Hip hop scholar Noz raps-a-lot with Odd Squad’s Rob Quest for an inside look at Houston’s scene – including UGK, Screw, Devin The Dude and the label that ran a city.
The rap group – nearly extinct in this day and age – was once a thing fueled by joy. Where a solo rapper has room for introspection, soul searching, catharsis and all that darkness, the only way a rap group truly can work is if all of its participants genuinely love the act of rapping with each other. This is not something that can be faked or phoned in. It happens organically. Houston rap trio Odd Squad wore their friendship palpably on their first and only LP, Fadanuf Fa Erybody. Released on the city’s legendary Rap-A-Lot Records (an imprint best known for hard-edged gangsta acts who found their joy in controversy) in 1994, Fadanuf is the type of would-be and should-be rap classic that’s been slept-on, under and inside of by many a homeless overseas Ebay bidder. So much so that both RAL founder J. Prince and Geto Boys principle Scarface have named it as one of the label's finest releases.
Playful and party-oriented by design, the record caught Devin The Dude, Jugg Mugg and Rob Quest (then known as Blind Rob, as per his vision impairment) bouncing around atop even bouncier breakbeats. Their interests rarely extended much further than blunts, brews and bitches, but they took so much pleasure in mining these topics, they might as well have been the first rappers to ever address them. Fadanuf would be their one and only collective LP – Devin emerged as a breakout solo artist – but the Squad continues to frequently work together to this day. We talked to Rob Quest about the early days of the crew, his memories of fellow Texas luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK and the surgeries that he’s recently recovered from.
RBMA: When did you become interested in making hip hop?
ROB QUEST: I was always into music all my life, period. I was in band in elementary school and junior high and [then] I started getting sick. I lost my sight totally when I was 18 years old, so in high school my vision was already pretty impaired. I had like 20/200 vision. Going through that transition, I was indoors a lot. So, I asked my mom to buy me a drum machine. I kinda wanted to do the hip hop thing, and I needed something to make music. I’d say [this was] like ninth grade. I pretty much just stayed in the house and worked on beats and wrote rhymes. My mom entered me into this contest at the local college that was judged by Kurtis Blow. She made me enter this contest! I didn’t want to go because, like I said, I was pretty much a homebody.
But that’s where I met Dev, at the talent show. He was another one of the contestants. Most guys at that contest had tapes of their instrumentals, but I came in and plugged my drum machine directly up to the mixing board. So, that was new, that was something nobody was doing. Dev came up to me after the contest and was like, “Man can you make me a beat?!” So, it started right there. We went right to my house. [He] kicked the craziest rhymes I ever heard in my life, talking about pussy and weed and shit. I was on some political stuff, I was listening to stuff like BDP and Public Enemy. So, that was like 87, ’88 and we’ve just been doing this stuff ever since. A few years later he brought his friend Jugg Mugg over, and we just started hanging out and we became like brothers.
Odd Squad “Da Squad”
RBMA: How did you fall in with the Rap-A-Lot camp?
ROB QUEST: That was easy. I knew one of Scarface’s main producers, this guy named Crazy C, from just being around in the hood. As big as the city is, our community, the circles you run in are small. You bound to know somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody. So, he was in the mix and I told him I was gonna shoot him a tape. We did it professionally and how it’s supposed to be done: we got a press kit together, we took pictures and did a little bio and the whole nine. I shot it to him about two weeks later and Lil J actually called me on the phone, personally. He came by my Momma’s house in his big ’Burban, picked us up and went and bought us some chicken! We were so eager and ready to get in that it didn’t take much to impress us. It took a while for us to get the contract together because we went out and hired a lawyer. The lawyer advised us not to sign it, but we were so eager to make a record that we didn’t care. We was like, “You gonna put this out?! This is gonna be everywhere!? We gonna do a video too!? Okay it doesn’t matter if we not gonna make any money.” So, we took that risk and we went all over the country. That gave us our first exposure. And I’ll tell you man, it was great. It was like a three or four year run where we were doing shows all over the country. We got to travel with Scarface, the Geto Boys, Big Mike, the whole Rap-A-Lot roster. We was there, we was in the middle. It was quite wonderful as far as the experience. We got to see a bunch of things we ain’t never saw before. Especially on some gangsta shit! [laughs] We saw some real mafioso gangster shit!
RBMA: Just from the records, you guys never struck me as being on that gangsta tip.
ROB QUEST: No. And I think that’s what they liked about [us]. We was from the lighter side of hip hop. We was like, “We don’t want to hit you, we’d rather smoke a square wit you... and take a picture.” We’d rather hang out than fight! That was our whole little swag back then. And of course Dev was talking about pussy. Let’s party and fuck. The type of shit that you talk about when you’re 18, 19 years old.
RBMA: That’s crazy you guys were so young. It seems like such a mature record.
ROB QUEST: Yeah, we was on our grown people shit, for sure. When Dev took me to the house [after the talent show], he was already blowing blunts and drinking 40s. I’ll never forget the day, he handed this big ass bottle to me and I was like, “Shoot, you gotta cup?” “Naw, motherfucker! Hit that bitch!” “But I don’t want all of this.” He was like, “Drink some and pass it back to me!” I ain’t know nothing about how to do that shit. And he fired up a joint in my room! My mom came in and was like, “What the hell is going on?! Pass that motherfucker to me!” I thought we was gonna get in trouble! I ain’t even smoke weed the first couple years I was hanging out with him, I was too scared. About two years later, fucking around with them dudes you couldn’t help but to hit it.
Odd Squad “Smokin’ Dat Weed”
I was an only child and Dev was like the older brother I never had. He taught me how to talk to girls. Literally. We would go up to the local high school, hang out and catch girls walking to the bus stop. Dev would get chicks! I’d be sitting in the house and he’d be like, “I’ll be right back, I gotta go up the street,” and then literally bring girls home from the high school. I was like, “How the fuck do you do that?!” He’d be like, “Man, I just talk to em. Make ’em laugh and it’s over with.” He actually moved in with us for a little while. He lived at my mom’s house with me for about two years. We was roommates. And all we did was dig through crates, we’d go to crazy little garage sales and antique shops to find old records. We’d even go as far as, if we were in people’s houses and we’d see a little record collection, we’d steal they shit! We’d go to this public radio station place, they had this big ass room full of records and we’d be up there at the little hip hop show and we’d step into them back rooms, just housing records. We was crate junkies.
We used to just sit in that room and put in work. Day and night, that’s all we did. We would just come up for air and food. Basically, I did that whole album on one keyboard. I had a bullshit ass little Radio Shack mixer, I had some good house speakers and a good house amp and one Technics 1200 turntable. Dev would write these crazy, crazy raps. He’d spearhead a lot of the songs, he’d come with an idea and we’d just follow behind and write our verses. Because he wrote the hooks, he would come up with these little ditties and I’d do different beats. Whew, man… And my mom! My mom, she so crunk that she would actually engineer. I had a little Tascam four track cassette recorder, and she would press record and rewind and punch in. She’d be working that tape machine! [laughs]
RBMA: What did she think about the subject matter?!
ROB QUEST: You know what? Since my dad wasn’t around, my mom always told me that she had to be my dad and my mom. She had to hear it and see it all. Not that she was condoning a lot of the activities. She was like, “You gonna do what you wanna do, and by you being blind I’d rather you do it here at the house then be out somewhere where you can be harmed or get into trouble. I’d rather know about it and be able to monitor it.”
Odd Squad “I Can’t See It”
RBMA: So, you recorded the album in your room? Or just the demos?
ROB QUEST: We recorded the pre-production on the album in my room. Then we recorded again in the real studio, Digital Services. But we made that album right there in my room, at my mom’s house on Eagle Street in the Third Ward.
Back in the day we actually had UGK – Pimp C and Bun B – come to my momma’s house and hung out with us on several occasions. This was before either one of us had put out a record. We had copies of their first record and they had copies of our first record before [either] came out.
RBMA: What were they like in their younger days?
ROB QUEST: Uhhh… wild as hell. They was just like us. Except from a smaller town, so they was a little more crazy. Small town [kids] are always trying to one up the big city kids. “Y’all ain’t doing nothing we ain’t doing!” I remember the first time we met Bun B, we was talking about him because we was like, “Damn! That motherfucker smoked the weed until it disappeared!” He had like roach clip fingertips, long fingertips so he could hold the Sweet until it was nothing. When I handed it to him it was burning my fingers. He grabbed the motherfucker and smoked it until it disappeared, and when it was done he flicked the ash in the air.
Them dudes was cool. Pimp C was the shit. Me and him was like geeks, we talked about equipment – ohms and amps and kilowatts and cords. We was on them kinds of conversations. “What you do with your boom sound?” “Oh I run this compressor through the…” Nerd shit.
RBMA: I had heard that DJ Screw was your DJ for a while as well.
ROB QUEST: Yeah, he sure was. Matter of fact, he was the DJ on the demo tape that we gave Crazy C. I would do anything to find that tape right now. I bet you Rap-A-Lot still has that. [Screw’s] doing the cuts on that, and actually he’s fucking going the fuck off on that shit! He was actually hip hoppish back in the day, a real hip hop DJ. Transforming and doing all kinds of spinning behind the back type action. All that [chopped & screwed] stuff came way later.
RBMA: How did you guys meet him?
ROB QUEST: We needed somebody to do cuts [on the demo], so this guy who wanted to be our manager introduced us to him. [Screw] was a DJ at a local club, I call ’em juke joints. You know, little hole in the wall clubs. He was a DJ at one of the local clubs in the hood. So, we was like, “We know you! You the dude at the club Infinity!” So, we started hanging out. He’d bring his turntables to the house and we’d let him hear some of the tracks. We’d be like, “Alright, what you gonna cut right here. The name of this song is “Runnin The Streets Of H-Town”.” So, he pulled out this record that sounded like somebody was burning rubber on it. He started scratching this burning rubber sound like, “Hell yeah! Runnin the streets!” Every song we’d pull out, he’d go right to his little crate like, bam! “I already know what I’m finna cut for that.” He was the coldest DJ we ever saw. He was fucking showing out, doing tricks, scratching with his elbow and shit. He had us all in. We was like, “Okay, motherfucker, you got the job!”
And this was way before all the syrup, that shit wasn’t even around then. Screw was just a skinny kid. Matter of fact, he wasn’t even smoking weed back then! I remember being in the room, Dev would pull out that weed and [Screw] would be coughing like, “Damn man, let up a window, turn the fan on in this bitch! Y’all about to choke a motherfucker to death.” He was supposed to be our DJ, but we ended up falling out with the manager dude. The manager dude was managing Screw and they had some kind of paperwork going on, so after we fell out, he took DJ Screw from us and we really never seen him again until later, after we both became semi-successful.
Odd Squad “Fo Sho”
RBMA: What happened after Fadanuf Fa Erybody came out? Why didn’t you guys ever put out a follow-up?
ROB QUEST: After the album dropped, we did two years of touring. Chicago, Florida, we was going places and traveling with the Geto Boys. After all of that kinda died out, they was like, “Alright, come with a new album.” One thing that happened was Jugg’s mom died. Dev ended up having a kid. I tried to get back into school. So, we was doing a bunch of things then. But we came with a demo, kinda like what we did with the first album. Five or six songs, a couple short songs, just [snippets] of what we thought we might make into a song. They was like, “Okay, that’s cool, but why don’t Dev do an album, and while Dev’s doing an album y’all still work on an Odd Squad album.” We was like, “Shit, okay.” I think what happened then was that Face came to Lil J and was like, “I want Dev. I want to buy Dev.” So, basically what him and J did was work out some kind of move and bartered where [J] still owned Odd Squad, but Face wanted Dev to put out a solo album. I don’t know if you remember, but Face was all over that first album. Face damn near executive produced that first album. So, by this time we had concentrated all of our energy and ideas on songs that were for Odd Squad, but we took them and put them on his album. Even some of the Odd Squad beats that we had, we just took over and let him use them. We was like, “This is not just gonna be a move for you, it’s gonna be a move for us.” Dev was like, “It’s still gonna be us, we still hollering Coughee Brothaz [the larger collective that Odd Squad is part of], it’s still our clique.” But we did [Devin’s] album, and that album did so well and launched such a career that it started something. So, by the time it drops, they already looking for another [solo]. So, shit, we did another Dev album. The rest was history. I wasn’t complaining because I was still in the mix. Still getting a little bit of money, still getting on songs. I’ve done production on all of his albums – sometimes more, sometimes less.
Devin The Dude “WXYZ” (produced by Rob Quest)
After [Devin’s sophomore album] Just Tryin To Live, [Odd Squad] tried to do another album. Jugg ended up buying a house over on the Southwest side, and we all was living together in this town home. Like a real crew. We had like two or three bedrooms. Matter of fact, the whole Face Mob clique – Smit-D, DMG, 350, all them – we was literally living together. Face Mob, Odd Squad and Coughee Brothaz. And it was just weed and music, that’s all we did. We didn’t have a dining room, we had a studio in the dining room. That was the dining room. That’s pretty much all we did. Motherfuckers would sleep on the floor, beer cans everywhere, some typical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle shit. But when we finally submitted the album to the company, it was kind of bitter. We was damn near talking [negatively] about the record label. So, you know they wasn’t gonna put that out. They was like, “Who the fuck y’all talking about on the songs?! Y’all stopped talking about pussy and weed.” By that time, I asked for my release, Jugg asked for his release, Dev asked for his release. Everybody was like, “Can you let us go? Y’all too gangsta.” And I’m not getting into anything to incriminate myself, but they was too gangsta for us. For real, for real.
RBMA: Yeah, I’ve had that conversation with more than one Rap-A-Lot artist.
ROB QUEST: [laughs] It is what you think it is. We’ll just leave it like that.
RBMA: But you guys did turn in a full second album?
ROB QUEST: Yeah. It just never came out. I took some songs and put it on my greatest and latest and a little bit of something in between album. It’s gonna be on my website for free. Actually, after Dev left the label and went to Razor & Tie, [Rap-A-Lot] put another album out on Dev after that. They took some songs that he did and we did on that unreleased album, and put that shit out. We didn’t get one dime from that shit, but they put that shit out. Can you believe that shit!? He had a Dr. Dre song that was supposed to be on our album that they put out. We were so thowed off about that album. I don’t even think I heard the whole thing, and Dev was just kind of like... [sighs]. We weren’t finna raise no hell about it or nothing.
Devin The Dude “Comin’ Back” (produced by Dr. Dre)
Man, on the cool, they could release some more shit from us right now if they wanted to. And they probably will, too. I bet you they just waiting. They’ve got plenty of material that never went anywhere that they could just release. They got the reels. For that first album Fadanuf Fa Erybody, it was at least eight or nine more songs that we recorded that didn’t make the album. I wish we had them right now, I’d still love to put some of that shit out.
RBMA: What exactly went down with your liver situation?
ROB QUEST: In 2007 I was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. I had a prior liver situation anyway, a disease called carcoidosis – that’s part of the reason I lost my sight. It’s an inflammation of the liver, kidney and spleen. Sometimes the lungs, sometimes the brain. A couple famous people have had this disease: Bernie Mac died from it, Reggie White died from it, Tisha Campbell has it, but it’s kind of rare. Especially when I was diagnosed with it, it was common in middle-aged white women, and there I was a young black male who had it. Of course, that was like 30 years ago when I was diagnosed with it, I was like 12 years old. So, on top of having this condition already, [I had been] drinking, smoking, living that lifestyle. That shit caught up, and it ended up causing cirrhosis. So, that meant I needed a liver transplant. And I went from not being on the list to being on the list for like four days, and I ended up finding a donor. I received that liver on November 7th. I thought I was out of the woods when I got that transplant, then I come to find out I needed a heart valve replacement because when you [get] a transplant, they put you on a lot of drugs that suppress your immune system. It’s like an anti-rejection type medicine, and it depletes your immune system, so during this time when my immune system was suppressed I ended up catching some type of an infection, and it got on my heart valve and basically ate it up. And a month and a half later I had to have open heart surgery. So, it’s been a crazy ride. From about November to about Februrary, I was in the hospital with maybe a few days in between. But God has been good. I held in there, a lot of people came around and supported me. Bun B, Devin, really everybody in our Coughee Brotha nation was right, right there. And I came through. Now I’m celebrating like three months being out the hospital. I got a studio set up, I done made like 30 beats since. I’m just trying to get my feet wet, I’m revamping the album. I actually did a show two weeks ago, we did a Coughee Brothaz show here in town. I’m trying to catch up with Devin while they on tour, maybe do a couple spot dates with him. So, I feel like a new person right now. It’s been quite a ride and it’s starting all over again.
Both Devin and Rob are preparing solo albums for release later this summer. The Rob Quest Visionary Fund is accepting donations to help with his medical bills.