If you drive down Hillcroft, you can see storefronts housing businesses from five continents in one strip center. For a long time, you couldn't hear this diversity in our local music, but now that hip-hop reggae dancehall jungle collective Dubtex is on the scene, we have the aural equivalent of one of those strip malls of Babel. Dubtex sounds less like it comes from what the world thinks Houston should sound like and more like what we know it is: a multiculti melting pot on full raging boil.
"We represent Texas, but we're playing world music," says Dubtex drummer/ producer and Rebel Crew hip-hop posse co-founder Rick Partida (a.k.a. Lion 808). The world music half of that pronouncement is easy to hear in the band's sound: Dubtex layers trancelike, almost Middle Eastern keyboard lines over turntable scratching, Jamaican dancehall bass lines, congas and drums (both real and mechanical). Atop all of this is the Caribbean-style toasting and singing of front man Jeremy Masters (a.k.a. Jredi Knight) and the rapping of the single-monikered Persephone. The Texas representation is a little harder to pick out: On Dubtex's dazzling four-song demo (online at www.cdbaby.com/cd/dubtex1), Masters's rapid-fire toasting cries for a lyric sheet, but you can hear references to Lone Star beer, cowboys and steers, the Geto Boys and the Dirty South amid the one-love Rasta spirituality and hymns to sinsemilla.
While much of the lyrical content revels in H-townness, Masters's delivery is as authentically Caribbean as Burning Spear. His appreciation for the style began when he was a kid picking up cheap reggae vinyl at the dollar store -- long before he joined the Pasadena punk-rap band Chemtown. But Masters was reluctant at first to try singing and rapping in a foreign accent. It was at the recommendation of Rebel Crew co-founder Joe B. (a.k.a. Psychedelic B-Boy) that Masters took up the art of toasting. "He said, 'You already rap real fast, you already got melody, there ain't no reason for you not to do it,' " Masters remembers. "And that's kinda the first person who made me know that, hey, it was okay to do that, you know?"
Dubtex plays Friday, February 6, at the Rhythm Room, 1815 Washington Avenue, 713-863-0943. Friends of the Enemy are also on the bill. Dubtex will also inaugurate the monthly "Reggae Night Live" concert series Saturday, February 15, at Helios, 411 Westheimer, 713-526-4648. Lenky Don, DJ Supaneil, Steve Swift and Itam Sip Hi-fi share that bill.
Is Texas ready for Jredi and the rest of the cutting-edge collective? Texans can be as conservative musically as they are politically. People are often flummoxed by acts that break out of the prevailing blues-rock, hat-act country and Dirty South rap molds. Despite the fact that his band sounds more South London than it does South Texas, Jredi wants to be seen as equal parts Texan and citizen of the world. "Can I play music in Texas without two first names? Am I allowed?" he asks. "I've been here seven generations, dude. My family's been here a long time. There's nothing non-Texas about me just because I don't choose to play a Stevie Ray Vaughan cover of a Jimi Hendrix cover of a blues tune, you know? I like that stuff too, don't get me wrong, but gol-lee, give somebody else a break."
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Besides, though you won't hear much about it from the national media, Texas musicians have been innovating for a long time. There's at least as much evidence to support the idea that the blues was born in Texas cotton fields as there is pointing to its Mississippi beginnings, and it's become clear that zydeco took root first in the Fifth Ward rather than in rural Louisiana. The late New York Times pop music critic Robert Palmer -- in a rare blast of national props to H-town, albeit in a book and not in his paper -- even posited that Houstonian Goree Carter recorded the very first rock and roll song here in 1949.
And Masters claims that Partida's previous band Planet Shock! was the unsung inventor of rap-metal. Sure, back in 1994 there were people on both sides of the equation who dabbled in the form: Run-D.M.C., Anthrax, the Beastie Boys. But as for an actual band with actual instruments that concentrated exclusively on rap-metal and did it well, nada except for Planet Shock! In fact, one of the only other bands that was doing it at all -- though not at all well -- was Ice T.'s Body Count, for whom Planet Shock! once opened at Prince's Glam Slam club in L.A.
According to Masters, after that show and a few others in the L.A. area, things were never the same. "You know how the Ramones went to England, and after that there was all these cats played like them?" he asks. "I feel like it was like that after Planet Shock! went to L.A. After that, all of a sudden all these Korn/Limp Bizkit kind of bands sort of changed their vibe on how to make music and present themselves. There's even an interview where some dude from Korn even said, 'Oh, we saw this band from Houston.' Planet Shock! opened for them out there back when Korn was in jeans and T-shirts and stuff and then all of a sudden they were, like, sponsored by Adidas and shit." (That interview couldn't be found, but what can be verified online is intriguing: In the liner notes to Korn's platinum debut, Planet Shock! is given "extra special thanks.")
Planet Shock! almost got signed at the time. No fewer than nine labels were courting the band when it broke up after a dispute over direction. Half the band wanted to maintain the rock-based sound and split off to form Aftershock. But Partida wanted to keep innovating. First he got into acid jazz and trip-hop and founded the Soul Rebels. Then in 2001 he formed Dubtex with Masters and Persephone, bassist Ras Medley, percussionist Bryce, singer-percussionist Mr. Rico (formerly of I End Result) and DJ Marc D.
Partida and Masters both see Dubtex as a continuation of the spirit of Planet Shock!, albeit in a completely new package. "We've got the same energy and vibe as Planet Shock! but on a reggae tip, you know?" Masters says. "I think we kept the best part of what we were doing and just took the metal thing out of there altogether. We found a new way to be aggressive. Now, when we want to be aggressive, instead of turning up the guitars we just pump up the dancehall. If we feel like coolin' out, we play some roots, and some hip-hop if we wanna get rowdy."
Dubtex is working on an ambitious full-length album to be released sometime this year, or as soon as its members can resolve a simmering debate about live drums versus drum tracks and round up a few of the mercurial local Trinidadian MCs -- Lenky Don, Tremendous and Mister Black Sheep -- they hope to have as guests. They've already opened locally for some of the biggest names in Jamaican music: Everton Blender, Gregory Isaacs and Eek-A-Mouse. And they've gigged everywhere from Earthwire Studios and warehouse parties to southwest-side reggae halls and the Montrose coffeehouse Helios. Now they're seeking a manager and getting ready to start touring. They hope to do the Houston-Dallas-Austin circuit with Isaacs the next time he's in the country, and Partida is angling to get Dubtex on the Warped Tour.
And since the wheels have apparently fallen off the rap-metal bandwagon that Planet Shock! helped patent, Masters thinks Dubtex is right where it ought to be. "Just like back then we were on the cusp of a big thing about to happen, I think we're on the cusp of the same kind of movement now. If you check out how Sean Paul got that reggae single to cross over into mainstream, like, really strong -- a lot of mainstream bands are checking it out. And then you've got mainstream bands like 311 trying to emulate it. I just think that maybe we're at the right time again."
As for their previous bands' lost shots at Fred Durst levels of superstardom, Masters claims to be glad to have missed out. "I think that both Planet Shock! and Chemtown saw how things were gonna be watered down and we jumped off that train before it got lame, you know?"
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