The Hatta with the patter... As an ambitious army brat growing up in a variety of locales, Benjamin Thompson -- better known as Da Madd Hatta -- spent a lot of time in his own head. And though life eventually settled into something resembling stability when Hatta was a teenager, that didn't stop him from laying out an extremely private career trajectory.

"I know it sounds very selfish, but I just didn't want anyone to interrupt my thoughts -- what I thought I needed to do to get along in life," says Hatta. "I did my thing, and if anybody asked, I just kinda beat around the bush. To this day, I don't think my parents really know what I do."

Rest assured, tons of people know what Da Madd Hatta does in Houston, where he's just a notch below local celebrity in the eyes of many. Daily, he occupies the afternoon drive-time slot on the city's most popular urban radio station, KBXX/97.9 FM, The Box; weekly, he hosts the local video show Straight from the Streetz, a Houstonized Yo! MTV Raps. His extracurricular activities have included a voice role in the feature film Jason's Lyric and a part in the new independent flick Fifth Ward, which debuted at TSU last week. In between, he's trying to break through as a legitimate rapper in a city already full of them. For his new CD, The pH Factor, Hatta has even switched his handle to Mista Madd and created a tougher image to go with it.

"People want to hear about reality," Hatta says. "When you're around negative vibes, it doesn't take a whole lot for inspiration to come out of you. You speak from your experience."

Experience or no, finding a robust street-level voice in Houston's competitive hip-hop environment won't be easy for Hatta -- and he knows it's not likely to come any easier simply because he's adopting a new pseudonym. Being a popular radio personality, Hatta's already got one strike against him. From the Big Bopper to Wolfman Jack, right on up to Rick Dees and Dino, the track record for DJs trying to attain respectability as performers has been patchy at best. There's also the matter of Hatta's rather embarrassing 1995 debut, which was little more than flimsy house-party fodder. What's more, Hatta wasn't raised in these parts, arriving in town about four years ago from Fayetteville, North Carolina -- not exactly ghetto central.

"If they don't like you here, they're never gonna like you," Hatta says of Houston. "This is a great town because there's no bullshit. People here aren't as concerned with fame and all that."

For the most part, though, the local rap community has been generally receptive to Hatta's efforts to roll with the game plan. Willie D of the Geto Boys (a co-worker at the Box), recent out-of-nowhere sensation Lil KeKe, C-Note of the Botany Boys, Phat Pat of the Screwed Up Klicc and Grim and Ike-Man of the Most Hated all guest on The pH Factor, not only lending an air of authority to the proceedings but offsetting Hatta's rather tedious rapping style. Without a doubt, Hatta takes on more serious subjects this time around. "pH" is short for "playa hatin'," and the dire consequences of hatred are addressed throughout the disc -- though without any unusual amount of insight.

More striking about pH is its sonic variety. With the aid of producers Crazy-C (Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys), DJ DMD (UGK) and Mike B (Big Mike), Hatta fashions an eclectic, user-friendly fusion of stylized gangsta grit and slow-burn R&B finesse. Simply put, there's something for everyone on The pH Factor.

"I can't be a gangsta," says Hatta. "You have to talk about your own reality."

And reality's looking pretty fine for Hatta at this point, regardless of The pH Factor's fate.

Raves and wave-offs... If nothing else, you've got to admire the Sperlings' tenacity in the face of some fairly glaring deficiencies. Here's a band that lacks a decent singer and a standout front guy, not to mention a technically distinguished player. Their song writing is appealing, but hardly striking, hung on hooks that are as unassuming as the group's quiet intellect and tongue-in-cheek sensitivity.

And yet the Sperlings are somehow able to charm the pants off of almost anyone within earshot. It's not like they do it on purpose, mind you. They're just happy being them, and their enthusiasm can be as contagious as a hacking tubercular cough from the stage. Purpose and positivity ooze from every Sperling pore.

Why all that righteous energy doesn't rub off more on their recordings is anyone's guess. Maybe it has something to do with flaws in the production, which is as flat and compressed on the Sperlings' new Sea of Sarcasm CD as it was on their previous release, Glidepath to Normalcy. A few Sarcasm tracks are sturdy enough to withstand their bland packaging, especially the souped-up Cars revamps "Rock Cliche #57" and "Soul Crusher," and the emphatically catchy "Allure." Elsewhere, though, the band's imperfections are only nudged to the fore. Seeing as those drawbacks are less of an issue live, maybe the Sperlings need to get out more.

Etc.... Who says patience doesn't pay? After keeping a half-dozen labels at bay, cool-headed Houston honky-tonker Mary Cutrufello has finally settled on a deal with Mercury Records. The label wooed Cutrufello with a sweet six-release deal and a hands-off approach that should allow her to develop at her own pace. Cutrufello's Mercury debut should be out sometime in 1998.

-- Hobart Rowland