This should be a slam dunk.
It's the Season 1 finale of MTV's reality show 50 Cent: The Money and the Power. On the line is a $100,000 "investment" by the Queens-born rap superstar — i.e., a suitcase full of cash — and the field of 14 contenders has been narrowed to three semifinalists.
There's Ryan, a 24-year-old salesman from Pennsylvania Amish country with a bachelor's degree in marketing and his hair in cornrows. Larry, 26, is a doughy former college athlete from Tampa who calls himself a "negotiator."
Tha Fucking Transmissions perform at Free Press Houston's 100th-issue party 8 p.m. Saturday, February 7, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, 713-526-6551. Also on the bill are Monotonix, State Radio, Tontons, American Fangs and Rebelution.
Finally, there's Cornbreadd, a 28-year-old Houston rapper and hustler whose outsize personality is matched only by his ambition and devotion to his hometown. On the show and off, Cornbreadd's typical wardrobe is an Astros cap cocked to one side and a T-shirt emblazoned with his own name.
"I'm not in a mood for talking right now. It's time for work," he tells the camera in one of those familiar pre-taped "confessional" interviews. "All this hard work I've been doing is coming to an end. If I stay focused, I can win this."
Today's objective, 50 tells the semifinalists, former contestants and onlookers assembled in a conference room at the show's converted Brooklyn warehouse headquarters dubbed "Camp Curtis" — before he was 50 Cent, his mama called him Curtis Jackson — is to "crush the competition" verbally. It's a smack-talking contest, judged by 50 and his G-Unit associates Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo.
This competition could not be more tailored to Cornbreadd's skills. His Houston version of "Lookin' Ass Nigga" — rapid-fire free-association lyrics that always end with the titular phrase — has accumulated almost 850,000 YouTube views to date, after all. As the favorite, he'll go last.
First up is Larry: "My man Cornbreadd comin' on the show lookin' like a gangsta, but everybody in H-town knows Maurice is a wanksta." (Cornbreadd's given name is Maurice Duhon Jr.) The similarities to one of 50's early hits, "Wanksta," are obvious, and the judges and audience eat it up.
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Ryan receives the following riposte: "Your dad's a doctor. I hope he's an OB/GYN because we really need to find out why you're such a pussy." Then back to Cornbreadd, his nemesis on the show for several episodes now.
"My man Cornbreadd over here actin' like he famous, but the rhymes that he's spittin' come straight out of an anus. I know you real stupid when you can't even spell, spittin' that double D just shows you're illiterate as hell."
Juvenile, perhaps, but effective. Now it's Ryan's turn.
"I'd just like to say I'm glad this isn't a wet T-shirt contest, going up against these two nicely breasted individuals," he begins. Big laugh.
"It's been a long stay here, and Camp Curtis is no Playboy Mansion," Ryan continues. "But thanks to them, there's plenty of tits to go around. Cornbreadd, I know you're a failed actor, but I've gotta give you credit: You play the act of a failed rapper very well."
Larry and Ryan have both scored some points, no doubt. Cornbreadd applauds graciously and rises to the podium. But first, another confessional.
"I hear my name called, I step up to the mike," he says. "I feel comfortable. I got a big advantage. I can talk that trash. I mean, I do it every day."
"I hope you've enjoyed your time at Camp Curtis, and it's gonna be okay," he begins. "I've heard Mr. Curtis has gotten Ryan, Larry and [ex-contestant] Derek a big break. He's got them cast in a new Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz. Ryan will be playing the guy who's a coward, Larry will be playing the guy with no heart and Derek will be playing the guy with no brains."
"You know, everybody looks beautiful, especially you, Nikki," he says to another former contestant with whom he's squared off in previous episodes. "How do you put your makeup on — with a sawed-off shotgun?"
That one gets a laugh, especially when Cornbreadd mimics sticking a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.
"Larry Wade," he continues. "Don't worry if you don't win the money. At least you can be like Dr. Phil. He made a whole lot of money talking about shit he don't understand."
Cut to commercial. When we return, 50 Cent mounts the lectern.
"It's a really tough decision. You all did really great today," the G-Unit CEO says. "But after nine weeks, nine lessons and a whole lot of drama, I'm sorry to say goodbye to him. I respect him and I think he has a bright future.
"Cornbreadd, you've been dropped."
If Cornbreadd didn't already exist, some MTV programming executive would have had to make him up. On record, he can be as grimy and ghetto as they come — the opening track on his Cornbreadd Mixtape CD is called "Dick Like This" — but he delivers even his harshest rhymes with the kind of charisma that elicits a chuckle instead of a gasp.
In person, Cornbreadd radiates personality like a lightbulb does heat. In the brief amount of time it takes his interviewer to field a phone call from the office, he's made fast friends with a Café Express employee who recognizes him from The Money and the Power (a common occurrence in Houston these days; the season finale aired January 22).
If there's such a thing as a selfless self-promoter, though, Cornbreadd would be it. Whether he's in the studio working on his latest mixtape joint or working the crowd as front man of his chopped-and-screwed hard-rock band Tha Fucking Transmissions, the underlying theme is Cornbreadd's love for the city he was born and raised in, and probably wouldn't leave if 50 Cent handed him the keys to his Connecticut estate. Echoing 50's gangsta rhetoric, Cornbreadd calls himself a "soldier in the art army," and his mission is to elevate the local music scene to a level commensurate with the city's size.
"Everyone in the Loop knows we're here, but it has to grow exponentially," he says. "The Houston music scene hasn't been birthed yet. I look forward to doing everything I can, and I know there are other people out there, and we need to reach out. Something needs to happen. It's coming — I can smell it."
"He has a lot of pride in his city," says Fucking Transmissions visual projectionist and "Nigga With a Megaphone" (i.e., hypeman) Phillip "Pipquixote" Pyle. "He loves Houston and wants everybody to recognize Houston for what it is. He wants everybody to love Houston as much as he loves Houston. Honestly, I don't know why he loves Houston so much. He's kind of like a homebody. He loves everything about Houston, especially the food."
Cornbreadd, in his own words "the quintessential Southside dude," grew up in South Park and then the Hiram Clarke housing project near Texas 288 South and Almeda. He spent a lot of time in Third Ward clubs soaking up the music of late local legends DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Big Moe and Big Hawk, even though, he says, "I was too young to get into the clubs half the time." Other than that, friends say he picked up his gift for hustling literally at his mother's knee.
"That's definitely from his moms," says Pyle, who's known Cornbreadd since they became video-game buddies during middle school. "His moms is a realtor, and she's been doing it all herself since he was little."
Cornbreadd came to rapping through another form of oral expression: poetry. He started writing in sixth or seventh grade, for what he calls the wrong reasons, though they're reasons he shares with people like Byron and Keats — "I just started writing it to get attention from girls." That evolved into playing the dozens and freestyling in informal circles called "ciphers" at school, where his classmates soon realized they were overmatched.
"It was always like, 'Yo! The little fat yellow one, he got some shit!'" recounts Cornbreadd, who swears he can't remember how he got his nickname but will tell you all day long that the double D at the end stands for "a double dose of that pimpin'."
After two years at the High School for the Health Professions, Cornbreadd "left the smart school for the art school," says Pipquixote — he got accepted at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts on a technical drawing scholarship.
"I was hustlin' the magnet system," he says. "I was hustlin' HISD. I passed the test. It's a long story how I got in there, but I guess I could draw or whatever."
"He was a lot like now, only not as aggressive," says Pyle. "He was definitely a performer. One of Cornbreadd's HSPVA classmates was Beyoncé Knowles (whom, according to close friend and Fucking Transmissions bassist Benjamin Wesley, he once proposed to on the school bus). One day Beyoncé told Cornbreadd she and the rest of Destiny's Child were about to go to Atlanta to work on some music with Wyclef Jean, who produced the R&B group's self-titled debut album and guested on its breakout single, "No No No."
"If she can do it, riding on the same little yellow bus I was riding, I can do it," says Cornbreadd. "As long as I do everything I need to do in order to make it."
Along with Pyle and his fellow MC/HSPVA buddy Robert Hodge, Cornbreadd formed Tha Fucking Transmissions after Pyle got a job as a projectionist at the River Oaks Theatre and struck up a friendship with co-worker Wesley, whose résumé includes bottom-heavy indie-rockers Basses Loaded and old-school punks American Sharks.
"I would hang out with Ben separately, and Ben would have all his music, then I'd go back home and Maurice and Robert would be there," Pyle says. "I was like, 'Well, I have these two friends that have the ability to freestyle so amazingly, maybe I should see what happens when I put the [three] of them together.'"
What happened was Wesley's love of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin made an ideal musical backdrop for Cornbreadd and Hodge's verses, with Pyle using his projectionist skills to provide visual backdrops that matched the theatricality of the lyrics. The Transmissions were a local hit almost straightaway. Last year's debut Begin Transmission EP met with positive reviews that noted how the Transmissions deftly avoided all the Limp Bizkit-type rap-rock clichés; the group is now preparing a full-length.
"When we first came out, I had 200-pound bullets hanging from my neck and an Army helmet," Cornbreadd remembers. "I'm a hood rapper, and I'm coming into this Houston live-music scene. I brought my hustle, and it met Ben's pure talent. We made that work, and ended up playing every venue in Houston."
At last spring's Westheimer Block Party, Cornbreadd prowled Avant Garden's outdoor stage like a sweaty panther as Wesley and the other Transmissions laid down a deep funk-metal groove and hundreds of audience members of all ages, colors and backgrounds bounced along in unison. If Cornbreadd's magnetism while he performs were a disease, Houston would have a pandemic of pure energy on its hands.
"I think [he] is put on the Earth to entertain people, and he knows that very well, and that's all he can think about," offers Wesley. "He can stand up to any renowned rapper and be able to confidently play along with their game — you know, jive the guy. He's got a magic about making things rhyme. He can talk about fucking your mama and probably recite something from Hamlet in the same sentence."
America got its first taste of Cornbreadd, captioned onscreen as "Aspiring Music Mogul," from 50 Cent's voice-over intro on the premiere of The Money and the Power: "Cornbreadd, straight outta Texas. He sells real estate and dreams of making it big in music. But are his dreams too big?"
"My name is Cornbreadd with a double D," he told the camera. "I'm a musical artist, a mover, a shaker — a hustler, might I add."
Cornbreadd found out about auditions for the show when he was driving around and heard an ad on the radio 15 minutes before the call time. He made it, and even though one of the audition criteria was "no rappers," was so passionate about why he should be chosen that, he says, the other hopefuls burst into applause on the spot. The producers said if anyone from the Houston audition got a callback, it would probably be the next day.
"My phone rang in 15 minutes," he says.
Cornbreadd came into his own on the show in episode five, appropriately titled "The Hustler's Eye," when his teammates on Team Power elected him boss for the first time. Not only did he help his team break its four-episode losing streak to Team Money, they more than doubled Team Money's profits in that week's challenge, selling bottles of Vitamin Water. His reward was recording a track in 50 Cent's personal studio, and he remained boss until the teams were dissolved in the next-to-last episode.
During the show's run, Cornbreadd was forging a relationship with 50 that, like all true hustlers would, he kept secret from his fellow contestants. "He realized, 'This dude ain't up under me like a little puppy like some of these others, this dude's standing here looking at the skyline,'" he says. "So I took that and I always felt like he respected me, because they say real recognize real. He never made any jokes about me like he did some of the cast, he never went hard on me, it was just respect.
"Why? Because I busted my ass every time I was doing something."
Cornbreadd quickly became a favorite among commenters on The Money and the Power's message board. But he proved to be as shrewd a competitor as some of the other, more obviously scheming, contestants like Precious — with whom he had a memorable verbal blowup that wound up on Fox Reality Channel's Talk Soup-like Reality Binge — and Brooklynite rival Musso, whose elimination he helped engineer.
Even though he didn't win, Cornbreadd accomplished what he wanted to on the show. He says he would have used the $100,000 to open a combination venue and recording studio, but his real objective was to generate as much exposure for himself and Houston — hence the Texas flag he hung in his bunk at Camp Curtis.
"I gave my all," he says. "I was just me. That's the biggest thing, just be yourself."
So in hindsight, does Cornbreadd think being on the show has changed him in any way?
The view from 59 and Commerce is about as Houston as it gets for a Clear Lake kid who eventually used to come to raging art-show/parties mere steps away. A gargantuan elevated highway, railroad tracks and brick after brick of warehouses in all manner of gritty repair, some vacant, some gentrified, some artists' spaces.
Across from a two-story structure once known as Club Hell, some sort of former garage or loading bay now belongs to local progressive-punk band Peekaboo Theory, who use it as home, office, practice space and party spot. The guest of honor isn't here yet, but Team Cornbreadd is about to have its picture made.
Here's plus-sized, goateed Houston R&B artist/producer (You)Genius, who swears Cornbreadd just called and "was five minutes away three minutes ago." Reko Trill, who met him while co-hosting the Proletariat's (and now Mink's) Thursday night hip-hop/dance blastoff Speakerboxx, thinks, "This better be funny to pull me away from my Tiger Woods Online."
Knit-capped and bearded, DJ Dick Almighty says Cornbreadd was a regular guest on his KPFT show Reprogram Radio and now spins behind him at shows. To him, the MC is "Strong. Leader. Hustler." Tall, skinny redhead Curtis Cunningham, who does Thursdays at Citizen Lounge as DJ Courtesy, also knows Cornbreadd from Proletariat, "doing silly videos and making fun of his band." His choice of words is "larger than life."
And here he is, with an entourage of one — his girlfriend.
"Now that's a party...What's up, everybody?"
Soon Cornbreadd is passing out T-shirts adorned with his name in iron-on letters from his silver BMW 325i of a few years back. All four doors are open, and the stereo is blasting a track he just finished. It's called "Gorilla Muzik," and the beat is heavier than the Queensborough Bridge. It could have come straight from Camp Curtis.
"It's my subconscious message to G-Unit," he grins.
All told, there are about 18 people in the picture — black, white, hipster, ghetto, nerd, male, female, DJ, rapper, drummer, dreads, Afro, bedhead, ballcaps, wallet chains, shades, Beatle boots, Chuck Taylors, Puma, Adidas. It's quite a sight.
Another half-dozen or so are looking on; one is now blasting Cornbreadd's "Hold Up" ("let's get hot in this bitch") from the rehearsal space's PA setup. Another is Peekaboo Theory guitarist and backup vocalist Ramon Wakefield, who's known Cornbreadd three years.
"He keeps the grind on, and that's what it's all about," Wakefield says, then smiles. "But he don't have his own warehouse yet."
But how can he keep it real enough for people in the hood and at Poison Girl?
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"That's who he is," the guitarist says. "He can flow because he's Houston, that's what Houston is. But he's an alternative cat too. He'll walk up to you and say some ill shit."
Meanwhile, Cornbreadd — wearing a shirt with his name on it about 50 times and "Houston, TX" about five — has an announcement.
"I want to thank everybody for coming out and help make this happen," he says. Forever hustling, he adds, "I'm sorry to say to everybody we gotta fold these shirts back up when we're done. They ain't been paid for on the Web site yet."