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The Soul Controller Mixshow is the voice of Washington’s hiphop underground. So why can’t you hear it in the District?
For the better part of his collegiate career, Eddie “Bushhead Ed” Smith pledged his Fridays to WMUC 88.1 FM’s The Soul Controller Mixshow, the University of Maryland, College Park,’s longest-running hiphop radio show. While his friends were party-hopping or stumbling drunk through another happy hour, Smith was in WMUC’s cramped studio, assisting with the playlist or presiding over the boards. Smith became an official “Soul Controller,” as the show’s staff members call themselves, in 1996. He’s since graduated and now works for a cable company in Lanham, but his fervor for the show is still intact. On any given Friday, you can still find him at WMUC. “I never saw an episode of Homicide until it came on Court TV,” he says, laughing.
This fall Friday is special for Smith and his fellow Soul Controllers: It’s the show’s eighth anniversary. There are no cone-shaped hats, cakes, or balloons, but someone has ordered a couple of pizzas. An assortment of staffers and fans of the show are shooting the breeze while tomato sauce drips from their mouths. In a room equipped with two turntables and a mixer, Gary “DJ Book” Booker and Rhome “DJ Stylus” Anderson unearth volumes of hiphop arcana and incorporate them into the mix. The rare grooves range from early-’90s political rapper YZ to present-day but no less esoteric fare such as the Lone Catalysts.
In the main control room, Smith plays promotional drops by everyone from DJ Premier to Biggie Smalls. Whenever Booker or Anderson finishes a set, colorful commentary is offered up by Smith and Adrienne “All-Star” Augustus. The duo is joined by Boondocks cartoonist Aaron “A-Double” McGruder, who, until his recent move to Los Angeles, counted himself as one of the core members of the Soul Controllers. “Don’t worry—I’m not Johnnie Cochran,” he says, joking with his old friends.
Airing from 6 to 9 p.m., and the first in a block of hiphop shows that runs until 3 a.m., Soul Controller is well-known among local heads as the only radio outlet in the D.C. area for local and underground acts. But its reputation—which is so strong that the show has been lauded in national music magazine Vibe—has mostly been built by word-of-mouth. That’s because WMUC operates on a 10-watt transmitter, and if you don’t live in College Park or close by, you probably have never listened to the show. Natural and man-made barriers muffle the broadcast over much of the D.C. area, leaving only a few oases of clear signal open. According to Anderson, fans of Soul Controller often ride up and down a particular strip of the Beltway to listen to the show. Others, he says, sit on their front porches, radios in hand, aluminum foil twisted over the tips of the antennae.
When McGruder begins bragging about the quality of commercial radio in L.A., he threatens to dampen the evening’s festive mood. “I heard ‘Peach Fuzz’ in the middle of the day!” says McGruder excitedly, referencing a classic by the defunct rap group KMD. But no one in the room needs to be reminded that Soul Controller is unable to promote such underground hits to a wide audience in D.C.
Listen to D.C.’s two urban contemporary stations, WPGC 95.5 FM and WKYS 93.9 FM, over the course of a day, and you’re likely to hear them both playing the same songs—more than a few times. You may also begin to understand why someone would drive up and down the same highway for three hours to hear Soul Controller. Turn to WPGC and you’ll hear mainstream hiphop acts Eve, the Hot Boys, and DMX. Turn to WKYS and you’ll hear DMX, the Hot Boys, and Eve. The stations purport to be competitors, but it seems as if the two have entered into an unholy alliance, determined to destroy the musical imagination of Washingtonians. “D.C. radio is filled with followers,” says Soul Controller DJ Mr. Elite. “They don’t take any chances at all.”
Any local head who’s made the drive from New York to Washington can attest to other cities’ contrast to the maddening monotony of District radio. Coming down I-95 out of New York, you’ll hear your share of DMX and Eve, but you’ll also hear new tracks by less well-known artists like Mos Def, Mobb Deep, or Tash. Even as you head toward Baltimore and adjust your radio dial to WERQ 92.3 FM, you might hear Chubb Rock’s old-school “Ya Bad Chubbs” or Common and Sadat X’s underground hit “1-9-9-9.” But that signal frays into static as you approach the Beltway and enter the doldrums of WPGC and WKYS. Of course, if you happen to be coming from New York on a Friday night and decide to take Route 1 into the city instead of I-95, you can, for probably about 15 minutes, get an original hiphop experience with the Soul Controllers. But as you drive away from College Park, WMUC’s signal, too, quickly disintegrates.
For years, the Soul Controllers have been trying to sell the show to a station with wider access. They’ve had almost no success—and have agreed that if the show doesn’t catch on somewhere by the end of the spring semester, they’ll go off the air for good. “The music we play reflects upon who we are,” says Booker. “It’s thought-provoking, and it has soul, and that’s counter to commercial radio.”
When Soul Controller was started in 1991 by University of Maryland students Jason Howlin, Jason Mingus, and Malcolm Poindexter, rap wasn’t the commercial phenomenon it is now. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, if you were a hiphop head and you lived outside of New York, you probably heard rap only on college radio or late at night on a commercial station. But, in those days, the line between underground and commercial wasn’t clearly drawn. So Soul Controller wasn’t so much an underground hiphop show as it was simply a good hiphop show. “You’d hear all the new beats and debate hiphop [with people in the studio],” says Anderson. “It was like a hiphop summit.”
But as the ’90s wore on and the terms “creative” and “commercial” became antonyms, the Soul Controllers marked out their territory in the underground. In the mid-’90s, the University of Maryland had a core community of heads to support the show. But today, rap fans at the university have become split between underground acts like the High & Mighty and mainstream bombast like DMX. It’s a world wholly unfamiliar to the Soul Controllers and their generation, who were raised on the creative diversity of De La Soul, Public Enemy, and D.O.C. “We are ‘hiphop adult contemporary,’” says Anderson. “Cats like us don’t want to hear DMX—but we don’t necessarily want to hear Company Flow, either.”
And, unfortunately for them, the underground at the University of Maryland doesn’t extend very far. Their only somewhat successful attempt at developing a mass audience for the show occurred in 1995, during the heyday of WPGC 1580 AM, the District’s most recent attempt at an all-hiphop radio format. Soul Controller was given the 10 p.m.-to-midnight Friday-night slot on the station. But within a year, WPGC switched its format to gospel, ending the Soul Controllers’ run.
But the show had garnered valuable exposure to a mass market, which the Soul Controllers thought they could parlay into a deal at another station. Steph Lova, WPGC’s most prominent on-air personality, had turned her stint into a full-time gig at WKYS, and the Soul Controllers figured they could at least do the same. They were sorely disappointed. “We put together packets for WKYS and WPGC. They both said they were impressed,” says Smith. “But they said our music was too edgy,” adds Booker.
Undaunted, Smith, who handles much of the behind-the-scenes work for the Soul Controllers, decided to take their package to WPFW 89.3 FM. In its mission statement, Pacifica network affiliate WPFW claims “to provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community, to contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors.” The station, the statement goes on to say, is “an accessible media outlet for Blacks, Hispanics, cultural groups, seniors, youth, and other ethnic non-traditional groups.” Smith figured that Soul Controller would be right up WPFW’s alley. But the group was again rebuffed. Smith says that WPFW Program Director Lou Hankins made it clear that, despite WPFW’s mission statement, rap is not welcome at the station, underground or commercial. “He doesn’t see the rap on WPGC as any different from the music we play,” says Smith.
WPFW’s mission statement also says that its programming primarily consists of “jazz, Third World music, news, and public affairs.” Rap doesn’t exactly fall into any of those categories. But WPFW’s rejection of the show clearly also stems from Hankins’ taste in culture. When approached about Soul Controller, Hankins exploded into an expletive-laden attack against rap. “Do they play that shit on [all-news station] WTOP?” said Hankins. “Why should I fucking have to play [rap]?” When asked why he was resorting to profanity, Hankins became even more irate: “That’s what [rap] is, isn’t it? Bitches and muthafuckers.”
Lost amid two corporate stations and a community station that’s allergic to rap, the Soul Controllers appear to have rather dim prospects. Only two of the Soul Controllers are still in school, and the regular routine of rushing from work to the WMUC on Friday is getting old for the others. But the decision to leave hasn’t been an easy one. “It’s tough, because there’s nothing like us on the air,” says Smith. Nor will there be anytime soon. Both WKYS and WPGC are managing just fine—despite shallow playlists that completely ignore the District’s homegrown talent.
“You need three things for a healthy hiphop scene,” says Anderson. “You need radio, retail, and venues. [Washington’s hiphop scene] is sketchy on all three, but the radio is pretty bad.” It will only get worse when the University of Maryland’s spring semester ends and the Soul Controllers pack up their bags. CP