"We're gonna see if we can get a thousand people in here tonight," said the guy who emceed the Roots concert at Club Waxx last March. Although the auto-garage-turned-hip-hop-spot wasn't filled to a thousand (management estimated it was half that), the wall-to-wall patronage certainly gave that impression.
For a while there, people were wondering whether the Roots, which was on tour promoting its Things Fall Apart album, was going to show up in Houston at all. It had a venue for every city and date -- except Houston. Flyers for the show started circulating only a week beforehand. While one source claims the band was booked about three or four weeks in advance at Club Waxx, the management begs to differ. "We kinda got the show at the last minute," says Mike Jacksis, the 28-year-old owner of Club Waxx. "You know, like really the last, last minute."
In preparation, Jacksis and crew organized an all-out party. Originally, patrons were going to go through the back patio area, where a couple of DJs would be spinning records. Then, people were going to walk through the club while the Roots and other performers were on stage. But on the day of the show, not everything went as planned. The patio wasn't set up correctly, so all concertgoers had to wait up front. There was a mix-up with the DJs, who didn't show. And let's not forget the overwhelming number of people, both die-hard Roots fans and people just checking out all the fuss, who were in attendance. Was it no wonder halfway through the Roots' set, a fire marshal shut down the place and told everybody to clear out for 50 minutes? Fortunately, the Roots did come back to perform in the wee hours.
Despite the show's missteps, Jacksis and his club managed to take in $2,000 when it was all over, and that includes ticket sales at the door and bar bills. "But, in my opinion," says Jacksis, "I wish I could've provided a better atmosphere for everybody."
We can't all have what we wish for. If rap fans did, many of the rap shows that have come to this town would've been done a lot more smoothly. Although the Roots show wasn't a complete disaster, its lack of preparation and direction is indicative of the many rap performances that occur (and sometimes don't occur) in Houston. There have been rap shows that have been apparent fiascoes because of low ticket sales, like last year's Smokin' Grooves Concert at the AstroArena, which played to an underwhelming 3,000 fans (less than half the total that attended each of the two previous Smokin' Grooves shows at the Woodlands Pavilion).
There are some that do well financially but often end in bad vibes. The Master P/No Limit show at the Compaq Center last year brought in 13,000 fans and made it one of the biggest-grossing shows in the history of the decades-old arena. But outside, another show was happening. About 200 people had pushed their way into the venue, causing minor injuries to some of the people working the concert. If that wasn't enough, gunshots rang out. People went on a stampede. About 100 police officers had to be called in to cover the area. DeAndra Edwards, an assistant at Rap-A-Lot Records, says outbursts like that are inevitable at a highly touted concert. "That could've taken place anywhere," says Edwards. "Trouble is trouble. It's gonna come here, it's gonna come there. I mean, it happened in Colorado, it'll happen at a rap concert. That's just something that happens."
But, all the negative commotion aside, does rap music have suitable venues in Houston? There are those in the industry who believe that when it comes to live rap and hip-hop, Houston is a functional locale. "I think Houston is a very tolerable city as far as allowing artists to come in and play," says Chris Doss, director of promotions and marketing at the local Ticketmaster administrative office. But there are those who still don't know what to make of the city's attitude toward rap music. Says Club Waxx owner Jacksis: "Houston's really weird as far as the [hip-hop] scene goes. We've had groups that didn't do as well as they anticipated, and it kinda leaves, I guess, a bad taste in their mouths about Houston's hip-hop scene or whatever."
And not just any rap/hip-hop performer can come here, find a spot to perform and sell out the joint. Unless it's Lauryn Hill, of course. The cold, hard truth of it is, if you're hot, you're hot. If you're not, well, you certainly won't be selling out the Compaq Center. Like many other Top 40 performers, the big names gets served up the big venues, like the Compaq Center or the Aerial Theater or, if they really got it going on, the Woodlands Pavilion. At the request of their record labels or management companies, these successful rappers often buddy up and go on "package tours," concert shows that regularly feature six or seven acts on the same bill. This year's KBXX-FM's Box Birthday Bash featured "Hard Knock Life" tourmates Jay-Z, DMX, Redman and Method Man, all from Def Jam Records. "Obviously, when you put a whole bunch of top acts together," says Doss, "they're gonna get a bigger bang; they'll make a bigger splash."
On some occasions, rappers forgo the whole arena show experience to play clubs or other small venues. But oftentimes the news of their arrival is so sudden, not many people are notified. Marketing director Pamela Green, who often books acts and parties for the T-Town 2000 and The Roxy, believes that, in the case of smaller venues, performance shows should be strategically hyped at the eleventh hour.
"When you promote a show, you promote it a few days out," says Green. "You don't promote it a month out. I mean, we're not a 20,000-seat venue. But even a 20,000-seat venue isn't gonna promote the show unless, you know, they're being sold by Ticketmaster. And Ticketmaster usually only promotes it for the on-sale date only. I mean, anybody that's in the entertainment business knows that you don't promote a show unless you're a couple of days out. And that's the business for any type of artist."
But Jeff Messina, a promoter at Pace Concerts, feels that many club shows fizzle because some clubs don't have the capabilities to promote a show securely. "A lot of times, these club shows are bought by individuals that really don't have finances or the knowledge of how to properly promote a show," says Messina. "So, they might be able to afford two days' worth of promotions on the radio and one ad in the paper and hope that the word gets out. Unfortunately, a lot of times that doesn't work." Messina also says the same thing goes for promoters who (mis)handle arena shows. "As far as, like, a lot of the mainstream shows, a lot of times the artists back out [because of] shady managers, shady agents and things like that that make it fall apart."
Since Houston is home to the hardcore rap of the Geto Boys and Eightball & MJG, and since we also share the same coast as Louisiana bounce gods Master P and Juvenile, it's hard for less aggressive, more organic hip-hop acts from other regions, like the East Coast rap of The Jungle Brothers or Mos Def, to get a major following here. "Houston doesn't support underground hip-hop the way other markets might or other markets should," says Messina. "'Cause a lot of it, I think, is the radio dictating a lot of choices. Not really dictating, but [having] such a strong influence on the urban market here."
When Messina mentions "the radio," he's pointing to one radio station in particular, the popular, rap-oriented KBXX/97.9 FM, or as it is affectionately called, "The Box." Since KBXX's format is predominantly filled with local-based rap music and heavy-rotation hip pop, it's difficult for other regional rap to break in. "I don't wanna hate on 'The Box'," says Messina. "They're a good station. I wish they would incorporate a little bit more than they do sometimes."
It's not just underground hip-hop that occasionally gets the cold shoulder in H-town, but many old-school acts lose their loyalty factor here, too. Take the recent Salt-N-Pepa show that was scheduled for the Aerial Theater last April. The performance was canceled because of low ticket sales. (A person from Aerial says the sales were "horribly, atrociously, disastrously bad.") However, it was later confirmed that the rap queens would be playing The Roxy, and club personnel say they played to a sold-out audience. "I don't know what happened with [the venue change]," says Brian Riggs, manager of The Roxy. "All I know is when they came here, we had a real good show. We had a thousand people show up. They put on a great, great show. They went on for over an hour. A real good show. It was one of our better shows."
If it's true what comedian Chris Rock says about the music business ("here today, gone today"), then nowhere is it more accurate than in rap music. Loyalty to even the mightiest of rap legends gets lost. "Run-D.M.C., in theory, should be able to sell the Compaq Center out," says Messina. "They're legends in hip-hop. Or Public Enemy: They have sold out arenas ten years ago. And now, you know, Run-D.M.C. comes down here five times a year and, you know, not many people support 'em. I mean, it's unfortunate.
"I mean, you can compare 'em to the Rolling Stones or a rock group that are legends, and they don't need to make music and people will come to see them," he continues. "I think just because rap is a younger, newer music, it hasn't gotten ... just the loyalty hasn't been there and the people will quickly forget about you."
Says booking agent Green: "The bottom line is the buck, and it's where your audience either likes 'em or doesn't. And when you got, you know, 1,500 or a thousand screaming kids singing rap while they're dancing and cheering when the DJ begins a new song, that's your telltale sign."
Greed is yet another factor that plays into who's coming to Space City to perform and who isn't. The bigger the demand, the fatter the ticket price. "If I was, you know, Cher or Diana Ross or the Eagles or whatever," says Ticketmaster's Doss, "and can put a $200 ticket out there and sell the show out the next time I come through town, I'm gonna put a $200 ticket out there again. Just because, you know, people will pay it."
As for Houston, insiders say the only way we can accept visiting rap shows with all the positivity, structure and affordability of your average pop show is for Houstonians to accept and embrace their city's potential as a hip-hop community, which will, in turn, make the city integral to the hip-hop industry at large. As Rap-A-Lot's Edwards says: "If we had a fan base that was large and, you know, all about music and hustlin' -- that's the major thing, trying to do this, trying to do that, making money for music -- this would be a good industry. But until then, it's just gonna be," she begins to chuckle, "Houston.
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