It’s a Wednesday night in Austin, Texas, and Bavu Blakes is in a familiar place. He’s back in the studio with close friends, but there’s no track to cut tonight. In fact, it’s been over a year since he’s last recorded. Known as the de facto mayor of Austin’s hip-hop underground, Blakes has worked with Grammy-winning artists like Gary Clark Jr. But now he spends most of his time teaching, whether it’s his daily seventh-grade English classes or the youth hip-hop workshops he leads every week.
Blakes and Greezo Veli, a sound engineer and rapper whose deep-set eyes are almost hidden under a fitted Texas Rangers cap, sit and swap stories about their humble beginnings in Austin’s underground music scene. Veli isn’t shy about the influence Blakes has had on his career. “There’s nobody like him. He was a teacher before he was a rapper. Now he’s embraced it,” Veli asserts.
Blakes can’t help but guffaw, adding: “I told him to say that.”
“Musically I’m a gateway drug,” Blakes continues. “Gary [Clark Jr.] performed at the [NBA] All-Star Game, won Grammys and not long after I worked with [music producer] S1 he flew out to Hawaii to help Kanye with ‘Power.’”
Before Blakes began cultivating talent, he was just another battle rapper performing at a weekly hip-hop showcase in the heart of Austin’s Sixth Street, and writing rhymes in a place much less glamorous than a studio.
“Waffle House is my slice of Americana,” Blakes said. “I’ve written a lot of songs there. The first time I ever stepped in the studio as an artist, I wrote that song in Waffle House.”
It’s still his go-to spot for early-morning inspiration. “If you’re there at 6:30 a.m. most days, you can almost set your watch that I’ll be in there with a cup of coffee.”
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Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Garland, Tex., Blakes has been based in Austin since 1992, when he enrolled at the University of Texas. In the ’90s, he gained local celebrity on the heels of Hip-Hop Humpday, a collaborative function that ran every week until 2002. The shows featured a live band along with any artist in town who was willing to jump on stage. What started as an outlet for hip-hop in Austin evolved into a source of community among otherwise overlooked musicians.
“Back then Austin was still a small country town,” Blakes said. “We were putting on the only hip-hop shows around.”
Humpday became a great resource not only for Bavu, but countless others in Austin’s burgeoning music scene. Local artists like D-Madness, Blaxsmith and the League of Extraordinary G’z all would benefit from performing at the shows and the subsequent success afforded by Bavu’s guidance. Blakes gained local celebrity as a result, and would go on to perform at showcases during the South By Southwest music festival, even hosting a few shows. A record deal or national radio airtime never materialized, but to fans in Austin, Blakes seemed to be everywhere at once. If he wasn’t performing a show of his own, he was promoting another, or hosting a weekly radio show on KAZI 88.7 FM. His long-term goal was to gain fame outside of this “small country town.”
“I didn’t want to be the best rapper in Texas, but the whole world,” says Blakes. “I even turned down the city’s offer to name a day after me. I thought it was goofy. My idea of upward mobility as a rapper was to be the first Austin emcee to get significant national radio time—not a day named after me.”
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Before he had such lofty artistic goals, Blakes aspired to reach a different audience altogether. In the late 1990s, while still finishing up his degree, he worked as a sideline coordinator for ABC Sports, filming Texas football games, while also writing for a handful of sports publications covering everything from golf to track.
“I was on the same career trajectory as Stuart Scott,” Blakes said. “One weekend, Texas was playing UCLA and I was supposed to help film the game, but I had a show booked for the same night. I told my boss I had to leave town for some made-up reason and I missed the game, but really I was a few blocks away on stage.”
Blakes nearly bumped into his boss at ABC Sports later that night, only to duck into an alley on Sixth Street. Soon, he would make music a priority over all else. As his musical career was beginning to take shape, Blakes took time off from school, just two classes shy of a degree.
“I was basically throwing a journalism degree away,” he says now. “I had all this guilt for not having graduated.”
Yet thanks to the success of Hip-Hop Humpday, he had no trouble finding work. In 2002, he released his first independent album, Create and Hustle. Blakes’s presence grew as he booked more shows and became a staple of Texas hip-hop. However, as time passed, something was amiss. He found he was no longer invigorated by performing.
“I’m not inspired by the things I’ve done 1,000 times before,” Blakes said. “Fifteen years ago all I did was shows, and in 2007 I was drinking beer in a limo with Mayor [Will] Wynn. But it was all PR.”
Blakes was fed up with Austin and began contemplating a move. His wife, Tifani, a consultant at the University of Texas, preferred a larger locale to further her academic research. Blakes has recently completed his final two courses of schoolwork, earning a degree in broadcast journalism, and was in search of higher purpose.
In 2010, Blakes and his wife moved to Long Beach, Ca., where he found work in a call center and the couple soon welcomed a baby boy.
“At the time I didn’t think Austin was enough for me,” Blakes said. “I had hit a brick wall and didn’t think any of it was worth it until I went to California.”
Yet something was still missing.
“In California, I was naked,” Blakes says. “I was without everything I was used to: the favor, privilege, familiarity and local celebrity. I missed home a lot, but once I had a son on the way everything shifted and not much else mattered.”
He returned to Austin with a new lease. Also, a release: the 2012 EP Sanct. Easily his most succinct work at just five tracks, what it lacks in volume it makes up for with insight and emotion. A standout track is “Fine/Great,” which touches on the changes he underwent after moving out west. It’s a change in tone from much of his earlier work, and details the stress of being away from all that’s familiar.
Veli and another longtime friend, Reggie Coby, handled production and mixing of Sanct. D-Madness and Blaxsmith, two more Austinites who got their start with Blakes, also appear throughout the project.
Blakes also discovered his calling as a teacher, completing his certification and receiving an offer to teach seventh-grade English back in Austin.
“As soon as I get hired, I get this late piece of forwarded mail from Long Beach giving ninety days notice that our tenant was moving out,” Blakes said. “It was basically saying ‘move home.’ I love those type of connections and synchronicity.”
In January 2012, Blakes founded Hip Hop Grew Up. The free program includes six-week workshops for aspiring musical artists. At the end of the six weeks, students are rewarded with a professional recording of their song as well as a check for $150. He eventually plans to turn the organization into a full-fledged resource center for youth looking to further their musical interests.
“My ultimate goal is to have all this be self-sufficient,” Blakes says. “I want to train other artists to train young people. Training in all aspects of music: engineering, producing, performing and promoting. I want to set up a center for kids in low-income areas so that we can leverage the resources the original hip-hop generation has to offer the youth.”
One of those other artists is Blaxsmith, a soft-spoken guy who drops whatever he’s doing when Blakes begins to speak. (His gold teeth are the only embellishment to his otherwise reserved appearance.) Blakes and Blaxsmith share a brotherly bond as well as a vision of what they have to offer the next generation of hip-hop artists.
After his decision to move back to Texas, Blaxsmith flew out to California to help Blakes pack for his return. During a recent English lesson, Blakes had his students write about the importance of friendship in times of need and used this as an example of how grateful he is to have friends like Blaxsmith who go the extra 1,000 miles for you.
Blakes will go on about his English students as if they were his own children and offers guidance to them just as he did to so many artists in his heyday as a performer.
“They don’t think, they write,” Blakes said. “I have to trick them into proving they’re already critical thinkers to get them to fully engage.”
While the bulk of his day is now spent in a formal classroom, Hip Hop Grew Up is Blakes’s main passion. He sees each class or workshop as a chance to give a boost to the next generation.
“We become the source for how the original hip-hop generation leverages its resources to influence the youth,” Blakes said. “If we don’t embody the first forty years of the hip-hop culture, they won’t experience the fullness of living. It’s almost like not meeting your parents.”
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Anna Maria Hernandez is a NYC photographer who recently moved to Austin, Texas with her cat, Angela. You can follow her photo blog at my-other-eyes.tumblr.com.