Photos by Marco Torres.
It’s a highly temperamental day in Houston, Texas as thousands mob Eleanor Tinsley Park for the first day of Free Press Summer Fest. Organized annually by independent alt-weekly Free Press Houston, the festival is bigger than ever in it’s seventh year. The solar system themed map of the 2014 grounds spills well outside the park and calls for multiple street closures. Right on the edge of the Fourth Ward, a shut down Allen Parkway is filled with patrons swarming the Neptune Stage, boiling under the relentlessly beating sun. Just a couple of hours earlier, the park had been evacuated after a plummeting downpour warranted a flood advisory. Patrons were annoyed and scrambling for seats at nearby bars, but at this moment, that all seems like a distant memory. The eager crowd can handle the heat, but in anticipation for showtime, they begin to chant.
“Houston…Texas… Home of the Texans!”
Amongst the buzz of organizers, entourage, friends, and family—longtime Southern rap fixtures Bun B, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, and Mike Jones emerge from a backstage meeting. While they’d walked in cracking jokes and catching up together like old friends at a reunion, they walk out affirmed and focused, like a team before the championship game. Bun, Slim, and Devin linger around their trailer while Paul returns to his wife and kids in the green room tent. Z-Ro and Jones keep to themselves. They’ve got five minutes.
“People are not ready for this. We’re not doing a typical show today.” Bun B tells me, with an all-knowing smirk, “What we are about to see here is something that has never happened before.”
These five hometown heroes are about to take the stage together as a supergroup dubbed Welcome to Houston. The road to this point has been nearly 30 years in the making. After years of collaborations, moments of friction, subsequent reconciliations, and defining what it truly means for an artist to be “major without a major deal”; these six legends of Houston rap music have never stood on stage together, until now. At a time when their culture, style, and sound is being bit from nearly every direction on the map—Houston rap needs this symbol of unity more than ever.
Even as the rappers all rally on the loading ramp and family and entourage claim their spots on the side stage, about to take part in one of the most authentic celebrations of Texas trill in the history of Southern rap, their obvious misrepresentation by mainstream pop culture glares back at the performers.
A young fest-goer in the front of the crowd sits atop her boyfriend’s shoulders, cheering and clapping. Her bright yellow tank top is emblazoned with the text, “#BEEN TRILL#”.
The East Coast based #BEEN TRILL# calls itself a “…an art collective and DJ crew whose image and sound is defined by the frenzy of new youth culture found on the pages of the deep web, and on the blocks of big cities.” Native southern rap fans call it bullshit.
The true meaning of trill has been alive and well in the heart of the south for decades. You can find it at the hood car wash on Sunday afternoons, where the custom slabs are on display and the sound systems are rattling. You can find it in the barbershop parking lots, where ambitious and industrious young rappers sell mixtapes out of their trunks. You can find it laced deep within the slow and lush low range of 90’s pressed DJ Screw cassettes, where it first originated.
It’s understandable though, how things got to this point. Rappers like A$AP Rocky and Chief Keef came of age at a time when Swishahouse Records had partnered with Warner Brothers and Atlantic, breaking singles by Slim Thug, Paul Wall, and Mike Jones that topped the Billboard 200. In those days, Houston rap was at its most dominant in the national market.
But majors infiltrating the regional bubble was not without complication. Infighting, label hopping, and good old fashioned competitive spirit between artists created a division among Houston rappers that made it possible for outsiders co-opting of their culture to slip through the cracks of the scene. If there’s any hope to put an end to their trending exploitation, the Third Coast is going to have to stand together and defend the true meaning of Texas trill, in all of its syrup sipping, corner dipping glory.
“There’s no reason why we can’t just come together. The West Coast is united, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be. We’re going to go out there and be one big united front for the city.” says Bun, speaking on the example that Golden State OG’s have led in carefully passing the torch to children of the G-funk era like Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy.
Just as the show is about to begin, I ask him what the future holds for Houston rap, and he answers without a beat.
“Houston rap is the future.”
“In a lot of ways, this is like a fantasy that you play out in your head.” said Omar Afra, publisher at independent alt-weekly Free Press Houston, and organizer of Free Press Summer Fest, “For Houston rap, this is like Christmas.”
A few months ago, Afra was kind of in a bind. Sky Ferreira had just dropped out of the Summer Fest lineup, and there was now a massive slot to fill in the lineup. He was racking his brain on the way to his own birthday dinner when Slim Thug’s “Welcome 2 Houston” came on his car stereo.
The nearly nine and half minute long epic is the final track on Slim’s 2009 album, Boss of All Bosses. It features verses from an all star roster of the city’s talent, including Big Pokey, Chamillionaire, Lil Keke, Lil' O, Mike-D (S.U.C.), Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Rob G, Trae Tha Truth, Bun B, Yung Redd, Z-Ro, and a posthumously-released verse from the late Pimp C. Afra, a lifelong Houstonian, had heard the song a hundred times at least. But this time, it gave him a grand vision.
When he arrived at dinner, Afra took his colleague Jagi Katial aside and began trying to estimate how many of the thirteen featured rappers on “Welcome 2 Houston” they could book to share the same stage. The following night of the fest, Wu-Tang Clan would be performing in the same time slot. They wondered, what if there was a Wu-Tang of the South? What if the best rappers in Houston could all share a stage for a collaborative set like that? Their minds began to run wild with possibilities.
Booking the performers was easier than they thought it would be. Once Afra put his big idea into a couple of emails, all six artists were booked and confirmed within the hour.
“We reached out to their management, which is between two guys, Red and Rico. They rallied them all, and [the rappers] were all enthusiastic from the get-go,” says Afra.
Even Mike Jones, who has been notorious for butting heads with his Houston rap peers since he left Swishahouse in 2005, was on board from the jump. In 2010, former labelmate Paul Wall went on record with Ozone Magazine calling Jones a liar, and claiming that his knock out, delivered at the hands of Houston rapper Trae Tha Truth at the 2008 Ozone Awards, was expected and deserved. After a long-standing beef, Wall and Jones seemed to have buried the hatchet. They performed together in Brooklyn just last December, for the first time in years.
A few days before the festival, photos and video began to leak of Bun B, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Devin the Dude and Z-Ro meeting at Downtown Houston venue, Warehouse Live, to rehearse for the big show. Jones’ absence from the rehearsal Instagram posts was noticeable. Fans began to wonder if he would really show up to do it on the day.
In addition to marketing the entire fest, Free Press Houston covered the whole metro area in billboards featuring only the Welcome to Houston lineup. For many locals, the 6:10pm time slot on Saturday may as well have been the entire festival. This was history in the making, and the city knew damn well not to miss it.
The family Wall
The day of the show, the artists were scheduled to meet up off-site from the festival grounds at Fitzgerald’s, the Houston venue that has called The Heights neighborhood home since 1977. Clearly confused roadies for Between The Buried and Me began loading in for a show upstairs that night, as H-town’s finest slowly began to arrive. A few hours before call time, Paul Wall was the first to show up with his family and entourage in tow.
The Walls are one of Houston’s most notable power couples. Paul married Crystal in 2006, around the time that his collaboration records with childhood friend and rapper Chamillionaire were starting to break nationally. In 2011, Paul and Crystal revealed their dramatic weight loss, attributed to lap band surgery and Zumba, respectively. Since then, Crystal opened Houston’s wildly popular MixFitz Zumba Studio, and has done quite well in her own right. Women travel from all over the area to boost their self-esteem, twerking inches off their waistlines to Southern and Top 40 rap playlists with her trusted guidance.
At Fitzgerald’s, seven year old Noelle Wall was stuck to her father’s side. He was dressed head to toe in Actavis packaging, both his t-shirt and socks adorned with the promethazine cough syrup logo. They sat together on the patio and under the burgeoning sun, just starting to peak out through the passing storm clouds. Crystal, in a MixFitz tank top and a snapback with her husband’s latest album title embroidered onto it, sat with eight-year-old William, while they ate boudin from a cajun restaurant across the street. The Walls couldn’t have been happier to be with their children, posing for photos with them every chance they got. Theirs is truly a family business.
An upbeat and excited Devin the Dude showed up next. With his friends and longtime girlfriend, he opted to spend his time before riding to the fest grounds exactly as you would expect the Coughee Brothers OG to do so. He bookended a round at the bar across the street with a couple of freshly rolled blunts among friends.
Slim Thug arrived shortly after, alternating mingling and greeting friends and colleagues on the venue’s front porch, with back and forth quick trips to his Escalade parked in the front lot, where he attentively checked on his new girlfriend, waiting inside. As per usual, he was decked out in his proprietary Boss Life apparel, which has recently expanded into the growing vape market with Boss Life disposable e-cigars.
While waiting around and shooting the shit, Houston rap DJ Domo, who’d been tasked with manning the 1’s and 2’s for the set, admitted that the supergroup’s meeting at Warehouse Live earlier in the week was hardly a rehearsal.
“We just had a meeting and everyone picked what songs they wanted to do, but today will literally be the first time these guys actually run through the set.” said Domo.
Just as Devin was about to rally his entourage for another round across the street, it was time to ride out to the grounds. At this point, it became apparent how difficult it is to organize and coordinate all the camps involved with collaboration like this. Devin’s van, filled to the brim with two to a seat, waited at least fifteen minutes for Paul and Slim to join the caravan. The weed rap extraordinaire grew restless.
“We are going straight to Tyler, Texas after the show, so I hope everyone has a ride from the festival,” he announced to the packed van while rolling up another blunt and sipping the mini-bottle of Rosé in his cupholder.
Slim Thug, Bun B, and Z-Ro
Backstage at the grounds, Bun B and wife Queenie met everyone else on-site. Z-Ro showed up shortly afterwards, wandering in seemingly out of nowhere. The king of sensitive thug doom and gloom rap walked up in rare form, smiling with palms together as if he were thanking God for such a momentous occasion. You know something big is about to happen when even Z-Ro, the Morrissey of Southern rap, is excited.
At the very last minute, Mike Jones arrived. Domo approached him with urgency, asking for a flash drive, or whatever he’s got his songs on. An entourage member produced a drive quickly, as Jones heads straight inside the trailer. One of the managers, Hev, called for all non-performers to make themselves scarce. It’s time for a sit down.
The stage was silent as audience anticipation grew and grew. The songs that were about to be performed are the go-to pre show hype tracks (Southern rap classics like “Get Throwed” and “Chunk Up The Deuce”) utilized by every rap DJ who’s ever had to warm up a Texas crowd. Dead air over the PA was only fitting leading up to the final moments before Houston’s finest took the stage.
The crowd roared as Mike Jones emerged first onstage to a vampy chopped (not slopped) intro from Domo on the decks. He greeted the adoring fest patrons with the tease of a classic.
“Y’all know we gotta do ‘Still Tippin’ for you today.” said Jones to the screaming audience, “But first, I gotta break y’all off with some of that new shit.”
While opening the show with his new comeback single, “Hit It Again,” wasn’t the classiest first move on a show so steeped in historical relevance, it was an understandable one for Jones. After an off the radar hiatus that lasted for years, Jones is just now starting to revive his career again since the peak of his popularity in the early aughts. Above all else (even sentimentality), Houston rappers are businessmen. The market is dominated by direct sale independent artists, and each one has a pitch for you. Due to the staunch loyalty of Houston rap consumers, the city boasts one of the most self-sustaining local rap industries in the country.
It’s when the instantly recognizable clanking beat and warbling synths of “Still Tippin” finally ring out, that the people started to really go nuts. From the edge of the stage, all the way down a packed Allen Parkway, a sea of hands in the air bobbed up and down as Slim Thug, Jones, and Paul Wall all performed one of their most famous hits together, for the first time in years. All of a sudden, it felt like 2005 again.
Slim Thug took over from there, running through hits like the Flock of Seagulls sampling “Run” and his latest effort, the Paul Wall and Z-Ro assisted “Pokin Out.” During his hometown anthem, titled simply, “Houston”, a hysterical young Becky in full trendy boho music festival regalia ran onstage and attempted to hug Z-Ro as he lip synced his verse. Security dragged her off screaming and wooing, without skipping a beat.
Though he was on the mic moreso than fans who’ve frequented his live show would expect, Z-Ro still lip synced a few verses here and there. His impressive vocal runs, however, were all live and direct. After a shortened version of “Top Notch” that got every woman in attendance sweating out her curls, and the vindictively spiteful “I Hate You, Bitch”, a very visible vacancy on the performance stage suddenly became apparent. As Z-Ro rapped his part to ABN’s “Kiss My Black Ass”, the track served as a blatant reminder that half of the side-project duo (rapper Trae Tha Truth) ended up left off this lineup.
Though Afra assured me that no rappers were pursued for the Welcome To Houston set that didn’t end up performing that day, it’s hard to understand why such a glaring omission would be made.
Time spent pondering Trae’s absence was up when Paul Wall’s part of the show started. Young Noelle, who had been dancing next to the DJ booth for the whole set, took center stage as her dad rapped “Sittin Sidewayz”. Her face lit up as the crowd went wild at the sheer cuteness of it all. The Po’ Up Poet beamed with pride at his little girl’s stage presence, as he sipped from his murky Sprite bottle.
Just as the sun began to set, Devin the Dude hit the stage with what would be the show’s moment of zen. His smooth G-funk beats slithered over the audience, from which an overwhelming amount of weed smoke billowed up.
Still jazzed from her dance solo, Noelle Wall was so excited to see Devin perform, Paul had to pull her back from nearly running up to hug him as he pulled a blunt out of his pocket and sparked up onstage.
“Who’s got the weed?” he beckoned to the crowd, “Pass it to me!”
When Bun hit the stage, the crowd shook the smoky haze of Devin’s “Doobie Ashtray” and went wild for one of the city’s most prominent cultural beacons. The opening grinding synths of “Draped Up” rang out and the audience erupted.
Few rap stars are as relentlessly adored by their city as Bun B. Between a legendary career spanning almost thirty years, his role as a distinguished lecturer at Rice University, his involvement in community outreach programs, and his undying devotion to carrying on the legacy of UGK after the passing of the late Pimp C—Bun B is Houston’s premiere rap renaissance man. After co-authoring The Rap Coloring Book, launching his food blog, and his recent performance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Bun might as well just run for mayor.
The spirit of Chad Butler (aka Pimp C) was ever-present as Bun wrapped up the show with “Big Pimpin”, which every fan in the vicinity rapped along word for word, especially during his fallen partner’s classic verse.
Before they leaving the stage, Bun, Paul, Devin, Slim, Z-Ro, and Jones, all stood together as the grandiose and romantic opening notes to “International Players Anthem” sounded out over the city. Right there on that stage, beneath the TXDOT sign for Highway 45, six architects of Houston rap stood as the united front they intended to be, and the city thanked them for it by singing along to Pimp’s iconic verse. Houston watched on as Butler’s supreme vision from back in the basement with DJ Screw when UGK was just a codeine dream, unfolded before their very eyes.
It was enough to make even the hardest H-Town representer shed a couple of thug tears.
See more photos from the historic day below.
Z-Ro and Bun B
Bun B, Z-Ro, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall
Who? Mike Jones!
Vanessa Quilantan is a freelance writer and all around trill human living in Texas. She's on Twitter - @pronailprincesa