The Rec Shop is an inconspicuous store on lowest Greenville, part of the same commercial strip center that houses the legendary dive bar Ships. Inside, the store is smaller than a studio apartment. A matrix of spray-paint cans is arranged above a shelf on one wall. Skateboard decks line another. In the center is a small island of records.
The store serves a devoted clientele of skaters and graffiti artists, but it is also a rallying point for Dallas hip hop boosters like Islam Sesalem, who works at the store, and his two associates Joel Salazar and Teddy Cool. Producers and music promoters by trade, the three of them have chosen the Rec Shop to sit down and discuss their most ambitious project to date: We From Dallas, a documentary chronicling the advent of hip hop in the city of Dallas and the extraordinary cast of characters from the past 25 years that molded the scene.
When talking about Dallas hip hop, it is helpful to think of it in the same terms as a resistance movement. Places like the Rec Shop, Green Elephant and Zubar are rendezvous locations. The members move out of sight and behind the sheen of Dallas skyscrapers. For seasons, the movement is dormant. Then suddenly, it’s lively. But there is always activity, meetings, sabotage. And for the first time, a group of filmmakers is reaching back across this obscure movement with the hopes of properly documenting it.
We From Dallas originally began as a short. Islam, an event promoter, approached Teddy Cool, a director and production assistant known for his DFW Cypher videos. Islam wanted a Dallas-focused video to play in the background of one of his events. The three set out, initially, just to get a few Dallas graffiti artists on camera, enough to craft a vignette that would project on the back wall during a party.
They scheduled a single interview with Minus Won, a well-known Dallas graffiti artist. But as word of their project spread, more people came out of the woodwork and offered their take on the story. The number of interviews the group gathered expanded.
“Either the b-boy knew the MC or the graffiti writer knew a DJ, because he was doing live painting at a show,” Islam says, describing Dallas’s interwoven hip hop community.
Joel Salazar was experiencing his own bounty of resources, working with DJ EZ Eddie D of KNON. The three continued to rely on the dancers, DJs, graffiti artists, and MCs to steer their direction.
“We started with the history of graff and the IC, the Infinity Crew, but we realized we could be doing more,” says Teddy Cool.
Interviews and resources continued to pour in and the three began to consider making a full documentary, but it took an untimely tragedy to push the filmmakers forward. Minus Won, born Alvaro Angeles, died suddenly on October 15, 2011 at the age of 33 after collapsing at a Texas Rangers game. A U.S. postman by day, his graffiti is recognized by painters from around DFW. Following his death, the three filmmakers saw a galvanized hip hop scene.
“[The documentary] wasn’t anything we really took seriously until October, when Minus [Won] passed away,” Teddy says. “It really gave the film a whole new motivation.”
“It seems like the whole hip hop community got together,” Islam added.
After Minus Won’s death, the documentarians remembered something the late-graffiti artist said about the project that now provided even more motivation to see it through to completion.
“Minus told us, “The stuff that I’m doing right now, the graffiti, that’s temporary. But the stuff that you’re doing will last forever,’” says Salazar.
While developing We From Dallas, the filmmakers were intentional about covering the four essentials of hip hop: b-boy break dancing, graffiti, rapping and DJ-ing. They take this approach because in the history of Dallas hip hop those elements are indissoluble. In fact, without one of the most overlooked elements, break dancing, Dallas hip hop might not exist.
“Dance has always been a huge thing in Dallas,” explains Teddy, adding that a good portion of Dallas’ MCs were actually dancers first. “In the early eighties, the pop-locking scene in Dallas was one of the best in the world. It was when the MCs started taking the forefront that these guys started rapping.”
No one will doubt that the filmmakers have uncovered an enduring community of dancers, rappers, spray-painters and DJs in Dallas’s past. But more skeptical observers may wonder if Dallas’s hip hop scene is notable enough for a documentary. Teddy Cool disagrees. Whether you are talking about Dallas, Texas, or Madison, Wisconsin, he says, “hip hop took over the world, and every city and small town has a history with hip hop.”
He also believes Dallas played an important, credible role in the broader history of the genre that is overlooked.
“In 1989, five years after hip hop exploded, Dallas saw the release of Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Nemesis’ To Hell and Back, Ron C’s C Ya and The D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better,” he says. “And that means those guys were putting in work way before that.”
When I ask Teddy, Islam and Salazar for a Mt. Rushmore of Dallas hip hop, they stick with their rubric.
“We’ve got to hit one from each element,” Teddy says. The three quickly settle on four names, one from each element: Minus Won for graffiti, Ushy for DJ-ing, Boxhead Gerald for b-boy dancing, and The D.O.C. for rapping. That the aforementioned Vanilla Ice did not make the cut surprises no one, but Islam is quick to quell the notion that the erstwhile b-boy turned MC is some kind of pariah.
“You can’t not include him [in the documentary],” says Islam. “He was part of Dallas.”
What will be even more interesting is how the documentary addresses The D.O.C., easily the most enduring and successful hip hop character from Dallas. The Dallas MC made waves locally with the Fila Fresh Crew before a more ambitious career in L.A., ghostwriting for N.W.A. and Dr. Dre after his own promising career as an MC was cut short.
“Dallas has had a stigma about not supporting its own and artists have to leave here to be successful,” admits Teddy. “But we just want to show people what has gone on. If [artists] left to find more success or if they came here in the middle of their success, they’ve still made this city home.”
The filmmakers released a trailer for We From Dallas on May 21. It reveals snippets of interviews with several recognizable Dallas hip hop figures, current and past: DJ EZ Eddie D from KNON, The D.O.C., Mad Flava, Nemesis, and the irrepressible Pikahsso, formerly of PPT, holding a three ring binder stuffed with Dallas hip hop artifacts. The producers of the film are looking for even more Dallas hip hop relics to include in the documentary, and they are still searching for and gathering old photos, videos, fliers, audio recording of old radio shows, or anything classic Dallas hip hop. The hope, says Joel Salazar, is that the trailer will serve as a “call to arms” to anyone holding on to memorabilia.
Even though it is still a work in progress, We From Dallas is hoping for a late summer release and to make the film festival circuit over the following year. Considering the success of A.Dd+ and that The D.O.C. is plotting his own Dallas-based TV show, Hip Hop Draft, Dallas hip hop is primed for literally the most publicity it has ever seen. Ideally, We From Dallas can frame that publicity in the context of history, giving credit to the unheralded generation of breakers, rappers, scratchers and artists that came before, while inspiring those to come.