Ryan Rayford is what the word "demure" was created for.
He is sitting at a table in a cafe in the early evening of a slow weekday, tapping at a cell phone with no real intent beyond tapping at a cell phone. His dress shoes are subtle and clean. His dark blue sweater is keeping his slightly loosened tie in place, and bears a Chase Bank name tag. His broad shoulders are held high off the ground, to be certain, but in the least intimidating way possible.
And he is alone. All the way alone. There aren't even people sitting in any of the surrounding areas. He is, at least figuratively, the most invisible six-foot-tall black man ever.
But none of this is an accident. It's all planned. Because Ryan Rayford isn't always Ryan Rayford. Beneath his Clark Kent attire, beyond his John Everyman haircut and matching watch and belt, is another version of himself — two versions, actually.
When he's not being Ryan Rayford, corporate American, he is hasHBrown, underground rapper. And when he's neither Mr. Rayford, corporate American, nor hasHBrown, underground rapper, he is Jett I. Masstyr, music producer. It can be a little confusing, but it's the only way.
"It helps me organize my life," says Rayford, 30.
Right now he's waiting on Oscar Ramirez, a cherub-faced 24-year-old music producer otherwise known as Black Rose, and Trevor Piper, a 33-year-old Apple store employee/freelance graphic designer. The three of them are the brains behind the Space City Beat Battle, an event that has only grown in popularity and prestige since it started in 2010.
On paper, the Space City Beat Battle is total snooze. The company line:
"Rap has always celebrated the rapper," says Rayford. "The Beat Battle celebrates the producer. You get all these guys together that just enjoy making music, that have been in the background, and they get to come out and be the guy onstage."
And the sales pitch:
Four times a year, not counting the annual championship, 16 music producers whom you very likely do not know show up at a venue. They get paired up against each other, play a snippet of their music for one minute, then listen as a more successful producer whom you also very likely do not know tells them what was good and what could've been done better. That better-known producer then decides which contestant gets to try his beat against someone else.
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That's it. That's the whole thing. Producers playing music for producers so they can become better producers. Too meta for meta. Infinite bored faces.
Except that it's not. In no unclear terms, the Space City Beat Battle is a consistently, reliably good time. That's because while the purpose of the event is to champion the producer — long an under-celebrated member of any music community — Rayford, Ramirez and Piper are marketing the competition.
And the competition is hearty. To be extra stylistic about it, the whole scenario is very Gladiator-esque.
Situated in a 16-man lose-and-you're-out tournament, the contestants will often bounce around and pantomime aggression toward each other. They make big movements and big faces and play air drums and so on, soaking in one-minute bursts of the crowd's adulation.
If they're feeling especially spry, they'll borrow a microphone from the host before their beat is played and shoot a barb or two at the other contestant, something like, "You already lost; I don't even know why you're standing up here."
When the beat comes on, if it's something creative and visceral (which, more times than not, it is), the crowd becomes a big, heaving clump of joy and excitement and yelling. They push forward and backward and against each other and basically just go bananas.
"One guy's group of supporters — everyone always brings their team out to root — got so upset with Jett [I. Masstyr, who hosts the SCBB] that they tried to rush him onstage," remembers Piper. "Nothing really happened. But people get worked up."
The session winners and runners-up face off in an annual championship; this year's was in February. Prizes such as cash, clothes and DJ equipment are always available, but as the SCBB has grown its brand, the Champion title has begun to outweigh all of the other benefits.
Each subsequent event has brought out a bigger name to attach to its judges' roster, which in turn draws out higher and higher-quality producers. Rappers Scarface and Paul Wall are now among SCBB's, as are producers Beanz and Kornbread, who've worked with Rick Ross, Mac Miller and maybe a billion others. Grammy winner Symbolyc One, who has worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé and more, is another.
"I'm still such a big fan of music and the production world," he says by telephone, on a break from a recording session in Dallas.
Why did he offer his time to come to Houston and be a judge?
"I just like to be involved," says Symbolyc. "Before doing records for Kanye and Beyoncé, I was very involved in competitions and beat battles and production seminars. That's how I broadened my sound and appealed to more people.
"It's inspiring," he adds. "You see what's out there, the type of talent that exists. It allows you to put your career in perspective."
All of this helps the contestants indirectly accomplish their primary goal.
"I feel that the beat battles give and have given me an opportunity to be heard on a larger scale/audience," explains former contestant Y. Phoenix, who says the Beat Battles have allowed him to develop relationships with fellow contestants and appear at events like Kickback Sundays, a weekly local rap battle whose winners are given beats producers have volunteered.
"It's just a cool event to do," says Tony Dark, a recent SCBB champion. "It helped give me my step. I've already won and been to the championships twice, so I probably won't do it again, but I'd go to Austin or Dallas to compete. It's a great way to network."
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Rose and Piper and Rayford sit at the table and reminisce about the three years they've spent building the SCBB. They laugh and remember and compliment each other, but mostly they plot.
"We're a boutique project; we know that," says Piper. "But we can always get bigger, always reach more people."
"Ideally, we'll move this to Austin and Dallas, too, open up that stream," adds Rayford. "There are great producers out there that just need an avenue. We'd like to be able to offer that to them."
The Space City Beat Battle returns Saturday, April 13, at the Warehouse Live Green Room, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or warehouselive.com.