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It's midnight on a Wednesday going into Thursday, and it's cold enough for breath to smoke. Nevertheless, the small parking lot in front of KPFT studios is full. Cars are also parked up and down Lovett Boulevard. Clearly, given that it's midweek and positively polar by Houston standards, whatever is going on inside the converted two-story house transcends an ordinary radio show.
Inside, the reception area is full of young MCs, producers and DJs -- the crème de la crème of Houston's rap underground. They are gathered here because it's time for Damage Control, KPFT's newly reinstated hip-hop show. Hosted by Matt Sonzala (who moonlights -- or rather daylights -- as the Press's music listings editor) and local socially conscious rapper Zin, Damage Control has emerged, after being on the air about seven months, as one of the most successful of the recently embattled Pacifica station's new crop of shows.
Rap had not been a part of the KPFT mix since the mid-1990s, when Damage Control's predecessor, Strictly Rap, imploded in a cloud of acrimony. Though the story is murky today, it involved charges of vandalism against some of the Strictly Rap studio guests and countercharges of racism when the show's plug was pulled. In a way, Damage Control is aptly named -- rap has to rebuild its reputation with station management. And the show is doing a good job. Though the station is full on this cold night, there's no rowdiness. In fact, the atmosphere is informally businesslike.
In the first hour of the three-hour show, Sonzala and Zin spin underground rap not just from Houston and Texas but from across the South and beyond. Sonzala has extensive hip-hop connections across the country thanks to his affiliation with Murder Dog magazine; correspondents send him CDs from places like Atlanta, Dallas and Mississippi. He also tries to spin at least a couple of tunes from foreign countries. He says that independence is his watchword -- he doesn't report to any of the trades or listen to the shuck and jive of radio consultants. Instead, he and Zin simply spin what they like.
In town, the hosts rely on guests like veteran record spinner DJ Chill to help them find records and new artists. Chill came up on the south side alongside DJ Screw, tours with Lil' Flip and remains a staunch advocate of the scene. The second hour of Damage Control is given over to interviews with local guests, often as not furnished by Chill from his weekly scouring of the city's clubs.
"Everywhere I go to, every club I see somebody trying to push a record. I say, 'Man, look. Come over to the station on Wednesday night and get some airplay and let everybody know that your record's out in the stores and get it going,' " says Chill. "I'm trying to help my people out here on the streets to get their records heard on a wider stage. Damage Controlis not just on the regular wave radio, it's also on the Internet, and they can tell their friends, 'Look, I'm gonna be on the radio station this Wednesday night. Keep supporting us and we'll blow it up.' "
KPFT's 50,000-watt transmitter makes Damage Control the only rap that some listeners ever hear. "We get a lot of people who are incarcerated writing in," says Chill. "They can't get them other stations, so they turning it on."
But even those with the freedom to choose like the mix, says Chill. "They jump off their regular routine -- the stuff they been listening to all week long -- and they hear something fresh and new, and they hear people off the street, maybe their friends, that are trying to make it in this industry."
On this particular night, Chill has brought southside up-and-comers Dangerous Smoke in for an interview with Sonzala, and they're glad to have the opportunity. "It ain't no other radio station giving people like us a chance to do what we doin'," says Smoke rapper Q-Loc, dragging on a cigarette on the station's front steps. "We ain't got no big name out there -- we ain't bling-blingin', dollar-dollar bills. But we jammin', we blessed with the art of music. Damage Control and Dangerous Smoke -- I like that."
As the show moves into its third and final hour -- generally one or two epic freestyle sessions -- the station fills up even more. Before the music (furnished by Chill and DJ Wiz) stops, Bobbie Fine, Papa Doc, DJ Coldblooded, Click Clack, Zin, Q-Loc, Dank, Chuck Dog, Short Texas, DJ DMD, T-Stone, Nayari Manifest and Master D'Art have all taken a turn at the mike.
While some of the names are new and strange, others are old and familiar. In the latter camp falls Port Arthur-bred rapper DJ DMD, who has just moved to town after a stint in Dallas producing with the D.O.C. Chill told DMD about Damage Control, and DMD was all over it. "You know how mainstream radio is, it's kinda hectic and political and so forth, but a show like this, it's a blessing for this area," he says. "I've been all over the country, and there's a lot of places that don't have a show like this, so it's a blessing that we've got three hours a week that's nothin' but underground artists getting exposed. I'm hoping that businesses, independent record labels and people tryin' to do their thing will do whatever it takes to keep this program on the board. On the cool, this is where hip-hop is gonna thrive, the underground, the cats in the gutter, the cats in the crib with the four-track tape decks coming up with new stuff to put out. That's how hip-hop's gonna stay alive."
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