Lance Scott Walker and Peter Beste are two guys obsessed with Houston, Texas, and it has nothing to do with BBQ or a certain purple liquid. Almost 10 years ago they set out to document the Houston hip-hop culture that they grew up with and loved, which culminated in their collaborative book Houston Rap last year. A second volume of words and pictures, Houston Rap Tapes, followed earlier this year, and ahead of a book signing and Q&A appearance at UndergroundHipHop.com tomorrow (combined with a performance by Termanology celebrating his new album Shut Up and Rap), we chopped (and screwed) it up with Walker about Houston’s self-sufficient music industry, how tragic deaths impacted the scene and the enduring influence of DJ Screw.
What was your relationship to the Houston music scene growing up?
I grew up in the Houston metro area and that music was the soundtrack of my childhood. Once Rap-A-Lot records broke locally in the late ‘80s, the music was inescapable. Early on you were hearing the Geto Boys, Royal Flush, Raheem, and others. By the time the ‘90s rolled around you couldn’t miss DJ Screw because everybody was playing his music. A lot of great new artists were popping up as well like Fat Pat, Lil Flip, Lil Troy, and others. It was great to see that everything that had been boiling for all those years in Houston finally came to the surface in 2004/2005.
Why did you guys decide to create a book instead of a documentary?
The idea came from Peter who has tremendous love for the city. We both do. Pete grew up in Houston and then moved away after high school. In 2001, the idea for the project started brewing in his head and he wanted to start taking trips back to Houston to take pictures of all the rappers he grew up listening to. He started taking pictures in the summer of 2004 and after a few months, he approached me about possibly adding a text component. He’s a photographer so doing a book was a no brainer. It started off being just photos but once we started talking to people and hearing their stories and history, we knew it was way deeper than photos and we needed to provide a narrative.
What do you think made Houston rappers so successful locally?
People forget that Houston is an enormous city. The artists had everything they needed there. They had all the ingredients they needed for a successful music career within the city. They made music that reflected the way the city felt. A big part also was that the artists never left. They were marginalized by mainstream music for decades so because they were ignored, they created a self-sufficient industry. The superstars never left for New York or Los Angeles for record deals and fame. So many of them concentrated their careers in Houston because they knew they had the support when they watched the Geto Boys break locally in the late ‘80s. That made a lot of the artists realize that they had everything they needed right there.
It seems that in Houston, people would give you your credit when you deserved it and while you were still in the city. What was the independent hustle like for new artists in Houston?
It’s interesting because our cutoff for the book was 2005. Everybody who was featured in the book was already active at that point. The stories reflected in that book were really about the old Houston and there is a very different way of doing things now. There are still a lot of people who conduct music business in the old school way by pressing their own CDs, driving around to shows, and selling stuff out of their trunk. There are still guys who can make that work because that had been the template for people in Houston for so many years. The whole idea is to blow up on your own and build something around yourself. The Houston music industry is an independent one. It’s made up of dozens and dozens of indie labels. There isn’t one big co-sign or thumbs up that you have to get. It doesn’t matter if the mainstream notices because you can create your own movement and take advantage of all kinds of opportunities.
I think the only reason I heard of the whole Houston movement was because of the big push from MTV2 mixed with the music being easily accessible due to Napster, Kazaa, and other file sharing programs. How important was timing to the Houston movement in the early 2000s?
Timing was so important. Like I said earlier, we started the book around 2005 right as everything was blowing up in the mainstream. I’m happy we had already established relationships with people because later that year a whole wave of people started coming to Houston to cover the movement. I think a lot of people viewed what happened in 2005 as inevitable though. That’s how the mainstream works. It goes around and focuses on one area for a while and then moves on. It never lingers for too long. Think about the time when you heard lots of LA rap on the radio. You weren’t hearing that much from NYC at the same time. We knew it was inevitable for the Houston scene to break but nobody knew when, how, or who was really going to break through.
More than any other music scene I can think of, Houston was really impacted by artists dying. What did that do to the culture?
Death is part of the bigger story. There is a tragic death story that goes along with the music. Some of the most important people in Houston music history are gone. They were gone pretty early in life too. DJ Screw was 29 and Fat Pat was 27. They were so young and there was so much unrealized potential. Fat Pat was one of the greatest rappers ever from Houston. I wonder what Hip-Hop would be like now if Fat Pat blew up. He was killed weeks before his first album came out. Nobody got to see his potential. In a lot of ways, I feel the same way about DJ Screw.
Speaking of DJ Screw, Houston artists are very likeable. Even if they reference violence and drugs, you still see them as laid back and cool dudes. Why is that?
I want to talk about DJ Screw in particular. He had a very profound effect on a lot of people’s lives. The way people acted around him and how he connected with people on a personal level was special. I’ve talked to so many people that knew him and they always tell me the same thing. DJ Screw made them feel like they were his best friend. That takes a very special person to make so many feel the same way. He treated everyone the same no matter who they were. DJ Screw is an icon in Houston to this day. There’s a record store that only sells his records and he’s been gone for 14 years now. His temperament was cool and calm and that personality trickled down to people and influenced the whole vibe of Houston rap.