Becoming DXTR: A Mad Rapper Emerges From The Lab

Photography by  Mike Sager

Photography by Mike Sager

Jordan Holmes leads a double life. During the work week, Jordan is an engineer, at night and on weekends, he roams recording booths and stages of Chicago as Dxtr Spits - a rapping mad scientist. At all times, he falls somewhere in between the two personalities as the CEO and founder of ONLI Packs.

Dxtr Spits and his band, The Devonns, along with frequent collaborator Nexus J submitted a video to the NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest in 2018 on a whim. After a long night of recording, they crossed their fingers and hit submit - and were ultimately selected to perform at the NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert On The Road in Chicago. At the performance, Dxtr Spits was truly let “out of the lab” and sent looking for the bass like a musical mad scientist. Dxtr Spits - performing shirtless under a vest with his face, body, and hands adorned by tribal neon body paint - prowled around the stage like a radioactive experiment gone colorfully awry, Fela Kuti in technicolor, his energy whipping up the crowd.

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When performing, it is hard to see anything resembling the mild-mannered Jordan Holmes in Dxtr, and yet Dxtr is the culmination of years of Jordan’s work, investment, and creativity.

Dxtr Spits has operated under many aliases. Jordan originally referred to his alter ego as “Dexter Darko” due to his affinity for the 2001 sci-fi film, Donnie Darko, where a troubled teenager is influenced to act by a menacing figure who warns him of the world’s imminent demise.

Like many of the superheroes (and villains) that inspire his work, Jordan’s origin story is dark - and starts with the discovery of a tumor, the struggles and soul-searching that followed, and ultimately the sense of purpose he found. As he puts it in an interview, “I was 14. It was noticeable to the touch … I was depressed … very, very depressed and that put me on more of a philosophic spiral of what did life, existence and -- kind of -- purpose mean to me?”

“In a weird kind of way it was a gift and a curse.” Already, a self-described depressed and angry kid, the discovery of the tumor added fuel to his despondency and left him wondering if he was meant to die young.

His sense of despair led him to fall in with a “bad crowd” in his youth and he failed to connect with his school - spending his time listlessly existing and sulking. Eventually, he began to feel that he had been wasting his time and talent.

Fortunately, the tumor was benign and he had it removed. “As soon as I got [the tumor] removed and as soon as I was like wait I’m not going to die? I literally was like I’ve been wasting all this time and I hit the ground with a lot of the same intensity that I still utilize today.” Hitting the ground meant taking up boxing to instill a sense of discipline. It also meant re-committing himself to writing. While suffering from a debilitating stutter in adolescence, he started journaling at an early age. Once he was tumor-free, he built on his journaling by free-styling and writing songs.

Having always been the kid with an affinity for “either breaking down or building things” he looked to the sciences, eventually enrolling at Virginia Tech where he majored in Material Science Engineering and began his friendship with his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni. She “liked [his] writing style and what [his] mentality was towards the world at the time.” He traveled to West Africa with her, possibly absorbing the tribal and Fela Kuti influences by osmosis. Nikki acted as an influence and helped to give him the “confidence to walk with [his] light. And to do so confidently.”

The alter ego Dxtr Spits was born in Chicago in 2014. The name Dxtr, an acronym meaning Design eXperimentation Transcending Reality is indicative of Jordan's philosophy: "You can live your life like an experiment; you can't control what happens to you, but you can control the product that you become throughout it all." Not long after assuming the name Dxtr Spits, in 2015, he met The Devonns through mutual friend and artist Lester Rey.

And since Dxtr Spit’s formal introduction to the city at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert On The Road show, the Dxtr Spits persona has burned up the Wicker Park Festival, taken the stage at The John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress in Washington DC for an exhibition entitled ‘Decolonizing Mars,’ earned a write up in the Chicago Tribune, and turned popular Logan Square watering hole Cole’s Bar on its head with fellow up-and-coming act Glitter Moneyyy.

As Jordan continues to create, the line between him and Dxtr is starting to blur. His standout track "Trap Nerd" represents the awakening of Dxtr Spits and, he says, illustrates the idea of juxtaposing the time in his life when he was depressed and participating in wild stuff (or, the “trap”) with his more current, "nerdy" sensibilities which align with his science and engineering background.

Dxtr’s newest musical endeavor is the EP entitled “Dxtr Aint Chai,” a collaborative effort with the Kenyan born, Chicago-based artist Chai Tulani. The two met while doing open mics, specifically the Gala, a popular open mic run by a local community artist group. The EP consists of 4 songs that meld Dxtr’s gritty east coast sound with Chai’s melodic Chicago street rap and ‘sonic soul.’ The highlight of the album is “Eat,” a hopeful single with both artists rapping over keyboard beats.

Away from rap and his Dxtr alter ego, Jordan stays busy as well. In 2017, he started ONLI Packs - a community-focused company producing backpacks designed by local artists. ONLI, like Dxtr, is an acronym - meaning Operational, Narratives, Love of Community, Inspiration. ONLI Packs and the Dxtr Spits alter ego are in fact a collaboration between Jordan and his business partner Rick Doe, but both represent the efforts of a larger collective. According to Jordan, “All of this stuff is not solo by any means, there’s a team of about 7-8 people that work on Dxtr Spits and ONLI Packs. And, that’s actually not including the band. The band can add in another 5-7 [people]. These are team, collective efforts making this stuff come to fruition.”

As both Dxtr Spits and ONLI Packs grow, Jordan hopes to continue “bridging gaps between the arts and sciences.” He also wants to continue lifting his collective and the artist community in Chicago. It appears to be working: At the end of a day spent on one of Jordan’s daily adventures at a wine bar/bookstore in Lincoln Park, Chicago, he serendipitously ran into artist DK, Daniel Kyri Madison. DK happened to be wearing a backpack designed by artist Pugs Atoms -- one of the original backpacks produced by ONLI.

If things continue this way, Jordan Holmes won’t be able to hide behind any of his alter-egos in the city much longer - as he becomes one of the city’s artistic superheroes, one successful musical experiment at a time.