Z-Ro, taken from the cover of Houston Rap Tapes. (Photo by Peter Beste)

Arts & Entertainment

Author Lance Scott Walker Talks Houston Rap Tapes Ahead of Deep Vellum Visit

The oral history is a must buy for anyone interested in the genre.

In 2013, after nearly a decade of work, the photographer Peter Beste teamed with the writer Lance Scott Walker to publish a coffee table photo book called Houston Rap. (The publisher, Sinecure, is still selling its deluxe edition for $275—Amazon’s cheapest resale is currently $389.51.)  Accompanying that was Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, an addendum full of interviews from artists you know—Bun B, Paul Wall, Z-Ro—and many you probably don’t—K-Rino, Klondike Kat, Wood, Dope E.

If you read both, you found something of a time capsule for a city, whose music was sold out of car trunks and the front of houses, the sound allowed to develop without interference or meddling from out-of-town record labels or cash-grabbing A&R. By the time non-Texans were introduced to Houston rap, probably in 2006 with the national breakouts of the north side’s Swishahouse artists, it was a fully developed thing, with its own slang and pace and culture. It wasn’t just UGK and the Geto Boys and DJ Screw, either—the artists whose music made it out of Houston even before the national money and attention came— and it’s those who Walker and Beste made a point to spend time with.

The two were there before the national labels came, and their presence ingratiated them to the longtime artists who were incredibly important to the city, but whose music didn’t really make a dent nationally. But they—yes, Screw’s Screwed Up Click, but also the lesser-heard South Park Coalition—created a foundation for both influence and collaboration, for both their peers and those who came later. When Walker asks Z-Ro about whether there was someone who he was nervous about sharing a track with, he mentions K-Rino. When K-Rino is asked about what made him and his friends think they could succeed in rap, it was when he heard the Geto Boys’ “Scarface” played in the club and had the room rapping along. You read how the scene formed.

The cover of Houston Rap Tapes. Up top: Z-Ro. Bottom, from left: B L A C K I E, Big Gerb, OMB Bloodbath. (Courtesy UT Press)

Many of their neighborhoods were gutted by the crack epidemic and subsequent poverty. These were parts of town overlooked by the city. Houston Rap Tapes gave them a chance to share their stories. Now four years later, it’s being reissued by UT Press with more than 20 new interviews. These include legends like Lil Keke, but also new artists like OMB Bloodbath, who has rapped about the development and gentrification changing her neighborhood in modern day Houston: “White folks is building condos to get us ran out the hood/ They tryin to call Third Ward ‘Midtown,’ how that shit sound?,” she raps on “Not So Gone.”

Houston, like Dallas, is changing. Books like Houston Rap Tapes help put on record the history and creativity that have long bubbled in the city’s core neighborhoods.

Walker will be at Deep Vellum books tonight at 7 p.m. along with Rick Royal of Royal Flush and DJ Black Taffy. Here’s a conversation we had about the book ahead of the event. It’s been edited lightly for length and clarity. (The book is on sale now.)

So you’re from Galveston. What is it about Houston rap that has fueled such passion and attention from you?

I believe in it. Hip-hop was the first music that I bought when I was growing up, when I was 11, 12 years old. But then I got into punk rock not long after that, and I fell in love with the whole DIY ethos and that way of doing things. Years down the line, whenever I get to start working on the Houston stuff and Houston rap, I discovered that same way of thinking. I believe in DIY. I believe in doing it yourself. I believe in punk rock ethics, and I believe in bucking the system, to be able to truly say what you want to say. Punk rock does that and rap at large does that, but Houston rap does that in a very special way. That has kept me coming back.

Author Lance Scott Walker. (Photo by Michael Lavine)

It kind of came around at a perfect time, too, when there wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to it, so it was allowed to sort of incubate in its own vacuum.

Right, exactly.

I remember when I was young hearing these weird, slowed-down rap songs pouring out of cars. It was part of Houston’s ambiance in some parts of town.

I remember hearing DJ Screw in maybe 1995, 1996. I saw him once in person, but I didn’t know a whole lot about him. Certainly after his death you learned a lot more. But in Galveston I did hear Geto Boys, I did hear Royal Flush, I did hear Raheem. There was definitely some local music that made its way down to Galveston when I was growing up, and I think everything makes it down there now, you know, everything’s spread out. But no DJ Screw. That was a distinctly Houston thing.

But the book was all Peter Beste. Peter Beste is the photographer that I did the first two books with, and the whole project was his idea, from the very beginning, 2000, probably before. I think he was thinking about it for years. I’ve known him forever. I’ve known him for 22, 23 years, and so we were good friends before we ever started working on the book. We’re still good friends, by the way. He was thinking about this idea, and he started coming to Houston in 2004, from New York. He’s from the north side of Houston, but he was living in New York by then, and he started making trips down and, after a couple few trips—I was writing for the Houston Chronicle then—and he said, ‘You should write this book with me.’ So that’s where that part of it came from.

I knew a lot of about Houston rap in general, but there are so many just echelons, just leagues of people that I didn’t know about that I started discovering once I started working with Peter in 2005.

Would that be how you found the South Park Coalition and Street Military?

It’s a collective being South Park Coalition and a group named Street Military. Those were two that I didn’t know anything about. And South Park Coalition were the first people that I met with Peter. We just kind of worked our way from one connection to another, trying to get through the networks and find people, which was a lot harder in 2004, 2005 than it is now, you know? Not everybody had mobile phones or any kind of way to connect with them online. Sometimes you’d hear about an artist and there was nothing you could find about them anywhere, like even online. 2004, 2005, you’re like, does this person really exist?

That was one of the interesting things about the original Houston Rap Tapes. The chapters were separated by interview subjects, so you could jump in on someone you maybe weren’t so familiar with. Can you discuss how you structured the reissue?

They’re still conversational interviews, but the difference is I’ve reordered them in a way that I hope tells a little bit of a different story. The sequence in the first book didn’t exactly tell a story. It was sequenced from the perspective of ‘okay, what might be a good read here?’ And not necessarily in what might be a good contextual sequence. But I gave great consideration to that contextual sequence for the new book.

Peter’s original idea was that it was just gonna be a photo book, and so the photos are meant to tell the story. The text is just meant to give flow and a little bit of context and a narrative to those photos, while still allowing those photos to speak for themselves, so the balance is very delicate in that, and when I go back and look at that book, I still feel like we got that part right. The original Houston Rap Tapes was meant to give you a deeper context, to help you learn about people that didn’t make it into the book.

Let’s talk about that. I see B L A C K I E on the cover, for instance, who wasn’t in the original book. How did you approach who to add in?

With the original books, we started 2004, which was right before the big wave of everything hit in Houston, with Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Pall Wall, Chamillionaire, when everything really broke. That was in 2005, and we had started before that, so we were very fortunate in that respect, because it gave us a little bit of a head start, to where it didn’t look to everybody as if we were coming in on that wave also. You know what I mean? Because there’s lots of media that descended on us at that point, and everybody was interested in Houston.

We also used that as our point at which we wound back the clock. I say that to mean that anybody whose career had just started wasn’t eligible for our book. They didn’t line up with our criteria. It made it a lot easier, because there was obviously, after that wave, everybody was a rapper before that, but really everybody was a rapper after that, and it was so much easier to make music. It just became an enormously saturated market.

For the reissue, I put B L A C K I E on the cover. I put OMB Bloodbath on the cover and Big Gerb. He passed away two years ago. But these are artists who are more contemporary. They’re on now. They represent different sounds. They represent different demographics with their fan bases. I think, for me, they represent different feelings. They just represent different shades of feeling in hip-hop music. B L A C K I E, you can almost barely call him a rapper because he’s more of a noise artist, but he considers himself a rapper. We talked about that in my interview, it’s such a different thing. Then Big Gerb looks so menacing, and he had the sweetest, kindest voice. He was really such a sweet, kind person.

OMB Bloodbath is speaking from a perspective that you don’t always find in hip-hop. She likes girls. That’s a difference for her, and it comes out in her music. She talks about it. It’s important that younger people listening to hip-hop have all kinds of different role models and understand that it’s a music for everyone. I thought that that was one of the best ways to represent that, to have an old school head like Z-Ro on the cover at the top who’s universally respected, loved, admired, adored, and very much a fan of everyone who came before him. He’s a student of Houston rap. He’s a student of the history. He’s really into the other books, so I was happy to have him on the cover.

You mentioned Gerb’s death. There have been some other notable deaths that have happened in the scene in the past four years, like Mr. 3-2 and Wickett Crickett. When you’re going back to the book, how did you address those?

I mention them and talk about their deaths. Wickett Crickett was a really very special person, and a very important person in Houston to a lot of people. He gave a lot of people their first gig. I know he gave DJ Screw his first real gig. I know he gave early slots and shows to Destiny’s Child. It’s hard to find, if there was an artist who was out hustling, and had their own thing going on, and was trying to get on shows, they’d most likely get some help from Wickett Crickett at some point. He’s an OG. He’s really old school. He came to Houston from New York in the 70s, and so he brought that flavor with him. He was little bit older than everybody, so he was a little bit wiser. Everybody knew him. Everybody loved him.

We know the devastating effects of crack cocaine are what produced the conditions that gave us gangster rap as a poetry of the darkness of the crack epidemic.

I had my clashes with him, but ultimately we both very much admired and respected one another. The way to honor him was to make the first interview in the book be his. The things he says in his interview are just so important and so deep. I wanted to set that off on the foot. He’s talking about crack cocaine coming into Houston in the late 1980s and how that changed the youth culture. It used to be you would get a job in the summer time. Then, once crack and all that fat money came around, it changed for a lot of people. It didn’t change for everybody, but it changed for a lot of people. They felt a lot differently about how to make money.

We know the devastating effects of crack cocaine are what produced the conditions that gave us gangster rap as a poetry of the darkness of the crack epidemic. There’s definitely a connection. He explains all of that, so it was really important. It just sets the stage with it.

That takes me back to some of the interviews with the South Park Coalition, I think was Murder One who talks about how there isn’t healthy food in his neighborhood, how it’s all liquor stores and fried chicken joints.

We don’t talk a whole lot about rap in that interview. I don’t know if we talked about rap at all in that interview. It’s one of the most important interviews in the book because of what he’s talking about. All writing is political. Everything you do, even maps are political. I put maps in the book. I’ve got some things in those maps that people might go, ‘Well, why are those in there?’ Well, they’re in there because I want you to know what that is. I want to look up Moody Park. I want you to figure out what that is. I want to think, ‘Why did I put that in here? Why is that important?’ There’s a lot of little things like that.

It’s just to give people pause and to look at the systemic things that we talk about that bring people down, and certainly bring people down in the neighborhoods where hip-hop comes from in Houston. Hip-hop is not created in a vacuum. Hip-hop is created in all kinds of different neighborhoods all over the world. The conditions of a neighborhood, if someone is speaking of the truth, the conditions of their neighborhood, their living, and the way that they were raised, well, that truth will come out in the music. I think that truth is rampant in Houston rap. That truth is all over the music.

I think I’ve always been drawn to rap because it’s one of the few genres that still retain its own sense of place, through dialect, slang, messaging. I feel like the Internet is changing that somewhat, breaking down regional barriers. Can you talk about the differences in interviewing the older rappers and their contemporaries?

It’s a different world. It’s such a different world to grow up now. I’m 45 years old, so I’m a full generation beyond the generation that’s growing up now. I could easily be a parent to one of them. I just can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up now with just a completely de-contextualized world around you because of social media, because of how fast information flies at you. I just don’t know how the younger generation now gets any sort of grip on the context of the history that preceded them.

I guess I challenge them to look back, and to know, and to understand that the history is really important. I’m surprised when they do because there’s just so much coming at you. There’s so much, hyperbole. Everything is the best you’ve ever heard of. Everything is streamed, the way that the media works now.  I just can’t imagine how you get any sort of grip on the world. Whenever I interview artists that are younger like that, I’m just glad they’re artists. I’m glad you’re expressing yourself. I’m glad that you’re writing. I’m glad that you are writing and expressing yourself on a platform that will get it out to other people because I hope that inspires them.

You’re reissuing this book after four years. You’re on a book tour. What does that broad appeal tell you about the impact of Houston rap?

I’ve lived in New York City for 12 years now, and I’ve watched it unfold here. When I first got to New York, Houstonians know this exact expression, ‘Oh God. Houston. Ugh. I went to Houston once. It’s just parking lots, and freeways, and gas stations.’ ‘Yeah, sure. Okay. You didn’t have a tour guide. I’m sorry. Here’s your tour book.’ I moved here in 2006. The Houston wave was still in motion at that point. People up here were hearing about Houston rappers, Houston music, and a couple of years went by, and they were still hearing about it. Not only were they still hearing about it, but I think people were starting to connect the dots. ‘Oh wait. Lil Flip’s from Houston too. Lil’ Troy’s from Houston. Wait, Geto Boys are from Houston.’

They’re adding it up. They’re realizing, ‘Yeah. There’s all this stuff.’ The book didn’t have anything to do with that. I’m just saying that people were realizing it. I just noticed the influence just going so much further, and wider, and when I mention what I work on to people, I’m seeing the references pop up more and more. They’re starting to realize how much stuff is from Houston. I think it will continue to grow. There are DJ Screw heads all over the world. There are Geto Boys fans all over the world.

There are fans of most of these artists you know of all over the world. I think it’s only going to continue to grow because all of their catalogs are stacked. Not all of them, but a good number of the artists in the book are still working. I think over the years it will be a lot less defined what it means to sound like you’re from Houston. I think that the Houston sound will just become as diverse as Houston. I think you’ll just hear more and more unique, interesting things mixed in with it.

Lance Scott Walker is at Deep Vellum Books tonight at 3000 Commerce Street from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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