Justice Allah has found the ketchup.
He is sitting on a couch in an East End warehouse loft that's been turned into a home and radio-station studio. Allah is now adequately able to eat his takeout from downtown sushi and Chinese restaurant Natto. It's unclear what he plans to put the ketchup on, but he plans to put it on something.
Sitting nearby is Ramsey Allred, better known in the local hip-hop community as Ram. This is about where the duo will remain for the next few hours as they broadcast their Friday-night show on Optimo Radio, an online radio station that plays only Houston rap and serves as the flagship of Local Live Radio.
Allah is a grizzled black rapper from Fifth Ward, Ram is a polite-eyed white Lamar high school alumnus, but existentially they're the same, which makes for aesthetically consistent radio chatter.
Tonight they'll talk about crooked politics, the chemtrail conspiracy theory and how to be a good person, which basically consists of avoiding the ideologies behind the first two. They'll enjoy themselves.
It's easy to like them apart, but it's especially easy to like them together.
Ram, 30, has a laptop sitting on his knees and is looking for a YouTube video of a girl playing the cello. She came to the studio earlier in the week with her band The Hectic for a separate, non-rap-related show also broadcast under the Local Live umbrella. Ram was impressed with her, but abandons his pursuit after a few unsuccessful moments.
Instead, he pulls up a mug shot of his cousin who was arrested in Brazoria County earlier in the day for possession of marijuana. Ram is not impressed with him, but he is impressed that the criminal justice system puts pictures up on the Internet so quickly and freely.
Across the street from the studio, there is a rough, unadvertised nightclub whose clientele consists almost entirely of lesbians. Ram is also impressed by that.
The show is still several minutes from starting.
Jordan Pannell stands 12 feet away from Ram and Allah, picking up and moving things of varying degrees of importance: Papers, CDs, microphones, etc. Pannell is generally a happy person, but he has a newfound appreciation for doing these types of tasks.
At the moment, he has a newfound appreciation simply for standing. The previous month, he was bedridden in the hospital because of an intestinal illness that was never officially diagnosed. It sucked. Bad.
Despite the fact that Ram is Local Live Radio's most recognizable personality, Pannell is the one who actually started it. In January 2010, he founded a station that played a grab bag of local music.
"I ran an online radio station before for a few years with a few friends," Pannell says. "I went to broadcasting school afterwards. I didn't like the BS that went on behind the scenes. I got tired of seeing people getting screwed around.
The most important thing is that the community should support itself, and that's what we want to develop," he adds. "Musicians here now are out paying to play gigs. That's a bad way to be."
As Local Live Radio grew in popularity, so did its song catalog and channels.
Two months after he started, Pannell brought in Ram to run Optimo Radio, and Local Live grew some more. Then he brought in Julian Habib to host house-music station Empire of Love Radio, and rockers Strawberry Jam to run a self-titled station with an affinity for jam bands.
Local Live kept growing as Pannell added more and more and more. They now have nine stations total in three different states, with plans of launching three more stations by the end of the month, one of which will be based in Portland, Oregon.
In the loft/home/studio's bedroom, another desk with the necessary computer equipment to run a new station will soon be installed. A tour of the entire space lasts 40 seconds.
"We're not musicians, but we live a musician's life," laughs Pannell.
"I've always had a love for the radio," he adds. "It's what I want to do. We've had businesses approach us about buying ad space on the site. Our traffic has grown. We're averaging hundreds of thousands of hits per month from all over the world.
"We're starting a business directory soon where companies can pay to have their names listed in our directory. This is going to work out perfect."
Given the atomizing effect that the Internet has had on the music industry, this doesn't seem entirely far-fetched. Mainstream radio will never be obsolete, but its grasp on the kingdom has noticeably loosened this past decade.
Consider Trae Tha Truth, the Houston rapper banned from 97.9 The Box and its sister stations across the country for the past two years.
Trae is a regular on Optimo Radio's playlist. In 1999, The Box's edict would have all but pushed his career into extinction. Yet with no support from one of the largest radio franchises in the country, he has managed to record songs with Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco, Wiz Khalifa and more, book countless tour dates and appearances, and firm up his status as a local legend along the way.
It's conceivable that a well-run local online radio station supported by burgeoning artists could eventually muster a significant amount of influence, especially given the success that KPFT (90.1 FM) has had operating under a similar business model.
The roles for Pannell and Ram seem clear enough. Pannell is the brain, Ram is the heart. They answer questions with different words, but mostly say the same thing. The most obvious, most important question to ask here is "Why?"
Ram works for a company that he asked not be named, but that pays him a fair amount of money. Pannell's father runs a painting and contracting company. So why would anybody leave their cushy full-time job or eventual inheritance to play music on the Internet that, maybe, nobody is too interested in hearing in the first place?
"We wanted this to be about everybody coming together for the music," says Ram. "We have an amazing city. We have so much soul. There's so much to the music. Nobody has ever given us our love. We have to do it ourselves. We have to make a way for ourselves. That's what they did before us. That's what we're going to do."
"We're never going to charge an artist to play their music," he continues. "This is Local Live music on a worldwide level. If it ain't local, it ain't live."
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