"We got buzz on this side," says DJ Stylus, a k a Rhome Anderson, rotating a record until he hears it through his sound system. "Buzz and a snap-crackle-pop."
At least something is working. Before Anderson breezed into the University of Maryland's WMUC 88.1-FM studio on a recent Friday evening, it was experiencing a technical meltdown.
The turntables malfunctioned. The lines that are used to put listeners on the air were down. Even the tape player went kaput.
But Anderson, 24, along with Eddie "Bush Head Ed" Smith, 25, and "All-Star" Adrienne Augustus, 21, found a way to produce another edition of their nationally recognized hip-hop program, the Soul Controllers Mixshow.
"The madness is half the fun," Smith says.
It's been eight years since the madness was instigated by a group of University of Maryland undergraduates. That's a marathon-length stretch by college radio standards, and makes the Soul Controllers Mixshow one of the longest-running hip-hop programs in the Washington area.
Though the station's signal is just 10 watts and reaches only the College Park area and other scattered parts of Prince George's County and the District, the radio show has generated a buzz both on and off campus.
The Soul Controllers won kudos from Vibe magazine in 1994 for being one of hip-hop radio's best. One of its alumni is Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, whose satiric and politically charged comic strip explores the humor and wit of hip-hop culture.
Like McGruder, most of the show's disc jockeys have long moved on to careers outside the station, but several "Soul C's" return to the chaos every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. to preach this gospel to fans who have given up on finding quality hip-hop: There is rap music out there that rejects both the puddle-deep commercialism of Puff Daddy and the militantly anti-pop underground.
"We call it grown folks' hip-hop," Smith says.
The studio is slightly larger than a walk-in closet. Promotional stickers and graffiti cover every available surface. On a windowsill, someone has scrawled "David--where are my cigarettes?" Posters for indie films and pictures of NBA stars and Bob Marley hang on the wall above the dingy gray carpet.
Between songs, there is the back-and-forth banter of the show and plenty of toilet bowl humor: flirting, accusations of nose-picking and an interactive discussion with the audience about the authenticity of Mariah Carey's well-endowed chest. The DJs also play several Soul Controller promos recorded by well-known rappers such as Gang Starr and the Black Sheep.
Anderson hops over to the microphone. By way of salutation, he spews this invective to listeners: "Cuf the world don't ask me for tish . . . DJ Stylus is crawling in with a big foot in the behind from life."
Anderson hasn't slept for 24 hours. In addition to his full-time job as a Web site administrator, the Riverdale Park resident maintains boondocks.net,McGruder's official Web site. Anderson has been friends with the cartoonist since their days on the College Park campus, where both earned Afro-American Studies degrees in 1997.
Each day, Anderson answers between 50 to 100 e-mails from enthusiastic fans and angry critics of the comic strip. He also devotes much of his time to DJing in several local rap groups. One of them, the Poemcees, recently recorded a CD at the State of the Union nightclub in Washington.
Exhausted and cranky, Anderson drags himself into the studio, carrying a case full of vinyl albums by lesser-known groups such as the Seattle-based Grassroots, Afu-Ra from New York and Philadephia's Roots, along with another of Anderson's local groups, Unspoken Heard.
Anderson says there is an art to discovering new talent. "Finding records to me is like an Easter egg hunt," he says. "It's combing record stores, online spots. . . . That type of roundabout super-sleuthing."
The Soul Controllers aren't fans of the latest trend in hip-hop: spurning any trace of melody, traditional rhythm or rhyme schemes. Smith, who has a day job as video producer, calls this kind of music "backpack hip-hop."
"The countermovement to a lot of hip-hop is the really, really underground. Some of that underground music is not even musical. Lyrically, it's not that clever, it's just an endless barrage of words that I don't know what you have to be on to understand."
Anderson agrees, noting that much of the newest underground rap is littered with asymmetric rhymes and contrived attempts at esotericism.
"We call it dirge," Anderson says. "It's like funeral music. There are no hooks. Everyone is so [annoyed] about the Puffy and the jiggy-ism that they tried to come out against that."
The DJs say the Internet is to blame for much of the bad hip-hop because it has eliminated barriers to the marketplace. Now anyone with a modem can start a label and hawk inferior music.
"It's over-democratized," Anderson says. "That's why there are so many wack hip-hop acts now. That's why there are so many bad labels now. It's too easy."
Before the Internet, established labels and record companies served a valuable gatekeeping function, Smith says. "No one really wants to be policed, but when there is no policing, anyone can say anything and do anything," he says.
Ironically, the accessibility of the Internet may represent the radio show's best hope for expanding its audience.
"We love the show and we love all the music we play, but it's real depressing when no one can hear it. A lot of people are like, 'I love you guys, but I can't hear your show,' " Smith says.
The show can already be heard worldwide. About a year ago, the Pipeline Network, a Winnipeg, Canada-based company, heard the show during a WMUC Internet broadcast. The company contracted with the Soul Controllers to make the show available on its Web site, www.tpln.net. The Soul Controllers also have archived several programs that will soon be posted on the Web site sevenheads.com.
"It's depressing," Smith says of their lack of range. "But every once in a while, we'll get a call from a listener that will give us a burst of energy."
Today, the push comes in the form of two lanky teenagers from Mount Rainier who amble into the studio. Since Gary Trice, 18, and Felmon Yohannes, 17, first heard the Soul Controllers about a year ago, they've rarely missed a show.
"It's straight hip-hop," Yohannes says. "They don't play that 'bama [expletive] they play on the radio. And when you want to get through and talk to them, you can. It's not commercial." The Northwestern High School senior says he only tunes his radio to Washington's mainstream urban radio stations when he's driving out of range, far away from his Mount Rainier home.
"But it's a last resort," he says.
CAPTION: "DJ Stylus" or Rhome Anderson, right, "DJ Book" Gary Booker and "All-Star" Adrienne Augustus create the Soul Controllers Mixshow from the University of Maryland's station WMUC.
CAPTION: Eddie "Bush Head Ed" Smith, left, and Booker on the air. "The madness is half the fun," Smith says.