It's nearly midnight on a recent Thursday. Having already been to a rock show, I'm now drinking Red Bull in the Westport building that houses KKFI 90.1.
DJ "Kool Wayne" Dowdy lounges across from me, sleepy-eyed and grinning. In a few minutes, he'll take over the small broadcast studio to bump lots of underground beats from here and down south and answer a steady stream of phone calls until 4 a.m.
He thinks the time slot for his weekly hip-hop show, The Wire, is pretty sweet.
"I get all the late-nighters. What's better than the late-nighters?" Dowdy says. "They say the freaks come out at night."
Indeed. Five years ago, rapper Fat Tone got shot after leaving Dowdy's show, which was then known as The After Spot Hip-Hop Show. Perhaps this is why Dowdy's head jerks a little when a car horn blares from the street below around 1:30 a.m.
"Was that for you?" I ask.
"Probably," he says, chuckling. "They do that all the time."
Throughout the night, Dowdy pulls books of CDs from a blue backpack, feeding the shiny discs into a stereo that will pump his favorite songs well beyond this tiny room. Thanks to KKFI's live Web stream, this 30-year-old KC-by-way-of-Atlanta DJ with a bullring through his nose has fans all over the world.
They tune in because Dowdy plays what mainstream hip-hop radio won't figure out for years. "When they pick up a song I was playing two, three years ago, I make a call to a label rep: 'Is there a remix for that?'" Dowdy says. "Being a core DJ like that, you get songs before anybody ever hears it."
Dowdy's working on a mixtape he says will be distributed nationally. The content will be a lot like his radio show — a blend of his favorite underground artists, such as Plies from Florida and fresh remixes of Akon-caliber stars. "Every once in a while, I try to trick 'em — throw in a little Roots Minuva or Portishead," he says. He smirks and adds, "But then I get a lot of letters."
Half the time during his show, Dowdy seems to know just what he's looking for as he pops discs in and out of the station's players. The rest of the time, he improvises. While one track plays on the radio, he listens to another one, head cocked, one headphone cup pulled slightly away from his ear. When he appears to be mulling something over, Dowdy pushes off his black baseball cap and rustles the fuzzy mohawk underneath. (With the haircut, the nose ring, his shiny Ed Hardy shoes and his fat rhinestone-studded wristwatch, Dowdy really is a cool-looking cat.)
Occasionally, he turns the tunes way down and calls out to his listeners — in KC, Omaha, Tallahassee, London, Tokyo and beyond. "From your block to the cell block to the whole world, I am the best!" Dowdy likes to proclaim.
All the while, the studio phone line burns with a flashing red light. Dowdy's cell phone is hot, too — it bursts into song every few minutes. He greets the studio callers with his disarming, boyish laugh and puts some of them on the air — mostly women broadcasting love, sometimes to a son or a husband in jail. One apparent regular calls from the Kansas City airport, where she's working overtime. She makes a plea for people to "put the guns down and have some love ... or we going to be an endangered species like the animals are."
Dowdy knows this all too well.
It's why he has to blink back tears when he plays Plies' song about carrying on after your best friend gets killed. "I buried my grandfather two Saturdays ago," Dowdy says. "The same night, my best friend was killed. Two nights after that, my cousin was killed." Dowdy's best friend was the Kansas City rapper Paper Head. The last thing they talked about was a trip to Florida to work on a song with Plies. "We were always together," Dowdy says softly.
His acknowledgment of the loss is subtle on the air. He slips easily back into jokes about a hair-weave contest and the "baby mama slapstick," a device that goes off whenever your woman's out with "Jody, the sneak-around boyfriend."
My Red Bull wings faltering, I decide to sneak out halfway through the show, around 2 a.m.
But Dowdy won't let me go alone. He puts a song on and escorts me outside, waving from the radio station's second-story entrance until I'm safely inside my car.
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