Big Talker

From the Geto Boys to his new nationally syndicated radio show, Willie D has kept his mouth moving. But where his rap was once down and dirty, not it's--gasp!--respectable. Has the gangsta of love sold out, or just grown up?

"I'm from the hood. I know what people on drugs look like. When you walked in the door, I expected you to look like someone who was recovering," Willie says. "And I'm like, what the hell do a recovering addict look like? 'Cause I have seen few in my life. But you're a beautiful woman, I mean you are beautiful. When you walked in the door, I'm like mmnh! You look like the president of a major corporation or something like that. You look wonderful."

As the show continues, one small drama follows another. A young man calls in to say his father broke down after years of sobriety and is back in prison. Julie's grown daughter calls in to say how proud she is of her mother for cleaning up her life. Julie cries.

When it began, Reality Check was going to be no big thing, just another way to capitalize on fame. Willie D planned to just "be opinionated," call up his friends in the music business -- Ice Cube, Puff Daddy, etc.-- and joke around. But after the first show, Willie D's wife, Bridget, put an end to that idea. Bridget told him that just "kickin' it" on the air wasn't enough -- there was too much of that already in the entertainment business. She told him it was time to show people his "other side," the side she had fallen in love with. It was time for him to do something for the community.

After that, Bridget says, Willie D didn't speak to her for a couple of days. But he eventually came around. As the show took off, Willie D began to see that his wife was right. The show could be emotional, informative and dramatic. What's more, the program had that intangible quality that successful rappers need to command street- level respect: It was real.

Reality Check aired only once a week on The Box, and because the station measures its time slots on a weekly rather than a daily basis, it's been hard to say exactly how large Willie D's audience was at any one time. But what's clear is that soon after Reality Check began being broadcast, its time slot became more popular; nine months after the show went on the air, the number of listeners for the time slot had nearly doubled. It was estimated there were 20,000 listeners every quarter-hour, which helped make The Box the city's number one evening radio station. It was enough that, after a year, Willie D decided to syndicate Reality Check and do it five nights a week instead of one. "It just blew up," he says of the show. "It got too big for one night a week. It got too powerful."

Powerful or not, five nights a week was four nights too many for The Box, so they dropped the show. But almost immediately 97.1, Houston's FM talk station, picked it up. On Monday, Reality Check began broadcasting in approximately ten markets, and in a year, Willie D's syndicator, Dallas-based Radio Shows, Ltd., expects the show will be heard in 100 markets.

If the show (which can be heard locally from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday) is successful, Willie D may have more of a voice, and more of an audience, than ever before. And listeners will hear not a gangsta rapper whose obscenities are easy to reject, but a respectful, sonorous man who speaks for, to and about the black underclass and takes calls from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. People who have never heard the Geto Boys will hear Willie D. And if they hear Willie D, they will also get a dose of what he calls "reality."

In tone and subject matter, Reality Check is similar to Oprah -- in fact, Willie has said he wants to do for Houston what Oprah Winfrey has done for Chicago. He's done shows on gang violence. He has invited rape victims to speak on the show. He's emphatically dissed welfare and chastised people who blight their neighborhoods by driving around with their radios turned way up. He went to the hood and convinced a couple of carjackers, one of whom was his cousin, to come tell listeners why they thought they had a right to take people's cars. He talked about self-reliance, responsibility and family values. He called up University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia at home one night and put him on the air, asking Graglia why he made all those derogatory comments about blacks and Hispanics.

When Graglia finished talking, Willie pulled one of his classic surprises. "You know what? Professor?" Willie D said. "Really, when I called you I thought that you was going to get an attitude or something, and I was ready to just lay you out. But I gotta respect your comments, man."

Later, he told a get-out-the-vote rally at the University of Houston's downtown campus that Graglia's comments "might be true for a large portion of us. Let's face it, how many do y'all know in your own family that's on that side that's determined, that want better and are willing to work for it, willing to sacrifice something? I can tell you in my family -- most of my family's lazy. They sorry. Every time I come around, they trying to ask me for money. But at the same time, we have a lot of hardworking, decent people in our race that deserve opportunity the same as the next person does."

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