Money in the Making

Houston rappers couldn’t beat the system, so they created their own. Now the H-town rap scene is the hottest in the country.

IT’S FIVE-THIRTY ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN HOUSTON, and the challenge has been issued by the Madd Hatta, the afternoon drive-time deejay on 97.9, the Box:

 

Wassup ya’ll? Whatcha gotta say?
Who’s on the mike with Hatta’s crew today?

 

The phone lines to KBXX-FM are jammed with callers eager to have Hatta air their raps. One by one they get on, and their syncopated rhymes skip along with the heavy beats in the background:

 

North Side, North Side, that’s where I be,
Some think I’m young, but they can’t hang with me!

 

Everyone in Houston, it seems, is rappin’ hard, and not just for the Madd Hatta. Rap, or hip-hop, as it is globally known, is no longer just the sound of the housing projects. It has hurdled geographic, cultural, and color barriers to become the sound of the city, as well as the leading growth sector of the music business. The phenomenon is particularly pervasive in Houston, the capital of the Down South—Gulf Coast scene that is currently dominating the rap game. Rap has insinuated itself everywhere in H-town, crossing over into the pop R&B of the hit girl-group Destiny’s Child, into the gospel of Christian rapper Nuwine, and into the white world of I-45, the Anglo hip-hop crew pulling in the crowds at Fitzgerald’s. You can hear rap on the Box and other radio stations, in neighborhood rec halls and nightclubs like Jamaica Jamaica and the Voodoo Lounge, in films like Gregory Carter’s dramatic Fifth Ward, and at events like the Foundation’s weekly get-togethers at the Waxx Museum, where rapping, deejaying, break-dancing, and graffiti art demonstrations draw fans from all over the city and as far away as Monterrey, Mexico. These days, that familiar hard, thumping sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine (the mating call of the young urban male) vibrating so low you can feel it in the pit of your stomach from a block away might just be coming from a pickup driven by a young Bubba.

You may never have heard of acts like DJ Screw, UGK, ESG, Fifth Ward Boyz, Trinity Garden Cartel, Botany Boys, Lil’ Keke, Fat Pat, or Devin, but plenty of kids in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Waco, San Antonio, and Port Arthur have. All of these rappers have generated sales exceeding 20,000 units, not enough to make them millionaires like the big stars of Down South—Master P (the artistic heart and biggest success of the movement) and local heroes Scarface and Eightball—but good enough to convince teens that they have better odds of making it in music than they do playing in the NBA or surviving as drug dealers.

However, don’t look for signs at the Houston airports welcoming you to the “Real” Music Capital of Texas. To outsiders, that monstrous, vibrating bass is an irritant, something wholly alien and aggravating to adult sensibilities. The often violent lyrics only make the perception worse. Rappers’ rhymes are peppered with plenty of profanity-laced trash-talking about niggas pimping hos and bitches, toting MAC 10’s and other gats (guns), slanging rocks (selling crack cocaine), and smoking chronic and dank (choice marijuana). If the explicit language is disturbing, it’s meant to be, as a reflection of reality in the bad parts of town. More often than not, though, it is a fantasized version of the truth, taken to the extreme. For all the anecdotal evidence about rap’s dark imagery being a bad influence, its fans are no more likely to act violently than fans of a heavy metal group are likely to drink blood or engage in devil worship. Put in perspective, rap has much in common with jazz in the twenties, which the Ladies Home Journal once described as “Bolshevik-inspired,” or Elvis-era rock and roll, which was banished from the jukeboxes at the public pools in San Antonio because the music, according to the city council, “attracted undesirable elements given to practicing their spastic gyrations in abbreviated bathing suits.”

In fact, the thug life as subject matter seems to be losing some of its luster. There’s a new, higher calling identified with Down South, and it is right in sync with mainstream society: making money. From Scarface’s “Money Makes the World Go Round” to Lil’ Keke’s “Money in the Making” and DJ Screw’s Makin’ Cash Forever, capitalism is the biggest thrill of all. The kids are making it, and not just because of their keen wits and messages—raw talent alone does not guarantee a successful music scene. The Houston difference is having the infrastructure necessary to get the music from the rappers on the street back to the consumers on the street: studios, mixing and mastering facilities, packaging and design companies, manufacturers and duplicators, labels, distributors, and maybe most important, a commercial radio station—the Box—that is not shy about airing local product. Underground capitalism is flourishing in Houston, a city with a rich tradition of entrepreneurs and hustlers—and not just in oil and real estate. In 1949 Don Robey, a Houston nightclub owner and entrepreneur, became one of the first blacks in the U.S. to own a record company when he founded Peacock Records. In their own way, H-town’s hip-hop wildcatters are just following in his footsteps.

How to Make It in Music

MARCUS LAKEE EDWARDS, or Lil’ Keke, is the poster child of H-town’s rap revolution, the living embodiment of grass-roots success in the music business. His career began six years ago on the corner of Herschelwood and Windemere, in a southeast Houston neighborhood of small fifties- and sixties-era tract homes with big shade trees, neat saint augustine lawns, and carports—not exactly the mean streets. That’s where Edwards, then sixteen, and his pals, the Herschelwood Hard Headz, got together and improvised raps, trying to top one another “busting rhymes.” Lil’ Keke was a street poet, a natural. “I could freestyle for thirty minutes without messing up,” he says. “Right off the top of the head. I just took it serious, put it to pen and paper,

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