In far northside Houston, we sit in a cave. At least that's what 28-year-old Ruben Reyes calls his apartment/music studio. The streets call him Coast.
Somehow the cave reference was an indication that nothing about Coast, or our conversation with him, was going to be normal. We were right — at first.
We sit side by side, slouched on a couch, facing in the same direction in a dark, unlit living room, staring at a white wall — not facing each other where we can speak face to face.
A large lamp, whose ceiling-high, skinny stem arches dramatically over the love seat we've planted ourselves on, doesn't work. It isn't a lamp, after all; it's just a prop. A calming noise of bubbling and splashing water sets the tone for a two-hour back and forth, but a closer look at the source of the waterfall-like sound reveals it's a makeshift aquarium — what seems like a plastic see-through box with fish in it.
As bizarre, and maybe a little prehistoric, as the setting sounds, it's fitting for an artist for whom randomness and peculiarity are somewhat normal — to him, at least.
Take his video "I Can't Complain," a catchy life anthem for the working class: those who struggle to make the rent, get relationships right or are being evicted from a FEMA trailer.
At the beginning of the video, there's a random baby doll being held by its tired mother in an upstairs bedroom of a home. She hands it to a man who appears to be its father. The baby doll urinates in the father's face, and he reactively throws the toy out of the window into the yard.
Through special effects, the doll morphs into Coast, and the video continues with the baby doll never reappearing. The doll shows up again in random photos on his MySpace page, simply out of place in friend photos. The significance?
"I like dumb stuff like that," says Coast. "There's no real significance. It's part of me being weird. I'm a big kid, dude."
Coast was the kid who grew up on 59 North between Tidwell and Parker, in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Epsom Downs. He was the kid who grew up in a musical family, where his father played the guitar and the harmonica and his sister and uncles could also pluck guitar strings and twirl drumsticks with ease.
He was the kid from humble beginnings who was also part of a musical legacy that didn't look anything like his friends' legacies of painting homes or hanging drywall, like their immigrant fathers did, and how they do now.
His friends couldn't tell you their dreams because they didn't have any. Coast did, and they knew that.
"When I was younger, gangs were a big deal," he says. "They would feel like if something is going to happen, we have to make sure it doesn't happen to this guy."
Their protectiveness allowed Coast to grow up to be one of the handful of offspring born of the Dope House Records legacy, South Park Mexican's groundbreaking label.
While with Dope House, Coast was one-half of Twin Beredaz, a duo signed to the label from 2002 to 2005. The other half was a rapper named Quota Key.
Their self-titled album, their only project released while with the label in 2002, was a sharp contrast to other Dope House music, and quickly set Coast apart as a distinctive character with a unique rap-singing style within South Park Mexican's stable.
The album became a timeless collection piece for Houston's Latino underground hip-hop followers. For some die-hard Coast fans, who weren't avid followers of hip-hop to begin with, Twin Beredaz was the jumping-off point.
That's actually a common sentiment expressed by old and new fans of Coast. "I wasn't a big fan of hip-hop before, but now after listening to Coast..." recurs in reader reviews of his music throughout the Internet. Perhaps what they saw in Coast that attracted them to an unfamiliar music genre was a frustrated, bubbling musician — just a plain ole musician — who simply wanted to make songs. Hip-hop was merely an entry point.
"I don't want to be a Latin rap artist," says Coast. "I don't want to be a rap artist. I just want to be an artist."
Emerging from Dope House in 2005 as a one-man force, his style has evolved the last five years from shedding the lyricist skin, to singing more than rapping, to adopting a predominantly singer-type coat, to now — as he describes his developing album, Lively-Hood — "This is me not getting out, not knowing what music is supposed to sound like.
"I'm not trying to be super-lyrical, like the best lyricist in the world, but I am trying to break that color barrier, if you can call it that," he says. "That's why I approach the soul more than anything. The best way I feel I can connect with other people is just displaying myself, like my own heart.
"Everybody's got heart," he continues. "Some show it a little bit, some show it a lot, but everybody's got one. That's the power of being yourself."
So who is Coast, really? What he's not is an artist who hits the road doing countless shows; he doesn't get out much — hence the cave reference — and he hasn't mounted up an encyclopedia-long discography of albums and mixtapes.
Since Twin Beredaz, Coast has released five projects: What Was Once Lost in 2004; NAWF 2 in 2007; Thinking Out Loud in 2008; and both Back to Bossin' and Thinking Out Loud 2: Thoughts on the Wall in 2009, all under his label, Epsom Entertainment.
With that, Coast has built a national underground fanbase and there are whispers of overseas followings in Germany, Australia and Japan. They are people who like music that touches the heart and soul and that tells stories of struggle, confusion and perseverance.
His is music that allows them to be proud of their poverty or boastful of their baby-mama drama, versus singing along to lyrics that talk of a life they can't or never will lead, one full of material possessions and Hollywood lifestyles that are simply not reality.
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"I think in my head that people who listen to my stuff are the people who have regular jobs," he says. "They might have a kid or two running around. They don't go to clubs. They are paying bills, getting by month to month. And in their living room, right next to the TV, they have a collection of their CDs.
"I'm thinking I'm that artist," he continues. "I'm one of the CDs in that collection. And I want to maintain that. I'm not concerned with being a superstar."
Perhaps that's not part of his evolution. Just being a caveman in the dark is fine with him.
In fact, after talking with Coast, the notion never sounded more normal.