By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
"There's a lot of groups from Dallas that sound like a lot of different people," says Legendary Fritz, a New York native who moved to Dallas six years ago. "As far as nationwide, Dallas hasn't developed a sound. Houston has a sound. Memphis has a sound. But there's not a 'Dallas sound'--a sound like, 'Oh, they're trying to do some New York-type stuff' or whatever. The only way to do that is have artists who make it from the area give it back as much as possible. There's people that are in the industry now, and they're gonna have to open doors for other people."
The local hip-hop community has been trying to open those doors since the mid-'80s. It was the golden age of rap, before N.W.A. turned urban radio into lyrical gang warfare, and only a few years after the Sugarhill Gang had taken hip-hop out of the parks of the South Bronx and the dance clubs of Harlem with "Rapper's Delight." Hip-hop was still in its infancy, in the midst of trickling down to other parts of the country from its original home base in the boroughs of New York.
It had already found its way to Dallas. KNON had four or five hip-hop shows on its schedule at the time, and KKDA-FM (104.1) had a playlist that regularly featured artists such as Run-DMC, EPMD, and Eric B & Rakim, as well as a weekly hip-hop show that played tracks by local bands. A handful of groups--the Fila Fresh Crew and Nemesis among them--were putting together shows in such places as Shamrock's Skating Rink in Lancaster, Down Under One in Oak Cliff, New York Connection in North Dallas, and City Lights in South Dallas.
Nemesis eventually signed with the New York City-based Profile Records, releasing several fair-selling albums. (Profile was home to Run-DMC, among others.) But it was the Fila Fresh Crew to which everyone pinned their hopes. The group was led by a young MC named Tracy Curry--better known now as The D.O.C., then known as Dr. Tray. Curry was a local superstar, rising to the top through his inventive wordplay and commanding delivery, as well as his close association with Dr. Rock, a member of the Fila Fresh Crew and host of K104's weekly hip-hop show. Everyone knew he had the skills to make it big; it was only a matter of time. Finally, it was assumed, Dallas would have a hip-hop hero to call its own. Curry would to be the one who earned Dallas groups some respect, carrying the rest of the city with him on his way to the top. Unfortunately, Eddie D says, "I've said for years, 'This is going to be the year.' It don't ever happen that way."
Curry made a name for himself as The D.O.C.--but not for Dallas. By the time his Dr. Dre-produced debut album, 1989's No One Can Do It Better, was released, he had been living in Los Angeles for a couple of years, trading in the flashy track suits he wore as a member of the Fila Fresh Crew for gangsta-gangsta all-black. His Dallas connection was next to invisible, reduced to a few words on a press release. The album's double-platinum status should have had talent scouts on the next plane to Dallas, looking for the next D.O.C. Instead, it left Curry's fans and peers in his abandoned hometown wondering what had happened to the real D.O.C. Most people had no idea Curry was even from this city. "I didn't even know he was from Dallas until I moved here," says Legendary Fritz.
Curry, however, couldn't have cared less. He had no problems leaving Dallas--and a scene he deemed derivative--behind. "When they first came out, Nemesis sounded like they were from Brooklyn or Queens, but then I came back two years later, and they sounded like they were from Compton," Curry said in an interview with the Dallas Observer in January 1996. "I'm a leader, not a follower, so I moved from the projects of West Dallas to the projects of Compton."
In Los Angeles, Curry was transformed from a Dallas star into a national talent. He was one of the principal writers of N.W.A.'s seminal 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, and also provided the words the late Eazy-E feebly rapped on his solo album, Eazy-Duz-It, the same year. But it was No One Can Do It Better that cemented Curry's reputation as one of the finest MCs in the country, splitting the difference between East Coast battle rhymes and West Coast battle lines. The album propelled him into the upper echelon of the hip-hop industry.
His stay at the top was as quick as his rise. A few months after the release of No One Can Do It Better, Curry passed out drunk behind the wheel of his car. He landed in a coma; his career, in a ditch. When he emerged from the hospital, his vocal chords were severely damaged, and so were the slim chances that Curry would ever be able to help Dallas hip-hop succeed on a national level. In 1996, he finally released a follow-up to his brilliant debut (Helter Skelter), but it was way too little, way too late.
"When D.O.C. came out of here, a lot of people were expecting him to open up doors," Mad Flava's Cold Cris remembers. "But he was perceived as more of a L.A. rapper than he was Dallas, and I think that was partially his fault to a certain extent. Because, I mean, he came out, and he had L.A. Raiders gear on all the time. But he was like the hottest rapper in Dallas in the '80s. He was somebody that influenced me. You could tell back then that he had everything it took. He was going to be so major, if he hadn't had that accident and shit. There's been a lot of situations where Dallas' scene could have came up, but it didn't."
Cold Cris, 29, knows all too well about those situations. Mad Flava was also supposed to break out of Dallas' city limits, do everything for other Dallas hip-hop groups that Curry was unable--or unwilling--to do, things that Nemesis hadn't been able to do with its bass-heavy albums for Profile Records. When Mad Flava signed with the fledgling Priority Records in 1993, Dallas hip-hop was in another boom period, ready to go public again after having its hopes crushed by Curry a few years before. Mad Flava's contract with Priority was supposed to be the first of many, the first shot in a Dallas invasion of the hip-hop industry. It turned out to be the only shot.
"It was fucked up, because there was so much anticipation here locally, because we had shit locked down," Cold Cris says. "We were the hottest thing underground here, and a lot of people were looking to us to open a lot of doors once our thing blew up. It was a big disappointment for everyone involved."
Mad Flava's deal with Priority went bad almost from the beginning. The band got caught up in a transition of personnel within the label, when Eric Brooks--Priority's national director of promotions--left to help start Noo Trybe, a subsidiary of Virgin Records and home to Gang Starr and the Geto Boys, among others. Brooks had been a big supporter of the band, putting the label's checkbook behind the act in the form of a flood of national advertisements and other buzz-creating items, like promotional weed pipes. When he left, Mad Flava's debut album for the label was shelved, its release pushed back almost a year to April 1994. By the time the album, From Tha Ground Unda, finally landed in record stores, all the publicity Brooks had helped generate had about as much impact as firing a pellet gun at a tank.
"It was a '93 record," Cold Cris insists. "We had so much pub, and there was so much anticipation at the beginning, that by the time it came out, nobody knew it was out. By that time, we had already been touring with Ice Cube and a bunch of shit, but our album wasn't even in stores."
Not surprisingly, From Tha Ground Unda sold poorly, and Mad Flava was subsequently dropped by Priority before it could record a follow-up. As Cold Cris talks, you can hear the sting of disappointment in his voice, even though it happened four years ago. It's a wound that hasn't quite healed yet, and it may never mend completely. He questions every choice the band made back then: the singles it released, the videos it filmed, the management team it hired. He knows exactly what happened; he just can't quite figure out why. Most of all, he can't figure out why Mad Flava signed with Priority in the first place.
The band had signed a management deal with the Los Angeles-based Total Trak Productions, which handled DJ Quik and "a lot of that Cali gangsta shit," Cris recalls. Originally, Mad Flava was being wooed by Russell Simmons' Def Jam label, home to Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys; it was a dream deal. But Cris says Total Trak killed the deal before it was final, and as a result, Mad Flava ended up on Priority--where, of course, the band wasn't one.
"Def Jam would have been a lot better for us, considering the music and shit," Cold Cris insists. "I can remember being in Russell Simmons' crib, and him listening to the demo and just getting immediately on the phone and start talking numbers. Fucking gave me $39 to take a cab back to Queens, which only cost a dollar. Sending me in a car down to Def Jam to dub the demo for his A&R people. I went back to Dallas thinking that we were signed to Def Jam. That was everybody's dream. I don't think being on Def Jam has as much impact now as it used to. Before, it seemed like they only had selected artists, and everybody on that label from Slick Rick to Public Enemy was just innovative. Every rapper's dream who had been making demos back in the '80s was to be on Def Jam. Just me being in Russell Simmons' crib was mind-blowing."
Five years later, Cold Cris still sounds amazed that Def Jam Records wanted to sign him and his band, which also includes The Don Kasaan, The Cut Selectah Baby G, and Hype Dawg. If Mad Flava had signed to Def Jam, the band might still be there making records, instead of here picking up the pieces. Most people probably assumed the band had broken up after Priority dropped them. Last year, the group finally showed signs of life, releasing a single on Do Damage Entertainment, a label co-owned by Cold Cris and former Dallas Maverick Tony Dumas. Mad Flava's failed deal with Priority taught the band a harsh lesson, one it has been slow to recover from.
"When you're dealing with a group--any group--that's been together for a long time, of course you're going to have internal things where certain people want to start doing other things," says Cold Cris, who is working on a solo album under the name Lootacris. "It kind of makes the time in between projects a little long, because you're dealing with a lot of people with their own visions. The group is still together--it's just that we've gone back to a more independent approach. It's not all about being signed to a major label, and all the shit that we went through with Priority. Basically, it's about taking our time."
Time--that is all Dallas' hip-hop bands have. And far too much of it. Time to wait, time to dream, time to kill. Mad Flava's abortive relationship with Priority and Curry's abandonment of Dallas should have served as cautionary tales, warning local bands not to get their hopes up every time one of their own signs with a major label. Curry had the power but not the desire to help out his hometown comrades, and Mad Flava had the desire but no power at all.
But when Erykah Badu signed in early 1996 with Kidar Entertainment, a subsidiary of Universal Records, she seemed to have both. Local groups couldn't help but get excited by the prospect, even though most of them had been burned before, when Mad Flava's deal turned to dust.
"It's like, 'I made it, y'all made it,'" Badu told the Observer in 1996, a year before the release of her star-making debut Baduizm. "I call them all the time: 'OK, this is where we are right now.' That's what I tell them when I'm talking about the project. 'We are here, we are at this point, and when we get here, I'm bringing you up here.'"
While not a hip-hop album per se, Baduizm did feature several local hip-hop producers, including Shabazz 3's Ty Macklin, who is the Elmer's to Eddie D's super glue when it comes to holding Dallas' hip-hop scene together. The album's double-platinum sales, as well as Badu's use of local talent and her ties to the Dallas hip-hop scene--Mad Flava's Kasaan booked her first gigs and hooked her up with a few producers--should have led to major interest in Dallas acts from major labels. At least, that's what many people thought would happen.
"It opened it up for some Dallas producers and those who sing, but as far as MCs and hip-hop itself, I don't think it helped at all," says Mental Chaos' DJ Rodney, shaking his head.
Instead of record contracts for Badu's friends and fellow Dallas artists, all that resulted from the overwhelming success of Baduizm was a quickie live album released later that year, proving that major labels can have enough talent but never enough money. No deals were struck, and there wasn't even that much interest sparked by the album, apart from some courtesy calls from a couple of the labels. So, a year later, a year after Erykah Badu was supposed to lead them all to the promised land, the members of the Dallas hip-hop scene continue to toil in anonymity, sadder but wiser after being left at the altar. Again.
"I think a lot of people were banking on that," says Eddie D. "I don't think that's any fault of Erykah, because she's done what she can. But that's one of the things that you hoped would happen, and it just didn't. I think seeing the way that this happened, it probably opened a lot of eyes. No one will be expecting that anymore."
You couldn't blame Shabazz 3 if they, too, thought Badu's success would spill over onto them, that Macklin's appearance on the album was the winning lottery ticket they had been waiting and working for. If anyone in Dallas deserves a chance at success, it's Shabazz 3. They've been stars in their bedrooms for five years, five long years of scrambling for gigs and badgering program directors for radio airplay. Sometimes, it seems as though success will always be just out of their grasp.
Today, as the members of Shabazz 3--Fatz, Macklin, and Bobby Dee--sit in the house manager Ron Guerra shares with ousted Deep Blue Something guitarist Kirk Tatom on Lower Greenville, success is quite literally just out of their reach. Tatom's framed gold record--which he received for Deep Blue Something's 1996 album Home--hangs on one bare wall, a bit of irony not lost on the trio. Shabazz 3 may be one of the most talented groups to come out of Dallas in the last decade, but they've never even had a record contract, much less a gold record, to call their own.
"There's two different hip-hop worlds in Dallas," Bobby Dee says. "You got the underground, which is what we do, and you got the mainstream--more like gangster or whatever you want to call it--that you hear on K104. Well, the hip-hop that we do is not heard as much as anything else is heard here in Dallas. So, obviously, you have to get out there and work harder with it, to get the crowd coming. We, basically, are seen and not heard, you know what I'm saying? You got hip-hop fans here. People want the music. It's just [that] we don't have a place to release it. We can't go to the radio, and the venues, they've never heard of most of the underground crews, so they don't want you. All we've got is KNON."
Fatz continues. "If more people could hear it, and it was out there more, then people would come and check out the crews, and there would be a demand for it. I don't think hip-hop is disrespected. It's just ignored."
The members of Shabazz 3, all in their mid-20s, have been involved in the local hip-hop scene for years, paying their dues and waiting for their shot. Macklin (who goes by the name "XL7," meaning "extra square") was a member of Decadent Dub Team as a teenager, and he has produced songs for nearly every hip-hop group in Dallas, first in his home studio (House of Demos), and now at Alpha Omega Studios. Bobby Dee used to spin records every Thursday night at the Tropical Exodus on Crowdus Street, carrying two crates of records for six blocks to catch a bus, and walking all the way back when it got out too late to catch a bus or a cab home. He did it for free. Fatz spent time as the onstage bodyguard for Phlomatics--the group responsible for the underground hit "Jack the Blue, Don't Back the Blue"--before joining the band as an MC when it became Shabazz 3.
The trio knows talent will keep them going, but it is business savvy that will get them through the door in the first place. They stay focused, making sure their music is tight and their business strategies tighter. Program directors and label executives can ignore them now, but not forever.
"Don't be like, 'Well, K104 won't play me, so I quit,' Fatz says. "Stay in [K104 programming director] Skip Cheatum or whoever's face, until they're like, 'Well, damn, we gotta play them.' Don't give up. You can't just send them a tape, and they're gonna play it. That ain't gonna happen. You gotta get up off of your ass, go up there, stay up there. That's the same with anything. You gotta look at being in a hip-hop group like it's a business. Don't just sit back and say, 'I'm gonna smoke this joint and let everybody else do my business for me.' Yeah, you might blow up eventually, but you gonna blow up and go broke, because you don't know what's happening around you.
"Get out there and work hard and do the little shows. So what ain't but 10 people there? It might be 10 people that'll buy your CD. That's 10 more people that didn't hear your music yesterday. You just have to keep working at it. You can't just be like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna rap, and I expect to be in a Rolls Royce.' You can have talent and all of that, but we know that alone is not gonna make it."
So Shabazz 3 keeps hustling, trying to help themselves and the scene at the same time. Bobby Dee hosts an Internet-only radio show on broadcast.com, Wrap Radio, which mirrors Eddie D's format, mixing local with national in an attempt to go global. Macklin continues to be the best producer no money can buy, recording anyone and everyone at Alpha Omega. They pick up shows wherever they can find them--including an unlikely performance at a Dallas Jazz Under the Stars concert--adding other bands to the bill, trying to get Dallas hip-hop seen and heard as much as possible. They don't care where it is, as long as there's a chance they can win a new fan.
"The moves we make, we don't worry about if anybody's ever done this or are we gonna fit in. We just do it," Fatz says. "If they called us up and said, 'Garth Brooks is in town, and we want y'all to open up,' shit, we'd be up there opening up. We'd be asking Garth Brooks if we could go on the road with him."
Shabazz 3 is determined to win back a place for hip-hop in Deep Ellum, where it has vanished since Exodus closed, even if they have to do it one club at a time. To that end, Fatz--along with Mental Chaos' DJ Rodney--recently made a deal with the Liquid Lounge, allowing him to book two Saturday shows a month at the club. So far, the agreement has worked out well for everyone involved, though some of the other club owners initially tried to warn the Liquid Lounge away from the idea.
For whatever reason, club owners in Deep Ellum are apprehensive when they see too many black faces, especially when most of them are male. They worry about the potential for danger, believing that a shoot-out or God knows what else could erupt at any moment. Of course, they don't have the same concerns with mostly male, mostly white crowds. Seems it's OK to book a white "rap" band like Pimpadelic or Hellafied Funk Crew several nights a month, just as it's OK to relegate Shabazz 3 to specialty nights, such as the "Future Beat" shows at the Curtain Club, once every few months.
Club owners can't see past their own misconceptions, the things they've heard or read about hip-hop concerts. Liquid Lounge and Curtain Club owner Doug Simmons says that on the night of the first Shabazz 3 show at the Liquid Lounge, a few employees from Club Clearview cautioned him about booking hip-hop shows. It was a warning that wasn't heeded, and wasn't needed.
"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.
Yet as far back as when Cisco Soul and the Party Patrol became the first hip-hop radio show in Dallas in 1983, the run-down building has been a major part of Dallas hip-hop. In the mid-'80s, the station was at the peak of its support, featuring a handful of hip-hop shows on its schedule. Big Snake and Al from Nemesis had a show there then, and Nippy Jones, now a popular personality on K104, got his start at KNON around the same time. "Everybody listened to KNON to find out what was going on," says Cold Cris.
Everyone listens to KNON now too; they just have less to listen to. Eddie D, a frequent guest on Cisco Soul's show and Nippy Jones' onetime right-hand man, is the lone holdover from that era. Since he got his own show in 1987, Eddie D has been on KNON each week--first on Thursday nights, now on Saturday afternoons--promoting underground hip-hop like he was its boss. For two hours every Saturday, Eddie D is the scene's pacemaker and taste-maker, playing songs by local artists such as Kinfolk Kru, Ghetto Fame-Us, and Profound alongside cuts by national acts such as Pete Rock, A Tribe Called Quest, and Sunz of Man. "I think there wouldn't be no scene here if they didn't have KNON," says Legendary Fritz. "No scene, period, at all."
Eddie D, 37, grew up in Cincinnati, a talented soccer player who parlayed his skills into a college scholarship. Growing up, he didn't want to be on the radio; he wanted to be like Brazilian soccer star Pele. His soccer career didn't pan out as planned, though, and by 1983, he had migrated to Texas, first to Houston, then Dallas. ("Best thing that ever happened," he says.) After settling in Dallas, Eddie D was introduced to Master Mixer, a DJ who taught him the tricks of the trade, how to cut records, mix them together until the beats were water-tight. Master Mixer also brought Eddie D into the fold at KNON, letting him perform with his mix team on Cisco Soul's show. Eddie D began spending more and more time at the studio every week, and after Cisco Soul's show was canceled, he moved on to work on Nippy Jones' show. By 1987, he had his own slot on KNON, Down By Sound, on Thursday nights.
His show has changed time slots and names since then, but it has remained the only consistent aspect of Dallas hip-hop, as reliable as controversy at a Dallas Cowboys training camp. This year, Eddie D got into the record business as well, releasing Down By Sound: KNON Hip-Hop Compilation, a brilliant collection of songs by some of the artists who appear on his show, including Phat Head Squad, Distortionist, and Soule. It may not be the best album to come out of Dallas this year, but it's definitely one of the most important.
"I'm hoping that we can get this one all sold and completed, and then do another one," he says. "That's what I'm looking forward to. It's OK to do one, but when you start doing two and three and four, that's really nice."
Eddie D isn't just hip-hop's biggest supporter in Dallas. He's always been a performer as well, manning the turntables with the Highly Dangerous Fresh Ones and Decadent Dub Team in the late '80s, and currently with the Funktactics. He knows how hard it is to work at a shitty job just to keep your dreams alive; for the past seven years he has been spinning top-40 crap at Blind Lemon on Thursday and Friday nights.
It's that kind of love for the music that has kept his show so vital to the scene for so many years. Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught in many ways is Dallas hip-hop, as much as New York's CBGB's was American punk-rock in the late '70s. Fans tune in to hear what's going on locally as well as nationally, listening to find out what shows are happening this week, who is putting out a new single. Street promoters stop in to give Eddie D copies of new releases and free T-shirts. Performers drop by for a little self-promotion, and to pay their respects to Eddie D. And everyone respects him. Everyone. Of course, you wouldn't tell the nurse keeping your baby alive on life-support that she's doing a bad job.
"I don't know, man," Eddie D says, a humble smile playing across his face. "It's amazing that I've been here this long. The godfather of it all. It's something I'm proud of. It's amazing that something like this has lasted in Dallas this long. I guess I've proved that hip-hop can be a successful venture. But one of the things I've always said, I can do my part as far as being on the radio, a personality or whatever, a DJ, but it's up to the artists to bring out their talent, which makes my show all the better."
Dallas has enough talented hip-hop groups to make Eddie D's show one of the best on any station in the city. Many of them hang out at the studio while Eddie D does the show, waiting for the opportunity to plug an upcoming show or send a shout-out to their friends listening at home. Today, the studio is emptier than usual. A young MC named Headkrack stops by to hype a show he's performing in later that night. DJ Rodney drops in too, as well as a few friends and fans of Eddie D.
"I prefer it to be like that, because I'm still doing a radio show, and it's hard to appease everybody," Eddie D says after the show. "I have the only show, so I have to cater to a lot of people. I know everybody wants a piece of it." Eddie D's job is like being a coach at the NBA All-Star Game, trying to find enough playing time to keep everyone on the team happy. He does it as well as anyone could, but it's still not enough.
Other cities have urban radio stations that support hip-hop. They don't just have weekly shows like Eddie D's; they have nightly slots that feature everything from established groups to upstart crews with home recordings. Dallas' only urban station, K104, has banished underground hip-hop from its playlist, in favor of the tired gansterisms of Master P and the hip-pop of Puff Daddy.
Local bands haven't had any support from K104 in years. Its weekly hip-hop show is a thing of the past, a relic from an era when the quality of the artist was as important to the station as the quantity of records sold. K104 even held back from playing Erykah Badu until her record became a hit, an inexplicable blunder and a perfect example of how little K104 is concerned with the local scene.
"This market doesn't break records," says DJ Rodney. "This market follows. Whatever's hitting in Los Angeles or Florida or Chicago or wherever, they'll follow that. With Erykah, she blew up elsewhere, and then came back home and finally blew up here. That's not the way it should be. The home city should help the artist get exposure."
It sounds logical, but Dallas artists long ago gave up expecting any assistance from their hometown radio station. If Eddie D's show goes, so does Dallas hip-hop. Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught isn't much. It's everything.
Eddie D could have given up a long time ago. He could have quit being Dallas' patron saint of lost causes, stopped giving his time, energy, and money to a ship that's been sinking for years. But he can't. He's already given too much. Hip-hop is under his skin deeper than the blue ink of the tattoos that line his thin arms.
"I'm 37, and I've been here almost half my life now," he says. "This is my home. This is what I do for a living. I've been doing it for a long time, and I can see myself 70, 80, still doing the same thing. Without a question. Ask me the same questions two decades from now."
Eddie D laughs as he says this, but you can tell he means it. And that's the funny thing about the Dallas hip-hop community. No one wants to give up the dream of putting Dallas on the map. One would think that after more than a decade of hard luck, after all the false starts and blown chances, after being neglected by clubs and ignored by radio, after watching the scene move so far underground it lives in a cave, that Dallas hip-hop would be a ghost town.
You would think by now that Shabazz 3 and Mental Chaos and Legendary Fritz and everyone else in the Dallas hip-hop community would have taken The D.O.C.'s lead and moved to a city where their music is more appreciated, where they have a better chance of succeeding. But that's not a part of the plan. They don't want to achieve their goals somewhere else. They want to make it here, build a scene in Dallas instead of becoming a part of one in Los Angeles or New York.
"Just to up and relocate, you can't do that overnight," DJ Rodney says. "We've considered it. We're still considering it. But we want to be one of the first ones to break this market open, like a challenge."
Even though DJ Rodney has lived in Dallas only for a little more than three years, he has been one of the most active in keeping the scene alive. He puts together shows and pesters record labels, letting people know there's hip-hop in Dallas, you just have to search for it. Now, he's in the process of starting his own hip-hop show on KNON, working with Eddie D until he can find a time slot. Dallas hip-hop may never break nationally, but as long as people like DJ Rodney are a part of it, at least there's a chance.