3. Hip-Hop Takes Root in Houston: The Formative Stages of Houston’s Hip-Hop Culture (1979–86)
4. It’s Time to Hustle: Houston Raps Back and Professionalizes Its Hip-Hop Culture (1986–91)
About the Author
For more than about twenty years now, I wondered if anyone knew of or even cared about how Houston, Texas, became one of the largest markets for hip-hop music in the world—and if anyone even knew the true history of how all this came to be. I always said that, one day, I would write a book to tell the story so that young rappers coming up could see what had happened for them to be able to enjoy the artistic freedom they have now—and also so that they would understand that if it weren’t for Houston and the other southern states that followed, there would not have been the mass amounts of money made by the New York labels in the 1980s and ’90s.
Well, thanks to Maco L. Faniel, I don’t have to worry about that now, because the book you’re about to read should answer any of the questions you might have about Houston’s involvement in hip-hop and most of its hip-hop history. I have to give personal thanks to Maco for doing his research and talking to all the right people for this book, and also for telling a little bit of my story, which I’ve always been asked about over the years but never had the time to put down in writing. I think that after reading this book, you will find that Houston and its artists, producers, club DJs and early radio DJs affected the course of hip-hop music from its conception as it spread throughout the world. And now that the truth has been told, Houston can take its rightful place in the history of hip-hop as the most important influence outside of New York. Thank you, Maco L. Faniel.
STEVE M.J. FOURNIER
I approached the publication of this book with trepidation and reluctance because of the politics of my academic discipline/vocation. I spent a few weeks internally debating whether or not I would move forward with publishing this work. My answer came to me after an encounter with a longtime friend, Roderick “50/50 Twin” Brown.
I met Roderick in 1995 while playing basketball in the driveway of my boy Pistol’s house. He and his twin brother (Broderick) were walking through the neighborhood trying to find something to do when they finally came upon our game of basketball. Everyone imagined that these two cats would not have any hooping skills, as they are both short, but they quickly surprised us. Over the next three years, we developed a friendship. We sometimes went to church together, we hooped together and we also began to try our hand at rapping. Our freestyle sessions took place at the house of my boy Pistol, who rigged up a way for us to record ourselves. My lyrical skills were subpar, but Roderick’s and Broderick’s were superb. By the end of high school, they were taking rapping more seriously, and I took going to college more seriously. As a result, they both began appearing on mixtapes for Swishahouse, Boss Hogg Outlawz and the Color Changin’ Click. In 1999, Roderick was featured on the lead single “Big Ballin’ Shot Callin’” for Swishahouse’s debut album, The Day Hell Broke Loose (1999). Unfortunately, Broderick surrendered to the wiles of the streets, which led him to a forty-five year prison sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and serious bodily injury. After his initial successes, Roderick was signed by Paid in Full Entertainment, where he recorded with Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and other members of the Color Changin’ Click. Around 2004, Roderick created his own label, Roc 4 Roc Entertainment, where he continued to record albums. He is considered one of Houston’s underground legends.
After high school, our interactions were sporadic, as we had chosen different paths. However, every few years, Roderick and I always seemed to find each other on Gulf Bank Street, the setting for many of our juvenile activities—good and bad. In the fall of 2012, we again found each other on Gulf Bank, as I was leaving my mother’s house and he was chillin’ in “the cut.” Our conversation picked up where it had left off years prior—reminiscing and praising. I told him that I had dedicated my thesis to his brother Broderick and that I wanted to make sure that he received a copy. Fortunately, I had a copy in my car that I had been waiting to give him in the event that I ran into him. I gave it to him. Two days later, he called me excitedly, saying, “Bruh, you have to publish this because people need to know about this untold history.” His words were calming; they spoke to the fears that I held about this project. His excitement and suggestion was a sign that this story is important for his identity and countless others whose agencies within hip-hop remain marginalized. Therefore, this narrative is not only a polemic but also an effort to tell the story of the early Houston hip-hoppers and their contribution to the culture. In the words of Jeezy, it is my attempt to “put on for my city!”
Now for the hard part—showing gratitude to those persons and or organizations who helped bring this project to fore. In hip-hop, this is called a “shout-out,” because on a song or in the back matter of a CD, you get to mention the names of your homies and the places that are important to you and the project. Therefore, to keep it in the spirit of hip-hop, here are my shout-outs.
This text was possible only due to the firsthand knowledge of those still alive to describe how hip-hop in Houston developed and progressed during those early days. For this work, I conducted many interviews of persons who were agents in creating the culture. Without their stories, this investigation would have gone the way of other attempts to historicize Houston’s hip-hop culture—a history that begins with the professionalization of the culture and that leaves out those persons and events that laid the groundwork. Therefore, it is with gratitude that I acknowledge the following persons for their assistance and their stories: Trena Foster, DJ Ready Red, Sire Jukebox, Def Jam Blaster, Luscious Ice, K-Rino, Ben Westoff, Raheem, Carlos Garza (DJ Styles), Lil’ Troy, Willie D, Julie Grob, Thelton Polk (K9/Sir-Rap-A-Lot), Steve Fournier, Lester “Sir” Pace, Pam Collins, Wicked Cricket, Ricardo Royal, Jazzie Redd, DJ Chill and Rashad Al-Amin. Three of these persons—Garza, Cricket and Al-Amin—were invaluable to my research, as they were able to connect so many dots and connect me with so many people. They are pioneers in their own right who are not often mentioned in the narrative because our understandings of hip-hop tend to only recognize those who perform or produce music or those who have reached a certain commercial status, yet these ambassadors represent for Houston in innumerable ways at home and on the road. To all the hip-hoppers from those early days, it is my hope that I’ve told your story accurately and that I’ve represented you well.
This work was also possible because of those who began and those who continued to write the hip-hop canon as a framework to understand American life and the various nuances of a generation and a people. The names include but are not limited to: Nelson George, Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson, Joan Morgan, Raquel Cepeda, Murray Forman, Mark Anthony Neal, William Jelani Cobb, Pero Dagbovie, Brian Coleman, Dan Charnas, dream Hampton, Bakari Kitwana, Jeff Chang, Mickey Hess, Mtume Ya Salaam, David Mills, Derrick Aldridge, M.K. Asante, Yvonne Bynoe, Anthony Pinn, Brian Coleman, Jim Fricke, Charlie Ahearn, Steven Hager, Mickey Hess, Robin D.G. Kelley, Alex Ogg, David Upshal, William Eric Perkins, Imani Perry, Roni Sarig, David Toop, Kevin Powell, James Braxton Peterson, Jocelyn Wilson, Alan Light, Touré, Greg Tate, Marc Lamont Hill, Todd Boyd and Jeffery O.G. Ogbar. I look up to them all, and I thank them all for making hip-hop a viable subject matter. There are also trailblazers in the writing of Houston hip-hop that I am indebted to: Andrew Dansby, Matt Sonzala, John Nova Lomax, Lance Scott Walker, Chris Gray, Shea Serrano and many others.
During the brainstorming for this project, I thought it important to investigate Houston’s black music traditions to determine if there were any connections to hip-hop in Houston and to argue that just as Houston hip-hop is largely disregarded, so are its other forms of popular black music. My questions about the black music traditions in Houston first led me to the work of Roger Wood, and I researched many of the names and places mentioned in his texts. In the process, I found myself falling in love with people and music that I never knew about. Every time that I found a new piece of information or a new connection, I became even more excited and proud of my city. While at a meeting at the African American Library at the Gregory School, I came across a board member, Lizette Cobb, whose last name sounded familiar. When I asked her if she was related to Arnett Cobb, she said, “Yes, he is my father.” In reply, I said, “I need to talk to you about this project I am doing!” We then began talking periodically about Houston’s jazz history. Lizette introduced me to the Texas Jazz Archive, which served as a valuable resource for this project. I am now a greater champion of Houston’s music culture after finding out how deep and rich it is. Thank you to Roger, Lizette and Tim (from the Texas Room at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center).
While writing this book, I found it difficult to write at home. In my efficiency apartment, I felt closed in and lonely, and I often became distracted. Therefore, I spent a lot of time at coffee shops and other places that offered free Wi-Fi, where I was able to pick up on the energy of others attempting to be creative. These places include, the Doshi House, the Eat Gallery, Blacksmith Coffee Bar and Boomtown Coffee. I am also thankful for the staff at the African American Library at the Gregory School for helping me find texts needed for my research and for conversing with me during my many moments of distraction.
I would also like to thank my friends who encouraged me during the days that I wanted to give up and who also read over several iterations of this project: Cleve Tinsley, Camesha Scruggs, Arlisha Norwood, Michelle Smith, Aundrea Matthews, Shannan Johnson, Tilicia Johnson, Lanecia Rouse, Meshah Hawkins and Jason Miller. There are also those friends and mentors who long ago told me that I should write a book—they saw things in me that I did not see or that I was too afraid to do: Kenneth Cotton, Rudy Rasmus, Odin Clack, Christian Washington, Craig Bowie, Catheryn Longino, Nykeki Broussard, Pam Bryant and Terric Ayers.
I am tremendously grateful to my faculty mentors and my thesis committee, who all provided guidance, support, critiques and rebukes. Thank you, Finnie Coleman, Cary Wintz, Merline Pitre, Roger Wood, Daniel Adams and Nupur Chaudhuri for serving on my committee, adding to my life and pushing me to be a competent scholar. I owe special shout-outs to Dr. Coleman, Dr. Wintz and Dr. Chaudhuri. Dr. Coleman has been a mentor and friend for the last fifteen years and is one of the key figures in my decision to pursue the life of the mind. He was my first example of a black man from “da hood” in the academy, and he allowed me to imagine a vocation beyond the perfunctory expectations of my community. I was first introduced to hip-hop as an academic subject through his Introduction to Hip-Hop Culture class in 2001. He constantly pushes me to read, to write, to critique life, to be a scholar instead of a student and to be a standup guy. Dr. Wintz made me a historian, and Dr. Chaudhuri helped me fall in love with counter-historical narratives, particularly those that challenge imagined communities.
I would be remiss if I did not thank my mother and grandmother. My mother was my first teacher of context, particularly the context of music. I love music because it was constantly played in my house and in her car. I love to think about the message of music, because she asked me questions about her music or testified about it herself. She and my grandmother were constant champions of this endeavor. Though neither one of them knew what I was writing about, they kept asking me, “How is your book coming?” or “Are you finished with that book yet?” It has been my constant aim to make them proud. I hope they are proud of this.
To my editor, Christen Thompson, I thank you for encouraging me to go forward with this project, for your detailed editing, for overseeing this project and for your coolness.
To all of you who read this book, I hope that you enjoy it. Thank you for your support and for sharing this work with others. I hope that this book has broadened your understanding of history and also your knowledge of hip-hop.
Last but certainly not least, I am thankful to God, for in ways that I can’t understand or explain, you orchestrated all of this, which amazes me and humbles me at the same time.
Every generation has the opportunity to write its own history, and indeed it is obliged to do so. Only in that way can it provide its contemporaries with the materials vital to understanding the present and planning strategies for coping with the future. Only in that way can it fulfill its obligation to pass on to posterity the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past, which, after all, give substance and direction for the continuity of civilization.
—John Hope Franklin, 1986
To begin, I believe that the question of how I came to this particular subject must be answered. I consider it a serendipitous matter—I was born at the right time, and I was on the Internet at the right time.
During the Christmas holiday of 2010, I found myself engaging in one of my oft-practiced forms of procrastination from reading or writing—Facebook. This adventure brought me to a post on a friend’s page that immediately grabbed my attention, as it featured two of my favorite persons: Jay-Z and Cornel West. It was a link to a videoed chat with Jay-Z, Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library titled Decoded: Jay-Z in Conversation with Cornel West. Before I clicked on the link, I thought, “Wow, a merger of the street and the academy—this should be interesting!” Then I watched, and I was far from disappointed.
In summary, the video featured a conversation among the three about Jay-Z’s book Decoded; Holdengräber questioned, Jay-Z explicated and West interpreted. This exchange made for an interesting dialogue, likened to a Horatio Alger story, that depicted how a generation of marginalized citizens strived to come to the American center—living the American Dream—through and with hip-hop.
Jay-Z held Holdengräber spellbound by the way he was able to explain his life and hip-hop culture. He reasoned that his experiences (and those of many of the hip-hop generation) and the life experiences of Holdengräber were similar because although they faced different realities, they shared the same existential questions. His most poignant claim was that hip-hop must be understood in the appropriate context, else it falls victim to misunderstandings and lies.
As I listened, I began to experience an “aha” moment—a series of thoughts and memories began to race through my head. I thought about my experiences in church as a young minister having to provide context of the biblical narrative through sermons and bible studies, conversations with my mother about context in movies or songs, my firsthand experiences with hip-hop culture and its music (especially hip-hop from Houston), my experiences in my Introduction to Hip-Hop Culture class (circa 2001) and the misunderstandings of hip-hop culture. I then thought about the broader implications of Jay-Z’s conversation about context. What other stories needed to be told to understand the context of hip-hop culture? What about the other figures and cities that helped to shape the hip-hop narrative? Then my racing thoughts finally slowed to a singular pace, and a clear thought emerged: “I want to study the historical context of Houston’s hip-hop culture.” A few weeks later, I submitted a proposal to my graduate advisor to make this subject the focus of my master’s thesis. This text is an adaptation of that work.
Yet I don’t know if this moment of clarity, which led me to decide on this subject, would have been possible if I were not born at the right time. Because hip-hop has always been a part of my world, as I have lived through each of the overlapping eras of hip-hop.
I was born in Houston, Texas, in August 1980 at Jefferson Davis Hospital (the county hospital) to a nineteen-year-old unwed mother from the Fifth Ward community. My birth occurred twelve years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a date that some consider the end of the modern civil rights movement. This was a few months before the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States of America. It was also less than a year after the release of “Rapper’s Delight” and a year before the debut of MTV. My birth year fell during a time of considerable economic and residential growth for Houston. However, in contrast, ghetto communities like the Fifth Ward were not the lucky beneficiaries of this growth—only more crime, unemployment, education disparities and widespread nihilism. We lived in the Fifth Ward for the first four to five years of my life while my mother sorted out what she would do for vocation. After she began working as a postal carrier, we moved to the deep north side of Houston in the Greenspoint community, where we resided for the next eight years.
Although I have never lived in a world without hip-hop, its sounds did not dominate my elementary years. During those years, I grew to love the music that played on my mother’s car radio and home stereo: funk, soul, “down-home blues” and R&B. Her songs were special to me because they were special to her. Unknowingly, she taught me much about life through her music selections. She was my first teacher of context because of her constant beckoning to make sure that I understood the meanings of certain songs. Three songs hold special significance: the Temptations’ “Treat Her Like A Lady,” Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and the Commodores’ “Zoom.” She used the first two songs to teach me how to love a woman, because she wanted to make sure that I did better at it than the men that had failed her. The last song was her way of teaching me how to hope beyond momentary despair.
Even though hip-hop began to make noise in the ’80s, it was still in its nascent years, too young for my mother, a young adult in Houston. I can’t say that she hated hip-hop; she just never caught on to the culture. Therefore, I only heard hip-hop when hanging with cousins or intermittently on local black radio stations or MTV.
This all changed between 1988 and 1992. For a brief period, I had an older stepsister and stepbrother that both had access to rap music. On television, I was able to see hip-hop more because of Yo! MTV Raps and the Arsenio Hall Show. I also received my first stereo and Walkman, which gave me control over the music that I listened to. At ten, I received my first rap tape, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. I learned the lyrics to the Geto Boys’ classic song “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” which hit the airwaves in 1991. In that same year, 97.9 The Boxx (KBXX) launched in Houston as a radio station devoted to hip-hop and R&B music. In 1992, I went to my first rap concert to see Kriss Kross perform. At the end of 1991, my mother began a three-year separation that eventually resulted in a divorce. As a result, she had less time and energy to pay attention to my daily activities, and I had more time to develop my own tastes in music, listen to music that she did not necessarily approve of and get into adolescent troubles.
My mother’s divorce took us from Greenspoint to Acreage Homes (Acres Homes, Da 44) during the early years of the Modern Era of hip-hop (1992–1997). In the summer of 1994, my friend Pistol (Craig Joe) introduced me to a distinct music form that had emerged out of the south side of Houston two to three years earlier. This music form was known as “screwed” or “chopped and screwed.” The creator of the form, DJ Screw (Robert Earl Davis Jr.) not only employed classic hip-hop DJ techniques such as mixing, scratching and backspinning but also made his style distinctive by slowing the tempo and reducing the pitch, giving the song a mellower sound and an increased focus on the lyrics. These mixtapes, known as Screw Tapes, were made on grey Maxwell cassettes that Screw sold out of his home. Screw featured popular songs on his mixtapes and also included freestyle raps from friends and neighborhood rappers. This phenomenon quickly spread throughout Houston and to cities and towns throughout Texas and Louisiana.
My friends and I listened to Screw tapes fervently for about two years. To our Screw tapes, we added chopped and screwed mixes that were created by DJ Michael “5000” Watts from the north side of town. Like the young people who began to mimic what they heard from the hip-hop mixtapes that traveled through New York in the late 1970s and after “Rapper’s Delight,” we began to freestyle and make our own tapes to be greater participants in the culture. These were the budding days of a genre within hip-hop that would take the world by storm a few years later.
Though my life was consumed by the Screw phenomenon, I was also inundated with various local, regional and national sounds that made my high school years a wonderful experience. These sounds included: UGK, Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, Puff Daddy, Crucial Conflict, Tela, Master P and No Limit, New Orleans Bounce and much more. Hip-hop music, in its various forms during that time, spoke to and of my personal experiences or spoke of things that I wanted to experience to earn masculine or ghetto stripes. At times, it was a surrogate father, teaching me lessons about life and women. I had spiral notebooks full of hip-hop lyrics that my friends and I transcribed; I partied to it, hooped to it, cleaned the house to it, washed my car to it, burst speakers playing it too loud and tried to write it and perform it.
In the summer of 1998, I entered my freshman year at Texas A&M University, and though I considered myself a fan and participator in the culture, I had a very limited hip-hop music collection. I met friends from all over the nation who were able to quote Wu Tang, Nas, Jay-Z and various other artists’ music verbatim. I knew only the radio stuff, as my music collection was full of Screw tapes, Michael Watts mixtapes and other local and regional music. Although hip-hop was now mainstream, I did not have a need to listen to hip-hop music outside of my city/region because there was so much rich music that came out of Houston and because at that time, the local radio station supported local music.
Later, in my undergraduate career, I took a groundbreaking class taught by Finnie Coleman. This course, Introduction to Hip-Hop Culture, was groundbreaking because it was held at a traditionally conservative institution and because hip-hop studies was still a new academic field. It was in this course that I really learned how to read (paradigmatically instead of word for word), learned how to look at life critically and learned how to analyze hip-hop as a culture and as literature. This class seemed like my life on display—my life as an African American male living at the last twenty years of the twentieth century—investigated through a hip-hop literary framework.
On the first day of class, Dr. Coleman announced that we would be learning about life and death. I thought that he was crazy in saying that, because all I wanted was an A, but as I matured through adulthood, I came to understand him. Critical analysis of this culture meant a look at the ways in which a generation of young people in particular spaces and places struggled to live the American Dream and how they expressed themselves in the process. Never did I think that I would want to do more research about this subject, but I was called to it as a form of social justice.
This work, then, is important to me because I believe that hip-hop is an excellent discursive space to understand America, particularly the America lived in by those at the margins of society in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As such, a local history of hip-hop can offer an understanding of a city beyond beatific images and glorious stories. Further historical accounts through the framework of hip-hop culture are still limited. Thus, much of the understanding of African American life in America is based on a historical account that ends with the modern civil rights movement. This depiction and understanding discounts the life experiences of African Americans after this time period and also makes that time period the standard of African American life. To these points, to understand the life experiences of those African Americans born in a post Civil Rights–era Houston, whose cultural experiences were expressed through hip-hop, we cannot rely on narratives that exclude them or limit their contributions. Their hip-hop story must be told through their own contexts. Only then does a true continuum of knowledge exist between the generations.
Let me explain further.
There are various labels used to define the American experience for those African Americans born at the height of the civil rights movement and within twenty years of its end. The labels used often define this particular generation, born between 1965–1984, in relationship to their descendants—variously assigning them as beneficiaries, bastards, consumers or prodigals of their descendants. Robin D.G. Kelley noted that scholars and media sources have called this generation “a lot of things: the post soul generation, the post-civil rights generation, the postindustrial generation,” “soul babies,” and the “post-segregation” generation. But journalist and activist Bakari Kitwana rescued this generation from limited definitions in opting for the “hip-hop generation” as an appropriate label. Pero Dagbovie, a social and cultural historian specializing in hip-hop historiography, commented on Kitwana’s conceptualization of the hip-hop generation by saying:
Shaped by the rise of multinational corporatism, globalization, neo-segregation, racialist public policy, the expanding media, and an overall poor quality of life for black youth, members of the hip-hop generation are linked mainly by the fact that we were born after the major struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and have collectively inherited a great deal from the battles waged by our elders. Echoing others, Kitwana noted that the hip-hop generation seems cut off from the social activist tradition associated with the Civil Rights-Black Power era.
This generation, the progenitors of hip-hop culture, “took the remnants of a dying society and created” a new narrative for the African American experience. Hence, historical analysis of hip-hop culture is essential to understanding the ways in which this generation expressed and reflected its social, economic, political and personal realities through and with hip-hop. “Nonetheless,” as Dagbovie claimed, “African American historians have not played a leading role in analyzing hip-hop or critically tapping into hip-hop culture as a viable discursive space for the black historical experience.” Yet history has much to offer to the study of hip-hop culture because history not only determines the origin and nature of a thing but also comments on the present and offers a guide for the future.
But we cannot dialogue or even historicize hip-hop culture without including regional and local sites, as the persons and practices within these sites were and are participators and creators in what we call hip-hop culture. Regional and local hip-hop cultural developments were not just modulations of East Coast and West Coast hip-hop; the culture progressed from local and regional domains. Thus, the history must be understood as a fragmentary development in which sedimentary parts come together to represent the nature of hip-hop culture.
If the Bronx represents that space and place of hip-hop’s initial public offering, then the localities and regions that appropriated the culture increased its stock value. It is widely accepted that hip-hop culture became public as a result of the communal practices of young blacks and Latinos in New York boroughs and through the subsequent commodification of these practices by eager entrepreneurs. As hip-hop traveled out of the New York boroughs, young people—particularly African Americans and Latinos from the urban underclass—in other places began to negotiate their ghetto realities using hip-hop as their form of expression. Therefore, what we know as hip-hop culture is a special amalgamation of local and regional hip-hop particularities gone national and international—ultimately ghettoizing the world.
Historian William Jelani Cobb aptly framed the importance of space and place in hip-hop culture in his text To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, in which he differentiated hip-hop from previous genres/music cultures in writing, “While blues obsesses over the theme of mobility, hip-hop is as local as a zip code.” He continued:
In hip-hop…there are not references to highways or trains; railroads have been replaced by another central reference: the city. Or, more specifically, the fractured territories known collectively as the Ghetto. Innumerable hip-hop songs reference the term [and] all allude to a socio-economic blind alley, a terrain defined by the lack of mobility of its residents. Scarface—formerly of the Geto Boys—underscores this point on the single “On My Block,” where he rhymes, “It’s like the rest of the world don’t exist/We stay confined to the same spot we been livin’ in.”
Cobb’s framing is a burgeoning concept in hip-hop studies, as scholars and cultural critics are now considering how regional and local (and, in a broader sense, international) space and place coalesce to form hip-hop culture. Murray Forman (The ’Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop ) and Mickey Hess (Is Hip Hop Dead?: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Most Wanted Music  and Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide ) together have done the most significant work in pushing the concept of space and place in hip-hop, and this investigation of Houston’s hip-hop uses their theories as a model.
As such, understanding the local and regional spaces and places that commingle to form hip-hop culture is important because hip-hoppers, particularly rappers, narrate the life experiences of those from their locality—often presenting a counter narrative to American exceptionalism. Tangential to this, rappers communicate to the world the general social norms and cultural nuances of their place. Also, hip-hoppers express their identities through allegiances to a local space, and in doing so the rapper often becomes the center of the world, explaining his or her worldview from a local domain. Yet these places are not closed off so that participators can’t leave and others can’t come in; people take place particulars with them when leaving, and others enter with their own experiences. Next, local and regional production typically occurs within a close-knit team operating on independent labels due in large part to the distance separating them from major labels and major label respect. Lastly, rappers get their start and earn their stripes in their local place before getting the opportunity to represent on a larger stage—if not, their authenticity, which is the central ethos of hip-hop culture, is questioned. It is these local particulars and expressions that make hip-hop culture a special hybrid.
To the point about where and how rappers get their start, Murray Forman claimed:
Few rap scholars and [music critics] (Tricia Rose and Brian Cross being notable exceptions) have paid attention to these formative stages and the slow processes of developing MC and DJ skills. There is, in fact, a trajectory to an artist’s development that is seldom accounted for. In practice, artists’ lyrics and rhythms must achieve success on the home front first, where the flow, subject matter, style and image must resonate meaningfully among those who share common bonds to place, to the posse and to the hood. In this sense, when rappers refer to the “local flavor,” they are identifying the detailed inflections that respond to and reinforce the significance of the music’s particular sites of origin and which might be recognized by others elsewhere as being unique, interesting and, ultimately, marketable.
Forman’s argument is particularly evident in the lack of thorough investigation of Houston’s hip-hop culture. Critics have overwhelmingly begun their investigations of Houston’s hip-hop culture with the founding of Rap-A-Lot Records (1986) and the products of its most famous group, the Geto Boys. In contrast, their investigations of East Coast (particularly New York) and West Coast (particularly Los Angeles and Compton) hip-hop development typically begin prior to the professionalization of the culture within those places.
Any historical analysis of Houston’s hip-hop culture is severely flawed if the events and people who unintentionally began creating and participating in the culture are not investigated or discussed. Starting at the point of Houston’s professionalization of its local hip-hop culture creates a schism in the historical body because it says that the culture that formed prior to professionalization was irrelevant and had no significant influence. Starting at that point also furthers a “single origin” and modulation narrative of hip-hop culture.
I argue that although hip-hop culture in Houston, unlike New York and Los Angeles, has received inadequate attention and recognition, it is a significant center of hip-hop culture. The early history of Houston’s hip-hop culture provides candid insight into how young people from marginalized conditions—specifically African Americans—effectively diagnosed their social ills and expressed themselves during times of boom and bust in Houston. By not giving Houston hip-hop culture the attention it deserves, one generalizes hip-hop cultural development by assuming that hip-hop in Houston developed in the same way it did in other sites, ignores the contribution that hip-hoppers in Houston made to the broader culture and misses how Houstonians specifically participated in the hip-hop culture that came from New York and how they adapted hip-hop to fit their specific needs.
Houston’s rich and unique hip-hop culture began in the early 1980s. It is most notably recognized by the music that came from artists (and groups) such as the Geto Boys, Scarface, UGK (Bun B and Pimp C), Gangsta N-I-P, DJ Screw, Lil’ Flip, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Mike Jones and Chamillionaire. As noted by Jamie Lynch, a chronicler of Houston hip-hop, “business wise, Houston’s rap artists and label owners created a business model that often emphasized local sales over national exposure.”
In the mid-1980s, Houston was a major participant in hip-hop culture prior to showcasing its own artists and styles. Houston clubs were able to hold thousands of people in one spot to party to the latest hip-hop, and according to one of Houston’s hip-hop pioneers, Steve Fournier, Houston was one of the largest consumer markets for rap records. Further, Houston was home to Kidz Jamm, one of the first radio programs dedicated solely to hip-hop, which aired every Saturday morning from 1982 to 2005.
In terms of success, in 1991, the Geto Boys single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles and number ten on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. Two years following the Geto Boys’ chart success, UGK’s single “Pocket Full of Stones” was featured on the soundtrack to the popular 1993 movie Menace II Society. UGK’s fourth album, Ridin’ Dirty (1996), reached number two on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and number fifteen on the Billboard 200. Lil’ Flip’s second studio album, U Gotta Feel Me (2004), debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 list. Lil’ Troy’s album, Sittin’ Fat Down South (1999), was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) due to the international success of its lead single, “Wanna Be a Baller.” Scarface’s album The Fix (2002) and Bun B’s Trill OG (2010) both received the coveted “Five Mic Album” recognition from The Source magazine. In 2005, Mike Jones sold 1 million records (platinum) during the first week of his debut album Who Is Mike Jones? In addition, Chamillionaire’s song “Ridin’” was the most popular ringtone download in 2006, with 3.2 million downloads. In the first five years of the twenty-first century, hip-hop artists and other entertainers flocked to Houston to get their custom-made grills from Paul Wall. And the innovations of DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed techniques can be found on most popular hip-hop and R&B songs of the day.
Despite these successes and Houston’s contribution to hip-hop culture, much of what is understood about Houston hip-hop is superficial, distorted and sometimes downright disrespectful. This study helps to fill that void by examining the early history of hip-hop in Houston. With this in mind, this text will describe and analyze the development of the culture, the nature of the culture and the impact of the culture by answering six specific questions: (1) Is Houston a music city—and if so, what African American music traditions existed in Houston prior to hip-hop? (2) Why is Houston’s hip-hop culture unrecognized or underreported in scholarly and journalistic critiques? (3) How did hip-hop culture arrive in Houston? (4) What were the social, spatial and political contexts that allowed for the development of Houston’s hip-hop culture? (5) How did Houstonians begin to participate in and appropriate hip-hop culture? (6) What role did Rap-A-Lot Records and the Geto Boys play in bringing early national attention to Houston’s hip-hop culture?
The years including and in between 1979 and 1991 are important to proving the aforementioned claims and in answering these questions because they both represent turning points in hip-hop cultural history. After 1979, hip-hop went from a local/regional esoteric expression to a national phenomenon and commercial opportunity. In the same way, after 1991, Houston, because of the chart success of the Geto Boys’ single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” earned a spot, in terms of rank legitimacy, on the hip-hop map.
This investigation relied heavily on oral history interviews and song lyrics as primary sources. The oral histories were very important in telling this story because the documentation covering the early years of Houston’s hip-hop culture is limited. Further, most of the individuals who played a role in developing the culture are still alive and as such can provide firsthand knowledge of the culture’s ascent. Interviews were conducted with club and radio DJs, artists, club owners, promoters, record shop workers and lay historians. Song lyrics were examined to understand the nature of the music that came from the culture and to also understand the life experiences of those who created the music. Other sources consulted include music reviews, local and national periodicals that covered Houston hip-hop culture and books explaining Houston’s musical traditions. Also surveyed were various texts that explore hip-hop culture and those that explain African American music and literary traditions.
When I began this project, I was reminded of popular biblical narrative found in John 1:46, which recounts a conversation between one of Jesus’s new converts, Philip, and Nathanael. In this scripture, Nathanael contests the messianic nature of Jesus upon hearing that Jesus’s place of origin was Nazareth—a place of low prominence and ill repute. Nathanael was noted as saying, “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” In response to Nathanael’s bemusement and doubt, Phillip says, “Come and see!” In like manner, this project has the same aim: to elucidate on hip-hop culture from a place not regarded for its artistic products or as a hip-hop city. The story herein offers a cultural history of Houston, using hip-hop as its subject matter to redress the biases against Houston’s hip-hop culture, to give identity to and show the agency of Houston’s hip-hoppers and to analyze the ways in which members of Houston’s hip-hop generation used hip-hop to comment on and become part of the American Dream.
FROM GOOD LIL’ HOOD THING TO A NATIONAL PHENOMENON
HIP-HOP’S EARLY DEVELOPMENT AND EXPANSION
This history begins as another is ending. The first story is full of optimism and exalted ideas about humanity’s ability to change through political action and moral argument. The next story, the plot we’re living right now, is defined by cynicism, sarcasm, and self-involvement raised to art. The starting point was the early ’70s.
—Nelson George, 2005
Although hip-hop culture cannot be understood without the geographical and cultural contexts that contributed and still contribute to its overall ethos, it must first be understood from its original place and practices. Only then can one understand how hip-hop arrived in Houston and how Houston became a significant hip-hop place.
Hip-hop culture, like other cultures, is shared by a particular group of people, during a particular time, with its members responding to nature by classifying and encoding their experiences using particular forms—graphic arts, literature, fashion, dance, language, film, collective ideologies and music. The most popular expressive form of hip-hop culture is music, and its most common genre is known as rap (which is often inappropriately used interchangeably with the phrase hip-hop). Its exact date of birth cannot actually be determined; however, scholars and laymen both agree that its public debut occurred in the early 1970s on the streets of the Bronx.
For the most part, cultures are not intentionally created. They become cultures when customs and artifacts are passed through a group of people and from generation to generation. Cultural formation can be understood as accidental and responsive and as an antecedent of other cultures. Therefore, scholars and cultural critics have argued that hip-hop culture developed as a convergence of something accidental and responsive by youth within the urban underclass toward the social and political nature of American life at the beginning of the 1970s.
Hip-hop culture was an accidental development; the young people who began hip-hopping in the Bronx did not suddenly decide to start a new culture. Hip-hop’s accidental emergence was symbolic of a confluence of certain socio-political-technological phenomena that young people in the post-industrial Bronx initially responded to by partying to the cacophony of breakbeats, tagging subway trains and dancing. Nelson George proclaimed, “Hip-hop didn’t start as a career move [or as a culture], but as a way of announcing one’s existence to the world.” But why did these young people need to announce their existence to the world? What were their existential realities?
Hip-hop was a responsive development, because the young people who began hip-hopping in the Bronx were attempting to express and entertain themselves in the midst of scarcity and marginalization. Tricia Rose, pioneering scholar on hip-hop culture, argued that hip-hop was a way for the young people to negotiate their personal, economic and cultural realities in the face of deindustrialization.
Rose and other scholars/cultural critics have also contended that one way that hip-hop developed was as a response from the dispossessed to a combination of several situations gone bad: post-industrialization, urban renewal, red-lining, access to and mass consumption of narcotics (namely, heroin and, later, crack cocaine), massive unemployment, increased crime and licentiousness and benign neglect. These claims—although they may be uncomfortable to hear and politically charged—like the culture they represent, offer a counter narrative to American history in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Ironically, it was these same situations that gave hip-hoppers something to talk about and led to entirely new income streams for young men and women from marginalized communities.
These young people were members of a shutout class that did not greatly benefit from the civil rights battles fought by some of their middle-class kin. Nelson George claimed that the story of these people, specifically young people in the Bronx and other post-industrial cities, is not often communicated because they represent America’s dark history.
Hip-hop pioneer Melle Mel provided a poignant analysis of the pitiful state of the post-industrial Bronx in his notable recording “The Message” (1982). His diagnosis of the post-industrial Bronx lyrically represented some of the socio-political issues that the young people in the Bronx began responding to. George argued that, “Behind the decay and neglect, the place [the Bronx] was a cauldron of vibrant, unnoticed, and quite visionary creativity born of its racial mix and its relative isolation. It was within its boundaries that the expressions we associate with hip hop—graffiti art, break dancing, MCing, and mixing—all have roots.” Mark Anthony Neal championed the idea that they began to “narrate, critique, challenge and deconstruct the realities of postindustrial life.” Using new technology and appropriating antecedent cultural forms, these young people developed a new social and expressive movement.
Like other cultural developments, hip-hop borrowed from antecedent cultural forms—it sampled from so many expressions to make its own stance in the world. Music journalist John F. Szwed asked two important questions about hip-hop’s origins: “Does rap have a beginning?” and “Where does the credit or (some might say) the blame lie?” Szwed argued that things in American culture are not as pure as they claim to be. He claimed that we borrow from each other, appropriating what we have learned from other cultures to fit our own needs.
Although hip-hop was a new public culture that hit America by storm in the early 1980s, its early development and subsequent transformations are somewhat antecedent forms appropriated to fit the needs of the hip-hop generation. Rap, a form of music and talk, shares kinship with children’s counting chants, cadence counting chants, military drills, work songs, tobacco auctioneers, “singing the word” preaching style, toasting, spoken-word poetry and rhyming DJs.
In America, graffiti began to pop up after World War I on boxcars and subways as a way of marking one’s appearance in a particular place or to express one’s love. In the late 1960s, writing or spraying on clean edifices was used by urban youth to announce themselves to the world on burnt-out buildings and subway cars in cities like Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles. This appropriation of an old art became viewed as public nuisance because it went against the public narratives of America the beautiful.
Hip-hop’s original dance—break dancing—was an appropriation of antecedent forms that Jorge “Popmaster Fable” Pabon identified as:
Uprocking, tap, lindy hop, James Brown’s good foot, salsa, Afro-Cuban, and various African and Native American dances. There’s even a top-rock Charleston step called the “Charlie Rock!” Early influences on b-boying and b-girling also included martial arts films from the 1970s. Certain moves and styles developed form this inspiration.
Hip-hoppers appropriated these forms as ways of competition and to express individuality, both essential tenets of hip-hop.
This new expressive culture—accidental, responsive and an appropriation of antecedent forms—became hip-hop, with four initial conduits of expression: (1) DJing, (2) graffiti, (3) break dancing/b-boying and (4) emceeing/rapping. As noted previously, some of hip-hop’s practices existed in African American and Caribbean urban communities for years, but hip-hop represented the initial public offering of these communal experiences. Hip-hop culture is now represented by many other forms of expression, including fashion, cinematography, journalism, political thought and academic scholarship. But in context of this analysis, Houstonians began to appropriate and add to the initial forms of expression.
DISK JOCKEYING: THE INSTRUMENTAL ELEMENT OF HIP-HOP CULTURE
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, mobile disc jockeys in the Bronx began transporting their turntables, big speaker systems and large record collections to dilapidated project parks. These mobile DJs had a new technology called the “mixer.” The mixer allowed DJs to make seamless transitions between songs and to keep the music continuous, whereas before there would be a gap in between songs. The Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture defined the mixer as follows:
The core of the traditional DJ setup, the mixer, provides a way to set the levels between different audio sources. Without it, hip-hop DJing could not [have] developed as it has. Before the invention of the cross fader, DJs had to use two hands to move sound between the two turntables, using the volume control. With the cross fader, the DJ needs only one hand and can use the free hand to perform techniques such as backspinning, cutting, scratching, mixing, blending, and punch-phrasing.
The most notable mobile DJs that distinguished mixing were DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. DJs are important to the development of hip-hop culture because they made the music through reinterpretation of antecedent and shared music forms, they gave the music its sound, they broke new music and they introduced the world to the emcee/rapper, the role in hip-hop culture that would become the most notable representation of the culture.
Using music from multiple genres, DJs (with DJ Kool Herc being the innovator) began extending the breakbeats of songs for the crowd to dance to and later for the rapper to rap to. A breakbeat is “the drum solo in funk, R&B, soul, rock, jazz fusion, or other music.” This extension of the breakbeats was a reinterpretation of older forms of music and thus a new way to make music, especially in a live setting.
Herc also utilized big speaker systems to propagate the music farther into the eardrums of listeners, chakras of dancers and through the apartments in the neighborhood. His “were more powerful than the average DJ’s speakers and surprisingly free of distortion, even when played outdoors. They produced powerful bass frequencies and played clear treble ones.” This was something that he may have appropriated from his Jamaican roots.
Two other innovations signify the role of the disc jockey in the development of hip-hop culture. The first was that of “scratching,” which was created by the Grand Wizard Theodore but sustained and made popular by Grandmaster Flash. The second was backspinning. Rose defined both:
Scratching is a turntable technique that involves playing the record back and forth with your hand by scratching the needle against and then with the groove. Using two turntables, one record is scratched in rhythm or against the rhythm of another record while a second record played. This innovation extended Kool Herc’s use of turntables as talking instruments and exposed the cultural rather than structural parameters of accepted turntable use.
Backspinning allows the DJ to “repeat phrases and beats from a record by rapidly spinning it backwards.” Employing exquisite timing, these phrases could be repeated in varying rhythmic patterns, creating the effect of a record skipping irregularly or a stutter effect, building intense crowd participation. Breakbeats were particularly good for building new compositions.
Rose reasoned that Afrika Bambaataa’s contribution is an extension of what Herc did in that he began using “beats from European disco bands such as Kraftwerk, rock, and soul in his performances.” Bambaataa also used his role of disc jockey to unite his community, which was overrun by gangs and gang activities. He founded the Zulu Nation, “a collection of DJs, breakers, graffiti artists, and homeboys that filled the fraternal role gangs play in urban culture while de-emphasizing crime and fighting.”
In the mid- to late 1970s, DJs began to control sections of their community, and no other DJ could come into a specific community because the hip-hoppers had loyalty to their local DJ. DJs also began battling each other to show their prowess on the wheels of steel and to claim the throne of “Best DJ.” There were DJ crews that served as constructive alternatives to gangs. The music that the DJs created became popular, so DJs began making mixtapes that spread through the boroughs, to other states and, later, overseas on military bases and on Caribbean islands.
Soon, DJs began to employ the lyrical skills of an emcee to hype the crowd, announce the next party or toast. The emcee rapped to the beat using call-and-response to get the audience engaged, and together the DJ, the emcee and the audience became participants in the entire expression. This addition of an emcee was an extension of a concept developed by black radio DJs in the 1940s:
Beginning in the 1940s, black radio DJs demonstrating their verbal dexterity on the air were, in some respects, the precursors to modern rap stars. Using the latest bebop slang and the storytelling traditions of African Americans, DJs, such as Chicago’s Al “The Midnight Gambler” Benson and Dr. Hepcat of Austin, Texas, promoted records and products using hip rhymes and melodic chatter. The preeminent DJ of the era was New York City’s Douglas “Jocko” Henderson. Henderson’s “Ace of Rockets” radio show not only influenced other American DJs but also was instrumental in the development of hip-hop via the Caribbean.
As emcees gained more popularity, their lyrical skills were highly demanded. These emcees began to record tapes of themselves rhyming over the beat or over a DJ’s mix and then began to pass the tapes out around their communities. These emcees also handed their tapes over to DJs so that the DJ could advertise for the emcee. The DJ, thus, broke new music. This would lead to the advent of the rapper and the spread of rap music.
GRAFFITI: THE GRAPHIC ART ELEMENT OF HIP-HOP CULTURE
Historically considered a nuisance, graffiti was a medium for marginalized young people to come to the center by using spray paints and the felt-tipped pen. Graffiti artists used buildings, subway trains, buses and almost anything as a canvas to announce a party, a warning, their place in the world or their community. There were early developments of hip-hop graffiti in Philadelphia through the works of Cornbread and Top Cat, who later moved to New York. But in media discourse, New York graffiti gained the most attention because of the local government’s relentless maneuvers to erase graffiti from all public edifices and get rid of all of the graffiti “artists.”
Craig Castleman chronicled the rise and tensions of the graffiti culture in New York in his essay entitled “The Politics of Graffiti.” Castleman noted that the New York Times began covering graffiti in 1971 because of the reoccurring presence of a tag that read “Taki 183.” The first article was entitled “‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pals,” and it helped to familiarize New Yorkers with graffiti, much to the chagrin of the Metro Transit Authority and Mayor John V. Lindsay. Graffiti became a major problem for New York, as the city spent millions of dollars to clean subways and buildings and deter graffiti activity.
Rose argued that graffiti was significant to the development of hip-hop culture because “by the mid-1970s, graffiti took on a new focus and complexity.” Taggers began to appropriate graffiti by developing their own styles. She continued her argument, claiming that “small-scale tagging developed into the top to bottom, a format that covered a section of a train car from the roof to the floor. This was followed by the top to bottom whole car and multiple car ‘pieces,’ an abbreviation for graffiti master pieces.” In the process, graffiti became the art of hip-hop culture.
BREAK DANCING/B-BOYS AND B-GIRLS: THE DANCE ELEMENT OF HIP-HOP CULTURE
Break dancing combines “a medley of moves adapting a number of sources—the shuffling, sliding steps of James Brown; the dynamic, platformed dancers on Don Cornelius’s syndicated Soul Train television show; Michael Jackson’s robotic moves that accompanied the 1974 hit ‘Dancin’ Machine’ and the athletic whips and spins of kung fu movies—all of which were funneled through the imagination of black New Yorkers.” Break dancing was first used to squash gang beefs between black New York gangs and then made popular and competitive by young Puerto Rican communities. Break dancing—like other dance movements created by people of color—defied Puritanical standards of dance and used the body in a way to say something political.
Kool Herc noticed that the young people at his parties would perform unique dances to his extended breakbeats, and he soon began to call these dancers b-boys (break boys). These b-boys (and girls) became regular features at Herc’s parties and other parties across the boroughs. Often, their dancing was led by instructions from guys talking over the beats: emcees.
THE EMCEE AND RAPPER: THE ORAL ELEMENT OF HIP-HOP CULTURE
Rap music is hip-hop culture’s most expressive and popular form. Rose asserted, “Rap is a complex fusion of orality and postmodern technology.” The oral part of rap is an extension of African and African American oral and literary traditions. “Rap lyrics invoke and revise stylistic and thematic elements that are deeply wedded to a number of black cultural storytelling forms, most prominently toasting and the blues.” Also, rap has its roots in Negro spirituals, slave songs and the storytelling of the African griot. In the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Henry Louis Gates proclaimed:
Rap draws from such varied sources as jump-rope rhymes and other game changes and songs; competitive trickster’s toasts and badman boasts such as those of Stackolee and Shine; chanted sermons of black churches (including those of the Nation of Islam); the scat singing of jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway; “vocalese” jazz singing (fitting words and scat phrases to recorded jazz solos); favorite radio disc-jockey’s patter; and the widely popular Black Arts movement poetry of such writers as Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Last Poets—the latter, in turn, influenced by the poetry of Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and other black poets working (in the circling pattern of influence so typical of the arts in America) in a black vernacular idiom.
The lyrics can be boastful, comedic, tragicomedy, documentarian, conscious, horror-themed, something to dance to, misogynistic or even pornographic. Borrowing from African and African American oral traditions, rappers signify, boast, brag, fib, rhyme, symbolize; use metaphor and simile, onomatopoeia, irony and personification; and dramatize to tell real and surreal stories of American life—especially the stories of those in marginalized communities in America.
Structurally, a rap song contains poetry spoken over syncopated rhythms within musical bars. The rapper raps the song with style and flow. Mtume Ya Salaam reasoned:
Style refers both to the tonal quality in a rapper’s vocals and to the level of originality in presentation and delivery. Flow describes a rapper’s sense of rhythm and timing. The concept of flow differentiates rap music from other music with spoken lyrics (for example, the music of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, or even Cab Calloway). Rap lyrics are delivered in a rhythmic cadence, not simply recited or melodically half-sung.
Although rap is an extension of African and African American oral traditions, rap relies heavily on technology. Rap needs mixers, samplers and a microphone. All of these tools—as well as rapper’s lyrics—give the song meaning. In the absence of technology, a beatboxer created the sounds (breakbeats, scratching and backspins) and samples that DJs normally provided.
In its hip-hop form, rapping took place in neighborhood parks, on street corners or in homes where young men and women practiced their techniques. After practicing, they tested their skills by battling at a club, house party, basketball game or in the courtyard of the projects. Soon, music producers saw that they could profit from the growing trend. The commoditization of this street phenomenon brought the emcee from the background to the center of hip-hop culture.
HIP-HOP’S TIPPING POINTS
The first tipping point came in 1979, when the Sugar Hill Gang—a mix of young rappers from Englewood, New Jersey, brought together in the form of a group by producer and Sugar Hill label owner Sylvia Robinson—gained huge popularity. The group caught national attention when they interpolated Chic’s song “Good Times” on their rap song “Rapper’s Delight.” Though not the first hip-hop record, this was the first hip-hop record to go mainstream. According to Rose, “By early 1980, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ had sold several million copies and risen to the top of the pop charts.” The Sugar Hill Gang signed a record deal, performed internationally and was seen on TV across the world. Mickey Hess revealed that a “St. Louis radio DJ, Gentleman Jim Gates, was the first DJ to play ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the radio.” This was considered a defining moment in hip-hop culture, as it has “been cited by rappers all over the country as their first encounter with hip hop’s sound and style.”
It [“Rapper’s Delight”] was something different…[it was] easy to mimic, easy to remember. It was something catchy.—Sire Jukebox
“Rapper’s Delight” was the first rap song that people knew word for word. It had cross-genre appeal. People who loved rock-and-roll knew “Rapper’s Delight.” People who liked country knew “Rapper’s Delight.” It sort of bridged the gap between rap being taboo and rap being socially acceptable.— Luscious Ice
I was nine years old when “Rapper’s Delight” came out. It blew everybody’s mind because at the time, rap was something relatively new. Also, all we jammed was the Isley Brothers, Al Green and all of the R&B legends. But when this new thing came in, when these guys were rapping, it messed everybody’s head up. It took everybody by storm—even the adults were drawn into it. I can recall…memorizing every word.—K-Rino
After “Rapper’s Delight,” more albums received commercial success across the country. Rose noted:
Within the next three years Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap,” The Treacherous Three’s “Feel the Heartbeat,” Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” Sequence’s “Funk You Up” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” were commercially marketed and successful rap singles.
During the next few years, radio stations in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the Bay Area began to play rap music. Popular radio programs included Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, which was “the first regularly scheduled rap music program in the nation”; DJ Red Alert’s show on WBLS-FM; and KDAY-1580 AM with Greg Mack. Along with radio stations playing rap music, a few music video shows began to sprout up. In New York, there was Video Music Box. These mediums helped people across the nation connect to hip-hop culture and influenced many to participate.
As hip-hop became more popular in the early 1980s, films, news coverage and television shows about it cropped up to explain the culture to a broader audience. These visual media outlets were played across the country and exposed hip-hop culture to adults and kids alike:
1981—ABC’s 20/20 airs “Rappin’ to the Beat,” television’s first national news story on hip-hop.
1982—Premier of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, the first feature film about hip-hop culture. The film depicted hip-hop culture elements by the people who were involved in the beginnings of the culture: Fab 5 Freddy, the Rock Steady Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers, etc.
1984—Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s Style Wars, the first documentary about hip-hop culture, was broadcast on PBS.
1984—Premier of Beat Street, directed by Stan Lathan. In 1984, New York Times writer Vincent Canby noted, “[The movie] is designed for everybody who still hasn’t had his or her fill of break dancing, or who doesn’t yet understand that break dancing, rap singing and graffiti are legitimate expressions of the urban artistic impulse.”
1984—Premier of Breakin’, a film based in Los Angeles that paired street break-dancers with a jazz dancer. The film was a West Coast offering of hip-hop culture, specifically break dancing. It was also the acting debut of rapper Ice-T.
1985—Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove, featuring performances by Run-D.M.C., the Fat Boys, L.L. Cool J, Kurtis Blow and the Beastie Boys and made on a $3 million budget, opened in 515 theaters nationwide and was cited as the number-one movie in America by Variety the following week.
1985—Brought to the screens by Barry Gordy, The Last Dragon was a kung-fu flick infused with hip-hop. The movie featured break dancing, graffiti, rapping and other motifs from hip-hop culture. It became a cult classic.
Another catalyst for the spread of hip-hop culture came in 1984 when Swatch Watch sponsored Swatch Watch New York City Fresh Fest. The tour featured acts like Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, Whodini, the Fat Boys, Newcleus and New York’s Dynamic Breakers. George reported:
These stadium-size gigs allowed performers to proselytize like hip-hop evangelists. Kids in D.C., where go-go was the local music, and in Oakland, with its rich and varied culture, and Los Angeles, where a mobile post-disco party scene was thriving, came to see the Kings from Queens [Run-D.M.C.]. Not only were they converted as listeners—many customers came away convinced they could perform too.
John Nova Lomax reported:
K-Rino [a Houston rapper] became a lifelong rap junkie at the Southern Star Amphitheater [at Astroworld] in the mid-80s. The Fresh Fest, a package tour with headliners Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, and the Fat Boys and “all them cats that was in the movie Krush Groove” pushed him over the edge. “Man, it was packed,” he says. “Watching it, I was like, ‘Man, I got to be that person one day that’s up there.’”
With the commercial success of “Rapper’s Delight,” the advent of radio and video shows, hip-hop films and documentaries and the Swatch Watch New York City Fresh Fest, hip-hop became national. Young people across the country wanted to be hip-hoppers, including the country kids in Houston, Texas.
Within ten years of hip-hop’s public debut, scholars and cultural critics began to investigate hip-hop as an academic subject and culture. The rise of hip-hop studies came as an intervention in the wake of alarming attacks on, misunderstanding of and underreporting on the culture, and as members of the hip-hop generation came of age and wanted to give voice and a historical narrative to their culture. Studies from Tricia Rose (Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America), Robin D.G. Kelley (Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class), and William Perkins (Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture) were some of the first scholarly considerations of hip-hop culture, and they offered excellent critiques and historical contexts of hip-hop culture that set the precedent for other scholars to follow.
Throughout the 1990s and during the early years of the 2000s, journalists and scholars alike endeavored to write general histories of hip-hop culture. Notable works include Nelson George’s Hip-Hop in America (1998), David Toop’s Rap Attack 3 (2000), Alex Ogg and David Upshal’s The Hip-Hop Years: A History of Rap (2001) and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005). These general or universal attempts of historization contextualized hip-hop culture where misunderstanding existed, but none went deep into regional and local sites, thus denying agency and identity to local hip-hoppers and neglecting the contribution that these sites made to the overall culture and the ways in which people in these sites hip-hopped.
The aforementioned scholars and cultural critics employed several interdisciplinary methods to define and bring to fore the life, cultural practices, politics, aesthetics and voice of hip-hop culture and those within the hip-hop generation. Moreover, they attempted to present a counter narrative on the last quarter of the twentieth century in America. Yet out of the exigencies to give identity and agency to the culture and people, they presented universalized or “single origin” narratives of hip-hop culture.
To date, much of hip-hop historiography was presented as and often viewed as a national “imagined community.” Murray Forman argued in his article “Represent: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music” that “over the years [of hip-hop reporting]…there has been little attention granted to the implications of hip-hop’s spatial logics.” He continued to argue, in referring to an article from Time magazine entitled “Hip-Hop Nation: After 20 Years—How It’s Changed America” that “Time’s coverage is relatively standard in perceiving the hip-hop nation as a historical construct rather than a geo-cultural amalgamation of personages and practices that are spatially dispersed.” This universalizing of hip-hop declared East Coast (New York boroughs and Philadelphia) and West Coast (Los Angeles and Compton) hip-hop culture as the essential identities and representations of hip-hop culture and all other sites as consumers or modulations.
The narratives that buttressed the singular and universal historization of hip-hop culture at the same time unconsciously “otherized” everything else. Hence, rappers and critics were able to claim the death of hip-hop when it did not sound like, look like or act like East Coast or West Coast hip-hop. They overlooked how hip-hop affected those in regional and local communities. Further, general histories of hip-hop culture dismissed the contributions of hip-hoppers from regional and local areas, especially from the South. Ironically, southern blues, funk and soul music provided much of the instrumentation that underlay the lyrics of many hip-hop songs. In addition, southern hip-hop dominated the airwaves and sales of hip-hop music for much of the late 1990s into the 2000s.
Consequently, further examination of the nature of hip-hop was needed, particularly that which focused on regional and local studies of hip-hop culture. Regional and local studies of hip-hop culture attempted to investigate hip-hop culture from the bottom up, focusing on grassroots movements and juxtaposing the regional/local area with the national culture of hip-hop. Three texts standout for their innovative investigations of regional/local hip-hop sites: Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide (edited by Mickey Hess, 2010), Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (Roni Sarig, 2007) and Dirty South: OutKast, Lil’ Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Ben Westoff, 2011). All three texts added much data and context to each region/locale of hip-hop culture. In particular, the work of Sarig and Westoff began a new trajectory in hip-hop studies with their regional investigations.
Although each attempted to tell “grassroots” hip-hop stories, all three failed to address the social and political realities of each locale, did not delve deep enough into the ways in which all people have experienced the culture, began their investigation at the professionalization of local hip-hop culture and relied heavily on secondary sources. Their works were mostly the stories of regional and local hip-hop heroes. This was definitely the case in their investigations of Houston’s hip-hop culture.
Journalist John Nova Lomax claimed that media began to pay more attention to Houston’s hip-hop culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century because Houston artists began to dominate the airwaves and charts and because they were heavily influencing the culture. However, reports on the culture often dismissed twenty years of history that contributed to the rise of Houston’s hip-hop culture and focused on the big names, thus invalidating the roots and unknown pioneers. In an interview with Lomax, rapper K-Rino expressed his discontent with that type of storytelling. Lomax reported:
[K-Rino is] not content to let revisionist history marginalize his clique’s feats; MTV’s Houston rap documentary failed to even mention SPC [South Park Coalition]. “They tryin’ to write us out of history,” he says. “You hear about the Screwed Up Click, you hear about Swishahouse, you hear about Rap-A-Lot. You hear about all these different entities that played major roles and shaped the city, but they never mention us, and I’ve got a problem with that.”
To K-Rino’s point, Houston’s hip-hop culture did not start in 1986 when James Smith (James Prince or Lil’ J) founded Rap-A-Lot Records, just as hip-hop culture did not begin in 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang caught national attention with “Rapper’s Delight.” Both of these moments were more like tipping points rather than starting points. They are connected to stories that began a few years earlier—stories that began as something coincidental and later became intentional. Yet this is where the historization of Houston’s hip-hop culture begins in most of the texts that have attempted to write about Houston. Why this limited scope? At least four plausible explanations exist:
1. The historical understandings of the South, in particular Texas and Houston, are marred by years of discourse that imagines the South as “country” and Houston (and Texas alike) as slow and backward, which suggests that nothing worthy of cultural critique could come from these places.
2. The narrators of the hip-hop story have a nostalgia for hip-hop’s early days on the East Coast and measure everything after those days as less than or “other.”
3. These same narrators typically chronicled Houston’s hip-hop story from a distance, as travelers, and covered only the common subjects.
4. No scholar from the hip-hop generation has attempted to tell the Houston hip-hop story.
Fittingly, in March 2013, Beyoncé released an edgy, braggadocios song titled “Bow Down/I Been On,” a two-part song on which she unapologetically claimed queen status (“Bow Down”) and represented Houston’s hip-hop particulars (“I Been On”). Upon release, the song and Beyoncé were slammed by many critics because of her use of the word “bitch” (“Bow Down”) and for the style and content chosen (“I Been On,” chopped and screwed). Most of the critiques lacked context, particularly the space and place contexts that shaped Beyoncé—Houston’s hip-hop culture. In response to the critiques and as a way to pay further homage to Houston, Beyoncé recruited rappers Bun B, Scarface, Willie D, Lil’ Keke and Z-Ro to create a remix to the “I Been On” part of the song. In each of the rappers’ verses, they boldly professed and chronicled Houston’s hip-hop history and reminded anyone who would hate that Houston has been on—that is that Houston is not new to the hip-hop game and should not be taken for granted. Scarface’s verse perfectly elucidates this claim:
I been on, now who you goons gon’ get to knock me off?
I been boss, been on slab, been on paint
Been on fours homey, I’ve been on drank (dawg), I been had bank
Twenty-five years and ain’t fell off yet cause my flow that wet
You don’t want no plex, ya talk that shit
Queen Bey said you better bow down, bitch.
Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins in the studio. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Business card of Don D. Robey, owner of Duke-Peacock Records. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Business card of Evelyn Johnson, owner of Buffalo Booking Agency. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Johnny Ace. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Bobby “Blue” Bland. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
The Dixie Hummingbirds. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Texas Music Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
K-Rino, circa 1980s. Houston Hip-Hop Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Steve Fournier, circa 1980s. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Name badge for the 1988 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Name badge for the 1991 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Name badge for the 1987 New Music Seminar. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Name badge for the 1988 New Music Seminar. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Stetsasonic at the Ultimate Rhinestone Wrangler, 1988. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Heavy D & the Boyz at Rainbow Roller Rink, 1987. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Carlos “DJ Styles” Garza at the Ultimate Rhinestone Wrangler, 1990. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Concert ticket for Bobby Jimmy and the Critters at the Ultimate Rhinestone Wrangler, 1988. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Concert ticket for the Fall Rap Fest, featuring the Boogie Boys and the L.A. Dream Team, at Cartoons, 1986. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Concert ticket for Eazy-E and NWA at the Ultimate Rhinestone Wrangler, 1988. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Concert ticket for Sir Mix-A-Lot and De La Soul, 1988. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Performance confirmation letter from Tommy Boy Records for De La Soul performance at the Ultimate Rhinestone Wrangler, 1988. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
DJ Styles’s first setup, 1984. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
DJ Styles’s vinyl collection, mid-1980s. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Patti Pantoja and Carlos “DJ Styles” Garza at Soundwaves. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Carlos Garza in Soundwaves, 1987. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Big Daddy Kane (center) at Soundwaves, 1988. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Big Daddy Kane signing albums at Soundwaves, 1988. Also in the picture is Patti Pantoja. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at Soundwaves, 1988. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Fresh Fran, Original E and DJ Storm, 1988. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Patti Pantoja, Naughty by Nature, Big Mello and DJ Styles at Soundwaves. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
DJ Premier, 1989. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
DJ Premier and DJ Storm at Soundwaves. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Guru at Soundwaves. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Steve Fournier’s business card. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Rap Pool of America’s Top 50 List, February 1990. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Rap Pool of America’s New Rap Releases and Reentries, February 1990. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Rap Pool of America’s Top 50 List, October 1990. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Rap Pool of America application letter. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
Cover from the “MacGregor Park” single. Courtesy of Sascha Nagie.
Album sleeve from the “MacGregor Park” single. Courtesy of Sascha Nagie.
Real Chill’s “Rockin’ It” vinyl single. Courtesy of K-Rino.
Raheem (left) and Sire Jukebox (right) at Rainbow Roller Rink. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).
Front cover of Raheem’s “Dance Floor” single. Houston Hip-Hop Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Back cover of Raheem’s “Dance Floor” single. Houston Hip-Hop Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
UGK promotional picture, early 1990s. Houston Hip-Hop Collection, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
Lil’ Troy’s business card for Short Stop Records. Courtesy of Steve Fournier.
O.G. Style at the Plex Studio. Courtesy of Carlos Garza (DJ Styles).