By Chris Gray
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Imagine it: In 2001 Houston boasted three FM stations where one could bounce to Jay-Z, P. Diddy or Ludacris. Stations 97.9 The Box, Hot 97.1 and the upstart (and since reformatted) 100.7 House Party colluded to prove that a triumvirate of urban stations could thrive in Houston, a feat usually thought possible only in mega-markets like New York or L.A. And there was also KTSU's Kidz Jamm
Rewind to the mid-'90s. KRBE/104.1 FM still claims to have the Power, though it wields it in defense of the poorest techno confections. The high point of hip-hop regionalism is for local heads to stay up late on school nights to check out Basement Musicon KTRU, a direct lifeline to the New York underground sounds that commercial Houston radio never dreamed of. On Saturdays, though, it was always the KTSU Kidz Jamm. The Car Wash mix.
Despite trends that move at the speed of sound, some things remain faithfully constant. The Big Three FMs may rule the headphones and trunk systems of the masses (excepting those who, in full-throttle revolt, tune it all out by deftly hitting the play button), but a dedicated and ever-growing group is still listening to KTSU's Kidz Jamm, now found on Friday nights, still bringing an energetic mix to the lower end of the dial.
The Texas Southern University radio station has crafted a sound entirely appropriate to the institution itself: anachronistic in concept, rough around the edges, but at heart a vital, necessary element of Houston's past and future. As the only urban music showcase on a station that focuses on jazz, gospel and oldie-but-goodie R&B (not to mention a standout Latin jazz and salsa show on Saturday evening), Kidz Jamm has a compelling mandate: In four crammed hours, play what the people, especially the kids, want to hear.
The man who bears this charge comes through the mike as Stevie C., the ringleader of jovial band of mixers, DJ aspirants and studio guests. "Those four hours are like a party," he says. "There are different levels." In real life, Stevie C. is Stephen Baines, who speaks about his weekly turns with straightforward conviction, detailing the decisions that make up each weekly Jamm with the exactitude of a scientist. You'll notice the precision after listening to a few tracks in a row; it's in the consistency in beat or cadence, the transitions between C.'s levels. From the first hour's R&B mix to the freewheeling last hour, what may serve as background music while getting your groove (or swerve) on is carefully calculated. He leaves a bit of room for whimsical requests from dedicated listeners.
Like this one: "There's this stripper," Stevie recalls with relish. "From the north side. Every week she calls: 'Hey, Mr. DJ. Play some Tupac for me while I'm gettin' pretty.' " The Kidz Jammcrew always tries to oblige. With hopes for live streaming audio on the Internet, Stevie C. feels like the sky's the limit. But the future of the show, with its cadre of fans and steady community profile, is deeply rooted in the past.
The genesis of the show is aligned with the earliest days of hip-hop itself. Circa 1983, when names like Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow were little known beyond the Bronx, someone at KTSU had the idea of letting the local high school students -- who hadheard of those guys -- at the mike. Thus Kidz Jamm. In the mid-'80s, this was the only place in town to hear LL Cool J or Run-DMC records on the radio. The shows then were raw, unfettered, downright unsupervised, and highly appropriate for those heady (now glorified? exaggerated?) days of hip-hop yore.
The show has always been a proving ground for on-air talent. Stevie C. recites a litany of Houston radio personalities who all got their start at Kidz Jamm: "Shelly Wade. Lester 'Sir' Pace. Marcus Love. Mica Watts. Cipher. Sincere. Walter D. Def Jam Blaster. Aggravated. Most of the major jocks in Houston passed through Kidz Jamm at some point."
Kidz Jamm also has served as friendly territory for Houston artists and record companies, with whom Stevie C. actively works to extend the community-minded ethic of the station. While Kidz Jammaccepts sponsors for the weekly shows, an independence vital to its alternative sound prevails. Those accustomed to the neo-payola-spawned playlists elsewhere on the dial are in for a pleasant surprise.
Stevie C. bemoans the bigger stations' repetitive playlists, as do his listeners. "People call and tell us how glad they are that we played something different," he says. "I know what they've been hearing all day through the week." C.'s personal favorites, classics and current hits are all in the Kidz Jamm mix. One result of close ties to local and national labels (and its programming independence) is that Kidz Jammoften premieres tracks that won't hit commercial radio or stores for months to come. (Remember, this was the show that played the Beastie Boys back before anyone south of Staten Island knew they were white.) Another key element of the sound is Old School Fridays on the last weekend of every month. Here Stevie C. is in his element, playing the music that he grew up on -- music that matured, in part, via the existence of such radio outlets as KTSU.