A Quest For Balance: Meditation Mafia on DFW Rap

CJ Durr excitedly talks about his artistic passions over a beer at Harvest House. One of those passions is Meditation Mafia, a rap group he formed with friends and other artists about five years ago. He explains that the Mafia are more than a group—actually, he thinks of Meditation Mafia as being an ideological movement.

“People in this room could be part of it,” he says. “It,” in this case, is a quest for balance in all things in life—work and relaxation, money and lack thereof, anarchy and peace, and so on. That’s also where the group’s name comes from. “When you hear ‘meditation,’ you think of bliss. When you hear ‘mafia,’ you think of chaos,” Durr says. It’s a nod to the plurality of forces in the group itself. Durr, who is of Black and Italian heritage, also points out the wit in the word “mafia” as it relates to his background. He points out the tattoo of Italy on his right forearm. “People love a stereotype,” he laughs.

Meditation Mafia is unofficially headed and organized by Durr, who’s better known in the rap scene as MU$$ (short for MU$$oleani.) There are a ton of artists currently affiliated with the Mafia: Tree Eye, OgX, Phantm, Trill Mamba, Young Real, Honcho, Hairline City, Yo3, AntOnThePlant, Motorola Mike, Money Myah, Nardy Bravo, Rudolph the Red, and the group’s DJ, RZR BLD. That’s fourteen artists in addition to MU$$. As Durr puts it, it’s “a clusterfuck of musicians and people.” The group also houses artists and photographers, as well as management. Durr applauds everyone in the Mafia for being judgment-free, open-minded people who simply love music.

The Mafia came together when Durr and some friends met in college, but his work in music began long before that. He credits his mother with introducing him to rap early on in life. “Anytime I heard rap was in the car with my mom. She played Tupac, old school Biggie,” he says. “I wouldn’t even know what rap is if it wasn’t for my mom.” Durr’s father, however, was skeptical of rap and hip hop—he pushed Durr to explore other musical outlets. Durr recalls forming a scream band in high school, when “Scene” culture was still the big thing. The band would practice in the air-conditioned shed in his parents’ large backyard. But Durr says he was the kid whose iPod was full of Lil Wayne tracks. It wasn’t long before he knew rap was his niche.

One of Durr’s first solo rap performances was at an open mic night. Since he didn’t have any original beats, he rapped breathlessly over songs on the radio. “I was talking and nothing was coming out. It was one of the worst shows,” he says. He almost quit that night in a fit of fear and a sense of failure. But he didn’t. When he looks at the progress he’s made since then—and the progress Meditation Mafia has managed—it feels awesome. The Mafia played Oaktopia this year and delivered a high-energy, killer set. Durr says that the whole thing was completely improvised, as he and Tree Eye were the only two artists onstage who had performed together prior to that night. There was no rehearsal beforehand. Durr also mentions that his little brother and sister, Motorola Mike and Money Myah, performed with the Mafia that evening. It was their first-ever performance. “I was so proud of them, just watching them—how comfortable they were,” he says with a smile. “That was the first time they ever had a mic in their hands.”

When it comes to the Mafia’s future plans, the group has some big ones. But they have a great resource in Durr, who is very business-oriented. When conversing with Durr, it’s clear that he’s thought this stuff out. He cites Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and Tyler, the Creator as financial role models as well as musical ones. “A$AP Rocky got a million dollars from Sony upfront and in a year had to give that back,” he says, and points out that he did. His plan for the Mafia is similar to what Tyler, the Creator did with Odd Future. Durr sees that collective as being analogous to his group. Durr is also influenced by people outside of the music industry—as a professionally trained chef, he admires the way celebrity foodies like Alton Brown have cultivated their brands. Unlike many musicians, Durr is unapologetic about the group’s financial goals; it’s clear to him that monetary gains are just as big a factor as the quality of the music itself. He doesn’t wax romantic about that. “It is about money just as much as it is about art,” he says plainly. The group is run much like any other good business, through group meetings and democratic decision-making. For a while, the Mafia just had fun and put on shows for the hell of it. Then Durr decided it was time to get serious.

Durr attributes part of that seriousness to the possibilities offered in Denton. He’s grateful for the local scene, and for the scenes in Texas at large (he cites Austin as one of his favorite music cities.) “I’ve lived in North Carolina, and in a small town in Connecticut. There’s nothing like this there,” he explains. But make no mistake—the Mafia doesn’t plan to just play DFW forever. As he puts it, “Denton isn’t our market. The world is our market.”

This is exactly the mindset that sets Durr apart from many Denton musicians: given his far-reaching goals for the group, he doesn’t see the rash of live music venue closures as a necessarily bad thing. Sure, he admits, the phenomenon has affected the number of shows the Mafia puts on. “But is it a bad thing? No,” he says. “It’s a phoenix rising from the ashes.” To his mind, this is a symptom that bigger and possibly better things are on their way. (He notes Oaktopia’s increasing popularity as one example.) Part of his excitement comes from the knowledge that Denton just needs bigger venues period, and he looks forward to the completion of the convention center being built at the Rayzor Ranch Town Center. “Places like Rubber Gloves, Hailey’s, Andy’s, they’re awesome. But when Rae Sremmurd comes here, they’re performing outside,” he points out. And Denton doesn’t currently have a dedicated place for big-name artists to play where shows don’t risk being rained out. “Father came here last year and we couldn’t even fit the people in Hailey’s,” he says. “He needs a bigger venue for that.”

Durr also sees a different kind of potential in Denton’s music venue loss: new opportunities for artists to begin performing outside Denton city limits. Durr sees touring and playing “away shows” as one of the most important things for musicians to do. He sees getting stuck in Denton as being typical of Denton artists. “You [always] knew who was at Hailey’s, you knew who was performing there,” he says. That can wear out an artist’s brand—after all, when you can see the same act multiple times in one month, some of the excitement wears off. Durr says, “There’s nothing special about that… when The Weeknd or Drake come here, people rush to that. We need that kind of vibe for ourselves.” Again, it comes back to a question of balance: playing out for your city and playing out for as many other places as possible, too. “We’re doing the same thing every night,” Durr says of the Mafia’s Denton performances. “It’s like going to the same party every day. It’s not fun, and you need to go to the next step. We need to progress out of that.” Meditation Mafia knows Denton loves them. But they want California, or New York, or even Canada to love them, too.

Durr takes Meditation Mafia seriously. He actually attends weekly meditation meetings to achieve a more balanced life, and recommends the Mafia’s mindset to anyone looking to make art. He hopes the group’s work inspires people to do what they feel they need to accomplish. “I don’t necessarily want to inspire people to go in their closet and write rap songs,” he laughs. But he wants people to work and sacrifice to accomplish the same scope of achievement he’s accomplished with the Mafia. “Don’t fear life. Understand that there is bad and there is good,” he says. As for the group, overcoming fear and hardship are one of the Mafia’s biggest goals, too. Durr hopes the group’s message of chaos and bliss will unlock a kind of immortality for all its artists. He holds up his other forearm, where he has a tattoo of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This is Durr’s ultimate personal goal.

“I want people to tattoo our lyrics on their body,” he says. “I want people tattooing ‘Meditation Mafia’ on their arm.”

Keep an eye on Meditation Mafia via their website or Facebook page. Until you catch their next show, check out the tracks below. You can also purchase MU$$'s album Mussic here.

Header photo by Kyla McKinzie
Header image design by Jason Lee