Denton is famous across Texas, and indeed across the country, as America’s “jazz town,” hosting the popular annual Denton Arts & Jazz Fest and the world-renowned One O’ Clock Lab Band. Over the past few decades, the city has also boasted an eclectic indie scene, churning out artists from Grammy winners like Norah Jones and Brave Combo to up-and-coming nationally acclaimed groups like Neon Indian and Midlake.
In recent years, however, a distinct new hip hop sound has emerged from the streets of Southeast Denton. The beats are so good, in fact, that people from around the city are beginning to listen. The man leading the charge is Chris Avant, better known as rapper “AV the Great.” The Southeast Denton-raised artist burst onto the larger city scene with a passionate performance at the 2012 35 Denton music festival, during which local press said “AV strutted, sweated and dropped to his knees, working his songs over like he’d sold out Madison Square Garden.” When AV returned to the festival earlier this year with brand new material from Poetry, an album that was an about face, soundwise, from his debut Live From the Struggle, he was named one of the top five Denton acts to see at the event.
AV brings a unique perspective to the city, having grown up in Southeast Denton, a community often isolated from the tree-lined suburbs and bustling streets of much of the rest of the city. To learn more about the upcoming star and his special relationship with Denton, we sat down with the young artist at Jupiter’s House.
Littledtx.com: In your opening track “Texas” off your album Live from the Struggle, you sing with an undeniable pride, referencing multiple southern themes like Friday night lights and the Cowboys. Can you expand on some of your feeling about the state?
AV: I’m from Texas. I love this state. I love this area, especially where I’m from, right here in Denton. It has its problems, but its more beauty than anything.
You mentioned the projects in your song “9th grade” and being raised by your grandmother several times throughout the album. What challenges did you face growing up in Denton?
Early ‘90s, ‘80s and ‘90s growing up as a kid-that’s the crack epidemic. That hit everybody everywhere, especially in Southeast Denton. Now, it’s nothing like it used to be. It’s a totally different scene now. Everybody’s locked up or moved away. There’s a few out there left, but the scenery is not the same. You grew up fast. You learned things. Growing up with my granny, I had a pretty good upbringing. She did what she could. Denton as a whole, nobody is that rich. White neighborhoods, Mexican side, Black side, nobody is predominately rich. And the best thing about Denton is that there’s no killing here, I like that. It can be violent but we have a respect for life here.
Despite all these struggles, uplifting melodic tracks like “Lifted” and “Still We Rise” have a hopeful tinge. Is this positive outlook a consequence of the success you’ve found?
I mean, yeah. Live From The Struggle, all my music, period, it touches some serious issues, but at the end of the day you’ve got to look at the resiliency of us as a people and how we just still keep going. Somehow we just wake up and find a way to do better. We just keep pushing, we don’t give up-so that’s what my music is. The struggle is within the mind, within you.
In your bonus track “Southside” you rap about Denton; Your middle schools, Texas Woman’s University, etc. Why is Denton special, a place worth representing?
I mean, if US Weekly* can notice us as the #1 live music scene in the nation, that pretty much speaks for itself. I like to believe I played some small part in that. But this is home, if I was actually rapping about New York and I was from here that wouldn’t be right, would it? So I’m going to talk about where I’m from. I love this place and a lot of people have blew up out of this place, but they just never talked about it, gave back to it. You got a group like the Eagles, who formed in Denton while they were at University of North Texas** so it makes sense the Mean Green Eagles? A group then called the Eagles? But you don’t hear about things like that.
Growing up here, how did you experience the famous Denton music scene — either jazz or indie rock? Has it influenced you at all?
Yea, it’s in the air. You have the Blues Fest, Jazz Fest going there as kids. The Juneteenth Fest, all that. I saw Brave Combo growing up. I mean the music scene here has always been very inspirational and wide ranging. You get to experience a lot of different sounds. Dude, this is the place. Music-wise, I love this place. It’s great.
In your track “Lifted” you sample an old soul song and the track “Live From the Struggle” evoked Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” both thematically and lyrically. Talk about your influences both artistically and philosophically.
Artistically, influences, you find them from different places. You ask Kayne West or you ask Madonna, they’ll tell you that all life is an influence. Childhood favorites were like Tupac, Prince, Too Short, Jay-Z, Parliament Funkadelic, Al Green, Nirvana, I really liked Metallica, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin – I could go forever.
Did your grandma play music?
All the time. Al Green, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Ohio Players-it doesn’t stop, I’m a music encyclopedia.
What was Denton’s hip hop scene when you were getting started vs. now?
I was DJing at little house parties when I was 11. Back then, I was just soaking up game and loving music. That’s all that was back then. We had this thing called the HLV crew in the Southeast, and a lot of hip-hop artists spawned from that group. They all grew up in the neighborhood. Then when I really jumped out there as far as my own solo career was 2006-2007, I just saw a vision for Denton – what it could be. Denton has so much talent here and it wasn’t getting heard. I wanted to put it on the map. You have the Fab Deuces (a local hip-hop group) on one side and our Southeast Denton rappers on the other, and I was thinking like how can I bring that together?
How’d you know about Fab Deuce?
We grew up together. I mean we’re all from Denton, so school and stuff. You just hear things. You know, you support each other but don’t necessarily go to each other’s shows. You never do anything with each other. I decided to bring that together. Now my whole thing is, since we have UNT and all of Denton together, how can we bring Denton hip-hop with the Dallas music scene. It’s all about shaking hands and bringing us all together because we are part of the DFW. I don’t know why everybody acts like we’re not. And now I just got onto the radio station last September so stuff like that helps. I just keep rising with this city, somebody has to take the forefront, so why not, I’ll do it.
What advice would you give to kids wanting to do rap or hip hop growing up right now?
Work hard on your craft and love what you do. But really there are so many people that wanna rap, find something else to do. Learn how to also be a producer, a DJ, an engineer, a video editor – you can also rap but find something else to do with it because if all you do is rap then these days you’re just lost in the mix. How many people do you know, who say they rap? Think about it! I’m my own manager and publisher.
What has your reception been like in Denton? Have your crowds changed?
It’s big, everybody from the city now. There was a time when I was first starting when there was like one person there. At first, it’s just your friends, your neighborhood, coming to support. But now, even if they’re not there, regardless it’s gonna be packed.
Because your crowds are getting larger and more diverse, have you changed your music at all?
Nah, they came for a reason. They like the music I put out, why should I change it?
Your overtly political themes are a return to the social themes that hip-hop and rap often espoused in its heyday. Several artists, mostly underground, however, have begun a resurgence of this realistic message (Dead Prez, early Nas, Lupe Fiasco, etc.). Do you think you are part of a movement against corporate rap returning it back to its origins on the street?
Yeah definitely. I think at this time that’s just the way the world is. That real stuff is what people talk about, you know? It’s more independents out here than ever. That type of music that we make lasts the test of time because that touches people’s hearts. So in 10 years from now, I want people to still be listening to my first CD. Nas doesn’t have to have a song on the radio; you’ll go buy his album. That’s what I’m about.
I’ve read you’re very involved in the community. What Denton activities are you involved in?
I’ve done parties for kids, held vote concerts, registered people to vote. I might go around, gather people’s clothes and donate ‘em to the poor-something like that. I’ve been on the Juneteenth committee, Martin Luther King advisory board – just a bunch of random stuff. If someone needs me to do something, I’ll do it. Lately, I’ve got some things that I’ve been working on. It’s up my sleeve. I can only go as far as this city goes.
Are you going to stick around in Denton?
I have to move around out on the road, you know. But I’ll always come back. I got a lot of plans for this city. I’m going to bring a lot of opportunities here. This is home. You can’t knock this.
Listen & learn more about AV the Great here.
– George Joseph
*Paste magazine voted Denton the top city for live music in 2008.
**Don Henley, founding member of The Eagles, attended UNT, then called North Texas State.