"Nobody wants to hear a UGK cover band." At least that's what 25-year-old rapper/producer Mel Kyle, one third of the Houston by way of Dallas rap crew, The Outfit, TX has to say on the matter. Kyle is talking to me by phone with the group's other members, producer/rapper Dorian Terrell, 26, and MC Jayhawk Walker, 25, on the line as well. They all chime in when it comes to talking about their influences.
In hip-hop, you're asked to somehow be both incredibly mindful — if not downright deferential — to the past, while being entirely original. "No biting," etc. The Outfit's sound begins with the top-shelf musicality and brutally honest street talk of Dirty South heroes like UGK and Eightball & MJG before spiraling into psychedelic-funk territory. In other words, they have figured out how to honor their heroes without wholesale jacking their shtick.
This is rare. Terrell refers to the Outfit as "futurists," with the goal of absorbing in what has "already been done" and "seeing how far they can take it." Walker interjects: "Those artists [like UGK] were original to themselves and their music was indigenous to them," he adds, pointing out what they've ultimately gleaned from their musical heroes. What they’ve learned from their expansive taste, one that goes far beyond Southern Rap to include artists as varied as Alanis Morissette and Zapp & Roger, is to sound like themselves. "I can put a comma on [an influence] and add something to it," says Kyle. "It would be a disservice to be inspired by something and just make it sound like what it already was." Terrell and Walker concur.
The trio is a complement of strengths and personalities. Kyle’s voice is a deep baritone and he talks quickly, like a charismatic leader. He's the Outfit's frontman, though he often disarms his confident pronouncements with humor to drive his points home. For example, he gets a laugh out of all of us, when he drops this, regarding influences: "Everybody listens to Michael Jackson, but we all ain't gonna start dancing in line at Walmart, you feel me?" Terrell’s swirling, modestly cinematic production is the trippy foundation for the group. Walker talks the least and raps the best.
The Outfit, TX came together at the University of Houston (Kyle and Terrell have been friends since middle school; they met Walker during their freshman year) and first made their name with 2012's Starships & Rockets: Cooly Fooly Space Age Funk, which sparkled because of its cohesion and out of nowhere blog buzz. Late last year, they followed it up with two solo albums: Kyle's Cognac and Terrell's Four Corner Room function as a double album when batched together. (It's something of a Speakerboxxx/Love Below move, or perhaps a nod to the White Album.)
Kyle's Cognac, which features an instantly memorable cover image of Kyle driving and holding a brandy snifter, is an 80-minute dive into his mind. There's the aptly-titled "Feeling," an instrumental that sets thunderous percussion to melancholy strings and functions as an interlude before launching into the eight-minute, "Ride On." Prefacing the album's boastful "Business Man" is a skit in which Kyle's hollered at while he tries to get a burrito bowl at Chipotle. Meanwhile, Terrell's Four Corner Room is a sonic drift with sudden flashes of focus concerning the topics of insomnia and dreams. The single "Hourglass," begins as a slow creep of piano with synthesizer stabs before blaxploitation horns honk through the song; there's no rapping for nearly two minutes. Imagine Un Chien Andalou as directed by the guy who did Baller Blockin' and you're close.
The two full-lengths dig further into the particular sonic obsessions, ideas, and personalities that Starships is meant to merge. "They coincide," says Kyle, going on to mention that the trio is building "an entire body of work" entitled The Texan Chronicles. Kyle imagines a kid a few decades from now taking in all their work as a box set: "We want a little kid to pick up the Outfit, TX box set in 20-fucking-58, kinda like we did with the Frankie Beverly and Maze or Earth, Wind, and Fire box sets as kids on a summer day."
A solo record for Walker seems imminent too. Though, for now, he modestly explains that he's "just kind of cooking in the lab, doing what [he] feels." Kyle chimes in: "Jayhawk's definitely got shit to say. He's a rapping-ass fool. But he's been real adamant about it not just being rap. I can see this motherfucker making something like the sequel to Carmen: A Hip Hopera." Kyle is half joking and half not; a rappin' ass hip-hop musical from any one of these guys is possible. They’re futurists, after all, not a UGK cover band.