By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Joe Valiente, 27, professional rapper, takes a long hit from a short joint and peels back a window curtain in the rear lounge of his luxury tour bus. Ten feet away, on a grimy sidewalk in downtown El Paso, a line forms along the brick edifice of Club 101.
Valiente exhales a plume of pot smoke through the window, watches to make sure it drifts over the growing crowd and drops the curtain back into place. Then he snatches a remote control, and punches up the volume on a Rick James album for the benefit of those now whiffing his secondhand smoke.
"Ambiance," Valiente explains, eyes red, grin wide.
The lead rapper for the Phunk Junkeez passes the spliff to bandmate DJ Roach Clip, grabs a beer from a cooler built into a couch, and packs the bowl of a resin-speckled, acrylic bong with two pinches from a pile of pot on the table before him.
It's St. Patrick's Day night, and the Phunk Junkeez are about to go onstage for the first time in four months. "Hey," Valiente says, "whaddaya call a Mexican quarterback?"
Roach Clip shakes his head and contemplates the lounge's two-title video library--Best of Barney and Phone Sex Girls, Vol. II.
"Yeah, maybe I shouldn't go with that joke tonight," Valiente says. "Last two times we played here, motherfuckers didn't seem to find it amusing."
This evening, Valiente, a brash, scrawny white boy, is sporting a slick, red soccer shirt by Adidas, baggy shorts and a Kangol cap. Whenever he bobs his head, bugs out his eyes and cackles at his own jokes, which is often, he looks like the Don Knotts of hip-hop.
Know this of Valiente, though: Homeboy can rock a house like an earthquake. In the parlance of his genre, Soulman onstage is off the Richter, a break-dancing, drop-splitting, amp-scaling, crowd-diving marvel, capable of consistently delivering the kind of performance people talk about years after the fact, if only for its supernova energy burn.
It's what he loves, and the only thing he really knows how to do.
"I was going through some old papers the other day, and I found my expulsion from high school," Valiente says. "It was dated November 1986--halfway through my sophomore year. I was already going to L.A. a lot then, laying down rhythms in a studio, and I was absent 13 days straight, so they showed me the door. But when I saw that piece of paper, I tripped out, because I always had it in my head that I went to high school for three years, when, in reality, I didn't even make it to Christmas of 10th grade.
"I've got no GED, no nothing, except this band. This is all I got. This is all I do. This is all I am, and lately, that's scary.
"But I'll tell you what. I can rock that motherfuckin' mike better than ever, because I've got all my usual skills, plus this new feeling like my whole life is riding on that 45 minutes up there."
Valiente (a.k.a. "Soulman") barks a laugh. "Hoo, boy--that's some motivatin' shit there, know what I'm saying?"
Outside, the line to get into Club 101 snakes 150 yards down the street, around a corner and out of sight. Earlier, in a band betting pool, Valiente guessed 175 people would come to the show. The band's road manager comes on the bus and announces 500 are through the door. "Well, gaw-awd-damn!" Valiente exclaims. He sounds relieved. "I guess El Paso's still a Phunk Junkeez town."
Indeed. It's been three years since the band played this kicked dog of a city, yet before the Junkeez even take the stage, cries and chants of "We want Soulman!" and "Phunk Junkeez! Phunk Junkeez!" sporadically overpower the club chatter amidst Club 101's all-ages, capacity crowd.
Longtime antiheroes in the Valley music scene, the Phunk Junkeez--Soulman, Roach Clip, Jeff O'Rourke (guitar), "Jumbo" Jim Woodling (bass) and Disco Danny Dynomite (drums)--have reached a crux point in their career. A venomous split with founding member Kirk "K-Tel Disco" Reznik is safely 18 months behind them, and key forces in the music industry have aligned to back the Junkeez for their last, best shot to lock all three wheels on cherry.
For seven years, the Junkeez have perfected their in-your-face, ahead-of-its-time montage of hard rock, funk and rap music. The results are apparent when the band goes on--make that off--at Club 101. O'Rourke, Woodling and Disco Danny lock into a serrated groove, and Roach Clip scratches the hell out of a record like a hip-hop DJ in a battle for his life as Valiente pimp-rolls onto the stage, triggering the first stanza of lyrics to his band's signature opening song, "B-Boy Hard," like bursts from a Mac-10.
It's the mother Phunking Junkeez/Takin' you for a test drive/Don't try to front/This posse's gonna kick it live/With a style/That's so versatile . . . A five-man hit squad/That will exterminate/This is for real/We never perpetrate.
Thirty rows deep in front of the stage, the children of El Paso rap along with Soulman. A mosh pit explodes in their midst. The lone bouncer behind the stage barricade signals frantically for back-up as an onslaught of crowd-surfers comes over the wall.