“It’s always been a tale of two cities,” Outlaw Mel admits to me over the phone, regarding his hometown of Dallas, Texas. He’s telling me about I-30, an interstate which runs through the heart of the North Texas metropolis and sharply divides the city physically, economically, and racially. “Above I-30 is where all the money is, all the wealthy white people,” he continues. But below the I-30 divide is Oak Cliff, the soul of Dallas, which Mel lovingly refers to as a “Black Mecca.” During his childhood in the 1990s, Mel experienced Oak Cliff as a beacon for the culture, crawling with activity and vibrancy. Though Oak Cliff has technically been within the jurisdiction of Dallas since its annexation in 1903, it has retained an individualistic attitude, that grew from the energy present on each block throughout the neighborhood’s long history.
One third of the cult-favorite Dallas rap collective, The Outfit, TX, Outlaw Mel is a lightning rod for his city, attracting attention from outside of the Texas bubble, and diffusing the energy from those lightning strikes into the soil, spreading it for the full city to feel. The Outfit, TX has been steadily pushing Dallas towards nationwide interest for over a decade. Mel and his fellow Outlaws, Jayhawk and Dorian (who has since stepped away from the group to focus on his family), are leading the push in this new direction of Dallas Hip Hop, a sound distilled from the Boogie era and dipped in deep purple hue.
From the galactic sounds of 2012’s Starships & Rockets: Cooly Fooly Space Age Funk to the deeper, 808-laden Down By the Trinity, TOTX has been pumping Dallas music into the city’s streets and beyond. The group had always been lauded by the North Texas city’s trendier side, but by the release of Little World, the streets had embraced them, too. Little World, their most recent full-length album to date, was the culmination of the momentum they had gained. Over 2018, TOTX landed a quick succession of exceptional features including 03 Greedo, Maxo Kream, Valee, and Yung Gleesh. The very next year they were invited to champion the Lone Star State on a national tour with Yelawolf.
Mel speaks about Dallas in part as a historian and in part as the city’s biggest champion. He asserts the importance and beauty of the diverse “Gumbo Pot” culture of Dallas. He also acknowledges the rap scene’s struggles to find solid footing in the mainstream genre but doesn’t equate Dallas’s absence from Rap’s Roundtable with a vague, ‘we’re slept on’ retort. Instead, he references the overwhelming gentrification which has upended sacred hot-beds of culture in places like Oak Cliff. He mentions the discordance between the new influx of big money and the slow demise of longstanding, almost exclusively Black and Latino neighborhoods. “Dallas is boomin’ technologically,” he explains: “you’ve got all these industries coming to the city [like] animation, but the Black and the Brown folks, they don’t see that. They’re not benefiting from that at all.”
He’s exactly right: a city cannot be equipped to cater to nationwide interests when it is being decimated from the inside.
Mel’s outstanding album from last year, DALLAS, TEXXXAS, is an ode to his city as well as a testament to its inhabitants’ ability to thrive despite the changing landscape. On his first full-length solo project, Mel demonstrates the eclectic nature of the city, inserting dirty, dirty Dallas rap tracks like the abrasive “Bezerk” alongside stunning demonstrations of sample-heavy, soulful tunes like “A Song 4 Sharday.” Mel sounds more focused and intentional on DALLAS, TEXXXAS than most of his previous projects, rapping decisively in a loveably understated, crawling cadence that intoxicatingly drags just behind the beat.
He showcases a hunger innate to Dallas, a drive seemingly instilled in a city that has always known division and hardship. Though years of uncertainty as a burgeoning artist sometimes pushed Mel into dark chapters of his life, he always found solace through an acceptance of his circumstances and by embracing God’s plan for his life. “I have faith that tomorrow’s gon’ come,” he states: “and it always does because of that.” — David Brake
I’ve spent some time in Austin, but I’ve never been to Dallas. Could you tell me a bit about the city and what it was like to grow up there?
Outlaw Mel: I can let you know, in comparison to any other cities in the state, Dallas is the most cultured. It’s its own planet, bro. Especially growing up here in the 90s as a kid, bro. Before the internet hit, shit like that. The people here, compared to other places, are just more soulful. I say that because when I went down to Houston and shit for school, that’s one of the things they used to say about us as an insult. I remember I was in the cafe eating and shit, eating lunch in between classes. And one of those Houston girls was talking about the Dallas girls, saying: ‘them Dallas girls, they dress so soulful.’ They mean it as an insult, but in hindsight, bro, that’s honestly the best word I can think of to describe Dallas — we just more soulful. It’s the Black Baptist Church capitol of the country. It’s like a gumbo pot, bro. Music is our way of documenting our human history and human experience throughout time. If you look at Dallas and the music that we have here, we have everything. If you want to just look the microcosm of hip-hop, we got lyrical shit, a bunch of street shit, more of that than anything, just cause that’s Dallas for you. We got alternative shit, whatever, you know what I’m saying? You could go get your Erykah Badus in Dallas. You also gonna get your Dallas Boogie, your Mo3, Trapboy Freddy, Big Tuck. To put it simply, bro, it’s an eclectic, ethereal kind of place. As time goes on, and we getting further into this digital society, I couldn’t have asked to be born in a better spot. I feel like Dallas has a place in history that we haven’t even seen yet.
How has the city changed over the past few years? Have you noticed any changes?
Outlaw Mel: Gentrification. One word, bro. I’ll say a metaphor I like to use: Hip Hop is like a roundtable and every major city, for the most part, has a seat at that table. New York will be at the head, of course. LA has a seat. Atlanta has a big-ass seat. Even Baton Rouge has a seat at the table thanks to Boosie and Webbie, Kevin Gates and YoungBoy and shit like that. Well, it’s hard to get a seat at the table because of how much the city [of Dallas] has changed since the Boogie era. When I say the city has changed, I literally mean the makeup of the city. They started aggressively around ’08, 09, moving people around. Oak Cliff is not the same Oak Cliff. Oak Cliff is a neighborhood that’s the heart of the city. Well, growing up in Oak Cliff in the 90s was like Compton, it was the Black Mecca. What happened since 2008, is now, in 2021, Oak Cliff is not crawling with Black youth like it was. That’s how you get hip hop: we understand that. All the young Black families and all the young Black kids that would usually be in Oak Cliff are now in Desoto, Cedar Hill, Duncanville, and suburbs like that. The makeup of the city has literally changed. Places that 10, 15 years ago, were jumping with activity and people, aren’t anymore. They quiet as a mouse. Now, suburbs right outside the city, places that weren’t really known for activity and vibrancy in 2006, now that’s where all the activity is. The city is changing a lot. But it’s always been a tale of two cities. There’s a highway called I-30 that cuts the city in half like an equator line. Above I-30 is where all the money is, all the wealthy white people. To be honest with you bro, until I was 19, I never personally kicked it on the North side of the city. Now that I’ve grown, I’ve seen how they did this thing. They built that highway on purpose to segregate the city back in the day. Dallas is segregated as fuck. Dallas is boomin’ technologically, you’ve got all these industries coming to the city [like] animation, but the Black and the Brown folks, they don’t see that. They’re not benefiting from that at all. It’s a perfect locale for the times that we’re in nationally. All this is happening nationwide. It’s happening in L.A. in Inglewood, I know. It’s happening everywhere. Gentrification, this movement of the real people and citizens and the Black and the Brown faces of each major city in the country, and how people are being displaced or just removed from their neighborhoods, and how this white money is taking over these areas: this shit is a national emergency, but nobody is really ringing the bells.
How do you think the gentrification and this overwhelming white oppression in places like Dallas and other major cities is influencing the next generation of Hip Hop artists?
Outlaw Mel: I think we’re coming full circle. I think the beauty of hip-hop, is that it is an art form created and illustrated by the group of people that are being left out. I think that we’re coming full circle and that we’re reaching another time period where these people, us, Blacks and Browns, we’re getting left out again. I think that plays into the why the violence and crime rates and murder rates and all this negative energy is rising too. I feel like the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots is only going to equal more conflict. The further the proximity, the further the distance, the less understanding and less compassion that can be had. Now that that’s going on, rap is going to get more and more frustrating. That just makes it better. The people are having it worse. The worse the people have it, the more the art means to them. It’s going to impact the message in the music, it’s going to impact the passion in the music, it’s going to impact the anger, frustration, and hate in the music. It’s going to impact the art.
Your latest album, DALLAS, TEXXXAS has darker production than much of your previous music. Do you have a dark personality?
Outlaw Mel: You think it’s dark?
I think there’s a lot more happening on the lower ends in the production. That hit me as dark.
Outlaw Mel: Okay, see. I would say that the lower end is where the life is at. Think about it. Bass is what moves you. Even in jazz music, it’s really the bass line that moves you. What’s happening, is the reason I can understand you calling it dark, is the nature of the sonics that we use right now in our current soundscape, all these distorted, digital computer 808s, that aren’t always tuned and pitched the right way, but the nature of the soundscape is going to come across dark, just because the bass lines are all computers. It’s not humans playing it, bro. It’s not going to be a whole lotta life in the bass line. But my music isn’t dark. I’m not a dark soul at all. My momma would tell you, “That boy was dancing in my belly while I was pregnant with him,” you know what I’m saying? I’m a real joyous soul. I don’t take no shit, I don’t play no games, but I didn’t come here to be dark. But to answer your question, I’m not dark and the music isn’t either. It’s just minimal and purple as fuck.
Do you think the new focus on Dallas is going to change the magic of the city? Are you worried for how the scene will react now that the spotlight is shining brighter?
Outlaw Mel: Yes and no. Money has no choice but to blemish things. Money breaks up marriages, bro. Money causes a lot of confusion. It’s going to change, yup. But I’m not super worried because of the soil I keep referencing. The thing about Dallas dog: you can’t be too Hollywood down here. This ain’t New York. You can’t be too Hollywood down here because your family, your grandma gon’ pull your coattail. Your pops gon’ pull your coattail. Your homeboys, your bros that you were in the barbershop with when you didn’t have it and you was trying to get your rap off the ground, they’re not going to let you too different. It’s not gon’ lose itself too much, bro. Dallas has a way of checking itself. I’m an optimist. I look forward to the success that we all finna have this year with this rap thing, because we need it, bro. Another reason my city is still so rich in spirit, is because folks around here still broke, still struggling, still hustling, still hungry for it. They starting to eat each other live. We need industry on the South Side of the city. If it’s gon’ be rap, then fuck it, it’s gon’ be rap.
You’ve previously stressed the importance of fully experiencing a city. You’ve mentioned both music and food to be key factors at play. Imagine someone is going to Dallas with the plans to listen to DALLAS, TEXXXAS for the first time. Where should they go and what should they eat?
Outlaw Mel: Shiiiiiiiiiit, that’s a good-ass question. The best way to experience my album; Touch down in the city. Go to Rudy’s: immediately to Rudy’s. Keep your doors locked, get in line at the drive-through, and press play on that thang. By the time you get your chicken, and you get to driving down Lancaster, don’t go back North towards downtown. Go South on Lancaster. That way you could see the whole hood. You can see Oak Cliff and feel Oak Cliff. You can look around you and see what I mean when I say pre-social media. Lancaster road ain’t changed. They still got the same, ratchet-ass hand-airbrushed sign having tire shops and shit. They still got the same shopping centers that have been sitting there since the late 90s, where three of the letters don’t light up no more. It’s open for business — I wouldn’t go in there, there’s nothing you’re gon’ get out of there — but it’s open for business. Just drive. Matter of fact, don’t even keep going down Lancaster. Bust a left on Ledbetter, bro, so you go East. Go into Highland Hills and take that bitch on into Pleasant Grove where I was born. Where I started off at. Just soak up the vibes while you’re eating your four-piece wings with extra pickles. Really feel how I felt when I was growing up, when I got my first car, a ’96 Honda Accord.
What color was it?
Outlaw Mel: It was grey. That bitch started off black and my dumb ass took my refund check and painted that ho’ candy grey [laughs]. I took that ho’ to Big T in Oak Cliff, where Boosie got shot recently. I took that ho to the rim shop and put it on 21″s, no cap. I raised a ’96 Honda Accord and I put it on 21″s and I had to cut the spoiler off that bitch. It was my granny’s car. She passed it down to me, it was in great condition. Man, I ghetto-ed the fuck out that bitch. Then I put two 12″s in the trunk, and the backseat used to lay down, so I used to lay the backseat down so them 12″s hit, cause that bitch light up when they hit. I used to get in my shit, bro, and I used to slide on Saturdays, no cap.
Next time I’m in Dallas I’m taking your advice and doing exactly that.
Outlaw Mel: Look, listen to “Ode 2 the Skyline.” Take that route, bro, and take that route while you smashing you some Rudy’s chicken, and you will feel me. You will really feel the album how it’s supposed to be felt. When I was on tour with Yelawolf at the end of 2019, we was in New York for the show, and we got there a night early. I walked around Brooklyn at like three in the morning listening to Wu-Tang in my headphones, and I finally got it. That’s supposed to be the beauty of music, but especially Hip Hop, is it’s truly Soul Food. It’s food, bro. It’s food that’s indigenous to certain locales and certain areas. You travel when you listen to 600 Degreez by Juvenile, it takes you to New Orleans. You listen to Wu-Tang, it takes you to Staten Island, it takes you to New York. You listen to my album, it takes you to Dallas.
Something I’m interested in is this hunger and this drive that you’ve exhibited throughout your entire career. You’ve always released incredible music, but it took a bit to catch on. How did you stay hungry, stay positive during those times when your music isn’t getting the attention it deserves?
Outlaw Mel: God. I’ve got to give that to God. I might have given you a different answer a year or two ago. But to be honest, it wasn’t conscious. I can’t take credit for that. God planted some kind of seed in me, and when I made my first real rap song, he showed me what I could do and the success that it had around the campuses down there in Houston, on the yards, in the colleges and shit. I never thought twice. I never found anything in my life that felt like rap music felt for me to create. I just needed to do it. I spent time obsessed over it, I lost a lot of time. Now, to be where I’m at, shit crazy. It’s eleven years later and I still feel that way. I feel that I have a purpose that involves this rap thing. I know Dallas deserves more respect and acknowledgment than it has received, so that was conscious. But my love of music was God-given. My drive? God-given. My hunger? God-given. Because I did not grow up with a silver spoon, boy. We struggled. That wasn’t up to me. That was God-given. That’s what life is. I’m just riding the waves.
Are you a religious man?
Outlaw Mel: I’m spiritual. More so the more life I experience. I am spiritual. I grew up in a spiritual family. I grew up in Church and all that. When I got to high school, I stopped going. It’s like my elders always say: ‘God has a way of sitting you down.’ I was homeless in 2019 and contemplating suicide at one point in time. It was only God that got me through that night. I don’t give a damn about telling you that — you can type that shit up, ’cause it’s going to happen to everybody. God’s gonna talk to you one of these days. And it might sound crazy, because it is. I was finna shoot myself in that bitch, bro. God just spoke to me in my mind, in my head. It was weird as fuck. It was like somebody talking directly to you, dog.
You remember that moment specifically?
Outlaw Mel: I’ll never forget it. Sitting on the floor in the studio. I was living in the studio. I was low-key stowing away in that bitch. You couldn’t live there. But lo and behold, life took a turn for me and I ended up living in that bitch. I’m hiding in there. They’re coming in there doing random check and shit. They did a random check one time, and I was in that bitch. The landlord bust the door open, and I jump up off the couch, and I had a stocking cap half on my head, bro, no shirt on. I just so happened to have the computer on still, so it just looked like I may have been laid out for a second. But for whatever reason, he didn’t trip on me. He could have evicted us. I’m talking, I’m pissing in plastic water bottles because I can’t go to the restroom past a certain hour cause I could get caught by the cameras. [There were] two pissy bottles right there by the door, I had just pissed an hour prior. I know he saw them, he a smart man, but he didn’t kick me out, he just closed the door. After so many weeks, and I mean months of that. It started to fuck with my psyche. I started feeling that terrible feeling that a lot of people have felt, a lot of kids will gon’ feel, cause life is hard. You feel like you don’t deserve love, like you don’t deserve a home. Nobody loves you, nobody cares about you. That’s when you’re on that slippery slope. I got to that point, I was finna end it, like ‘fuck it, maybe this will help the art blow.’ Then a voice hit me, no cap. It was just like…’don’t do it. You were meant for more. Think about your mama.’ I might sound crazy, but I don’t give a fuck. This is my story, so here it is. So since then, God and I have been way tighter, fam. We talk every night, we talk every day. I learned that we got to be grateful. We spend so much of our young lives aspiring for more, wanting this, wanting that, partying and bullshit. It disillusions us from the fact of life. The fact of life is: we were granted this opportunity of time. The more grateful for that opportunity we are, the better the opportunities. So religious? Nah. Spiritual? Highly, and increasingly by the day.
For everyone, those dark feelings will always inevitably arise again. Have you learned any methods for finding a sense of calm or control during those times?
Outlaw Mel: After that moment, that aforementioned chapter of my life, once God sat me down and came into my corner when there was nobody else in my corner, I began to take steps towards God. The closer I’ve got to God, the less depressed I get. The less of that I feel. The more I lean on God. the less angst I combat. Look, we men. Two men on this phone. Picture us both having a beer in our hand, that’s how we choppin’ it up. We know the truth. This shit ain’t easy being a man out here. You can’t carry this world on your own two shoulders. You think you can, because you’re some type of big man, but you only so big. When you try to carry this load on your own, you gonna buckle. It’s like trying to squat in the gym, trying to show all the boys in the gym that you’re that man, and you’re squatting 350. You might get down there two times, bruh, but you can’t do it twenty times. Inevitably, when you get to squat seventeen, you finna kill yourself. You need a spotter. Maybe every day will not be as joyous, as vibrant as the previous day, I go through blue days, but I don’t get depressed anymore. I pray about it, and I push through. I have faith that tomorrow’s gon’ come, and it always does because of that.
Why do you consider yourself an outlaw?
Outlaw Mel: I’ve always been a rebel without a cause. My momma will tell you that shit, bro. I just never really played by the rules, because what the fuck is a rule? Who made these bitches? Why? marijuana finna be legalized, we finna be big blowin’ when I come to New York, we finna be passing blunts, boi! But it was just super illegal. There’s men, especially Black and Brown ones, doing lengthy sentences as we speak because of marijuana. And now that law is getting ready to be erased. Bro what the fuck is a law, fam? Fuck that. Ain’t no laws, it’s God’s laws and that’s it. Man’s laws can kiss my ass.