Wednesday, November 14, 2018

An Oral History of Houston Rap: #TurnItUP in The Neighborhood

Today is the third day of University Press Week, and this year’s theme is #TurnItUP, signifying the ability of the Association of University Presses (AUP) member publishers to amplify knowledge. November 12-17, 2018 is a week for celebrating university presses and the value of knowledge and expertise. 

As part of University Press Week, our peer presses will be sharing blog posts focusing on various themes. Today's theme is #TurnItUP: The Neighborhood. Writer Lance Scott Walker's book Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop tells the story of the artists, DJs, producers, promoters, and record label owners coming out of the neighborhoods of Fifth Ward, Fourth Ward, Third Ward, and the Southside of Houston, Texas. These largely marginalized communities gave birth to Houston rap, a vibrant music scene that has produced globally recognized artists such as Geto Boys, DJ Screw, Pimp C and Bun B of UGK, Fat Pat, Big Moe, Z-Ro, Lil’ Troy, and Paul Wall.

Lance Scott Walker spent a decade interviewing key players in the H-Town scene, and the resulting interviews range from the specifics of making music to the passions, regrets, memories, and hopes that give the music life. In our podcast conversation, we address how police corruption and gentrification have impacted Houston neighborhoods; the complexities of gangsta rap; early rap battles among Raheem, Willie D, and Vanilla Ice; and the impact of the late DJ Screw. As part of the amplified new edition of Houston Rap Tapes, Walker also created custom maps of Houston that highlight major landmarks for the city's hip-hop culture.

As Willie D of Geto Boys writes in the foreword, “Houston Rap Tapes flows more like a bunch of fellows who haven’t seen each other for ages, hanging out on the block reminiscing, rather than a calculated literary guide to Houston’s history.” Join us as we talk Hustle Town.

This interview had been edited and shortened for clarity.

UT Press: So you and documentary photographer Peter Beste spent about ten years documenting a very special but often neglected hip-hop scene in Houston, Texas. Can you give an overview of what was going on when you first started the project, which the legendary Bun B has called the defining book on Houston rap?

Lance Scott Walker: Peter Beste said, "Hey, I'm gonna do this project. I'm coming back to Houston to take photos, but this is way bigger than just photos. You're a writer.” I was writing for the Houston Chronicle, and he said, "You should join me and interview people and then provide the text component to what I'm getting with the photos, because it's way bigger than the photos and the stories need to go with them.” It was right before everything broke in Houston, before Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug. All of that was breaking in 2004, or was leaning toward that, and then in 2005, by the time we had the project in full swing, that's when that scene really popped and we were on the front side of that wave. It meant that when everybody else came streaming into Houston to write about what was happening, we'd already been doing it.

UTP: You've done some restructuring of the book, so let's talk about how you decided to structure the book.

LSW: So I broke the book up into five sections. The first section is called Foundation, and that goes all the way back to the ’70s. That's talking to some of the people who were producers and rappers early on before you had rap records in Houston. A lot of the people who were produced in the first rap records in Houston were funk and boogie producers. I wanted to touch on what was there before rap. Rap didn't just materialize out of nowhere; there were people who were making music that was going to become the beats, the backing tracks for rap, and it had a totally different feel.

The second section is called Rhinestone; it's built all around the Rhinestone Wrangler night club, which is really the first scene in Houston, and a lot of the early Rap-A-Lot artists were involved in that scene. They developed in that scene, they flourished in that scene, they became battle rappers in that scene, they became better lyricists in that whole scene. That's all mid-’80s to late ’80s; that takes us all the way up to the ’90s. Then I did a section on the South Side.

It's not that people weren't making records on the North Side; in fact, the North Side started making records first, but the South Side started to really shine in the ’90s, and there are simply more neighborhoods in that part of Houston where rappers are coming from. Then I did a section on The Future.

Some newer artists like Big Gerb, OMB Bloodbath, B L A C K I E, Cal Wayne, and I also interviewed Dr. Robert S. Mohammad in that section, which may be an odd fit, but there's something that makes it fit. So that’s how I broke it up, into sections of town but also eras.

UTP: Talk a little bit more about battle rapping at the Rhinestone Wrangler.

Steve Fournier, University of Houston Special Collections
LSW: So, OK, its rank wrapping. The Rhinestone Wrangler was a nightclub run by a guy named Steve Fournier, who I interview in the book, started right around 1985. So in 1985, 1986, 1987, that scene really flourishes. He only played rap. He was open five nights a week, only playing rap, and on Sunday nights, they would have a rap contest. 

More than battle rapping, it was rank rapping. So it would get really personal, really nasty. And some of the rappers really developed a sharp tongue in that setting. Willie D was one of them, you know; Rick Royal from Royal Flush, who I interview in the book; Raheem, he was part of that whole scene, and was one of the first Houston artists to be signed to a major label; Sire Jukebox from the original Ghetto Boys.

Willy D certainly would win for weeks on end, the Royal Flush, Romeo Poet. Vanilla Ice would drive down from Dallas and get into those battles. So it was deserving of its own section in the book because it was such a hotbed of talent developing and a new art form for so many people.

So there were lots of people who were grabbing on to this new culture, this quickly developing and ever-changing culture. Really right before crack cocaine came around, and what did crack cocaine give us? It gave us gangsta rap. So it's a really unique snapshot of maybe the last little bit of innocence in hip-hop.

UTP: If you feel comfortable, would you mind talking about the concept of gangsta rap and what that represents?

LSW: Well, I don't know that I could say what it represents to those who make gangsta rap, because that's a very internal thing. But suffice to say that in all of my interviews, it comes out as a document of their surroundings. You know, “This is what I was seeing.” And in some cases, “this is what I was a part of.” I think the really beautiful thing about doing these interviews, in some cases fifteen to twenty years after the fact, was that I'm doing interviews with forty and fifty-year-olds in some cases, who look at it very differently and can really, really pull back and tell you, with a very deep and rich perspective: Number one, I'm still alive. And they're grateful for that. Because so many of them will tell me stories about people they know that got involved and stuff and they aren't here anymore. And also, to survive and to be able to orient your life in a different way.

Some of them, when they have kids or when they get married, or when they just grow up, and just go, “Wow, you know, I can't keep doing that. I can't keep being a part of that. I can keep being around that.” It doesn't mean I don't still talk about it in my music.

UTP: Because it’s still the truth. It’s still the truth for a lot of people.

LSW: Right, it’s still the truth. And whether some people might look at it as glorifying it or not, it's still storytelling. It's still biographical for a lot of people, and I would have to imagine, being an artist of any stripe, that it’s cathartic. People tell me some stories in the book that are really tough, really, really rough stories. Wood from the Screwed Up Click told me about his mother becoming addicted to crack, his house burning down. She's addicted to crack for the better part of a decade, maybe longer, and he finally wrestles her out of that life and gets her into a house, and he says in the book, “I got her back, but she's not my same mom.” You can't wash away what drugs do to people, you just can't. But, we're alive.

UTP: Let’s talk about how Houston works. With police corruption, all of that. Do you want to talk a little bit about how thorough a document your book is of how Houston treats these neighborhoods?

LSW: Well, I don't think anything could be thorough. I don't think anything could reflect the conditions in the neighborhoods. I tried to touch on different parts of that. Certainly, corruption is a big part of it. Getting pulled over by the police. The police tell you, "Oh I know you, I know who you are. Let's go to an ATM.” That's a real story. That happens.

You look at the health in the neighborhoods. Let's go the grocery store. There isn’t one. You know, it is deep and it is in some cases very dark, and I don't think that there's any way that you could possibly document everything, or even a fraction of what people go through, what they have experienced in their lives and certainly what police corruption brings to the neighborhoods or the blind eye that the city turns to those neighborhoods, how that manifests and how that affects lives. When you go into a neighborhood and you don't feel like . . . and certainly the residents don't feel like the city cares. I'll go drive through River Oaks, and I won’t find any patches in the streets because they’re new. But I drive through South Park, and “Oh wow! That pipe is still leaking right out into the street.” It’s been three weeks.

Your Willie D interview in 2017, he talks about the chemical companies who are
Willie D, photo by Peter Beste
dumping whatever into the Fifth Ward. Unbelievable.

LSW: Yeah. Dr. Robert S. Muhammad and I talk about just the freeway design in Houston. What neighborhoods do they go through? What neighborhood does highway 59 go through? It goes right through Fifth Ward. What about I-45? It goes right through Fourth Ward. As a matter of fact, not only did it go right through Fourth Ward but it separated the church from the community. The church is still there—Antioch. It's right in downtown Houston surrounded by gigantic skyscrapers. But you have to walk across the freeway to get to the neighborhood that it used to serve. And by the way, that neighborhood is mostly gone. Gentrification is certainly a nebulous idea for some, but then for others, it's a very stark reality. “OK, well, I live in a shotgun house that five generations of my family have owned and I'm not selling. There's these beautiful old bricks in the street that have been there for a hundred years in Freedman’s Town, and now there’s this gigantic, three-story silver building next to me with a garage door that opens and a car disappears into it and it closes and I never see the person who lives in there.

People are being bought out or they're being built next to, and then their property taxes go up and they're forced out. How do you control it? I don't know. And I don't think anybody in the book even has a solution for that. I wouldn't expect them to. All I can do is put a light on it, and try to go deeper where I can and talk about those subjects. Well, how much of a reality is this? I know it's a reality. So let's go a little bit deeper; let me keep asking you about it. And you start to unfold all this stuff that couldn't even come out in the music.

UTP: What do you hope people will take from the book?

LSW: The more people understand the perspectives of people that they're listening to, or maybe in some cases not listening to, the more they'll understand about themselves. That's all I tried to do with the books. Say, somebody like your uncle or your dad or your mom or whoever it is that cannot listen to hip-hop to save their lives. OK, well, read this.

You don't have to get past the accent; you don't have to get past what you call the “noise” of the music. Learn something about another person. Then maybe you learn a little something about something that they've experienced or just the trauma they've experienced. Like I said, either the effects of crack cocaine or, you know, syrup? Codeine/promethazine. All those kinds of different things factor into people's lives in a different way. And so that gives them a chance to open up. And all I can hope is that people will read that and that there's some mirror in there somewhere. I would hope that there's something in there that resonates with somebody you maybe couldn't think you had less in common with.

UTP: You and Peter Beste donated a lot of material to the University of Houston Libraries. Do you want to talk about that collection?

LSW: Peter Beste and I donated a huge amount of our archives to them. I donated audio recordings of interviews. I donated transcripts of interviews, plenty of stuff that didn't make it into the book. Peter donated lots of photos. Tons of ephemera, t-shirts, and fliers, and stickers, and CDs. You know I donated tons of records.

UTP: It's an important record, historical record.

LSW: Yeah, it's more important to me for somebody to be able to go into that collection, especially when you have something like a university where young people are coming in all the time. And maybe they're going to school for two or three years before they learn that that's there, but then, “Oh, oh, I wanna go check this out.” Maybe they’re from Memphis or Birmingham, or wherever, and then they go back and say, "Oh, I'm gonna do this for Memphis.” Or Virginia Beach, or Charleston, or West Virginia. It maybe gives people an idea: Dig deeper into your community. Doesn’t have to be about rap. It could be about Cumbia. I think anyone could do a “tapes” book for any kind of scene.

UTP: Let’s talk about DJ Screw and the sound he created that has come to define Houston.

LSW: DJ Screw was a hugely influential, late DJ from Houston. He died eighteen years ago. He made tapes in his house. He had people come over and freestyle on his tapes. The freestylers on his tapes may have been rappers, may not have been rappers. An entire culture began to build around the tapes he was making. He would play two copies of the same record on the turntables, one of them a little behind the other, and he would chop back and forth with his fader between those records to repeat verses. He would wind stuff back to repeat words. Really an incredible DJ.

Screw would record his tapes into an 8-track and then, from that tape, into another tape, and he would slow it down in the process. He slowed the records with the pitch control, but most of his slowing-down process involved slowing it down into the tape deck. If you have ever been to Houston, it's a very hot, slow city. And that sound really, really resonated in Houston, but more so even than that, the culture of Houston came alive on his tapes. Because we're talking about some people who weren't professional rappers, or artists, or lyricists, any of that.

So what were they going to talk about? Maybe in some cases they were talking about what they were doing, legal or illegal, but really a lot of times, they were talking about their neighborhoods. And so, if you're from the neighborhood of Yellowstone and you hear Big Pokey rapping on tapes, talking about Yellowstone, you’re proud of that. You’re talking about this street and that street. South Park, Dead End, Kennedy Heights, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, Big Moe in Third Ward, Yates High School, all these things come in to life on the tapes. Candy paint—that's cars painted with a little bit of metallic flakes in the paint—customized cars. They call them slabs because they’re building it from the ground up. But it's the whole culture coming to life on the tapes, and that really, really hooked the entire culture of Houston together in so many ways. And that's not to say that everything in Houston reflects DJ Screw; it's just a part of it. DJ Screw was so prolific that everything came together in a way that they really brought a lot of people on board and made a lot of people aware of what was going on in Houston.

Let's talk about the maps.

LSW: They're sort of a quiet addition. I did a map of the North Side. I did a map of the South Side, which of course doesn’t have everything in there. They're sourced from anybody I could get locations of things from: night clubs, streets, neighborhoods, areas of town. These maps can give you a sense of how the city is laid out, and how one neighborhood might be related to another, or how the North Side is sort of structured and how the South Side is structured or not structured.

UTP: This is a map that people haven't seen before. This is an interpretation of the areas that people haven't seen before, right?

LSW: Exactly, all maps are political. And the political bent that I wanted was to try to represent as much as I could in those maps and maybe drop a few things in there that give people food for thought. I put Moody Park in there. That doesn't have anything to do with rap music, per se, but that was the scene of a riot in the late ’70s that was the product of police brutality. And so that is very relevant to the book. And maybe somebody might look and say, “Well, why is Moody Park in there?” And then they look it up. “Wow, OK, now I know.” And I hope there's a few nuggets like that that people find on the maps. There's a reason for everything that is listed on the maps. There’s a reason the map points to Atascocita and to Rosharon because those are prisons that are referenced in the book. People just got out of prison and I'm interviewing them. “Where have you been?” “Rosharon.” I hope the maps say a lot more than this was here, this was there. I hope the maps enrich the book, and in a way that makes people dig a lot deeper.

Further listening and reading:

This post is part of the University Press Week Blog Tour. For more Day Three posts on the topic of The Neighborhood, head over to Temple University Press, University of Manitoba Press, Syracuse University Press, Fordham University Press, Northwestern University Press, Temple University Press, University of Alberta Press, University of Texas Press, University of Washington Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Ohio State University Press, University of Illinois Press, Rutgers University Press, Oregon State University Press, Columbia University Press, University of Georgia Press, and University of Toronto Press

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