In a city with no shortage of hip-hop acts both dope and wack, the Def Perception crew has no trouble standing out. For one thing, there are a lot of them — it’s a six-piece group, comprising a pleasant variety of skin tones. What really set them apart, though, are the instruments.
That’s right: Arriving smack-dab in the middle of hip-hop’s MacBook era, Def Perception is an honest-to-God rap band. Atop Dominick Oscar’s jazzy drum licks are layered deep bass grooves from Dan Di Stefano, funky keys from Eddie Pickles, production and samples from David Cook and fly rhymes from Raymond A.
Keeping the vibe decidedly old-school is the deft scratching of DJ BabyRoo, who has seen a trend or three come and go in his two decades behind the decks. Born Ruben Jiminez, he’d more or less settled into a comfortable routine of fatherhood and the occasional scratch session a couple of years back when he was presented with the unexpected opportunity to get live with a full-on group that knew a thing or two about electrified amplification.
“David and Ed and Ray and Dan all worked at Guitar Center — the one off of Westheimer going toward Voss,” Jiminez explains. “David hadn’t been producing or making beats for a while, and Ray rapped, but not very seriously. They were all kind of chopping it up, and they wanted to do a project that was just sort of fun, in the garage.
“One night David and Ed were out, and they saw me DJ,” he continues. “I hadn’t been spinning consistently for a while, either. I’ve been DJing for the last 22 years, but since I had kids, I kind of tapered off. That’s when David pitched this new project to me.”
It was a sadly novel idea: hip-hop played with real instruments, backed by traditional scratching and mixing. The group’s explicit aim would be to have fun rather than stack paper. Right away, Jiminez was intrigued. The group got together to jam, and DJ BabyRoo started breaking out the crates.
“Ray came into the studio and heard one of the scratch hooks and wrote a whole song around the chorus, and it really worked,” Jiminez says. “That’s when everyone was like, ‘Well, maybe we should do this more, since we’re having so much fun.’ And we just kept doing it. That was almost two years ago.”
Thanks to the DJ’s deep local connections forged through his background in record promotion and countless late-night spin sessions, Def Perception quickly found themselves with paying gigs. Every time they performed together, they left an impression: It’s not often these days that you’ll hear an MC flow over a real, live funky drummer. The live instrumentation gives the group a dynamic sound that isn’t limited to the same old H-Town church-organ stuff.
“Given that a tradition in the city is for someone to show up with a thumb drive, hand it to Joe Schmoe onstage, do a 15-minute set unrehearsed and walk off, we wanted something more for the city,” Jiminez says. “We wanted to do something pretty much that we felt was missing: To be able to take hip-hop and put it in a show with Wild Moccassins, or with Space Villains.”
That sounds like a nice idea and all, but to truly be heard, Def Perception would have to be dope. Consider that mission accomplished. The band has been radical enough to turn heads outside of their hometown, scoring a coveted session with mobile audio/video production studio Jam in the Van this year at the GQ Artist House during South By Southwest. The three tracks recorded just went online last week, and Def Perception has already seen a big bump in online interest.
“It was part of an international competition — they had a couple thousand entries, from Australia to Houston,” Jiminez says. “They picked five bands, and we were one of them.”
Helped along on social media by their buds in the local scene, from the Suffers to Cactus Music, Def Perception came within an inch of winning the contest. Ultimately, Jam in the Van decided that the runners-up were simply too good to ignore.
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“Jam in the Van saw that we were legitimately hustling, that we were posting stuff on social media and had brick and mortar stores and news outlets tweeting,” Jiminez says. “And so they were like, ‘Dude, we’d love to still have you, if you’ll come.’ I was already out there at South By, and the group came, too, just in case something popped up. On Sunday, we were able to record the session for Jam in the Van, and it was the perfect cap off to the week.”
With their fanbase now growing by the day, Def Perception must be careful to plot their next move. DJ BabyRoo and Raymond A continue to produce mixtapes, and the band is planning to record a live album to capture their electric stage show on wax. Touring seems inevitable. But the band’s top priority at the moment is simply bringing a new dynamic to one of hip-hop’s biggest and most important Southern strongholds.
“Our sound is not the typical sound of pokin’ out and swangas and po-in’ up,” Jiminez says. “That’s the foundation of our scene, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s also 20 years old. For the last 20 years, everybody’s been rapping like Li’l Keke. What’s beautiful about the scene now is that it’s changing. Everyone sounds different!”
Def Perception performs next at the Safehouse on August 1 with Guud Money and DJ BabyRoo. Tune into social media for directions and details. Doors open at 9 p.m.