By Kelly Dearmore
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The city's failure to produce an artist capable of competing in the billion-dollar rap game is an 800-pound gorilla that's been breaking the scene's back since most of the rap nation thought The D.O.C. was one of the illest rappers ever to come out of L.A. That's why the cats who have committed themselves to the monumental task of keeping Dallas' rap hopes alive are cautiously optimistic that a Bayou transplant will kick in the door Biggie-style and create a buzz that Dallas radio and the music industry can no longer ignore.
Steve Austin (the Bioniq Emcee) is putting the finishing touches on his new CD, Eight-Hundred Pound Gorilla. With muscular distribution through Tommy Boy, this release represents the oasis many of the bleary-eyed Dallas rap survivors have been thirsting for. If Tommy Boy sees success with this venture, they're poised to jump into the untapped Dallas market with both feet.
The No. 1 task of the moment is for Steve Austin to get the buzz in Texas so hot that Dallas radio can't ignore it. Once he's bubbling at home, Tommy Boy will throw their marketing and promotion weight around accordingly. But history suggests this will be tough, as Dallas has a notorious reputation as a tough place to break an artist. You're more likely to see Laura Miller doing the coin toss at the Al Lipscomb State Fair Classic than a Dallas rapper getting heavy rotation on K104 or 97.9 The Beat.
"It's a shame for Dallas' artists that the radio stations that we have aren't necessarily friendly to local artists," says Anthony Bookman, the man who put Austin's deal with Tommy Boy together. "You're talking about the number-five market, so if the radio station jumped behind an artist, and with the respect Skip Cheatum has in the industry, people would listen."
Indeed Cheatum, the program director at K104, does have the power to help break an artist, and many wonder why he hasn't. But most local artists lack the essential combination of business acumen, talent and a sound compatible with this region that would encourage Cheatum or John Candelaria (program director at The Beat) to stick their neck out to support them.
"Our goal is to play the best music for our listeners," Candelaria says. "We do play local records, but we play the best ones. You may have all the talent in the world but not the right record."
Candelaria says he spends a good part of his week trying to educate local artists on how to be taken seriously by the station. Dallasites Play-N-Skillz get airplay, but their Billboard-charting song "Freaks" features established artists Adina Howard and Krayzie Bone, making them hard to ignore. Others such as Big Wheel Records, Bo Leg and Young Hustlaz get some occasional burn but have a sound so specific to this region that a significant breakout will be tough to pull off.
That's why Austin is such an intriguing candidate to break through locally and nationally. An immensely energetic performer, the charismatic Austin has the type of commanding flow to garner respect from the heads, and the type of bangin' club anthems to heat up the joint and have the freaks flock to the pole. A studied musical engineer, Austin is sonically on-point, but what gives him a leg up is his intelligence, work ethic and business savvy. He's aware of how the game is played, and dude's hustle is tight.
After arriving in Dallas from Louisiana in 2000 to be near his daughter, Austin fell into what he thought would be a great situation with Starlicity Records. They said they had the cash flow and distribution to get it going and allow him to be the type of artist he had always envisioned. But when they released his debut CD, Built for This, he ended up having to be a lot more than an artist.
"I ended up putting in all the work of the label," he says. "I ended up getting wax pressed and getting it to the DJs. I ended up working radio. I ended up putting the records in the stores and online. And basically, they just sat back and--sat back."
Though the ordeal disillusioned him, he made contacts and acquired invaluable knowledge of how to play the game. He self-released a series of successful mix tapes (Unleash the Beast & Let the Monkey Out Vol. I & II) and networked with high-profile DJs like Whiz-T and K104's Steve Nice, whose Sundebut show has played Austin's music on numerous occasions--a potential precursor to regular rotation.
Bookman, who has worked everything from concert promotion to online digital distribution to a production deal with Warner Bros., admired Austin's music but had even more respect for his hustle. Having devoted the majority of his resources to soul artists Carmen Rodgers and Geno Young, Bookman wasn't in a position to financially help Austin, but when an opportunity presented itself through his contacts at Tommy Boy, he knew Austin was the guy to make it work.