The Cultural Ambassador of Austin Hip-Hop
In “The Chosen” from his 2005 album, The Growth, Tee Double entreats:
"So, I'm reading magazines, and I'm waiting for the day
of the double-page spread -- letters above head,
'Texas Tee Double is well bred.'
These rhyme sheets I speak are well read ...
Put me on the cover your newsstand, man;
On wax or live band, I crush the groove."
By: Thomas Yoo.
Photos: Arnold Wells
And why not give the man what he demands? After over seventeen years in the Austin music business, Tee's list of accomplishments and accolades seems to just go on and on. In June, Tee released his self-produced fifteenth album, Vintage Vizionz. After thousands and thousands of local hip hop shows and representing Austin and Texas throughout the North American underground hip hop scene for years, the Austin Music Awards finally pronounced Tee as the 2010 best local hip hop artist.
As the recipient of shout outs from underground hip hop veterans, Aceyalone and Del the Funky Homosapien, and Rolling Stone Magazine, Tee’s acknowledgments have amassed. Over the years, he has evolved from emcee to producer, entrepreneur, and impresario, having founded the studio, label, and distribution service provider, Kinetic Global. He has also, along the way, become something of a cultural ambassador for Austin hip-hop music. He has been appointed as an Advisory Board Member to the Austin Music Foundation and has worked as the National Urban Hip-Hop Coordinator for the South by Southwest music conference, as well as with the Texas Chapter for the Grammys in its "Grammys in School Program." The Texas Music Museum has also recently invited Tee to be included as one of the first hip hop artists in the Museum.
Given these achievements, when was the l
ast time Tee made the cover of a local magazine? In 1996, he was featured on the cover of the XL, the weekend pullout in the Austin American-Statesman. It was also the only time. Fourteen years, numerous albums, and countless live n performances later, Tee seems only to flourish and continue to redefine the boundaries of his art form.
Tee is quick to point out that most Austin publications are reluctant to put hip-hop on the cover: "Maybe they just don't really see the value in it. I get asked all the time, for all the things I've done in Austin, 'How come you've never been on the cover of the Chronicle?' Going from artist to producer to working with all these big organizations in town, and juggling all these hats and still being considered a true artist ... usually, when you move into the music business sector and entrepreneurism, people slowly stop thinking of you as an artist. I'm still keeping my quality high musically and still putting out records."
Not that Tee is losing sleep over that, much less letting it slow him down as an artist: "It's really up to them. Maybe they see Austin hip hop as just something that's happening in town but hasn't really broken through the door yet, and they don't really have anyone on staff who's really in tune to the local hip hop scene -- to really know what's happening, to know who's doing stuff ... I can't really fault them for it. I'd love to see more of it. You know, of course I'd love to see myself on the cover of a few magazines. I mean, that would be nice, but I don't get mad about it, and I don't bitch about it. I just keep being productive and doing my music and doing what I need to do for my hip hop community, and, if that means I never get on the cover of any magazine, then I'm fine with that. I've had other accomplishments that can balance that out, where people did recognize it."
Does Austin hip-hop in general get the respect that it deserves? According to Tee, definitely not, but the Austin hip hop community is at least partially to blame for that: "For one, we're in Austin, and a lot of people outside of Texas don't know that Austin is the capital. I was on tour, and I was like, I'm from Austin, Texas, and they're like, is that in Houston? They don't have a clue. I can't really fault them for that. A lot of that is because, artists in Austin still haven't figured out how to make a collective of our own -- how we can develop a strong kind of like "political party" of hip hop artists
--where we can go to the venues and say, hey, we want to get paid more for our shows, or we want more local hip hop artists at the ACL fest Just like you have the rock artists, there's hip-hop here as well. Until we realize as a whole to really organize and structure ourselves for the bigger picture, we're all going to get overlooked, and only a few of us will make it through the cracks and do something big or whatever. As a whole, there's still going to be that struggle."
Oh, you're one of those who still think that hip-hop is not real music? When asked how he would respond to such skepticism, Tee, who sees himself as a kind of spokesperson of the art form, answers: "Try to do it. Take turntablism, for example. There are things that you can do as a DJ, that you could never do on a guitar. You could never move both your hands as fast as a turntablist. Or take emceeing and freestyling -- the way some people freestyle, it's like a jazz player, like Miles Davis playing his horn or Coltrane ... there are so many notes, so many inflections, so many ways of flipping the words. Really try it, and you'll understand that it's an art form."
Or perhaps you just haven't actually heard true hip-hop? Tee continues:"I'm not talking about the simple stuff you see on Saturday morning cartoons or the McDonald's commercials. Those things are not really hip-hop. Those are just takes on hip-hop. Those are kind of like slowed down marketing things to get you to buy the McNuggets."
What is real hip-hop? Tee invokes KRS-One: "Rap is something you do; hip hop is something you live. Real hip-hop is when you wake up and you breathe it. I can just be walking around the street and the store, and I'm rhyming and I'm freestyling ... I've always got a beat in my head. That's real hip-hop. I don't just become Tee Double when I'm on a stage and am in front of a mic. Hip hop is me all day, everyday." Tee even hears beats in his sleep. "If I'm sleeping and going through one those R.E.M. moments, where you're dreaming ... I'll come up with whole songs in my sleep. I'll wake up the next day, and I'll have a whole song done without writing anything down."
Tee describes the new release, Vintage Vizionz, as "a collage of different textures and different styles and sounds" while nonetheless trying to maintain a cohesive "sonic plane," where these variations still all fit as an album. "I usually go in with a focus to make sure that not all my songs sound alike. Where you can hear the record, and you can think that a different producer produced each of the different songs, but really I did everything. Some songs have a more live jazz feel. Some have the real raw hip hop drums and samples.”
What has the response been like thus far? "People are digging it. They really respect that I’m not trying to sound like what’s on the radio right now. I’m not trying to change my sound. I’m not trying to fit in the mainstream machine of music. I’m still doing my own thing.”
Vintage Vizionz offers a sampling of Tee's range as an emcee and producer of music: from the rugged, synthesized beat of "So Vintage" to the jazzy, piano-laden tracks, "How Can it Be," "Feel So Right," and "Material Ibex," to the bass-heavy, elliptical "Galactic Sun" to the live band feel of "Full Circle" to "Something Nice," a love song that includes a drum sample from Purple Rain.
A love song? Now that may truly be the ultimate test of the versatility and creativity of an emcee, as such efforts can and almost always do immediately devolve into pure corniness. Nevertheless, Tee manages to walk that ever so fine line here in a similar way to The Growth's "A Love Interest." Tee described the creative process behind "Something Nice": “The beat led to the lyrics. I made the beat and was like, wow. The music in that track has kind of a Michael Jackson Off the Wall feel to it. I thought that was a cool little track and would be perfect for a love song. I couldn’t get on that track and rap about me being the best rapper. It wouldn‘t have made sense. That goes back to me having to know how to really create songs and not just produce songs on whatever topic. I just sat down and wrote the lyrics and it just fit. It works.”
One need only dig a little deeper into Tee's catalogue with albums such as Return of the Artform, Bio-Music, and Live at Lucky Lounge to gain a fuller
appreciation of his versatility
To truly appreciate Tee as an artist, however, you really need to witness Tee perform at a live show, improvising over the beats and melodies of his fellow Boombox ATX musicians. Watching Tee freestyle, whether you're a true hip-hop aficionado or a neophyte, it is instantly clear that you are beholding something special. Tee effortlessly flows from one rhythmic cadence to the next, using his voice, intonation, and, indeed, his every breath as if it were a musical instrument in a seemingly endless stream of lyrics, rhyme schemes, and syncopated rhythms.
“Freestyling, man, to me, is spiritual. Just to think about the process, if you would, to come up with thoughts and words that rhyme or are rhythmically in tune with each other. You really just can’t sit there and be like, I’m going to start freestyling. We’ve all been around people who are freestyling about whatever and it’s like di-di-di-di, da-da-da … you know, real simple patterns, kind of like patterns you learn when you’re a kid with nursery rhymes. A lot of people still incorporate those things from memory into how they freestyle. That’s why their freestyles or raps sound like nursery rhymes. To be able to really push the limits of thought, which is what I really try to do
, ... I’m like, how far can I go in my mind and come up with ideas and words and do it on the spot where it makes sense? I think there are few people that can do that and do that well. It’s definitely a spiritual kind of experience. You get into a trance. A lot of time when I’m freestyling, I don’t remember what I just said … it just comes. It’s kind of like you zone out. Then, if you have a good crowd, an energetic crowd, that’s just going to make your brain waves move faster … and shoot those nerves … then you are really going to be on your game. It’s definitely a gift, and I feel blessed to be able to do it. Freestyle has been my thing forever. I mean, that's just what I’ve always done, but, when I went on tour with Del and Aceyalone and Zion I and all those guys, it really stepped my game up on what freestyling really is. Anybody can freestyle. There‘s really nothing to that, but to do it artfully and creatively and to do it in a way where whoever is standing around you won‘t even try to freestyle after you‘re done -- it raised the bar of it.”
Doesn't he ever run out of things to say? Is Tee ever at a loss for words? “When you’re writing songs, words can come all day. To me, that is the easy way. You can always say, I need a new word that goes with whatever, but, when you’re freestyling and you run out of words, then it kind of comes back to being the artist, where you can use the words you have but use them in tones -- use them musically where words don’t actually rhyme per se. I use my voice and respect my voice like an instrument, kind of like a jazz player. I’ve got all these notes and have this range of notes I can pull from ... where I don’t run out of words or frequencies or tones. I can just keep doing so many things.”
After thousands upon thousands of shows, how does Tee get hyped for a show? "I just love doing it. I love getting on stage and rapping and seeing the look on the faces in the crowd like, 'Did you hear what he just said?' or just
Other than freestyling at the old folks home someday, what does the future hold for Tee? Tuesday night shows with Boombox at the Highball, writing and recording music, collaborating with other musicians, and continuing to push the bounds of his artistry: "I’m all about writing songs. Let’s be as creative as we can. I’m always about working with other artists. I’m doing some songs now with Tony Scalzo from Fastball -- just stepping out of our comfort zone. I’ve always looked at it like, why shouldn’t I work with a rock artist or jazz artist just because I do hip-hop? I consider myself a musician as well. I perform and I gig as much as somebody that plays guitar. Other artists and musicians want to bring me into their fold, because of how creative I am with my rapping. I’m not just rapping, but I’m musically doing it."