An evening with Travis Porter
Root beer, weed, and a quest for girls with an exploding Atlanta rap trio
"You bring any bitches with you?" manic 20-year-old Donquez "Quez" Woods asks me as I walk into his group Travis Porter's frenetic recording session. It's a fair enough question. After all, the night was supposed to be about, well, ladies. The original plan was to hit the nudie bars.
Strip clubs are practically the trio's natural habitat, after all. As 16-year-olds they got their first exposure at Kamal's 21 — "Atlanta's Home for Upscale Ebony Adult Entertainment" — where they performed after being clandestinely let in the back door by trio member Ali's mother, a manager there.
But our adventure was not to be. The act signed with Jive Records last year, and the label is anxious about rushing out an album while their national popularity is swelling. Sure, they've been known for a couple of years now in Atlanta, where their playful, hypersexual style is considered the new incarnation of '90s booty/bass music stylist Kilo Ali. But they've become more popular than local legend Kilo ever was; suddenly their songs are staples on satellite and terrestrial radio and "106 & Park," and they're playing shows around the country. They've developed a reputation as the good-time jam purveyors of the moment.
And so, even though they're on board with acting out such hits of theirs as "Make It Rain" and "Go Shorty Go" at a strip club with me, Jive puts the kibosh on our plans. Instead, the label insists that, during their few free days in Atlanta between shows, the guys — Quez, Harold "Strap" Duncan, 20, and Lakeem "Ali" Mattox, 21 — get down to recording their yet-untitled major label debut, due out in August.
Instead of meeting at Kamal's we hook up just down the street at Soapbox Studios, a modest, no-frills Midtown facility where they're in the process of recording dozens of songs. When I arrive shortly after 10 p.m. I first encounter producer Bangladesh, the A-lister who has already laid down a number of prospective tracks for them, hoping one will be picked as their first single. He's eating a lobster tail in the lounge.
The group members themselves, meanwhile, are running around the studio, occasionally recording largely improvised verses but otherwise smoking blunts, drinking root beer, eating barbecue and goofing around. The image they project in their videos — wild Atlanta kids seemingly concerned with little else than parties, cash and girls — is how they act in person as well, and Quez is the most untethered of the bunch. Reedy and extremely tall, he's animated and uninhibited. When it's clear that I've arrived sans "bitches," he makes the same inquiry of a cute light-skinned girl visiting from Virginia who's somehow found her way into the studio as well: "How about you?"
As for Strap, despite the corporate edict he has already been hanging out at the strip clubs today, "for motivation," he cryptically explains. With tats on his face and a diamond pinky ring, he's the toughest-looking in the group, shy but vaguely menacing. When he was 15, he spent about a week locked up on a gun possession charge in Gwinnett County, he says. Ali, meanwhile, is the most polished and composed of the three, dancing to Bangladesh's beats as an engineer manipulates them, and wearing a shirt that says "OG" in the style of the Chick-fil-A logo.
It's hard to imagine their personalities were much different as friends coming up together in Decatur. Quez and Ali are stepbrothers, and the guys attended various DeKalb county schools before deciding to drop out en masse as juniors to focus on music full time. "School was in the way, so we were all like, 'Fuck school, we finna rap,'" says Quez. Another turning point was three years ago, when he was shot in the hip by rival kids from another neighborhood, just outside of Ali's mother's house. "We all realized [then] that it ain't worth it," says Strap of the street "foolishness" they'd been involved in. "We was so talented."
They recorded on computers at their mothers' houses and hooked up with a manager named Charlie Jabaley, who helped establish their Porter House imprint. The name Travis Porter was meant to be "Google friendly," and though it has proven infinitely confusing — many think they're an individual, not a group — their ascent has been rapid. They went from passing out CDs to attendees at the 2009 Hot 107.9 Birthday Bash concert to performing at the show a year later, and were boosted by their appearance on Roscoe Dash's song "All the Way Turnt Up." (Dash was unhappy when they claimed credit for it, however, and later remade the song with Soulja Boy.) Videos for songs like "Waffle House" — the true story of a drunken pursuit of a sausage biscuit — went viral.
The act signed with Jive in November of last year, believing that because the label isn't flush with hip-hop artists they would receive significant attention. But besides slightly curtailing their cabaret regimen, the imprint hasn't messed with their style, they say. Indeed, the big-budget videos for "Make It Rain," "Bring It Back" and "College Girl" maintain their signature giddiness, bordering on absurdity.
Listen to Travis Porter "Bring It Back"
What separates the group from other Atlanta rap acts who have made brief splashes on the national scene in recent years is that they truly seem to be having a good time. Many rappers manage to sound bored or disillusioned while rhyming about the spoils of success, but there's nothing cynical about these guys, and very little posturing. The way they craft songs speaks to their spontaneous, seat-of-their-pants nature, and it's fun to watch here at the studio tonight. They don't plan their songs out beforehand, they explain, they simply go with the flow.
"You hear the beat, and it makes you feel a certain type of way," says Ali.
They're not profound rappers. Their songs are stuffed with rap clichés: "Rain, rain, that's what the hoes be screamin'," imparts Quez on "Make It Rain." "Blang blang, that's when my diamonds be gleaming." But they succeed because they're enjoying themselves more than the next guy.
"You just have to think fun," says Quez. "Everything I talk about is fun, about the fun I'm having and the fun you need to be having. I'm going to make it sound fun, so you can go on ahead and do it. I don't know why I'm here, on the earth, so I'm just gonna live and see what happens."