Revolution rap: Austin’s Blastfamous USA challenges powers that be

Blastfamous USA stages an all-out assault on the senses. The hardcore rap trio takes no prisoners. The self-titled, six-song EP they dropped last year is an unapologetic call to arms, a rallying cry for a dispirited generation, an invitation to allow the gnawing frustration building in a fraught and polarized America to release into righteous rage.

Their live shows erupt in a blaze of volatile fury. Valin Jon Zamarron, the artist better known as rapper Zeale, throws down a dark gauntlet. “I’m a G, but it’s never enough/They build a wall around America, I’ma blow this bitch up,” he flows over a relentless grinder of pummeling beats and uneasy electronics on “Air Raid on America.”

It’s one of the 10 “commandments” he issues on the track. Number 10? “Most important of all/Do everything you can to make the empire fall.”

RELATED: New rap project Blackillac features Gary Clark Jr., Zeale, Phranchyze

The people are here for it. Since they started performing out, around the time of the July 4, 2017, EP drop, the crew has been steadily building heat, drawing crowds who show up ready to join the resistance. If you push your way through the sweaty fist-pumping masses to the front of the stage, you better be ready to go hard.

The group came together in what producer Kevin Naquin, who goes by Dnak, describes as a “perfect storm.” After years playing together in the band Sorne, he and drummer Dean Cote, aka DJ Murda Gloves, started playing out as a duo called Nght Hcklrs (pronounced Night Hecklers) in 2015. Named after an air raid unit Dnak’s grandfather served in during the Korean War, the project had an ominous air. The duo performed with balaclavas covering their faces. They churned out grimy beats with minimal melodics. The sound was hard-driving and raw, and it connected with their audience.

“People started responding, which was really cool, because we thought we’ve got to have a full band, a singer and stuff,” Gloves says.

In early 2017, Zeale and a friend ended up at a Nght Hcklrs show during Free Week. As they stood in the audience absorbing the cacophony, they both had the same thought: Zeale’s flow — militant and brash, forged battling Austin’s top rappers in the early aughts and sharpened with more than a decade of live performance — would explode over those beats. Connections were made, and within a week the project was in motion.

It was a strange moment in time, the early days of the Trump administration. “The climate, the environment was crazy,” Dnak says.

They knew right away the project would have a political bent. Their attitude was “if we’re going to do it, we’ve got to talk about something,” Zeale says.

Rapping about politics wasn’t new to him. He regularly delved into political issues in his early rap days, but during the Obama years, the fire wasn’t there. “Politics were still (expletive) up as usual, it was just hard for me to have that same rage because at the end of the day, it’s still like, a brown dude’s president,” he says. “So I’m thankful.”

As soon as President Donald Trump was elected, everything changed overnight. Suddenly there was a multitude of subjects he was burning to address.

“The rise of just, like, blatant racism, unfair treatment of African-Americans and people of color by police officers and even the whole women’s movement ties into it,” he says. “There’s just so much (expletive) going on right now.”

Nght Hcklrs’ turbulent beats provided the perfect soundtrack for revolution rap.

“Our stuff’s aggressive, and you gotta come hard one way or another,” Dnak says.

The name Blastfamous USA is an indictment of hypocrisy “so blatant now and just so accepted and almost ignored,” Dnak says. The kind of hypocrisy that allows evangelical Christians to accept a man with multiple ex-wives and well-documented infidelities as a moral savior. The hypocrisy that erases hundreds of years of slave labor to celebrate the idea of America as a self-made nation.

“It’s that arrogance that comes with a country that’s so powerful that everyone just walks as if, ‘You can’t say nothing bad about my kid … my kid’s perfect.’ That’s kind of the mentality,” Dnak says.

It’s also a statement about our society’s unhealthy obsession with fame. “Spell it out … Blast-famous U.S.A.,” Zeale says. “For us, that stands for … all the ridiculously grotesque Hollywood reality star (expletive) … Instagram stars, social media stars.”

“American celebrity is just as much an illusion as America itself,” Gloves adds. “We love to bring people up and break them down.”

All three band members are quick to note that they aren’t anti-American. “I (expletive) love my country. I love America. I would live and die for the flag,” Zeale says.

“In some ways the most patriotic people are the ones marching, are the ones standing, are the ones fighting,” Dnak says.

Blastfamous USA is their own stand against the reality-star-in-chief and the weird feedback loop that has consumed political discourse in the country.

“The president’s literally watching Fox News and tweeting what he watched, and it’s literally this regurgitation back and forth. People get so lost in this,” Gloves says.

If you’re looking for a musical comparison, aggro-rap duo Run the Jewels is most the obvious one. But instead of having another rapper to trade furious verses with, Zeale — who considers all three artists frontmen — builds on the menacing vibe of Dnak’s electronics and the bludgeoning fury of DJ Murda Gloves’ rhythm.

“In a musical way, it’s really rewarding for me. I kind of feel like I’m playing jazz … because Zeale, the way he raps, I play off of that. If he’s going, I start playing along to it,” Gloves says.

The group is working on a new EP due out on July 4, exactly one year after they dropped their first joint. The new release will have more sonic range than the first one. It will feature special guest appearances from members of their extended musical family: Chantell Moody from Fort Never and the Digital Wild, Zeale’s longtime partner in rhyme, J.J. Shaw aka Phranchyze, punk outfit Blxpltn and pop artist Mobley.

But the music will maintain the same brutal edge, and Zeale will continue his no-holds-barred approach to lyricism. It’s a bold choice. In addition to rapping, Zeale has notched a number of prominent public partnerships with sports brands over the last couple of years. He’s taken on hosting duties for the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Dynamos soccer team, and on March 3, he wraps up a season hosting University of Texas Longhorn basketball. But he’s not worried about any endorsements or sponsorships he might lose if the powers that be catch wind of his radical rap project.

“(Expletive) ’em. Honestly,” he says. “I mean, I operate in different realms, but I would never censor myself for those people or try to obscure my music from those people. They’re going to see it if they’re going to see it. If they were to ask me how I felt about it, I would tell them the exact same things I write in the songs. That’s the path that I choose to be on, this path with these guys, and everything else is just there as long as it wants to be.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a name. 

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