Mike Jones, Northside, 2008
Back in 2008, VICE released Peter Beste's photo book, True Norwegian Black Metal. Thanks to Satan, the book was a runaway success. So much so that we asked Peter to help us make a film of the same name about Norway's "most hated man," Gorgoroth frontman, Gaahl. Having documented the insular black metal scene with more honesty and access than anyone before or since, Peter started up another long-term project—the documentation of Houston's similarly tight-knit hip-hop community.
After nine years of work, his project is now a book called Houston Rap. We called Peter to talk about Houston, the media misrepresentation of hip-hop culture, Black Power, and just how much the black metal scene has in common with the guns, sizzurp, and DIY ethics of the Texas rap world.
Papa Screw, South Park, 2009
VICE: Hi, Peter. I remember seeing some of the photos from Houston Rap years ago. This must have been a really long-term project for you, right?
Peter Beste: It's been really long. I started shooting in 2004 and have been planning it since about 2000. The book was originally going to come out a few years ago, but there were a variety of holdups with the publishing process. Having to wait allowed us more time to get deeper into the community, and in retrospect I'm really glad that we did have that extra time. The book would have been more surface level if we released it early, and I think this extra time allowed us to get much deeper into the topics and release a truly unique book.
South Park, 2005
Was it difficult to gain trust and get access? Did it contribute to how long the book took to make?
That was a small factor, but I was really fortunate because I was immediately introduced to the right folks back in 2004, like Dope E from the Terrorists, K-Rino, and members of Street Military. These guys have immense respect in the hood and were willing to bring me around, introduce me to people, and essentially vouch for me.
How did the project change over all that time?
As the project progressed we expanded our concept. It became less about who’s who in Houston rap, and more about an anthropological picture of an important time and place in American history. We got into more juicy topics, like spirituality, the deliberate targeting of the hood by government entities, gentrification, and lots of personal stuff.
Martin Luther King Boulevard, South Park, 2006
Most of our readers probably haven't seen the book yet, so I feel I should mention that the title is almost misleading. I mean, there are rappers in it, but it’s not really about rap music. It’s broader than that—it's about the city and community. Was that an organic shift from what you initially set out to do?
It was organic. I grew up on a lot of this Houston rap. In the early 90s I was mystified and really blown away by early Rap-A-Lot artists, like the Geto Boys, Ganxsta N-I-P, and stuff like that. Years later, getting into photography, it seemed like a perfect project for me, so I decided to track down these more obscure characters and try to photograph them in their personal environments. The focus was initially on that, but over time—as I got to know these guys better—we started asking the right questions and steering away from the stereotypes and typical bullshit that is covered in mainstream rap media.
I mean, that stuff is in the book: women, cars, and over-the-top materialism—there's no doubt that's a part of the community. But it goes so much deeper than that. As we all know, however, the media primarily focuses on those aspects. We ended up making it more of a sociological or anthropological study of this rich Southern culture.
Houston was, for the most part, overlooked by the mainstream. Historically, if you weren’t from New York or LA, you were more or less ignored by the rap community—aside from the Geto Boys. Because of that feeling of being sidelined, a lot of these guys had to develop their own musical styles, their own CEOs, distribution networks—even their own style of drugs, with the sizzurp and so on. They didn’t have the major labels interfering and telling them what to produce. Of course, initially it wasn’t their choice to be ignored, but over time I think that became a positive thing. They realized that rather than signing to a major label and making 50 cents per CD, they could produce and manufacture their own albums, sell them through their own networks, and end up making $7 or $8 per album while maintaining their independence.
Duke of Herschelwood Hardheadz, South Park, 2006
That sort of reminds me of the old independent soul labels of the 1960s—the idea of just setting up a label in a small or overlooked town, recording, cutting it all in that one place and releasing it, irrespective of being overlooked by Motown or whatever.
Yeah, that DIY ethic gives me enormous respect for them. I come from a punk rock background, so it’s something I really admire and connect with.
You shot London grime MCs and the grime scene in its heyday, or at least before it gained any real mainstream weight. Do you feel there are similarities between these two scenes? The somewhat overlooked, insular, commercially unviable scenes making do themselves and building an industry?
Well, I was only working on the grime stuff for a comparatively short time, but yes. It was back in 2005 in London, and I didn’t get nearly as deep into that community as I did in Houston, but I was attracted by their similar ethic and ability to make something unique while telling you stories about where they're from and what they have to go through. One big similarity grime has to Houston rap is that it was produced and promoted within the community with this internal support network of the pirate radio stations and so on—the way DJ Screw made his tapes and the way that spread and multiplied. That DIY Screw network is in some ways comparable to the pirate radio stations of London grime, where they spread their music on their own terms with little outside influence or support.
Z-Ro, Missouri City, 2006
To compare this with another niche scene you worked in, I'd imagine there are pretty limited cultural crossovers between the Houston rappers and the people in True Norwegian Black Metal. Is that right?
Ironically, I grew up outside of Houston and I found that I fitted in more—at least physically—halfway around the world in Norway than I did in my own backyard in Houston. There are similarities: they're both fringe musical subcultures with their owns sets of ethics and aesthetics, and their own sets of rules. In that regard, they are similar. But of course those sets of ethics are very different. I wouldn’t lump them in together in any other ways. The problems I faced were similar, too—I had to earn the respect of both communities over time. I did this by having a humble attitude, taking some photos, and coming back months later and showing them a spread in a magazine that they were receptive to. Over time, relationships grew and it snowballed from there.
South Park, 2008
You mentioned how your book includes images of some of those mainstream ideas about the hip-hop lifestyle, but they're often starkly contrasted with images of poverty and the difficulties of daily life that affect a lot of Americans. Did your view of the rap lifestyle change after seeing the two worlds intersect?
One of my main goals with both projects was to show the façade the communities present and contrast it with more real and human elements that are revealed after digging a bit deeper—whether it be metal guys in makeup or rappers in expensive cars with women and guns. For many of these guys, that is the image they project. For every 50 pictures I took like that, I can manage to get one picture with that façade down, something more real and personal.
And those images will communicate to more people who see them, as there are only so many people who care about tough guy rapper photos. If that was as deep as it went, I wouldn’t have spent this much time on the project. Same for Norway—if it was only guys holding upside down crosses in the forest then I would have gotten bored quickly. With both cultures, the deeper you get into their histories, belief systems, families, and so on, the more universal it gets. It was a thin line to walk, between showing the façade and showing the true person behind all of that.
There was no formula to how I did that, either. It had a lot to do with having a really good editor, Johan Kugelberg, who was able to help my co-author Lance Scott Walker and I zoom out to see the bigger picture and select a group of images and text that show a fuller spectrum that will ultimately communicate to more people. We were so far immersed in the scene it was difficult to edit objectively. We had to tread lightly and try to produce a nice art book while keeping the subjects of the book happy and representing their scene to their satisfaction.
Dope E of the Terrorists, Third Ward, 2004
A few people in the book are proponents of black power movements and similar philosophies. Did that create an extra layer of difficulty for you as far as access and gaining trust were concerned?
Most of the guys with this philosophy didn't hold our skin color against us, because they could tell we had honest intentions and were aware of the issues they were passionate about. For example, Dope E of the Terrorists—the guy holding the gun out of the Black Panther window—turned out to be one of our best friends in the scene and opened many doors for us. I think the bottom line is their rebellion against the proverbial "white man" is not so much about skin color, but rather it’s against the oppressive power system. That was something I don’t think I fully understood at the beginning of this project.