Baby, You're a Star

Talking to Simpleton's downtown headquarters from the Press's offices can be scary. At the nearby bus station, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice drops off a Greyhound full of embittered and aimless parolees every day. Many of them are said to dwell under the Pierce Elevated, far from the watchful eyes of their parole officers.

I was walking under the Pierce when a couple of tough-looking guys approached, identically dressed in what looked to be prison-release-issue white tees and blue slacks. Great. I lowered my eyes to a baby food jar filled with must have been the urine of a seriously diseased person. Life downtown is full of such mildly unsettling experiences.

Suddenly, what sounded exactly like a rifle's report thundered through the air. I winced in alarm. A nearby flock of pigeons erupted into the sky. Cars stopped on Milam as people looked for a sniper. Even the parolees looked scared.

It was a tremendous relief to make it to Simpleton's high-rise apartment. But I had taken perhaps an appropriate journey to meet the most urban rock band in Houston. Their sound is sophisticated, suave, sprawling and a little sleazy in the best possible way, and its fusion of punk and rap melds the two mainstreams of black and white city music of the last 25 years.

"The reason we started this band was that before, we were all in these hard-core bands that nobody would have dug," says front man BC, who was born Brian Clements. "It was this supersecret underground shit, technical fucking underground crap. So when we started Simpleton, our concept was this: Make music that was acceptable to the masses, and once it was deciphered and figured out by actual music fans, they would dig it also. If you are a songwriter or musician or a true music fan, we want you to dig it just as much as a nonchalant 104 listener. We're not trying to be smart or anything like that."

The approach works. On one recent evening, Simpleton's Lima-era Astros anthem "Milo" attracted some attention as it blared out of the juke at Cecil's. A nicotine-seasoned voice drawled over a funky rock groove, "Maybe one day, the World Se-ries," and then the song closed with a furious, bash-your-head-against-the-wall chanting of "Astros just get it on." Who are these guys? Two Cecil's patrons were instantly hooked. One was this writer. The other was a total stranger. Both of us hustled over to the box to find out who this stunning band was.

Yes, they're a rap-rock band, but few bands of their ilk have their musicianship and lyrical quality. Simpleton sounds just commercial enough to get on the radio and cooler than just about everything else on the rock dial. Though none of them has a jazz background, their music flows like the honey that came out of Charlie Parker's sax. Elsewhere, Jon Black's ghettodelic guitar, Marc Armaos's propulsive upright bass and Beans Wheeler's frenetic drums alternately thump as funky as the Meters and pummel like the early, lean and hungry Chili Peppers. Over it all are Clements's raps, most of which seem to come from some long, dark and desperate 2 a.m. of the soul.

Of course, the rah-rah "Milo" is an exception to that rule. Clements's father once submitted the song to Drayton McLane for airplay at the Field Formerly Known as Enron. "The Astros couldn't play the song because of some kind of BMI or ASCAP thing," says Clements, "but if we would do a demo of us singing the national anthem, they might consider us."

For a while BC toyed with the amusing idea of rapping the national anthem. "That would be a first," he notes. But common sense prevailed. "We'd get booed off the field," he predicts.

One landmark achievement the band has a more realistic shot at attaining is to become the first rock rap group ever to release a chopped and screwed remix. Up to now, the Houston-born superslow and rearranged remixes have been the sole preserve of gangsta rappers, but the Bayou City is carrying DJ Screw's legacy into numerous genres. Dope House rapper Juan Gotti, for example, features a sample of screwed norteño from borderlands legend Ramon Ayala on his June release, No Sett Trippin'.

Thomas Escalante of Plethorazine Records recently introduced the remix idea to Simpleton. But as we sit in atomic space-age chairs around a retro kidney-shaped coffee table at Leon's Lounge, the band is taking a wait-and-see stance. They don't want to sacrifice quality for novelty. "We're going to send a couple of songs over to [Green Thumb Records] DJs Walter Kronik and Scrawberry," says Black. "If we like those, then we'll think about the whole album."

What drew Escalante to Simpleton was not just their talent but their work ethic, which is beginning to pay off in the form of little coincidences. One morning not long ago, I popped a copy of Baby You're a Star into the car CD player. As soon as I looked up, I saw a guy on the corner wearing a Simpleton T-shirt.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax