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.
“The fact that we started it before all that happened gave us an edge. It gave us credibility because people in Houston were already familiar with us,” Walker told me, “We weren’t just riding that wave of people rushing into Houston and wanting to cover it.” Galveston-bred, Walker started work on the book while living in Houston, where he ran a music studio in the Third Ward. Since 2006 though, he’s lived in New York, flying back home three or four times a year during the stretch that birthed Houston Rap. Beste, a friend for years, started shooting in ’04, documenting the music they had both grown up on living 45 minutes outside the city.
The insider-outsider dichotomy is one the authors aren’t shy about putting front and center. The foreword to Tapes, penned by Geto Boys founding member Willie D, leads off with a scathing indictment of irresponsible rap journalism, or to borrow his words “hip hop rapists”: “I can’t stand writers, reporters, and so-called journalists who stick microphones in the face of people and don’t know what they’re talking about…A lot of newcomers go for instant gratification. They would rather rape the game to get paid than get to know it and fall in love.” These guys, though, Willie assures us, don’t fall in that category. A similar disclaimer, this one from Bun B on the value of trust, opens Houston Rap.
As an introduction to the work, it’s a shrewd acknowledgement that being able to tell someone else’s story is a privilege. More specifically, it’s a recognition that, as two white dudes presenting the history of a great black subculture, they’re on well-trodden ground–and that historically, the track record for respectful treading isn’t all that strong.
Whatever suspicions their might’ve been about their motives initially, the tone of the book is one of deep reverence and an unflinching approach to documentation. If truly objective documentation is an impossible goal, it’s at least worth noting that the vast majority of the words in both books are from the artists themselves, rather than the authors. Instead of dry music crit, or speaking for their subjects, they present those interview excerpts at length, with at least as much discussion of the neighborhoods and experiences that spawned Houston rap–South Park, Fifth Ward, Third Ward, Southside–as the music itself. Accordingly, shots from strip clubs, backyards, and barbershops come accompanied by deeper context, with lengthy meditations from the artists on living in poverty or the prison industrial complex. “We knew this wasn’t just going to be rap history,” Lance says, “we knew we wanted to talk about the neighborhoods and what was happening there.” Over the course of a decade of fly-on-the-wall hangouts, he explains, “we got really good at explaining what we were doing.”
Whereas the quotes in Houston Rap are organized thematically though, Rap Tapes is a sprawling collection of interviews, reproduced in full. If it sounds like too big a historical record to wrap your head around, Lance explains that it’s also an opportunity to preserve every quote in its proper context–both historical and personal. The goal is a kind of democratic completism, emphasizing the diversity of voices and experiences rather than presenting a tidy narrative. “Through the years-long process of making these two books…rap music took a backseat to the human element that opened up,” reads the intro, “The men and women interviewed here are known as rappers, producers, DJs, radio personalities and the like, and we learn Houston’s history through their own, but we also learn about their passions, regrets, memories, and hopes.”
In discussing the importance of preserving those stories, Walker locates his mission in the broader context of historical erasure and urban change. Given the inevitable process of gentrification in Houston, he explains, preserving these “unwritten stories” keeps a vital history alive even as “so much of [Houston’s] physical history is erased in favor of strip centers and condominiums.” Looking around Oakland, or The Mission, or Bedstuy, or say, Highland Park, it feels like a sentiment that’s worth taking seriously.
Almost a year after the release Rap Tapes, Walker’s still in full-on archivist mode. His bi-weekly radio show, Houston Rap Tapes Radio, serves up an hour-long, curated selection of Houston jams, with an emphasis on the obscure, the underappreciated, and the cassette-only, with set pieces from other genres thrown in for effect. A typical show might feature anything from deep-catalog Screw and ESG, to late ’00s K-Rino or Chamillionaire, to Lightnin’ Hopkins blues numbers, to unheralded ’80s boogie funk or Texas punk. The sheer breadth of the selection is crazy, especially considering the rate of production, is pretty incredible. But if there’s a common theme to Walker’s project on the whole, it’s probably an excess of source material.
As fashionable as Houston Rap The Aesthetic has become, Houston Rap The Book wasn’t necessarily planned with that in mind. Today, now that Houston’s seeped into every imaginable corner of the rap landscape, it’s worth considering that that wasn’t always the case. Given the average rap fan’s version of history, where the narrative tends to gets flattened out into a few Illmatic-y points on a timeline, the embrace of music from regional, self-contained scenes into that canon is still a reasonably new thing.
It’s also worth considering that, a decade after “Still Tippin”, there still hasn’t been a single national breakout star out of Houston, unless you’re factoring in Riff Raff. Similarly, even with Mustard’s hyphy-lite dominating ClearChannel playlists, actual Bay rappers still tend to find their way to the masses only through the weirdest, most unconventional trajectories. As tends to be the case with plenty of regional scenes or subcultures, influence hasn’t necessarily translated into reliable avenues for mainstream success.
Insularity though, can be a form of resilience. The picture Houston Rap paints is one of self-reliance, musical and otherwise. Houston is its own self-sustaining ecosystem, one that honors its heroes and their contributions to rap at large, but one that favors steady, incremental evolution over pandering or easy nostalgia.
“The coolest thing that happened from that,” said Walker of the ’05 boom, “was that people, looking in from the outside, started to put the pieces together, and realize what the Houston scene really was.” The artists who had spent years building a following locally though–at least the ones that didn’t score a “Back Then”–remained unfazed: “They didn’t blink. They knew this is gonna happen for 6 months or maybe a year, if we’re lucky, and everyone’s attention is gonna go elsewhere,” he says, paraphrasing, “And we’ll go back to doing this the same way we’ve been doing this forever. So why change?”