Rad Rich Puts 'Afro-Punk' Into the Present Tense
Rad Rich at an MDC show, circa 1988
Photos by Ben DeSoto
Since the mid-1980s, Rad Rich has been much more than an uber-fan in Houston’s thriving underground culture. Early on, he was omnipresent at gigs from Black Flag, MDC, and the Descendents to the Hickoids and Party Owls. As the 1990s began to hum, he jumpstarted KPFT-FM's “Big Ska Night Out” benefits and began hosting The Rad Rich Rock and Roll Revue for the station, a seminal program infused with a steady diet of rockabilly, hardcore, punk, and garage-rock. Yet, never one to ignore other genres, he joined Matt Sonzala to produce Strictly Hip Hop on the station too, hooking Houston listeners early on to Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Fugees as well as local artists. Lately, he has been promoting the preservation of local musical heritage too, including the infamous club the Axiom.
More than a decade ago, Rich screened the groundbreaking documentary Afro-Punk in Houston. This Saturday at AvantGarden he'll screen it again, this time paired with Electric Purgatory, another documentary that explores the trials and tribulations of black rock and rollers. The Press' David Ensminger wanted to peel back some layers of the legend and shine some light on Rich's interests.
Houston Press: You showed Afro-Punk years ago at Helios, so are you re-screening it to celebrate the anniversary of it, or because the issues seem just as, or even more relevant, in terms of contemporary race and identity discussions?
Rad Rich: I feel when I go out now that there is a whole group of people that have not heard of the films. Others have heard about it and wanted to see it. It’s kind of cool now when you go out in Houston and see Blacks, Latinos and others at shows and bars and such that years ago you would have never seen. After the NAACP situation in Washington [State], there are those [who] feel or know the black experience or what it is like being black. Being black, yes, even today, you still have things you deal with because of race. But, on the other hand, what and who decides what is black? That stereotype affects a lot of youths and adults today.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring Afro-Punk back, for it had an effect on a lot of us that grew up with those feelings of isolation and loneliness because of not fitting into the norm of what is black. That goes for all people, though, as the punk scene or what it used to be, was a place where rejects and people that did not fit in had a place to gather and belong. For Electric Purgatory, the other film of the night, [director] Raymond Gayle had the cool idea to interview these black rock bands and discuss issues that they deal with. Fishbone has been out for years and still get no recognition or a major push. The problem in music has always been raced-based and hard to break out of the boundaries of what is marketable. Jada Smith, as you know, plays in a rock band [Wicked Wisdom] as does Ice T in Body Count. You won’t hear about that in Ebony magazine or other back journals though. So, both movies go beyond just a bunch of people complaining about white people. Just the opposite: both deal with problems within our own community and trying to fit.
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The other reason is that in other cities there are a ton of indie films that never get shown in Houston. I wanted to start showing some films that focus on the alternative music scene or have a cult following that have been out but never have been shown here in Houston. Maybe if this works there will be other films that could be shown here. Was looking at showing the documentary about the Boston hardcore scene and have Johnny from Street Dogs maybe speak. We will see how this works out first.
Although punk in Houston has always been multicultural, have you felt dislocation or double identities as a black punk, perhaps as the film describes?
Absolutely! Yes, I felt that as I would take the Metro to shows or ride my bike or skate to get to shows. It was great once you get to shows, but as soon as you cross 288 you’re back in your hole, away from the scene. It was a total dislocation, for you become the weird kid. It always bugged me that I was considered not black but was politically active in the community and very well read on black history etc. But because I did not want to fit into the norm of what is called black society, for some reason I am not considered black enough. Oh yeah like the NAACP lady in Washington [Rachel Dolezal] I went to a Historic Black university. I went because it was down the street and I could get in, not for academic standards [Laughs].
Houston has always had people of all races at shows as far as when I started going to shows in 1984. Not a lot, but you had a good representative out there. There would be one or two but most of the time it was me and maybe one other. Bang Bang, who people will know from Numbers #2, was Indonesian and saw the Sex Pistols in San Antonio. He was at all the shows I went to when I started. There was Ali, who was a black Muslim who skated. Also, there was Hubert, a black Rasta and others like Big E., Speedy and all those guys from Monterrey. J.R. Delgado and Ben Desoto had been a part of the scene in Houston from the beginning.
If you made the film, or helped on it, what different decisions might you have made? For me, I wanted to hear about Swiz, Special Forces and Trenchmouth.
I would have mentioned Scream and the Templars, especially, as they play Oi! music and are skinheads but have a multiracial band. Most of the people that go to their shows are skinheads. How they deal with that would be great to see. They don’t tour much, but people fly them in for shows and they are packed. They are one of the most underrated missed bands in the punk scene. Can’t say much about what I would have changed, as it was James Spooner’s movie, and he did not have a budget. He was awesome, and he learned as he went along. He, if I am not mistaken, used his friends that he had met along the way. It would be nice to include a lot of groups, but time and money was a big factor.
You’re someone who has enjoyed punk, ska, and rap in equal amounts. What do you see as the common denominators?
If you want to get a sense on what is going on in the streets and listen to the music that comes from there. Before NWA talked about Compton and “Fuck the Police,” Black Flag and others were talking about police brutality and what police would do at punk shows. Really Red talked about the Campos case and a Latino being beaten by HPD and thrown into Buffalo Bayou [“Teaching You the Fear”]. Same song mentioned HPD shooting Carl Hampton, who was a Black Panther right there on Dowling Street across from St. Johns Church. It’s a reflection of what is in their environment. Even ska bands, during the original and the Two-Tone years, did that. “Ghost Town” by the Specials came out as riots took place in Brixton, England. Stiff Little Fingers sang songs about Northern Ireland. The songs described people getting pushed to the edge and the feeling that the system is not working.
Pussy Riot in Russia is same thing! It’s not just anger but also a mirror of what they see and feel. Hardcore bands are the same way expression of society not being all that it can be. The Dead Kennedys and MDC where talking about countries and places most had never heard about. I know I would have not known about Nicaragua if it was not talked about at a MDC show. Or even know who George Jackson was until Gary Floyd and the Dicks sang about it. The same is equal to rap, for Pubic Enemy would always mention the Panthers and others into their music. A sense of rebellion is in both forms of music.
I know you have been deeply involved in the punk community for decades, not merely as a fan. You’ve hosted radio shows, sponsored music events, tried to stir up community-history projects, like saving the Axiom, and much more. What propels you to undertake these efforts?
Boredom! Lack of a social life I guess, no girl or kids [Laughs]. But seriously also it is having a responsibility toward the community and making it better. The punk scene for a few was not just going to shows but participation. I got that from being influenced by Better Youth Organization and Maximumrocknroll and the whole DIY attitude. Also, sharing with other people that need to be exposed to the scene and culture that has been a big part of my life too. By the way, that is savable if people think they can do that. I was just in a position that I can do things like put on events at places that were cool. Being on the radio not only gave access to bands that people never heard of but made listeners even more diverse in their music because they would hear rockabilly and hardcore on the same show. Nobody had done that, but the kids that listen to rockabilly are the same kids that go to ska shows and hardcore and punk shows. So, why not a show that fit that?
I brought in people from the scene to help out. Big E and Buddy for rockabilly/swing, Sam Cole for rock for a time, Danny from Refuse to Fall for the hardcore. We always tried to have a girl on the show, [because] both punk and hip-hop can be a macho male chauvinist environment. White Stripes were heard first, I think, on our show due to Sam Cole. We debuted so many artists on that show. The hip-hop show gave a peek into the future of hip-hop, for we were the first to debut Wu-Tang, Nas, and others before they went on to be the big stars they are now. I knew nothing about hip-hop when that show was on, as I was a punk kid, me and Mad Matt. We brought in underground guys Cipher and Baby Gramps, who was from NYC. That made for a crazy show along with Will over at KTRU, which changed the climate of what at the time was considered rap.
Commercial radio was not playing Brand Nubian, Fat Joe or Tribe Called Quest. We provided an outlet to that, which was what was important. It also gave older people in the community a chance to see that rap was not a negative. Though radio work at KPFT, not only have I been around some of the most diverse groups of people, it also made me open mind to all types of people and things. Through the station, I have been able to meet all types of politicians from the right and left, as well as people from the sports field. I, along with Glen Davis, did the first football [soccer] show on a radio station. We caught a slack because of it, but we did it. I was lucky in a lot of ways that Chuck Roast and Austin Caustic let me hang out on their show. Also, Frank Motley and his “Mr. Telephone Road Show.” Don’t know where I would be if it was not for them. Shows I have booked are bands that I want to see or are friends of mine that need a show in Houston or anywhere for that matter. It used to be that booking a tour you used the friends you know and just showed up. NOFX was famous for just showing up out of nowhere [Laughs].
Rich and Henry Rollins (right)
Some of my favorite vintage photographs include you decked out in hardcore clothing with bands names like Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies scrawled on them. Why in particular did these bands stand out to you — maybe because they seemed so fan-oriented?
In terms of the artwork for the Suicidal stuff, I got that from the back of the record cover. I liked both bands, and it was easy to draw.
Did the Suicidal notion of a working/lower class punk ‘army’ that transcended race, as they sang on songs from the album Join the Army, have special appeal?
No! But they wrote songs that you could relate to. Who didn’t have parents that did not understand you or what you’re about? That’s why “Institutionalized” was so popular. I think the Oi! stuff, Stiff Little Fingers, etc. spoke to the working class lifestyle and appeal, and helped save Dr. Marten Boots [Laughs]. I don’t really know how to handle that question as Suicidal was not a working class, or what I would consider a working class band. They represented the Venice scene and did it well and sparked a bunch of other bands from the area. Excel and No Mercy are two great bands from the Venice scene or were on the label.
I believe photos of you are found on the back of the Party Owls album too. What local bands from the 1980s still strike your interest, and can you draw a link from them to newer bands I believe you’ve supported, like hardcore Will to Live?
Yes, it is! That was one of the best bands to come out of Houston. All great guys, and you knew when they played it was going to be a event. I am glad some of that music is put out on wax. Loved all of that stuff. S.N.O.T. was another band, along with Sic Mentality and the Mellow Kats. The last two were very young and were great to hear live. Verbal Abuse and DRI were some of the bands that left Texas for California to make a living playing music. Bark Hard and Contortion Session were some of the bands that took a place like Pasadena and put it on the map. Funny songs, by the way. Dead Horse is, by the way, one of the most underrated bands to be a part of the Houston music scene. I will always say that they, and King's X, put Houston on the map internationally. People went crazy for DH shows, and they were another product of Pasadena or South Houston. Who knows if they would have stayed together where they would be? I am glad they are back, though.
The hardcore scene in Houston is, or was, a tight-knit community. Will to Live followed, in a sense, Scared For Life, which included Danny from Refuse to Fall. Rob to Live is still heading that band, and Chris is playing guitar. They are still a power in the hardcore scene and still play out. Pride Kills is another hardcore band that was and still is great. People still talk about their shows and the crazy stuff that happened. Can’t leave out 30FOOTFall. They are another Houston band that got out and toured. Butch and company always put on a fun show and gets good support even now. I talked to Matt, and we both remember Feared Alien Voodoo as being one of the most dangerous bands in town. People talk about G.G. Allin, but these guys were just as out of control: real guns pointed at the audience and beating each other with belts. You never knew what was going to happen.
How can I forget Los Skarnarles? They continue to play out and tour. Felipe and company have always put on good shows for years here. They have great diversity at their shows and have influenced a new generation of Ska. New bands that I have heard, or keep up with, are the Suffers, who are at the top of the heap. Punk-wise, Muhammadali are great to see. Any band J.R. Delgado is in is great, as well as Supremacy, Land Fill, No Resistance, also Something Fierce. A ton of new, great bands are coming out. Dead to the World are awesome. I thought they were tight and full of energy when I saw them last. Cop Warmth is another. If I missed some, sorry. I will say a lot of great people have come out of the punk scene that have gone on to be very successful. So, you can change the world too by being different. I forgot to say over the years I have met some awesome, insane people over the years. Some have gone and some are still with us, some have gone on or grown out it, and others still continue to go to shows.
Rad Rich's screenings of Afro-Punk and Electric Purgatory begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at AvantGarden, 411 Westheimer. A $5 suggested donation will be given to Girls Rock Camp Houston.
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