In Living Color 

Nashville rapper crosses color line and finds local success

Nashville rapper crosses color line and finds local success

Haystak

Car Fulla White Boys (Street Flavor)

In a string of boasts, this might be the most impressive: “In my area, I sell more than Eminem.”

Twenty-six-year-old Jason Winfrey, who goes by the nom-de-rap Haystak, is leaning forward in an office chair with both his arms rising and descending in a slow-motion chop, random fingers extended. He’s clad in a pair of khakis and a collared pullover, a buzz-cut and a fuzzy goatee adorning an egg-shaped head that rests atop a burly cement-block body. He could be a bouncer at a fraternity party or the assistant manager of a suburban gym, but instead he’s pointing at a CD with his picture on the cover, and he’s saying:

“I’m connected with the realest motherfuckers in Nashville. South 8. Woodbine.” Later he adds, “If you see me in a yacht, you’ll know I worked hard to get that bitch.”

Haystak is holding court.

It was a little over a year-and-a-half ago that Nashville independent label Street Flavor Records released Mak Million, Haystak’s debut album. It sold a few thousand copies locally, despite a stripped-down sound completely devoid of live instruments. Haystak says that the bare-bones approach was by design. “I didn’t want people sayin’, ‘Oh the white boy gots the New York Philharmonic on that bitch,’ ” He growls. “Nah. I was killin’ y’all then with only a keyboard and a beat.”

Today, Haystak is sitting in the Spartan offices of Street Flavor Records, which—belying the name—are located in a nondescript suite behind a tractor supply store on the rural stretch of Lebanon Road that links Hermitage with Mount Juliet. In the conference room with ’Stak is Sonny Paradise, the youthful impresario of Street Flavor, who has one eye on his phone and one eye on his most promising artist. The smallish, bespectacled Paradise injects clarifications between Haystak’s rants and occasionally tries to keep the conversation on-topic, but mostly he leans back in his chair and marvels at the flow emanating from the bear across the table, which the label president can’t help acknowledging with a chuckle and a braces-exposing grin.

“We’re the No. 1 rap label in Nashville,” Haystak says, in response to a question that no one asked. “I don’t have to sell another record to be the most famous guy in Lebanon.”

Actually, that question was asked, sorta. Was Haystak born here? Raised here? Where did he go to school?

He grew up in South Nashville and Lebanon, and he spent some time in reform school, but he’d rather not comment on it. He grew up with hip-hop, except for when he and his buddies “listened to a lot of hair bands. We all did, when that was all there was.” But he kept gravitating back to the beat. “Rap music was made for kids who couldn’t afford pianos,” he says, breaking briefly into a Fat Boys-inspired human beatbox riff that dissolves into a brief, breathy laugh. “That shit kept us busy in ’86 for hours.”

“See, I wasn’t turned out, I was raised this way,” Haystak says, regaining his hard shell. “I’m not from the suburbs. There were a lot of nights when meat wasn’t part of the meal.” He shakes his head.

Haystak would rather talk about his second album, Car Fulla White Boys, a lavish statement of purpose that uses background vocalists, live horns, live strings, and live guitars spread over 14 tracks ranging from snappy, generic rhymes about being persecuted because he’s just too good at his job to smart, personal riffs on being white in a black man’s game. Car Fulla White Boys is a grassroots success, scoring big among the youth of Middle Tennessee—“Everybody in Woodbine has my album,” ’Stak boasts—and garnering airplay on 92Q for the first single, “Reckon.”

Sonny Paradise estimates that both of Haystak’s albums combined have sold around 10,000 copies, though ’Stak himself is sure that the figure is closer to 20,000, since not every sale is measured by SoundScan. Lee Lane from Nashville’s New Life Records—who does provide figures to SoundScan—estimates that he’s sold 400 copies of Car Fulla White Boys in his store alone. “It’s our best seller,” Lane says, adding that both black and white customers are picking it up. “People hear it, they buy it.”

The bean counters at Street Flavor calculate that 80 percent of their sales are in Nashville stores, which means that Haystak’s claim to have outsold Eminem in his hometown is perfectly plausible. The artist appears to be of two minds about this trend. At one moment he runs down rappers with little ambition, but more often, he talks proudly of his homegrown support base, claiming, “I never wrote one rhyme with the intention of selling in New York City.”

Not that he likes to draw lines. “That whole color-hatred shit is bullshit,” ’Stak spits. “This country is just a big piece of dirt, y’know? I love my people on the West Coast, I love my people on the East Coast, but it’s Operation Salvation in the South.”

Haystak is quick to credit his producers—Paradise, along with Kevin Grisham and Shannon Sanders—for the ear-friendly sound of Car Fulla White Boys. When fans come up to him with congratulations, he says that “if it’s people I don’t know, I say thank-you. If it’s someone I do know, I credit my team.”

His crew may be responsible for the impressive mix, but it’s ’Stak himself who brings the smooth lyrical flow. “I’ve spent 13 years writin’ rhymes,” he says. “I’m 25 years old now.” He first caught the attention of Sonny Paradise because of his freestyle skills, but everything he records is carefully scripted. “How do you double something you don’t have memorized?” Haystak explains. “My pen and pad produce more proper designs. No one ever goes into the studio thinkin’ they have a wack record, but if I don’t have 15 hot tracks, there won’t be no more ’Stak albums.”

Haystak’s early freestylin’ days also caught the attention of some promoters from Miami, who wanted him to rap for them. Thinking about it now, he scoffs. “White rapper doin’ bass music? You ain’t gonna pin that on me.” Instead, he hitched his wagon to Sonny Paradise, who figures that there are over 100 indie labels in Nashville and over 1,000 rappers. The difference is that Paradise appears to have a solid game plan. His Street Flavor Records has had success with acts like Kool Daddy Fresh, and the slight young professional—who grew up hanging around recording studios with the likes of Grandmaster Flash, thanks to a father with a career in music management—also funds a Web site, www.Elinemusic.com, that he hopes will be a portal for ’net surfers seeking independent rock and rap.

He’s banking heavily on Haystak, though, and he’s marketing-smart. He’s placed ads for Car Fulla White Boys on wrestling programs, as well as on BET and MTV. He’s booked Haystak into skating rinks, where teenage fans can check out the show. “Wherever there’s white boys, I’m goin’,” the big rapper says. “White boys are gonna feel me.” Paradise is less blustery, adding only, “We know the market of white kids.”

Not surprising, given the relative rarity of Caucasians in hardcore hip-hop, Haystak talks a lot about color and about other white rappers. He says that for his new album, his label invited Eminem to do a guest shot, “but it was the week of the Grammys and who knew?” ’Stak respects Eminem, though he knows that Em’s success may hurt his own chances. “They give you one white boy every three years,” he mutters. “That’s all they permit.” He thinks less of forebears like Vanilla Ice or Beastie Boys—“I’m tired of that clown shit,” he says—and he’s not real crazy about wealthy white boys aping rap culture. “Dude, you’re from Brentwood,” he chuckles. “Pull up your fuckin’ pants!”

Still, he and Paradise know where their bread is buttered. “White boys buy about 70 percent of all this shit,” Haystak says. But he claims that his color shouldn’t be an issue anyway. “Nobody fuckin’ with Lenny Kravitz,” he exclaims. “Nobody fuckin’ with Charley Pride. They ain’t gonna fuck with me. You don’t gotta like me, but don’t compare me to other people just ’cause I’m white.”

In fact, Haystak is convinced that white rappers are about to become more commonplace. “I’m one man,” he says, “but there are a million more like me.” Street Flavor is currently prepping a ’Stak side project called CWB—as in Crazy White Boys. It’s “18 cats,” Haystak says, including “a dude named Dirty Red,” whom Paradise and ’Stak met at a homeless shelter. Paradise explains that “he moved to Nashville to become a rapper, and he says there are five more like him in Ohio.”

Haystak smiles at the thought that a white guy would move to Nashville to be a rapper, and he likes the fact that, for the moment anyway, his is the most recognizable white face busting rhymes in Music City. “You always want to be a big fish in a little pond,” he says. Asked if he has to keep a second job while his career is taking off, he smiles again. “I made 50 G’s this year.” Then, to add a touch of the thug life to his rags-to-riches tale, he waves off the money and says, “Listen, everyone in my camp had Rolexes for so long, that’s nothin’ new to us.”

But with more money comes more problems, as the song says. “Once you get successful, you’re a target,” Haystak gripes. “Robbery. Prank calls. Law enforcement are asking questions about me.” He shrugs it off. “I had a friend who worked construction and died in a cherry picker. Tupac died like he lived. If I gotta die....” He trails off, then starts drawing on his rep as a former JD again. “I feel blessed that I’m not dead or in the pen. It’s proof that there’s a God. It’s a miracle. But God has got to see you take care of what he gives you before he’ll give you something else.”

Haystak is a firm believer in the almighty, though he admits that for his next record—Car Fulla White Boys II is the working title—he has “some rhymes I’m fighting with God about.” He busts into a new song called “I Think I Got a Drug Problem,” in which he details where all his money goes: six-packs, Xanax, and “bud.”

That’s in line with the first Car Fulla White Boys, which features memorable raps about packin’ heat at a Waffle House and ducking the law. But for all the rapid-fire crime rhymes, the record’s standout tracks are the elegy for a dead friend called “Wish You Could See Me” and the touching “Love You Like,” in which Haystak honors his grandparents for the job they did raising him.

As squirrelly as he may be about talking about his past, Haystak has no problem with saying his real name—“There’s Jason Winfrey, and there’s the unedited version that’s Haystak”—just as he has no problem with digging into his dark side if it makes his music better. No doubt, some of what Haystak lays down is pure fog—a part he’s playing, to give the people what they want. Even the constant claim to be “keepin’ it real” is a standard feature of the tough young rapper act. But just as certainly, much of Haystak is not an act, as “Love You Like” would indicate. And his skill at writing rhymes and laying them down easily is undeniable.

Still, the pose is important too. Haystak says that even when he was between gigs as a rapper, “I kept my pants creased. I represented.” Why play dress-up, when keepin’ it real should mean wearing whatever you want? Haystak doesn’t really understand the question. Being hard and looking sharp is what his job is all about. “You’re a rapper, not a construction worker,” he shrugs.

It’s just that cut-and-dried. It’s just that black-and-white

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters





* required

Latest in Stories

  • Scattered Glass

    This American Life host Ira Glass reflects on audio storytelling, Russert vs. Matthews and the evils of meat porn
    • May 29, 2008
  • Wordwork

    Aaron Douglas’ art examines the role of language and labor in African American history
    • Jan 31, 2008
  • Public Art

    So you got caught having sex in a private dining room at the Belle Meade Country Club during the Hunt Ball. Too bad those horse people weren’t more tolerant of a little good-natured mounting.
    • Jun 7, 2007
  • More »

All contents © 1995-2014 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation