Houston Calling

10 Questions for Matt Sonzala

April 30th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Most of you are aware of the impact the Houston hip-hop/rap scene has had nationally, especially lately. If you’ve seen the latest issue of The Source, it features a cover article written by Houston writer/blogger/promoter/DJ/radio show host/man-about-town Matt Sonzala. This guy is everywhere and seems to know everyone. You’ve undoubtedly seen him, met him, or know him personally.

Sonzala recently booked more than 100 bands for gigs at SXSW, helping rappers and DJs from around the country get more exposure at the annual music conference. He also wrote a history of Houston rap, which was picked up by outlets all over the world. You can read it here. I recently asked Matt a series of questions for Houston Calling. He was kind enough to take some time out of his very busy schedule to respond. Enjoy.

10 Questions for Matt Sonzala

HC: First things first: You seem to be really connected in the Houston hip-hop/rap music scene. You host a radio show, promote shows, and even recently put on showcases at South By Southwest in Austin. How did you get involved in all of this? You’ve been writing about music for a long time, right?

Matt Sonzala: Man, well I am 34 years old, so I have had some time to get my foot in this door. I started writing for punk rock fanzines like Jersey Beat and regional papers like Texas Beat in the late 80’s and even started my own fanzine as well. I just felt this urge to write and since then realized that I’m not really good at much anything else.

I love doing radio but have never been paid to do so. My first show was in 1989 at WERG in Erie, I did a reggae show that soon turned into a reggae/funk/rap/weird out show. I got kicked off for playing rap and berating the station manager on the air hard for yelling at me for playing rap. I started promoting shows when I was 16 years old. I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, but spent every summer in Houston since I was 8 and would come here periodically throughout the year cuz my father lived here. I ended up moving here in 1989 and well, I don’t know man, this stuff is just in my blood. I like all sorts of music, literally all sorts from Tuvan Throat Singing to Country to Flamenco to Hip Hop.

When I came to Houston I quickly realized that hip hop is the sound of Houston. Austin has the great hill country sounds, we have the deep blues and hip hop. Know what I mean? The rock scene here is ok. The other scenes here are ok, but it is and has always been hip hop that has dominated the streets. Interesting thing is, it’s not just hip hop that dominates here, it is local hip hop that dominates here. That is a really special thing and I respect it wholeheartedly.

HC: A few years ago, I mentioned to a few people that I thought Houston would become the “new Atlanta” as far as hip-hop music is concerned. Since I keep a finger on the pulse of music in Houston, I could see it
coming (not that it took a genius or anything to see that). Now that it’s hit pretty hard, and more and more Houston artists are breaking into the mainstream rap scene nationwide, what do you think is the next step? How do you think this will impact Houston rappers producers, etc.?

MS: We need a better business structure down here. We have a lot of great rappers/producers/djs, but we hardly have any managers/agents/labels here. We have a lot of people faking the funk but Houston will never be the next Atlanta because the real business folks go to Atlanta, not here. Maybe they will come someday, or some of these folks will step their game up, but for real the thing that has held Houston back this long is a lack of good business. Most of the successful rappers did a lot on their own. And the success stories here, Swishahouse and Rap A Lot, well they are great but they are only a couple of companies. We have a lot of folks here using these rappers who have really bad, or at least stupid, intentions. It’s great to see Houston on top – it’s been a long time coming – but shit I just hope we can keep it there. I like making halfway decent money and getting a bit of attention just for being me.

HC: You wrote a history of Houston rap music a while back, and a lot of magazines picked it up. I thought it was a good piece — reminded me of coming to Houston in the late 80s/early 90s to visit a friend and listening to tapes of Geto Boys before they were well-known. I’m 35, so I didn’t grow up listening to rap/hip-hop. I remember the Sugar Hill Gang stuff and some “Can I have a peanut butter” shit that my cousin had on 8-track way back when I was a kid, but the Beastie Boys, Ice-T, Biz Markie, and all of that — my younger brother was into all of that when it first hit suburban America in the mid- to late 80s. There’s a question here, I promise — what do you think will be the impact of the kids who were weaned on this type of music in the future? Will they be more experimental or do you think they will stick to traditional musical approaches?

MS: Well, you can see it right now. Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, all these cats coming out now were weaned on DJ Screw and his mixtapes. A lot of the things being said by the rappers hitting today come directly from Screw tapes. Seriously. The slang and all that is Screwed Up Click That’s all that’s it. In the future I would hope that the kids would get more experimental, but shit, there’s a lot of forward thinking producers here. And seriously, Houston has been ahead of its time for a long time now. It’s good that the people are starting to catch up. We (the artists and a few people like myself who have worked day and night to promote) have worked really hard for a really long time to see this day come. Now we just have to keep the momentum. Houston is a pretty traditional city to me. I think many will keep the formula, some will expand on it and some will go all the way left. We will see what the musical climate is like in the coming years and what is accepted and what is thrown away. I can say this though, people like Mike Jones will not be able to make the same record over and over again. They will have to expand. I hope all these artists have long careers.

HC: Back then you could sample without paying royalties — now artists are forced to create their own beats, etc. This definitely has an impact on today’s music. Do you agree?

MS: Half the shit on the radio is still sampled. I think it’s stupid. Why would you sample some shit when you know you gotta pay most of the money you make from it to the original composer? I understand the art of it, but shit, it’s not my favorite thing to hear these days. The Bomb Squad’s hey day has passed. Down south producers have always played their own shit – and maybe sampled a bit but shit. Jazze Pha, NO Joe, Bido, Coughee Brothaz, Pimp C, Mike Dean, T-Mixx, they all had some sort of live instrumentation or programmed the drums and played the keys. Know what I mean?

HC: I don’t get a sense that Houston rap is as “race heavy” as a lot of rap coming from other places in the US (NYC, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc.) — do you think that’s true? The only local MC I know is Mas C (from Kalleid) — I think he’s been on your show before (he was involved with the B Boy round up, I think). Anyway, it doesn’t get much cooler and easy-going that that guy. If people like that are the future of hip-hop in Houston, then I am happy to hear it.

MS: I don’t know, man. Race is always an issue in the United States. But in Houston I don’t hear many of the rappers talking about any issues at all, let alone race. There’s a great underground scene of folks who talk about issues like Mas C, Savvi, Karega, Zin, K-Rino, Smugglaz, Equality — well, there’s actually a lot of MC’s with something to say, it’s just that they get ignored by the powers that be. Bun B always has a message in his music, so do all the Geto Boys. Houston is not as segregated and is not as gang infested as Chicago and Los Angeles so I guess that could be a reason too. We have our problems, but it is possible for people to get along here.

HC: Do you have an overall favorite Houston hip-hop artist? Why or why not?

MS: Devin the Dude is my favorite rapper of all time. He’s soulful, has a sense of humor, takes the art seriously, actually puts the art first which is where a lot of these rappers fuck up. Dude is just all around brilliant and it feels good to listen to him He’s one of the most original voices in hip hop and he represents for the common man and woman to the extreme.

HC: Have you ever been confronted about anything you’ve written about on your website (HoustonSoReal)? Anyone get upset or up in your face about anything? I know you’ve not only been on local musicians before about stepping up their work, but also about the local press (or actually, the lack thereof).

MS: Naw, no one has ever confronted me cuz I don’t make shit up and I don’t go out of my way to name names and diss people who are trying to make art. It is a fact that the Houston Chronicle has done almost nothing for local rap over the years, it’s also a fact that the Houston Press really hasn’t done much. They’ve both done a bit but rap is THE dominant music form in Houston. They need to be exploring it and covering it more if they are gonna cover music in Houston, point blank. As for the artists I will say that Houston as a whole should keep progressing and start rapping about more than teeth or cars but I’m not gonna ever come out and say “Rapper X” sucks because he only raps about his teeth and his cars. It’s art. Make you’re art. I’m a lot of things, but I’m really not a critic.

HC: What’s your goal with the Damage Control radio show [with DJ Chill, airs on KPFT, Wednesdays from midnight to 2 a.m.]? Do you get positive feedback from your efforts? I know you had a fundraiser — but still struggle to get enough money to front the show. Have you tried to get some sponsorship or would that defeat or “cheapen” what you’re trying to do?

MS: Well, KPFT is listener-sponsored so we cannot accept commercial sponsors or underwriters. It is what allows us to keep our edge. We present music generally unedited, often times just minutes after it is handed to us. We are there to rep for a community that does not have a lot of options to be heard. Many people in the rap biz here have their hands out looking for money for even the slightest favor. Payola runs rampant in these streets. The only goal is to keep it real and represent for our people in this city and independent artists in general who in some way reach to Houston. We do fine on our fund drives. Like 8 months ago our show was cut from two to three hours. Our first couple fund drives during that time suffered, but our last one kicked major ass. Beginning April 19th we will be a three hour show once again. So thank you to KPFT for recognizing our efforts. KPFT is a community station and we are a community show.

HC: You had a panel during SXSW this year: “Diamonds in the South: Houston Hip-Hop on the Rise.” How did it go? Can’t believe I missed that one. Must’ve been all the free beer and meat clouding my mind…

MS: It was cool. The artists, K-Rino and ESG did not show up, but we held it down. Basically we talked to folks about how they can follow Houston’s lead and get their music out to the people organically by using the network of small towns throughout the south and actually getting off their asses and making it happen for themselves like most of the successful artists in Houston did.

HC: So you’re married. Is your wife into what you do? She into the music as well? Do you have kids? I don’t see how you find the time…

MS: Yeah, I’m married and have two daughters, 8 months old and 4 years old. I don’t know how I find the time either. Basically I do what I do for my kids and my family. I see it like this, it’s better for me to be out a couple nights a week and maybe out of town for a few nights a month doing something I love than it would be for me to be locked to a desk at some office 10 hours a day doing something I hate. So it works out. Basically everything I have done since 2002 I have done with a child in my lap. Writing, making flyers, doing promotions, etc. They go with me everywhere I can take them. They both know all the rappers in town. As for my wife liking this music, she doesn’t hate it, but she doesn’t sit around jamming southern rap all day and neither do I. She’s cool with what I do because it pays the bills and she knows that I become practically suicidal when I am locked into something I don’t want to be in (i.e, a job.)

HC: So what do you do when you DJ? I missed catching you at the Vice party in Austin — there’s just too much to see there, ya know? Anyway, how do you go about picking what to play? Do you judge by the crowd or just play stuff you want to hear and hope it affects the audience like it does you?

MS: I am not much of a DJ. I can’t mix. I can’t count beats. I don’t even care. When I DJ I play what I want. At the Vice party I played Butthole Surfers, Swishahouse, Blondie, Negative Approach, The Click, Lee Scratch Perry and some other shit. I just played what I wanted to hear and the crowd just kind of stood around and talked amongst themselves. I just do what I do. I am way more John Peel than I am DJ Rock the House.

HC: What’s next for you in 2006?

MS: I have no idea. I seriously just wake up every day and hope I have some work to do. What I really want to do is get a show on NPR or some sort of format that I can be heard nationally and do what John Peel did before he died. I want to mix up all forms of new music and present it to the public. I do what I do within rap because someone has to keep it real out here for these people. I see the need for me to be in this rap world. But personally I want to do some radically different shit on a national scale and get paid for it.

But what is literally next in 2006 is I have a gang of dates in the works for Devin the Dude to perform all over the world, including Intonation Music Festival in Chicago with Bloc Party, The Streets, Dead Prez and The Boredoms. He’s also hopefully doing a festival in Toronto with Bun B and some other diverse groups. I’m going to start throwing monthly parties at Warehouse Live, with Devin the Dude and some other shit. Might even do a noise rock party with my friends in the band Rubble and Daniel Francis Doyle, hosted by a hot porn star. I got a lot of shit in the works. I have no idea what is going to happen.

HC: If someone’s reading this and wants to go buy five CDs that best represent Houston hip-hop (underground and/or major label, whatever), what would you suggest they go get? Same goes for mixes.

CDs: Geto Boys – Grip It! On That Other Level / UGK – Ridin’ Dirty / K-Rino – Danger Zone / Choice – The Big Payback / Devin the Dude – all 3 of his CDs

Mixes: DJ Chill Presents FREEZE / Rapid Ric’s Whut it Dew Series / Swishahouse anything / Beltway 8 anything /
Street Pharmacy anything

Thanks to Matt for taking the time out to answer these questions. Be sure to check out HoustonSoReal online.

Tags: Music

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 necee // May 26, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    i what to tell all my rapper in h-town what it do baby iam tha h-town too.

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