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?"
Avitia and Kinnamon are serious about their independence, and the business offshoot of that solo spirit is Broken Note Records, a self-funded, wholly self-reliant venture they started three years ago. The Regal Beagle was released on Broken Note in November; other Broken Note acts include Dinosaur Salad, Bickley and former mates 30footFALL. A near constant morale booster for Houston bands, the label has sponsored numerous showcases and released several local compilations.
Although Avitia and Kinnamon may adopt a somewhat communitarian bent as far as the music industry goes, weighty subject matter plays only a tiny role in I-45's musical philosophy. "We're not all about politics," says Avitia. "Lyrically, we write about a lot of things. But we write about the real."
"The really real," Kinnamon adds. "I've been doing this for about five years, and I've rapped with everybody. I've rapped with black guys, white guys, Chinese guys, Mexican guys. And there's a lot of people out there that, in their raps, they'd swear to God that they have broken so many laws. But, whenever you meet these people, they don't do that kind of stuff. They just write bullshit. I can't see myself making music about stuff that I do not do. So I just write about what I know."
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Recently, I-45 had to face a reality that was rather harsh: the temporary loss of mix master Mienelt, who was sent to jail last July on a parole violation. Just recently, the 22-year-old was released and sent to a halfway house at an undisclosed location downtown. Neither Kinnamon nor Avitia will reveal Mienelt's criminal history. "It's just something that he did when he was younger, you know," says Avitia. "It wasn't like murder or anything like that. I mean, you know, it's just...."
Avitia trails off and looks to Kinnamon, who dodges further inquiries. "I have to plead the fifth," he says. "But [Mienelt's] a good guy. And he puts together some phat fuckin' music."
Even so, the absence of their friend and partner doesn't seem to have slowed Avitia and Kinnamon down much. Prior to his incarceration, Mienelt had stockpiled enough new material for a second I-45 CD. That as-yet-untitled release, an EP of live tracks and a few new tunes, is due out on Broken Note in February, with more touring to follow. All of which brings us back to the advantages of the communal approach to which I-45 so firmly subscribes, an approach that only works if everyone involved is willing to work at it.
"If you get a bunch of people together that all wanna chip in something to the pie, people out there can put out their own records and still make a living," Avitia says. "If we can keep doing it that way, that's cool. Either way, we'll keep putting out records, no matter what.