The City was tired.
It drank the night away at clubs in Tribeca, the East Village and the Meatpacking District. It kept the buzz going the next day at alumni bars, kicking off the football season with cheap shots and bottomless pints. It danced its ass off to Spank Rock in an empty pool in Williamsburg, surrounded by construction from high-rise condos. It put on layers of makeup and rocked out to the Cramps. It bounced around from club to club, DJ to DJ, party to party.
Come Labor Day, the City was tired.
And so was Matt Sonzala, who had just arrived the night before to promote one of his HoustonSoReal events. Tall, goateed and demure, Sonzala knew success in the City. Over the past year and a half, he'd been packing New York clubs with Texas artists such as Bun B, Devin the Dude, DJ Rapid Ric, Chingo Bling, DJ Chill, the G.R.i.T. Boys, Big Hawk and Bavu Blakes. The City had come out for these shows and represented like Houston or Austin never would.
This time around Sonzala had brought back Rapid Ric, of Whut It Dew mixtape fame, for a Monday night gig at a place in Greenwich Village called Sway. Monday nights were usually pretty good, but this was the ass-end of a three-day weekend, and Sonzala couldn't help but wonder:
What if the City decided to sleep?
While hanging out at a bar in Alphabet City a few hours before the show, Sonzala met some guy in some random band who told him Sway was "all dudes dot com," prompting one of his rapper friends to joke that he was putting on "the man show." It was a valid concern, but if you put enough music industry folks -- performers, writers, DJs, promoters -- at the same table, you can guarantee a little posturing. Sonzala just sat back, buzzed, anxious and sleepy-eyed, waiting for the main event.
He had to make it work. Every time he goes out of town, he's putting himself on the line, doing anything he can to avoid a nine-to-five. He draws checks from music journalism, but his fortune lies outside the margins of magazines; it's to be found promoting the Texas sound around the world. He's been doing it low-key for years, hosting radio programs, writing articles, introducing artists, but being super-cool isn't enough when you're 34 years old and you have a wife, two kids and a mortgage. You need more than respect; you need to get paid.
"When I come home with 500 bucks, that's all good, for one night, but coming home with, like, 100 bucks for a trip to New York, going and getting fucked up with my friends and partying, I don't know, it doesn't work out that great," he says.
Living the wild life isn't always easy.
It was just another jack-off weekend in Erie, Pennsylvania, when 15-year-old Matt Sonzala and a buddy went to see a matinee punk show at an old-school club called the Continental Ballroom.
"We didn't have shit to do," he says.
Three bands were on the bill -- Lost, My Three Scum and Backwash -- and Sonzala, a tall, lanky kid whose dad had been in the local music biz before leaving town, joined the hundred-strong crowd of punks and slackers shaking their heads and feet to the sounds of shrill guitars and machine-gun drums.
"I don't even really know why, but I saw the old dude who ran the place," he says, "and I was, like, 'If I can get some touring bands to come through here, and I'd be the promoter and take all the risk and handle all the money, you think I could do something?'"
The owner seemed surprised, Sonzala recalls, but, hey, no risk, plenty of potential benefit, why the hell not?
Sonzala had recently started up a fanzine called Jackhammer Pogostick, which would eventually score interviews with the likes of GG Allin, Bad Brains, Girl Trouble and Naked Ray Gun, but at the moment he was focused on a band called the Laughing Hyenas, a blues-infused garage quartet from Detroit.
"That was totally my favorite band back then," he says.
When lead singer John Brannon replied to Sonzala's request for an interview by sending back a bunch of stickers and his phone number, the 15-year-old called Brannon up and asked him to come to Erie.
It was as easy as that, although the show, which happened five months later, didn't go off without a hitch.
First off, some punks in My Three Scum were miffed at not being on the bill. "They felt that I should respect them, since it was their scene," says Sonzala, who ended up asking the singer, a 30-year-old tough-looking ne'er-do-well, " 'What do you want me to do? You're mad at me for doing a show? Tough shit.'"
Problem Number Two appeared in the form of the dude who ran the local record store. The guy apparently got jealous, called Brannon and told him, "'You shouldn't be coming here. That dude is fucking 16. He doesn't know what he's doing. He's going to fuck everything up.'"
But when the lead singer called Sonzala, he was told, "You know I'm 16, for one. And for two, I've got your $350 right now. I will pay you $350 if not one person walks in the door."
The Laughing Hyenas ended up playing to a packed crowd and Sonzala pulled in $500, just enough to pay for all his expenses -- not bad for a gawky teenager who wasn't even sure why he'd signed up for the job to begin with. But he did know he was hooked, and he began crafting out a career on his own terms.
"I want to do what I want to do," he says. "Basically, that's my goal, to not be locked into some bullshit that's going to make me just want to die. Even if it's fun, I don't want to do it every day."
"Matt doesn't try to be something he's not, and I think that's one reason he's so successful in the things he does," says Melissa, his wife of five years. "He'd never be a suit, and that's something that I knew up front with him. And obviously that's something that attracted me to him as well, that he's so strong-minded."
By most accounts, the history of Houston rap begins with the Geto Boys, a Fifth Ward trio who were just beginning to blow up in 1989, the year Matt Sonzala moved to town. He'd been a big fan in Erie, and he lucked his way into an internship at the studio where they were recording We Can't Be Stopped, which eventually went platinum on the success of "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me."
"I was cleaning up after them, cleaning up the studio, sitting there making sure nothing happened," he says. "I was there the whole time."
Talk about exposure.
Sonzala soon began trolling the city's hip-hop clubs, taking in as many acts as he could.
"And I just came to realize, man, that's what this city is all about," he says. "This is a hip-hop city. The bands here, like, there were plenty of shows I'd go see that were good, but the fucking opening band sucked ass, and I hated the local rock scene, and it was just kind of sub-par to me, and I don't care to say it, and it was, and it is. This city is a hip-hop city. That's our culture, man. That's our defining shit. That's what the fucking pulse of the city is."
Sonzala went on-air with Strictly Hip-Hop Sundays, on KPFT, to help hype the local scene. It was there that Devin the Dude, a Texas rapper with smooth flow and a Cheshire Cat grin, got his first radio play, and Sonzala's intro to the track made it onto an Odd Squad album.
"He's one of the pioneers of hip-hop culture around here," says the Dude.
But the road was calling, and Sonzala soon migrated to New York City, Amsterdam, Austin and Chicago, working all kinds of music industry jobs before settling back in Houston in 2001. The connections he made along the way would eventually bear fruit, but his first goal was getting back on the radio, which he did with Damage Control, a late-night hip-hop program on KPFT.
Now running four years strong, Damage Control is like nothing else on the local airwaves. Most of the scene's big guns -- and, oddly enough, onetime presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich -- have been on the show, but that's not what it's all about. The beauty: Any rapper can walk in, hand over a CD and hear his music on the air that same night, so long as he gets there early enough.
"For an up-and-coming underground artist in Houston, I think it's the first and foremost outlet," says local rapper Bun B, who made it above ground long ago as part of UGK. "For a lot of people, that's their starting point."
Fostered by Sonzala (tall and white) and co-host DJ Chill (short and black), this come-one-come-all attitude extends into the parking lot outside the studio.
"What you hear on the air is only a part of what's going on at Damage Control," says Bun B. "Put it like this: There's never enough hours in the day to put all the show up on Damage Control and a lot of these guys understand that, and it's really just their chance to see other MCs in the city, you know, maybe someone they could offer beats to, maybe do some songs with each other. They're all in the same place, they're all on the same page, they're all trying to go in the same direction."
But they'd better have their shit together when they walk into the studio. Sonzala may be one of the scene's biggest boosters, but that doesn't mean he's a pushover. Say you're an MC who accidentally told him to cue up the wrong track. Oops, your bad. Time for the next artist.
"Prepare that shit before you come," he says, offering a glimpse of the mindset that helped a skinny white kid from Pennsylvania earn so much respect in the world of Dirty South rap. Sonzala isn't some whiny liberal who's so worried about political correctness that he ends up being condescending, and he definitely doesn't pretend he's from the streets.
"Look, dude, I'm not from the fucking Fifth Ward," he says. "I'm not. I'm not from fucking South Park either. I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Erie, Pennsylvania, a very white city."
"That's always been my thing," he says "I think people put too much into it. 'Oo, how can I infiltrate the black community?'
"Fuck. Talk to them. Be nice."
Ask Sonzala what he does for a living and he'll say, "I do whatever, man," but ultimately he considers himself a writer.
"I don't really call myself a journalist," he says. "I'm just a writer. I have my own little niche of this little journalism world,"
That world includes The Source, XXL, Ozone, Rime, Hip-Hop Connection, Juice, State, High Times and, yes, Houston Press.
Putting on shows was always a side passion for him, something he did when opportunities arose. In 2002 he produced a benefit for KPFT, with Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, K-Rino and the G.R.i.T. Boys. In 2004 he imported London rapper Dizzee Rascal for South by Southwest. In 2005 he brought Philadelphia mixmaster Diplo to town three different times.
Big names, to be sure, but he was never quite satisfied with the results. The crowds just weren't there, although technical concerns often were.
"How many shows have you gone to that sound like shit?" he asks. "That doesn't happen in other cities. It happens here because fuckers don't want to spend on sound. That's why I lose money, because I spend on sound or I spend on whatever."
But Diplo hooked him up with a New York promoter named Roxy Summers, a.k.a. Oxy Cottontail, who was a big fan of Rapid Ric and asked Sonzala if he could bring up the DJ for her birthday party.
No problem, he said, and thus began a beautiful friendship.
"She's connected," says Sonzala. "She can handle the groundwork and getting the venues and all that, and my role is more getting the artists together and getting some PR on it."
And unlike many in the biz, they're both willing to put in the effort, setting up clubs, booking flights, inviting journalists, passing out flyers, doing radio interviews, posting on message boards, texting everyone they know.
"A lot of people think club promoting is just fun, and it is fun, but it's a lot of work," says Summers. "Matt and I, we just have each other's backs...It's HoustonSoReal because that motherfucker is the realest."
They started hosting Texas nights in various Manhattan clubs, riding the Screwston wave generated by the surge of articles in music magazines, not to mention The New York Times and The New Yorker. And the City came out to listen.
"My goal is to bring together all kinds of people, have a mixed crowd of everybody: young, old, black, white, Spanish, Asian, whatever," says Sonzala.
He began thinking in international terms, trying to come up with more ways to push the Texas sound, looking up old connections around the world. He started booking shows in Canada, Holland, Norway and England.
You might think all that travel would've affected his home life, but you're probably not thinking outside the cubicle.
"What's nice about his job is that his time at work is so unconventional that it allows him a lot of one-on-one time with our girls," says his wife Melissa. "Even with the travel and everything else, he's around much more than most men."
Still, every show needs to be a success, 'cause otherwise the man's just on a whirlwind vacation, jet-setting the world with a bunch of rappers, neglecting his duties at home. Which is why the question kept coming up that clear Labor Day night:
What if the City decided to sleep?
"I'm a loner," Sonzala writes on his blog, HoustonSoReal, in a post dated July 21, 2006. "I prefer to work by myself, on projects I want to work and I don't generally need too much help or outside influence to make things happen. When I work by myself I can't blame anyone for anything but myself and I prefer to keep it that way. However, in this past week I have had to step outside the box a bit and work in a whole 'nother way."
What followed was a tale of life on the road, full of drugs, rap and violence. Sonzala had gotten an e-mail a few weeks before from a buddy who asked about a Devin the Dude show he'd seen advertised in Vancouver. Sonzala does all of the Dude's international booking, but he had no idea what the guy was talking about. A few phone calls later, and come to find out some some promoter in Houston had set up a show for the Dude, taken a bunch of money and not even bothered to let the Dude know.
"Thing is, this type of shit happens in the music biz every day," Sonzala writes. "Someone is always trying to get over on someone, it's nothing new. But I can't personally have promoters in Canada thinking that Devin doesn't show up to his gigs."
So Sonzala and the Dude hopped on a plane and headed up to Vancouver for the show, where they met the two money guys, a couple of "extremely rich kids who have a penchant for cocaine and steroids." After seeing some sights, Sonzala and the Dude went to the hotel to rest up, but apparently this wasn't allowed, because 15 minutes later the money guys were banging on the door, yelling that Sonzala had to wake the Dude up for an appearance at a club.
"An old man comes out of his room to see what the problem is," Sonzala writes. "One of the steroid-addled dudes runs at him in the hall and I had to literally grab him and stop him from confronting the old man. Note -- all these dudes were huge and could have probably fucked me up bad."
A couple more clubs and testosterone-fueled outbursts later, the group decided to call it a night. "Great," Sonzala writes. "So as we are walking back to the car, about eight deep, one of the steroid boys comes running through our crowd and checks one of his boys. Basically he kind of pseudo-tackled him. Well, as he did this he knocked over a totally innocent dude. A regular Canadian guy just standing on the street eating a pretzel or some shit talking to two girls.
"The dude who was knocked down didn't even talk shit, he just kind of said, 'What the hell?' as he was getting back up. Well when he gets back up the dude who got tackled punches him hard in the face and knocks him to the ground again. Then as he is getting up the other dude runs over like a gorilla and kicks him in the chest and kicks the shit out of him. Me and Devin start telling them to cut the bullshit and Devin helps the dude who was beat down collect his things. And I basically try to stop the madness when all of a sudden another innocent dude just trying to get past the melee bumps into our promoter guy who hesitates for a second but then gets amped up and starts screaming on the dude. Then the biggest of the drug addled motherfuckers runs up and punches dude into a wall and just beats him senseless, breaking his own wrist in the process. At this point one of the girls tells him to stop and the big dude slaps the shit out of the girl. At this point I am dragging Devin the opposite way trying to hail a taxi...
"That shit made both our stomachs turn cuz it was just so completely fucked up."
Sonzala and the Dude skedaddled back to the hotel, and the next night the Dude had the club hopping, but this incident shows what life can be like when you're traveling around foreign cities on the fly.
It also shows how great Sonzala's blog can be.
"Doing the blog, I finally did something for myself," he says.
"I'm still fairly low key or whatever, but I used to be the type of dude who didn't even care if his name was on something, like, I barely said my name on Damage Control, and I still don't say it that much," he says.
But Houston hip-hop was on the verge of taking over the airwaves, and somebody had to step up and give it a push, and Sonzala would've been damned if that was going to be some carpetbagger.
"I realized, 'Look, I've got to start getting my shit known in the circles where it needs to be known, because I don't need nobody else coming down here and doing the shit,'" he says.
On March 26, 2005, he wrote: "If rappers in this city would realize how far their music actually reaches and would focus on getting to other parts of the world and really spreading this sound, we might have something here...I'll tour manage. Holler at me if you're real."
Since then he's used the connections he's made over the years to take Texas artists to Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Whistler, Kristiansand, Oslo, Aarhus, Copenhagen, London and Amsterdam.
"It's not a ton of money," he says, "but it's decent and, shit, it opens doors for myself and all the music."
And no one can argue with that.
"The things that HoustonSoReal is trying to do are really things that are going to last, just not maybe something quick -- you know, throw a nice party, make a couple of bucks -- but something that will leave a lasting impression on people's minds about the scene and the music," says Bun B, who traveled with Sonzala to Kristiansand. "Matt's here preserving Houston's legacy."
Why else would a cadre of local rappers agree to perform for free when Sonzala helped organize a live taping for the British Broadcasting Corporation in July?
"The BBC thing was amazing," says his wife Melissa, "the fact Matt could get all these big names in Houston to show up and do it for free, just because he said, 'You should. It's good for you.'"
And it was also good for the crowd. A few hundred hipster-hoppers got to see DJ Semtex, a one-armed radio host from Manchester, using his teeth to twiddle knobs between sets by the G.R.i.T. Boys, Trae, Devin the Dude and Bun B.
"Matt is really right now one of the few people I can speak on in the rap industry who's really not in it for the money," says Bun B, "and I know a lot of people say they're in it for the art or whatever, but I've seen almost every artist, promoter, DJ, journalist, what have you, compromise himself at one point or another, and I can honestly say I haven't seen Matt do that. Everything he's done, his intentions have been pure. And that's really why, that's why I roll with him. There's a lot of other stuff I could be doing on the days I do things with Matt to probably make more money, but it probably wouldn't have more meaning behind it."
When Rapid Ric threw Bun B's "Get Throwed," a quintessential bit of Southern rap, on the turntables at Sway, the beat bounced around the Moroccan-themed club and the crowd of scenesters rose to its feet, clumping together in the middle of three candle-lit rooms. It was almost 2 a.m., two hours before last call in the City, and the tired never-never-sayers gave one last push before calling it a weekend.
Sonzala milled about in an oversized Trae T-shirt, snapping photos for the blog, while Summers chilled out in a grungified letter jacket, doing the low-key networking thing. Energy levels were waning, but the duo had done it again. Not their best showing, but definitely not a bust.
Fewer than 30 people showed up before midnight, but at the peak there were 70 on the floor -- a good mix, definitely not "all dudes dot com" -- and the City was reminded that Texas can bring it.
"I knew that at the end of a long weekend, that the party wasn't going to be as big as normal," says Sonzala. "And I saw Sunday night, when we went out, fucking the whole city was exploding. People were out everywhere. So I knew that Monday night wasn't going to be a huge night. But that was a good party...People who were there had fun and it was enough people to make it worth doing."
"It could have been a little bigger," he says, "but it was still pretty cool. The next thing I want to do in New York is a Geto Boys night with DJ Domination and DJ Ready Red."
But not before taking Chill and Rapid Ric to Oslo, Trondheim, Amsterdam and London.
Gotta keep moving.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.