Strangers in a Strange Land

This article is two and a half years in the making.

That's how long it took to track down the Houston hip-hop trio known as K-Otix. It has been an on-and-off journey getting the elusive triumvirate -- MCs Michael "Mic" Nickerson, 26; Damien (he says his parents didn't give him a middle or last name), 26; and producer/beat man Russel "The ARE" Gonzalez, 29 -- to sit down for an interview. But they're not elusive in the way most rappers are: delaying interviews, not returning phone calls, granting a reporter perhaps 15 minutes with them, only to take up most of that time talking on their cell phone and ending every sentence with "Younowhamsayin!"

The men of K-Otix are workaholics -- overachievers with flow, if you will.

The men of K-Otix are simple men. No crew of brothas. No excess of jewelry, no bling-blinging themselves to extremes of pretentiousness. (They do wear nice watches, though.) They all have day jobs, though Damien claims he sells undisclosed drugs "for some of his boys in Hillwood." (Let's hope he's fuckin' around.) You can understand every damn word they say -- and they actually have worthwhile things to say. And despite the anarchic name, they go about everything in a precise, orderly fashion. When they're not playing in-state, they travel frequently, performing in Nashville, New Orleans, even Japan.

"They had a very deep appreciation for hip-hop," recalls Damien of the Japanese. "They're not as territorial. They're not limited to the same kind of prejudices as far as regional music [goes]… They pretty much welcome everything with open arms. They just love it."

When these hometown boys formed K-Otix back in 1992, even they had no idea that playing in front of Japanese audiences was in the tea leaves. It all began when Nickerson and Damien, boys since high school, went looking to start up their own rap outfit. They hooked up with Gonzalez through a mutual friend. It didn't take long for them to click and find a sound of their own.

"Actually, it's natural," Nickerson says about the K-Otix sound. "We all feel the same way as far as our influences in music."

"We don't try to sound a certain way," Gonzalez chimes in. "We don't get together and talk about how we should sound. We just make music, and it comes out the way it comes out. And we are pleased with it."

After five years of live performances and refinement, they eventually released their first recording, an EP titled Spontaneity, in 1997. "We were actually recording a lot," says Gonzalez. "We were recording and recording and recording, just trying to get our sound developed and get to a point where we were comfortable enough to actually release something. So I believe, from day one, our music was good enough to be on the shelf. But we took our time with it, so when we did come out, it would be the right time."

They've managed to come up with a sound that isn't region-specific. Bereft of the ghettofabulous lyricism, sinewy synthesizers and bulging bass-and-drum loops you regularly find in Southern-based rap, the music of K-Otix is lackadaisical, daydreamy, eclectic -- basically East Coast. "A lot of people are surprised we come from Houston, first of all," says Damien. "And they [say] they never expect a group from Houston to sound like that. I don't think we have an elitist attitude about that, because we're not making an effort to not sound like the people here. We make the music that we like to listen to, and we offer it to everybody else. And if they like it, they like it. We don't cater to any specific region -- that's dumb. That's very narrow-minded."

Although the boys of K-Otix have built a steady cult following, they do have their share of annoying little creatures known as detractors, who accuse the group of not pandering enough to Houston audiences. The rappers give these naysayers short shrift. "You know, we've gotten a lot of criticism from a lot of narrow-minded people who criticize us for not sounding [local]," explains Damien. "We make music for the world. There are six billion people in this world -- why limit yourself to a couple of million when you could potentially reach six billion? You put your music out there for people who like it, and the people who like it will come to your music. Fuck everybody else."

Unlike many other local rappers looking to make it big, K-Otix would prefer to stay on the fringe. Generally considered an acquired taste in the hip-hop world, the trio believes dropping a commercial album would be pointless.

Says Gonzalez: "It wouldn't make any sense at all for us to do a commercial record, because we don't have the power to get it played on the radio. So our initial fans would dismiss us, and then we'd get dismissed or we would never even tap into the commercial scene, because we didn't even have the money or the promotional push to get it on the radio. So now we just shot ourselves in the foot. Now we just killed our underground audience. The bottom line is, we have to make music within our means."

Nevertheless, in October 1999, K-Otix took that plunge and signed with the New York-based Bronx Science label, releasing a trio of 12-inchers. This August the hip-hoppers finally will issue their long-awaited album, Universal. "We've been really pushing to do a full-length for a while now," says Gonzalez. "But when you're on a label, you're on their terms."

So, however slippery it may be getting the members of K-Otix to sit down and exchange thoughts, the result is never dull. Says Gonzalez: "We all have our separate lives, and that's another thing that I think keeps the group pretty fresh and strong. Because when we do come together, it's strictly business. And then we put our minds to it, and we make things happen. So as far as getting us together a lot of times, that's kinda hard. It takes a while to get everyone on the same page and to make it happen -- unless there's some money involved."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey