Here are some of the superlatives you read from scribes far and wide about Rap-A-Lot recording artist Devin the Dude: "Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper...," "the most underrated rapper in hip-hop today...," "the greatest hip-hop artist you've never heard...," "the most uncategorizable figure in all hip-hop..."
All of those superlatives are matters of taste, but even if you don't believe that he's one of the best in the world today (which this writer does), you'll have to agree that he's hard to peg. And the man himself is amused by all the praise, especially when you ask him why he's not a superstar on the level of Eminem or 50 Cent yet. He's not -- he's still pretty much a cult favorite, even though he's dropped guest-verses on records by Dr. Dre, the Roots, De La Soul and Nas.
But his own albums are hard to find. Rap-A-Lot has allowed all of them except his most recent, To Tha X-Treme, to go out of print. Which is a tragedy, because while most MCs are keen to enumerate all the ways they can physically kick your ass, Devin lets his elaborate rhymes and considerable singing expertise do the whipping. He sounds something like Snoop Dogg with better skills and without the L.A. gang aura, a deceptively lazy-voiced fellow who loves sex, weed and booze, and can tell you how and why without ever boring you -- in fact, he keeps you in stitches all the way. Like he says, he's a "cooled-out mellow, chilled-out fellow, smokin'-out kinda dude." And just when you think that's all he can do, he hits with a philosophical rumination like the title track to the 2002 album Just Tryin' Ta Live or X-Treme's "Briar Patch."
Devin the Dude
Brer Rabbit's not the only mythical creature he's written about. On X-Treme's best cut, he also takes on that perpetually soused and/or stoned Southern legend "Cooter Brown." "When we was growin' up we would always hear, 'Well, he was higher than Cooter Brown' or 'He was drunker than Cooter Brown!' And I was like, 'Who is this Cooter Brown? Somebody likes to get fucked up!' But he was, like, this myth. So this song is meant to be what he would say to the world if he was real."
Where most rappers brag about all their illicit conquests in the bedroom, Devin's cheatin' protagonists always get a hilarious comeuppance in the end: They end up frustrated as they pursue their "boom-shakka-lakka" in a van or watch as a muscle-bound Jamaican makes off with their woman. And while most of the Houston rappers you read about and hear on the Box and see on MTV boast ad nauseam about their candy-painted "slabs," Devin's ride is a classic gray 1979 Cadillac Sedan de Ville.
And that old-school car strongly hints at his musical style. His languid flow, penchant for Vocoders and laid-back jams -- you could almost call them "easy listening hip-hop," but that wouldn't do justice to their funkiness -- take you back to about 1980, when hip-hop's cloud was just beginning to take shape above the dying embers of old-school soul and R&B, disco, blues and jazz.
And in Devin's case, classic rock and the funk-blues of pimpalicious Third Ward native Johnny "Guitar" Watson, not to mention "Ambrosia, Steve Miller Band, Eagles, Steely Dan, Paul Simon..." He even likes Paul McCartney and Wings. "Songs like that that I grew up with, like Casey Kasem-type tracks."
We're sitting in the control booth at his Unknown Studios, his little haven tucked in an extremely functional office park next door to an exceedingly ramshackle trailer park in the wilds of the Gulfton barrio. Devin -- born Devin Copeland in Florida and raised there and in northeast Texas and Houston -- is smoking menthol cigarettes and nipping on Budweiser after Budweiser. He says he hopes to have a new solo album by the end of the year, and that the long-awaited Odd Squad reunion album will come after that.
Whether you're interviewing him in person or catch one of his all-too-rare local shows, he has immense charisma -- good vibes blaze from the guy like a lava flow. You can't help but feel better about yourself and the world after talking to him, seeing him perform or even listening to one of his records.
It's a far cry from way too many of today's rappers, who seem either surly, cocky or just plain dumb. Devin says most of those guys have lost the plot big-time. "The thing is, what they forgot about rap now is why it is 'rap.' Rap is rap -- I'm gonna rap to you. It's a conversation. I'm gonna talk to you. And that's all it is. When you really mean something, if you put it in a rhyming thing, it comes across a lot more, because you can remember it. People like Blowfly and Dolemite were the first rappers."
Blowfly, a.k.a. "the Original Dirty Rapper" and "the Porno Freak," is an eccentric sixtysomething Floridian who takes the stage in sparkly wrestler's garb and makes up filthy parodies of soul and R&B songs -- sort of a black, X-rated Weird Al Yankovic. His 1980 song "Rapp Dirty" was a huge influence on both 2 Live Crew and Devin. "I always remember that was one of the first raps I ever heard," Devin recalls. "That was a big anthem in Florida. My parents would play the clean version in front of us every now and then and we would enjoy that. But every time that dirty version came on, it would be like [imitates panicking parents], 'Y'all get over here, leave, go to your room!' And I wondered, 'How could music be that powerful?' So when they was away we would sneak to the stereo and play the dirty parts...It was funny too, it was funny and it was dirty too, and I liked that aspect of it."
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Devin's family lived close to a radio station, and he has recalled raiding the Dumpster for new records. That was where he got a lot of the soft rock stuff, but he also got soul and jazz albums out of there. "Stuff like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five," he says. "It used to just make me wonder, 'How can music come from this plastic thing? This is amazing!' So I used to put the needle on the record and try to find out the words. And I'd hear the words and they would sound good but I just couldn't remember everything, and I wanted to sing the stuff. So I would do it little by little -- I would play a sentence or two, and then I'd lift up the needle and memorize that. Then I'd put the needle back down -- I did that for all the songs that I liked."
One such was the title track to the Quincy Jones album The Dude. "That song -- I thought there was a dude out there like that, a 'Bad Bad Leroy Brown'-type dude," Devin remembers of the song that inspired his unusual rap moniker. "I was like, 'Who is this Dude? Don't fuck with him! He's got his shit together!' "
It was some time later that he saw the album cover. "When I finally saw the album cover, it was like this African sculpture of a pygmy, and it said The Dude. And I was like 'Waaaiiiit a minute. This ain't no dude! This ain't the dude I was looking for!' I thought of him as this big muscle-bound dude with all these bitches around and money and shit. And then I realized it was talking about Quincy Jones -- he was the Dude...It was just based upon a song, and the music was so powerful that the Dude is music in essence. That's what it's all about, what you bring to the studio. When it's done people all around the world can vibe to it and wonder about it."
Wonder. That's the one word you could use to sum up Devin. He and his music are both wonderful, and you wonder why he's not more famous. "When the time comes it comes," he says. "I just gotta prepare myself for it. There's no perfect way to do things here -- there's no certain path in this music industry to be as big as you may wanna be. Every story is so completely different than the next. So I feel that if it's in people's hearts for me to be somewhere else that I'm not, then eventually it will happen. Till then, I've just got to keep doin' what I'm doin' that they appreciate and prepare for the next step."