The Philosophy of Playdough
Jason Janik The writer and his muse
Leading up to our November 10 showcase, we'll be getting you familiar with some of our Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees, either via past features we've done on them, or new ones. You can vote for your favorite acts, venues and more right here.
Since moving to Dallas to attend the Art Institute in the late '90s, Doug Krum, aka Arlington-based emcee Playdough, has hustled his way to rap-battle victories, MTV exposure, label deals and, ultimately, underground respect. He's found while touring all over the globe that there's an unexpectedly broad appeal and accessibility in his mix of gritty, sample-heavy tracks and oft-spiritual lyrics.
The rapper holds both the teachings of Christ and the elements of hip-hop in the highest regard, but these days he's not afraid to set some of his humility aside.
"I try to be a humble dude, and try to find a good balance of letting people know my accomplishments without seeming like, 'Hey, dude, trust me, I'm legit,'" he says over coffee.
How did he get legit? It started with a strict Christian upbringing in Amarillo, where his family moved from the Midwest. Even at a young age, he felt like a bit of an outcast.
What were you like as a kid? What captured your imagination?
I was a weirdo, dude. That's why that area was tough for me. ... Up there, it's just kind of small, kind of redneck-ish. Judgmental-style, like on some good ol' boy stuff. ... So me being a weirdo made that worse. But, to take it to the worst place, nobody in my school rapped at all. And then here I am freaking rapping.
Where'd you first hear rap as a kid?
On the radio. It's such a small town that it was kind of behind when hip-hop was really popping. So I didn't hear it until it was really big. I remember jamming Sir Mix-A-Lot, "My Posse's On Broadway," and that's what did it for me. The first tape I bought was DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper." ... Or maybe it was "Rock the House." From there, it was over. I started rhyming almost immediately.
So, you didn't think it was extraordinary that you could do that yourself? Was it second nature?
I was in sixth grade, and I had to do a skit with a sock puppet. I made mine about Star Wars, but I rapped the whole thing. That was the first time I did it. I called it Sock Wars. I did it behind the curtain, or whatever, and my teachers were buggin' out. I got an A.
Despite the shortage of other hip-hop enthusiasts in his West Texas home, Krum continued to widen his knowledge of the genre, eventually finding sounds that stuck to his ribs -- DJ Muggs' beats and remixes were personal favorites. He founded a duo called Ill Harmonics with Blake Knight, a friend from his church. They sent out demos, sharpened their skills and kept it going after graduation.
By the time Playdough arrived in Dallas to study music and video production at the Art Institute, he was ready to get serious about a rap career.
"Oh man, you are so hungry for a microphone when you're at that place [in your career], that it would be just, like, coffee shops. Dudes on the freakin' hippie-style, bangin' out a beat, and you just get up there.
"I remember going to a Taco Bell with a car full of my friends, because we heard they used to have cyphers outside that Taco Bell. We just wanted to rap so bad. We used to call them 'spit spots.' We thought we were cool."
One of the opportunities that came up during those early days was an open call for a new band-battle show coming to MTV called The Cut. Ill Harmonics got it together again for the purpose of auditioning, and the duo made the show in 1998, having submitted a performance of one of Playdough's original songs.
"It was almost like American Idol, before American Idol," he says. "They had celebrity judges, and four [contestants] per show. We would perform live, they would judge and actually give a number, one out of 10. We won, and kept winning, and went all the way to the finals. Didn't win in the end, but that opened tons of doors."
Ill Harmonics found themselves signing a deal with Uprok Records, a sub-label of Tooth & Nail focused on Christian rap acts. Subsequent well-received releases put Playdough in the position to attempt a solo run.
2002's Lonely Superstar and 2006's Don't Drink the Water gave him the chance to tour around the U.S. and beyond, performing everywhere from proper hip-hop clubs to churches.
"The good things are always the shows, and knowing you're about to wake up and go to a different city, and people will be waiting there to see you play," he says. "The wack stuff is trying to figure out money, and travel is so expensive. You're in a van, you've got your DJ and your drummer. And it's like, I'm kind of their employer. You have to be business-mode, and I just want to rap.
"Going indie, taking ownership and doing it for myself has made all the difference."
Krum's decision to take control of his career resulted in his first indie full-length release, 2011's Hotdoggin.