It's a typical, syrupy night in central San Antonio. The sound of poetry echoes from within Sam's Burger Joint as Dante Edwards, aka Donnie D, stoically recounts the loss of "The Middlemen," a radio show he produced for Trinity University's KRTU with fellow B-boys True, Sean Jumps, and DJ Nappy. Featuring inspired live mixes of underground hip-hop, the show sparked Sunday nights, and developed loyal listeners who voiced overwhelming support from throughout the city. Like most hip-hop-related entertainment in San Antonio, the show was ultimately undone by apathy and a general lack of support.
"What separates us from them `the radio DJs` is that we'll know what to play at a specific point in time — not just play hip-hop, but throw in some reggae, some old-skool soul, some old break shit for the breakdancers," says Edwards. "There's no hip-hop art form here — except Clogged Caps and little shows. But it's still not enough. We need hip-hop here. Houston's got it, and Austin's got it for sure, but everybody's tired of driving."
It is evident that the loss of the show has affected the 22-year-old DJ's vigor ("That's a hurting feeling"), and it is only when he recounts his musical journey that a smile graces his face. Edwards DJed his first party in seventh grade with a boombox, cassettes, and a few CDs. He recalls Juice — Ernest Dickerson's directorial debut that starred Omar Epps as an aspiring DJ — as a major catalyst for his decision to pursue music. At a family reunion, he met a cousin who was a professional DJ, and Edwards was hooked. His quest for two turntables and a mixer began, and he adopted the name Donnie D — an alias he had written on the back of a jacket two years before in the fifth grade. Edwards began to DJ small house parties with a ragtag assembly of sound equipment — often for no pay, but the DJ was content merely to control how people moved their bodies. He made his club debut in 1995, when DJ At War (whose moniker than was Special J) invited him to spin at the infamous, now-defunct Cameo Theater.
At War, along with local DJs Toast, AK, Cut Master Vino, and Dish 1, would all serve as major musical influences to Edwards' mixing style. He credits Dish 1 for teaching him how to manipulate a record; and it was At War who provided Edwards with his first Technic 1200, the turntable standard for any serious DJ. His second 1200 arrived one evening at midnight, when a homeboy presented Edwards with an early Christmas gift that he had acquired "around the way." That night he slept quietly content, his two 1200s laid out next to him in the bed.
As a child, Edwards' first record featured a clown named Ronald McDonald and was purchased for him by his mother. He laughingly recalls using it to scratch on the family's JC Penney stereo console that included a modest turntable. His mother nurtured his interest in music, helping to shape his aural tastes through her collection of old soul and gospel records. Influential soul music would come from Rosie Johnson, his grandmother, and an uncle named Billy, who supplied plenty of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Today, Edwards' mixes often feature fluid blends of underground hip-hop, reggae, breaks, and old soul — a major component of his upcoming debut CD, Four S's.
Produced and distributed independently, Four S's is slated for release in late July. Edwards describes the mix CD as a soulful fusion of downtempo jazz and hip-hop, with a sense of humor. "Something to clean your house to or to chill with your girl with," he explains. To produce and promote the disc, Edwards formed Nod Music ("Don" in backwards De La Soul speak), has plans for an additional release produced by his cousin Nappy, and is working toward bringing real hip-hop to the borderlands via Valley radio.
"You have all these kids growing up listening to hip-hop on the radio and watching all this bullshit on BET and MTV. They see that and they're thinking that hip-hop is all about this shit," says Edwards. "They're not thinking about back-in-the-day music and the other genres of music. All they know is commercialized rap music."
Despite past disappointments, Edwards is optimistic that he will return to the airwaves — preferably in San Antonio. The continued rejection of hip-hop music by San Antonio college radio creates a glaring void in programming that offers opposition to commercial rap's materialist bling-bling aesthetic. "We can't depend on a weak radio station that plays this bullshit and is rotting the people's minds," says Edwards. "I still wish we had `the show` because I still got the radio in me."