The three rappers in Fort Worth’s Fort Nox have always had timing on their side. They might be older cats, compared to some of the young MCs now just coming into the Fort’s oh-so-fragile rapping scene, but Desmond Anderson, Marcus Davis, and Cedrick Ruffin have only picked up steam in recent years.
Dez 2-2, Solid, and Complete, respectively, have just finished their second album. An impressive 17-track collection, L.O.T.O. (Last of the Originals) puts on full display the lyrical depth that comes with maturity, but it also manages to keep an edge, thanks largely to local producer Ernest “Ernie G.” Green’s magic behind a soundboard. Fort Nox can still keep up with the young’uns onstage too. (Fort Nox plays Dallas on Saturday.)
The Nox-ers refuse to let go of their wit and ambition. Anybody who ribs them about their age is liable to get handed a mic. “If it came down to it, give me a microphone, give you a microphone, and give us a crowd,” Davis said a few days ago, sitting at a table on South Hulen Street with his bandmates. “See who wins.”
Ruffin and his bandmates shrug off the question of why they’re still doing this.
“We’re [not] trying to do something we’re not entitled to,” he said. “The talent is there, the substance is there, and the creativity is there. Why not?”
Anderson shrugged. “I didn’t know there was an age barrier to this,” he said.
All three rappers came of age in perfect sync with the hip-hop genre. As the sound outgrew its New York City block-party incubators and found a broader audience across the country, the three Fort Noxers were hitting puberty. By the time they graduated from O.D. Wyatt High School in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the sound was coming into its own adulthood. In ’87, the innocence of the Sugarhill Gang and Run D.M.C. gave way to an edgier gangsta rap echoing out of Los Angeles (N.W.A.) and the San Francisco projects (mainly in the form of a young high school student named Tupac Shakur).
Anderson had already linked up with Davis, a girlfriend’s cousin who was a few years older, and the duo formed a group called Dial 3. They had found their chemistry spitting freestyle rhymes in the hallway between classes. Ruffin, Davis’ classmate, would sometimes join them.
The three split up after Davis and Ruffin graduated. Davis joined the Air Force. Ruffin went to college. Anderson still had several years left at O.D. Wyatt. Then in 1991, as Anderson finished his studies, Davis returned from the military and the two reunited, this time as Zero X. They played local shows and started writing, even winning a few local radio station awards for lyrics. Around 1992, a fresh-from-college Ruffin found his old friends.
Soon others started coming around. Local solo artists like Quincy Elliott (MC Quiz) and groups like Intangible Delirium coalesced into Fort Knox, which Anderson described as a “clique,” or really a 10-person creative extension of Zero X. Anderson, Davis, Ruffin, and Elliott formed the core membership of the group as others came and went. Ernie G. supplied the beats.
The group, like other Fort Worth acts, found most of their gigs in Dallas. Anything happening in their hometown tended to orbit mostly around Monday night freestyles at the Aqua Lounge downtown.
The collaboration began to dissipate in the early oughts. The core four continued playing and collaborating, but Elliott was largely a solo artist, so he began to fade away as the other three focused on their first album, which was still several years in the making. It was at that time they dropped the “k” from their name and became Fort Nox, an official trio that continued to write and play shows, sometimes traveling down to Houston and Austin.
After a frustrating experience trying to record an album around 2003, they made the call: Nix the middle man and cut the album on their own, even if it took them years to get the money together. (Ernie G.’s beats ain’t free, or cheap, the three noted.) They also needed to learn how to market themselves and get their album distributed, an admittedly steep learning curve. Finally, in 2008, they dropped Next Sound, a debut album 20 years in the making.
“I’m not going to say it was an international success, you know, all over the world, but to us, it was an accomplishment,” Ruffin said. “It was all self-funded, and it was in Best Buys all across the state.”
Today they’re still celebrating the release of their second album and, frankly, sounding very much their age, talking about cooking out with their families and attending church. (All three are devout Christians.) All three are also married, and among them they have several children who are now as old as the bandmates were when they first started rhyming, the same age as some of their younger challengers.
The Fort Nox guys would love to make a living rapping, maybe land a record contract if the terms are favorable, but the three said they’re more realistically interested in making music they can jam to themselves and may show off to their families and friends. The guys would love it if they could find more of a local audience, but, without the support of local radio stations, that continues to prove difficult. (Davis pulls no punches discussing local radio stations that claim to be community oriented.)
Oh, and they’d love to draw a bit more attention to the Fort Worth rap scene, which has yet to step out from Dallas’ shadow.
“We were all born and raised in Fort Worth, and we take pride in that,” Ruffin said. “We want to shine the light on an area that makes music and have people shine a more serious light on what we’ve done and where we’ve done it.”
Sat at Southside Music Hall, 1135 S Lamar St, Dallas. 214-421-2021.