All photos by Peter Beste
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Unless you’re Z-Ro, Amy Müller can rap the “Mo City Don Freestyle” better than you. Follow her “Best of Houston Rap” playlists on Spotify and her monthly Texas Rap Party Bounce and Turn on IG (shout out Lil Keke).
At the end of 2018, I sat down with Galveston native Lance Scott Walker, who recently released Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop — the second Houston Rap Tapes book published by Walker and photographer Peter Beste. It consists of interviews and neighborhood maps to help readers grasp how geographically spread out Houston is, but also to exhibit how underground rap enclaves developed in these diverse neighborhoods — starting with the iconic Southside.
Walker spoke with the club promoters, venue owners, radio hosts, DJs, rappers and producers who helped build Houston’s rap scene and through their stories unraveled the blueprint for building your own empire as an independent artist — as this city was, and still is, disconnected from the entertainment capitals of the United States. For Houston, this book is iconic because local voices break down the models that they embedded in early “Hustletown” culture that are still alive to this day as underground Texas rappers attempt to adapt to the streaming era.
As a Houston event producer and Texas rap promoter, I can personally attest to how strong the Texas rap eco-system really is. Houston’s music scene has often been overlooked and culturally appropriated on a national level, but local rappers still follow the models and advice set in place by the OGs. Finally, Texas has a well-documented Houston rap book, told by locals and published by a local writer, that displays how the fourth-largest city in the United States continues to depend on everyone in the community to work together to put Screwston artists on the map.
So I just read your book and have been been thinking about one question the whole time: Did J Prince call you after you completed it? Did he get to read anything before? Did he get any say in what was in the book or out of the book?
Lance Walker: If he had some say, he would’ve agreed to an interview. I tried for years to get him, and the most final response I ever got was from Mike Prince — and that it was a business decision that he did not want to do an interview for Houston Rap Tapes. This is for the original two books, Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes in 2013, 2014. So, no he would not consent to an interview. I suppose the business decision was that he was working on a book of his own, which I understand. I’d still love to talk to him though. I think he’d be a fascinating interview.
What were the [main] additions in this edition?
Lance Walker: This edition is quite a bit different from the first edition. Because it was being republished by the University of Texas Press, they put it under peer review and had a bunch of different writers look at it and give suggestions they thought might improve it. Some of those suggestions were really great and I took them into consideration. That’s why I broke them up into sections, wrote essays that introduced those sections, and explained why those sections are constructed as such. I added more photographs and album art too, maps of the north side and south side, and 22 new interviews.
With the restructuring of the book, I took the opportunity to stuff a lot more in there — which is something I wanted to do from the beginning anyway. It’s never enough. I could do another book this size with completely different people who didn’t get a chance to make it into this one.
On the cover you have OMB Bloodbath, ZRo, B L A C K I E and Big Gerb. What was the inspiration behind having these 4 figures on the cover?
Lance Walker: They just represent so many different things for me. I think Z-Ro is just such a perfect center point. He’s both new school and old school. He’s been around for a long time; he’s considered an OG by virtually everyone, but at the same time he’s making some of the freshest, newest and most relevant music out of any artist from Houston. He’s one of the top draws, one of the top tickets. People in Houston can recite the lyrics to his songs verbatim. There were so many reasons he was a good candidate to put on the cover. Not the least of which being that it was a great photograph. There was certainly that.
For OMB Bloodbath, Big Gerb and BLACKIE, they all do such different things. They represent different styles, different demographics, different slices of the culture. There was an original mock-up that had Scarface on the cover, but it was an older photo that he didn’t like, because he’s lost weight now, and looks different. He was like, ‘man, I look different now,’ and I was like ‘yeah, you’re right.’ So secretly, Z-Ro is what I wanted all along. Scarface probably would’ve sold us more books, but Z-Ro is the one I really wanted on there for so many different ways.
One thing I always hear about when I talk to Houston OGs is Southwest Wholesale. And rappers are constantly discussing it throughout your book. Do you think Houston’s entertainment industry would be comparable to others in the US today if Southwest Wholesale was still open?
Lance Walker: It’s an interesting question, because I would assume it had to have an effect on Houston rap, but I don’t know how many other different artists from different genres were using that same business model. I’d have to imagine it was plenty. I’m sure there were tejano artists, rock artists, but most of my knowledge of that is what happened on the hip-hop side.
The bottom was dropping out of physical sales around that time, which is one thing that was certainly giving Southwest Wholesale some trouble. You also had the advent of Myspace around at the same time. Artists were at the beginnings of converting to a digital platform, setting up websites for themselves when SW Wholesale crashed in February 2003. Before that, it had been good money for them and many artists. But they weren’t investing in manufacturing and production, which really isn’t that expensive, considering what kind of numbers were being made by selling those records.
Distribution was such an important part of it. SW Wholesale was distributing product that was available throughout their entire network. There were two models really in Houston. There’s the Rap-A-Lot model, where you’re taking whatever source your money comes from and investing it into studio time, beats, producing your own records, and manufacturing and producing it on your own.
SW took that last part away from you. In exchange, you got distribution that ensured your records went everywhere. All you had to do was show up once a month to pick up a check for several thousand dollars. That’s a fantastic business model for anyone. That really enriched the careers of artists who may have been able to make things work just fine on their own, but almost certainly wouldn’t have had the exact same reach because their material wouldn’t have been distributed into stores the same way. The bottom falling out from underneath SW wasn’t just SW, it was physical sales in general. CD sales were beginning to slow down. Other digital platforms were becoming available. I can’t imagine a business model that depended so heavily on physical sales existing in that same way today.
Were there any other spaces that really affected the industry at the time?
Lance Walker: The club scene has always been self-sufficient in a different way because promoters have typically moved around so much. Rhinestone Wranglers is a very unique example because it was about Generation X having a space in which to play, and a brand-new flowering genre of music and so many talented artists all coming to life around the same time. That was a very special thing.
You gotta remember also, there were other clubs in Houston playing hip-hop at the same time, but none of them were exclusively hip-hop, and drawing people in not just from Houston, but from surrounding cities, Louisiana, and all over Texas. They were hearing about it because it had a chance to build and become a legendary space.
By the early 2000s, you had some of the same promoters: Big Steve, Captain Jack, DJ Chill. They’ve been involved in so many club ventures throughout the years like Boomerang, Socol Village, all kinds of old clubs. Captain Jack and Big Steve went way back, all the way through the 80s promoting. So when you saw something like Club Connections pop up in the 2000s, that was a natural extension — though not necessarily of the same community, because the community changes, grows, expands and contracts over the years. You certainly have some of the same people in the driver’s seat who know exactly what they’re doing: Big Steve’s still out there promoting; Captain Jack’s still out there on the microphone; MC Wicked Cricket, you gotta mention him. He was doing stuff not on that same big level, but he was all over the place all the time, promoting smaller shows and unknown artists who eventually became big artists that we know today.
I thought it was interesting learning about how Houston rap came from the four elements of hip-hop. There’s a little bit about breakdancing in the book and today, you don’t really see break dancing that much. People weren’t dancing in the Screwed Up Click. Do you think DJ Screw had a big influence on the dance side of entertainment in Houston? Did changing the sound of the music make breakdancing die? Did you see that going on in the clubs in the early 2000s? Just wondering how that part of hip-hop was affected when DJ Screw started slowing things down.
Lance Walker: The last break dancing I remember was in the early 90s, and it was more tied to the graffiti scene than to the music side. The elements kind of have their own sub-cultures in Houston. Out of all of them, breakdancing was the smallest. Turntablism and MCing are obviously well known all over the city. DJ Screw was a turntablist who he led a whole collective of people. Of course, we know plenty of MCs all over the city. As far as the graffiti side of things, Houston has a fine graffiti artist in Gonzo247, a very good old friend of mine. Although there were breakdancing crews in the ‘80s, I don’t know if I could say it ever took hold in the same way. That’s only based on my conversations with people and how often it comes up, or how little it comes up. Who knows, maybe breakdancing was a lot bigger than I could think.
What was your first rap show in Houston and your favorite rap show?
Lance Walker: Odd Squad and 3 Wise Men in 1993? It was in Downtown Houston, which in 1993 was a ghost town. There was nothing down there. It was right near Market Square on the corner of Prarie and Travis. I don’t remember what it was called, but I can probably find it. So yeah, Devin the Dude was one of the first acts I saw. I saw the Beastie Boys before that, and there were probably a couple others. I’d’ve seen Public Enemy by then, a few things like that. But as far as the first local show I saw, I think it had to be that Odd Squad show.
As far as my favorite, that’s tougher, but I gotta say, Devin the Dude is right up there, because I think he does one of the best shows of any artist alive. I think that he and his whole crew of artists, Jugg Mugg, Rob Quest, Smit D, Tony Mac, 14K. There’s so many talented artists in that group. To see them live and watch the chemistry and personalities come to life on stage, there’s no moment that’s not completely full of life. I come see them every time they perform in New York and I’m always blown away
A lot of people say Houston doesn’t support Houston and this book shows how well Houston supported people back in the day. But what do you think is stopping Houston now from being an entertainment capital?
Lance Walker: Houston doesn’t have a centralized industry like New York, LA, or Atlanta. Atlanta has built itself into a center of hip-hop. Houston’s not structured like that. I don’t think it would ever work if it did. I really don’t. The great thing about Houston is that the music comes from so many different places, so many different sources. That keeps those sources original.. in their lanes.
It does have an industry, but one that consists of all these different micro-industries. I think that’s so much more powerful. And has proven to be so much more prolific. Look at how many artists in Houston have been making music for 20 to 25 years. There are artists from Houston who’ve been making music consistently for 30+ years, and still are. There’s a new Scarface record, Willy D, K-Rino. Nobody’s more prolific.
K-Rino and Z-Ro are two of the most prolific artists from Houston. K-Rino’s been making records for over 30 years. You can’t work like that if there’s a gatekeeper. If there’s an industry that decides who is and who isn’t, who’s on and who’s not, your city can’t flourish in that same way. Certainly, Rap-A-Lot is it’s own industry. You can’t forget that the model for RapALot is as an independent label. That’s what inspires people to work in that way. And in moving things in that direction, because everyone knows the story of Rap-A-Lot, everyone knows how it started with the “Car Freak” 12-inch and then the Geto Boys were the first group in Houston to release multiple records, and then all of a sudden they release an album, and then they release another album, and then they change some members and then Rick Rubin comes to town and changes their name and reissues a record and all of a sudden they’re more than just local and regional stars; they become national stars.
“Mind Playin Tricks” was everywhere and the Geto Boys were known throughout the world. Who in Houston wouldn’t look at that and go ‘Wow’? Especially when you know, the Geto Boys are all pretty crazy in their own ways, but at the same time they’re still out there in the community, and they’ve got lots to say. They inspire people to this day. As much as Geto Boys are probably on a level few people will ever experience, it still inspires people to do their own thing in that way. Houston is a gumbo. I can’t imagine it ever being restructured any other kind of way. If people on the outside don’t know that, it’s their loss. Because there’s still so much great music coming out of there. It’s not beholden to any industry, just a bunch of really self-made and self-owned industries.
When you had the book launch in Houston, you were talking about the proper ways to describe how you’re banging screw. What’s the politically correct way to say it? Do you say chopped and screwed? Screw tape? I’ve actually asked people I’m friends with because they all say it different. So what is it? What’s the proper way to say it. If someone was saying there were listening to a Screw tape, a legit screw tape, how would you say that if you’re not from Houston?
Lance Walker: Banging Screw. To tap a little deeper into your question, when it comes to calling something chopped and screwed, or screwed and chopped, there’s two different schools of thoughts. One is where when you call something screwed, you’re honoring DJ Screw’s work, and honoring the genre by calling it screwed music or screw music in reference to DJ Screw.
I get that. I respect that and appreciate that. The reality is that the people who knew Screw and who were close to Screw, were the ones that say, and mind you, what DJ Screw himself also said, that if DJ Screw didn’t do it, it’s not a Screw tape. It can be slowed and chopped. It can be whatever you wanna call it, but it’s not chopped and screwed. That’s what the people who knew him and loved him go with. And out of respect for him, it’s gotta be my belief too. I’m here to document the canon; I’m here to document the culture. When you document the culture, I’m not gonna go against the wind on something like that. I think it’s really really important. I understand the other side of it, ‘Yeah, I’m calling it screw music to honor DJ Screw,’ but you gotta go with the source. What is the Screwed Up Click saying? If DJ Screw didn’t do it, it’s not a Screw Tape.
I noticed that there were a few Latino rappers in here, but did you come across any female rappers? Were there more Latino voices you wished to put in the book that you didn’t?
Lance Walker: I think there’s a lot more Latino rappers out there now. But with this set of books I did with Peter Beste; he started shooting photographs in 2004. He started this whole thing as just a photo project, but a few months in he said: “you should come on board. You should write this with me. I hear a lot of amazing stories when I go take photographs, but my camera doesn’t capture them.” Because it was a history project, we used that as our cutoff point.
So we’re just rewinding back from 2005. The whole big wave of national recognition that happened with Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Chamillionaire — that all really took root in 2005. This thing really exploded and a lot more artists came onto the scenem and we really weren’t suited to catch up with that. We wanted the context of rewinding and looking backwards and exploring that history.
There are certainly more female artists now, but those are certainly areas I’d love to have touched on more. There were female artists I really wanted to get that I just wasn’t able to. And there are some Latino artists like Filero and Grimm who didn’t end up in there. Not necessarily through any fault of their own, but just because I had such a mass of other stuff I was working on. Even though they don’t necessarily appear in there in interview form, that’s why I build beyond just the books, it’s why I build with the radio show and all the different ways I cross reference and index people in the book.
I would’ve loved to put more Latino and Latina artists in there, and more female artists for that matter. I will say that the current makeup of Houston rap is way more diverse than it’s ever been. It reflects the diversity of Houston and the greater culture of hip hop in the US. Hip-hop is for everyone. It’s exciting to see artists come up. The Late Big Gerb, Hungry Records, Unique, Young Surreal and all the artists that came up with him. And you’ve got artists like Candy Redd, Megan thee Stallion, really fantastic artists coming up in Houston. This book is a history book, so in a large part it’s rewinding, going back and exploring that history. An updated and current version would be much much more diverse.
Who are your top 5 Houston rappers, dead or alive. And Houston can include Port Arthur too.
Lance Walker: No way. Nope. No way I’m answering that question.
It’s a hard one.
Lance Walker: I never make lists because it’d change too much. My favorites are a lot of people’s favorites. I go through phases where I’ll listen to lots of Devin, lots of Fat Pat, Z-Ro Geto Boys, Willie D. There’s so many. I go through phases where I’ll listen to a lot of Twenty-Two Life or Criminal Element. There’s so many artists, that’s the great thing about it. I don’t have to pick. If I’m working on an episode of Houston Rap Tapes Radio, there’s nothing more exciting than going ‘ok well, who have I not played yet? Who did I not get to interview?’ Or maybe someone’s no longer with us, or they’re no longer alive. Who do I want to touch on? I never run out of stuff. I never run out of artists with really deep catalogs.
Yeah, you have really great playlists on Soundcloud. All Houston rap, it’s all old school. I was gonna ask, how was your book tour? What was your audience like?
Lance Walker: It was so great, so much fun. There’s nothing better. When the book was coming out and I was planning what I was gonna do, ‘yeah, I’ll just drive around Texas for a week and hit some towns I’ve never been to,’ I’ve never been to Corpus Christi. I hadn’t been to Dallas in 25 years. I hadn’t been to Beaumont in 20-something years. There were places I really wanted to hit. I was just excited to get in a car and drive around Texas for a week and just soak it up. I’d lived in NY for 12 years. I love it here, this is my home. But I certainly love Texas and going back there and getting the chance to drive around and meet people. The makeup of the crowds were so fantastic. I’d meet people and they’d tell me stories about artists they’d love forever and they finally for the chance to read an interview with them. And some were like, ‘I didn’t even know anyone else knew who that was! I didn’t know anyone else knew who Snap was!’ It was great.
I had events that were more in-stores, I hung out in stores all night. People would come and buy the book, hang out and talk for a little bit. I had other events where I did full on lectures. I did lectures at the University of Houston, I did one in Dallas. I did one in Marfa in a big theater. 50-60 people came out on a Friday night and filled that place up, bought books. I went to San Antonio and sold more books. I sold more books in San Antonio than I did in any other city on the tour. There were lots of offers for other opportunities to come back and talk at other events in Texas.
People ask things I would’ve never even thought of and you know, I just find whenever I leave those events my mind is spinning in a bunch of directions. People give me so much to think about and so much hope because they’re so excited about the music and the history. It’s important to me and important to everyone: they’re also excited about reading.
There’s a DJ Screw book coming out, right?
Lance Walker: There is a DJ Screw book on the way. I’ve been writing it for years, but only really started talking about it in the last year or so, in the run-up to this. That’s how this new edition happened. I’ve been working on the DJ Screw book since about 2008. I approached the UT Press about writing a DJ Screw book and they said they’d love to do that, but in the meantime, we republished Houston Rap Tapes. That’s how that happened, it was their idea. I’m glad they did that because I don’t think I would’ve thought of it.
Is the Screw book gonna have a similar format?
Lance Walker: It’s a biography with lots of oral history built into it. There’s no reference book when it comes to DJ Screw. He only did a handful of interviews and you know, most of what’s written about him is recycled off what’s on his Wikipedia page. I felt like there really needed to be a book about him. Most people can’t believe there already isn’t one. Alongside Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes I’ve been building a collection of interviews about DJ Screw that will populate the book. That’ll be great because then we’ll have another reference point, another jump off point. A huge percentage of the people I’ve interviewed for the book haven’t been interviewed before. So there’s lots they got to tell that’ve never gotten the opportunity to do.
When can we read that?
Lance Walker: 2020. I’ll be a fool if I don’t get it out then. That’s the 20th anniversary of his passing. I think 2020 will definitely be the year of DJ Screw.