Beat down

Dallas' hip-hop scene is more vital than ever, but you'd never know it: no clubs, no radio, no major-label deals. But the musicians, some of this city's best, refuse to give up.

DJ EZ Eddie D is late. It's three minutes after 5 p.m., three minutes after his weekly radio show on KNON-FM (89.3) should have started, and he isn't here. If Eddie D were the host of any other radio show, his tardiness wouldn't be such a big deal. But Eddie D's show, Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught, is more than just two turntables and a microphone. It's a responsibility. It's the only underground hip-hop show on Dallas' airwaves, one of the only outlets for local bands such as Native Poet, Mental Chaos, and Eddie D's own Funktactics. Every minute--every second--he is late is a missed opportunity.

At the moment, however, there is a more immediate concern. Since Eddie D hasn't arrived yet, the only thing standing between KNON and dead air is Fatboy Slim's ubiquitous hit "The Rockafeller Skank." The hosts of Talk Back, the teen chat program that precedes Eddie D's each Saturday, started the song a few minutes ago, but they're already out of the building, and the song is beginning to wind down. Program director Dave Chaos walks by and glances into the vacant studio, takes a look at the clock on the wall, then turns his attention to the empty stairwell.

Fatboy Slim's big-beat electronic pop booms over the speakers on the wall outside of the studio: "Right about now/The funk soul brother." As if on cue, Eddie D comes flying up the unsteady stairs, dreadlocks swinging behind him, clutching a mail crate overstuffed with piles of CDs and stacks of wax. For a second, it feels as if he and Chaos do this every week.

In the time it takes most people to slip off a pair of pants, Eddie D has freed a couple of records from their cardboard sleeves and cued them up to the appropriate spots, made a short phone call, and discussed some business with Chaos. Just before Fatboy Slim fades into absolute silence, KNON's funk soul brother takes a deep breath and leans into the microphone, greeting his listeners in a voice so smooth, so deep, you half expect to see Billy Dee Williams standing where Eddie D is, a stunningly attractive woman in one hand, ice-cold Colt 45 in the other.

"Welcome to Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught."
And so begins a "small, two-hour bit of heaven"--as Eddie D later calls it--a radio show that is so much more than the sum of its parts. With no other form of radio support, an unstable relationship with local clubs, and a general indifference from national record labels and local fans, Dallas hip-hop is like a UFO: Many people believe in it, but only a few have actually seen it. After more than a decade of bad breaks, Dallas hip-hop is so far underground, every member of the scene should receive hazard pay. Yet despite those setbacks, hip-hop still thrives in Dallas, bubbling under the surface thanks to a determined few like Mad Flava, Shabazz 3, and Eddie D. But it's hard not to get frustrated.

"I've seen too many groups come and go, man, overnight," says Shabazz 3's Fatz. "That's why the scene is like it is now. Because a group will start out good, change its name the next week, get blunted out, and be like, 'Fuck Dallas.' Then it's all over with. Dallas right now is under construction, and Shabazz 3 is the architects."

It seems as though Eddie D and the rest of the Dallas hip-hop community have been waiting forever for it to happen, for Dallas to explode nationally the way Houston did when the Geto Boys released their self-titled major-label debut in 1990. Houston has since become a major player, boasting one of the country's most successful independent labels (Rap-A-Lot Records) and best-selling artists (Scarface). The city's Southern-accented gangsta-funk sound is instantly recognizable, and big-name artists such as Ice Cube and the late Tupac Shakur have recorded there, giving legitimacy to Houston's status in the hip-hop industry.

Dallas, on the other hand, has watched and waited, stockpiling equal amounts of faith and bitterness like canned goods in a bomb shelter. For years, the city has been lost in the shuffle, overlooked in favor of the more marketable sounds coming out of Houston and, recently, New Orleans, where Master P and his No Limit Records (home to Snoop Dogg) are kings of the Mardi Gras. Dallas hip-hop has almost nothing in common with those two cities' take on Southern hip-hop, save for the few artists on Redrumm Recordz, a Dallas label with an extremely limited distribution agreement with Mercury Records--meaning Mercury will nationally distribute Redrumm product if it does well regionally. (The label, which was formed in 1996, has released only three albums--by Gugu, Kimbo, and Kabaal--none of which is yet being distributed through Mercury.) The problem is, Redrumm doesn't seem much interested in promoting its product, which seems to have been fashioned from a fourth-generation copy of the blueprint to Master P's No Limit Records empire. Gugu never returned a handful of calls from the Dallas Observer.

But Redrumm's lackadaisical efforts only depict a tiny fraction of Dallas hip-hop. The rest of the versatile Dallas scene sounds as if it could be from anywhere, representing everything from jazz-tinged East Coast sounds (Mental Chaos, Native Poet) to funkadelic West Coast grooves (Ghetto Fame-Us, Kinfolk Kru) and sometimes both (Shabazz 3, Mad Flava). The problem is, no one sounds as if they're from here.

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