Sayonara , Matt Sonzala

Talking SXSW and rap's current malaise with a soon-to-be ex-Houstonian

Matt Sonzala, HoustonSoReal blogger, sometime Press contributor, longtime cohost of KPFT's Damage Control and one of the local rap scene's biggest promoters both here and abroad, is no longer a Houstonian — if he can ever get his house sold.

"We actually had a contract fall through, which kind of set us back," Sonzala groans. "It was literally the last hours [before closing] — one night they called and said they weren't going to take it. It's a long story and I don't want to get into it, because I'm angry about it."

Sonzala actually interrupts our interview a little later to let another prospective buyer into the house, but he's got plenty of other things on his mind. He recently took a full-time job — "my first full-time job in eight years" — with the South by Southwest music festival, as one of the handful of people who review the thousands of submissions the festival receives every year and schedule its 1,500 or so invitees across five days and approximately 60 venues. And although people outside the music industry proper may not realize it, preparations for SXSW '08 are already in full swing.


Matt Sonzala's going-away party is Saturday, December 8, at Proletariat, 903 Richmond, 713-523-1199. Sonzala and DJ Witnes will DJ, and Grimy Styles will perform with guests including KB da Kidnappa, Kam and Kenika.

"Man, it's going to be the biggest ever," Sonzala says of next year's hip-hop component. As usual, Houston and the rest of Texas will be well-represented; Sonzala helped SXSW book hip-hop for four years in the mid-'90s, and since 2003 has been instrumental in securing showcases for Houston artists like UGK, Slim Thug, Devin the Dude, Chamillionaire, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Trae and Chingo Bling, which in turn helped boost their profiles not just in Texas, but nationally and overseas. As for next March, Sonzala says he hasn't confirmed much beyond Kansas City's Tek-9, but notes Bun B's next solo album, 2 Trill, is due that month.

"We're of course going to try and do something special for Bun, or with Bun," he says. "I have my own idea for how I'd like to work that, but that's definitely something I have in the works."

One thing that could be different next year is that people who have grown accustomed to SXSW showcases loaded with top Houston talent may not have the same luxury. "I just don't think it's as big a deal to get the Texas heavy hitters in one place at one time as it was a few years ago," Sonzala admits. "[The audience] is not going to be the hipsters and the writers and the agents who are coming to SXSW — I think most of them who wanted to see our big names like Slim and all those guys, they've seen them now."

This sort of fatigue is hardly unique to SXSW crowds; it's more or less what's thrown the entire music industry, but rap in particular, into a tailspin. In August, Time magazine, citing Billboard's numbers, reported that hip-hop sales are down 44 percent since 2000 and 33 percent since last year and, perhaps more important, have shrunk from 13 percent of all music sales to 10.

Since then, the only rap albums to make any significant chart noise have been Kanye West's Graduation, 50 Cent's Curtis and Jay-Z's American Gangster sound track. According to the latest available SoundScan numbers (the week ending November 25) — and not counting rap-friendly crossover artists like Akon and (shudder) Fergie, who have fared considerably better — only Graduation, Curtis and T.I.'s T.I. vs. T.I.P. have notched more than one million sales. The week of November 7, no rap album was in Billboard's Top 15; the highest was Graduation at No. 17.

Locally, the results are mixed. Houston's major 2007 rap records — UGK's Underground Kingz, Paul Wall's Get Money, Stay True and Chamillionaire's Ultimate Victory — have all sold respectably if not spectacularly. UGK has sold more than 300,000, which, since every double album sold counts as two for RIAA certification purposes, qualifies it for Gold status. Wall has likewise broken 300,000, and Chamillionaire is approaching 200,000 in just under two months of release. Others, like Lil' Flip's I Need Mine and Mike Jones's American Dream, haven't fared quite so well — but then Flip's album leaked to the Internet in summer 2006, a full nine months before its official release, and Jones's is the sound track to his straight-to-DVD movie many people may not be aware even exists.

(In non-sales-related news, former Swishahouse mates Wall and Chamillionaire ended their long-standing feud last month in San Marcos when Chamillionaire, headlining BET's Black College Tour at Texas State University, brought out Wall to duet on "N Luv Wit My Money" from their 2002 collaboration Get Ya Mind Correct.)

Still, those numbers are a pale echo of what local rappers were selling a few short years ago when it seemed like the whole world was chopped and screwed, and besides perhaps UGK's "International ­Playas Anthem," no Houston-spawned single this year has come close to being embraced by radio, MTV, BET or the public imagination the way "Still Tippin'," "Sittin' Sidewayz" and "Game Over" were. Whatever the reality, the perception of an H-town slump has been widespread enough for everyone from respected rap magazine XXL to numerous hip-hop blogs to trot out the hoary old "Houston, We Have a Problem" headlines.

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