Does hip-hop need a reality check? In the three decades since DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were rockin' the Bronx, the music's focus has vacillated back and forth from nonstop partying to no-compromise politics, from ghetto rage to gold-plated riches, glamorizing lifestyles that often bear little relationship to the lives of its listeners. According to Colorado Springs' Black Pegasus (aka Robert Houston), this tendency toward escapist exaggeration is shared by most contemporary culture.
"Everyone looks like they're rich," says Houston of most mainstream musicians and media. "But most people are just getting by. Some aren't getting by. I think in the underground, because it is underground, people are more true to their roots still and it's a little bit more realistic. But nowadays, even the underground is getting a little more gimmicky."
The Black Mexican, the latest Black Pegasus CD, may sound like a gimmicky concept itself, but it's no novelty record. As a battle rap veteran, Houston offers up plenty of punchlines (check out YouTube for his classic parody of MTV Cribs), but serious subtexts also find their way into the mix. Gangsta and glamour take a backseat to concerns of the lower middle class, at this point possibly the largest segment of the general public. All of which could be pretty mundane were it not for Black P's advanced wordplay skills as well as the increasing musical sophistication he and local Illynoise Studio producer Base Jase bring to the backing tracks.
"I have a better ear for music now; if you take all my albums and listen to them, it's like, wow, his beats get 100 percent better with every album," says Houston, who's now 28. "And because I am mixed with Black and Mexican, I wanted to show that diversity throughout the album, so the beats are definitely more diverse."
From the Columbine state
Born in a German military base called Landstuhl (just three miles from where the Ramstein airshow disaster took place), Houston and his family lived in Arizona, Florida and New Mexico before settling in Colorado Springs when he was 10.
Houston, who says his parents are ultra-conservative but support what he does, began rapping at 18. Within a year he was onstage, winning and placing in regional and national battle-rap competitions, occasionally using the endearing alias Yo Mamma's Pimp. He spent two years with the group F.O.S. (Fusion of Syllables) before recording his first solo album, 2003's The Black Pegasus. For the past five years, he says, he's supported himself entirely through music.
"I think really what's kept me here was my dad being in the military and traveling so much at a young age this was actually like my first home," he says of the Springs. "So I just never picked up and left it, you know? I've just been working with the scene as much as I can."
Black P references "the big C-O" frequently in his music. On "Rep That," for example, he brings some sobriety to a subject exploited by, among others, Xzibit and Eminem: "I'm from the Columbine state / You can get it in school / Damn so while Jesus walks with Kanye West / I'm walking on the edge with thoughts of death."
Compare that to Eminem's sentiments from his Marshall Mathers album: "I take seven kids from Columbine, stand them all in a line / Add an AK-47, a revolver, a nine / A mack-11 and it oughta solve this problem of mine / And that's a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time."
Says Houston, "Every rapper was saying "Columbine' on their records for like two years, so I wanted to take a different tone, because everywhere I go I represent my state of Colorado. And I love where I'm from, I always have. So I didn't want to embellish what happened, but just say, "Hey, this is where I'm from, these type of things happen, it is what it is.'"
Politics and police
"Coming up, it was weird fitting in," says Houston, whose mother preferred the term "mutt" to mixed race. "Like, obviously, I'm never really dark enough for my dark-skinned friends, and I don't look Mexican because of my features. So, you know, it was always different fitting in. But it was good for me because it gave me a lot of character.
"Our psychology is kind of to stick to your own," he continues. "But me being mixed, I never saw it that way, and I couldn't see it that way. Like when I do shows in California, it's really hard because there is a huge war between Blacks and Latinos. It's crazy, it's so out of control. And in a way, it's like I want to cry, because I see these horrendous things that both cultures are doing to each other."
Which is not to suggest that the broader culture, as some pundits have claimed in the wake of Barack Obama's candidacy, is post-racist.
"This is a racist country, that's the reality, period," says Houston. "That's the foundation of our country, so racism has to kind of bleed its way out slowly. And since it doesn't really get dealt with, it just sticks around."
Houston says he leaves political rapping to those with more skills in that area. Still, there are times, as on the song "Po Po," when he can't avoid it.
"I just had a friend who got arrested, who got Tasered and then beat down," says Houston, who sees police and military as essentially the same and doesn't rule out the specter of martial law.
"If the cops get defeated, who are they gonna call? They're both there to enforce whatever the powers that be want to be enforced at that moment."
As for the police perspective, says Houston, "They're in a situation where they could be killed at any time, so I understand that. They have to be on this level of: "You have to be scared of me, because if you're not scared of me, the chances of you killing me are higher.' So I understand the psychology of it."
While he generally avoids samples, Black P's "Po Po" does borrow lyrics from other artists Ice T, Ice Cube, N.W.A. and Eazy-E to open each verse. The siren sound, he notes, comes from KRS-One.
Says Houston: "I took it all from artists who were really like "F the police' before their time."