T-Town Music: A Dallas Hip-Hop Institution

June 23, 2017

The placard bolted into the light peach exterior of the Bruton Bazaar is clear in intent, if not in diction.

Karlo Ramos

Simple edicts, all. If there’s drug dealing at the Bazaar, it happens in front, on the concrete colonnade facing a parking lot of Pontiacs and Hyundais old enough to purchase cigarettes. If there’s weaponry on the premises, well, it’s Texas. Specifically: Pleasant Grove, Dallas, on the corner of Bruton Road and North Prairie Creek – three lanes in each direction, bordered by drab brick homes and splintering wooden fences.

In the rear of the Bazaar, next to the whirr of barbershop hair clippers, is T-Town Music & More. Beneath criss-crossing Christmas lights and bright-bright fluorescents, George Lopez – not the comedian – sells rap CDs.

About six months after being laid off from his job at an auto parts store, Lopez opened T-Town in the Bazaar in July 1994. It was a sensible location: he was born nearby and, at 13, he and his upwardly mobile family moved from the opposite side of Pleasant Grove into a modest ranch home within walking distance of the Bazaar. The United States’ post-World War II boom had been kind to Pleasant Grove, transforming a sparsely-populated grove of cottonwood trees into a lively – and white – suburb. When the Lopezes moved to the snaking Fairhaven Lane, they were the outliers, the brown family amidst blocks of entrenched whites. But not for long.

Since Emancipation, Dallas’ black population had been segregated into an archipelago of neighborhoods and “freedmen’s towns” on the edges of Downtown, notably Oak Cliff, Bonton, Deep Ellum, Queen City and Fair Park. In a sprawling metroplex mostly unconfined by geographic or topographical boundaries, blacks (and, eventually, immigrant Latinos), were fairly centralized. But, as the segregationist politics of Dallas became less overt, families of color in search of extra bedrooms, better schools and bucolic quiet moved outward, away from the bustle. Again, whites fled, this time into the lolling North Texas plains of Collin and Denton Counties. (Where, of course, they’ve been joined by people of color.)

The economic marginalization of Pleasant Grove – and much of South Dallas – has had a counterintuitive effect on Lopez’s business: while nationwide CD sales consistently sink to new depths, T-Town does a fairly brisk trade in the seemingly archaic format.

“You’re in the hood, so a lot of the cars these people are driving [are] ten years old, 15 years old, sometimes even 20 years old,” Lopez says. “They barely have CD players, so they’re not going to have the auxiliary plug, and if they do, they’re running it off a MetroPCS – [and] how much data can you stream through a MetroPCS phone compared to an iPhone? People are still playing CDs on this side of town, so that’s a blessing for us.”

Karlo Ramos

The CD-buying clientele is one that runs against the stereotype of dust-covered, bespectacled crate diggers with ample disposable income. (T-Town doesn’t sell vinyl, anyway.) A man in a name-tagged work shirt and canine-to-canine gold fronts wants UGK and 8Ball & MJG; another, durag’d, with the silhouette of Louisiana tattooed on his left shoulder, is disappointed to learn B.G.’s Chopper City is out of print; an elderly woman stops by to ask Lopez how his oldest is doing at Texas State; another – equally grandmotherly – is hankering for “girl-on-girl” DVDs from the store’s porn cache.

“We cater to what we have in our neighborhood – we’re not trying cater to everyone in the world,” Lopez explains. “People that come from the outside, they’re gonna want what’s hood, what’s street, what’s hot. They don’t have stores like ours in their neighborhoods, so they’re gonna come in. We cater to our people.”

Read “hood,” “street” and “hot” as “Southern gangster rap,” which, aside from the occasional sexagenarian purchasing a BeBe Winans album, or Spanish-speaker in dusty cowboy boots looking for narcocorridos, is what customers flock to T-Town for. It’s always been that way. In the mid-to late ’90s, T-Town’s shelves were stocked with so many No Limit albums that customers joked the store should be renamed “No Limit Music & More.” As Houston’s Swishahouse began their ascent, Lopez established a close relationship with the label, selling and distributing their product in bulk, just as he’d done with Master P. Then he had an idea: “What if T-Town sold its own music?”

The group churned out so many mixtapes that there’s some disagreement as to the total. (A reasonable estimate is about 65.)

In 1999, Lopez released two compilations of Dallas and Houston rappers, I-45 and North 2 Tha South. Complemented by OG Ron C’s chopped and screwed versions, the albums sold well, but not well enough to satisfy Lopez’s ambitions. As he told Dallas-centric YouTube channel RealLyfe Street Starz, “[We] sat down and said, ‘We need to make a group. All these groups are hot – but we’re making them hot. All these artists are hot – but we’re making them hot.” Lopez had already established a point of sale, an international distribution network and, serendipitously, his wife had come up with the group-to-be’s name, “Dirty South Rydaz.” He just needed rappers – and that was easy.

Wannabe rappers dropped demos off at the store; wannabe rappers cajoled Lopez into listening to their freestyles; wannabe rappers hung around T-Town and the Bazaar, surrounded by layaway jewelry and airbrushed shirts. From an untold number of aspirants emerged the original DSR roster: 19 rappers spread over three mixtapes, Freestyle Massacre, From Dallas 2 Tha Kappa and Untamed Gorillas. Of the first, Freestyle Massacre, only Big Tuck would survive Lopez culling the flock after confronting the logistical impossibility of squeezing 19 adults into an Econoline van.

Tuck understood that reality too intimately. For most of the previous two years, he’d contorted his 6'5" frame to sleep inside his 1979 Oldsmobile Delta. He’d attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on a music scholarship, but dropped out during his senior year to return to Queen City and pursue rap. He quickly slid into homelessness, waking to schoolchildren mocking his four-wheeled digs in the morning and trying to finagle a friendly couch at night. Prior to Freestyle Massacre, he’d passed Lopez a couple CDs of his freestyles – “some of my best work, because I was real hungry” – but it was a third disc that got him invited to join the nascent DSR.

We had no radio quarterbacks that could help us push it out there. Motown had it, so their wheels were spinning, but ours were stuck in the mud.

George Lopez

The following mixtape, From Dallas 2 Tha Kappa (made for the infamous Kappa Beach Party in Galveston), included eventual full-fledged DSR members Tum Tum, Double T and Fat Bastard. With his mother working three jobs, much of Tum Tum’s adolescence was spent in the care of his grandmother in Pleasant Grove. The rest of his nurturing was done in the South Dallas streets. He became a school-ditching miscreant teenager, who’d hang around the Bazaar freestyling and chasing girls.

“At the time, [George] had a shop with [two] pool tables in there, and that’s where all the lil’ kids used to go. That’s where I used to hang out at,” Tum Tum tells me, his drawl turning “little” to “leel.” Like the other knuckleheads fucking up T-Town’s green felt tables, he’d become enamored with Swishahouse. “That’s when Swishahouse was getting real, real, real popular, and they was doing that flow, so I started doing that flow, and George heard it. He was like ‘I got a group together with six members, but I was looking for some new dudes.’”

With the backing of a savvy operator in Lopez, the internet yet to decimate physical music sales and the careers of their Dallas rap forebearers Mr. Pookie and Mr. Lucci stalled by a deceitful manager, DSR were well-positioned to succeed. Recording in a studio inside the Bazaar, the group churned out so many mixtapes that, between collaborative, individual and official projects, there’s some disagreement as to the total. (A reasonable estimate is about 65.)

Karlo Ramos

“We used to do those tapes in one day. That’s when it was cool to smoke corn or reggie – [we’d] roll up, order a pizza or get a gang of tacos from the Taco Bell around the corner,” Tum recalls, laughing.

“Mixtapes was doing real well. That’s what [fans] wanted to hear, mostly. That’s what got their attention,” Tuck says. “One CD might sell 60,000, another might sell 30,000, another might sell 50,000, but all of the mixtapes sold.”

Their fans wanted South Dallas music, and they delivered; more combative and more uptempo than Houston rap, for corner boys in leather shorts and the subwoofers in their angular Chevy’s. Tuck, a colossus in cornrows, shouts out fellow “dope dealing wizards” by name on “Southside Da Realest;” Tum Tum, sporting a “Shag” haircut inspired by a blunted viewing of Master P’s “Ice Cream Man” video, lauds 22-inch Dayton Wire Wheels on “Dub Deuce D’s.” Together, they recorded “Tussle,” which, according to Lopez, precipitated countless scraps in Dallas nightclubs: “Any club owner knows if you want bottles thrown, chairs chucked across the dancefloor, this is one record you better not play after 1:30.”

A loose hierarchy emerged within the Rydaz: Tuck and Tum Tum were the stars, with Fat Bastard a popular, tertiary figure and the rest of the group as support. At least Universal Motown Republic Group saw it that way when, in November 2005, they inked T-Town’s marquee artists to a deal worth a reported $7.4 million, the victors of a bidding war with Sony, Def Jam and Priority. (Lopez downplayed that figure, saying the sum was heavily contingent on sales, rather than a straightforward advance.)

Karlo Ramos

There’s a photo of the contract signing in T-Town. Monte and Avery Lipman, brothers and current Republic Records CEO and COO, flank Lopez, who’s wearing a Sean John shirt; Trini Delgado, who in March 2010 would plead guilty to federal drug charges, holds a peace sign aloft; Fat Bastard and Big Tuck are focused on the paperwork; Tum Tum, surrounded by smirks and smiles, stares directly into the camera, looking profoundly unamused. Call it foreshadowing.

2006 was a trying year for the clunkily-monikered Universal Motown Republic. In February, three months after signing the T-Town trio, Universal split Motown and Republic into separate entities, Universal Motown Records and Universal Republic Records. Then, in May, Universal agreed to pay the State of New York $12 million as settlement for widespread payola. The Dallas rappers, signed to capitalize on the improbable mainstream successes of their Houston peers, were lost in the tumult.

Tuck’s Universal debut, Tha Absolute Truth, was initially slated to be released March 28th, 2006. After its first single, a remix of “Tussle” with Slim Thug, failed to generate interest outside of Texas, it was pushed to December. And, though Tum Tum was named one of MTV Jams’ Fab 5 Freshmen in 2006, and “Caprice Musik” was a staple of BET’s 106 & Park, his June 2007 album Eat or Get Ate befell a similar fate.

Like that, T-Town’s relationship with Universal was effectively over.

“We was going up some hard-hitters at the time, trying to get our shit played. We was going against those ‘Party Like a Rockstar’ niggas, fuckin’ Amy Winehouse, ya’ dig? It’s kind of hard to get a push when you’re on the same label as those two records – and I love Amy Winehouse to this day,” Tum Tum says, with a raspy giggle.

“I think we just came in at a bad time,” laments Lopez. “Universal split between Motown and Republic; there was a power struggle between Sylvia Rhone and Monte and Avery Lipman, and we were caught in the middle. We didn’t get the push we wanted. Chamillionaire was on the Motown side with Sylvia Rhone, so of course ‘Ridin’’ was getting all the radio play. We were trying to get radio play on the Republic side, and we had no radio quarterbacks that could help us push it out there. Motown had it, so their wheels were spinning, but ours were stuck in the mud.”

A purebred hustler, Lopez never stopped playing the angles of the music industry. In the ten years since the dissolution of his partnership with Universal, he’s started an artist management company (Jin Music Group), a music distribution business (Music Access), a now-defunct magazine (Block2Block), a failed promotion agency (Jin Entertainment), has run nightclubs in the Dallas area, releases Block Bangas, a monthly best-of mixtape, and spends enough time at T-Town to know most customers by name. This may not be the empire he envisioned during the heady mid-’00s, but it’s enough to support a family and a newfound appreciation for whole grain avocado toast.

When he and I sat for a formal interview, we did so in his parents’ home – he on a recliner and I on the couch, next to a perfectly silent pup. The tightly-spaced burglar bars and four-camera security feed were a reminder that, though the lawn may be an impeccably manicured, uniform green, and the flowers’ petals may be a pure, healthy pink, Pleasant Grove’s problems don’t always recognize property lines. He’d left T-Town in the care of his sister, Kristina, and her newborn, Herb. The Bazaar was mostly empty, anyway – a couple dudes getting faded up in the barbershop, a couple ladies getting manicures in the nail salon. I had to ask: What’s the future of T-Town?

“It’s pretty scary, because I don’t see anybody buying music – especially CDs – in the next two years. Luckily, we’ve invested in other things. We’re gonna start concentrating on that in the years to come, because we don’t know how long T-Town will be around. That’s a sad thing, but that’s just the way it is.”

He’s right – it’s a sad thing. The internet’s supposed democratization of culture is, in practical, brick and mortar terms, a decentralization. When it’s gone, T-Town won’t be replaced by another store operated by siblings who disagree about Devin the Dude – it’ll just be gone. And maybe, for its clientele, the personal, conversational, yo-listen-to-this-shit aspect of rap music will be gone, too. Technologically, sure, whatever, I guess that’s progress – or at least what we’re told is progress. But, when T-Town’s scissoring security grates close for the final time, and the Lopezes unpin 20-plus years of photos and memorabilia from the store’s cork boards, and all the DSR discs are neatly stacked in cardboard boxes, Dallas rap will have lost a nexus.

Header image © Karlo Ramos

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