In its homemade press release, hot off the copiers at the corner Kinko's, Houston's ragtag (yes, the name is intentionally lowercase) proudly characterizes itself as a "lyrical quintet" that unites "vocal sounds from three cultures to provide one hip-hop melody which can be enjoyed by all." As idealistic and nonthreatening as that might sound, though, the real ragtag isn't a strictly defined "up with people" experience.
"Basically, the idea [of the group] is like, you know, the name," says guitarist Fred Martinez. "[It's] like a group of people with an unkempt lifestyle getting together."
In one form or another, ragtag -- Martinez, rapper/vocalist Tony Henderson, bassist Craig Stevens, turntable ace Mike Weatherly and drummer Benito Coronado -- has been waving its funky, rap-metal freak flag in Houston clubs since 1995. On Sundays, they meet religiously for rehearsal at the home of Coronado's father. You could call the group a culturally correct answer to Rage Against the Machine, or perhaps a ballsier, more anarchic Sugar Ray. But there's more to it than that -- something decidedly less ... definable.
Pre-ragtag, California native Martinez and native Texans Stevens and Coronado were in the Latino death-metal outfit Nesga. As for the tastes of Pasadena's Weatherly, they range from the urban poetry of Boogie Down Productions to the synth-drenched Euro-wave of Depeche Mode. Henderson, meanwhile, is a diehard Tupac fan (he has four tattoos devoted to the deceased rapper), but he also digs Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone.
"We do a lot more than just hard rock or heavy metal and hip-hop. We also throw some funk," Martinez says. "We throw some laid-back rhythms and shit. Everybody comes from a different background. Everybody has got their own influences, and we basically bring it all to the table."
Given that boundless aesthetic, it wasn't easy finding a vocalist who could stomach ragtag's mix-and-match habits -- that is, until Henderson entered the picture. "When I joined the band, I told them basically what I was about and where I was coming from," says Henderson, who also serves as the band's lyricist and most fervent spokesman. "I've had my share of living in the ghetto, going to college, working for corporate America, seeing what's going on. Through my lyrics and things like that, I want to expose all that."
Originally, Henderson shared the mike with another emcee by the name of Doc, until the latter left for Austin a year and a half ago to work, according to Henderson, "on one of those herb farms." With a single, outspoken frontman leading the way, things began to click for ragtag, and the group began finding gigs at the typical watering holes and the occasional classier venue.
When they weren't engaged in the nightly grind, they found novel ways to get the word out about the band. One scheme involved entering a contest organized by a small California label called Rodell Records, which was trolling for up-and-coming talent to be included on its Songs of the Underground compilation. As it turns out, ragtag found itself among the 20 acts chosen out of 20,000 entrants worldwide. Closer to home, ragtag has appeared on a multi-act CD compiled by Houston's Broken Note label, the imprint run by Tony Avitia of subversive hip-hop act I-45.
But ragtag's unprecedented break came in the form of a seven-track demo the group recorded, which happened to fall into well-connected hands. "Scarface's little brother, Warren Lee, heard the tape and asked if he could borrow it," Henderson says.
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Next came an aborted meeting or two at the offices of Houston's Rap-A-Lot Records, Scarface's longtime home base. Eventually, label CEO James Smith came around, and a contract came into the picture. A reported five-album deal (with an option for a sixth release) was struck last September, and while no one will talk about the precise figures involved, the ragtaggers seem more than satisfied with their take. "We got the percentages that we wanted; we got the publishing that we wanted," says Henderson straight up.
One of the band's first obligations to Rap-A-Lot was their contribution to Scarface's latest release, the ensemble epic My Homies. Next comes the group's own full-length release, which is currently in the works. Dubbed Evol Genie, the album includes appearances by Scarface and Yukmouth, as well as a scheduled guest appearance by Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man. Henderson says many of Evol Genie's tunes -- including the title track -- are indicative of the group's read-between-the-lines philosophies on life in a world without a conscience.
"I feel that cancer, AIDS, leukemia, all that shit -- that's a conspiracy like a muthafucka," Henderson snaps. "I think that they got a cure for it. But you find a cure for cancer, you get no treatment, doctors don't get paid and so forth. So I guess what I'm really trying to be is an investigator -- a Wayne Dolcefino/rapper. I'm trying to bring all that shit to the forefront because I ain't scared. [And] these guys here, they come with their own style. That's what I love."
Lightening the mood somewhat, Martinez adds: "[We] just shake it around, and we end up with all different styles within our songs. It's like when you go up and you see us, you're gonna like something in the band.