First in a series -- ed.
Numbers remains one of Houston's more traditional setups in terms of a performance venue. The lighting seems archaic, yet holds a sense of charm to make anyone seem like a pop star on a given night. This past summer on Sunday nights, it became a proverbial battleground for the newest class of rap acts filtering through Houston.
It's late July. A crowd forms around the circular stage, multi-colored fans, fledging artists, promoters, the like, all with the same mentality attached: Win the night, survive to live another day. An artist steps onstage, performs and then gets shuffled to the side for another to prove his mettle, all in the name of competition.
Kickback Sundays, the creation of Sneakers & Fashion 2 owners Teresa Waldon and Suzie Rivera, fed right into the mentality of a city throbbing with rap talent that deserved room to breathe underneath Houston's suffocating musical legacy.
Award-winning and exclusively for the underbelly of Houston's rap scene, the 2012 edition of Kickback shuttled between the north location of clothing boutique SF2, Club Sugarhill and Warehouse Live before settling in at Numbers, hunkered down in the larger, old-fashioned venue due to the appetite of fans and rappers alike.
Season 2 lasted 20 weeks, with cameo appearances from Bun B and other Houston luminaries and no two men have come face-to-face in the finals more often than these two. After two fierce rounds, the crowd participation aspect gets nixed in favor of guest judging from local producer Risky Boi and former 97.9 jock T. Gray.
On this night, it boils down to two: Reginald Johnson, a short yet imposing microphone figure who calls himself Trail Blaze; versus Korey Govan, a thin voice purveyor of the same street mentality that would have made him a talent washed in with the '90s G-funk that evolved. His moniker is a rather simple one, KDOGG.
Both judges vote Trail Blaze.
KDOGG, staunch and understanding of the decision, yields victory for now. His demeanor is calm, even when feeling jaded. He steps off stage, fans chant he should have won before dispersing, all proclaiming victory for themselves a week in advance.
And the cycle repeats itself the next week, people continuing to appear, support their favorites and then hope said competitor wins. KDOGG, so fed up with the monotony of falling to Trail Blaze every week, continues to bait resident DJ AudiTory into switching beats.
He adds verses, proclaiming "I'll rap all damn night if I have to, I ain't bullshittin'." It's akin to watching the gladiators in Rome battle it out until one is left standing to soak in the adoration.
Its origins, as Waldon states, all come from Rivera's merely having an epiphany: "Let's do something on Sunday."
Uniquely competitive, Waldon had carved out a niche with SF2's southwest location hosting mixers for industry players, local artists and various promotion companies all looking to gain ground in Houston. Rivera, who mostly ran the North location, felt the pressure.
"Teresa's very competitive and she'll tell employees, we'll throw an event, have something going on in the store," Rivera says. "We were intimidated, like, how do we go against Teresa?"
As the story goes, Rivera says the initial Kickback Sunday was a "chill event": Hot dogs, beer and pizza, a gathering for people to escape the work week. Rappers would come around, kick a few verses here and there. It was supposed to be a small thing to build interaction between the community at large.
"First day, we were expected 15-20 people, small," says Rivera. "Surprise, we got 80. Second Sunday 120. Third Sunday, 150. And it took off from there."
The event blossomed from its origins, becoming a fully fledged league with a signup sheet and other neat intricacies such as giveaways and prizes. The same names who dominated the list would go on to become Doughbeezy, KAB Tha Don and others, those on the next perch from perceived superstardom.
It grew to a point where it became a must-attend event on Sunday evenings for anyone connected to the industry or wanting a way in. Its preemptive break in the summer allowed for batteries to be recharged and goals to be reorganized. In the fall, Waldon took to Twitter and announced its return, finally quelling rumors of its demise.
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Then she would face rumors of her own demise as well.
Come back for Part 2 on Tuesday.