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It wasn’t long ago that you could reliably sort Texas music’s biggest exports into three buckets: country, ZZ Top, and, way off to the side, everything else. Sure, this magazine has argued that Texas has as strong a claim as the Mississippi Delta to being the birthplace of the blues, citing pioneers such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and T-Bone Walker. But for most of the twentieth century, mainstream Texas music was whiter than Gene Autry’s Stetson.

Now the state is singing a different tune. Yes, country music is still a juggernaut. But today’s Texas megastars are much more often female and much less often white, compared with their predecessors, and they dominate genres—hip-hop and pop—that once were largely the province of the East and West Coasts. Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, Bun B, Selena Gomez, Khalid, Lizzo, Demi Lovato, Megan Thee Stallion, Travis Scott, and Solange? That’s a murderers’ row of world-class talent, all of them working in distinctively twenty-first-century styles.

This sea change can be traced to the early nineties, when the Geto Boys put Houston’s hip-hop scene on the national map and Selena Quintanilla rose from regional tejano act to global pop star. Their near-simultaneous ascendance was a bit more than a coincidence: as Texas  integrated into the national culture and economy and moved toward becoming a majority-minority state, it was all but inevitable that its music would shift as well.  Still, it took some talented and charismatic performers to make that happen.

Hip-hop, an East Coast invention that started spreading nationally in the early eighties, got to Texas as quick as it could. By 1985 a movement was brewing in Houston—in clubs, at talent shows, and on street corners. Aspiring Houston emcees from Fifth Ward, Third Ward, South Park, and the Southside met up to rhyme over instrumental versions of hits by the likes of Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash. 

“Nobody had their own beats,” says K-Rino, an early Houston battle rapper who cofounded South Park Coalition, the city’s first rap collective. “Guys would show up dressed in warm-ups looking like Run DMC or LL Cool J.” But an early version of a distinctive Houston hip-hop sound soon emerged: slow, head-bobbing tempos clashing with the percussive boom-bap of early hip-hop’s most-often-used tool, the 808 drum machine. “In Texas, we’re laid-back—that’s the vibe,” K-Rino says. “But the music also had to match the lyrical content. If you’re talking about people being poor, robbing, and kicking in doors, you gotta have a rough beat.”

Late-eighties Houston was indeed a tough place. Interstate highways and the city’s port were busy conduits for drug smuggling and, as in other major cities, violent crime was rampant. Houston’s gritty underbelly was central to the Geto Boys’ 1989 album, Grip It! On That Other Level, which staked the city’s claim as a major rap center. 

The album, now widely regarded as a gangsta rap classic, featured the group’s best-known iteration—Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D—leaning hard into depraved depictions of murder, rape, gang violence, and drug use. Music fans, prepped by the tough-minded rap coming out of Los Angeles, were not turned off. J. Prince, a Fifth Ward used-car salesman who managed the Geto Boys through his own label, Rap-A-Lot Records, sold an estimated 500,000 copies of Grip It! In 1990 superstar producer Rick Rubin released a remixed version of the album through Warner Bros. that sold 150,000 copies in the first week. 

That success set the stage for the Geto Boys’ paranoia-driven 1991 single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” a raw, vulnerable portrayal of the exhaustion and psychological trauma of gang life. Thanks to the strength of that track, the group’s third album, We Can’t Be Stopped, went platinum. The Geto Boys proved they weren’t a fluke, turning Houston into, essentially, hip-hop’s third coast. “They popped it wide open,” K-Rino says. “The Geto Boys were like a classroom for us, like, ‘Okay, we need to learn how they did it.’ ” 

At the other end of Texas’s Gulf Coast, Selena Quintanilla was almost single-handedly reshaping one of Texas’s most distinctive art forms. “Tejano was a thriving genre before Selena, but it was regional music, not pop music,” says Maria Garcia, the host of the Anything for Selena podcast.

From an early age, the Corpus Christi–raised singer pushed to incorporate different genres into tejano, which tended to be fiercely protective of its traditions. She loved the synthesizers and drum machines she heard in contemporary pop and R&B and included them in her songs. And she was clearly paying attention to the hip-hop percolating around her.

Take her second album, 1990’s Ven Conmigo. The cover image alone signaled that Selena saw herself as transcending tejano: a black-and-white, side-profile portrait of the singer with her hair cut short and styled into a mohawk. It brought to mind the cover of Madonna’s 1986 album, True Blue, indicating Selena’s crossover ambitions. One track, “No Quiero Saber,” was based on a house music remix of the Cuban song “Guantanamera.” Another, “Enamorada de Ti,” was a dance-pop number with an interlude in which Selena raps a verse over a funky bass line and slowed-down beat.

Ven Conmigo was the first album by a female tejano artist to go gold, setting the stage for Selena’s ascendance as an international pop star. Her stature was immortalized by her 1995 performance at the Astrodome, for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a month before her death. She opened her set with a disco medley made up of the radio hits “I Will Survive,” “Funky Town,” “Last Dance,” “The Hustle,” and “On the Radio,” a daring leap for a tejano artist. But her audience went right with her; she was embracing the entire world of popular music, making it her own, and expanding her Texas fan base. “I think she knew this was a big moment, but I also think she felt—and she did it with every album—that there needed to be constant growth,” says her widower, Chris Perez. “In her head, she was enjoying the moment but also looking ahead at the next thing. If you look at Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez, I’m sure that’s what’s going through their head when they’re doing huge things.”

“Selena changed the trajectory of Texas music, of what people thought came from Texas,” Garcia says. “She took a regional art form and turned it into something that Black Americans, Latino Americans, and white Americans could recognize as contemporary pop music. She created an early road map of what it looks like to stay connected to your roots and exalt them. There are many pop stars from other genres that credit Selena as an early example of no-compromises stardom.” 

Today’s Texas music scene is unrecognizable compared with that of just a generation ago. Take the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. For the past two years the Houston rapper Bun B has lined up a who’s who of Texas hip-hop talent to perform at the event, selling out NRG Stadium each time, to the tune of 75,000 tickets. Until Selena, the rodeo almost exclusively showcased white country artists; that it would become the Texas hip-hop event of the year would have been inconceivable two decades ago.

The truth is, we now sound a lot more like the rest of the United States. Even Texas country music, long regarded as an outpost of tradition and authenticity, has seen the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris enthusiastically embrace pop sounds. 

But at the same time, the rest of the country sounds a lot more like us. Southern hip-hop, which Houston profoundly shaped, has been the dominant sound of rap for decades now, and songs driven by Latin rhythms are all over the pop charts. 

The exchange of sounds and ideas between Texas and the rest of the country—and the rest of the world—has become unstoppable. But just as often, Texans are listening to other Texans. Many of our biggest stars stand right at the intersection of Selena’s pioneering path to pop stardom and the maverick spirit of Houston’s early hip-hop scene. Lizzo? She’s 100 percent that nexus. So is Beyoncé, who as a tween fan had a chance encounter with Selena in Houston’s Galleria mall. Queen Bey is perhaps the greatest example of a hometown girl achieving genre-transcending pop superstardom while proudly maintaining her roots. And as she and her Texas peers have repeatedly shown, a Stetson looks mighty fine atop their heads too.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Not Just Country Anymore.” Subscribe today.