are begging for an assist from Houston's renowned and nationally recognized rap industry. From the zydeco section, Li'l Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers are looking to toughen up their traditional sound with the help of some hip-hop pizzazz (see "Accordion Corleone," Amplified, April 6). And from the blues bins, McCool and Owens are searching for that crossover gem. McCool has already recorded an EP with local rappers Rasheed, Grimm, Element and Big Chris; Owens plans to follow suit by releasing Stop Lyin' in My Face in June.
That is, if he gets all 13 or so tracks mastered -- and gets Coy in the studio to record the title cut -- by then.
"It has to be Carlos," said Owens matter-of-factly, crossing his arms over his gray sweatshirt. Both he and agent Dunn agreed that no other rapper in Houston has both the cachet and the fan base. Both also admitted it's not quality that matters here; they understand there are numerous area rappers with flow as potent as Coy's. It's quantity, as in the number of units, to use the industry parlance, that Coy can help Owens push.
Said Dunn: "It's a good project for a young guy, too. It's completely different. It can benefit those guys as much as it can Calvin. To be able to have a 15-piece orchestra, to arrange the music and get them in here, it'd cost a fortune."
Coy is being paid "a good incentive," said Dunn, plus 5 percent of album sales. "He's our head guy 'cause of his name recognition. People say he has to do it.But [every contributing rapper] thinks it's a good concept."
The mix, rap with highly produced blues orchestration, is not as innovative musically as it appears to be on the surface. There isn't much that distinguishes, say, R. Kelly's crooning, "I believe I can fly," from Big Chris and Element's rapping, "My love for you is bigger than my state, yee-ahh!" over strings, as the duo does on "Don't Walk Away," the song coursing through the studio at the time of Owens's discontent.
Socio-musically, this blending signifies rap's nearly complete permeation of all pop culture. It was only a matter of time before rap-rock singles, rap jingles and rap-over-blues-orchestration songs made it to mainstream ears. Owens, by virtue of his eclectic tastes, seems to have been forever working toward this moment, almost as if he were directed by the hand of God to usher the muse of urban America into bluesland.
Always adventuresome with his compositions, Owens said he dates his interest in cross-pollination with rap to about two years ago, when he worked with Latin rapper Valdemar on Es Tu Booty, Owens's collaboration with local salsa diva Norma Zenteno. Unlike Owens's current work, the song on which Valdemar rapped, "La Rana," is made up of hip-hop beats and attitudes. It sounds like a rap song. Such superficialities have been stripped off for Stop Lyin' in My Face. Only rap's vocal technique remains.
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