“That house was paid for with hip hop,” says Shannon Coleman as we stand chatting outside her home. We’re looking at a low-slung Modernist construction in Arlington. It’s hot, and I make awkward jokes about sweating, then small talk about graphic novels, all while stumbling over my words, trying to convey sympathy and compassion. Because Paten Locke, aka DJ Therapy, aka Boris Ortiz, one of Jacksonville’s hip hop ambassadors, is inside, and he is dying.
Coleman is Locke’s fiancée. She is graceful and kind; she’s been communicating with me, trying to finesse a meeting between Locke and Folio Weekly. It’s been tricky, understandably, as Locke is placing an emphasis on time with loved ones, especially his daughter Asha.
One of Northeast Florida’s most productive, prolific and successful artists, Locke has been in demand since the mid-1990s. In a city where creatives of all stripes struggle to find support, he has never had a “day job.” He has always been able to support himself through music, working continuously and collaboratively. Often he is in more than one group at a time, and he’s always focused on more than one thing.
Fans of Duval hip hop will recall that Paten Locke rose to prominence with Asamov, the Jacksonville supergroup that defined an era—at least for a certain crowd of now-forty-something hip hop heads. But long before Asamov landed, circa 2001, DJ Therapy was already a presence on the scene. Those who knew him then describe him as “that guy,” that guy who always knew more about music than you, that guy who had better records than you, that guy who comported himself with more dignity than you, and that guy who would out-deejay or out-rap you. He was also “that guy” you could find spinning records at area venues—places like (more recently) Rain Dogs, where he had a regular night.
A short but by no means exhaustive list of Locke’s projects includes album projects: Asha’s Groove, Studies in Hunger, Food Chain, Clean Plate Club, Super Ramen Rocketship and, rumor has it, a couple more on deck. He was a member of the aforementioned Asamov, alongside Willie Evans Jr., Ja-One-Da and Basic; he also catalyzed The Smile Rays (as a gift to his friends and collaborators, Batsauce and Lady Daisy); he was one of the Steam Mechanics with Arsun Fist and Stillwater, and a member of Stono Echo with Jay Myztroh. He toured internationally with The Perceptionists, and co-owned the Atlanta-Jacksonville record label Full Plate with Dillon Maurer, and was in the experimental(ish) group Dumbtron with Willie Evans Jr.
Maurer (Lobsterdamus, Full Plate), recalls their first interaction. Locke had heard him perform and responded: “Who’s this kid from Jax rhyming like that? I need to holler at him and tell him he’s not that great, but he’s all right.”
Even as they became friends, collaborators and business partners, the crustacean-inflected rapper says he has always “been a fan first.” Paten Locke was his mentor: “He’s, like, constantly playing chess—constantly moving seven pieces at a time.”
Like many folks, Maurer speaks of Locke as an aesthete and collector. Dedicated record collecting (digging) was a huge part of his process. The joke was always that not only did Locke “have about a million records,” but that he’d need to have 17 of a particular album before he could let even one go. But even more remarkable than the depth of his collection was the scope of his knowledge. Locke commanded an archivist’s mastery of the materials on all the records he owned—and an ability to pluck just the right track at the right time.
Mal Jones (Lyricist Live) explained that Locke would research how record stores intersected with a city. He saw record shops as integral parts of a music community. He would find out information about the store owners, and go from there. He also wanted the rarest, hardest-to-find things, and would only ever sample from a record he owned.
A native of Boston, Locke moved to Jacksonville circa 1994. A 2011 Florida Times-Union article noted that it was hard to pin down Locke’s age (the author guessed it was “between 30 and 85”). So too is it difficult to pin down the exact year he materialized in Northeast Florida. The son of Ron and Cheryl Locke—a lawyer and human resource specialist, respectively—Paten grew up in a home of intellectualism and activism. “He was raised going to protests and rallies,” observes Maurer. Though offered in the guise of biographical information, this insight was in response to a question about Locke’s incredible, principled creativity.
On July 5, Locke made a public post on Facebook: He announced his terminal cancer diagnosis and his choice to “live whatever I have left.” He also wrote, “I still got them beats and raps […] I’m still me.” The triple-threat performer—rapper, deejay, producer—would keep creating until the end; what’s more, he would keep relishing his creative partnerships with the people who helped him define his life. In turn, to a person, they say he’s helped to transform theirs.
Joe Cox, who performed in Asamov as Ja-One-Da and now owns the Bofresco clothing brand, will never forget the night he met Locke: “I first met him on the Westside, off 103rd Street. It was in the parking lot of either Miami Subs or Burger King. At that time a lot of creators or artists in the scene use to always hit up that spot after we played basketball at Cecil Field. And I remember one night after eating, walking out into the parking lot, and Paten pulling up in a black [Nissan] Maxima, and Paten jumping out of the car with the doors left wide open, rapping as if he was performing while his [own] vocals played in the background out of the car. It was mad random. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘This kid is wild,’ but the song he was performing was really dope. I laugh every time I think about it.”
Cox’s description is a foreshadow of a career that would defy the boundaries of Jacksonville, and in so doing help define hip hop in Duval (Duuuval for those of you who recall The Cave, The Voodoo Lounge and Thee Imperial). A polymath with a near eidetic memory (though he couldn’t hum a tune, “like at all”), in the 20-plus years of his career, he went from a cutthroat B-boy (“Oh, you’re good, I have to destroy you”) to a mentor and connoisseur of hip hop music. Which is not to say he wouldn’t still call out wackness, but he’d always tell its author how to make it better.
Locke’s guiding philosophy was: “Don’t monkey with the funky.” What does that mean? Evans (Asamov, Dumbtron) explains the concept: “It was about appreciating the beauty in simplicity.”
“I always want to impress him, and I always kind of looked for his approval even though I knew I wouldn’t get it,” says rapper Mr. Al Pete with a laugh. He wasn’t the only one. Locke once told rapper Tough Junkie, “Ah, you suck. Do more work.” Ian Ranne (Hip Hop Hell, Big Bucks Crew,) recalls, “When we were coming up, it was always ‘skill or be skilled,’ and he was always the best at everything. The first and only time I got into a freestyle battle, I was 20 years old. I had a silver chain and my baggy skateboard pants on. I go up first, and it’s against Therapy. He just destroys me, like absolutely. I tried to say one slick line about him, and it was all downhill from there.”
Yet “he really operates from a position of love,” explains Evans. “He could pour all his knowledge into these people and watch them grow.”
It is important to note that Locke’s love is a rigorous, challenging thing. Al Letson (poet, playwright and host of NPR’s Reveal), says, “In any room he’s in, Paten is always the most talented person. That doesn’t always make him the easiest person to work with.” (There are several jokes circulating on social media about Locke’s propensity to kick folks out of his house and studio—but no one yet has gone on record to admit to actually having been removed.)
In preparing for this article, I have heard snatched conversations whispered in passing, and in-depth talks about what an artist like Locke means to his community. Rapper and deejay Mas Appeal (Hip Hop & Hookah) says, “Yeah, he’s an asshole, but it was tough love. His ear is sonically light years ahead of everyone.” One night, circa 1995, Letson recalled, one of his spoken-word poetry events turned into a freestyle battle, “and Paten came from behind the booth and ate everyone for lunch, dinner and the buffet the next morning. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
The consensus, about what he’s accomplished and how he charged a scene with his own electricity, is nearly universal. It’s also impossible to quantify. Essays could be written about his albums, while he himself could deliver lectures on the history and context of hip hop. In fact, he did just that more than once. According to a January 2019 interview with the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, he delivered the first lecture on hip hop in Saudi Arabia.
To illustrate Locke’s energy, curiosity and “genius without qualifiers,” Evans gestures to an ancient piece of equipment in the corner of his studio and whisks us back in time. “That’s an ASR-X,” he explains. In the mid-’90s, it would have been state-of-the-art and Evans would have been using it to make beats for years. Locke, on the other hand, had never made a single one. After asking what gear to buy, Locke purchased the same sampler; about a month later, “I showed up at his house, and he pulled out a drawer and he had hundreds and hundreds of floppy disks, full of beats,” says Evans with a laugh. About that first beat? “It was a first beat,” he answers diplomatically, “but it wasn’t wack.”
Asked about the kind of work ethic it takes to makes hundreds and hundreds of thing, Jones comments, “He’s a machine, the way he creates is just continuously pumping out every idea he has—and he never runs out of ideas.” That commitment to ideas is a leitmotif that ran through all of Locke’s life. One colleague compared him to a mad scientist who didn’t care about dollars.
Almost everyone interviewed for this article can recall the first time they saw Locke, and the first time he spoke to them. For contemporaries like Evans, Cox, Mas Appeal and Jones, there was a sense of give-and-take, of camaraderie and family. For the younger artists, there was a sense of being seen and understood.
Mas Appeal recalls that there was a time when he frequented Locke’s house. They were working on projects together, but their connection went deeper. They talked about the challenges of raising children (a connection he shared with several friends), they broke bread together, and sometimes they chopped up and drank the tequila worm together. But more than the memories shared here is the way that everyone Folio Weekly spoke with for this article sparkled and seemed to become luminous talking about Locke, as if by choosing just the right words, they could give him the gift of immortality.
When asked what it meant to make music with Locke, Jones answers succinctly: “like an achievement.” When Evans was asked, he pauses, “Making music with Paten felt like I had snuck backstage at the illest show ever, and everyone back there acted like I belonged.”
Locke’s legacy lives on, not just in his own back catalogue, but in the work of his daughter, Asha—a musician in her own right (her punk band, Gilt, has been touring and building a name for itself). It lives on in the work of his fiancée, Shannon Coleman, who deejays (Pizza Galore, because there’s never a bad time for pizza). It also lives on in the Paten Locke projects yet to be released.
On Friday, Aug. 2, Paten Locke died. If, as a poet suggests, “the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting,” then it stands to reason that Locke was Excalibur. He was not the standard-bearer for excellence—he was the excellence.