On the Saturday after the Rodney King verdict triggered rioting in the streets of Los Angeles, there was a drive-by in Houston’s Third Ward. Usually a drive-by involves a gang member shooting at a rival from a passing automobile, but this drive-by was completely different. First, it was sponsored by a radio station. Second, no guns were involved.
“We’re having the only drive-by that’s safe,” bubbled Marcus Love, the self-proclaimed Official College Voice of Hip Hop. “We don’t care if you’re riding a tricycle, roller skates, a horse, or a Cadillac—drive on by the station. We’ve got CDs, cassettes, posters, buttons, movie passes to the latest Damon Wayans film to give away. We don’t need artillery; all we need is Y-O-U!”
The drive-by was a promotion for Kidz Jamm, a program broadcast every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on KTSU-FM, 90.9, at Texas Southern University. Kidz Jamm features rap, the beat-heavy sound of the streets, and an ever-changing team of young high schoolers and collegians learning the ropes of broadcasting. If you’re curious about what inner-city black youths are up to, there’s no better way to listen in on their world.
And there’s no better place in Texas for a young rap deejay to train. Houston, the third-largest market for rap sales in the United States, boasts one 24-hour all-rap commercial radio station (KYOK-AM, 1590) and two urban contemporary stations that feature rap acts: KBXX-FM, 97.9 (or the Box), and KMJQ-FM, Majic 102. Rap is so popular, in fact, that Kidz Jamm has become an informal broadcasting farm system. Commercial radio stations hire away talented youths almost as quickly as Kidz Jamm ’s program director, Detria Ward, can find them in Houston-area schools. Since Ward, who also serves as KTSU’s traffic manager, took over the reins five years ago, more than twenty Kidz Jamm alumni have gone on to radio, television, and music careers. All three current staffers—Michelle Milton, Parrish Murphy, and Marcus Love—also hold down part-time positions at other Houston radio stations.
Many Houston rap acts have benefited from the thirty minutes of air time each program devotes to Houston rap talent, from recognized acts such as the Geto Boys and Def Squad to amateur rappers who’ve put together cassettes in their bedrooms. Two former members of the Kidz Jamm crew, Jazzie Redd and King Tee, have even scored major label record contracts as rappers.
Ward, a TSU graduate in theater, feels that KTSU’s on-the-job-training approach gives the students an edge over the competition. In addition to working the microphone, staffers learn the more mundane tasks of producing public service announcements, signing engineering logs, and taking requests over the phone. One of the most important lessons Ward teaches is humility. Though she rarely goes on the air during the program, she tells her disc jockeys that around KTSU, she is the only star. “That way, no one jock dominates,” explains Ward, who is known to her charges as Momma Mean and refers to her staff as “my babies.”
Sometimes Ward’s role extends no further than being a voice of reason, as was the case when the deejays wanted to know if the program was going to bring up the issue of the Rodney King verdict. “I told them it had been addressed enough,” Ward said. Her solution was the drive-by promotion, which turned the concept of drive-bys upside down, into something positive that at the same time indirectly acknowledged the riots and the tense mood in the black community.
Although each of the three Kidz Jamm deejays puts together his own sections of the program, limits are built into the choices they make—they screen the music for content. Many raps are shockingly explicit and some advocate violence; they treat subjects such as AIDS, sex, drugs, and street crime with a bluntness not found in other electronic media. “Because Kidz Jamm is oriented to young adults, we have a responsibility,” Ward says. “There are certain songs that have a subjectivity that I can’t swallow.” She cites excessive profanity and disrespect for women in some rap material. “I’m very particular about how far we go.”
On the other hand, she believes that the gangster attitude projected by some artists has validity. “This is street life,” says Ward. “This is not something that was just created out of thin air like a Steven Spielberg movie. Some of these people have actually seen this kind of life. This generation has a world we wish they were not living in. They are almost out of control, but there’s a reason they took the turn they did.”
But even if rap strikes some ears as a bunch of noise, much as rock and roll was regarded as the devil’s music by many parents in the fifties, there is a timelessness to the jive and patter of these young deejays in training. Their routines never bore, as Parrish Murphy so ably demonstrated during one break in the drive-by promotion: “Love, peace, and hair grease from the Funky Detective of Love! I’m just a victim of the ghetto! We’re having a drive-by, the only drive-by that’s safe. C’mon down!”