A little over a year ago, a then-unknown rapper named Doughbeezy was hustling through an open-stage showcase called Kickback Sundays at far north Houston clothing store SF2.
Organized and run by the SF2's owners, Teresa Waldon and Suzie Rivera, Kickback Sundays were a near-instant success. The event both directly helped build a sense of community among Houston's growing underclass of rappers, and indirectly helped identify which among them was not shitty.
The best were championed, the others tolerated. Better, though, nobody was placated. Each week, the crowd voted a winner. It became an honest proving ground.
Doughbeezy, who calls himself "The Southeast Beast" to honor his Southeast Houston roots, was a mainstay. The event started at 7 p.m., but he'd arrive between 4 and 5 p.m. It ended at 10 p.m., and he'd leave after everyone else was gone, working whoever looked like they needed to be worked, charming whoever looked like they needed to be charmed.
He attended every single week throughout Kickback Sundays' first season. More importantly, along the way he established himself as one of Houston's most lethal rap prospects, a light-speed emcee with an instantly recognizable voice — slightly pinched, noticeably cool. He also had an impeccable trademark in his bald fade haircut, always perfectly manicured, and a built-in old wives' tale as a backstory.
The rumor goes that Doughbeezy memorizes all of his songs without ever writing them down.
"I haven't picked up a pen to write in...I don't know," he swears. "I've probably used a pen three times in the last five years. And I have the worst memory. I forget everything. But for some reason I can remember all of my rhymes.
"I just need some time and some space," Doughbeezy continues. "I like to roam around while I write it in my head. I use a pen in my head, but not on a paper."
The tipping point happened in January 2011, when, on his rumble towards another victory, he earned unsolicited praise from Killa Kyleon, an arch-hustler and unanimously respected cog in Houston's underground rap scene.
Following that, Doughbeezy has flourished. Outside Kirko Bangz, no young Houston rapper has seen his reputation and visibility rise more in the past year, a confluence of talent and a superheroic work ethic.
For the next few months, there were a hundred Doughbeezys (Doughbeezies?). He was everywhere, always, all the time, like a real-life Internet meme. And it didn't matter if he was billed to perform or not — concert, listening party, baby shower, bar mitzvah, whatever — if there was a somewhere to be, he was rapping.
"I didn't care what was going on," says Doughbeezy. "I felt like people weren't gonna know I was a rapper if I didn't rap. Rappers rap. So I'd just perform. If they didn't let me onstage, I'd go perform in the parking lot. It didn't matter."
"I'd watch who people were talking to, see what was going on, then I'd go talk to them," he says. "I'd find out who was in charge of booking the shows or who was organizing what event and go and find them."
"I figured if I let it be known that I was out there, good things would happen," says Doughbeezy. "I ain't gonna lie, it hurt my pockets. It was hard, but it was what I needed to do, so I did it."
"And since the music was good, things rolled."
He used to work as Tai, cake decorator for Walmart. Now, for the first time in his career, he's turning down show opportunities.
Doughbeezy recently sold out his first headlining concert, held at Warehouse Live's Studio room (capacity: 450), an occurrence he recalls with a "Man...," and then a heavy breath.
He's toured with Dom Kennedy, a nationally known rapper whom he now considers a peer. And his first proper album, Blue Magic, an honest, auspicious project featuring contributions from Bun B, Slim Thug, Killa Kyleon and Kirko Bangz, came out last month to massive fan acclaim.
"I was feeling some kind of way," Doughbeezy says about the few moments before he asked Bun for a verse. "I was like, I think he knows my face and I think he knows there's someone named Doughbeezy, but I don't know if he knows I'm the same person [laughs].
"I don't ever be nervous around any rappers," he adds, "but my respect level is so high for him that I was nervous."
And now, because the universe is the universe, he's hosting Kickback Sundays' new season.
"I thought that with Dough being one of the main guys from the first time around that he'd make a great host," says SF2's Waldon. "He knows what it takes and he's cool with everyone. I mean everyone. It doesn't matter if you're a Slim Thug or a no-name performing for the first time. He's so personable, and people really respond to that."
He guides the evening without a hiccup, encouraging performers and calling them out for being ill-prepared if need be. He needles those who need to be needled and, in the end, gauges the crowd's responses to determine a winner.
The irony isn't lost on him.
"Yeah, it's crazy, but with that, I just wanted to help out," explains Doughbeezy. "I wanted to help them the way I'd been helped in my career. Killa was the first one to really reach his hand out, and he didn't want anything in return.
"I felt like I needed to do that too," he says. "And with Kickback Sundays, that and the Best Rapper in Texas contest, that was really where I made my name."
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Oh yeah, BTW, he won a contest called Best Rapper in Texas three months in a row. They had to retire him from participating.
Earlier in the day, he was in Austin, following a show he had. After Kickback Sunday, he was filming part of a music video he's in, and encouraged the fans to stick around to be in it too. And after that, he'll leave and go to the studio. Because that's his life now.
"I just want to build my brand," says Doughbeezy. "Nobody's gonna give me anything. That I know. So I stay out here."
Working on a different kind of cake now, it seems.