It seems like every time I speak a request into the thin air somebody in this city is way ahead of me. This time that somebody is J. Rhodes. His newest album, Oak Cliff Huxtable, is a direct answer to my plea for authentic, believable hip hop that is born in and about Dallas.
J. Rhodes has spent the bulk of the past eight years garnering more credentials as a producer than an artist, though he has always aimed to be the latter. Rhodes is a member of Waco-based Symbolyc One’s production team, which has its tendrils around national acts such as Talib Kweli and Kanye West, as well as Dallaship hop matriarch Erykah Badu. Since attending the University of North Texas, J. Rhodes has honed his production skills, whether working out of his East Dallashome or his downtown studio. Yet his passion to communicate his own narratives has never waned, and that desire finds traction in Oak Cliff Huxtable. SaysRhodes, “If you listen to those 14 tracks, you can come away knowing who I am as a person.”
As the title plainly indicates, J. Rhodes’ roots are in the sprawling community of Oak Cliff. His father, a mechanic, still runs a shop there, a business that Rhodesgratefully credits for providing him an upbringing that many of his nearby peers did not enjoy. “He fed our family with it,” Rhodes says. His father even appears in the video for Oak Cliff Huxtable I single “Beastie Boys.” The video, shot on location at J.L. Automotive, embodies exactly what the new album is about: a street view from J. Rhodes perspective, funded with a humor and outlook unique to his experience.
On Oak Cliff Huxtable, you can hear Rhodes’ genuine affection for the city that made him. Sincerity is music’s most valuable currency. That perceivable ingenuousness is where J. Rhodes excels best. He walks you through his vantage at ground-level, from flawed relationships to trepid drives through starkly white Highland Park. Oak Cliff Huxtable is a geographic manifesto with all its priorities straight. Music, city, healthy skepticism, and humility are all given preeminence over and against stilted flashiness.
It is jarring to hear someone call out “the 214” in a rhyme the way Rhodesdoes. The immediate response is to not take it seriously, as if I am preconditioned to dismiss Dallas-area shout-outs as mimicry of cities with more admired rap histories. J. Rhodes acknowledges the handicap of being a Dallasrapper. “In New York, they had the Beastie Boys [to look up to],” he explains. “[In Dallas], we had to build it as we go.” That goes a long way in explaining the do or die tone that trusses his wily, multispeed flow. It takes very few minutes of Oak Cliff Huxtable for J. Rhodes’ talent to overwhelm any skepticism.
In hip hop, production is more than half the battle. Giving an MC the wrong beat is like putting Robert Plant in front of The Monkees. As with many artist-producer hybrids, J. Rhodes showcases his two-way abilities on Oak Cliff Huxtable, for which he produced about half the tracks. Occasionally, the myriad of production styles can sound imprecise, as if the album is searching for a sound it likes. But when it clicks, as on “Beastie Boys,” “Riding Thru My City,” and “Loyalty,” the results are very impressive. “The Expendables,” in particular, is a standout cut featuring eight emcees trading deft rhymes. “I’ve always wanted to do songs that showcase the [Dallas] talent,” saysRhodes of the song. “Just an overkill, action-packed track.” The intended effect is achieved, making you believe there is an aquifer of talented emcees boiling just beneathDallas’ surface.
J. Rhodes is planning to get on the road as early as January 2013, with a host ofDallastalent in tow. With this album, he is already scratching a Dallas hip hop itch, telling stories of a city that so often struggles to speak for itself.
J. Rhodes will perform on November 20 at Zubar. Oak Cliff Huxtable can be downloaded from itunes or his bandcamp site. Physical copies can be ordered via his website, www.vintagerhodes.com.
Photo by M. Knight