Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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Dr. Dre’s Newest Discovery Is From Garland

He has helped Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar all become rap superstars. His latest project: a 23-year-old white kid named Justin Mohrle.

Justin Mohrle drives through the streets of Sherman Oaks, California, Snoop Dogg playing faintly on the radio as the sun begins to set. The 23-year-old Garland native—JT to his friends—is behind the wheel of a rented high-end Hyundai sedan he definitely didn’t pay for. His last job, at Macy’s, barely paid enough to cover his rent. Riding shotgun is Thomas Biggars,  his best friend and personal videographer. 

It’s Biggars’ second night in town from Dallas, but Mohrle has been here since earlier in the summer. That’s when he was summoned to California by Dr. Dre.

Dre had heard a demo the young rapper made with the help of Dallas hip-hop legend The D.O.C. Now Mohrle is in a spot previously occupied by Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar: under Dre’s wing. Since making what he calls an “indefinite” move to the West Coast, he’s been spending marathon 13-hour writing and recording sessions at Record One, the cutting-edge studio complex in Sherman Oaks that’s been Dre’s second home for much of the past decade. As far as Mohrle is concerned, that means Record One is his second home now, too.

Tonight is a rare night off from the studio, and Mohrle and Biggars want to make the most of it. It’s almost 9 pm, but they are determined to get in a little sneaker shopping. Mohrle says he’s kind of starting to learn his way around, so he’s pretty sure we’ll make it to the mall in time. When we get there, however, the mall is closed.

Mohrle admits he doesn’t remember the last time he was at a mall. “Seems like the kind of thing you take for granted,” he says.

It reminds me of an old Kanye West interview, where he talks about standing on an escalator at a Virgin Megastore just before his career took off, thinking he might never get to enjoy a moment of public anonymity like that again. I ask Mohrle if he’s felt like that lately.

“Yeah, sometimes,” he says. “With the situation I’m in, Dre could decide to drop a track tomorrow, and then I might not be able to ever go to the mall again like this. Just us. By myself.”

He’s earnest about this, but it seems unlikely at the moment. A week before I arrived in California, Dre’s camp went into lockdown. Mohrle has been heavily coached by his management as to what he can and cannot discuss with me. He can tell me whom he is working with, but he cannot tell me the nature of that work. He can tell me that he’s working with buzzed-about rappers BJ the Chicago Kid and King Mez from Raleigh, North Carolina. There is a photo on his Instagram page (@officiallovejt) of him with Gwen Stefani—captioned “Working with Gwen Stefani. Amen. #nodoubt”—but he can’t tell me any more. He can tell me that he’s spent nearly every waking minute since he touched down at LAX two months ago writing lyrics in the studio. But he can’t tell me whether it’s for a project with his name on it, or anyone else’s, for that matter.

But The D.O.C. can. He has worked off and on with Dre since the West Coast rap icon brought him out to California from Dallas in the late 1980s. If it goes like he says, then maybe this really will be the last time Mohrle is just another anonymous white kid at the mall (that’s closed).

“JT and I worked on a couple songs; Dre fell in love with the songs; Dre stole the songs from the kid, because he wanted to put them out as a unit,” The D.O.C. says. “That’s the way this house is rolling. We’re all putting our energy toward building another classic for The Good Doctor. Then he’s going to take his time to help us build a classic for the youngster.”


“We’re all putting our energy toward building another classic for The Good Doctor,” The D.O.C. says. “Then he’s going to take his time to help us build a classic for the youngster.”

Why did Dr. Dre bring JT Mohrle to California? People who have watched his steady rise through the Dallas hip-hop scene know.

He’s a natural songwriter. While all lyricists use words to construct tone and pattern, every syllable he utters serves a purpose, perfectly playing off his unexcitable, slightly stoner-y monotone. Though his music sounds effortless, there’s a lot more complexity to the equation than you might catch on first listen.

It didn’t come easy, either. When Mohrle graduated from Garland High School in 2009, he was offered a partial scholarship from Abilene Christian University to play baseball. Coaches from Oklahoma State expressed interest. It seemed like the obvious choice. He’d excelled on the field since he was 4 years old, and his parents had recognized and nurtured his talent.

But he’d been staying up late writing and recording in his bedroom since his mother, Vikki Thomas Brown, bought him his first microphone at Circuit City when he was 14. “She was like, ‘What do you want that for?’ ” he says. “I told her I just wanted to make little songs and stuff. I’ve just always wanted to make her proud.”

Gabe Cruz, one of his Garland High classmates, heard him rap and offered to help him book some shows. He began performing at the showcases promoter Joel Salazar put on at the Green Elephant near SMU, and at the open-mic nights at 2826 Arnetic in Deep Ellum. Even on a stage stacked 10 deep with performers, his unique talent for lyricism and constructing a verse stood out. When the baseball scholarships were offered to him, the choice wasn’t as obvious as it appeared.

“I loved baseball and music equally, but music kind of started to creep to the forefront for me at that time,” he says. “I had been playing baseball my whole life, and I was getting tired of it. My mom wanted me to play. My parents are both college-educated people, and they were tripping. They were like, ‘What are you doing with your life? What are you thinking?’ But I just had a feeling.”

Even though she had helped set him down this path by buying that microphone, his mother says she was “shocked and disappointed when my son decided not to choose college.” Eventually she came around, at least a little bit: “I agreed to give him the same amount of time and money that it would have cost me to send him to college,” she says. “I considered it my investment in his future.” 

Mohrle’s parents gave him one year to live at home, then he had to get a job and move out on his own. He and Biggars moved into a house in Garland, nicknamed the Fly Times House after Cruz’s now-defunct music blog, Fly Times Daily. It was there that he was introduced to Brandon Blue, aka rapper/producer Blue, The Misfit.

Fresh off leaving the popular duo Sore Losers, Blue was looking for a new project. He recruited Mohrle and, in 2011, formed the Brain Gang crew. Performing together and apart like a North Texas version of the Wu-Tang Clan, the collective built a following over the next few years. Blue remained the group’s rock-star lead singer, but Mohrle became a fan favorite as well. His advanced sense of rhythm and control over Blue’s beats was even more astounding coming from a kid with thin, drooping shoulders and shaggy blond hair. 

In 2012, Mohrle released 21: Live Forever, a free mixtape under the name Love, JT. His combination of down-tempo beats and introspective content was well-crafted but miles away from the sound that Brain Gang had built a fan base on, with songs like the self-explanatory “Party On.” The project was highly regarded among Dallas hip-hop fans, but lacked a proper marketing push and largely fell by the wayside in the local music media.

Mohrle found himself in the same position most Dallas rappers find themselves in: meager resources, a lack of exposure, and a short reach. Brain Gang shows and group records became few and far between. He was renting a small apartment in Deep Ellum with Biggars, barely making rent working an entry-level job at Macy’s, and writing and recording as much music as he could manage.

But though his career hadn’t progressed as far as he would have liked since he turned down the scholarship offers, Mohrle still had a feeling. His quiet belief in his own talent was strong enough to gamble his entire future. Since Dallas has yet to produce a superstar rapper, that was—and is—a very big bet.

Dallas artists have been isolated from mainstream rap consciousness since the birth of the genre. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and even Houston have all had turns as the center of the hip-hop universe. But what does the world know of the Dallas hip-hop sound? The city has never had an iconic hip-hop artist have a hit record outside of Texas, a necessary step to define the region’s rap scene on a national scale. 

The closest tie that Dallas has ever had to the national rap zeitgeist is The D.O.C. And he got there the same way Mohrle is trying to: working with Dr. Dre.

“I think that from top to bottom, Dallas as a city has been lacking in the unity that it takes to push one another forward,” The D.O.C. says, sitting on a brown leather couch at Record One. “When I drive around California, I hear my shit every day. When I’m in Dallas, I very rarely hear any of my stuff. [The mindset in Dallas] is like, you don’t love yours. You’d rather hear theirs. And that’s not to say that theirs is no good. But there’s a lot of people in Dallas that deserve airtime.”


The D.O.C. knows how hard it can be, but at first it seemed to come easy to him. Born Tracy Lynn Curry, he got his start as a member of West Dallas’ Fila Fresh Crew, a well-known trio in the area rap scene’s infancy. Dr. Rock, the group’s DJ, had worked with Dre in one of his first musical endeavors, World Class Wreckin’ Cru. That was enough to earn Fila Fresh Crew four tracks on 1987’s N.W.A. and the Posse compilation, and The D.O.C. met whom he refers to as “The Good Doctor” for the first time.

By 1988, Dre had brought The D.O.C. out to Los Angeles, signed him to Ruthless Records, and put him to work contributing lyrics and vocals for the label’s projects, including N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, widely considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time. In 1989, it was The D.O.C.’s turn. Dre executive-produced his debut album, No One Can Do It Better. Fueled by singles “It’s Funky Enough” and “The Formula,” it reached the No. 20 spot on the Billboard 200 during its run on the charts and went on to certify platinum.

But five months after the release of No One Can Do It Better, The D.O.C. was involved in a near-fatal car accident that severely damaged his vocal cords. The accident left him with a considerably altered speaking voice, and his gravelly and unpredictable low-register delivery made it impossible for him to rap the way he had before. 

The D.O.C. moved back behind the scenes, becoming what Alex Pappademas, writing for Playboy in 2013, called “a fixer, a problem solver, a hip-hop Winston Wolf.” Through the first half of the ’90s, he was Dre’s go-to writer, ghostwriting lyrics for some of the most esteemed West Coast rap albums ever made, including Dre’s solo debut, The Chronic, and Snoop Dogg’s first full-length, Doggystyle. But he also spiraled into an alcoholic depression and spent time in jail on a DWI charge.

In 1994, after a falling out with Dre and his label, Death Row Records, The D.O.C. left Los Angeles, heading first to Atlanta then finally back to Dallas. He’s been here ever since, settling personally (he has a 10-year-old daughter with Erykah Badu) and professionally (starting the Silverback entertainment company). He’s attempted two comeback albums (1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce) and worked with young rappers. But to this day, what The D.O.C. did in 1989 is still the closest Dallas—arguably the largest American metropolitan city without a nationally notable rap scene or signature sound—has come to mattering in hip-hop. 

When asked today if he still feels a responsibility to the city, to carry out the goal he set out to accomplish back in 1989, his expression turns solemn. “There is a desire,” he pauses, eyes fixed forward, “I don’t know if I feel responsible, but I sure would—I sure would like to be that guy.”

In a video that accompanied Pappademas’ widely read Playboy profile, The D.O.C. said he was seeking new talent in the Dallas area. Independent artist development scout Tony Hall read that and did what any music industry entrepreneur in the city would do: he took to Twitter to push one of his artists—Justin Mohrle. He messaged The D.O.C., telling him that he had to hear “the best white kid in Dallas.” The D.O.C. passed initially, but Hall didn’t give up. After a Q&A following the premiere of the Dallas hip-hop documentary We From Dallas, when The D.O.C. again said he was looking for Dallas talent, Hall hit him up again, with links to Mohrle’s “Selfish” and “Come Together.” The D.O.C. listened and was impressed, but he responded with a curt and cryptic, “All in God’s time.” He thought that with his direction, this might just be the kind of untapped talent and potential he wanted to bring to the table, back to Cali and Dr. Dre.

“I don’t want to rap as bad as I used to,” he says. “I’m perfectly fine being onstage next to JT, or next to Dre, when they doin’ they thing.”

Within six months, The D.O.C. and his business partner at Silverback, John Huffman IV—along with Hall and his silent partner at Deep Ellum Music Group—struck a deal to produce a demo EP, with the intention of pitching Mohrle to Dr. Dre. The D.O.C. coached and polished the young rapper until he had a finished product to present.(All evidence of any of Mohrle’s solo efforts was pulled from the internet.) Dr. Dre decided, after spending some time with the demo, to move the kid to L.A. and get him working in the studio. 

By August, Mohrle was on a plane to California, signed to a 360 deal (which covers recording, performance, and merchandise) with Silverback. In November, Michael I. Malowanczyk, a Dallas native and senior designer at Nike Football, flew to L.A. from Portland to work on the conceptual end. Mohrle took the opportunity to give himself a new stage name, since most people associate JT with Justin Timberlake.  

Justin Night—that’s what he’ll be billed as the next time you hear any of his music, which likely won’t be until Christmas. The real work is only beginning. But he’s already made his mother proud.

“When the opportunity came for him to work with Dr. Dre, we viewed it as his college graduation,” his mother says. “A job well done is really all a parent really wants for their child.”


From the mall in Sherman Oaks, we meet up with Bryan Blue, brother to Blue, The Misfit and an up-and-coming L.A.-based painter. Bryan gives us a late-night studio tour of his space on Fairfax Avenue, a national hub for streetwear and urban art. Mohrle is particularly taken with a large canvas depicting a reimagining of an iconic Kirk McKoy photograph from the 1992 Rodney King riots. 

“Dre will love this,” he says, snapping an iPhone photo of the painting.

Bryan takes us to a swanky party near Beverly Hills that’s supposed to be an art exhibit. But much to Mohrle’s disappointment, a reality TV show crew ropes off the gallery area from public view for most of the night. As Bryan mingles and mixes with the crowd, Biggars and Mohrle generally keep to themselves. Though determined to spend his night off out, Mohrle seems uninterested in socializing. Even when we spot Top-40 rap superproducer Hit Boy talking to some girls nearby, he shrugs off the suggestion of introducing himself.

“I’d rather meet him through the proper channels than be some guy walking up to him at a party,” he says.

Eventually, we give up and leave, headed back to Sherman Oaks and, soon enough for Mohrle, back to the studio. 

“Do you miss Dallas?” I ask Mohrle from the back seat.

“Kind of,” he says in a careful tone, from behind the wheel. “I like the weather here better, but I miss my family. I’m not worried about making friends, because he’s moving out here soon.” He gestures to Biggars. “I’ve always kept a pretty small circle.” 

He pauses again, thinking of home. “But I get to work with Dr. Dre every day, so not really.”

When I ask him if he misses Whataburger, he responds without missing a beat.

“No, because Fatburger is so much better,” he says, breaking his contemplative tone with a good laugh. “Oh, don’t write that down, though. They’re gonna trip on me for that back home.”

As we turn a corner into a stereotypical L.A. traffic jam, I ask if I can smoke. He tells me yeah, sure, he doesn’t care.

“It’s a rental, but I mean, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t really think I have to worry about that kind of stuff anymore.”