Few American cities are as musically intertwined as Houston and Memphis. Think back to Duke-Peacock Records -- a label founded in Memphis and moved to Houston that featured Memphis singers Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland singing the songs of Houston guys like Joe Medwick, Johnny Copeland and Texas Johnny Brown and backed by the masterful arrangements of Houstonian Joe Scott and the playing of other locals such as Teddy Reynolds, Pete Mayes and Clarence Hollimon. B.B. King's bands have always featured a few H-town cats -- notably trumpeter Calvin Owens, who served as his bandleader for years. And that symbiosis continued through the soul years and right on up to rap. Memphis guys like Eightball and MJG, for example, have always considered Houston a second home.
After all, the cities aren't that different -- sultry Southern inland ports that reek of barbecue, albeit pork in Memphis and beef in Houston. And it continues today with the North Mississippi Allstars' new Electric Blue Watermelon chopped and screwed EP, one of the first of a growing number of rock and roll testaments to the late DJ Screw.
I caught up with the trio in the Meridian's green room just before their packed show here last week. Drummer-electric washboard shredder Cody Dickinson had the idea for the project, and in talking to him and his guitar-playing, singing brother Luther and bassist Chris Chew, one thing becomes real clear real fast: Of all the rock bands I've talked to over the years, only the Drive By Truckers have anything close to the level of knowledge of H-town rap these guys have. Not many rock bands send out props to Swishahouse's Michael Watts, for example. "Michael Watts is technically one of the best DJs I've ever heard," Cody says. "Screwed stuff aside, even on just normal speed. Just the way he manipulates records is bad."
North Mississippi Allstars
Cody says he's been bangin' the screw for a couple of years now. "I first got into chopped and screwed music through Three Six Mafia's [2003 release] Da Unbreakables," he says, while picking over a mixed grill from nearby District 7 restaurant. "I just thought it was so innovative, 'cause I like psychedelic rock -- the idea of Hendrix taking acid and writing Electric Ladyland appealed to me, and this is similar. The whole codeine cough syrup and DJs thing And it's so new and fresh-sounding. So my partner Rhollo and I had the idea to do the Allstars."
This was in the summer of 2004. Cody had just recorded a few of the songs for the Electric Blue Watermelon LP, and he had a day off here thanks to the fact that Hurricane Ivan had forced the cancellation of their show in Baton Rouge. His Mississippi buddy Rhollo had a few connections in Houston, so he was able to hook Cody up with the real deal: DJ Jimmy D of the Labb, a recording studio off Mykawa in deep South Park. For Cody, this was quite an eye-opening experience. As he put it in the liner notes to the EP, "I couldn't believe the scene before my eyes. I had never seen more gold grills, platinum afro picks, and all around bling bling shazaam in all my life. I was glad I had a 12-pack of Budweiser and five Honey Buns, because I needed to make some friends. Fast."
"The vibe there was intense, man," he says now. "It really reminded me of Memphis."
After hanging out at the Labb for a few hours, sippin' syrup and killing time, Cody was starting to get frustrated. As he put in the notes, "I was totally impressed but growing weary My syrup cocktail was starting to kick in, and I had no screwed songs. That's when DJ Jimmy D showed up. I'm telling you when he walked in he parted all the wannabes and hangers-on like a river Jimbo is the Kobe Bryant of the turntable, the Michael Jordan of screwed and chopped."
Hyperbole? After a listen to the EP, I would say definitely not. From the eerie opening wa-wa guitar licks to the kick-ass closer, this little 24-minute sucker is awesome. It's chopped in all the right spots, and Luther's voice is deepened to a Muddy Waters rumble. What's more, you can hear every nuance of his sizzling Mississippi Fred McDowell-style guitar licks. The same goes for the guests: "Robert Randolph is on one of the cuts, and you can finally hear what the fuck he was playing," Cody says with a laugh, referring to "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down," the EP's closing cut. And, I might add, his steel sounds really cool screwed -- there are whole new realms of sonic texture in there to be heard.
The Allstars were already innovating on the regular-speed LP -- it's one of the first blues-based rock albums to weave in scratching and Dirty South raps (courtesy of Al Kapone of Hustle & Flow fame), and this is the next step. On playing it for Kapone for the first time back in Memphis at historic Ardent Studios, Cody had this to say: "Al is a man of few words, but he couldn't say enough about what we were doing. 'Revolutionary' was one of the words he used."
And revolutionary it is. Ever since the national breakout of Houston rap, screwed and chopped rock CDs have become something of a trend. (Among other bands, punks the Transplants have one now, theirs screwed by Paul Wall.) Cody wants it to be known that his was the first. "We had done that almost a year ago, before Paul Wall and even before Mike Jones broke big. I know now that a lot of rock bands are getting their stuff chopped and screwed, but at the time we were the only one."
And in case you were wondering, yes, Cody is a devotee of codeine, but like a lot of screw fans, he likes to jam screw sober, too. "Codeine is awesome, man, it's my favorite high. That shit could bring me down -- any other drug, I can take it or leave it. I just love it. But the music's still good without it. It sounds so great in the South in the summer -- it's humidity music, psychedelic rap. And that's why I thought the hippies would like it. It's kind of an obvious, dumb idea, but it really works."
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Few clubs have ever embodied this city's live music experience as much as Rockefeller's did in the 1980s and beyond. It was the place, whether your bag was rock, country, blues, jazz or world music, and all the greats played the intimate converted bank on the corner of Washington Avenue and Heights Boulevard. For the next few weeks, you can relive those days at Brazos Projects, the gallery space next door to Brazos Bookstore on Bissonnet. Its "Twenty-Five Years of Rockefeller's" exhibit showcases dozens of photographs, concert posters and Bob Claypool concert reviews from the club's glorious run, which saw performances by dozens of Grammy Lifetime Achievement award-winners and scores of members of several different music halls of fame -- everyone from Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles to Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Dave Matthews and Lyle Lovett. One picture at the exhibit finds Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker all on stage together. And hell, I guess this is as good a place as any to throw one of my Rockefeller's memories out there. I was about 16, sitting with Bob Claypool and my dad at a Patty Loveless show. My dad had knocked back a few Bud longnecks and was singing along with Loveless extremely stridently and enthusiastically, if none too melodically. I turned to Claypool and said, "Sorry, I've never heard him sing like that." Claypool leveled his Coke-bottle gaze on me and deadpanned, "I've never heard anyone sing like that." The exhibit runs through February 2; gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Free.
It's yet another busy week for Leesa Harrington-Squyres. On Wednesday night, she'll be at Dan Electro's pounding the skins in the power trio the Rehabiliteens, which also features old Band of Wonder mates Eric Dane and Chris King. (I caught 'em a couple of weeks ago, and I've never seen Dane shred the way he does in this group. His playing on their cover of Eddy Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train" was up to Shaver's towering standards.) Friday morning she'll be up at the crack of dawn with her power-pop band Orange Is In to film a spot for Fox 26's new local music morning show segment, Fox Rox. And on Saturday night, Orange Is In will release its full-length debut, Another Lame Semi-Tragedy, at Rudyard's. A couple of listens in, I can attest that Semi-Tragedy is anything but -- it's a terrific slab of mature, modern power pop with violin accents courtesy of Amy Price. Two other first-call local pop-rockers -- SkyBlue72 and Arthur Yoria -- are also on the bill.