The first time I heard local visual artist Franklin Bryson Brooks rap was after a benefit at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center last spring. I was steadying myself from the effects of too much free vodka when Brooks, having also enjoyed a few beverages, asked if I wanted to hear his rap song. “Seriously?” I laughed. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s called ‘Put That Booty up on That Speaker.’ It’s about putting your booty up on the speaker.”
Sold! I followed Brooks back to the nearby loft he shares with partner in marriage and art, Holly Hein. There, a small group of people listened to Brooks’ song played directly off his computer. The boho painter wasn’t lying; that track was all about booty. Over minimalist beats, Brooks cooed, “Work that thing, girl, get that dough. I wanna see, girl, what you know.” The rest of the song flowed like a rhyming Kama Sutra instructional for club kids. When it ended, I remember being surprised at how much it sounded … legit. “You wanna hear another?” asked Brooks, “I have like a whole album.”
That was my personal introduction to Brooks the rapper. Before, I had only known of Brooks the artist, who had built a successful career with Hein as painters and performance artists. Their live portraiture of each other, conducted in full costume at public events like Luminaria and Chalk It Up draws in kids, average Joes, and San Antonio’s art aficionados alike. Not sure if Brooks’ song about licking Iraqi women under their burkas will have the same mass appeal.
We’ll see. Brooks just issued his own extremely limited release of an eight-song album entitled Booty Sunrise, marking the debut with an impromptu freestyle performance at a Blue Star Labs’ art opening in late August. Though the rap career is new, Brooks has a long history with professional music. As a child, his mother was a choir director and Brooks confesses participating in several musicals. After completing his BFA at University of Texas, Brooks moved to Mexico City in the late ’90s and started a punk rock band called Los Arm Strings, which hit big in Serbia, of all places. Brooks continued his musical projects when he returned to the States, including his San Antonio-based solo project Franky Truth and the Outlet. “I just kind of hit a wall with it and stopped playing the punk rocky kind of thing,” says Brooks back in his loft last week. “I wanted to make something that was more controlled. So I just started making hip-hop music.” Over the next few years, Brooks worked sporadically with friend Mike Bailey, who produced the beats, compiling a backlog of dozens of hip-hop tracks. Brooks, 35, doesn’t view his rap enthusiasm as all that weird. Wearing a James Brown t-shirt, he explains that he moved to Augusta, Ga., in middle school, where freestyling and breakdancing were already standard playground activities. “I kind of grew up around Ice-T and the Beastie Boys and all that stuff in the ’80s,” he says. He rattles off a list of his favorite artists, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ice Cube, 50 Cent, and Snoop Dogg among others, as well as white rap enigmas Die Antwoord and Mickey Avalon.
Brooks still incorporates his 15-plus year art career. “It’s hip-hop, I guess, but in a lot of ways I look at it as performance art,” says the former student of Linda Montano, pioneer of life/art performances. He’s chosen not to devise an alter ego, and to rap simply under his middle name, Bryson. Though his rhyming and persona is often funny, the concept isn’t a joke. “I don’t want it to be something that’s fabricated. … It’s not like an Ali G kind of thing,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with my childhood, it’s how people acted and talked in Georgia. I kind of just go into it. I guess it’s a conscious thing, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to turn it on.’ It’s not acting.” Brooks’ humor is more a direct extension of his personality, he says, and is more “real” than getting into gangsta rap. “It’s not so … hateful, sleazy, or angry,” he says, “I don’t really identify with it. I just kind of want to dance, be funny, point at how it’s all put together … I don’t want to say satirical. I think it’s honest. Honestly funny.”
Because Brooks isn’t terribly concerned about crafting an image, he can access a remarkably quick wit. Last month, he recorded a song with friend Carlos Herrera, a musician and teacher who spent his summer break producing music. Brooks visited Herrera in the studio just as he was struggling with a song. “It was a dilemma, I didn’t know what to do with that song,” says Herrera by phone. “He came in, had a sip of beer and was like, ‘Alright, I’m just going to go.’” The result is “Freaky Girl,” a four-minute-long track featuring Herrera’s synth-rock instrumentals behind Brooks’ rapping in a nasal, sing-song cadence that’s already made its way to Lava Lounge and Limelight DJ nights. His lyrics are both dirty and silly. “I’m gonna put that butt in flight, I’m gonna split that tree alright, I’m gonna screw that thing in tight, I’m gonna make that doggie bite,” he raps, before launching into alternate choruses about the title subject: “P-A-R-T-Y, that girl ain’t got no alibi,” is one; German-tinged “eins, zwei, drei, vier, get that girl a Lone Star beer,” is another.
Both Hererra and Brooks agree that their collaboration, to be continued later this fall, is the next level for Brooks the rapper, though they both wonder how to get the music out to a wider audience. “Do I take it to 98.5 The Beat and say, ‘Put it on the radio’?” jokes Brooks. For now the artist is content to keep his performances to the gallery scene he frequents and watch it grow. “It’s all been building off of each other and kind of taking its own course into bigger and bigger things,” says Brooks. “Now it’s like, I want a platinum record. I don’t want to rap into a laptop anymore. Give me the mic!” •