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Maddness

All's fair in radio and rap. Another national hit by a local rapper is on its way at The Box. "Down South," by Mista Madd, is the song. Featuring Mista Madd, Yungstar and Slim Thug from Swishahouse, the tune has a hook big enough to reel in a great white and, as expected, is being beaten to death by The Box. (The station played it 40 minutes apart, at 4:20 p.m. and 5 p.m., on the same day, Monday, January 10.)

But even during all this and more airplay, 97.9 FM (by way of its DJs) is consistently failing to mention an important point: The performer, Mista Madd, is a Box DJ, Madd Hatta.

Straight from The Box: Madd Hatta's new CD.
Straight from The Box: Madd Hatta's new CD.

But before you accuse The Box of any wrongdoing or favoritism, take heed: Hatta, like all DJs, is merely parsley on the steak that is a commercial radio station. Nowadays DJs don't do anything but entertain between songs. They don't actually pick what to play. Program directors, music directors, outside consultants and in-house consultants do that. Hatta and Robert Scorpio, Box program director, both say their working relationship was not a factor when "Down South" was considered for airplay. In fact, Scorpio, who has final say on what makes rotation and what doesn't, says the song is not now nor ever has been one of his favorites. "Talk to anybody, and they'll tell you they don't always like what they're playing," he says. "But when there's evidence -- people are going crazy at clubs whenever it's played, throwing their hands up in the air -- you can't ignore it.

"The only advantage Hatta has," says Scorpio, who says he samples about 60 CDs per day, "is that he can put his CD on my desk. Everybody else has to leave it in an envelope with my name on it."

Scorpio says songs that end up on The Box's rotation are the result of scientific research. First, the station conducts "call-outs." The Box outsources a marketing firm to telephone area residents, play them 30 or 35 song clips, ask them their opinions and record their responses. Second, the station examines local and national sales numbers. The album on which "Down South" appears, Straight from the Streetz Vol. 3 Presents Mista Madd and the Supa Thuggz (on Paid In Full Entertainment, Hatta's record label), which was released in December, is one of the southwest region's Top 30 hottest-selling records, according to the region's largest distribution company, Southwest Wholesale. Third, the station monitors its request line up to 16 hours per day. Fourth, with the help of its DJs, the station gauges what Scorpio calls "club vibe," how it's doing in the clubs. And last -- when a song has nothing going for it but its undeniable appeal -- the station resorts to gut instinct. It plays the song anyway.

Which wasn't the case with "Down South," because when all the buzz and numbers were added up, this song, according to Scorpio, was more than rotation-worthy.

"It's like Lil' Troy," says Scorpio, referring to the local rapper's national hit, "Wanna Be a Baller." "No one really liked it, but it got requests. We had to put it on."

The only time DJs have the opportunity to select songs themselves is when they host mix shows, ten or 20 minutes of uninterrupted, seamless music. And Hatta, when he mixes a little on his daily 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. show or takes over Sunday-night mix programs, has been known to play "Down South" once or twice. But, he argues, he plays the song only because it is on The Box's regular rotation and, thus, is heavily requested. He'd be doing Box listeners a disservice, he says, if he didn't play it.

Hatta, né Benjamin E. Thompson III, says he began recording and rapping in 1990, years before he got involved in commercial radio, and four years before he got involved in Houston radio. He came to town about six years ago from North Carolina to work at Majic 102. After a couple of years there, he moved to The Box. Since his first record in Houston, All About Me, which was released in 1995 on Hatta's Groove Makers label, Hatta has been steadily feeding rap fans a trio of Hattas: Hatta, the rapper (a.k.a. Mista Madd), Hatta the DJ/produc-ah (a.k.a. Da Madd Hatta, the name under which All About Me was cut) and Hatta, the on-air talent (a.k.a. Madd Hatta).

As for the appearance of favoritism, Scorpio says: "I'm sure it presents impropriety, but we know what we're doing. People who say [the situation is illegal] probably don't know the industry."

Hatta's comfiness with The Box may make every other rapper in Houston who's not a Box employee envious, and the mere physical closeness within which Hatta and Box rotation-makers work cannot be ignored. But no matter what anyone says, nothing tarnishes the fact that "Down South" is, well, a decent song. And it's getting spins on other stations besides The Box, according to Broadcast Data Systems, a song tracking company. Some of those other stations are WHTA in Atlanta, WJWZ in Montgomery, Alabama, and WTLZ in Flint, Michigan.

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