Aaron Beltran is easy to miss. Whisper thin with a buzzcut and dressed drably in a brown hoodie and jeans, his appearance is unassuming despite his chosen line of work, which tends to breed ostentatiousness. As Preemo, a phenomenally talented rapper who became a crucial player in the city’s underground scene last year, he becomes something else. Preemo’s style is sly — his voice touched with languor while it delivers knife-sharp rhymes about our times.
Preemo was more visible last year plugging his masterpiece Concrete Dreams, which was the result of a three-year hermetic period spent writing at a Montrose apartment that contained only a bed, a desk and chair purchased from Target, some clothes and a book of lyrics. “I wanted to cut myself off from the world,” he says. “I told myself I wasn’t leaving until I made something I could listen to start to finish. And that was Concrete Dreams.”
His presence in Houston hinged on a coin toss. Preemo, 30, had been living in Dallas but wanted to be closer to his 14-year-old daughter, who lives in San Antonio. He flipped between Houston and Austin; Houston won. Still there’s a sense of impermanence about his presence here. “I’m a nomad,” he says. “A nomad and a gypsy.” His path previously had him in Washington, Georgia and Arizona. “I don’t really have a home base. Every couple of years I get this feeling that it’s time to move on and see something new.” The five years he’s been in Houston is the longest he’s stayed in one place since childhood. Preemo was born in Phoenix, where his stepfather introduced him to hip-hop with Run-D.M.C. when he was 5. By his teens, they lived in Brownsville. Every so often, late at night, he says, “if you were real agile with the dial,” Houston hip-hop station the Boxx would come through on his radio.
“It really helped nurture my interest in that music,” he says. “Hip-hop was something so mysterious. It wasn’t blasted to me every day. I was lucky when I got little pieces of it.”
By 13, Preemo was writing and performing. As he got older, he’d cross the border and perform at clubs in Matamoros. He signed with a Los Angeles label at 20 and put out an album that he would just as soon forget. He decided he was best on his own and began selling thousands of albums out of his car and at flea markets before the exile during which he wrote Concrete Dreams.
The album, tipped to me last year by writer Shea Serrano, is bracing in a genre too often comfortable with formula. There’s hardly a trace of New Jack R&B in it; instead Preemo’s influences are big and brassy and suggest soul from the ’70s. “There was a little bit of hip-hop, but my stepfather mostly listened to Motown,” he says. “So I love that sound. I’m also big on instruments, and if not instruments, give me a sample, I can work with what has that vibe to it. If it gets too computerized, it doesn’t sit well with me.”
Lyrically he works with what he sees in his day to day. Ever since getting divorced six years ago, he’s gone without a TV. Not surprisingly for a guy who owns so little, his songs aren’t about hip-hop touchstones. They’re smartly constructed and of the times, stitched closely to the album’s title and its openness for interpretation.
It’s lofty stuff but never shrill. Preemo says he’s spent no small amount of time observing socially conscious hip-hop acts. “I know what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Screaming at a brick wall, it’s not gonna have the effect you want. Somebody once told me to get their heads bobbing first. And when you get their heads bobbing, slip in a little truth. And then a little more. You can’t beat people over the head, screaming, ‘Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!’ ”
Having found his voice with Concrete Dreams, Preemo doesn’t plan to replicate its labored creation. The album brought him a significant amount of attention for an underground player, and while he’s happy operating independently, he’d still like the sort of exposure a major-label artist would receive. “I do want that recognition from the hip-hop community,” he says.
So he’s picking up the pace, with another record, The Magic Bullet, due Feb. 1, with guest spots from some locals he admires, such as Hollywood FLOSS and Mayalino.
It could be his last statement as a rapper rooted in Houston. Talk repeatedly turns to travel.
“I’m almost to the point now where I’m not quite sure what else can be done in Houston,” he says. He says there’s always a chance he’d go back to Dallas or go with the other side of that flipped coin and go to Austin. Or somewhere else. “I feel like if people here like this record, maybe they’ll like it somewhere else. It’s a big country, it’s a big world.”
Which explains why he has clothes and books scattered around the country.
“For me it’s a few clothes, a book and a hard drive,” he says. “I can fit everything that’s important to me in a backpack.”