May 07, 2014

Hip-hop Artist Vows to Make Austin — and Himself — a Star

Reporting Texas

Local rapper Dre Prince records a track at Austin's Spitshine studio. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez

Local rapper Dre Prince records a track at Austin’s Spitshine studio. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez. 


Dre Prince exudes diversity.

He wears dreads over a chili bowl haircut, his head shaved on the sides and back. He dresses in skirt-length shirts over harem pants, lots of leather, gold chains and a flatbill snapback hat. When he’s rhyming, Dre mixes East Coast flair with West Coast vernacular — and just enough down-South twang.

Dre, 23, is determined to become the first breakout hip-hop artist from Austin. His strategy: make music that reflects the city’s variety and upbeat attitude. He strives to reach a broad spectrum of listeners through lyrics that inspire people to achieve their wildest dreams.

“My music isn’t struggle music or hardship music,” Dre said. “It’s fun, upbeat, inspirational and something everyone can enjoy, similar to Austin.”

Dre faces a huge challenge. Two Austin hip-hop stations, Hot 93.3 and 105.9 ‘The Beat,’ have tried, then dropped the format in the past decade. Regional and national acts do well when they visit the self-styled Live Music Capital of the World, but local artists don’t have a self-sustaining hip-hop scene that allows them to grow.

So far, though, the signs are encouraging for Dre Prince.

Dre came up with his sound while taking a year off from school at Grambling State University in Louisiana. In fall 2009, while he was driving a night delivery route for Dr Pepper, he escaped in the bass-boosted sounds of Austin radio. Unsatisfied with what he was hearing, Dre realized he could be the change he wanted to see happen. With 20 credit hours remaining for a degree, he left school behind.

“My gut told me it was the right time to make the music I wanted people to love,” Dre said. Today, he’s an up and coming hip-hop artist who strives to revive Austin’s dying hip-hop scene by showing the world the city’s beauty through his lyrics. “There are others, but there can only be one” Austin, Dre says in his single, “Feelings.”

Dre has built a name for himself around an album and clothing line branded “BLCK KNGDOM,” where the missing vowels signify unity. “There is no I in team, and no A in us, so I excluded vowels in my brand to promote [the idea that] as one, we’re powerful,” Dre said.

Born Andre Davis Jr., Dre was 10 when his parents separated. “After my parents’ split, I became the only male loyalty my mother knew and held on to,” Dre said.

His stage name reflects that hard time. “She used to call me her prince, and I never let it go,” Dre said.

After the separation, his mother moved Dre and four younger siblings to Houston for a fresh start. There, Dre immersed himself in the sounds of producer and Texas hip-hop icon J Prince, to whom Dre’s stage name pays tribute.

“All I used to listen to was Slim Thug, UGK, Bun B and all the Houston heads [artists],” Dre said. “Their sound was remarkably different from any other city, and that’s what I wanted to do for Austin.”

Today, his upbeat, entertaining, hip music is instantly discernible from the slow, loud and banging sounds of Houston.

In 2006, Dre moved back to Austin to rebuild his relationship with his father. His brand, BLCK KNGDOM, reflects a goal that began to emerge then.

“It’s like Simba in ‘The Lion King,’ “ Dre said. “Simba didn’t become the king of the jungle when his father died. It wasn’t until he saved his family that he became king. I’m still earning my spot as king.”

After graduating from high school in 2008, he enrolled at Grambling to study marketing. His mother, Tiffany Clark, said academics had always been Dre’s first priority.

“Dre always had a drive about him, so I never had to push him too much. He just did what he had to do,” Clark said.

In finding what works for the city, Dre strives to connect to Austin’s people through his lyrics. “Similar to the way J. Cole put Fayetteville [North Carolina] on the map, and no one expected it. That’s what I plan to do for Austin,” Dre said.

A local DJ said Dre has the right idea.

DJ Tiny knows what Austin audiences like in hip-hop. When he is not DJing weddings, he spins records at the Aquarium on 6th every Friday night. Known for his versatility, DJ Tiny said Austin is different than any other city.

“It’s the music that taps into all that diversity that sticks around, not the same refurbished sounds of predictable Texas cities,” Tiny said. He describes what works in the club as something new, fresh and upbeat.

Holding close to these principles has opened numerous doors for Dre.

“I’ve excelled far beyond any Austin rapper before me. From opening shows to big names, dropping a promoted album and building a following that will actually buy my music, I’ve done it right,” Dre said.

A local radio personality identifies marketing strategy as another key ingredient to Dre’s success.

Val Santos is a weekend talk show host for Austin’s 102.3 The Beat, and she knows a thing or two about building a brand as well as Austin music.

“Artists usually build more of a following by leaking their own music for free, and if people love it, they’ll buy it,” she said. That’s exactly what Dre did.

Before charging for his music, he posted links on social media to free BLCK KNGDOM downloads from his channel on SoundCloud, a music website. Now, he’s charging $5 for the album on iTunes, and Dre says he’ll give the proceeds to charity.

He raised the money to produce the album by working 12-hour shifts as a security guard from October to December, often working seven days a week.

Friends such as Saundra Alexander are impressed by what Dre has accomplished.

Alexander is a freelance hip-hop reporter on her Vimeo news channel who has interviewed big names such as Dom Kennedy, Le$ and Slim Thug.

“I admire Dre for spending close to $5,000 of his hard-earned money, recording professionally, graphic designing and dedicating himself to his craft to release it for free,” Alexander said.

Dre said the investment is paying off. “I make roughly $5,000 a month on music from features [rapping on other artists’ songs], shows and selling merchandise,” he said. Dre also has a sponsorship from the Collective Status boutique on East Sixth Street.

In 2013, he participated in two national hip-hop tours – The Way of Life No Hobby Tour and Smokers Club Tour — and he performed during the South by Southwest music festival in March, doing more than one show on some days. He doesn’t plan to stop there.

“The only direction I can go is up. With that, the world will learn to know and love what Austin has to offer,” Dre said. “They’ll learn to respect Austin. I owe this city that much.”