After his show ended earlier this year, many Houstonians may be wondering what happened to a previous staple of their early morning commutes, Mister Madd himself Benjamin Thompson, best known as Madd Hatta. For nearly 20 years, The Madd Hatta Morning Show was an essential staple of KBXX Houston’s 97.9 The Box – but now, the music curator is taking on a new challenge in a familiar environment: college radio.
“I always loved the music,” Hatta shares, in promotion of his new gig in conjunction with Texas State University, one of the largest HBCUs in the country. “KTSU is doing this new endeavor of a radio station called The Vibe, it’ll be R&B, Hip-Hop, kinda like a neo soul splashed radio station, for young folks. Should be exciting [and] I’ll be like a programming director, making sure that we follow the direction of not just the University, but also Ernest Walker, the general manager, making sure we stay on point with the purpose of the radio station: musically and image wise. From what we play to how we sound to what we engage our selves in for the community, I will be spearheading all that.”
While the veteran Dj and Texas Radio Hall of Famer clarifies the he won’t be a regular on-air presence, that’s a decision he has made for himself. “I will not be on air – they probably want me to be on air. I just don’t really have that desire. I think in my debut I’ll probably be on the air that day, just to do an hour shift to talk about what we plan on doing with the audience. But other than that, I won’t have a normal shift every day or anything.”
College radio was where the Hatta cut his teeth nearly 30 years ago, he says. “From being a DJ, from being in a band in my early years. I was one of those kids that wanted to understand why the radio stations made the decisions that were made. Going to college, I literally just walked into the college radio station. I was asking a whole lot of questions and the program director – I guess I came back like two or three days in a row, and she asked me: would you like a shift on the air? I was like, uhhhhhh – if that’s the way you get in! I didn’t say that out loud, but I’m thinkin’ in my head: I don’t know! And she said I had to call myself the Madd Hatta! And I’m like ugh… who wants to be the Madd Hatta? But if that’s what it was gonna take for me to be on the radio, I was like: Yes Ma’am!”
The Madd Hatta nom de plume stuck hard to the young music maker, and he never found the right moment to re-brand. “I was sure that one day I would be away from that name… but then your career starts to happen,” Hatta laughs. “The next thing you know you’ve gone almost 30 years and that’s been the name you have to work by.”
“Here’s the real funny part,” he continues with glee. “I didn’t know because I lacked knowledge on what being a radio personality was going into college. But another gentlemen was using the name the Madd Hatta for decades before me, but [his college programming director] just thought it was cool because I was always wearing these Run-DMC hats because I was a huge fan. I had one for the shower, one for football, one for when we played basketball, I was very over indulgent in wearing the hats. I think people thought something was wrong with my head for the first few years. Some and my hat wearing head walked way before this, I was the guy on campus who always wore these Run-DMC hats! So it was all over the university, so she had already heard of me before I even got there.
“Anyway, there was another guy calling himself the Madd Hatta and I did not know that. Really, my career started going and by the time I got to Houston, he would be like what we call the OG of urban radio at that particular time. And they used to have a lot of music conferences back in the day, they used to love that and learn so much – we don’t have them anymore because of the world we live in. I had the chance to meet him and he had to ordain me to continue to use the legacy of using the name Madd Hatta. It was like the mafia, I had to bow down and kiss the ring… I was ordained by the group of OG radio broadcasters, and I was able to continue using the name.”
When asked if he planned to pass the legacy title of the Madd Hatta down to the next generation, the DJ seems to shudder at the thought. “Who wants to be that?” he jokingly screams into the void. “I don’t know, let’s see what happens. If I have me a son, and he wants the name – it’s all his. If there’s some young guy out there who wants to take the mantle on, have at it!”
Right now, Hatta is taking his role as a steward of the music sharing game very seriously, as he attempts to promote Houston’s image in the national scene. “I have a skewed view, because I think our city is great,” he says. “I would say that we stack up high. We are particularly in rap though, we have a lot of artists in the city that have gone outside the city and done well. I don’t know if that’s fortunate or unfortunate. Big point has been Beyoncé and Lizzo, and Lizzo over the last two years has been really, really strong. But it’d be really, really if cool if we could find… we have another young lady by the name of Tamar Davis… it’d be really cool if we could get some other artists on the national front. I think we rank high, but that’s coming from a very skewed point. Like Atlanta, I think we once were the spot where everybody was clamoring as far as the music scene.
“Over the last few years, we’ve maintained ourselves especially within the city, but outside of it – we’re slowing down a little bit. I think every goes through its ebbs and waves, ups and downs. One minute you have [someone that] everybody has their eyes on, and the next minute, you have a slow down period. Not saying we’re at a slow down, we’re just kinda streaming a little bit, paddling a little bit, chilling a little bit. Lizzo was great, she really jump started the musical part of the city – outside of our hip-hop, I think our hip-hop has done quite well. For me, I’d like to see our R&B be just as large as the hip-hop.”
As a longtime assistant program director at the Box’s sister channel Majic 102.1, R&B remains close to the music producer’s soul, and a stated focus in his new mission with KTSU. “There’s an opportunity there to reach out, because there is so much music out there, and there’s just no way for every platform, every medium to expose it. This can just be another opportunity to try to expose all the cool music that’s out there. I think in our city, rap music really gets highlighted and done very well.
“But other than Lizzo, Beyoncé and Solange and Tamar… and those folks, there’s a huge R&B and music community doing some great stuff. They just don’t get the opportunity to be showcased on terrestrial radio, so I’m hoping that we’ll have the opportunity to tap into that because there’s a lot of young talent that’s out in the city that normally doesn’t have anywhere to go but digital, like YouTube or some digital medium. We like to be a frequency where they can come to and actually hear themselves on the radio, you know?”
Developing the talent of the next generation is a full time gig, and as Hatta understands – much has changed since he entered the professional industry in the early ’90s. So where does he find great new songs to showcase? He explodes with his answer: “Everywhere! Where do I start? Trades, magazines, I have a tendency to hit all over a Spotify, or iTunes – there’s a plethora of artists there and there’s no way in the world that you can indulge yourself in all of it. I look for something that attracts me: a cool name, or some cool art on the cover of something. Sometimes they’ll have artists you need to be checking out, so I subscribe to a lot of things.
“I also watch what’s happening here. You can look at Shazam and see a lot of what’s happening in this city, a lot of times. People are streaming or downloading digitally, so I try to keep my finger on the pulse of all these different mediums. A lot of the cool hip-hop that you hear, the truth of the matter is you hear it on NPR. I try to open my ears up to a lot of these things. So hopefully we’ll not only help discover, but be a place for those artists to have a home that will play their music. That’s the goal. And don’t get me wrong – we’ll play the hits too. There’s no radio station without the hits. But we definitely want to open up, and that’s what’ll make us different than most. That’s what I’m excited about, especially with the R&B stuff, because there’s really not a place for R&B artists to really call home, on no terrestrial format anywhere.”
With both eyes toward the future, Madd Hatta will be joined at The Vibe by Houston-based playwright and publicist Holly Charles as the station’s new Marketing and Community Engagement Director, as well as a TSU alum Nakia Cooper, who will serve as a Digital Media Coordinator. “Another reason I wanted to be at the university now is I want to be part of where radio goes at this point,” Madd Hatta explains, with caution. “My kid doesn’t know any of the radio DJs in this particular city, but she can say everything that’s happening on YouTube and everything that’s happening on Tic Tok. It’s just a new day and time.
“There’s a part of me that wants to see the students who are still interested in this, how they’re interested and it’s gonna be interesting to how radio makes the transition over the next few years, because I don’t think you can be a one-dimensional DJ anymore. By saying you’re gonna do it at the radio station – you have to a little social media, you have to do a little YouTube, you might have to have a podcast or do some television… you just have to be a more well rounded personality. You just have to be a personality! Because I’ve seen kids age 6 years old to 16 years old who just got to Tik Tok and become the new sensation. Literally, we’re just in an interesting time.
“I’m interested to see how radio will maintain itself. Either it will either make the corrective changes or it will not and it will not survive.”
Starting in September, The Vibe can be heard on 90.9 FM and streaming 24/7 at vibehouston.com. For more information, visit ktsuradio.com