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?

This time around, though, the ladies don't swoon or shriek. The crowd is already thinning out, and after half an hour people stream steadily through the exit. At 2:30 a.m., the owner shuts the club down. The birthday celebration is over.

If Willie D's fame as a rapper is eroding, he doesn't seem to notice. Most rappers who have been around as long as he has have branched out -- into record labels, acting, directing, clothing lines. The rap scene is characterized by a new maturity -- one can't be a rap star forever, and most new rappers aren't expected to make more than one album. Scarface, one of the Geto Boys, is married with four kids. LL Cool J was pictured on the cover of Vibe this March with his wife and daughters, and he recently published a book. He appears now in public service announcements exhorting young people to read the newspaper. Though success often distances rappers from the hood, Willie D says that he is "coming through the Nickel" (Fifth Ward) almost every day. As for how the hood reacts to Willie's success and his dark green Lexus, he says everybody's different.

"Anybody that's got it goin' on gets respect on the street. Some people will be like, heeey, how you doing, where you going?" he says. "Not everybody in the hood are haters. My point is that it can be done."

"A family man, a businessman, a com-munity activist," is how Willie D now describes himself -- and by all accounts, he performs each job with panache. "I don't know about his level of formal education," says Kevin Hanratty, a lawyer who rep-resents Radio Shows, Ltd., "but he knows what's going on. He's got an amazing ability to transfer in and out of different worlds."

Hanratty says that Reality Check is on a fast track. "Usually, syndicated shows bump along for three years before they take off," but Willie has national sponsors (whom Hanratty says he can't name) already interested. On October 27, the last night of his show at 97.9, Willie surprised his listeners with the announcement that his show would no longer be heard in Houston (at that point, 97.1 had yet to pick up the show). The phone lines immediately lit up. People were sad; they were mad; they proposed conspiracy-against-black-people theories and letter-writing campaigns.

Though the show is clearly important to Willie D's listeners in Houston, it's not clear yet if his formula will work nationwide. While there have been some successful black radio talk show hosts, none have really made it nationally. Historically, talk radio has appealed mainly to white conservative males, and that doesn't exactly describe Willie D's crowd. If he's to succeed nationally, he may have to do so by attracting a new audience to radio talk. Chuck D of Public Enemy once termed rap "black America's CNN," and in that same spirit, if it succeeds, Reality Check could end up revealing a seldom-heard urban perspective to a mainstream audience.

"You know, I don't have to do this show," Willie reminded his fans during his last program on The Box. "I could just sit around counting my millions. I can't think of any show in recent history where the host is as brutally honest as I am, and as informative as I am. I have to wear a bulletproof vest up here, man. I have to walk around with bodyguards up here, because I'm telling the truth." While the words aren't exactly true (there's not a bulletproof vest in sight), the man speaking them takes them to heart. In his mind, Willie D is a fighter -- no longer a street fighter, but a soldier of reality. And as is perhaps proper, for Willie D his commitment has begun with the personal. "I'm not living out my fantasy world anymore," he says over a Cajun lunch at a downtown church cafeteria. "I'm creating reality in my own life. The reality is that I'm a devoted father, I'm a devoted husband. I'm a provider. A protector. I'm a man.

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