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White By Whitebread No More

This year's South By Southwest makes room for plenty of local rap. Why can't our rockers get with the program?

Just over two years ago in this space, we wrote a piece taking South By Southwest to task for two things -- the small number of Houston acts on the bill (a mere seven that year) -- and the absence of Houston rap on the bill.

The former of those complaints was a Press staple; going back through this paper's archives, it popped up every spring as surely as the blooms on the azalea bushes. Here is Racket's predecessor Brad Tyer in 1994: "Observers in all camps agree that there's no dearth of musical talent here in Houston, but on the heels of an event as awe-inspiringly huge as SXSW -- credited to dippy little Austin, no less -- our second-city inferiority complex kicks into overdrive and the question on everyone's lips seems to be, well, how do we sell the damn stuff?" Here's Tyer again the next year: "...our town can't get a reasonable cross-section of rock represented to save its life."

Hobart Rowland picked up the torch in 1996: "If my only job at this week's [SXSW] were to witness every showcase performance by a Houston artist, my efforts would amount to little more than a day's work. Houston's representation at the event is a piddling eight bands this year..." Anthony Mariani mentioned the problem a couple of times around the turn of the century, and then yours truly came out both barrels blazing in 2002 and 2003. "Maybe the showcase organizers were afraid we would befoul the pristine Austin air with whatever world-famous smog vapors might be clinging to our clothing," I wrote in '02, and the next year, addressing the lack of rap and other matters, I dubbed the whole shebang "White By Whitebread."

Well, that's all changed. I won't be contributing to the noble canon of Press South By screeds this year. For one thing, we already have about 30 acts on the official bill and more will probably be added closer to the date. (Each year, a couple dozen national and international bands cancel at the last minute and a few Houston bands get added late.) And this year, there's a good sampling of our city's many scenes.

Here's the list, which includes a couple of acts from places like Alvin and Beaumont/Port Arthur, by genre:

Rap: Chingo Bling, Abstraq The Grindologist, Bun B and UGK Present MDDL FNGZ, Deep, Devin the Dude and the Odd Squad, DJ Chill, Ghostwriters, G.R.I.T. Boys, K-Rino and South Park Coalition, LRJ, Slim Thug, Scarface, Studemont Project, Trae and Paul Wall.

Rock: By the End of Tonight, Michael Haaga, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Linus Pauling Quartet

Country/Americana/singer-songwriter: Hayes Carll, Rodney Crowell, Jesse Dayton, Lise Liddell, Angela Peterson, Mando Saenz, Daniel Johnston

Jazz: Drop Trio, Jason Moran

Reggae: Dubtex

Blues: Calvin Owens' Blues Orchestra

Conjunto: Rusted Shut (at least that's what they claim at South By's Web site.)

That's not a bad cross-section of stuff, but no doubt some of you are decrying the relative scarcity of rock acts, especially when compared to the number of rappers. So who gets the credit for all those rappers getting in, and who gets the blame for the lack of rockers?

I talked to KPFT radio host, freelance writer and former Houston Press listings editor Matt Sonzala about the situation. Sonzala goes way back with SXSW -- he helped put together showcases in the conference's early days, earned and kept the trust of the people who make decisions, maintained his contacts, and over the past couple of years has played a huge role in getting Houston hip-hop its fair share of the limelight. A couple of years ago, he put the word out through a publicist that he would like to get more Houston artists on the bill there, and the conference was all ears.

"I told her I would love to get some of this Houston rap that was blowing up at this big Texas conference," he says. "The publicist forwarded my e-mail to Craig Stewart, the guy in charge of the music there, and he wrote me back real quick saying 'Do you really think you could do that?' I was like, yeah. And it was as simple as that -- a frickin' e-mail."

That was last year. Sonzala was given two showcases -- an underground night and sort of a Texas all-star affair. Both went well, so this year Sonzala has pretty much been given carte blanche. "Craig was like 'Do whatever you want this year.' I kinda wanted to do more, but I don't think I [physically] can. I'm not an employee of SXSW, I don't get any money from this, but I do get my folks out there and I do get some work out of it."

So here's my proposal -- Houston's rock scene needs a Sonzala. This year, someone who believes in our scene should go in to the conference as a worker bee, toil away in obscurity, make some friends and start laying the groundwork for SXSW 2006. It really can be as simple as Sonzala says it is, but only if you work as hard and as long and as well as he has.

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