Hip-hop wise, as much as I support what people consider to be the Houston sound, it has always bothered me that in a city with so much culture, the baseline items are the only things that so many people ever see. Big, brightly painted cars with oversize wheels, Styrofoam cups full of codeine cough syrup and soda, and slowed-down music are a big part of what people know about Houston hip-hop, because said subjects are driven into the ground by most of the city’s biggest rappers, but there has always been so much more.
Houston is not New York, and it is not Los Angeles; it is Houston. And just as a New York City can present to the world a Bobby Shmurda, it can also give us a Mos Def. Los Angeles gave us NWA, but it also gave us Dilated Peoples. Houston, on the surface, went from the ultra-gangsta Geto Boys directly into the players and ballers of the Screwed Up Click, Swisha House and the few others who have broken through like Lil Troy and South Park Mexican. All wonderful MCs, but honestly, fairly one-dimensional.
Anthony Mills, a.k.a. Ant aka Wali Aqueel, but more widely known as Zin, embraced Houston hip-hop as a whole. In fact, Zin accepted Houston hip-hop into a world of art and culture that almost no one else ever tried to connect. Like many of us, he wasn’t born in Texas, but he got here as quickly as he could, in the mid-'90s, and hit the ground running.
Houston has always had two hip-hop scenes. The aforementioned players and ballers and gangsters dominated the bigger clubs and the radio, with a sound more akin to the blues and deep soul one would naturally associate with the South. As for the more jazzy, upbeat, poetically lyrical hip-hop often associated with the golden years on the East Coast, much of this resided in Third Ward — or got there as quickly as it could.
Fact is, throughout the sprawling metropolis that is Houston, the poets often grew up next door to the players, and while their choice of dress and rap styles may have differed, their backgrounds were often one and the same. Zin recognized this when so many didn’t.
Segregation is real, even in hip-hop, and Zin spent his life building bridges between aspects of the culture that too many thought were too separate to connect. When I first met Zin in mid-2000, I knew him as an MC, a poet and an activist. To me, he was different from most poetic activist-type MCs in that his appreciation for music was wide open, and his love for his brothers and sisters (everyone) saw no boundaries. He knew that all rap music is a part of hip-hop culture and all of it has validity, and never turned his nose up at anything unless it genuinely stunk.
We clicked immediately, and when I decided to move back to Houston from Chicago in 2001, I told him that I really wanted to get back on the radio. I did a hip-hop show on KPFT from 1991 through early 1994 and was really itching to get back on. Fortunately for me, the station was going through a lot of changes and had a bit of interest in having a hip-hop show. I knew that we would be a good combo to host the show since we both had deep roots in Houston and connections to all the best artists, from the top tier on down deep into the underground.
We decided to call the show Damage Control in response to how far away the main radio outlets in town had run from the streets that made them, and the show became an open-door entry into the world of rap for a lot of the city's up-and-coming artists. Mike Jones, Magno, Chamillionaire, Bun B, Dizzee Rascal and David Banner all took time out to come down and freestyle, but it was the one-on-one conversations with pretty much anyone who came through the door that made the show so compelling.
Damage Control happened every Wednesday night from midnight till 3 a.m. in its early years (it continues to this day with DJ Chill at the helm from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Wednesday night on KPFT), and from the moment it started till the second it ended, it was a nonstop whirlwind of new music, mostly coming from the streets of Houston. We welcomed everyone in, regardless of style, regardless of level in the game, and treated everyone equally. If you came to Damage Control on any given Wednesday, you could expect to have your song played and a short interview done to expose yourself to the streets of Houston and beyond via the Internet.
When more changes happened at KPFT, Zin decided to take a daytime slot and start his new show, SOS Radio, which was based more in soul, R&B and conscious hip-hop. On that show, he would feature a weekly segment with Brother Jesse of the Nation of Islam and would focus on not only community issues, but community enhancement. Common themes would include starting your own garden, eating right, and getting proper exercise and meditation practice.
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Zin always saw the bigger picture, and once he honed his skills as a radio presenter for long enough at KPFT, he set out to start his own Internet radio network, All Real Radio, a 24-hour station focused on bringing the music he loved and the information he felt his community needed to a worldwide platform. Finally there was a place for the more artsy side of Houston hip-hop to live, breathe and grow in comfort, in the heart of his beloved Third Ward.
His work in radio may have given him a direct line to the people, and stands out as some of his strongest work to those who may have known him only on the surface. But dig deeper into his music and his work as an activist and a family man, and you will see why so many people showed up to the All Real Radio offices on Monday night for a candlelight vigil for the man known by many names, but known as a friend by everyone he has ever touched.
Anthony “Ant-Wali-Zin-etc.” Mills passed away on Sunday, January 3, as a result of a car accident in Denver. He was 42.