Kiana Fitzgerald for NPR / Published August 1, 2023 11:00 AM ET
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop’s story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.
The bond between Texans and hip-hop runs as deep as blood. I should know: I live in San Antonio now, but I grew up in a small town called Seguin, a little over two hours west of Houston. My mom and my older brother, and subsequently my sister and myself, became early champions of Houston rap; our familial connection was solidified through extended car rides that turned into impromptu recitals of our favorite hits from the region. This summer, I tagged along with my sister to a performance of local rap acts at a nightclub in our hometown. The artists — Citta ThaFatMac, OTB Fastlane, King Cairo and Big Tyme 940 — are from across the state, but as I watched each of them perform, I couldn’t help but record their sets like a proud mom. Their charisma and delivery reminded me of Houston acts from years and decades past: musing on jewelry and mortality with the same widescreen immediacy, and serving rugged Southern charm through drawls and twangs that stretch like rubber bands.
While I wasn’t based in Houston proper, the vast majority of the music I can ever remember flowing in and out of my ears as a child was from the Bayou City. I was born in 1989, just a few years after James “J. Prince” Smith founded the influential Rap-A-Lot Records. Prince was and is the guiding hand of Texas hip-hop, and talent sprung forth from this label almost immediately with acts like Ganksta N-I-P and the Geto Boys. Their lyrics and imagery were hard-hitting and visceral, and centered on conveying the experiences of underprivileged Black men struggling with the pressures of their environment. The unswerving approach of the Geto Boys’ frighteningly relatable 1991 single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” established the group as originators of horrorcore, but its effects on how mental health is seen and discussed in the culture would stretch far further.
When you know Texas rap, it’s clear why small communities are so connected to Houston: The state’s most revered acts, UGK and DJ Screw, were founded in the nearby country towns of Port Arthur and Smithville. But Houston’s sound was too big and too bold not to snake out to metropolitan cities like Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Native son DJ Premier became a bastion of East Coast hip-hop when he relocated to New York, transporting the self-starter energy of the city and applying it to his much-heralded works with Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. and his own Gang Starr. Closer to home, New Orleans’ Master P, one of the most prolific label heads in hip-hop history, sketched out his record company dreams via the blueprint provided by J. Prince and Rap-A-Lot.
Texans seem to live in our own little independent world because, for the longest time, we had to: With the South overlooked for whole chapters of hip-hop’s history, artists from the bottom of the map were pushed to learn how to write, produce, market and distribute their own material. But that system gets out what it puts in, and cyclically extends those efforts outward. Like the West Coast’s love affair with funk, Houston rap liberally traded notes with soul, R&B and the blues. You can hear it in reworkings like UGK’s “Tell Me Something Good,” which interpolated the 1974 Rufus and Chaka Khan song of the same name; H.A.W.K.‘s “Roll Up a Blunt,” which samples Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Whatever You Want”; Chalie Boy‘s take on Zapp & Roger’s “Computer Love”; and E.S.G.‘s “Candy Coated Excursion,” a spin on Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain.” These creative, often highly witty flips brought an immediately identifiable flavor to Houston’s sound. That particular brand of confidence — marked by a profound curiosity, and a desire to reach a wider swath of listeners — has been a crucial factor propelling Houston rap since it broke into the mainstream.
Texas hip-hop truly found itself in 1996. That’s the year we were blessed with Ridin’ Dirty, on which UGK waded into emotional territory (“One Day”) as often as they barred out over raucous production (“Murder”), the Geto Boys’ prescient The Resurrection, and DJ Screw’s definitive 3 ‘n the Mornin’ (Part Two). Screw ruled Texas in the ’90s alongside his coterie the Screwed Up Click, which included living legends like Lil’ Keke, Z-Ro and Lil Flip. He was a master of massaging and manipulating the sound of a song, from production to lyrics, until he transformed its meaning into something else entirely. He accomplished this by chopping, or repeating certain phrases for punctuated effect, and screwing, slowing the music down to a snail’s pace. By mixing traditional turntablist techniques with this new style, Screw gifted Houston hip-hop its own subgenre.
The result of Screw’s creative obsession was an onslaught of molasses-slow mixtapes — which, it was quickly agreed, are ideally experienced in “slabs.” An acronym for “slow, loud and banging,” slabs are bright, candy-painted cars, typically with sizable rims and trunks that wave open to reveal winking messages in glowing neon. The owners of these slabs often “swang,” or drive in a crisscrossing, blended pattern down streets, highways, anywhere with a stretch of road. Generations of Houstonians have preferred to listen to chopped and screwed music on the go, sitting in their own personal passion projects.
Screw and his cohort were proud representatives of Houston’s Southside, and they had a considerable, albeit rivalrous, impact on OG Ron C and Michael “5000” Watts of the Northside, who created their own label, Swishahouse. The foundation laid by Screw and company set the scene for Swishahouse artists like the charismatic Mike Jones to see a commercial breakthrough in the mid-aughts. Two of the first albums I ever bought with my own money came out in 2005: Who Is Mike Jones? and Z-Ro’s Let the Truth Be Told, the latter of which was released via Rap-A-Lot Records. To a teenaged Kiana, the two projects embodied two sides of Houston that I had grown to know and love: Jones was the young buck depending on unique catchphrases and boundless swagger; Z-Ro was a solemn, headstrong MC who dove into his emotions with abandon.
The local culture was on full display in music videos like Jones’ “Still Tippin’,” which features Swishahouse contemporaries Slim Thug and Paul Wall. Once they became a part of the regular rotation on BET, a national fascination was inevitable: Slim Thug’s Already Platinum and Paul Wall’s The Peoples Champ, alongside Chamillionaire‘s The Sound of Revenge and UGK member Bun B‘s Trill, rounded out a huge breakout year. This takeover delighted not just hip-hop fans from Houston, but also small-town folks like me, who were used to seeing only the coastal rap capitals represented in mainstream media. Seeing our people filled us with an urgent sense of pride and belonging.
New artists from the city involve both the living and resting OGs in their projects and concerts; each person who enters this creative space feels a level of responsibility to reach back and pay the inspiration forward. This admiration is on display in Monaleo‘s 2021 homage to Yungstar‘s “Knocking Pictures Off the Wall” and Megan Thee Stallion‘s Something for Thee Hotties mixtape from the same year, which featured earnest support from Houston legends of every game-changing era. These days, younger Houston artists like Megan, Travis Scott and Lizzo have risen to new, zeitgeist-conquering levels, pushing beyond local notoriety to a sort of omnipresence. Other artists like Don Toliver and KenTheMan have become fast fan favorites, starting the Houston support cycle anew.
Even those outside of Texas are looking inward, intrigued by the appeal of the state’s musical exports. Victoria Monét’s recent single “On My Mama” features a heavy sample of Chalie Boy’s 2009 hit “I Look Good,” and Young Thug’s “Money on the Dresser” pays homage to Pimp C, interpolating the late rapper’s verse from 2007’s Grammy-nominated “Int’l Players Anthem.” And let us not forget Drake and A$AP Rocky, who both launched globally recognized careers off of the slowed-down Houston sound. Today, you can find a chopped-and-screwed version of nearly every genre of music, from country to cumbia.
My sister and I vividly remember listening to the chopped-and-screwed version of UGK’s Bootsy Collins-sampling 1996 song “Diamonds and Wood” as children, both at home and during those long drives to nowhere in particular. As pre-teens, we saw slabs swang down the hilly road leading to my grandmother’s house every weekend like clockwork: As dusk fell, one car would sneak around the corner in the distance, and then another shortly after, until there was a long braid of them weaving down the street, blasting the latest Screw tapes. This was long before we had enough money to buy our own Houston hip-hop records — let alone visit the city. We immersed ourselves in these moments, just like other small towners did, and still do; it’s our way of taking in Houston’s osmotic culture from afar. By continuing to nurture the acts that sprout out of the city, we also give the mini Houston-esque scenes that have cropped up across the state room to find their own way. Houston will always be the heart of Texas hip-hop, but when you search for its pulse, you’ll find it beating everywhere.
Where to start with Houston rap
- Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991)
- DJ Screw and Lil’ Keke, “Pimp tha Pen” (1996)
- Lil’ Troy, “Wanna Be a Baller” [ft. Fat Pat, Yungstar, Lil’ Will, Big T and H.A.W.K] (1998)
- Fat Pat, “Tops Drop” (1998)
- DJ DMD, “25 Lighters” [ft. Lil’ Keke and Fat Pat] (2001)
- Mike Jones, “Still Tippin’ ” [ft. Slim Thug and Paul Wall] (2005)
- Bun B, “Get Throwed” [ft. Pimp C, Z-Ro, Jeezy and Jay-Z] (2005)
- Z-Ro, “Mo City Don” (2005)
- UGK, “Int’l Players Anthem” [ft. Outkast] (2007)
- Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé, “Savage” (Remix) (2020)