The simply-titled Houston Rap illustrates the grittier parts of the largest city in Texas with beautiful shots from photographer Peter Beste. Excerpts from numerous interviews by writer Lance Scott Walker fill out the narrative. The book was nearly a decade in the making, and during that time Walker accumulated a wealth of in-depth conversations with players in Houston’s rich, gigantic hip-hop scene. The interviews themselves became Houston Rap Tapes, a more-involved companion book to Houston Rap.
Tapes is a fascinating read, a deep dive into the storied, weird history of Texas rap in its own words. Instead of retelling the facts in the style of Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Walker’s interviews with cranky OGs, crucial rap lifers and relatively younger stars sketch out a mythical and unknowable past, clouded by decades of blunt smoke, codeine and plain-old time. I caught up with Walker to talk about the book and the then and now of Houston rap.
Let’s talk about how insular Texas rap used to be. Like, obviously you were aware of national trends, but were, say, the Geto Boys bigger than Tupac?
DJ Screw was. The Geto Boys have always been the biggest thing from Houston because they went platinum before anybody else and in a completely different era. But Biggie and Tupac, DJ Screw was putting that stuff on his mixtapes and guys would freestyle over it. The biggest thing you were hearing in Houston throughout the 90s, through to his death and even beyond was Screw tapes. You didn’t hear the same music on the radio or in the clubs, people would drive around and you’d hear them on the streets.
So everything entered Texas through DJ Screw. If he was the gatekeeper, dudes were hearing Mr. 3–2 and Screwed Up Click as much as they were hearing Tupac, Biggie and E–40, and everyone else that was running the rest of the country.
It put all those people on the same level. Screwed Up Click, South Park Coalition, Geto Boys—all that stuff from Houston. When so many people are listening to it and it’s such a big effect on the culture, your influences are going to be insular. In Houston, Fat Pat was [a star like Biggie and Tupac].
Houston’s an enormous city, the fourth largest … if they expanded it to include the whole [area] it would be bigger than Chicago. And there’s all these little towns around there, like where I’m from in Galveston … they’d come down to Galveston for the big Kappa beach parties and they’d sell who knows how many tapes. Release one of those right before the beach party and that was the soundtrack.
How far did Screw’s influence extend outside Houston?
There’s the old chitlin circuit that goes through the south, and there’s also a path that a lot of guys cut through Texas, Lousiana and Arkansas. Little towns where, like, SUC would make trips out there and do shows. They built a big following off that; people would drive to Houston to buy Screw tapes and bring them back to Louisiana, or go off into the military and end up taping them for other people. There were all these different ways that Screw tapes were getting out there.
So the Screw tapes that were de facto soundtracks for entire seasons, were those mostly freestyles or more straight-up mixes?
It was case by case. “June 27th” was one of them, that ended up being the 4th of July tape. They recorded it on June 27th and week later, on July 4th, everyone was walking around partying listening to that one song. And it’s a 27 minute song! That’s audacious even by Screw standards. But that was part of the thing … it’s a 27 minute song and you’re gonna hear this new guy, Youngsta, that you never heard of before. It’s kind of exhausting, even the songs that are like 8 or 9 minutes long … but that’s the way we roll in Houston, your songs are going to be really fucking long. You put on a Screw tape, you’re not looking to bang a little bit of Screw while you’re looking to go to the club. You put it on to really soak it up for a long period.
Someone should write a thinkpiece comparing Screw music to jam bands.
Except instead of trippin' you’re leanin'.
Not to equate the two camps but is it safe to say Swishahouse picked up where Screw left off when he died?
Mainstream-wise, yeah. But Swishahouse mixes, much like Screw mixes, went all over the place. Especially when you look at the war starting in 2003 or 2004, a lot of people from Texas went to the war and took their Screw tapes and their Swishahouse mixes with them … maybe even more so with Swishahouse because at that point so much more of it was digital. But [Swishahouse] had their thing own going. I think it was just a matter of time when the mainstream was going to turn its attention towards Houston. There was just way too much going on. Once the right set of factors lined up at the right time, people had records cued up … they just went down the line. Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall … Chamillionaire or Bun B. It was all these huge top ten records that all came out in the space of a year. Part of that was because Swishahouse was really building something. And before it blew it was national even if it wasn’t mainstream because so many people knew about it and those artists were working so hard.
It’s crazy how big Texas rap was before you started seeing Houston artists on TV and in the mainstream.
They just didn’t care what was going on down there. The mainstream is always going to be something that focuses on an area for a little while. Don’t even look at rap … look at grunge, look at punk rock, hair metal, there’s always going to be a certain time where a certain city gets a shine for what it’s got going on. The mainstream’s attention span is limited like that. It’ll pan around, find something, it’ll focus really hard on it and it’ll leave. The guys in Houston that signed deals were smart enough to sign deals that weren’t gonna fuck them over for the rest of their careers. Because how many times have we seen that happen?
People in Houston knew that for so long, that when the industry doesn’t pay attention to you for all those years, you can’t feel like they have your best interests in mind.
And you start to build your own thing.
You build your own thing and whenever the lights come shining around, they have to pay for it. You keep your system in place so whenever they’re gone—and they inevitably will go, the industry was never going to take root in Houston—when they go, you still got everything that you had before and you can continue on. A lot of guys in Houston did that. Once the major label thing ran its course, they had a backup.
Skinny Friedman is draped up and dripped out and knows what he's talking 'bout. He's on Twitter - @skinny412
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