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Low Ride, Take It Easy

For the second time in three years, I'm at the Los Magnificos Car Show at Reliant Center, and it hasn't changed all that much since '03. There's still a vast sea of chromed-up and candy-painted rides to greet the eyes, and absolutely bombarding the ears is a simmering hip-hop stew blaring from dozens of stacks of speakers, each booming out rumbling bass and spitting out sibilant cymbal hits. Rappers freestyle at the booths lining the sides of the hall, DJs cut and scratch on the back of a flatbed truck, and drinkers tipple strong brew in the walled-off Olde English Malt Liquor Lounge -- while hotties in bikinis distribute club flyers and street-teamers hand out the latest mixtapes.

Everything from Girls Gone Wild-type DVDs to pot-leaf chains, not to mention just about every music industry service from CD burning to T-shirt manufacturing is available -- and oh, yeah, there are now three stages, where the biggest names in local and national hip-hop perform live. (New this year: a norteño stage brought to you by the folks at La Mera Mera, 92.1 FM.)

And as always, the sound at these stages is completely and utterly terrible. Most of the rappers bring their whole posse on stage with them -- there are often as many as 20 dudes milling around -- and so muddled is the sound, you can't make out a single line that any of them says. Walk a couple of hundred feet from the main stage, where Chamillionaire, Webbie, Lil' Flip (who, by the way, claims to be changing his handle to "Fliperace"), and Youngbloodz all played early in the day, and where David Banner, Bun B, Paul Wall, Letoya, Slim Thug and Ice Cube were all slated to go on later, and you can't even hear that stage at all. It's completely drowned out by the rap soup spewing from all the booths and, in some cases, the booming systems in the trunks of the pimped-out rides. (And in one hilarious case, from the Bratz video playing on the DVD screen mounted on the handlebars of a tricked-out tricycle.)

And nobody seems to care. Near the stage, people are throwing their hands in the air like they just don't care, and around the fringes, people are busting out giddy dance moves. No rock crowd would tolerate this noise, but the rap crowd is eating it up -- tens of thousands have come and paid $10 to park and $25 to enter, and now pony up $7 for beer and $5 for Cokes. Every rock promoter in Texas would sell his own mother into Somalian slavery for a crowd like this, especially one that's willing to tolerate such poor acoustics.

At which point I ask myself why. Why do hordes of people tolerate this?

The answer is, it's fun. It's a spectacle like no other, for starters. And even if the sound is abysmal, the concert is a blast.

You've really got to hand it to the event's primary sponsor, the Box. For years, when almost no other commercial station of any format would give local music a chance, they would and did, helping make Lil' Flip, Slim Thug, UGK, the Geto Boys, Destiny's Child, Mike Jones and Paul Wall big-time, national stars. And they're in the process of doing the same with Chamillionaire, Z-Ro, Trae and others. Today, Houston is the hottest provincial city in American music, and many of those guys could share the stage more or less as an equal with even a living legend of hip-hop like Ice Cube. The Box built this city on hip and hop.

Contrast that with the rock stations. Save for a ghettoized time slot late on Sunday nights, neither the Buzz nor the late KLOL has given local rock the time of day, even (for a time) major-label local bands like Blue October. And if you're looking for the one factor that has held the local rock scene in check for lo these many years, this is it.

It's not the clubs refusing to book the acts; it's not the fans staying home and watching videos, playing Grand Theft Auto or surfing porn. It's not even the competition from jiggle joints and dance clubs, and though it's self-serving for me to say so, I truly believe it's not the local media ignoring great bands. It's the fact that no one is hearing this stuff on the radio. No one is being taken by surprise; no one is hearing Michael Haaga's "If and When," Tody Castillo's "God Only Knows" or a rip-roaring joint by Los Skarnales or Spain Colored Orange alongside tunes by Audioslave, Staind and 3 Doors Down, and then hearing the DJ come on and say, "That was Houston's own so-and-so, who's performing this weekend at whatever club."

Band after band has told me that local rock jocks always give them the same answer when asked why they won't play their stuff. "It's not the music -- your CD just doesn't sound good enough," they will say. "It's not major studio quality."

Which is complete and utter bullshit. I have thousands upon thousands of local and national CDs on my home computer playing on constant shuffle, and I have pretty good ears for this sort of thing. And I can tell you that there's no noticeable drop-off in sound quality between most top-shelf local releases and most national releases.

So when they tell you that your CD just doesn't sound good enough, what they really mean is "Corporate won't like it if we play this." And the reasons for that are many, not the least of which is shady deals between the radio conglomerates, the record labels and the independent record promoters, all of whom know every loophole in the payola laws. (And are not averse to crossing them from time to time, as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has discovered this year.)

And of course the rap industry is hardly a payola-free zone -- it's funny how some rap promoters are so up front about it. (In my capacity as music editor over the past few years, about a half-dozen of these guys have called me and asked me straight up, "How much for the cover?") But at least that system allows for some locals to get radio play from time to time, and right now, rap radio is thriving.

And rock radio is dying. When Howard Stern heads for the greener, raunchier pastures of uncut Sirius satellite radio next month, New York City will have no rock radio stations left save for the classic rock repository. Stern's old NYC station will flip to a talk format, and already we've lost KLOL here, and Washington, D.C., and Miami have seen rockers morph into Hurban stations. In other major cities, rock and oldies stations are closing down and re-emerging as rap, talk and allegedly freewheeling "Jack" and "Bob" formats -- stations that play an iPod-like mix of many styles of older music. As comedian Adam Carolla told Rolling Stone recently, "I don't know what year folks are living in. If you want to hear music, get an iPod. If you want to hear talk, get a radio. That's my feeling."

Maybe so, maybe no. In the latest ratings book, the Buzz was tied with local news/talk station KTRH in the ratings for fifth place, far behind the Box, which leads the city. But it's hard to do much other than fear for the continued existence of the Buzz when you check out a recent playlist and find bands like Marilyn Manson, Korn, Third Eye Blind and Live on there, not to mention an 11-year-old Oasis cut and the Buzz's idea of (cue Hank Hill voice) "getting jiggy with it" -- the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party."

Can you say, "Bereft of ideas?" We knew you could.

Meanwhile, the Box is not just a radio station for some people -- it's a lifestyle, just the way rock radio used to be. Throngs of people go to Box events, they take its slogan "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" seriously, and they are as brand-loyal to it as others are to Budweiser or Chevy. For thousands and thousands of people, it's woven into the fabric of Houston to almost as high a degree as the Astros, Texans and Rockets, an arbiter of cool and a place where local street legends can become mainstream stars. It's entertainment, it's good company, and for some in the local rap game, it's a conduit to the fulfillment of their dreams.

And you just can't imagine a rock event equivalent to the Los Magnificos Car Show, one where our city's leading rockers shared the same stage on equal terms with the biggest national names. It can't happen now, because these stations, in their infinite wisdom, have failed to help develop local talent for a decade and more. And because cultivating that level of stardom takes time, it won't happen for years to come, even if they add ten locals to heavy rotation starting right now. The Buzz doesn't have that kind of time.


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