Underachievers and perpetual disappointments -- for years you could describe both the Texas rap scene and the Texas Longhorns football team as such. In the last year, that's all changed, and I believe the Horns couldn't have done it without the rappers. The athletes fed off the confidence of the rappers, who imbued them with a swagger seldom seen in Austin.
You could see it in their composed play on the field January 4, and you could hear it in their confident words before the game. During the long layoff between the Big 12 Championship and the Rose Bowl kickoff, someone asked superhuman Texas quarterback and hometown hero Vince Young if the Horns were a little "intimidated" by Southern Cal and their 34-game winning streak. After all, the school was located in one of America's toughest 'hoods, and many of its players came Straight Outta Compton and South Central, the same areas that produced the Crips and Bloods, Suge Knight and N.W.A. VY was having none of it.
"Intimidated by what?" Young said. "We have guys on this team who are gangsta. You see their guys [talking trash] to other teams and the other guys aren't talking back. Our guys will talk trash from beginning to end."
UT and Texas rap
That wasn't the case 15 years ago, when Texas faced Miami in the Cotton Bowl in 1991. There, the apparently resurgent Longhorns rode a nine-game winning streak all the way to a matchup with the fourth-ranked Miami Hurricanes, and these 'Canes were quite likely the most gangsta team in that most gangsta of program's history.
The Horns, meanwhile, were coached by good ol' boy David McWilliams, a protégé of Texas legend Darrell Royal, whose 1969 squad was the last all-white team to win a national championship. For the next 25 years, with a few notable exceptions like Earl Campbell, black Texan high school athletes often shunned Texas for programs where the color line had broken earlier, schools like Oklahoma, Colorado and Notre Dame. Thus the 1990 UT squad was still a whiter team than most -- certainly much whiter than the 'Canes -- a Garth Brooks bunch going head to head against the hip-hop Hurricanes.
And the Horns were thoroughly intimidated. The 'Canes racked up two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties before they even touched the ball. Faced with first and 40 on their opening possession, Miami converted with ease and went on to taunt and trash-talk all the way to an opening-drive touchdown. And they continued to brawl and mock the Horns all afternoon, en route to a 43-point victory that came in spite of an astounding 200-plus yards in penalties (many for taunting and/or cheap shots).
That game was like an early Mike Tyson fight: ugly, unfair, brutal and the bad guys won. This spectacle of Miami vice so alarmed the NCAA that it promptly enacted most of the anti-taunting and celebration rules that are still in effect today. But Miami did demonstrate complete physical and, more important, psychological superiority and showed that the Horns were most definitely not ready for prime time. They had fallen way behind in the gangsta stakes.
Meanwhile, at about the same time that the NCAA was legislating against the 'Canes' hooliganism, Tipper Gore and the PRMC were railing in Congress against the team's unofficial musical mascot: Miami's raunchy 2 Live Crew, whose front man Luther Campbell had a sideline pass to all their games and who allegedly paid players $500 for each big hit or touchdown. Gangsta indeed.
While the 'Canes have since toned it down just a little, they still contend for the national title just about every year, much to the chagrin of every non-psychopath outside Miami. At least the day of 2 Live Crew's wack beats and weak rhymes has come and gone -- hell, the players on the Miami team themselves outdid them by actually making a song called "The Seventh Floor Crew" that was as sleazy as anything Luther and his boys ever came up with.
Texas limped away from the Cotton Bowl like a beaten mutt and whimpered in mediocrity for another decade. Meanwhile, after the limited success of the Geto Boys in the early 1990s, Texas rap did much the same. The Horns always choked in the big games, and our rappers were content to remain underground legends on the Gulf Coast. Texas was a football and hip-hop backwater -- chock-full of talent and regional forces, but unrecognized and disrespected by the nation at large.
All that changed this year. Vince Young -- the first UT quarterback born in the age of hip-hop -- brought not just his freakish physical gifts to Austin (instead of Miami, where he almost signed up) but also a southside swagger and H-town strut the ever-rigid Horns had always lacked. Already the tales have become legend -- how Vince talked coach Mack Brown into letting him be himself on the field (where Brown installed a more freewheeling offense better suited to Young's talents) and off, where the team was allowed to have hip-hop "flow sessions" in the locker room and during pregame warm-ups. Out went the old-school, stoic, Vince Lombardi ideal of grimly scowling in your locker, "putting on your game face" -- and in came what looked like deleted scenes from Hustle and Flow. (You can see Young leading the team through one such session at www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2681600.)
And the players even persuaded Brown -- a fiftysomething native of small-town Tennessee -- to fill up his iPod with rap. "I don't think I was out of touch, but when we were kids, [our parents] were talking about Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash being rebels and cussing, 'They're ruining our music!"' Brown told a reporter last year. "Now, we're saying some of the rap music is so vulgar and so awful and they're ruining our music. It's no different, it's the times.
"What I needed to do was a little better job staying up with their times, not just my times," he said. "It's made a difference in my happiness and enjoying them more. I think they probably laugh at me more."
Whatever -- it worked. The hip-hop Horns have won since October 2004, and they have done so with both confidence and class. While Young is right when he says they are "gangsta," they are most decidedly not the cheap-shot thugs that made Miami infamous. They are gangstas who fight fair.
But what were they listening to? Since I couldn't get ahold of VY or any of the players before or after the game, I had to guess. I would say that both Paul Wall's "They Don't Know" and Bun B's "Draped Up" would have been hits in that locker room, and if I was Vince Young I would certainly be feeling his southside homeboy Z-Ro's "Respect My Mind," since the national media did their usual quasi-racist number of crediting the white Matt Leinart with being the more "cerebral" of the two signal-callers, even though Young's quarterback rating was second to none.
But those are just shots in the dark. One jam I know they were blasting was "Game Day," by Austin's Mic'Rich. Late one night outside KPFT studios just before their appearance on the underground rap show Damage Control, I caught up with the eponymous Mike Richardson and the track's producer Tim Curry. As "Game Day" blasted from an SUV's speakers, they told me the story of how their song became the Longhorns' theme.
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"I was riding in my car one day and it just hit me like a phenomenon," Richardson said. "I like Texas music and I'm from Texas, but everything I hear is about Houston. I'm from Austin, over in the other part of Texas, but still in Texas. So let's do a song about Austin. But what does Austin have? We don't have no major-league football team or basketball team, so what do we have? The Longhorns. And we are all die-hard Longhorn fans, so I thought, 'Hey, let's do a Longhorn song.' "
Richardson met up with Curry in mid-December, and in two days they had the song, which features verses from Nealio, Be Be Kids, Krumwell and Silky Black and an intro from Longhorn receiver Brian Carter. There are also snippets of "The Eyes of Texas," UT marching band drum cadences, faux rednecks hollering "yee-haw," rhymes touting Vince Young, Jamaal Charles and Mack Brown, and shout-outs to many of the team's stars. The chorus is simple: "When you see us on Game Day throw them horns up." While "Game Day" might not be hip-hop's finest moment, it does beat the hell out of "The Super Bowl Shuffle" and certainly is a must-have for any Horn fan that is also into rap. (For now, the best place to track down a copy is to visit the Web site micrichmusic.com/home.html.)
The track found its way to the team in Los Angeles and back in Austin, where commentator (and former Longhorn star) Brian Jones gave it a push during his local and regional TV and radio appearances. Then Austin's rap station got on board, and the tune blew up simultaneously with both the team and the city of Austin. "That was the song that was playing at the Rose Bowl on the big speakers," Curry says. "When you saw them on ESPN and they were dancing around, that was what they were dancing to. We're friends with Brian Carter, and he told us the shit was bigger with the team than we could ever imagine. It's on Mack Brown's iPod."
A lot of things have grown bigger than we could have ever imagined a couple of years ago -- not least of them Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns and the Texas rap that took them to the mountaintop.