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When he arrives for his brown-bag lunch date with Racket, Tony Avitia of Broken Note Records apologizes for his clean-cut appearance. His huge, Juan Epstein-shaming Afro has been swept into a barber's trash, and he's clad in business casual. "I'm working for the man these days," he says, laughing. He peddles cell phones for AT&T.
Three years ago, Avitia's "slip-hop" ensemble, I-45, was tearing up Texas and touring nationally, and Avitia thought it was time to take his music career to the proverbial next level. He headed for L.A., leaving his bandmates Billy Kinnamon and Rudy Martinez to be based here in Houston. "I thought it was time to go out and see something else," Avitia says, as he nibbles on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "I'd been here all my life and I just needed a new atmosphere -- new stuff to look at. It was time to pack up and go west and see what it was all about."
So what was it all about? "It's overrated," he says today. Not that I-45 didn't have any La-La Land-style fab fun out there among the glitterati. "We did a showcase for a few majors," Avitia says. "Capital, Columbia, Virgin, Interscope, the guy who signed No Doubt was there. I can't remember his name now -- they're all just a bunch of suits to me anyway. So we're doing this showcase, and we're hanging out with Nelly Furtado, and the Stone Temple Pilots were in the next room catty-corner to us, and we were like, 'Whoa, so this is what it is.' "
And then there was that star-packed night at a legendary club. "We actually once had the pleasure of having Linkin Park open up for us at the Roxy," Avitia remembers. "And Ron Jeremy, that pseudo-legend in his own time, actually introduced us. Jimmy Flynt was there also. He's Larry's brother, and I guess, the heir apparent."
Nothing much came of the showcases, and eventually homesickness, relentless touring, the birth of his daughter and September 11 all conspired to bring Avitia home. "I felt like I wanted to be closer to friends and family, and the wife wanted to as well," he says. "I pretty much accomplished what I went out there to do. I met a lot of people. We're hooked up if we ever need shows out there."
Some locals have called Avitia's Cali sojourn a sellout, but he's mystified by that notion. "I always got the opposite reaction to what I thought I would get," he says. "I really did go out there to promote a bunch of Houston bands, and all I got was, 'Fuck you, dude, you're a fucking sellout, going to California you fucking sell out.' That wasn't why I was there. I had a mission. I was promoting the band, promoting Houston music."
That's always been Avitia's driving force. Press archives chronicle eight years of Avitia's Bayou City music boosterism. In 1994, he was waxing a punk compilation for Justice Records. By 1996, his Avitiapalooza concert and other endeavors had earned him the sobriquet "Houston's underground Bill Graham." In 1998, I-45 emerged, and Avitia (the 30footFALL veteran and consummate punk) had been subsumed by Tech Ron B. (Avitia's hip-hop persona).
His punk past has harmed him some in the all-important hip-hop street cred stakes, as have the misconceptions that he is a) white, and b) suburban. Some in the rap game don't take him as seriously as he deserves. He's also just too damn funny for his own good.
"We've never been a mockery of hip-hop," he says. "We grew up listening to rap. Everybody thinks I'm white, but I'm a Mexican dude. We're not from the suburbs. We grew up on the north side amongst all sorts of riffraff. I used to go to all these seedy Mexican cantinas with my dad. We're working hard and trying to squash all the stereotypes, but we still get that 'This ain't white boy day' crap."
After a moment, Avitia digs out his wallet. "Look, here we go," he says. "This is how Mexican I am." He hands over his green card, and tells Racket he was born in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
In a way, he's in the same boat as a lot of more recent immigrants. He's come back to Houston cash-poor, but brimming with energy and ideas. "I'm not gonna lie," he says. "I'm broke. I'm living paycheck to paycheck, and it's hard to continue doing this. I'm hoping someone will come around some day and give us some money. If somebody's got an open checkbook, we're here."
If you open that checkbook wide enough, Avitia and his bandmates are all but ready to release three new I-45 albums. Avitia also envisions three solo records. One would be a solo album by Tech Ron B.; another is what he describes as "heavy, 180 degrees from I-45"; and the third would be a collection of "crazy folk tunes." "I thought about making the artwork so you'd have to buy all three to get the full picture," he says. "I could call them something pretentious like Heaven, Hell and Purgatory."
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