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.

"We had a really great show; everybody did well financially," Simmons says. "I think the bands did well, and the bar did well, and it was cool to see the place happening...As a matter of fact, [the first show they did] was one of the best nights that we'd had in the Liquid Lounge."

Not enough club owners are as willing to take a chance as Simmons is. Right now, The Palm Beach Club (formerly Dread N Irie) is the only other club in Deep Ellum where hip-hop is welcome on a regular basis. For the past few months, the club has offered hip-hop shows on Wednesday nights, hosted by New York transplant Poppi Lo. For one night every week, Poppi Lo basically runs the club, booking all the bands, handling security, making up schedules, and collecting the money. Though the Wednesday-night shows haven't taken off yet, Poppi Lo remains hopeful.

"It's going pretty good, but we need more people to come out, or we're gonna lose the spot," says Poppi Lo, who moved to Dallas from Brooklyn in 1993 to pursue his music career. "You know how people don't want to represent. They [the club] are trying to make some money. I'm trying to make people happy."

In the early '90s, it wasn't as difficult for a hip-hop group to find a place to play. There were hip-hop friendly clubs like Aqua Lounge and the Electric Jungle. When former Decadent Dub Team frontman Jeff Liles was booking Trees, the club often featured touring and local rap acts; so did Club Clearview, at least for a while. But more than anything else, hip-hop groups could rely on the steadiness of Tropical Exodus. While other clubs tried and failed to support hip-hop, Tropical Exodus was always around to fall back on. "We did like a jillion shows at the Exodus," says Native Poet's Tahiti. "Everybody used to go to the Exodus. You always had that spot to go to."

Tropical Exodus was a haven for local artists and national acts. Hip-hop tours don't come to Dallas much anymore, save for the annual Smokin' Grooves tour, because there isn't a venue that regularly books hip-hop shows; that, and promoters are forced to take out enormous insurance policies whenever they even think of booking a hip-hop tour, so scared are venues of hosting such concerts. In January 1996, a Dr. Dre-Tupac Shakur-Snoop Doggy Dogg concert scheduled to take place at the Fair Park Coliseum was canceled by the promoter at the last minute because of low ticket sales, which he blamed on KKDA's reluctance to get behind the concert. Station officials insisted they didn't think the show would actually happen--because most scheduled hip-hop shows never do.

At the time, Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert-industry trade magazine Pollstar, insisted that "one of the problems with shows that appeal predominantly to black audiences is that the audience buys its tickets late, which scares promoters." Plus, he added, "there is difficulty in getting insurance. Sometimes, the promoters aren't the best in the world, so they get cold feet and cancel." If the biggest names in hip-hop can't play Dallas, why should anyone expect better for the homegrown up-and-comers?

Yet when Tropical Exodus was around, all the big-name bands stopped in Dallas: Eric B & Rakim, the Geto Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and De La Soul. It wasn't just a club; it was refuge, providing a home for Dallas hip-hop fans and artists alike. But without a word of warning, Tropical Exodus closed suddenly in 1994.

"We had actually set up a show, and we went up there to do it, and it was just boarded up," Tahiti remembers. "I was like, 'What the fuck?'"

Since then, Dallas hip-hop has lacked a consistent venue, a place willing to open its doors to local and national artists several nights a week. No club has stepped up to pick up the slack, for all practical purposes reducing the scene to Eddie D's show and a sporadic schedule of gigs. Venues that support hip-hop come and go like an old man's memory, opening and closing in the time it takes most people to find out about them.

As long as KNON is around, Dallas hip-hop will never be completely exterminated. The station has been with Dallas hip-hop through all the ups and downs, through every missed opportunity and shattered dream. For the past 15 years, the ratty, white two-story building that houses the station's studio has been hip-hop's home in Dallas. The building blends seamlessly into the ramshackle neighborhood it's located in. A group of buildings across the street has been dubbed the Saigon Apartments, and the name is regrettably appropriate. The only thing that distinguishes the house from the other shoddy dwellings on the block is the large KNON sign posted on the front.

Inside, it's even more dilapidated. Paint chips are piled onto dusty boxes that look as though they haven't been disturbed since KNON moved in. Yellowed newspaper clippings are stapled to crumbling wood paneling, and it's hard to tell which is more unsightly. The cramped, stuffy studio is lined with shelves of records no one has had the heart to play or throw away in at least a decade, and the walls are papered with signed black-and-white photographs of various country artists who have stopped by KNON at one time or another. The place hardly looks like the center of anything, much less the core of Dallas hip-hop.

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