In death comes life, so the saying goes. For 24-year-old Southwest Houston rapper GT Garza, the cliché emulates the birth of his career. Ask GT about who inspired him to first take the microphone and he won't spit out the usual suspects in Southern hip-hop. No, he'll talk about a young man named Leonard Carter, who displayed some serious freestyle flow in back of the bus during his middle-school days. GT used to sit and watch "Leno" with amazement.
But in 2001, Carter collapsed at a Lamar High School morning football scrimmage and died after being rushed to a hospital with a heart condition, making national headlines. Carter was only 14 years old. His passing, unbeknownst to lots of people, would help inspire one of Houston's most lyrically gifted rap artists to stop listening to hip-hop and start creating it.
"It inspired me and taught me that you only live once," GT tells Rocks Off.
The following year GT Garza, as only a 14-year-old freshman in high school, won the first of a long streak of rap battle competitions, ending in 2005 with an impressive 2nd place finish at the "Road to the Apollo" national rap battle competition in New York City. Yet, lyrical sparring matches aren't how GT wants to be known or remembered in Houston, or anywhere for that matter. They are his means to an end that hasn't quite transpired...yet, that is.
"I wouldn't consider myself a battle rapper," GT Garza tells Rocks Off. "That's what I had to do to get in the game. Either you sell dope or you battle. I want to get into a different arena. I don't want those $100 checks for winning battles. I want millions and I'm gonna' make that transition."
Transition as in going from underground to mainstream status. If anyone has a shot at doing so, perhaps it's GT. It's because his style is unique. It's been called incomparable by hip-hop sites and by fans on discussion boards alike. He's undoubtedly a gifted lyricist - some say the best of the Houston Latino hip-hop artists - who can bring the heat on a beat.
But another reason GT might make the transition he speaks of is because of his mentor and big brother in the game, Rob G. Rob G, who blasted on the scene with "Reppin' My Block" in 2007, has already broken ground by making a name for himself outside of Houston, amazingly not attached to a traditional Houston label like Swishahouse or Rap-A-Lot. He did it with Latium Entertainment/Universal, so it's plausible GT can too, especially with the breath of freshness his flows are pumping into the body of the local rap scene.
"I want to represent a new movement, my own shit," Garza says. "This ain't what you used to in Houston. I respect all the legends in the game who done paved the way for everybody, but in my eyes, I don't' have to sound like that."
But the two things that make GT, GT, might hold him back, he fears. GT tells Rocks Off that the stigma of battle rappers not making good rappers who people actually want to listen to is one of those things. The other is, in fact, a sentiment shared by many of Houston's Latino rappers. And that's being Latino.
"There's already this thinking that Latin rappers can't rap," GT says. "I'm tired of not being able to make these other markets. When you think of Latin rappers, you think Big Pun, Fat Joe, and SPM, but no one thinks of the new wave. But I am - we are. Fuck what they talkin' about, we fixin' to get it. There's no color to this hip-hop shit, but me being Latin gives me a disadvantage. I've got to work ten times harder to get recognized."
Maybe so, but he's not doing too badly. The Pepsi Mic Pass might not have given GT a sip of their brand recognition, but he's had plenty to drink from Dr. Pepper and Sunkist rap cans. Dr. Pepper bought one of GT's songs, "Just Chill." for their "Unmistakable Ride" mix tape in 2007 and GT took first in the Sunkist SunLab rap battle competition in 2003 and 2004. He has also gotten plenty of record spins as a feature on the remix of Ashanti's "Still on It," alongside Paul Wall, and on the remix to Chris Brown's "Run It." Both hit heavy rotation on FM dials throughout the southwestern and western parts of the United States.
Unmistakably, GT is a man who understands when to leverage his heritage and when not to allow it to consume him. The full-time rapper gets at least 20 feature requests per month mostly from hungry underground rappers in the Hispanic-dominated region of South Texas, charging $100 to $300 per guest appearance. You do the math.
That's not counting mix-tape money and road shows. But GT understands that he has to appeal to a wider audience to get where he wants to be, "wearing a Houston T-shirt while accepting a Grammy."
"In my eyes, (Latino rappers in Houston) don't want to be good Latino rappers," GT says. "We want to be good rappers, period. People pulling that race card - fuck that. When they see me in the club, I want them to say, 'he goes hard. I thought he was Black.' They can find out I'm Mexican later."
Rocks Off knows three things: he definitely goes hard; with a name like Garza, there's no doubting he's Mexican; and ole' Leonard Carter is definitely smiling from up above.
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Rolando Rodriguez is managing editor of www.redbrownandblue.com. Email him at Rolando@redbrownandblue.com.