Supposed to Bubble: On “Houston Rap” Through photos and interviews, Peter Beste and Lance Scott Walker lovingly chronicle a legendary regional scene

Supposed To Bubble: On “Houston Rap” Through Photos And Interviews, Peter Beste And Lance Scott Walker Lovingly Chronicle A Legendary Regional Scene

On Houston Rap, and the decade-long project to preserve its history

When I spoke to author and Houston rap connoisseur Lance Scott Walker last year, he was in New York. A few months earlier, boutique publishing house Sinecure Books had released the second of two books centered around his and photographer Peter Beste’s decade-long journey into Houston’s legendary rap scene, Houston Rap Tapes. Its predecessor, Houston Rap, probably already belongs on a list of the very best collections of hip-hop documentary photography ever compiled, thanks in no small part to the context provided by the dozens of interviews Walker conducted with just about everybody he could reach from the city’s storied rap pantheon.

Tapes, he explained, felt like a necessary extension of the first book, given the abundance of source material, presenting in full his conversations with Texas luminaries like Bun B, Z-Ro, Paul Wall, and just as important, a laundry list of hometown hero types whose names might not register to a national audience.

As we talked about some of those lesser-knowns, I couldn’t help but draw out some of the parallels to the Bay scene. Specifically, I asked him about 2005 and 2006, when both our regional scenes enjoyed a brief share in the national spotlight. Around the same time folks were memorizing Mike Jones’ phone number, E-40 was enjoying his first Top 40 exposure since the mid-’90s. And while “Vans” was tunneling it’s way into rap’s subconscious, Houston’s slow-mo psychedelia was soaking into the genre’s collective psyche even more visibly. Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, and Paul Wall all charted heavy, while OGs like Pimp, Bun, Scarface, and Devin made the most of their well-deserved new exposure. Zip files of obscure DJ Screw tapes became rap forum gold. “The Strangest Sound in Hip-Hop Goes National,” proclaimed the Times’ Kalefah Sanneh, in April of ’05. By then, Peter Beste had been shooting for over a year, and planning for almost five.

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Franco Falsini's cult favorite prog ensemble takes the stage in SF this weekend

Sensations Fix

In the wake of their odd and beautiful ’70s output, a lot of the writing on Franco Falsini’s Sensations Fix ensemble has focused on how difficult the music is to classify. When Steve at Superior Viaduct put me up on their gorgeous reissue of Fragments of Light he explained how prog doesn’t quite capture it. “When I think of prog, I think of big, bombastic drums and virtuosic solos,” he told me. Sensations Fix’s music, as he explained, is more about texture, atmosphere.

As I found out, exploring that record, and the SF back catalog (a substantial chunk of which was reissued by RVNG Intl. in 2012), it’s definitely tough to squeeze into any given box. But despite that difficulty, it’s pretty damn easy to listen to. Mostly home-recorded, Falsini’s music is heavy on synth squiggles, lush textures, warped guitar effects, and occasional dream-state vocals. It’s unrestrained and playful in the way that most of the best Krautrock or early-career Vangelis stuff is, but generally light on percussion or frantic energy. Despite the psychedelic layers, it tends to skew jangly and melodic rather than heavy.

In any case, this Saturday at SF’s Brick & Mortar, we’re all lucky enough to have an opportunity to catch Franco and the original members of Sensations Fix live, in the first West Coast tour date of their strange and storied careers. For the professional diggers, it’s a chance to see a band behind a handful of culty, experimental classics bring their art back to life in a live space. For the more casual listeners, it’s a chance to hear some beautiful weird cool shit in the company of people who take beautiful weird cool shit very seriously. Tickets here, pretty sounds further down the page.

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Reissue masters Superior Viaduct offer up their take on a punk blues landmark

Gun Club

It’s no coincidence that I happened to dig up my own personal copy of Fire of Love at Stranded. After all, the Temescal shop has pretty much established itself as the go-to destination for rarities, oddities, OG presses, and cult classics of all shapes and sizes in Oakland. Part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that it also serves as the physical headquarters of Superior Viaduct, a boutique reissue label dedicated to the task of lovingly curating releases of strange, gorgeous, and obscure music. Over the last few years, they’ve put out at least a dozen excellent things, running the gamut from astral free jazz, to dubby proto-trip-hop, to Devo’s early degeneracy, and beyond.

The latest from SV comes in the form of a CD-only version of the Gun Club’s seminal blues-punk debut, the aforementioned Fire of Love. The album is a touchstone of the early ’80s roots revival scene, a no-bullshit blend of fuzzy garage noise, slide guitar twang, and lascivious blues. A few songs, like say, “Promise Me”, build on fucked up, unpredictable rhythms. But as compared to some of the more esoteric titles in the Superior Viaduct catalog, Fire of Love is relatively straight forward. A cult classic it may be, but the barrier to entry is damn pretty low if you like loud guitar music. It’s an album whose power could be approximated by say, throwing a rock at someone’s head. Which is to say that, 30 years or so later, like the sweaty blues it channels, it still translates just fine. Grab a copy, complete with new liner notes and remastered audio, here.

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Cover to Cover

Cover To Cover

How unsung Oakland design duo Phunky Phat Graph-X quietly shaped the aesthetic of '90s rap

Phunky Phat Graph-X

Tumblr, and I guess the Internet in general, has a tendency to play out trends to death. One of the most prevalent of these in the last few years (which I want to say, like many Internet trends, started with the BasedGod) has been the resurgence of Pen & Pixel-style album artwork. Known for their gaudy, and often straight up ridiculous imagery and fonts, The Houston-based design firm rose to prominence in the late ’90s and early ’00s for its work with Rap-A-Lot, No Limit, and Cash Money. Now, alongside pictures of Actavis pints and naked women, the Pen & Pixel aesthetic has become a Tumblr staple.

But before Master P returned to his native New Orleans from Richmond, California, and before Wayne and B.G. uttered the phrase “bling-bling” on a track, an East Oakland graphic design company called Phunky Phat Graph-X was producing a high volume of artwork for a thriving Northern California independent rap scene. Founded in 1992 by brothers Thomas and Tracy Underwood, Phunky Phat Graph-X produced the artwork for the initial releases by Master P and his then-fledgling No Limit Records. In addition to their work for No Limit, Phunky Phat was also responsible for some of the most iconic artwork for West Coast rap cult heroes like C-Bo, JT the Bigga Figga, and E-40 among many others. Phunky Phat remained active throughout the ’90s but their work slowed to a halt in 2001, and a decade later, in 2011, Tracy Underwood passed away.

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A timely exploration of the queer roots of dance music culture

Resident Advisor

“If the roots of electronic music are so sexually diverse, why do today’s audiences need to be reminded of it? Have we forgotten about the queer nightlife worlds of the ’70s and ’80s?” It’s this question that inspires Resident Advisor’s recent sprawling editorial, “An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture.” In all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I hit an “electronic” festival or a rave, but given the contemporary bro-step climate I catch glimpses of, it’s easy to see why a piece like this might feel necessary.

Taking the Howard Zinn approach to key movements in the history of dance music, RA’s Luis Manuel Garcia traces from New York discos, to Chicago House, to Detroit Techno, to UK’s ’90s rave scene, all the way up to the present, acknowledging the role of queer and trans folks of all stripes played in shaping each of these subcultures. In doing so, Garcia consults a wide cast of characters and voices, . There’s even a piece on our good friends behind Rhonda in LA.

Honestly, this kind of broad-reaching retrospective is valuable for a lot of reasons. Obviously, there’s the cultural history angle. But for anybody looking dig a little deeper into the massively rich and varied history of dance music, it’s a solid primer. Below are a few dope excerpts, via Resident Advisor.

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A 200-page love letter to music-making technology over the years

Beat Box

A decade or so ago, an L.A. musician named John Wood popularized the now ubiquitous bumper sticker/T-shirt combination that reads, “Drum Machines Have No Soul”. Now, while the relationship between pop music and technology certainly warrants some healthy skepticism, I’m inclined to say fuck all that noise. From “Family Affair” to Stop Making Sense, to Kraftwerk and New Order to Prince and Quincy, to well, damn near every hip-hop and house record that ever existed, the drum machine has been a vital medium for the last forty-plus years of music. And, as the 200-page anthology, Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession suggests, that history is one worth celebrating.

Since the early ’80s, producer Joe Mansfield has been accumulating gear, collecting drum machines of all shapes and sizes and sounds. Beat Box turns a photographic eye to Mansfield’s collection, and in the process, documents the evolution of a technology over time, from the design to the sound, to the music it became a part of. Below, check out a few shots, but you can cop that thang here.

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The turbulent early days of California punk, as captured by Ruby Ray

Ruby Ray

“For a brief period, Los Angeles and San Francisco hosted vibrant subcultures that threw up sounds, noises, ideas and images that remain some of the 20th century’s most vivid youth statements…These pictures are a record of a lost moment that is finally receiving the attention that it was always due.”

– Jon Savage

By the time Ruby Ray had set up shop in San Francisco in the late ’70s, California punk was in full force. Between Detroit, the East Village, and London, the story of punk’s genesis doesn’t always have room for the niche scenes that had begun to take to take root during the same era. But while CBGB and Sid Vicious grabbed headlines, a host of scenes had started to materialize a few thousand miles West–just as vital, just as anarchic, and just as loud. Armed with a Nikon FM, Ruby found herself the heart of a tumultous Bay Area scene that spawned The Avengers, The Mutants, The Offs and the Dead Kennedys, shooting stark, intimate black and whites for the now-storied punk zine Search & Destroy. Her approach, like the music she was cataloging, was decidely DIY, captured on the fastest film she could find, and developed in her bathroom.

From the Edge of the World, the first official publication from Oakland-based label Superior Viaduct, archives and curates a selection of Ray’s late ’70s and early ’80s work pretty epically. There are glimpses of towering cult heroes like Roky Erickson and luminaries like Devo and William S. Burroughs. There are onstage meltdowns and intimate bedroom portraits. There are even a few shots of Sid and the Sex Pistols’ fateful journey to states, snapped on the night of their final performance. Included below are selections from the book, which you can cop via Superior Viaduct, right here. It’s a powerful book, and beautifully put together. Highly recommended.

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