Friday, February 21, 2014

Interview: Arkansas hip-hop pioneer Ty "Tenta B" Burns on the early days of the Little Rock scene

Posted By on Fri, Feb 21, 2014 at 11:34 AM

click to enlarge Photos courtesy of Tyrone Burns
  • Photos courtesy of Tyrone Burns

Last week I posted a video on this blog by a Little Rock rap group from the early '90s called Tenta B and the R.T.P. I knew nothing about them, so I asked for help tracking them down, and after a series of emails I found myself on the phone yesterday afternoon with Tenta B himself, whose real name is Tyrone Burns. He now goes by Ty Burnz, and is still making music and managing other artists. We talked about his career, about the Little Rock rap scene that he belonged to and emerged from, and about what happened to it all. 

Are you from Little Rock originally?

Originally I’m from Dumas, Arkansas, or really a farm outside of Dumas, about twenty miles away out in Southeast Arkansas. I moved to Little Rock in sixth grade, in about 1988 or 89. I had started making music as a little kid. On the farm, pretty much the only radio station we had was the Top 40. I was hearing Duran Duran and things like that, and kind of manipulating the hooks that they had into hip-hop stuff. And the only videos we had was on “Friday Night Flight,” which was Fridays on, I think, Channel 16. So I was never really exposed to the general hip-hop scene until I moved to Little Rock. 

When I got to Little Rock I started listening to 88.3, where DJs like Dr. Feelgood used to play hip-hop. I was just a young kid at that time but I thought, Wow, they’re doing it the way I was doing it—and on the farm, I really didn’t know how hip-hop was supposed to be done, I had just been making my own version of it. 

When I first started making music, people looked at me as more commercial, because I had been exposed to so much Top 40 growing up. And when I started, during that period, the gangs had already started to rise up in Little Rock. That was a different lifestyle to me, coming from a farm, so I started to get a little more street. What I was looking at every day was the gangs, from East End to all of the projects and the schools, so the street stuff started to come out in my music. It had started developing that way right around the beginning of the ‘90s and I was right in the middle of that era. I was watching close friends die. I remember—I’ll never forget the date, it was January 5, 1989. I was very young, maybe seventh grade, and a friend of mine got killed right on the school campus. That was my first time witnessing death from gun violence; he got shot right next to me. That made a mark on me. After that, I was seeing it all the time.

Was Tenta B and the R.T.P. your first group?

Yeah, that was Demond "3D" Ivey, Eric "E Frost" Ticey and Shannon "DJ Duce" Brewe. We had choreography, my hype-man had the mic and kept the crowd going. I was Tenta B and the group was the R.T.P., the Rock Town Players. We were in junior high when we started that group. E Frost is my step-brother, the rest of us went to Henderson Junior High.

click to enlarge IMG_31617252639136.jpeg

We were the only [local group] on the radio at that point. There was one other group called 490 Clic that was out then, but that was pretty much it in that era. Several more projects came after. 5th Most Dangerous came—we all were kind of a crew, we hung together. We all recorded at this one spot, the same studio, in Southwest Little Rock. It’s not there anymore, I don’t even remember what it was called. We’d trade off recording and all hang out there afterwards. It was the first studio we ever recorded in, and it was a hang out spot for all the artists then who was grindin’. A couple of them went out on the road with us and did shows outside of Arkansas with us.

Around town, we did a lot of stuff for the radio stations. We were getting a lot of airplay, our stuff was pretty commercial. We played at the Riverfront and the Fairgrounds. The clubs weren’t really open to the local hip-hop scene like they are now. You didn’t have a lot of clubs that allowed you to play if you were local. A lot of times local promoters would book us because we were on the radio, and they wouldn’t even know we were from Arkansas. Our management was in Memphis so they didn’t know, they didn’t realize until later we were from Little Rock.

I was on a label called South Point productions, which had distribution through Polygram. It was pretty good. We had a Guess campaign—you know the brand Guess shoes? When they first came out with Guess boots they brought us out to New York and we shot a campaign there. It was real fun, we were young, you know? We did a song called “Say Yeah,” we toured with Kriss Kross on that record. It never really did it though. We tried. I don’t know if you heard “Deep N Tha Jungle,” that was a big one for us. That was the one that got me in with the labels. A lot of bad decisions was made with labels then because we didn’t know. Instead of getting in with a major, we signed with a company that had a deal with a major. A lot of that kind of got away from us.

What happened with that group?

A lot of people ask me what happened to Tenta B and the R.T.P.—that era swallowed that group. The street. We weren’t involved in gangs per se, it was just the affiliation. Just being around, you know, you might have friends or be cool with this side or that side. The peer pressure during those times . . . Some of the guys would hang out in the neighborhood with certain gangs and it pulled them into that realm, where they got caught up in some stuff that they wasn’t really involved in. Two members went to prison. I just went into a depression. When that happens—when you grow up with these guys from junior high on, I went into a depression. I didn’t want to make any more music. I’d start something and stop it, start and stop. That went on for years. I eventually came out of it, signed another deal.

click to enlarge From the group's tour with MC Lyte
  • From the group's tour with MC Lyte

I was signed as Tenda B to Revolution Records out of Houston, who had distribution through Ichiban Records. We had done shows in Houston and had been around a lot, so when the group started going through what it was going through, I was pressured by the label to go out there and make something. I cut a record called “Player’s Bounce” in Houston—I lived in a condo out there for a time. That’s how I met all those Houston guys, like Willie D and Fat Pat. I worked with a producer named Big Swift, he produced that single. It was wonderful, we’d go out to the club and everyone was just all around them. We all recorded in the same studio, Revolution. I’d be in the studio watching Fat Pat record and I followed along and picked up some of his habits. They all had some really great work ethics. There wasn’t nothing like seeing them out and about at the clubs, though, just the way everybody would flock to them. Their local scene in Houston? They treat them like they’re platinum artists, like the whole town cares about them.

I also managed and produced the 501 Clic. I put them together and took them to Al Bell’s label with “Crank it Up (Get Rowdy).” That’s the producer in me that just wanted to keep working. I had the connections and the experience, and I just had to keep working.

When did you leave Little Rock, and what are you working on now?

I left Little Rock for Dallas two years ago, but I haven’t even really completely left it. I have a home there and go quite often. I’m working on a new project that’s out this summer. The “Motivainment” EP is what it’s called, I’m introducing my artists. I’m in my mid-thirties and feel like I’ve learned a few things. Now that I’ve come out of that bondage of depression, I feel like I can contribute a little more. And I’m doing some managing still, working on a management team, EMD (Express Music Digital). I’m working with this artist Planet Swang, and others. But I haven’t completely left Little Rock, I might get in the car and go to Arkansas tomorrow, you know?

Who else from the early Little Rock days do you wish people remembered?

You know what, there’s a record that sticks with me from back then that to me was a hit. It was by an artist named The Jokkah, from 5th Most Dangerous, called “You’re No Good.” That is a hit record. I think he’s a slept-on artist from that era. I don’t know if he’s still rapping or not. That still sticks with me today, I still hum it. I don’t know that they ever even released it, I was just there when they cut it in the studio. And there are a lot of them, some have passed away. I don’t know if you know our “Victims Omen” song, but there’s a kid on there named Nate. He was like eleven or twelve when he sung that hook, he was a good artist that no one ever knew much about. King Jack was a great rapper back then too. He was great, but he never really got notoriety.There wasn’t a whole lot of us, it was just a few. It was more of a grind in that era. Today it’s easy to push a record electronically. We was going to Kinko’s, printing out copies and hitting the streets. We didn’t have the internet and all that.

Do you think Arkansas ever got its due?

The distributors in the South never gave Arkansas its credit. I don’t know, you do want that respect, you know? To be able to say Arkansas is on the come up. The scene has been there forever, even before me. There was a group called TNT, they just weren’t pushing it or marketing. We all learned from each other. No one really gave us that respect though, and I think it’s still going on today. A lot of artists fight for it, they want to be the one to make it and put the town on so everyone will know what Little Rock is. I used to be that guy, I wanted it to happen for us, for the city. I sacrificed a lot of things in those days for the city. It is what it is, though. Back in those days—well, some of it’s just a blur. 
click to enlarge IMG_5723167429607__1_.jpeg

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