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.
"I think the music industry is falling off as a whole, and Houston is now part of the big picture in the music industry," Sonzala says. "I'm a big supporter of this music, but you can't deny that a lot of these dudes have just done their style into the dirt to a certain extent. I don't want to diss them, but so many dudes make the same song over and over, so it's not as exciting as it was when the masses started hearing Houston three, four, five years ago."
However, Sonzala maintains it's unfair for anyone to single out Houston rappers for continuing to rhyme about being draped up and dripped out or sippin' on lean when a similar creative chill has descended across the entire hip-hop countryside. "What hasn't fallen off that isn't repetitive ringtone-type singles?" he asks. In his mind, rappers are afraid to branch out from the same well-worn subjects — patronizing strip clubs, selling cocaine, beefing with other rappers — out of fear of losing the media exposure they do get.
"They're all fighting for the same radio play, and nobody wants to be blackballed," Sonzala says. "We've been at war in Iraq for six years, and everybody in the country at this point, at least 80 percent of the people you speak to, are against this war. But ain't nobody saying nothing about that. Rap music they used to say is black people's CNN or whatever. It sure as hell is not that now. It's E! entertainment television, fucking Talk Soup or Jerry Springer."
Sonzala does find some hope in a pair of Houstonians whose albums depart from the current state of affairs. "When I listen to Ultimate Victory, I feel like Chamillionaire made a real rap record, man," he says. "He's topical, he talked about issues, he talked about life and it wasn't just gangsta stuff. He stuck his neck out in a major way. He could have made the same thing everyone else is doing, but no, man, he came out and really said some things. And if you notice, he didn't get any media attention for that."
Similarly, Bun B's 2 Trill may be the first major rap album to take on global warming. "He talks about the environment. What rapper on his level is talking about the environment? Nobody," Sonzala says. "I think it's brilliant for somebody like Bun B to tell these kids something about global warming."
Sonzala says he plans to come back to Houston at least three times a month because "most of the events I do, we do in Houston." So while his moving to Austin may be a personal milestone — for one thing, he's looking forward to finally having a regular babysitter, since he and his wife both have family in the area — he doesn't expect a whole lot to change in the scene he's leaving behind.
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"I think I get too much credit, to be honest with you," he says. "It's not like I brought a bunch of dudes out of the closet. These dudes have been working for many years, and there's been people here working for a lot longer than I have to make Houston what it is."
'Tis the season — for equipment thefts. After their November 24 show at Last Concert Café, thieves vandalized Moses Guest's trailer and made off with what the earthy rockers' manager estimates to be as much as $10,000 worth of gear. A white pickup truck was spied leaving the scene, and the band will try to recoup some of their losses January 5 at the Continental Club. Byzantine indie-rockers Sharks and Sailors were likewise victimized when someone slipped into their rehearsal space at Francisco Studios and made off with Melissa Lonchambon's $1,100 Fender jazz bass and an external sound card. Lonchambon suspects the theft may have happened when S&S's roommates were loading out before a show, and the bass may even still be on the Francisco premises...In-stores return to Cactus Music with a flourish this weekend with Aussie indie-pop heartthrob Ben Lee 6 p.m. Thursday, Austin's Derailers 5:30 p.m. Friday and roots-rock arrivistes the Gougers 1 p.m. Saturday. "We want to remind Houston's music fans that we are the best place to see an intimate performance, meet the artist and grab a cold one," says owner Quinn Bishop.