Lil' Flea at his home on the Southside of Houston. All photos via Peter Beste.
Houston’s impact on 21st century rap is virtually unprecedented. One has to look no further than its pronounced influence on two of the genres biggest stars—Drake and A$AP Rocky—or the obsessive remix culture spawned out of DJ Screw’s legendary screwed and chopped style—to see its wide-ranging and lasting cultural impact.
Nine years ago, photographer Peter Beste set out to document the regional powerhouse turned international phenomenon. He tapped his pal and writer Lance Scott Walker to conduct interviews documenting the history of the city's regionally self-sufficient music industry, slang, drugs, and geographic tumult.
Over much of the next decade, the duo spent countless hours immersing themselves in Houston rap’s rich culture, tracking down the rappers, drug dealers, producers, managers, strippers, radio and club personalities, pimps, and various hangers-on who witnessed and helped build the Bayou City’s local rap scene. The research resulted in two books: Houston Rap Tapes, a collection of the interviews conducted during that nine year period, and Houston Rap, a photobook interspersed with firsthand accounts of the community and culture that spawned national stars like Lil’ Flip, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Pimp C and Bun B, as well as many others who were integral to the city’s local rap infrastructure but never achieved nationwide success.
Using the music industry as its prism,
takes an unflinching look at the music scene and the city’s rapid march towards gentrification that left many of the neighborhoods featured in the book (Third Ward, Fifth Ward, South Park, the Southside) irrevocably altered. During a talk and signing at Toronto’s Type Books last month, Lance discussed the difficulties of penetrating Houston’s insular scene as one of two white guys with photography equipment and tape recorders travelling to places integral to Houston’s rap scene—including its network of afterhours strip clubs. “We would go in there and get a bunch of strange looks,” he told a rapt Toronto crowd of around 30. “We had to the get the promoter to tell the DJ to make an announcement saying, ‘OK. The two whiteboys in here are the owner’s personal photographers. They’re going to be walking around, taking pictures and asking questions,’ before anyone would open up to us.” With Houston Rap only featuring a fraction of thousands of images that Peter shot over nearly a decade, each with its own compelling backstory, we asked Lance to select ten of his favourite photographs from the book and tell us how they came together. He did us one better by offering ten previously unpublished photographs and the stories behind them. The recollections begin on the next page. Photographs by Peter Beste, words by Lance Scott Walker. Enjoy!
Point Blank, a.k.a. The Bull (middle) and Egypt E of The Terrorists (second from right) at Houston's MacGregor Park for the 2005 SPC Weekend, an annual event held in the legendary park from which South Park draws its name. The South Park Coalition (SPC) is a group of artists some 100-strong who come together every September around founder K-Rino's birthday, for a Saturday night club show and then the park on Sunday afternoon, with turntables set up right next to the basketball court. Around sunset, rappers take a microphone and do live sets right there on the sidewalk.
This was Peter's first shoot with Bun B, sometime in early 2005. Taken in Midtown Houston, in what was known as Vietnamtown before gentrification more than doubled its population in the last decade. Around the time of this photo, Houston had officially designated the area "Little Saigon," but developers had already begun to claw away at its landscape. Blocks of apartment complexes, condos, and strip centers ha chased out Vietnamese businesses that have been there since people started immigrating to Houston from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. There are still some Vietnamese sandwich shops, restaurants and noodle houses, but a lot of Midtown now looks like it was built in the last 15 years—and it was! Despite those keys in his hand, this is not Bun's car.
In the fall of 2006, VICE came to Houston and ran around town with Peter and me for a week. Our main tour guide (to the left here) was Kyu Boi, a marginally known member of the South Park Coalition who was close to DJ Screw and knew everybody on the Southside. He introduced us to a lot of folks, and was the first one to take us to South Park's housing projects. His storytelling and outgoing nature landed him lots of screen time in “Screwed In Houston,” the eventual documentary produced by VBS. To the right is South Park Coalition founder K-Rino, who is one of Houston's most prolific and universally respected rappers. He played an important part in the VBS documentary and was a huge voice in both of our books.
The first time I interviewed Screwed Up Click rapper Lil' Keke, it was at the home of longtime Swishahouse art director Mike Frost, who had just ordered pizza, so Keke did the entire interview eating pizza. The second time I interviewed him, it was as part of a panel in front of an audience of hundreds at the University of Houston, and he brought a fruit cup and a bottle of Sprite onstage. On the day of this shoot, he only smoked. This is Lil' Flea of the Houston group Street Military at his home on the Southside in the very first photoshoot Peter did for the project. One of the photos from these sessions appears in Houston Rap Tapes. Street Military was an early '90s group of rappers from different parts of Houston, who all went on to notable solo projects after the group disbanded (one member, Nutt, died, and another, Pharoah, is in prison). KB Da Kidnappa and DJ Icey Hott are the two most active members of Street Military. Both appear in Houston Rap, as do transcriptions of letters Pharoah and I wrote back and forth from prison.
Lockwood Skating Palace in Fifth Ward is one of the most important landmarks in Houston's rap history. Many artists made their first live appearance here, and it has served as the site of countless battle rap competitions over the years, as that was the way early Houston rappers cut their teeth to get into the scene. Trae tha Truth performed at the skating rink on the night this photo was taken in 2008 (a picture from his set that night, onstage with the late Money Clip D, ended up in Houston Rap Tapes) and gave away free bicycles to the kids.
This is Swishahouse founder DJ Michael "5000" Watts at the same uptown landmark that appears in Lil’ Keke’s video for “Southside,” taken not long after Keke signed with a subsidiary of the Northside label. Swishahouse long ago grew out of its late '90s reputation as the Northside's answer to DJ Screw, launching the careers of Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug before each went on to have an impact in the mainstream rap world. Swishahouse is the only record label archived at Rice University in Houston. To the left is O.G. Style, an old school rapper from Fourth Ward whose first album didn't come out until 1991 when Rap-A-Lot released "I Know How To Play 'Em," but was an early pioneer in Houston who was a regular on the Saturday morning hip-hop radio show Kidz Jamm. Back then, he was known as Prince Ezzy-E, but everybody in his neighborhood knew him by his face anyway. Peter was taking his picture in front of a Fourth Ward store when the gentleman with the golf club walked right into the frame and proclaimed himself the "Tiger Wood of the hood," wanting to be in a photo with the Bayou City legend. Peter obliged, and also took a photo of "Tiger Wood" by himself that ended up in Houston Rap. O.G. Style died in early 2008 from a brain aneurysm. Northside rapper Paul Wall makes a sandwich for his daughter at their house in Kingwood, just north of Houston. Don't let the bling fool you. That's a real dude. Because of his tours overseas entertaining troops and the trips he took to Sierra Leone to witness firsthand the realities of the diamond conflict (Paul is the public face of a Houston jeweler), his interview in Houston Rap Tapes is one of the most wide-ranging of any I conducted for the books.
One of the biggest champions of the H-Town underground to emerge in recent years has been Optimo Ram, whose online radio station plays Houston rap music around the clock. This photo was taken in Second Ward, where Ram began broadcasting from in 2010.
An unguarded moment between old friends Bun B and the late Pimp C at his mother's house in Port Arthur just a few months before his death in 2007. Their group Underground Kingz (UGK) was from Port Arthur, but Pimp C and Bun B are identified with the Houston movement because of their love for the city and their huge influence on its growth as a rap powerhouse. There were plenty of late Houston artists we didn't get to meet before we started the books (Fat Pat, Big Mello, DJ Screw) whose personalities were the stuff of legend, but waiting for Pimp C to be released from prison at the end of 2005 and then meeting him a few months later was the closest we came to that kind of magic. Easily the most electric voice of anyone I spoke with during the nine years we worked on the books. The night we finally did meet, UGK was set to play a reunion show at a huge club on the Westside. During one of the opening acts, a brawl broke out near the stage and the place went wild and emptied out into the street. The photographer from the Houston Chronicle I was with got hit in the head with a microphone, which he picked up off the ground and took home with him.