Trae the Truth

Houston Rap’s Unsung Heroes: A Playlist

Lance Scott Walker

By Lance Scott Walker

on 04.02.14 in Features

Photographer Peter Beste and I spent nine years working on a book about the history of Houston rap music. He shot the photos, I conducted the interviews, and the project ended up producing not one, but two books: last year’s Houston Rap and this year’s Houston Rap Tapes. Together, the two volumes show the faces and tell the stories of the famous, the infamous and the relatively unknown in Houston.

In the process, we also soaked up a lot of music. Houston’s rap scene is bigger than anyone could have imagined; it’s no wonder that it’s loaded with hidden gems. As soon as you think you might know everything, another artist or song you’ve never heard pops up, and you realize you don’t know a thing.

Just one year into our project, the Houston rap scene exploded into the mainstream. Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and a host of others suddenly had big hits (with “Still Tippin’” leading the pack) and big albums on the charts, with careers now available to them outside of Houston. Those artists represented the city well, but there were a lot of other working artists in Houston that weren’t a part of that wave, who either came before or were just doing something too different to be swept up into it.

We made sure to shine light into places a lot of folks don’t look, so that you get a chance to hear from folks whose voices otherwise wouldn’t get out there. But the books are limited to pictures and words, and the hip-hop generation grew up with music video. With that in mind, here’s a selection of Houston rap videos that form a kind of secret history of Houston. Some of them are old, some of them are under the radar, but all of them help explain the culture and history of Houston from angles you might not typically get to see.

The Niyat is a group that formed in 2006 and consists of Snapp, Synato Watts and D-Ology. They aren’t one of the more visible Houston rap groups, but they have their own fan base and all of their members have been cutting their own paths in Houston since long before the group started. Notably, Snapp was a member of the early Houston duo Poetic Souls, who released a single in 1992. This track was produced by the Future Peace Orchestra, and the video was directed by Wraithe who assembled existing footage of the group into an Orwellian tribute with hints of THX-1138 and Behold a Pale Horse, the content of which finds its way into many the lyrics of many Houston rappers. “Who Am I?” is first on the list, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that no longer gets through the gates and into the mainstream. Pass it around.

Street Military is often referred to as “Houston’s N.W.A.” That’s not because of their sound, but because of each member’s visibility, and because they all went on to notable solo careers. Street Military is revered in Houston as being far ahead of their time, and the fact that they were all from different neighborhoods kept them out of the geographical politics of the Northside/Southside beef that plagued the city throughout the ’90s. Missouri City great Z-Ro came up under them, and counts them as one of the biggest influences on his storytelling. Rappers in this song, in order of appearance: KB Da Kidnappa, Lil’ Flea, Pharoah. Though he doesn’t rap on this song, Icey Hott (in the hat that says “Icy Hott”) was also a rapper, as well as the group’s DJ and producer. The fifth member was Nutt (aka ButtaBoy), who served as the group’s hype man during their legendary live shows. He was killed in a road rage incident in 1999. Pharoah is imprisoned in North Texas, serving a 50-year sentence on an assault conviction. KB Da Kidnappa released the album Black Mamba in 2013.

This was directed by the infamous Houston director Dr. Teeth, who is probably responsible for more Houston rap videos than just about anyone. Devin did get a new car, by the way.

Mr. 3-2, who is from the Southside neighborhood of Hiram Clarke, was a member of both Convicts (with Big Mike) and Southside Playaz (with Fat Pat and Mike-D). Between those two groups in the mid ’90s, he helmed Blac Monks, and you can see his charisma shine on camera. AWOL makes a great appearance in this video in the second verse, followed by Da. Another version of the group would release a second Blac Monks record years after this. Bushwick Bill (Geto Boys) is seen in the intro. 3-2 is the guy on the cover of Houston Rap Tapes.

Not because I don’t think you’ve seen it, but because you need to see it again. Easily one of the greatest rap videos ever made.

A sample of the late Fat Pat accompanies Southside rapper Trae as he drives past Houston landmarks such as Minute Maid Park, the Astrodome and a popular Houston car wash. The live Trae photo from Houston Rap on pages 30-31 was very nearly the cover of the book. I included this because to experience Houston, you have to drive around it.

Not enough people outside of Houston know about this Northside group. They first signed to Rap-A-Lot in 1993 and cut seven records over the next decade, the last in 2003. “Ghetto Funk” is from their second album. In recent years, E-Rock has recorded and appeared with Devin the Dude’s Coughee Brothaz. There is a photo of 007 in Houston Rap. Rappers in this song, in order of appearance: E-Rock, Lo Life, 007.

Snapp is a member of the Niyat, and has been building a scene around Houston for the last two decades. K-Rino is a legend in Houston and around the world — an entirely independent artist who is among the most prolific in the city. Snapp shot and edited this video himself (six years before Kanye West’s video for “New Slaves,” which has a remarkably similar look).

The Southside and Northside rappers (respectively) had a beef that lasted for years, and when they squashed it, the city celebrated. The majority of the scenes here were shot at the legendary Houston gathering spot MacGregor Park.

Dead End is a neighborhood at the South end of South Park, where MLK used to dead-end just past Airport Boulevard. K-Rino is from there. Dead End Alliance was a group that included DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Hawk and Kay-K. Of those, only Kay-K is still alive. This is a new take on one of their hits by a newer version of the group that reinforces its Southside roots. Rappers in order of appearance: Lil’ Keke, Kay-K, Z-Ro.

The Street Military rapper’s career was cut short by an enormous prison sentence, and these days you’ll always see and hear FREE PHAROAH around Houston, in much the same way you did for Pimp C when he was imprisoned. This video includes South Park Coalition rapper Klondike Kat, and was shot by longtime Houston rapper/videographer Showtyme, who is both pictured and quoted in Houston Rap. Pharoah and I wrote letters to each other for a couple of years, and I transcribed one of them for Houston Rap. Peter also visited him in prison in North Texas to shoot photos. The South Park native has done a lot of writing in prison.

Even a lot of Geto Boys fans probably don’t realize that Willie D was originally signed to Rap-A-Lot as a solo artist and only joined the group later. He’s never taken his eyes off of his solo career, even as he has continued to record and tour with Houston’s most famous export. “Clean Up Man” is from his second album, I’m Goin’ Out Lika Soldier. Willie’s is the first voice in Houston Rap, and it’s a huge one throughout. He is also interviewed in Houston Rap Tapes, and was kind enough to write the foreword.

Odd Squad was a trio signed to Rap-A-Lot made up of Devin the Dude, Jugg Mugg and Rob Quest, a blind rapper and producer who has worked with Devin virtually from the beginning. Odd Squad only cut one album, but the trio has continued to work together over the years, and all are members of the collective Coughee Brothaz along with Rap-A-Lot brethren DJ Domo of Geto Boys.

I didn’t include this because it’s my favorite, but because it’s the weirdest-sounding and most unusual-looking Houston video. Big Moe, who died in 2007 from a heart attack, was a beloved member of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click, and he brought a melodic element to the music through his hooks and verses that appear on numerous Screw tapes. Codeine Promethazine cough syrup poured over ice with soda was Moe’s beverage of choice, and has been a popular recreational drug for many in Houston for decades now. Drank, as it is known, formed a vital part of his vision as an artist — and then it killed him. This is from his first album, City Of Syrup.

Crime Boss is a rapper from the Southside Houston neighborhood of Sunnyside who was signed to Suave House in the mid ’90s. Memphis rapper MJG, who spent time in Houston along with partner 8Ball, also appears in the video, and helped make it a big hit in town when it first dropped.

The late Deep Cold went to high school with Paul Wall and Chamillionaire in Northwest Houston, and you can hear hints of some of their lyrical styles in his flow. As a Punjabi rapper, he had built a scene around him and artists such as Kamla Punjabi, with whom this was only one of many recordings. But he also collaborated heavily with Houston’s rap community, including Big Pokey, Slim Thug, Billy Cook and Papa Reu. The cross-cultural appeal of his music took him back to India, where he was a celebrated artist and had numerous hits. It was there, in the North Indian city of Phagwara, that Deep Cold was found dead earlier this month under mysterious circumstances. Kamla told me that he remembers the inspirational rapper telling him, “Don’t ever let your dreams go, because if you let your dreams go, then you’re letting yourself go, and if you let yourself go, then you’re not there anymore.”

Trinity Garden Cartel are a Northside group who were at first a part of the Rap-A-Lot juggernaut of the early ’90s and have since built a prolific network of artists around them. This is the title track from their second album. The cover for this record, depicting a dead body in an alleyway and the members of Trinity Garden Cartel being held by police, was controversial when it was released, and a new cover had to be issued because of objections by the Houston Police Department. How else do you know you’ve arrived?

This is a Southside supergroup of sorts, featuring four huge voices from Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes whose songs tackle subjects way bigger than anything you’ll hear on the radio. Listen for the obvious and unlock the codes for the rest. Rappers on this song, in order of appearance: Justice Allah, K-Rino, Dope E. of The Terrorists. Ashlei Mayadia sings the hook.

This was their big breakout, but Botany Boyz were an integral part of the Screwed Up Click long before they were releasing music. In fact, C-Note was the first person to ever rap on a Screw tape. The group, which also included the late B.G. Gator, is from Botany Lane in the Southside neighborhood of Cloverland. Seen as they walk away from the helicopter: D-Red, C-Note, Will Lean. D-Red is quoted in Houston Rap, and photos of he and C-Note appear in the book.

The legendary Fat Pat was dead by the time this video was shot in 2000, so the footage for his verse is from the 1997 Kappa Beach Party in Galveston, some shot on the Seawall and the rest at a rented beach house on the West End of the island (where I grew up). The second part, with Mike-D and 3-2′s verses, was shot in the parking lot of the legendary Houston nightclub Carrington’s (aka Carro’s). Rapper Clay Doe, who took Pat’s place in the group, rides in the car with Mike and 3-2, and lots of other Houston faces appear in the video, including C-Note, Big Pokey and Z-Ro. The video was directed by longtime Houston documentarian R.E.L., and it gives you some of the flavor of the many street DVDs you can pick up at King’s Flea Market and elsewhere around town.

This song accurately captures the mood that sets in during the middle of Houston’s oppressive eight-month summer. Directed by Damien Randle of K-Otix/K.O., it also features the innovative crew Hueston Independent Spit District, aka H.I.S.D. Rappers in order of verse: Damien Randle, Micah Nickerson, Scottie Spitten, EQuality, Savvi.

The open secret about quite a few early Geto Boys releases is that plenty of songs feature only one member of the group. Such is the case with this track from their 1995 release “Til Death Do Us Part,” which features only Scarface. The movie clips are from the film South Central, in which this song appeared.

Rappers Thorough and Mr. Mike released one album on Suave House in the mid ’90s, after which Mike went on to a successful solo career. He still makes records to this day, recently renaming himself King Michael.

This video was directed by the wildly unique H-Town stalwart Hoodizm, who was a member of the early Houston rap group Real Chill. Real Chill released one record in 1996 and was headed up by K-Rino, who appears in this video along with fellow South Park Coalition rappers DBX, Klondike Kat, and Murder One. Check out the rest of Hoodizm’s channel for a taste of his spoken-word videos. There is no vision like Hoodizm’s vision.

Downtown Houston at night is a vacuous, lifeless conglomeration of buildings in which you can find yourself utterly, hopelessly lost if you end up there on foot. The visuals build on the atmosphere of a hollow echo that blows through Downtown late at night, with lyrics that address an important dynamic (along color lines) of being out in the world at that hour, especially in The South.

Big Mello died in a car accident in Houston in 2002. He was from Hiram Clarke and released a handful of albums on Rap-A-Lot that are all lauded as classics. He is still highly regarded in the city as a groundbreaker, and is considered a member of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. J Prince of Rap-A-Lot makes a rare appearance in this video, tossing something to Mello from his car.

Fat Tony is part of a newer wave of Houston rappers who do things a little differently than the old hustle we talk about in Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes. This one, directed by Justin Petty, is too bizarre, too fearless not to include. It sounds like Houston if it’s from Houston.