LANCE SCOTT WALKER’S Houston Rap Tapes is a book that any self-respecting hip-hop head should read. Through copious amounts of research, care, and empathy, Walker allows the city of Houston to tell its story the way it deems fit. I first connected with Lance in late 2017 while working on a video for Genius on the effects of lean in hip-hop. Needless to say, he was very instrumental in helping me do H-Town justice. One year later, I sat down with Lance at McNally Jackson Books in Brooklyn for an interview on his tour supporting the release of this book. At its conclusion, we decided to do it again, but this time for the Los Angeles Review of Books. What follows is our conversation that took place in his Greenpoint loft as his cat happily snuggled in his lap.
JACQUES MOREL: So you’re from Galveston, Texas. When did you first make your way up to Houston?
LANCE SCOTT WALKER: I started going to Houston when I was a kid. Galveston is an island off the coast, about 45 minutes away, so it’s a trip. It’s a journey. But Houston was always the place to be. I started going on my own, for reasons that weren’t cat shows or megachurches, around 1988. That was to see punk rock shows, to a place in Third Ward called The Axiom. That was the first time I got a taste of Houston on my own level. And then I moved there in 1992.
And some of the first records you had purchased already were rap records, like before you’d moved there, when you were younger?
Yeah, the first genre I was really getting into was hip-hop. I had a few scattered records — I had a ZZ Top tape, a U2 record. I think I had a Billy Joel tape around then. But the first stuff that I got into where I started buying a bunch of different records from any one genre, that was hip-hop. That was Fat Boys, Run-DMC, UTFO, Roxanne Shante, Kurtis Blow. All that early stuff came out when I was in middle school — 1984, 1985. The music was new, it was fresh. There were movies out — Breakin’, Beat Street, Krush Groove. It was a genre that everybody my age felt like belonged to them, because that genre grew as we did — which was true! That genre was born around same time as my generation. DJ Kool Herc’s seminal party in the Bronx was in August 1973. I was born in August 1973, about a week after that party, so my class was about as old as hip-hop. Of course, we weren’t aware of it when we were little kids in Galveston, but by the time we were in middle school, that’s when we started sniffing around to see what kind of culture was out there for us, consciously or not, and hip-hop just came roaring into our middle school.
And of course at that age, music is identity.
It’s totally identity, especially when it has zero to do — or at least you thought — zero to do with what your parents were listening to. Although as we get to know hip-hop that much better, we go back and we’re like, “Wait! Our folks have all these records they sampled!”
Is it as if those records were culled from the same music your parents were listening to?
Yeah, and yet hip-hop was still available as something with which to irritate your parents. That was something attractive about it I’m sure for a lot of us.
It’s funny you mention Run-DMC, because in their own way, weren’t they very important in Houston’s development?
Big time, because they set the standard for so many people. They were doing something that was so original and so simple. It’s not to say that the hip-hop that came before Run-DMC was complex. That’s not it, really, but Run-DMC was just so skeletal and so stark that I think it really filled people with this sense of hope not necessarily that they could do it one day — I don’t think anybody really thought they could do what Run-DMC did — but their sound broke hip-hop down into its elements where everybody could see right into it and understand what it was. I mean, they were kinda nursery rhymes when you think about it! We were still little kids!
It’s a lot of that Rick Rubin reduction to bring it down to its raw elements and even how like Rubin himself reduced the Ghetto Boys — taking out the “h,” taking out the “t” and making it G-E-T-O.
Exactly. Simplifying what they’re doing, going through and mixing their stuff was a big thing that he did. He took songs that had appeared on a couple of previous records and just remixed them and brought stuff up. The late DJ Ready Red talked about that in our interview, where really a lot of what Rick was doing was just mixing his stuff, but he had the ear to know where to bring it up, where to take it — where to reel it in. He had an amazing ear for that.
And let’s say Rick Rubin had the ear — J Prince had the vision.
He definitely had the business acumen to make that work. Who knows why he thought that was viable, or how he thought that was viable, because there was nobody in Houston doing it. There wasn’t even a hip-hop act in Houston that had released more than one record. He was the first one to do it. Geto Boys were the first group to release multiple records and then grow and then release an album, blow up locally, regionally, nationally, and next thing you know they’re a platinum act and they’re known all over the world.
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me.”
1991. No doubt. That galvanized a whole generation in Houston.
Your book is broken up into big chapters — “Northside,” “Southside,” the “Future" at the end — and we currently are chatting about the "Foundation." One person that you kind of leave out of the "Foundation" but who lords over it anyway is J Prince. Did you try to get an interview with him?
Oh for years. His official response back to me, through his brother Mike Prince, was that it was a business decision that he didn’t want to be involved. And evidently that business decision was his book that came out this past year. So, more power to him! It’s a great book, and I’m all for seeing the library of books on or about Houston rap just continue to expand, so I’m happy to see how his book has taken off. Anytime somebody with a following who doesn’t usually write does write a book, they bring new people into reading. That’s always good.
And you’re further deepening the context behind Houston’s rap music. It’s funny that you say “more power to him,” because J Prince is a man of power.
He is a man of power! Still, I would love to interview him someday.
But what he did with Rap-A-Lot Records was to lay this whole blueprint out for your Slims, your Babys, your Master Ps of the world. Like even your Roc-A-Fellas, right? Tell me about how J Prince essentially put the whole rap world on game and how to get this thing off the ground.
Well certainly in Houston, and when you look at that trajectory I was talking about earlier with the Geto Boys. People in Houston, the generation that was a little bit younger than the Geto Boys, watched this group grow, watched this label grow. Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot, that’s synonymous. J Prince created Geto Boys, and they were a group that evolved from one lineup to another lineup and continued to change until they arrived at the more classic lineup we know now as Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill, with DJ Domo in the most recent incarnation. But people in Houston saw that — that you could take your money, wherever it came from — whether you had street money, dirty money — drug money, or used car lot money … whatever it was, you could take it and you started investing it in people and in ideas and building your own label, your own business.
And make it clean?
Yeah — clean up your money — exactly. Clean up your money and invest in studio time, invest in building artists, invest in your label. And if it’s a big enough city and there’s a big enough scene supporting that, you’ll see a cycle begin where people are supporting it. We still see that in Houston, because there’s so many people who followed J Prince’s lead and started their own labels and maybe wouldn’t have had those careers without his inspiration.
And I know we’re getting off the linear path here, but in terms of cleaning the money, there is a downside to it. As DJ DMD tells you in the book, he had two different occasions for which he was using money that was dirty in order to fund his music, and that essentially sent him away.
Well, that’s the risk. The risk is in with whom you associate, and how quickly and how swiftly and how smoothly you’re getting out of it. If you’ve got street money, how quickly and swiftly can you get that money cleaned up and then turn over, literally turn over that new leaf so that you’re on the other side of all that and like DMD says in the interview, “You wanna make music or you wanna be a dope boy?” You can’t be both.
There is this theme of mass incarceration that runs through the book and through many other similar stories from New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, you know, both in early ’90s hip-hop and just in being black in America in general. You started the book with an interview with MC Wickett Crickett, and it wasn’t even necessarily about hip-hop in general. So talk to us about who Wickett Crickett was and why this interview that’s not even about rap kind of sets the tone for what we’re about to read?
Well, obviously a lot of the rap that we talk about in the book is what you would consider gangsta rap, and gangsta rap is a product of the crack era, because of the conditions crack produced in the neighborhoods where it hit hardest. Mass incarceration ties directly into that. Look at how prison populations exploded in the 1980s. Crack was a great opportunity for the judicial system and the prison industry to lock up young men and women — disproportionately young men and women of color — through the war on drugs, feeding on the frenzy of how people reacted to what they considered the offensive nature of gangsta rap. MC Wickett Crickett saw all of this unfold because he’s a generation older than a lot of the artists that we covered in the book. He came down from New York and ended up in Fifth Ward in the late 1970s, so he’s down south before there are really any rap records released at all, before hip-hop is really anywhere other than New York. He had seen the genre really grow and flower from its roots. He grew up right alongside it. He was in his late teens when hip-hop was just getting off the ground, the perfect age to experience that in its fullness. And so he saw hip-hop from its beginnings, from its four elements swirling around his hometown. He comes to Houston, he doesn’t exactly see those elements in place, but he brings them with him, and he goes around and tries to inspire people. He’s an MC, so he starts hosting open mic nights, he goes to cafes and gets up on stage with local funk and boogie bands and he starts freestyling on the microphone. He sits down on the bus and starts freestyling, sweeping people up into his love for the music. He starts hosting club nights, invites people out to get out there and do their thing. He’s right there in the mix, super involved in this early era of rap long before crack cocaine. So, he’s seeing it zoomed out in a way — because he’s older than a lot of those kids, I think his heart was broken in a very particular way, by seeing the genre lose its innocence. Gangsta rap chronicled that era, and of course we probably wouldn’t be sitting here if we weren’t talking about how that era and that music are so important — but there’s certainly a price that came with it. So that interview was so meaningful, because he talked about everything that led up to that and how its reverberations are still felt today, even if we’re no longer in what we call the crack era.
It’s essential context to really understand how, for many of the people that are in the book, and with what we were just talking about with J Prince, there weren’t that many other ways out.
Especially in a city like Houston, where it’s hard to get around anyway!
Continuing with the “Foundation” chapter, Wickett Crickett’s doing his own shows and Rhinestone Wrangler is this one central location that appears in so many different parts of Houston Rap Tapes, from the Northside to the Southside, like everybody was still funneling — packing themselves into Rhinestone Wrangler at the 10 o’clock show, and then I think it was like two o’clock Rap Attack?
The Rhinestone Wrangler was the product of a DJ in Houston named Steve Fournier — a white boy who was out there squeezing in as much hip-hop as he could into his DJ sets before he finally got an opportunity to open a club where he could play anything he wanted, and for him that meant 100 percent hip-hop. And for Houston, that was a big deal, because there wasn’t anywhere else people could go to experience that, where they just wanna go listen to rap music all night long. Fournier accommodated that, and he did it in a way that involved people in an extracurricular way, too, because he had what was called the Rap Attack Contest every Sunday night. People would turn up and put their name on the list, and then, judging by crowd response, they would either win or lose the rapping part of the Rap Attack Contest and whoever won would compete in another contest that happened right at the very end of the night. That was the cappin’ contest. Cap rapping. Rank rapping. This was the scene that produced Ricky Royal and Royal Flush, Romeo Poet, Willie D — all these young artists that were going in and basically just strengthening their chops as battle rappers by going at each other every Sunday night. And that’s what people would lose their minds over, because it was such a scene — such a rich scene that was just drawing everybody who was involved at that time. A lot of artists really got squared up as battle rappers during that era, because there was so much traffic around which to exercise those talents.
Battle rap is integral to hip-hop in general, and it’s so interesting that all these rappers were all kids. They’re all kids, not even old enough to be in the Rhinestone Wrangler.
Not even old enough to get in to the club. Some of them get snuck in.
There was this wonderful interview with Pam Collins, and that’s one of my favorite chapters. It’s a short one, but it’s very important to pretty much the whole book. Tell us about Kidz Jamm, and how she ran it with an iron fist.
Kidz Jamm was a Saturday morning hip-hop radio show on KTSU that I used to pick up from Galveston when I was a kid. It featured Lester “Sir” Pace, Walter D, MC Wickett Crickett, Jazzie Redd, O. G. Style. Pam Collins was working at the radio station and somehow or another it became her duty — even not being a hip-hop fan, the station tagged her with managing this show. And she’s like, “Well, if I’m going to manage them, they’re gonna learn how to do it.” And so as she said in the interview, she made them very astute in the ways of radio. She really pushed them to make themselves better at whatever they were doing. She was, I think, the station general manager, so her role wasn’t limited to just Kidz Jamm — but, “If you’re into sports, you’re going to be the best sports announcer that you can possibly be. If you’re into this hip-hop, you’re gonna get the most out of it. There’s not going to be any profanity! But you’re gonna get the most of it.” So a lot of the people that were on that show went on to have real careers in rap — Jazzie Redd went on to have a nice rap career for himself in Texas and out in L.A. with former Kidz Jamm partner King Tee. Jazzie is a radio DJ out in Beaumont now. I went out there and did a radio spot with him on my book tour. O. G. Style went on to make records for Rap-A-Lot before he died about a decade ago. Lester Pace went on to work at the big hip-hop station in Houston, then worked for Interscope Records for years and is still working in the music industry out in Memphis. MC Wickett Crickett went on to his bread and butter, which was MCing and hosting all over the city. He got a lot of people their first gigs. DJ Screw. Crickett got an early Houston gig for Destiny’s Child. DJ Walter D’s still out there. So whatever kind of training it was that Pam Collins instituted there, she certainly incited these artists to follow their passions and not give up. They just kept working. Even after her era, that show produced great talent. Def Jam Blaster, Marcus Love, Cipher and Sincere, Parrish Murphy.
Did she give them a sense of resiliency?
She must have! A lot of people might not have known the role Pam Collins played in the Houston rap lexicon, but her contributions were truly elemental. Darryl Scott connected me with her, and there aren’t enough women in the book anyway, because there just weren’t as many women making records back in the day, so I jumped at the chance to illustrate how even way back when hip-hop was in its infancy in Houston, there were women working behind the scenes to make things happen in a fundamental way.
And you talk about instilling people with confidence, right? Like, that’s kind of what it is, right? Confidence breeds resiliency. You mentioned Darryl Scott, who was also a really important figure in the scene, and he was the person, if I’m correct, to teach DJ Screw how to slow it down.
Well, he was where part of the influence came from. Darryl Scott was the hottest mixtape DJ in Houston from the late ’70s on through the ’80s. D Scott’s tapes were the hottest thing in town. He’d stay up all night recording, dubbing tapes, and then on Sundays going to MacGregor Park and selling out of them before he could get out of his car. So he opened a shop, his own record store, Blast Records & Tapes in South Park, right at the end of 1984. He sold his mixtapes there, but he also sold other records, and it became a sort of community space, because it was a black-owned business owned by somebody that everybody knew — somebody who went from selling mixtapes at the park on Sundays to opening his own shop. That galvanized a lot of people on its own, but also he was a little bit older, and thus served as a mentor to a lot of folks — later on ministering to them, holding prayer meetings in the shop. So his influence stretched over decades, really, but DJ Screw got to know him in the early 1990s, and on a couple of D Scott’s tapes, he had some songs that were slowed down. Mantronix “Fresh Is The Word,” Laid Back “White Horse.” There were a few others. Basically a 45 dropped down to 33. And then on another tape, he was doing some doubling, or “chopping.” Lots of DJs do that: work with one record playing a little behind the other one, going back and forth between them. On Darryl Scott’s mixtapes, these elements weren’t together, the doubling and the slowing down, but Screw put them together. When he heard those songs slowed down, he was like, “Oh yeah, I like that — but I wanna go even deeper than that.” There’s another guy in this mix named Michael Price, who, like Screw, was a big enthusiast of slowing things down.
He passed away, right?
Michael Price was murdered in 1993, but before that, he and Screw, together and separately, were pursuing their own lanes in slowing things down. Price played tapes through a boombox with a screw pressed up against the motor to slow it down. And that’s the parallel version of the term “screw” — just another place that “screw music” comes from. Screw slowed it down with the pitch control on his turntables, but he actually really slowed it down on the 8-track recorder when he dubbed it. And of course, Scott’s influence carried on years later, when DJ Screw opened up his own record store to sell his tapes — Screwed Up Records & Tapes.
And the next book you’re working on is on Screw?
The next book is a biography of DJ Screw, yeah.
Where has that research taken you? Or how has it expanded on the research you already did for Houston Rap Tapes?
Oh it is definitely an expansion of that research, because there were just so many people in DJ Screw’s orbit. He died in November 2000, but during the 10-year period where he was making tapes, there were hundreds of people that came into his life or crossed paths through different eras of his career that were all deeply touched by him, deeply affected by him, and all felt like he treated him like they were his best friend. I hear that over and over again. He was exactly the same person with everyone he encountered — it didn’t matter if Ice-T was picking him up for dinner, or Ice Cube was hanging out backstage, or if it was just a guy on the street who stopped him and said, “Hey Screw, will you listen to me rap?” So, the research has opened up the world that was around him. He was a true nucleus: so many people were drawn to him, and learned from him, and learned how to mature into young men and women because of his influence and the big brother quality that he brought to his relationships.
I guess one thing that would be interesting for anyone not fully versed in all of this is how these tapes were made — how you might get to Screw’s house at 10:00 p.m. to start working and you may not be getting out of there until 10:00 a.m.
Or days later! Screw was a night owl. He would work all night, through the small hours into the morning, sometimes right up through sunrise. He didn’t ever really sleep — that was part of what contributed to his death. He had a couple of different ways he made Screwtapes. Somebody might bring in a list of songs, and then he’d go through and pull those records and he’d mix with those records — two copies of the same record, one playing a little behind the other — and then make his own interpretation of it. He’d chop them together, repeat words, wind back whole verses, layer in other records, slow it all down. He was experimental in his approach. Everybody, when they heard his tapes for the first time, thought it sounded insane, so nothing was too crazy for him. Eventually, he started saving room at the ends of the tapes to record shoutouts, and then later, he started doing tapes where he’d run instrumentals and pass a microphone around the room. People would freestyle, and he would record it. Some of the people who came in to freestyle were legit rappers trying to become artists. Some of them had no designs whatsoever on being an artist, but through the opportunity Screw afforded them to express themselves on his tapes, they became artists. He certainly encouraged it — he was that sort of force in their lives. So there would be these all-night sessions in his house, people recording, passing the mic back and forth. For the most part, he’s catching magic on tape, catching the tone of the night, the story of the night, the mix of people there that night. All of that culture — they’re talking about the candy paint, and the lean, and their Southside neighborhoods — all of that culture is illuminated on the tapes.
Interesting that you mention lean [codeine promethazine]. It doesn’t actually appear in the book until I think 80 pages in. I remember I marked it down because if you listen to rap music and you know this rap music, Houston and lean go hand in hand. You and I initially linked up when I was investigating the idea of whether or not it was lean that killed Screw, but it’s a little overblown — lean isn’t all there is to Houston’s rap music. It isn’t everything, is it?
No, it’s not all there is to it, but the thing is that Screw was an enormously popular person in Houston, so when he died, the Houston news media just lit up around his death because of the connection to codeine, labeling it an “epidemic,” blaming syrup/lean/drank as the lone culprit — which, it certainly had something to do with his death. Codeine promethazine doesn’t really stay in your system long enough to kill you in a single sitting, but over time it will exacerbate preexisting health conditions. If you don’t sleep, like Screw didn’t, and if you have a bad diet, like Screw did, and you’re not getting any exercise, as was the case with Screw, and then you add something like codeine promethazine to that mix in any amount, eventually it’s going to create problems that your body is not going to be able to overcome. But in Houston, it was just all over the media for months, freaking everybody out, which just helped to popularize the drug even more in the end. In response, the laws have only gotten tighter around recreational use of codeine promethazine. So while Houston may have always been the hotbed for it, it also grew into the place where in some ways it is the hardest to get it.
I think “Screwed In Houston,” the Vice documentary, really shows that — how lean was something being done in Houston even in the ’60s and ’70s.
Yeah, decades before. People talk about their grandparents drinking it. People talk about blues musicians in Houston drinking it. Drinking it with beer back in the day, eventually with wine, or in the ’80s wine coolers, and then by the time you roll around to the early ’90s and they’re talking about it on Screwtapes, they’re drinking it with soda. That was the version of it that took off.
After Screw’s death, it was very much like people were stealing Screwtapes. ESG has that song, “Watch Yo Screw,” where he pronounces, “This is not a Screwtape unless Screw actually does it!” The people that were left with Screw’s death, what effect did it have on them to carry on his legacy and make sure that whoever listened to it understood what really happened, how he actually made history?
Well, there’s two schools of thought on that. One is that if somebody is making a mixtape that employs Screw’s techniques of slowing and chopping, that you are honoring him by calling it “screwed.” I get that, but I happen to side with the people who were around him, who argue that if DJ Screw didn’t do it, then it’s not “screwed,” it’s not “chopped and screwed,” it’s not “screw music,” and it’s not a Screwtape. It’s just slowed and chopped — which is a real art form that I’m happy to see perpetuated to this day — but “screwed” belongs to Screw. As for what happened to the Screwed Up Click after his death, well everyone scattered in different directions. Screw’s whole idea in the first place was for all of them to ride his back and then fly with their own wings — it was never for them to depend on him forever. He wanted to launch people. That was the reason he never started an actual label, because he didn’t necessarily want to put out people’s music for them. He wanted to see people become businessmen and businesswomen for themselves — to create black businesses in black neighborhoods and support a community around themselves. And he had no problem at all being generous enough to show people how to do that. There was Southwest Wholesale in Houston — a production and distribution house with whom different artists in Houston had an arrangement until they shuttered in 2003. He would actively encourage people to take part in that process and get their music out there in that. So, everybody was shocked when Screw passed, of course, but I think he had laid the foundation for all of them to be able to make it on their own, and for the most part, they really all did. They all continued to make records and put stuff out. Still, who knows in what direction their careers would have gone if Screw was still around?
Swishahouse would come only a few years later and I guess be in position — for when the national mainstream eye came — to have these artists, this whole stable, ready to go.
Well that movement had been brewing for years before Screw passed. Screw was a Southside guy, so if you got into his house, likely you were from the Southside. That’s not to say nobody from the Northside ever went in there.
But there was a beef between the Northside and the Southside, right?
There was a beef between the Northside and the Southside of Houston throughout the ’90s, and although I don’t think Screw himself ever did anything to further that — he didn’t like people beefing.
As they say, “The crime rate goes down around Screw”?
Right! He didn’t do anything to stoke that fire, but there was certainly stuff people said on Screwtapes that did. There’s the old story about how Screwtapes only ever made it to the Northside, because somebody jacked a car from the Southside and there was a Screwtape in the deck. But on the Northside of Houston, what Screw was doing sounded like Houston to Northsiders, so you had a whole movement of artists coming up on the Northside that wanted a piece of that. They wanted in on that sound, too. That’s how you get Swishahouse. If they’d been allowed in Screw’s house, it might have been a different story! But Swishahouse did things differently. It was an actual label, for one thing. Michael “5000” Watts was on the radio, and the label had a website, and their stuff was available on CD. These were all things that set them apart from Screw. So the Swishahouse juggernaut was different from the beginning, even if obviously influenced by what DJ Screw was doing with the music itself. In many ways, there was just a perfect storm that came to life in 2004 and 2005, with Swishahouse having a great bunch of artists all at once who had all been doing it long enough to be reaching at least a commercial peak, and all of them were hitting with fresh material all around the same time, when hip-hop needed it. If it had been a couple of years later, I don’t know if it would have happened. A couple of years after that, you get Drake, ASAP Rocky, all these artists that were admittedly influenced by what was going on in Houston, so it’s all connected. Movements are both spawned by and help to spawn other movements.
So it was a moment between the gangsta rap era that 50 Cent kind of closed in a way, with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, before Kanye was taking it pop. This was kind of the real part of it, Mike Jones, Slim Thug …
Paul Wall, Chamillionaire.
Chamillionaire was at the perfect time to catch the ringtone wave — “Ridin’” was everyone’s ringtone.
Exactly. It was a whole string of releases that came out, and each one of them was doing progressively better. Mike Jones, Slim Thug a few months later, Paul Wall a few months after that. Chamillionaire. Bun B’s first solo album. Houston had never experienced anything like that as a city.
And Kanye was in Houston for that video shoot at Screwed Up Records & Tapes! So a bunch of stuff was all happening around the same time, and luckily Peter Beste and I had started the books before all that went down, so we were sort of on the back side of the wave, already working when all of that happened. It was a blessing for us that we didn’t get going a year later, because it would have been a totally different process. The wave would have already washed through there, and we would have been coming through to mop up after it.
How did you and Peter Beste link up? He also had a photo book on Norwegian black metal, right?
Peter and I go way back. I first met him in 1996, when I was playing in punk bands around Houston. This long-haired blonde kid would come up front with a camera taking pictures of my old band, Jessica Six, and I finally asked him after a gig, “Hey, what do you do with those pictures?” “I don’t know.” He didn’t even really consider himself a photographer then. He was still in high school. But he was always taking pictures, and he just got better and better. Then he went off to school in Austin, and then to London, and I went over to see him a couple of times while he was living there, and we just stayed close over the years. So then by 2004, he had settled in New York, and I was still in Houston, writing for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press. He’d been talking about this project for years where he was going to come back to Houston and take pictures of all the rappers we’d known about when we were growing up. Peter is five years younger than I am, so he grew up hearing South Park Coalition, Ganksta N-I-P, whereas when I was in high school when Geto Boys broke locally, and then nationally. The whole early Rap-A-Lot movement of the late 1980s: Raheem, Royal Flush.
Raheem was the first deal, first major?
He had the first major label deal for a Houston rapper. It probably would have been Geto Boys, but they were just too rough when A&M Records came to Houston looking around. But yeah, Peter and I grew up with a different familiarity of Houston rap music. He started it as a photo project, making trips from Brooklyn to take pictures, and after a couple of visits he told me, “You know, I go out and take photos and people tell me these amazing stories and the camera doesn’t capture it. You’re a writer, you should come onboard, write this book with me.”
So to put it right out there: how do two white boys get accepted into all of these rappers’ houses and lives — like how do you build that up, especially knowing what they’ve gone through, and how do you get them to open up, to trust you, to tell you what is revealed later on in the book?
It’s about respect. Internally, you have to zoom in and out and look at the project from many different angles, and you have to really shine the light into every crevice of what you’re doing, and think about how things come off, how things will affect people’s lives. Take nothing for granted. Trust takes time to build. Real trust takes time, just like with any relationship. And through the learning process, educating yourself on the music and the history, you’re able to embed more information into your questions, and that’s part of how you build trust, because you’re illustrating that you care enough about the subject matter to have done your homework, and the way you talk about things reveals a lot. Show respect. You’re there to listen. You can’t go tearing in expecting that everybody’s going to want to talk to you. You have to think about the fact that some people won’t. And you have to respect that. It’s not a given. You have to be open to the fact that sometimes you want to talk to somebody about something, and they want to talk to you about something totally different! And that’s part of building that trust, letting somebody know that you’re there to listen to them, without an agenda. You’re there to be a conduit, to reflect their lives with the most authenticity. Peter and I worked on that together. We worked on the whole history together.
Is there anybody you wanted to interview that you didn’t get to for the books?
So many. Mike Dean, RP Cola, Lester “Sir” Pace. Houston’s first lady of nasty rap, Choice. We have photos of her in the book Houston Rap, but I could never reach her for an interview. There we so many — Big Moe, The L.A. Rapper, Ganksta N-I-P.
You had an interesting story about Ganksta N-I-P.
He wasn’t so excited to meet us the first time. We were taken to his house by Dope E., who told us to wait in the street by the car. Then Dope goes over and knocks on the door, and Ganksta N-I-P comes out of the house and slowly walks across the lawn to the car, trying not to look us in the eye, just kind of staring at the ground. He comes over and he says, “So, what is it y’all are doin’?” And Peter explains everything, that we’re working on a book, and that we’d like to take some pictures and maybe do an interview with him. And I remember N-I-P was wearing a jersey and shorts — Houston Oilers blue — and he pulls the jersey up to wipe off his face and there’s this cannon hanging off the side of his shorts, like almost pulling his shorts down. He holds the shirt up long enough to know we’ve seen the gun, and then he kinda whispers, “Not today.” And we’re like, “Nah, not today!” I never got to sit him down for a proper interview, but Peter pursued him and eventually he agreed to a shoot, and they did some great photos together. So, you’re not always going to strike gold on the first meeting.
I think one thing that roots all oral histories in general is hindsight: these were all kids, who are now just looking back on the things that have skated into other stories. One of my favorite chapters in the book was "Wood," whose story is really tragic in a way, especially in the way he tells it, and I love the way you just let him speak. He loses his father, and he is playing basketball, and he talks about going to the mall just to rob other people of their joy, and this was the only way out for some of these kids. There was nothing else they could have done.
Well, that was a fascinating conversation, because we got right into talking about crack, talking about how it affected his life, and it was almost like it was the first real opportunity he had ever had to tell that story. That happens throughout the book: several people had really never been interviewed before, and I think those are some of the richest stories — definitely the rawest — because those stories are not tailored for anyone.
Wood really goes back through the whole emotional structure of his life, and how it was smashed apart, and how he had to go back in and rebuild it after his mother became addicted to crack, his father died, and he lost other close family members all right around the same time. All of that would have broken a lot of other people, but he pulls himself out of it, and part of what helps pull him out of it is music. As he says in the book about his mother, who is alive and not addicted to crack anymore, “I don’t care what they say, you cannot wash away what drugs do to people. She’s just not the same person.” So that was a really rare interview where, once I’d transcribed it and was in the process of putting it into the original version of Houston Rap Tapes, I called him up to go over some of the stuff we’d talked about earlier, because it was such sensitive material, and I wanted to make sure he was okay with it going into the book — the name of his family’s funeral home and everything. I reminded him that he had told me a lot of personal stuff, and I read it back to him, and he was like, “No, that’s okay! Put it in there. People need to know that.” And he was right. It’s just so, so important for people to be able to see the human toll that something like crack did take. We talked about how that reality fuels the lyricism and the anger and bleakness and darkness that we find in gangsta rap, but there’s another side of it, too, that cuts a lot deeper than what we even hear in the lyrics.
The book ends with the “Future” chapter, where you have a lot of album covers on there — I think you have Astroworld on there, right?
No, Astroworld wasn’t out yet when I turned in the book. It is kind of the same reason Tobe Nwigwe isn’t in there — I just wasn’t onto him in time. For Travis Scott, I put the cover of Rodeo in that chapter.
Right, and OMB Bloodbath. You say there are not enough women in the book, but one of your big interviews is with OMB Bloodbath, another act that has a buzz in Houston, who doesn’t need to leave Houston.
It’s really interesting to see different eras of the neighborhood being documented in the book like that. She and Cal Wayne are both from Third Ward and they both talk about where Third Ward is today.
Do you mean gentrification?
That’s part of it, to be sure, but it’s also just how they feel about the neighborhood. Third Ward is the same neighborhood we have been talking about through the whole book. The neighborhoods are the connective tissue of the book, which is why I included the maps in there. It is so important to understand a sense of place and really to see how these neighborhoods are marginalized from the city at large, how they are not deemed necessary until they’re necessary, until the city comes around and starts cleaning up the roads and sewers, planning freeways right through black and Latino neighborhoods, displacing entire communities, and then starts greenlighting residential development. The shotgun houses come down to be replaced by condos and apartment buildings that no one who had been living in that neighborhood for decades could ever afford.
Through eminent domain?
Yeah. The Fourth Ward neighborhood that we talk about in the book is just gone now. That neighborhood has just been eaten alive by new development. Years before that, the city planned a freeway right between Fourth Ward’s church and its residents. The church, Antioch Baptist, is still right there, under all the high-rises of Downtown. Look it up on a map, and you’ll see a freeway between it and the old Fourth Ward. Same thing in Fifth Ward, where Highway 59 was planned right through the heart of that primarily black neighborhood decades ago, disrupting businesses, breaking up communities. So that sense of place is crucial for understanding the how and why and where of everything that happens in the book.
What do you want people to take away after they get through the book?
This is a history book. Houston rap is part of black history, part of American music history, and the people of Houston and their music deserve to be documented as such. The great ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax were a big inspiration, and I see a direct thread between the blues, folk, and country they documented and this more contemporary art form. I hope that having published this with the University of Texas Press helps establish that. Beyond that, I just love to imagine that anybody who reads the book will come away with a new empathy and understanding of people with whom they might not have felt like they had anything in common. Or for people who can relate to the interviewees — for those who have parallel experiences — I hope they see themselves honestly and nobly reflected.
How has it affected you?
Oh god — I’ve grown up so much. This is the 14th year I have been working on this project, and I just can’t imagine how different the past decade of my life would have been if I hadn’t met all of the people that I met doing the book. I learned from them, having grown up together in some ways. I feel like anytime two human beings are having a conversation, there’s discovery taking place on both sides. Each person is learning from the other one all throughout the conversation. I grew with every one of these interviews, and I hope that people who read it also grow at least in some part in their own ways.
Jacques Morel is a senior correspondent for Genius News.