Houston Music

JOn Black Doesn't Want to Be Houston's Biggest Rapper — Just the Realest

JOn Black [sic] wants it known he appreciates and loves anyone who has supported him and his music, but he cautions against exactly how such affection might be reciprocated.

“I got molested onstage by this chick,” Black recalls, citing one of the oddest moments from hundreds of shows he’s performed. “This chick is on something and I’m rapping. She just has this look, like Isaac Hayes says, the look of love, and she’s drugged out. I’m like, ‘No, I can’t,’ because I’m upstairs at AvantGarden. She’s like fucking feeling on me. You know how there’s no stage upstairs, so she’s just there with me, rubbing on me – I don’t know her.

“I’m like, no, you’ve gotta go," he continues. "My homeboy Clint, the drummer from Jody Seabody and the Whirls, makes her get offstage and she turns around and gets fucking pissed off and slaps a cup of water and the shit just wets me. My homeboy had to bounce her out of the show.”

Black spoke to us ahead of his album release tomorrow night at the Waugh Drive pub sometimes known as Darwin’s Theory. In the past few weeks, he’s been all over his adopted hometown promoting the show. And while he hopes no one has to get tossed from the event, he does plan to have a sizzling, intoxicating effect on the audience.

The album is titled Gotta Be a Lion and is the culmination of years of work, which began in earnest when Black was a ninth-grader at Valley High School in Sacramento, California. That year, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Busta Rhymes’s Extinction Level Event and E-40’s The Element of Surprise were released. Hearing them, Black knew what he wanted to do with his life.

"It's been in the works literally for years, because I wanted to come out with an album and some of the songs just weren't fitting what I envisioned for the album," he says. "I was listening to the radio or something on YouTube and I heard this song, and I just got it in my mind, 'If people like that, somebody's got to like what I'm doing.’ When you're trying to catch a lot of fish, you cast a wide net, so I get it. I'm okay with not catching a lot of fish, so long as I catch enough to feed my family.'"
And that, in a nutshell, has been the modus operandi for Black’s rap career in Houston. He’s content with not being the biggest rapper in the city, so long as he can continue being the truest. He was born and raised in San Diego and arrived in Houston around the same time as another gale force, Hurricane Katrina. But unlike that tempest, he didn’t blow into the city with hell-bent fury. He came to attend college at Prairie View A&M University, and didn’t start performing here immediately. His first show was at the long-gone Late Nite Pie. But after that night, he realized that just because he was in H-town didn’t mean he had to stay draped up and dripped out. Black could just stay true to himself.

“San Diego is one of those places," he says. "The kind of music I did there isn’t the kind I do now. It’s the kind you have to do there. It’s like straight gangster rap. San Diego is infested with gangs. It’s like a little, baby L.A. The dynamics there don’t lend themselves to a lot of hip-hop. It’s just kind of recently getting to that.

“In Houston, there’s so many people here and it’s so expansive," Black adds. "There, I lived in one section and everybody kind of stays in that section. Here, nobody comes up on you. I can be who I wanna be and make the music I wanna make.”

That’s important to him for thousands of reasons and at least one very special one. The thousands would be the number of friends he’s made through music, many of whom will contribute their talents to tomorrow’s show. Most of the tracks on Lion are produced by Black’s musical “brother,” Sherman Snyder. The supporting acts are friends, particularly Jody Seabody and the Whirls, who booked Black's first music-venue show in town. Critical Hustle Lifestyle Brands will unveil its summer line in a fashion show at the event, and will have special JOn Black album release shirts on hand.

"A lot of people believe in me. I don't wanna say I have a movement, but everything I have going was patched together from so many different avenues,” he says. “Doing the kind of music I’ve done has allowed me to meet the kind of people I would want to fill my life up with. Even if my music never took off, I have a whole bunch of people I know from this.”

That one very special follower Black does it all for is his eight-year-old son, Isaiah, also known as “Munch.” Third-grader, sometimes merch guy and confidant, he keeps Black focused.

“They say your kids aren’t supposed to be your friends,” says Black, who stops short of qualifying their relationship as such. “I remember my dad just telling me shit like, ‘Word, do this or I’ma beat your ass.’ I realize times aren’t like when you were coming up or when I was coming up. I can’t just talk to my son like that. It has to be authoritarian, but in a softer structure. I explain things to Munch, just regular life shit I wish adults had been straight-up and told me about.”

“He understands as he’s getting older what it is I have to do. And he sees it,” the rapper continues. “It’d be one thing if I was just like, ‘Okay, son, I’m fixing to hit the studio,’ but I wasn’t doing shit. He’s come to see me perform at Walters. He’s been to Eastdown Warehouse twice – they know him there. At the last For the Community, he was there, chilling, at 12 o’clock, one o’clock in the morning. We wound up eating at Waffle House and he was like, ‘We had a good night.’”

After listening to a sneak preview of Gotta Be a Lion, we couldn’t pick one favorite. But when you get your own copy, we think you’ll be playing “Family Tree,” “My God” and “Infinity Source” on repeat. If you’re going through a breakup, dial up “Icicles.” Whatever you choose, you’re likely to hear Black’s vast appreciation of all types of music, honed by his mother. Billy Joel, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, Malo, Santana, Barry White, Bootsy Collins, 2Pac. They’re all there, in some way.

As for his live show, that he patterns after some closer-to-home, personal friends.

“I try to be explosive and dynamic,” Black says. “The thing that rappers don’t have that rap bands have is that visual aesthetic. There’s a dude playing drums, there’s a dude playing guitar, there’s a guy screaming on the stage. That’s why I like Jody Seabody — these motherfuckers go crazy onstage! And because of them, you might catch me rolling around on the stage or sitting on the speaker.”

JOn Black is a smart man with enough skin in the game to know he might not be counted among the darlings of the current Houston rap scene. He’s okay with that.

“There’s a lot of really fucking crazy talented artists here,” he said. “There’s a huge undercurrent of really great musicians, DJs, visual artists. It’s like a renaissance period. So, even if I have to go outside of Houston to do it – and Houston is my home now — but I’m willing to go outside of Houston and do it just to come back and have people say, ‘How the fuck did this guy escape under the radar?'”

Critical Hustle presents JOn Black’s Gotta Be a Lion album release this Saturday at Darwin's Pub (33 Waugh) with special guests Jody Seabody and the Whirls, Worst Nightmare, TT and Pap and Eric De’shon. Show starts at 8 p.m.; no cover.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.