Step Inside the Neighborhoods Where Houston Rap Was Born
Our goal when we started this project in 2004 was to document the culture of rap music in Houston, Texas. Two decades had then passed since the release of Houston’s first rap record, and over that time an entire culture with its own sound, slang, drugs, and cars had developed out of some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Houston artists were pioneering and prolific, creating a self-sufficient music industry with little support from the mainstream. You had a hometown success story in Fifth Ward’s Geto Boys, but Houston as a whole had never been considered as an epicenter of rap music. We had no idea at the time, but that was exactly what was about to happen.
In virtually every prism through which one can view a city, Houston has always been sidelined, overlooked, or dismissed, but that has shaped the identity of its rap scene. When the popularity of the song “Still Tippin’” drew national attention to Houston rap music in 2005, the foundations of the city’s rap economy were so strong that little really changed. Artists can and do make entire careers in Houston, having built them in the communities of Fifth Ward, Third Ward, South Park, and the Southside. This book evolved into a story about those neighborhoods—bringing us both the good and the bad. We captured the love of music in Houston and the independent spirit of its artists, but we also got crime, violence, poverty, sex, drugs, and the lingering effects of the crack epidemic that has ravaged these communities.
Houston is more industrial business center than centralized city. A network of mini-downtowns, inner-city suburbs, shopping malls, and gargantuan freeways slice up a sprawling landscape surrounded by planned communities populated through NASA and the industries of energy and medicine. Lenient zoning laws and low taxes, coupled with ongoing gentrification, have transformed the city from within, rendering some areas unrecognizable and others lost forever. The neighborhoods represented in this book are some of Houston’s oldest, with deep roots that reach back decades to the many notable blues musicians who come from the very same areas as the rappers. But as rich as their contributions have proven to be, these communities still find themselves saddled with age-old struggles. The prison-industrial complex looms large, as do issues with health, education, and city services, even as other areas of Houston continue to boom. Such issues are often overlooked until, as we saw with historic Fourth Ward, your area remains invisible until they want to push you out of it.
These communities have given birth to some of the finest musical treasures of the South, completely on their own terms. We hear the independent nature of Houston rap in the stories of dope dealers who created record labels to clean up their money, selling music out of car trunks and cutting out the middleman. We see it when, rather than lobbying to get their songs on the radio, members of Houston’s rap community introduce their music by cross promoting between the city’s massive hip-hop clubs and its strip clubs, where DJs and dancers break in new songs after hours. We heard from artists, DJs, producers, label owners, promoters, dancers, pimps, drug dealers, and everyday local residents. We talked to people who felt they had no way out, and to those who found one.
As is the case with The Houston Rap Tapes, this volume’s companion book of interviews, there are many names you will recognize here and some that you might not. But to understand Houston’s history, you have to look deeper than its biggest stars. It would take many more faces and voices to make this complete. This is just an introduction.
This essay is excerpted from the book Houston Rap by Lance Scott Walker, Peter Beste, and Johan Kugelberg, published by Sinecure Books in 2013. The Houston Rap Tapes, a companion book of interviews, was published in 2014. Photo Essay is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that features images from both emerging and established photographers working in a variety of styles—from documentary and conceptual, to fine art and commercial. For past installments, visit the archives.