The 20
Essential
Texas
Rap Tracks

The East Coast may have invented rap, but today the Lone Star State rules the hip-hop world. Here’s a song-by-song history of how that happened.

Illustrations by Jimmy Turrell

Rap wasn’t meant for Texas. But it was only a matter of time before Texans started rapping, made the genre their own, and regifted it to the world. Today hip-hop is one of our state’s greatest cultural exports. But how did Texas rap come into its own? It’s quite the story. The twenty songs listed here are a good place to start.

Like many great Texas tales, this one has humble beginnings. Disco Al’s 1980 single “The Bounce Rap”—as far as we can tell, our state’s first rap record—borrowed its sound straight from New Jersey’s Sugarhill Gang. Eventually, Texas started looking to itself for inspiration, thanks in large part to entrepreneurs such as Houston’s J. Prince, the founder of Rap-A-Lot Records. Through ingenuity and steady cultivation of homegrown talent, Rap-A-Lot and other local labels gave Texas its own hip-hop scene.

Texas rap truly emerged in the nineties, especially 1996, which is widely considered its golden year. Five of our songs are from that year, which produced UGK’s classic manifesto Ridin’ Dirty, DJ Screw’s world-shifting 3 ’n the Mornin’: Part Two, and the Geto Boys’ unflinching, revelatory The Resurrection. All continue to inform rappers here and elsewhere.

Houston dominates this list, as it should; the city’s south side was and remains a cultural powerhouse. Indeed, Houston rappers rule the country’s hip-hop scene, with artists such as Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, and Travis Scott dominating the Grammys and Billboard charts. That trio has so far amassed twenty Grammy nominations and six wins, 7 number one singles, and 2 number one albums.

Houston rap has snaked its way into the verses and choruses of plenty of non-Texas hip-hop giants, from Jay-Z (who, as you’ll see, has taken more than one page from UGK) to Drake (who pops up on this list almost as often as the Fifth Ward’s ubiquitous Geto Boys). The chart-topping Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky owes his career launch to Houston’s particular sound, and Southern artists ranging from Tennessee’s Young Dolph to Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. have openly paid homage to Texas’s regional flows.

I grew up with these songs, which in some ways raised me—and other contributors to this feature. For all of us, to know these songs—which are just as intrinsic to the experience of being Texan as attending a Willie Nelson show or dancing to Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”—is to love them, and to feel them, through and through. And that’s what we’re inviting you to do.—Kiana Fitzgerald

Advisory: The audio clips below contain profanity.

1980

“The Bounce Rap”

Disco AL

In early 1980, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap song to reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart—a defining moment for the then-nascent genre. Countless MCs, inspired by the success of the New Jersey trio, began writing their own rap lyrics, rife with regional references. San Antonio radio personality Alberto Calvo was one of the earliest out of the gate. Accompanied by the local conjunto group the Barrio Sound Band, he released a seven-inch single, “The Bounce Rap,” that’s thought to be the first rap track ever put to tape in the Lone Star State. Over a funk-laced beat that sounds as if it could have been played by James Brown’s band on an off day, Calvo raps in self-described “San Antonio style,” nodding to familiar locales (“I was standing on the corner of Houston and Main / When a woman drove along and asked my name”) and a then-popular Spurs player (“Gimme boogie, gimme funk / Gimme George Gervin and the slam dunk”).

It’s not a great track—Calvo’s debt to “Rapper’s Delight” is obvious and hardly paid in full—but it was, in his neck of the woods, trailblazing. Others quickly followed: Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Telephone Bill” (1980) and Leroy Franklin’s “Star Bird II” (1981) were each, at various times, mistakenly regarded as the first Texas rap songs. None of them were hits, nor did they create a distinctively Texas style of rap. But they did open the door, and everyone else on this list—including people who did create distinctively Texas styles—walked through it. —Paula Mejía

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The Ghetto Boys (later spelled Geto Boys) pose for their album You Ain’t Nothing, in New York City in 1987. Left to right: Jukebox, DJ Ready Red, and Prince Johnny C.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

1987

“Car Freak”

Ghetto Boys

The story of Houston’s first bona fide rap label, Rap-A-Lot Records, and the legendary group it spawned starts with this twelve-inch single about “Girls hounding homeboys all day nonstop / Because he got a live car, she’s on his jock.” A dubious concept, sure, but “Car Freak” made sense as Rap-A-Lot’s debut: James Smith (a.k.a. J. Prince) founded the label in the office of his used car dealership. And as many of the songs that show up later in this list make clear, cars quickly became a core motif of Houston hip-hop.

The track, set to gated, reverb-heavy drums (think eighties Genesis) and a buzzing synth line, sounds as boxy as the cars on Smith’s lot (“If you’re walking down the street there is no conversation / The girl wants a man with some damn transportation”). It’s a product of its time, when rap was primarily an East Coast phenomenon and making significant inroads to the mainstream; Run-DMC’s 1986 Raising Hell was one of the very first platinum hip-hop albums, and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill would become the first rap record to reach number one on Billboard’s pop charts weeks after “Car Freak” dropped. Houston wasn’t yet the Southern hip-hop capital we know today, but local kids loved the track, which received substantial airtime on stations geared toward high schoolers, and that was enough to give H-Town rap a jump start. (And launch Rap-A-Lot, which went on to break artists such as Devin the Dude and Z-Ro.)

Though the record cover depicts a trio—Jukebox, K-9, and Raheem—only K-9 and Raheem actually rap on the song (Jukebox didn’t show up for the session, so Raheem, who was supposed to record for his debut solo album, stepped in). Ultimately, the group would benefit from a series of lineup changes and a slight name change, and by 1989 Smith had finally assembled the trio that the world recognizes as the Geto Boys. Success wasn’t far behind. —Matt Sonzala

1991

“Mind Playing Tricks On Me”

Geto Boys

Mental health struggles weren’t a favored theme in early nineties hip-hop, a genre in which anything less than a tough-guy image was frowned upon and even ridiculed. Big rap songs then were either dance-club-ready jams, lyrical journeys through the streets, or hard-edged imaginings (sometimes retellings) of violent encounters. Which is why it’s remarkable that the Geto Boys—Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D—made a number one hit that combined all three elements and grappled with themes of trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicide.

Scarface produced and wrote most of the track, which was directly inspired by his experiences. “I think my manic-depressive state and suicidal tendencies played a huge role on who I was back then,” Scarface said in a 2010 interview. He originally wanted the song for his debut solo album, but Rap-A-Lot’s J. Prince thought that it had the potential to be a breakout single for the Geto Boys’ third album, We Can’t Be Stopped. (He was right.)

Scarface’s choice of sample was artfully ironic: a funky guitar riff from Isaac Hayes’s instrumental classic “Hung Up on My Baby,” which appeared in the 1974 blaxploitation film Three Tough Guys. Although “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is really about one person’s fear and paranoia, the four verses rapped by three different MCs add an appropriately unbalanced feel to the song. No one gets killed, but the emotional stress drives the narrator to contemplate suicide (“I often drift when I drive / Havin’ fatal thoughts of suicide / Bang and get it over with”), to nearly pull his gun on a group of senior citizens in a car he thinks is tailing him, and to bloody his hands punching the sidewalk in a hallucinatory fight with a person who isn’t there.

The Geto Boys’ raw vulnerability pushed the boundaries of hip-hop, and the track’s success helped turn We Can’t Be Stopped platinum. Houston was now on the national hip-hop map. —M.S.

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DJ Screw looks through a crate of records in his home studio in 1995.

Ben DeSoto/SoSouth Music

1996

“June 27”

DJ Screw

DJ Screw was the linchpin of Houston’s bubbling hip-hop scene in the nineties. Born Robert Earl Davis Jr. and raised in Houston’s south side, Screw popularized the chopped and screwed technique: slowing down rap and R&B songs, cutting them up, and mixing them together, which provided an irresistible backdrop for emerging artists to freestyle over. Before his untimely death, in 2000, he created hundreds of “Screw tapes,” often featuring raps by members of his Screwed Up Click collective. Many of the Houston hip-hop luminaries in this list started out in the S.U.C.

On the night of June 27, 1996, Screw held a recording session during a party at his house celebrating the birthday of S.U.C. member Big DeMo. Screw chose an obscure track by the Atlanta hip-hop duo Kris Kross, called “Da Streets Ain’t Right.” It wasn’t the first time that Screw had used the track, but that night’s iteration, and the accompanying freestyle raps by a host of performers that included up-and-coming Houston MCs Big Moe, Big Pokey, and Yungstar, would immortalize the 37-minute record in hip-hop lore. Big Moe was new to Screw’s crew, and his silky-smooth voice serves as a sort of chorus, appearing after each rapper’s turn at the mic. Big Pokey, whose lumbering cadence was a perfect match for Screw’s slowed-down mix, was already a local favorite, but his standout performance that night served as a preview for his successful solo career (five of his albums would chart). And then there’s Yungstar, only a young teenager at the time, with a unique enunciation that would reappear in future classics such as Lil’ Troy’s 1999 “Wanna Be a Baller”

“June 27” is DJ Screw’s emblematic tape because he and the freestylers he assembled capture the quintessential slowed-down sound of Houston hip-hop. Its impact on the genre as a whole was so strong that, thirteen years later, a struggling Canadian rapper named Drake felt the need to create his own version of “June 27,” dubbed “November 18,” for his breakout mixtape So Far Gone. To this day, “June 27” is a treasured part of Houston’s cultural heritage and a centerpiece of Screw’s legacy. Last year, the City of Houston officially designated January 24 as DJ Screw Day. But for Houstonians and hip-hop fans across the world, June 27 will always be known as the official-unofficial DJ Screw Day. —Donnie Houston

1996

“Still”

Geto Boys

One of the most famous scenes in Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space features three nerdy tech workers driving a much-hated printer, after one too many paper jams, out to an abandoned field and taking turns smashing it to bits with a baseball bat. The scene, like much of the movie, was shot in Austin. But the music Judge set it to was Houston through and through: the Geto Boys track “Still.”

By the time the Geto Boys recorded the song, they were already gangsta rap royalty, a sphere then dominated by sparring East and West Coast artists. At the peak of their fame, though, they abdicated the throne: Willie D left the group in 1992, and Scarface and Bushwick Bill disbanded two years later. The Resurrection, released in 1996, was their comeback, and the album’s pile-driving opening song, “Still,” put to rest any doubt that they still had it. The trio raps with aplomb over a barreling beat, cheekily taking aim at their critics, expanding on themes of paranoia that their breakout song, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” addressed, and putting twisted spins on proverbs. The track “makes you want to destroy something,” Willie D said years later.

Which is presumably why Judge, a longtime rap fan, chose it for his movie, and why it works so well. But the song almost didn’t make it to the final cut. Hollywood execs thought the music was all wrong for a film about a bunch of cubicle dwellers. Judge eventually prevailed, and two decades later, “Still” has morphed into a classic office rage anthem. That wasn’t the Geto Boys’ intent when they recorded it, but they’re happy to take the compliment: in 2015, they went on what they called the “Office Space Tour”—and reenacted the notorious printer scene onstage, baseball bat and all. —P.M.

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1996

“Diamonds & Wood”

UGK

1992’s “Tell Me Something Good” launched the duo UGK’s career by showcasing Bun B and Pimp C’s knack for insults, boasts, and threats. But four years later the success they had worked so hard for had put them, probably to their surprise, in a very different, more introspective mood.

Over a heavy, melancholic sample of a late-seventies Bootsy Collins track (“Munchies for Your Love,” which features one of those high, keening Bernie Worrell keyboard lines that fueled so much West Coast rap) and a hook straight from DJ Screw’s “Elbows Swangin’,” the duo reflects on what stardom has changed for them—and what it hasn’t. “Glitter and gleam ain’t all what it look like,” Pimp C warns the jealous people who are “looking at me and my car so shife” (slang for a threatening attitude) but don’t know about his baby’s mama, who “act like he ain’t mine.”

Even when he tries to see some good in his Port Arthur neighborhood, he can’t help but note that some “frown when you up, and smile when you down.” For Bun B, success is no protection from random violence: “I lucked up today, and didn’t fall prey to none of that pistol play / But who is to say, tomorrow they won’t be blasting this-a-way.” He puffs “spliffs of hay” to cope with the sadness of “wiping away my dead homie’s mama’s tears.”

“Diamonds & Wood” is of a piece with everything else on UGK’s somber third album, Ridin’ Dirty. The record is widely regarded as the essential Texas rap album, but it’s not what anyone would have expected at the start of UGK’s career. As one rock critic famously said of Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 downer classic There’s a Riot Goin’ On, “the record was no fun.” And that’s exactly how they wanted it. —K.F.

1996

“Touched”

UGK

It’s hard to overstate the importance of UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, a golden album for a golden year of Texas rap —which is why we’re choosing a second song from it. What makes it so special? Where the Geto Boys put Houston on the national scene by using New York–style beats, UGK perfected a distinctly Texas sound. Ridin’ Dirty is a blaxploitation film on wax that details the highs and lows of street life, and almost every song boasts its own legacy.

Produced by N. O. Joe, “Touched,” the album’s seventh track, features a lyrical hook lifted from the New York rap duo Mobb Deep (“Speak the wrong words, man, and you will get touched”) sung in a sly, mischievous cadence by the Houston rapper Mr. 3-2. Unlike most of the tracks in this list, it boasts a sultry beat—a funky bass line, bouncing hi-hat, subtle wah-wah guitar, and a tinny synth—that was created with live instruments. The music’s confident strut provides the perfect score for Bun B and Pimp C’s lyrical bravado.

When a man whose girlfriend Pimp C has just stolen vows to get revenge, Pimp C strikes preemptively, and ferociously: “Fool you talkin’ loud but you move too slow / Tellin’ niggas all your plans, got you tied up in a van.” But it’s Bun B who delivers the blistering lines that have taken on a form of immortality. “Now, once upon a time not too long ago / A nigga like myself had to strong-arm a ho / Now, this was not a ho in the sense of having a p—y / But a p—y having no goddamn sense, tryna push me.”

These lyrics appear, word for word, in Jay-Z’s 2003 megahit “99 Problems.” And those weren’t the only lyrics from Ridin’ Dirty Jay repurposed that year: he spat a slightly altered version of Bun B’s closing lyrics on another track, “That’s Why I Carry,” for the Memphis Bleek song “Murda Murda.” In case anyone missed the homage, Jay-Z’s very next line is “A lil’ UGK for ya, Port Arthur, P-A for ya.” Jay-Z has always been open about his love of UGK; three years earlier, he enlisted the duo for his platinum track “Big Pimpin’,” which went platinum.

UGK proved that Third Coast rap wasn’t just catching up to the East and West Coasts. They set the stage for the Texan sound to become its own driving force. —Sama’an Ashrawi

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1996

“Pimp Tha Pen”

Lil’ Keke

DJ Screw’s 1996 album 3 ’n the Mornin’: Part Two features guest turns from a handful of rappers who were already established presences on the Houston scene. But the album’s most defiant and boisterous track, “Pimp tha Pen,” belongs to Lil’ Keke, who was then still struggling to make a name for himself. Keke, born Marcus Lakee Edwards, had been working on his skills for years, entertaining fellow students in his public school cafeteria with his raps, driving around the south side with his friends, freestyling over cassettes.

“Pimp tha Pen” was his breakthrough: while Screw twists and slows a sample from UGK’s 1992 classic “Pocket Full of Stones,” Keke opens with a bit of self-penned slang that quickly entered the pantheon: “I’m draped up and dripped out / Know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.” (In case you don’t know what he’s talkin’ ’bout: “draped up” refers to wearing a flashy outfit; “dripped out” refers to a car’s glossy paint job.)

The track is an expression of the quintessential Houston underdog attitude, born of spending too long in the shadow of the East and West Coasts. Keke and Houston have “been waitin’ / Never ever hatin’,” working on their skills until they “let the world see / True hidden talent like Screw and Lil’ Keke.”

Keke’s prophecy was self-fulfilling: his wordplay and unique slow flows, stacking slang upon slang, not only made the track a Houston anthem, but also gained him an international audience. Drake dropped the line “draped up, dripped out” on his 2009 Screw homage “November 18.” Today the world is definitely seeing Lil’ Keke; he’s a community organizer and activist who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Barack Obama in 2015. —Brandon Caldwell

1997

“Can’t Stop”

Lil’ O ft. Destiny’s Child

Did you know that Beyoncé and DJ Screw appeared in a music video together? And that it was her first music video? And that it was one of the few on-screen cameos he ever made? And that it was probably—at that point in her then-young career—the professional highlight for the woman who now has more Grammys as a performing artist than anyone in history?

“Can’t Stop,” by the Nigerian Houstonian rapper Lil’ O, first introduced Queen Bey to the world. When O was getting his start in music, his aunt introduced him to her friend Mathew Knowles, who agreed to manage him and quickly got him signed to MCA Records. For the recording of “Can’t Stop,” O felt the hook needed a female voice, and Knowles saw an opportunity, bringing in Destiny’s Child, a girl group fronted by his daughter Beyoncé. Lil’ O sounds so confident on the track—rapping about the years he spent as a street hustler and the pain of his mother’s passing—that you’d never guess it was his first single. But it’s the future Sasha Fierce who kicks things off, singing the opening lines in her unmistakable mezzo-soprano.

While the regular-speed version received a fair amount of airplay, the song didn’t become a Houston hit until DJ Screw slowed it down and included it on a tape titled Chapter 52: Only Rollin’ Red, allowing listeners to better appreciate O’s story.

The video, made by New York director Dwayne “DC” Coles, was shot at the southwest Houston nightclub Jamaica Jamaica. O, realizing that no act since the Geto Boys had been given the opportunity to rep the city in such a way, called up some heavy hitters. DJ Screw, Fat Pat, and Willie D make appearances in the video, as does Beyoncé, seen repeatedly behind the wheel of a car. During a phone interview, O remembers fondly how he, Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson (the latter two would soon be booted from Destiny’s Child) all met their Houston rap heroes at the video shoot. The girls were in their late teens, and O had yet to turn 21.

“These were my homegirls who were singing on the song,” says O, smiling through the phone. “We was just hungry kids doing our thing, man. This was our big break, and it just so happened to make history.” —S.A.

1998

“25 Lighters”

DJ DMD featuring Lil Keke and Fat Pat

In 1995 Memphis rap duo 8Ball & MJG dropped the song “All in My Mind,” an epic, almost stream-of-consciousness series of street boasts. In the second line of his verse, MJG, with little fanfare, slipped in the lyric “25 lighters on my dresser, yessir.”

Some months later, Port Arthur producer DJ DMD drove the two hours west from his hometown to record with several Screwed Up Click members at Skip Holman’s Sound Design studio, in Katy. At some point, DMD and a crew that included Al-D, C-Note, DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Lil’ Keke, and Mike D gathered for a two-hour freestyle session, during which Keke nonchalantly dropped in the “25 lighters” line as an homage to his contemporaries. When DMD later listened to the tape, he heard an irresistible hook in Keke’s riff on that phrase.

A couple of years later—sometimes hip-hop history moves as slowly as one of Screw’s beats—DMD brought an early version of a song he was working on called “25 Lighters,” based around Pat and Keke’s freestyles and an Al B. Sure! sample, to 97.9 the Box.

“I gave them the demo,” DMD recalled. “What happened after that was out of my control. On our way from the radio station, back to our hotel, we heard the song on the radio. Them dudes fell in love with that song so fast, they screwed all the rules. They said, ‘Y’all need to hear this!’ They played it for Houston.” It was an instant hit and thus the track most folks associate with the “25 lighters” line.

Decades later, tributes continue to appear. In 2012 the rappers Big K.R.I.T., 2 Chainz, and 8Ball & MJG dropped a track called “25 Lighters on the Dresser,” and the line has been referenced in songs by Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, and H-Town’s own Travis Scott. DMD did a Christian-themed version called “25 Bibles.” Even ZZ Top got in on the act, releasing a song called “I Gotsta Get Paid” in 2012, with Billy Gibbons pert near rapping, “I got 25 lighters for my 25 folks,” exposing the line to rock fans who probably wouldn’t know Lil’ Keke from Lil’ Kim.

That’s a lot of attention paid to a cryptic line. DMD has mostly avoided interpreting it, but former drug dealers explain it as a reference to cigarette lighters that are drained of their fluid and then used to hide rocks of crack cocaine. But the thing about “25 Lighters” is that, like so many immortal lyrics—think the pompatus of love—every listener can draw a different meaning. That’s one reason the world can’t seem to get enough of it. —Lance Scott Walker

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Fat Pat at Bam’s Sales & Service Inc. circa 1991.

Bam Lewis

1998

“Tops Drop”

Fat Pat

When Patrick Hawkins was shot and killed in his hometown of Houston in 1998, Texas lost a singular talent. The 27-year-old rapper, better known as Fat Pat, hadn’t yet released a proper album, but he left behind enough tracks to produce a handful of posthumous albums. The first, Ghetto Dreams, released a month after Hawkins’s murder, included a bona fide classic: “Tops Drop,” which peaked at number five on Billboard’s rap chart. The track is pure Texas. Houston producer J Slash built Pat’s ode to south side H-Town car culture (“Trunks pop, tops drop, and the front end hop”) around a sample of Dallas R&B duo Yarbrough & Peoples’s 1980 funk hit “Don’t Stop the Music.’’ The minimalist synth and disco bass line add gloss to Pat’s smooth baritone as he bounces from rhyme to rhyme, giving the record the heft, gleam, and flow of one of his beloved candy-red custom cars “floating smooth as a kite.” Nearly a quarter century after its release, “Tops Drop” is still regarded as the greatest tribute to his hometown’s SLAB (“slow, loud, and bangin’ ”) culture. –B.C.

Lil’ Troy (standing) and friends in the South Park neighborhood of Houston in 2005.

Peter Beste/University of Houston Special Collections

1999

“Wanna Be A Baller”

Lil Troy, Yungstar, Fat Pat, Big T

Houston-born Troy Lane Birklett, better known as Lil’ Troy, once told an interviewer that he wanted to be “the Quincy Jones of rap” after the legendary composer and producer put himself on the cover of his 1995 album Q’s Jook Joint—even though he didn’t perform on a single track. Troy followed Jones’s example for his 1999 major-label debut album Sittin’ Fat Down South, in which he performs in only a few songs and not the most famous one, “Wanna Be a Baller.” The decadent, syrupy track features an all-Houston cast of MCs: Big Hawk, Big T, Fat Pat, Lil’ Will, and Yungstar.

This is another posthumous appearance for Fat Pat—his verse was chopped from a different track (1997’s “So Real So Tight”) and slowed down to fit this song’s cadence. Each MC drops memorable lines as he brags about his cars and clothes and throws in fun Houston-rap Easter eggs (Yungstar gives props to UGK’s “Diamonds & Wood” with the line “I’m lookin’ good, diamonds against my wood”). But the iconic hook, delivered with gusto by Big T, and the song’s use of the introductory chords to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” are what make the track immortal.

Today this celebratory capstone to a legendary decade of Houston rap has taken on a somber hue. Except for Yungstar, every MC on the track is dead: Big Hawk, like his younger brother Fat Pat, was fatally shot; Lil’ Will was killed in a car accident; and Big T died of a heart attack. As for Lil’ Troy, he never became the Quincy Jones of rap—he hasn’t released new music since 2006. But if you squint a bit, you can see how he came upon such delusions of grandeur: for one brief moment, he gathered the right voices at the right time and created a classic. —K.F.

1999

“Crook 4 Life”

Mr. Pookie

By 1999 Dallas had been producing hip-hop talent for a decade, but those artists either departed for the coasts or mostly took notes from Houston’s slowed-down style. Listen to, for example, Pimpsta’s 1994 local hit
“Rollin’ on Them Thangs,” and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to an early Screw tape.

“Crook for Life” may not have been more than a regional sensation, but it was the Dallas anthem that gave the city its own identifiable sound—this was music that could inspire you to dance or put you in a fighting mood. Or both. “Crook for Life” is as catchy as it is menacing. It’s an angry, rhythmic, fast-talking, finger-in-the-chest retort to Houston’s zoned-out lethargy. Pookie, along with fellow Dallas rappers K-Roc and Mr. Lucci, who was only a high school freshman at the time, relentlessly threaten violence (“Don’t act like nobody ain’t told ya / These crooks came to uphold ya”) on top of a rumbling drum and a minimalistic, high-octave piano line that belongs in a gory horror movie.

The track is the sonic equivalent of someone staring you down at a club, and it would inform Dallas rap hits to come, such as Big Tuck’s “Southside da Realist.” Mr. Pookie pushed Dallas hip-hop out of Houston’s shadow, and Texas hip-hop would, at last, reflect some of the state’s regional diversity. —K.F.

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2003

“Suga Suga”

Baby Bash ft. Frankie J

Ronnie Ray Bryant, a.k.a. Baby Bash, wasn’t born in Texas, but in 1999, the California native encountered a vibrant Mexican American presence in Houston’s hip-hop community and soon made the city home. He fell in with a crew that included musicians Grimm, Happy Perez, and Shadow and bunked with them in a compound off the Hardy Toll Road, in North Houston, where they’d party, make music, and scrape together enough money to cook a communal vat of pork chops. He especially clicked with Perez, a guitar player turned beatmaker who, around 2003, gave Bash a CD he’d burned that contained twenty instrumentals. One of them caught Bash’s ear: a melancholy piece built on top of a warbling guitar riff inspired by one of Perez’s favorite guitarists, John Frusciante, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bash thought the beat might be too “soft” for him, but he took the CD with him when he drove from Texas for a visit to California to work with Frankie J, of the Kumbia Kings (a Corpus Christi collective started by Selena’s brother, A. B. Quintanilla), with whom he had crossed paths a few times before. The pair met up in San Diego to record a few songs. Bash put Perez’s beat on the stereo, lit up a joint, and leaned back into his chair. “I’m lifted, shifted, higher than the ceiling,” he said. He and Frankie instantly knew they had something, and the phrase quickly became the refrain of “Suga Suga.” Bash at first tried rapping in the assertive style of UGK’s Pimp C but then adopted a monotone talking style for the track, with “fluffy, more airy and pretty” vocals, as he puts it. Later, back in Texas, he handed a CD of the song to Ed Ocañas, a radio program director in Corpus Christi. When Ocañas called him weeks later to tell him that “Suga Suga” had become a hit in town, Bash explained that the track was actually called “Lifted.” But the people had spoken, and Bash changed the title.

The song soon spread to San Antonio, then on to Houston and beyond. In December of 2003, it reached the number seven spot on the Billboard Hot 100, a breakthrough for Houston hip-hop, which had done well on the rap charts but hadn’t quite conquered the mainstream. Suddenly, the Third Coast was on the radar of record labels, who came calling for Bash and Perez. “People started looking to this place as ‘We make hits here,’ ” Perez says. Several Houston rappers, including Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug, nabbed record deals soon after.

In the nearly twenty years since “Suga Suga” first trickled out of a local Corpus Christi station and into the world, Bash has had other hits, and Perez has served as a producer for the likes of Ariana Grande, Frank Ocean, and Miguel. The song has become a familiar presence on TikTok, and other artists have covered it; the late French rapper Népal’s 2019 cover has more than 20 million plays on Spotify alone. “When you think about that era, that was the only song that sounded like that,” Perez says. “Back before ‘vibe’ was a big word, ‘Suga Suga’ was a vibe,” adds Bash, maybe only slightly hyperbolically. —P.M.

Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Paul Wall rehearsing for the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, Florida, on August 28, 2005.

Kmazur/Getty

2005

“Still Tippin”

Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug

If you had to make one—just one—mix CD to define the rush of rap hits that came out of Houston in the 2000s, this is the song that would kick it off. It has every element you could want: a beat from Salih Williams, who crafted quintessential tracks of the era for Paul Wall, Bun B, and Pimp C; scratches from Swishahouse label head Michael “5000” Watts; and career-defining verses that double as lessons in H-Town slang from three breakout stars: Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug.

On paper, the beat seems as if it would never work: a simple drum line, bells sampled from Whodini’s “I’m a Ho,” a hook taken from a Slim Thug freestyle, and a violin loop from, I kid you not, the William Tell Overture. But the track is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a perfect song.

Slim Thug’s booming baritone saunters through his tinted windows; Jones’s penchant for repetition connects him to the blues singers of yesteryear, who would repeat specific lines to emphasize a feeling; and Wall delivers one of the most prophetic rap lyrics of all time, boasting, “I got the internet goin’ nuts” years before social media transformed the way we consume music. On the strength of this song alone, not to mention the rest of their catalogs, all three rappers have become living legends in Texas.

Seventeen years later, fans have only grown more fond of “Still Tippin’.” It resurfaced recently on the Queen & Slim soundtrack and as a backing track for J. Cole’s viral LA Leakers freestyle. Plus, at least once a year someone on Twitter sparks a spicy debate over who had the best verse. The answer, of course, depends on: what day it is, what kind of mood you’re in, and whether you’ve heard the original version, which features a verse from another Houston titan, Chamillionaire, in place of Wall.

That version, with a beat from producer Bigg Tyme that’s faster and funkier than the famous one, was released on a Rap-A-Lot Records compilation earlier that year. It was held back and usurped by the better-known version only because Watts and Bigg Tyme had a falling-out. If it hadn’t been for the dispute between those two men, Williams may never have gotten the chance to bless us with that timeless beat. That’s enough to make you believe in a higher power, or at least something like fate.—S.A.

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Z-Ro in his kitchen in Houston, circa 2005.

Peter Beste/University of Houston Special Collections

2005

“Mo City Don”

Z-Ro

It’s easy to tell why Z-Ro’s “Mo City Don” is regarded as the national anthem of Houston. It’s a four-minute, 25-second freestyle packed with punchy lines and references to Houston culture, stacked and harmonized over a hypnotizing sample of Erik B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full.” The track took Houston by storm and is considered the only contemporary freestyle that compares with the ones on DJ Screw’s “June 27.”

Although the song was released in 2005, it wasn’t until 2009 that its legend was first minted—at the expense of Drake, who just may be the biggest fan of Houston rap outside Houston. At Warehouse Live during his first-ever tour, the soon-to-be-superstar dropped just a few lines from “Mo City Don” during an interlude. The Texan crowd responded by belting out each and every syllable of the freestyle with an intense fervor that silenced Drake, who seemed to vacillate between frustration with the seemingly uncontrollable crowd and joy that he was among a tribe who loved the tune perhaps more than he did. This moment, captured on video, went viral on hip-hop blogs. Suddenly, the track was no longer limited to playback in clubs and at house parties.

Even after Drake became one of the biggest rappers in the world, he didn’t forget his humble—and humbling—beginnings. His 2013 song “Too Much” is partly about how nervous he was before that Warehouse Live show. Then, in 2014, he closed the circle during a triumphant return to the venue, bringing Z-Ro onstage to perform “Mo City Don.”

And the funniest thing about the whole story? Z-Ro never even liked the song. —Jessi Pereira

2007

“My Dougie”

Lil Wil

The Dallas rapper Lil Wil’s 2007 song had all the makings of a hit single—and it was, at least regionally. Over punctuated orbs of bright sound, contrasted against thundering bass and a stuttering drum machine, Lil Wil gleefully recites the most oddball chorus hook to come out of Dallas rap, repeating “my dougie” ten times before declaring, “I’m fresh, yep, flyer than a motherf—er.”

As raps go, it wasn’t particularly complex, but it was catchy, and like a lot of Dallas rap from the aughts, it had a dance to go with it—the Dougie, a jig that combines a head rub with a shoulder shimmy and alternating steps. It was an infectious bit of choreography, and someone far from Dallas noticed. In 2010 the Los Angeles group Cali Swag District shamelessly co-opted the dance for its national hit “Teach Me How to Dougie.” While it gave Dallas a shout-out in passing, Cali Swag District didn’t give credit to Lil Wil for putting the dance on the map, nor did it invite him to appear on the song in its original or remixed form—classless behavior that should offend every Texan.

Still, the song’s chart success belatedly brought the dance to national attention: by 2012 Michelle Obama was doing the Dougie, as was gymnast Gabby Douglas at the Summer Olympics. Eventually, former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager jumped on the bandwagon, bringing the Texas connection full circle. Lil Wil, alas, never quite got the credit he deserved. —K.F.

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2018

“R.I.P. Screw”

Travis Scott

Travis Scott’s triple-platinum 2018 album Astroworld is an homage to his hometown of Houston and the Texas rap giants upon whose shoulders he stands. Named after the amusement park that Scott frequented as a child, the record helped birth his annual Astroworld music festival, held on the grounds of the defunct park. (This year’s festival is slated for November 5 and 6.) Though Scott’s two previous albums made him a star, Astroworld was the first mature realization of his artistic vision: hip-hop with a spaced-out, psychedelic bent.

Astroworld’s massive success was driven primarily by the mosh pit–inducing “Sicko Mode,” which became the first hip-hop song to spend thirty weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. But the fourth track, “R.I.P. Screw,” is peak Houston, a futuristic culmination of the city’s distinct hip-hop sound. A dedication to DJ Screw in both style and substance, the song is marked by slowed-down, slurry distortions that give the impression that a twenty-first-century Screw is manning the board. As soft electronic keys patter like rainfall, Scott, his voice transformed as usual by Auto-Tune processing that leaves him sounding like a stoned cyborg, settles for belting out one sizable, mortality-obsessed verse. “I just took a four to the head,” he raps, referring to four ounces of codeine cough syrup that, mixed with soda and hard candy, was Screw’s drug of choice. Though the mixture plays a role in the Houston rap scene analogous to that of LSD during the sixties, it has claimed lives, including those of Screw, who overdosed in 2000, and the late Port Arthur/Houston rapper Pimp C. During this track’s three-minutes-and-change, Scott doesn’t try to resolve that dichotomy. His fuzzy, blissed-out affect (“Oh my God, I just can feel the love”) may be the only thing that makes sense to someone ambivalent about a substance that fueled his heroes, and also killed them. —K.F.

2019

“Truth Hurts”

Lizzo

It was a smash hit that almost wasn’t. In 2017, when Lizzo released “Truth Hurts” as a single, the Houston-raised singer and rapper (and classically trained flutist) had been working toward a solo career for five years, but she had yet to break into the mainstream. “I remember thinking, ‘If I quit music now, nobody would notice. This is my best song ever, and nobody cares,’ ” Lizzo told People.

“Truth Hurts” is a scorching send-off to an ex, delivered with a message of self-love. A simple, bouncing piano loop straight out of a carnival fun house holds down the song while a hi-hat and crisp drums lend it some texture. Lizzo can be a powerhouse belter, but this song isn’t meant to showcase her vocals. Here, she’s cocky and self-assured, her voice sometimes whining or cracking with emotion when she tells off her ex, rap-singing, “You coulda had a bad bitch, non-committal / Help you with your career just a little / You’re ’posed to hold me down, but you’re holding me back / And that’s the sound of me not calling you back.” Lizzo’s music never lacks Texas-size personality, but her loud braggadocio and smart put-downs issued at an indulgent, leisurely pace have the hallmarks of the Houston hip-hop of her youth.

Still, the song went nowhere—until February 2019, when it became the basis of a viral trend, with Twitter and TikTok users riffing on the song’s iconic opening line, “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m one hundred percent that bitch.” (Lizzo would later acknowledge she lifted the line from an internet meme, which was itself taken from a tweet by the British singer Mina Lioness.) By then, Lizzo had dropped the eighties-pop-style hit single “Juice” ahead of her major label debut Cuz I Love You. Then, the next month, Netflix released a trailer for the movie Someone Great that featured “Truth Hurts”; in the film’s most memorable scene, actor Gina Rodriguez drunkenly raps the song after her character experiences a breakup. The song charted in May and would become the longest-running Billboard Hot 100 number one by a solo female rapper.

By the end of 2019, Lizzo was everywhere, and it came as no surprise when the song earned three Grammy nominations. “Truth Hurts” was more than just a dis track to her ex. It became a middle-fingers-to-the-sky anthem and Lizzo’s declaration to the world that after years of trying, she had finally arrived. —Cat Cardenas

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2020

“Savage” Remix

Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé

2020 was no one’s favorite year, but it had one thing going for it: San Antonio–born, Houston-raised Megan Thee Stallion. “Savage,” which appeared in her EP Suga in March of that year, boasted an insistent keyboard line that played peekaboo with the beat and a memorable chorus that encapsulated her brand: “Classy, bougie, ratchet / Sassy, moody, nasty.” The song inspired a global TikTok dance craze and by April 1 reached the twentieth slot on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Megan’s second biggest hit, after the previous year’s “Hot Girl Summer,” which placed nine spots higher.

Well, for a moment it was her second biggest hit. As “Savage” percolated through the airwaves, the first lady of Houston music, Beyoncé, contacted Megan, offering to contribute her own verses to the song—a surprising move, given that Bey rarely makes guest appearances. “You grow up and you friggin’ watch Destiny’s Child, and you go to the rodeo to see them perform,” Megan later told the Guardian. “You don’t grow up and think you’re gonna meet Be-yon-cé!” Their collaboration produced “Savage (Remix),” which stays true to the original but is enlivened by Beyoncé, who effortlessly switches from ethereal singing to boastful rapping to a sly combination of both. Megan, who touched up her own verses, seems to have been inspired by Queen B—who makes sure to remind listeners that “Texas up in this thang.” The track hit number one on the charts, and Megan and Beyoncé became the first women ever to win the Best Rap Performance Grammy.

And that was just the start of Megan’s year. A few months after the remix topped the charts, she hit number one again with “WAP,” her lascivious, controversial collaboration with New York rapper Cardi B. (Okay, maybe 2020 was someone’s favorite year.) By this August, after Megan became the first rapper to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, it was clear that the future of the genre would center on assertive, body-positive women—and have a distinctly Texan twang. —K.F.

Photo Illustration Credits

Beyoncé: Ezra Shaw/Getty; DJ Screw: Ben DeSoto/SoSouth Music; Megan Thee Stallion: Rich Fury/Visible via Getty; Lil Wil: Ben Rose/Getty; Ghetto Boys: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty; UGK: Peter Beste; Lil’ O and Lil’ Keke: Ray Tamarra/Getty; Destiny’s Child: Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty; Lil’ Keke with car: Matthew Johnson; Frankie J: Peter Kramer/Getty; Baby Bash: Patrick Fraser/Corbis via Getty; Travis Scott: Nicholas Hunt/MTV via Getty; Megan Thee Stallion: Erik Voake/ROC Nation via Getty; Beyoncé: Theo Wargo/Getty

Credits
Writers

Sama’an Ashrawi
Brandon Caldwell
Cat Cardenas
Kiana Fitzgerald
Donnie Houston
Paula Mejía
Jessi Pereira
Matt Sonzala
Lance Scott Walker

Editors

Josh Alvarez
Jeff Salamon

Copy Editors

Amy Weaver Dorning
Sarah Rutledge

Fact Checkers

Sierra Juarez
Paul Knight

Multimedia Producer

Brian Standefer

Art Direction

Victoria Millner
Emily Kimbro

Photo Editor

Claire Hogan

Design & Development

Tim Biery

Illustrations

Jimmy Turrell

Animation

Lyon Graulty