Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Christopher Murphy became Big Dank one morning in the mid-'90s when he was stopped by a police officer near a corner in Southwest Little Rock where he regularly sold crack.
Murphy was an aloof, soft-spoken teenager, raised by a single mother and his uncles, who when he was a toddler used to calm him down by playing Run-DMC tapes. "That was my shit then," Murphy told me recently. "They'd literally put the headphones on me so I'd lay down and go to sleep." Everyone he knew was affiliated with a gang, to some degree or another, and since he was 12, Murphy had identified with the Tree Top Pirus, a West Coast gang that had improbably migrated to Little Rock in the late '80s. He was a student at J.A. Fair, though his heart wasn't in it. "I was a teenager then," he explained, "wildin' and on the prowl."
Walking down the block toward his corner one morning, with his back to the street, Murphy freestyled to an instrumental on his Walkman. At the time, he wrote about what he knew: poverty mostly, and black market economics. He noticed a car driving slowly behind him, but didn't bother looking back. "I'm thinking it's just an ordinary motorist trying to pass me," he said. When he finally did turn around, he saw it was an idling police cruiser with its window rolled down. His face fell. "He heard everything," Murphy said. "The whole time he'd been right behind me listening to me rap."
The officer stepped out of his car and searched Murphy on the sidewalk, patting him down and feeling the pockets of his jacket. Murphy knew the cop must have felt the rocks he'd stashed there, but he left them alone. This was peculiar in itself. Rather than throw him up against the side of his vehicle — standard operating procedure in these situations — the cop seemed to want to talk to him. You want to keep on doing this 'til something happen to you? he remembers the man asking him. There's only two places you're gonna go with this here.
Murphy was mostly quiet, and a little confused. "Me coming from a single-parent household, ain't too many people had ever come at me like that," he told me. He asked the cop what he suggested he do with his time instead, and, surprisingly, the cop had an answer ready. He said his name was Mark Jones, he had opened a studio on Scott Hamilton Drive, and, from what he'd overheard, he thought Murphy should come by and try recording music.
As a matter of course, Murphy didn't trust cops, and figured it was a set-up. But he began asking around about Mark Jones in his neighborhood and discovered that people knew him and vouched for him. "Lo and behold," he said, "he had a cousin that was from my hood. He knew what was going on." Murphy had always wanted to make music, but the idea had seemed unreasonable; he didn't know any working artists, had no access to the necessary resources. He considered Jones' offer for a few anxious days before finally working up the courage to get a ride out to Scott Hamilton, to see if the studio was for real.
"And as far as Pup Dog Records goes," he said, "the rest is history."
Ardell Allen was in his early 20s when he met Mark Jones, who at the time — the early 1990s — lived down the hall from Allen in an apartment complex on Reservoir Road, off Rodney Parham. Allen was in the Army Reserve, had been for several years, though what he really wanted to do was make music. He idolized Dr. Dre, who was then remaking the sonic landscape of street rap in his own image, and in the process elevating the role of the producer, whose instrument was the studio mixing board. This was what Allen wanted to do, and why shouldn't Little Rock have its own sound? He had watched as Memphis and Houston and New Orleans and Atlanta had, one after another, emerged with their own scenes, each with a distinctive regional palette. Couldn't Little Rock be next?
The city's rap scene wasn't nonexistent at the time, but it was liminal and disconnected — it hadn't yet congealed into something with a recognizable identity. The Internet is littered with one-off projects and forgotten releases from Little Rock's early '90s, groups like 5th Most Dangerous, Tenta B and the R.T.P., 490 Clic, Locs Off Wolfe — groups that either left town for larger hip-hop meccas or finally collapsed under the pressure of indifference, incarceration or gang violence (the hard-to-find Synquise Records compilation "The Final Frontier" is a crucial document of this era).
Mark Jones had something different in mind. He wanted to build an empire, something that could leave a mark and sustain itself. Unlike his predecessors, he understood that business sense, promotion and branding were at least half the battle, and he had studied successful test-cases for ideas. "Mark was pretty ambitious about what he wanted to do," Allen remembered. "He had a specific vision as to what he wanted." Jones even went on a fact-finding mission to New Orleans, meeting with Cash Money Records founders Birdman and Slim Williams — responsible for discovering and disseminating talents like Lil Wayne, Juvenile and B.G. — to pick their brains. "He was going to try to follow their blueprint," Allen said.
It was admittedly unusual that a narcotics officer would want to start a street rap label. But, as everyone who knew Jones pointed out, he was unusually enterprising and enthusiastic, and preferred to stay busy. "He always had multiple off-duty jobs," Allen remembered, recalling Jones' stints moonlighting at restaurants and at Park Plaza Mall. "He was always working." Jones had kids, and it isn't easy to support a family on a police officer's salary. And in another, equally important sense, his work as a narcotics officer directly inspired his goals with the record label: "By him being a policeman, he came in contact with a whole lot of people," Christopher Murphy explained. "He noticed that there was an abundance of talent around Arkansas, just sitting there. And he wanted to make a difference. He wanted there to be somewhere where dudes that was musically inclined could channel that energy."
Allen and Jones met through Allen's roommate, the rapper Money Green, who had started a group called Victims of Society with two other friends, Black and Gak. V.O.S. (as the group became known) was to be the first project on Jones' new label, which he named Pup Dog after his childhood nickname, Puppy. Allen was recruited to produce. Jones brought in relatives to help out on the administrative side: Robert Mays, a mainframe operator at Quality Foods who everyone called "Dirty Rob," and Roeshelle Robinson, another aspiring producer who was billed under the name Lil' Roe. Robinson, who was still in high school, knew his way around various instruments from performing in church, and he and Allen spent several days studying a keyboard they shared, a Yamaha SY85. "I just hit the ground running," Allen said. "We learned how to use it together and started creating songs. After a while, I was coming up with two or three songs a day."
Allen produced every track on the V.O.S. album, "On the Run," which was released in 1995. The album alternates between the bleak and gothic ("On Death Row") and the smooth and stuporous ("G Shit," "Hustlas and Playas"); to the extent that it sounds homemade, this is part of its charm. It's a record of its era, a full-throated dispatch from a black underclass whose representation in local media was at the time almost exclusively negative and depersonalized.
It was also the first project recorded at the new Pup Dog studio, an office building Jones had leased on Scott Hamilton, across the street from a video store and next door to a dry cleaner. "Dude put his heart into that place," remembers Murphy, who by this time was already going by Big Dank and working on his own first album (advertised as forthcoming on the back cover of "On the Run"). "[Mark] even put a bed in the back," Murphy said, "because he used to work like a hundred hours a week trying to make this thing happen. He didn't even take his uniform off sometimes, which used to spook the shit out of me."
For production help, Allen recruited his friend Stephen Walters, a.k.a. O.G. Groove, a multi-instrumentalist from Granite Mountain who had been spending much of his time immersing himself in Little Rock's emergent punk scene centered around the Belvedere Pavilion in Riverfront Park. "I had to come in and try out," Walters told me. "After one of my beats played, Mark asked [Murphy] what he thought, and he said it was tight. I played another one, he gave a thumbs up. So I was pretty much in. I became an in-house producer."
The Big Dank album, "The Hood Has Raised Me," came out in 1996, and was followed by another solo debut, "Bo$$ Hoggin," by Walters' friend John McAllister, who had moved here from St. Louis and went by the name J-Mac. The Pup Dog stable continued to expand as Jones opened the studio's doors to the wider community, attracting a range of aspiring rappers and musicians from all over Little Rock. "Anybody who wanted to come through and record, we'd charge $40 or $50 an hour," Allen remembered. Their reputation grew as the city began to take note. "We weren't the only ones to do it, but we were the ones who showed people how to make it sound correct," Walters said. "Our music sounded like the music on the radio; ours were the first local rap records that sounded polished."
The Pup Dog studio became a locus of creative energy, but it was also a rare site of total cease-fire between warring gangs. The city was fractional and violent at the time, and here was a small space of neutral ground. "That was a big part of it," Allen told me. "In the times that I was there, I would have Crips and Bloods in the studio at the same time. And nothing would happen, because they were all about the music."
As Murphy saw it, this was by Jones' design. "We had dudes from all walks of life," he said. "This man [Jones] would come into the ghetto, and instead of trying to bust you and send you to jail, he was trying to rehabilitate you, and he did. Dudes that had talent they didn't even know they had, all they needed was somebody to look up and recognize it. He gave them their shot. People who did art and had no platform to showcase it, he gave them a platform."
It was a vision that couldn't survive for long outside the studio. The label began hosting regular shows and release parties at a venue on Broadway Street called the Big Apple (in the Broadway Plaza Shopping Center, now home to Sims BBQ). They'd bring in bigger acts, like Three 6 Mafia and Goodie Mob, and would open for them to raise their own profile. "People loved the shows," Allen said, "but it ended up getting kinda violent. It got dangerous."
And while the label was beginning to get attention on a larger scale, it struggled to attract a loyal local following. Reporters from national publications — from respected underground rap zines like Murder Dog to the country's premier rap magazine of record, The Source — did features on the label, but they went unacknowledged in the local press. Pup Dog artists were featured on compilations like "Young Southern Playaz" and "Southern XXX-Posure," alongside huge names like Eightball & M.J.G., Juicy J and Playa Fly, but they were hardly ever played on local radio. This last failure remains a particular sore spot for the label's artists, who blame Little Rock's rap radio gatekeepers for inhibiting their reach.
Finally, there were contract disputes and legal troubles, and by the end of the decade the emergence of more accessible digital audio software had begun to render comparatively expensive studio time an unnecessary indulgence. The Pup Dog studio was shuttered. Murphy decided to try his luck on the West Coast, and Allen moved to Georgia. John "J-Mac" McAllister went into academia (he's now a professor at UALR, focusing on "blindness and visual impairment.") Mark Jones, who by this point went by "Superstar" Jones, gave up on his label, and refocused his efforts on stand-up comedy.
"We didn't make enough noise," Walters said. "That was the downfall of Pup Dog."
Allen agreed. "I just wish we could have had a little more exposure," he told me. "I feel like it was there. It was there."
One afternoon about 15 years after the label went under, Stephen Walters got a message on Facebook from a German record collector, asking if he was "the Stephen Walters from Pup Dog Records." After talking to the man, Walters looked around the Internet and was startled to discover that the Pup Dog releases had become collectors' items abroad. Rap fans in Europe and Japan have been buying and selling copies for several hundred dollars apiece. "These guys are trading them like baseball cards," Walters said, lamenting that he hadn't saved any of the original CDs, the values of which have skyrocketed. Anyone looking to purchase a copy of, say, "Recognize Where The Funk Lyes," the label's great 1997 compilation (with a cover featuring a mock-up of prisoners in front of Central High School), can find three used copies on Amazon, each for over $1,000.
The unhappy flipside to the label's legacy is that Mark Jones wasn't around to see it. Jones enjoyed some success as a comic. He became a familiar local personality, appearing as "Superstar" Jones on Power 92 and KATV, Ch. 7, hosting comedy showcases and once appearing on BET's "Comic View." But in 2009, a local drug dealer mentioned Jones' name during an interrogation, and the LRPD began to investigate him internally. Three years later, Jones was arrested in a federal sting operation. The dealer (now working as an FBI informant) approached Jones and offered to pay him $10,000 for his help. According to the trial transcript, the unnamed informant had experience as a professional comedy promoter and had previously worked with Jones to bring the comedian Eddie Griffin to Robinson Center Music Hall. Now he asked Jones to provide a police escort for a marijuana shipment coming into town — if the plan went off successfully, he wouldn't even have to leave his car. Jones, who was deeply in debt to the IRS, said yes.
At the trial, Jones confessed to what he'd done. But he also asked, essentially, why did you do this me? "I admit to what I did," he said, "I made a bad judgment, and I gotta live with that. But I would not be here now if they hadn't sent that informant at me. I never would have done anything." He added that during his 26 years on the police force, he'd been a "model police officer" and "was very good at what I did." He pleaded guilty to attempting to aid and abet the possession with intent to distribute marijuana and was sentenced to 104 months in federal prison.
Christopher Murphy, who still considers Jones a father figure, thinks the police department was wrong to target him. "Mark Jones was one of the best police officers in Little Rock, and I'll tell you why," he said. "He wasn't trying to kill nobody. He wasn't trying to hurt anybody. He wanted to let young black youth try and get their dreams going. He was trying to help."
"I'm never surprised when a man wants to do better," he added. "I think every man wants more. That shouldn't shock nobody. If a man walks past you and drops $10,000 on the ground, I bet most people would break their backs trying to pick it up, no matter how much they already got. I owe him a lot, you know what I'm saying? Because he took a chance on me. He could've just busted my ass and locked me up, but he looked out for me, and exposed me to the world instead."
The FBI informant had worn a wire during his conversations with Jones, and excerpts from the tapes were played at the trial as evidence of Jones' guilt. "If I take a chance, man, it's gonna be something that's worth it, it's gonna be something I can depend on," Jones told the man. "I'm trying to get off these streets."