It happens too rarely in any art form. Once or twice in a generation, a person sits at a piano onstage in front of an audience and never plays it, only to challenge the audience’s definition of music. A cornet player from one of the poorest neighborhoods on the planet transforms an entire genre of music by placing importance on solo performance instead of group improvisation. A kid in the South Bronx in the '70s uses turntables and power supplied by nearby lampposts to bring people on the street together, creating this era’s most popular music. In the case of Biz Vicious, nee Brian Eley, the ripples have just left the shore and his effect is just starting to take shape.
Rapper, community organizer and professional swing dancer, Biz Vicious has reluctantly emerged as one of Houston’s most gifted lyricists and performers. The subjects of many of his songs range from sexuality and identity to social constructs and marginalization. The fluidity of his verses border on spoken word and performance; however, he possesses hooks and punchlines for days. His pop sensibilities make it easy to overlook his lyrical cleverness.
Vicious owes just as much to Faulkner and Hemingway as he does Big Sean and Drake. His LGBTQ themes are unparalleled. Despite Lil’ Wayne’s recent signing of “first openly gay rapper” Fly Young Red, whose first single “Throw That Boy Pussy” comes across like Nicki Minaj’s scintillating and hypersexual “Anaconda,” Vicious approaches his sexuality with transparency and ease.
“I was helping to support my then-fiancé during graduate school, and my instruments were stolen. I had recently stopped performing as a ballroom dancer, so my creative outlets were gone,” Vicious explains one Sunday afternoon under the covered patio of Double Trouble. “A friend of mine suggested that I get Garageband for my phone, and smugly I responded, ‘Oh, yeah, I am going to make music on my phone on Garageband.’ I went ahead and tried it, spent a weird couple of months producing my first tracks like a baby animal trying to acquire its footing. Once I did, I would start working on tracks while on the bus on my way to and from work, which was a perfect way to get these weird people to stop talking to me.”
Not only did Vicious create the beats on his phone, but he recorded his vocals on it as well. He became a regular and noteworthy freestyle performer at ciphers around Austin, but for his first record, last year's We Lurk Among You — one of the best debut albums in Houston's abundantly rich hip-hop history — he chose to write down his rhymes and verses. On the album’s opening salvo, “Bumping,” the initiatory rites call to mind Busy Bee’s call-and-response trademark line “Baw-to-the-baw.” Yet Vicious places a spin on hip-hop history by finishing the line with “…up jumps the bullshit,” and begins to question hip-hop’s place when dealing with bigotry. He declares war on homophobics in “Bumping,” calls out racists on “Sick Cadence Cicadas,” identifies misogynistic types on “She,” and extols polyamory on “Polyolyoxenfree."
Sure, hip-hop historians can easily refer to Frank Ocean’s subtextual references to same-sex relationships, Drake’s obvious dissing of homophobes on several tracks and Immortal Technique’s socially astute observations on historical racism. On the other hand, what distinguishes Biz Vicious from the three aforementioned superstars is that he pieces all three together without appearing openly demonstrative.
“For a long time, I was so antithetical to everything,” Vicious muses. “Before I got back into rap, I was listening to indie-rock music. My sister would reference hip-hop songs and I would not know what she was talking about. Other people would do the same, and I declared that I must be the verifiably worst person on the planet to speak to right now.”
This did not last, however. Full re-immersion into hip-hop ensued. Vicious' personality as a performer had existed since his youth. His level of self-awareness, although discounted often by his own estimation, elevates his ability to piece together so many themes that in the hands of others come out disjointed. Yet these experiences came with a price.
Recently, Vicious was diagnosed with Cyclothymia, an often mischaracterized “milder” form of bipolar disorder that cycles between manic and depressive events. During his time as an inpatient at a psychiatric facility, Vicious began to feel liberated by his diagnosis. He embraced the label, took ownership of it and discovered the gifts that it can bestow: increased intuitiveness, hyper-focus, enhanced creativity and empathy. He stood at the precipice and decided to reflect on these personal events in order to move on from them.
Even more recently, his best friend committed suicide. A day prior to his friend’s death, his fiancée decided to dissolve their lifelong commitment. Tempestuous forces came unbridled. When it rains, it truly pours. The overwhelming waves of emotion finally took its toll. Again, he drifted into a deep state of depression and faced yet another obstacle to overcome.
But between these cataclysmic events, silver linings emerged. Vicious came into contact with a collective of local producers called Prints Not Prince. A friend of his from Notsuoh knew of his talent and praised his performances. Eventually, word got around to producer/musician FLCON FCKER. Vicious’ first encounter was stoic; he realized the conglomeration meant nothing but business. FLCON FCKER provided sound advice to Vicious after thanking him for allowing him to perform on a Prints Not Prince bill: Just don’t fuck up.
Neither tomfoolery nor fucking up took place that night. In fact, Vicious’ performance made a strong impression on FLCON FCKER, thus forging a new beginning and a strong bond between the two ever since. Currently, both FLCON FCKER and Biz Vicious have been hard at work on Vicious’ followup to We Lurk Among You.
“I kind of got de facto got pulled into [Prints not Prince]," he says. "It is pretty tight to me to be with a collective of mostly producers and DJs, and Nikkhoo and I are the only rappers in it.”
In addition to working with FLCON FCKER musically, he also lent his visual prowess to the ongoing project.
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“The video for ‘Sick Cadence Cicadas’ [created by FLCON FCKER and director Ronald L. Jones] was a great time because we are all friends and we just got together and went for it," Vicious says. "It was my second video shoot and first time where I wasn't recording everything myself. I feel like the video is a really good representation of how talented and diverse the artists in our scene are. I'm so into the idea of coming up parallel to the homies, but all in our own space and time and of our own individual merit.
"No one can get lazy but everyone gets the time they need to be the person and artist who they want to be," he continues. "When any of us link up like this, or Raymond A from Def Perception and Alex Zamora from the Suffers doing the Riot EP or Josiah Gabriel and Perseph One doing Moon Guns, it always seems like a magic moment to me. It's like the moments when you form everlasting inside jokes. but we get to share it with everyone in some way.”
What rises must also converge, and this sudden convergence of talent bolstered Vicious into the present local spotlight; he's currently up for a Houston Press Music Award for Best Rapper. Countless musical and video projects coupled with the current demand for his performances make him not only a rapper to make Houston proud, but sets the stage for Vicious to emerge from this great city with great promise and pride.
Biz Vicious lends his DJing skills at this weekend's Dykon Fagatron event along with FLCON FCKER at Crocker Bar (2312 Crocker) this Saturday. Starts at 10 p.m.