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, because I was so good at it. I already had a big imagination, a big vocabulary.” What Lil’ Keke was doing was an unconscious variation of “doing the dozens,” reciting bawdy stories in rhyme as a form of verbal one-upmanship, a common pastime among urban African American males over the past century. Doing the dozens evolved into music by groups such as Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts in the fifties, then took on a political nature in the late sixties and early seventies with the recorded raps of the Last Poets and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”). Rap music was born in the late seventies when the stories began to be told over an audio bed of hard beats.
Lil’ Keke’s way with words eventually reached 27-year-old Robert Davis, better known as DJ Screw. Screw’s home studio in South Park functions as a kind of finishing school for rappers. He is by no means the only deejay in Houston who has recording facilities in his home. Equipment has become so affordable that almost anyone with the ambition can pull together the tape recorders, samplers, computers, and other gear necessary to put together a rap song or album. But Screw is one of the most original mixers in Houston, notorious for taking existing hip-hop tracks and “screwing up” the music, slowing the beats to a tempo as deliberate as a Southern drawl, while mixing out the vocal tracks so that he and his stable of twenty or so rappers can do their rhymes, all in slo-mo. The sonic effect is mesmerizing and inextricably linked with the act of getting high, something Screw acknowledges in the liner notes of both 3 ’N the Morning, Part One and Part Two, recommending “sippin’ syrup, gin, etc., [smokin’] chronic indo, cess, bud” to get in the proper frame of mind. The screwed-up sound and DJ Screw’s direct sales method—making generically labeled cassettes of his work and selling them out of his house at first and then at his Screwed Up Records and Tapes store on Cullen—have earned him the reputation as Houston’s king of the underground.
Rap is cheap: All you need are words, beats, and a microphone. “For fifteen dollars,” says Lil’ Keke, “you could go to his house, he’d say your name on tape and let you freestyle.” Screw liked what he heard and invited Lil’ Keke to join his Screwed Up Click. On Screw’s second commercial release, 3 ’N the Morning, Part Two, Lil’ Keke’s boastful, brash rap “Pimpin tha Pen” earned him a reputation around town. That led to a “feature,” or guest rap, on an album that Screw’s alleged brother, Al-D, was doing for Jam Down Entertainment, a small Houston label started in 1996 by Patrick Lewis. Two days later, Lewis offered Lil’ Keke a recording contract.
A native of Trinidad, the 35-year-old Lewis grew up in Baytown, where he worked as a nightclub disc jockey and gradually gained enough experience to start his own record company. The first thing he did was build his own studio, like Screw had done. “I realized most of the money went into the studio. I figured if I cut off the middleman, I could have more money to invest in promotions and other things. Most people think building a studio is very expensive, but it’s not. It’s a cheap way of becoming rich.”
Though Lewis had limited funding, he had a sound strategy for Lil’ Keke’s album, called Don’t Mess Wit Texas. Lil’ Keke had been performing its hot track “South Side,” a call-and-response celebration of the rise of Southern rap, in shows long before the album came out. “When the retailers started calling, saying, ‘Man, just give me a date when it’s coming out,’ I knew I had a bomb,” says Lewis. The payoff was immediate. Using the Houston subdistributor Southwest Wholesale Records and Tapes (one of the largest rap wholesalers in the United States), Lewis moved 20,000 units to stores in the first week of the album’s July 1997 release.
Lil’ Keke’s album followed the simple financial blueprint already drawn by other Down South releases: small investment, large yield. With a payback of more than $100,000 on an initial outlay of probably less than $10,000, Lewis made a bundle, easily compensating for losses he’d incurred on releases by Al-D and Most Hated. And unlike most rap product, which quickly fades from the charts and whose audience is exceptionally fickle, Don’t Mess Wit Texas developed legs. By December, more than 80,000 units had been sold in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Lewis started booking Lil’ Keke himself on the Texas-Louisiana club circuit, cutting out the promoters and other middlemen. And he put much of his money back into promotions, buying radio ads and putting up posters. “We have to work retail, the clubs, the neighborhoods, everywhere,” says Lewis. To widen his artists’ base, he did what several Houston rap labels have done and got major-label distribution, signing Jam Down Entertainment to a deal with Breakaway Entertainment, a Los Angeles—based label aligned with industry behemoth Polygram.
The technology is inexpensive, his label is small and hands-on, but most important, Lil’ Keke, like most H-town rappers, is hungry. And he is convinced he has found a gig for life. “I know this: I’m gonna die in music. I’m not going to rap forever, but I’ll be producing, executive producing, forever. You gotta know what’s for you. If you ain’t willing to put one hundred and ten in it, if you don’t really believe in it, it ain’t what you wanna do. Because there’s too many more ways to lose than there are to win.”
“The Ghetto’s Tryin’ to Kill Me”
RAP IS ABOUT TELLING STORIES, and most H-town rappers have rough tales to tell. Some of the hardest are told by Master P. The artist formerly known as Percy Miller is a handsome, charismatic self-made product of the Calliope housing projects in New Orleans’ Third Ward and a walk-on member of the University of Houston basketball team in 1985 who appears to be able to do anything he sets his mind to. His company, No Limit Records, of which he is the star performer and CEO, claims that he and the other artists on the label have sold $180 million worth of albums in five years.
Master P’s artistry is rooted in his background. His call-and-response style (including his trademark “Unnnhs!” and phrases such as “I got the hookup. Holler if you hear me”) comes from his Southern heritage, specifically the musical ways of black New Orleans. His raps (“The Ghetto’s Tryin’ to Kill Me,” “99 Ways to Die”) reflect his rough upbringing. He frequently rhymes about dealing drugs; his brother Kevin was killed by a drug addict. “I had to survive and do what it took to survive,” he says. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now. Only a fool could not understand that. That ain’t where I wanted to be at. I didn’t have the things that most fortunate kids have, like a nice house, a lot of money, both of their parents. I struggled all my life and I know how it is, and that’s why I’m here to do the right thing. I done changed my life.”
He is changing his life again, recently announcing his retirement as a solo rap artist with the release of MP Da Last Don, which for two weeks this summer was the best-selling album in the nation. There’s too much business to take care of. P is the kingpin of an entertainment empire based in Baton Rouge that includes such far-flung enterprises as movies (P has written, directed, and starred in three films in the past year, two of them direct-to-video releases), a sports management agency, a No Limit clothing line, real estate investments (including a home in Sugar Land), and a $7.8 million studio complex under construction that will have a full-scale, gold-plated Sherman tank parked out front (the label’s logo features a gold tank).
Another successful rapper with a tough past is Premro Smith, a.k.a. Eightball, whose raps have helped turn Tony Draper’s Suave House into one of Houston’s biggest rap labels. Eightball has staked his reputation on being able to rap hard and make it real, essential badges of credibility for any gangsta rapper. He rhymes about armed robbery from the first-person perspective and spews phrases such as “do the crime, waste no time, then I’m going to get mine” and “hip-hop Glock poppin’ hollow point heat.”
“To some people, a lot of stuff I rap about might sound farfetched, but that shit be happening: ten people in one row house,” observes the portly 25-year-old Eightball (“It’s just one of the names that fit me. I’m not a helluva pool player”), who grew up in Memphis’ rough Orange Mound ghetto. “The life that I was living and the things that I saw were raw,” he says. “Me being from that life, I can’t escape that. I’m not trying to glorify the ghetto or say the projects are a beautiful place to live, because they’re not. But projects and ghettos have made some of the greatest people in the world. Now I have to bring it in a different light.”
Eightball and his partner, MJG, were brought to Houston by music-promoter-turned-label-head Draper, who essentially repeated what Houston’s Don Robey had done in the fifties when he went to Memphis and found Bobby Blue Bland and Little Junior Parker, the cornerstones of his Peacock and Duke labels. Today Draper is $5 million richer from a distribution deal he cut with Universal Music, and Eightball is a platinum-selling artist (his latest album, the triple-CD Lost, entered the Billboard album chart in June at number five) who owns a home in an affluent neighborhood in southwest Houston.
H-town rappers don’t only bust rhymes about the thug life. Lil’ Keke identifies himself as a baller, a party boy who’s “goin’ to clown,” as his concert flyers advertise. One of his most popular phrases is “ballin’, ballin’ in the mix,” from his song “Baller in the Mix.” Love, finances, and the creative process are on Eightball’s mind these days, as he raps on “My First Love”: “I grab my pen, caressin’ empty pages, making love, creatin’ money, making phrases.” Then there is H-Town (the group), whose romantic ladies raps have made Billboard’s Hot 100 chart six times.
Makin’ a Scene
TO UNDERSTAND THE MECHANICS OF THE HOUSTON rap scene today, you have to know the history of its seminal label, Rap-A-Lot records. Rap-A-Lot was started in the Fifth Ward in 1985 when James Smith (now known as James Prince), a young black salesman of used luxury cars, got together with Cliff Blodget, a young white computer software engineer who had moved to town from Seattle. Smith, em-bracing the ßedgling West Coast gangsta style, handpicked a group of rappers specifically for their ability to rap hard. The result was the notorious Geto Boys, whose lineup would eventually stabilize around Brad Jordan, a South Acres homey who performed as DJ Akshun and was rechristened as Scarface; Bushwick Bill, a five-foot-tall Jamaican, born Richard Shaw; and Willie D (for Dennis), the only member who actually came from the Fifth Ward.
The Geto Boys recorded a couple of albums, and in the late eighties a scene began to build. Rappers were forming groups and releasing cassettes and CDs on their own. “You had to top the last thing you did,” says Doug King, who became an engineer and then a producer at Rap-A-Lot after following Blodget from Seattle along with Aaron Brauch, who would become the company’s general manager. “You had to get graphic and create a story that was more extreme. It was always a contest, with something at stake.” Their 1990 album, Grip It! On That Other Level, was re-released that same year by Def American, which was working with Rap-A-Lot on a trial basis and which was itself being distributed by Geffen Records. The album was so verbally abusive that Geffen severed all ties with Def American, which never worked with Rap-A-Lot again.
Undeterred, James Smith worked out a distribution deal with the independent Priority Records, and in 1991 the Geto Boys released their national breakthrough album, We Can’t Be Stopped, which included the track “My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me,” a disturbing vision of paranoia:
I’m pumping in the clip when the wind blows / Every twenty seconds got me peeping out my window.
The album—whose cover featured an unstaged photograph of Bushwick Bill being wheeled down a hospital corridor after his girlfriend shot him in the eye (an inci dent that Bill later attributed to their drinking pure grain alcohol)—ßew off the racks, eventually going platinum. Senator Bob Dole only added to the group’s infamy when he cited them as one of the more disgusting examples of modern entertainment acts.
When the royalty checks from We Can’t Be Stopped finally arrived, the Houston rap industry became a reality. Blodget left to start his own label, Flash Point, in Austin, and King departed to create his Newstyle Records production company in Houston. Aaron Brauch dreamed up Pen and Pixel Graphics, with his brother Shawn, another Rap-A-Lot alumnus, as creative director. Other labels started popping up, including Russell Washington’s BigTyme Recordz and Tony Draper’s Suave House.
The Geto Boys foundered after Willie D left, but Smith went on to cut a Rap-A-Lot distribution deal with Noo Trybe/Virgin Records in 1995, making Scarface, the label’s biggest star, a colleague of the Rolling Stones. The label’s rags-to-riches story continues to exert a strong inßuence on Houston rappers. “Everybody’s trying to duplicate what Rap-A-Lot did,” says Andrew Chong, whose Urban Beat Magazine, a small monthly, is published out of his brother’s car-repair shop on Southwest Freeway. “They all want to do it on the street.”
TO MAKE THOSE STREET SOUNDS RADIO FRIENDLY, many Houston rappers come to Digital Services, a recording studio owned by John Moran. “All in all, the indies are kicking the majors’ butts,” Moran drolly observes as he shufßes into his office early one afternoon. “It’s San Francisco in 1967, and the Gray Line tour buses have just started showing up.” Moran should know. Gold and platinum records and plaques of records made or mastered in his facility hang on the wall: Eightball and MJG’s On Top of the World, Ice Cube’s Bootlegs and B-Sides, Scarface’s The Diary, the Geto Boys’ Til Death Do Us Part. There’s an empty space waiting to be filled as soon as Eightball’s Lost is certified. No matter that Clint Black recorded his breakthrough country album, Killin’ Time, there or that ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones have been in recently. Rap is keeping Moran booked up.
Before he can even plop his briefcase on his desk, he’s being petitioned by two young black men with gold chains around their necks who have been pacing back and forth in the reception area, jabbering into cell phones. The one with the white visor shading his forehead introduces himself as Dino, the romantic rapper from the group H-Town. The other gentleman is his road manager.
Like many rappers, disc jockeys, and producers, Dino has a studio in his home. But it lacks the technology he needs to edit the performance tape for his live show and insert samples of sounds his road manager found on some old records. So Dino has come to Digital Services, taking advantage of the state-of-the-art computers and mixing gear. He paces and waits, hoping to persuade Moran, a fortysomething white man, to do a rush job. Moran listens to Dino’s plea and shufßes into the mixing room, where he types commands into a computer that uses the Sonic Solutions mastering program. Suddenly a big bass, high voices, ethereal keyboard noodling, and Dino’s voice fill the room. He’s spouting original couplets (he rhymes “anus” with “famous”) and throwing down the gauntlet to his fans by asking all the “dirtyass nappy-headed bastards, ‘Are you working with me?’”
“You’re not gonna hear that at Wal-Mart,” says Moran. “However, just to show you that they know what they’re doing . . .” He pushes some buttons and a cleaned-up version of the same track plays, minus “shits” and references to “rubbing my balls.” Rap, Moran believes, embodies “evil Negro music”: “Kids love horrifying their elders. My pet theory is that it’s protest music. Economy’s doing good, stock market is setting records, yet a good third of black men under twenty-eight are doing or have done jail time.” Rappers’ embracing the gangster lifestyle, adopting names like Gotti and Kapone, is part of the attraction. “Guess what, folks?” says Moran, his voice rising above the music. “We’re living in Prohibition, only most folks don’t know it. Drive-by shootings, graft, smuggling, gangsters: Thank God we don’t have that anymore. Middle America can’t see it.”
Makin’ a Spectacles
‘SUPER COLORS, SUPER RICHNESS, THAT’S my signature,” Shawn Brauch says as he sits in front of a computer in the back room of Pen and Pixel Graphics, a design firm in an office park near the intersection of U.S. 290 and Interstate 610. He’s calling up images of Humvees, Lexuses, sparkling diamonds, curvy females, and stacks of cash and assembling them around the image of a young black man. “It’s a multidimensional type look,” Brauch explains in rapid-fire patter, pasting together forty images with the computer software Photoshop. “It makes the impossible possible. What we’re trying to do is put book covers on lyrical books, and since rap is a story, our objective is for our clients to stop consumers dead in their tracks and look at it. You look. You listen. You buy.”
With his dark hair swept back and wearing an Italian shirt with a starched high collar, the 35-year-old Brauch looks more like a dapper Mafia gangster than a channeler of gangsta rap dreams. Over the past six years, Brauch has done more than 10,000 graphics like these, enough to make Pen and Pixel very profitable and extremely crucial in breaking a local rap act. The company began in Aaron and Shawn Brauch’s apartment with $1,000 seed money and eventually grew far beyond its original graphic-arts purpose. Doug King designed a mastering facility in the back and Teri Janis, an apartment complex manager, signed on as the office jack-of-all-trades; she became an eventual business consultant for hip-hop entrepreneurs. She remembers: “They’d walk in with a DAT tape, some cash, and say, ‘I want to put this record out.’” She would tell them, “Get yourself incorporated, make sure you’ve got your bar code, make sure you’ve got contracts in line.” Janis encouraged prospective clients to put business plans together. “If they weren’t willing to do the work, there was no point in doing it, because they weren’t going to go anywhere.” Janis has since left Pen and Pixel to work at Suave House.
Back at the computer screen, Brauch finishes the cover for Kunta Loc’s Dead Soldier album. “He’s got lightning coming out of his ears. Don’t ask. I just follow orders sometimes.” He pulls out a sketch of his latest, most outrageous creation, a convertible Rolls-Royce with a swimming pool in the back. “It’s either money or violence. It’s basically about power. Power and respect.”
Takin’ It to the Streets
ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON, THE entire H-town hip-hop universe appears to be passing through the hangar-size home of Southwest Wholesale in an industrial area in northwest Houston. The building is big enough to house a 747, or in this case, more than 100,000 CD, cassette, and vinyl titles. Richard Johnson, a former defensive back with the Houston Oilers, stops in to pick up a check for product sold by Klondike Kat and Pharoah, two acts on his BeatBox Records label. The Madd Hatta himself, the natty afternoon drive-time deejay on the Box, drops by to get a check for sales from his CD, The pH Factor, which includes features by Willie D, Lil’ Keke, the late Fat Pat, C-Note of the Botany Boys, and D of the Trinity Garden Cartel.
Over by one table, Jeff Spargo sorts out new titles fresh from the pressing plant, affixing each piece with a price sticker for eventual sale at one of his eight Soundwaves stores. The South Main location moves more hip-hop music than any retail outlet in the city. “Hip-hop is everything now,” observes Spargo. “It may have started out a ghetto thing, but it has spilled over into the middle class. It’s in all types of music—acid jazz, zydeco, Rage Against the Machine. Pop music has always been a reßection of society. It’s youth culture, like it or not. Kids are smart, and they remember when someone’s trying to sell them something that isn’t real.”
Standing by Spargo’s side is Robert Guillerman, Southwest’s vice president and one of the two founders who started the company in 1976 as a subdistributor, or one-stop, to link independent and major labels with retail outlets. No small part of the company’s success has been Guillerman’s willingness to show prospective clients the ropes, giving them a packet that outlines such essentials as bar codes, packaging, and label iden-tification. Though Southwest moves all kinds of product, including country, rock, gospel, and tejano, the rappers and rap labels have shown themselves to be smarter than the rest. “The rap guys have a better sense of how to market than the other genres do,” says Guillerman. “They’re willing to pour their profits back into promotion. They really are trying to do it themselves. There’s a movement to not get ahead of yourself and sign with a big label. They’ve figured out the economics. If they’re going to sell twenty thousand units, a major label is not going to be happy with that. But if they do it themselves, well, twenty thousand units can be $150,000 in their pocket.”
ACROSS TOWN IN A BARBECUE JOINT ON SOUTHWEST FREEWAY, Mathew Knowles is testifying how rap changed his life. As the manager of Destiny’s Child, an R&B singing group comprised of two 16- and two 17-year-old girls (including his daughter, lead singer Beyoncé), the 46-year-old Knowles has nurtured his group for eight years. In 1997 he got them a contract with Columbia Records and a coveted slot on the Men in Black soundtrack. But he wanted their first album to be a success, and he knew that one way to guarantee that was by reaching out to the hip-hop audience. So Knowles got rapper Wyclef Jean, from the popular group the Fugees, and Atlanta hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri to each produce some tracks.
When Dupri inserted a sample by Mas-ter P into one song, Knowles went a step further and solicited the man himself. Knowles was wary when he met Master P at the rapper’s Sugar Land home. “I was worried this guy was a gangsta,” he says. “Is he going to be disrespectful to the girls?” His fears were unfounded. “His place was laid out real classy, and the guy was a real Southern gentleman.” Even better, Master P agreed to do a feature in exchange for a feature by the girls on the second album by P’s brother, Silkk the Shocker. The self-titled debut by Destiny’s Child, released in February of this year, is weeks away from going gold (sales in excess of 500,000), says Knowles. The group’s first single, “No, No, No,” has gone platinum (selling more than 1 million units). Silkk the Shocker’s album went platinum too.
“I admire guys like Master P,” Knowles says. “I think they’re the new breed in the hip-hop game, real business heads. I think the first generation maybe were more on the gangsta side, concerning backgrounds. I think the new breed are artists first, but also businessmen.” Knowles sees a new wave as the lines get blurred between hip-hop and modern R&B, the two dominant styles of black American music. “That’s why it’s important to have a Wyclef, a Jermaine Dupri, or a Master P on the album. They’ve got their marketplace who’ll buy everything they sell because they’re fans of Master P and fans of hip-hop. Not only that, in today’s market, it legitimizes you. If I was an R&B artist, I’d feel like it’s an insult not to have a hip-hop artist on my record. How can you be young and ignore that? Young people are the ones who buy records. If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong industry. I don’t care what I like, what you like, what the label likes. I care what kids like.”
Knowles attributes Houston rap’s success to good economics: “You can do a rap album easily for $20,000. You can get a damn good rap producer in Houston for $2,000. You can’t get a mainline producer for an R&B project for less than $50,000. Hip-hop and rap, you can just do your region and make a profit. James Prince can make a decision on a single for one of his artists today, and it’ll be on the street next week. A major label, it’d take a month just to make the decision and another month or two before it’s in the stores.” He cites featuring—so illustrative of the spirit of cooperation among Down South rappers—as a particularly smart career move. “Everybody realizes they win. You’ve got your market, and I’ve got mine. We bring those together, we both win. In corporate America, that’s called a merger.”
The kids are all right, says Knowles. “I haven’t experienced any negatives. I know a lot of rappers. They’re all good people. They all have different backgrounds. I remember reading about a kid who shot a trooper on the freeway, saying he was listening to a rap song and that that made him do it. Well, people embezzle millions of dollars because they saw someone embezzle it on TV, and I don’t see anyone saying television should be banned. People take the five percent of rap that is negative and focus on that.”
There’s a track by Houston’s Def Squad on a new rap sampler, Street Life, that has just been issued by SMG (Solar Music Group). It’s a “consciousness” rap titled “When the Brothers From the South Wake Up.”
In H-town, they already have.