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That's the Breaks

Houston rap labels and their artists look for that big deal

There was a time in Houston when "rap music" meant Rap-A-Lot, and that was it. For the better part of the decade, that rap label, led by James "Lil' J" Smith (now known as James Prince), was at the epicenter of rap in the region. Thanks in part to The Geto Boys and their masterworks, The Geto Boys (1990) and We Can't Be Stopped (1991), the label attracted national attention.

Soon, the independent-rap production bug infected the rest of the city, and small labels began popping up all over town. Rap label execs sold (or "slanged") homemade tapes at rap concerts, local record stores and even from the trunks of their cars. But until last year, Houston was basically a one-label town.

That was when Suave House Records began getting press, then scored a multimillion-dollar distribution deal with Universal and began releasing commercially viable releases by the likes of Eightball and MJG, whose 1998 solo double album, Lost, went double platinum. Suddenly, it wasn't just Rap-A-Lot.

And now it's not only Rap-A-Lot and Suave House. Dozens of other independent rap labels, whether operating from a swanky office or the CEO's home, are taking up space in Space City. Though mostly unsuccessful, some have been around for a few years (Bigtyme, Key Players, D.I.M.E., N-Terrorgation, Underground, Street Keeper). Others are so fresh that, like Inmate and Def Souf, they're not even listed in the phone book. Some are merely extensions of already prominent local labels (such as Albatross's Funky Products division and Momentum, which hopes to snag the once ubiquitous Tone-Loc next year); others seem to cater to only, for the moment, one artist. (EIE Records' roster, for example, shows only one group, RWO a.k.a. The Org.)

Much of these labels' music seems to carry the same theme, sound and style: gangsta rap, born of synthesizers and drum machines, and which addresses the subject matter of a Scorsese or De Palma bloodbath movie -- guns, sex, money. This music was original once, when The Geto Boys took its subversively unflinching inner-city rhetoric, accompanied it with some pimp-friendly grooves, and spun it into mainstream gold. For Houston rap fans it was like having their own Niggaz With Attitude sans the Raiders gear.

But now, second-rate G's have recycled, rehashed, remixed and reduced that same music to derivative shtick. And as inner-city gangs across America lose their stranglehold on black youth, so is gangsta rap weakening in its popularity. Will Hudgins, editor of the Southern rap magazine Crunk and head of the album-cover-designing Deluxe Communications, feels that in a city as rich and diverse as Houston, the rap music should be equally eclectic. "If you put, maybe, 15 independent albums out from Houston, probably 13 and 14 of them are gonna sound the same," he says. "I don't think it should be that way, but that's the way it's been. [Gangsta is] sort of like a Houston sound."

Besides the creative deadlock, the newcomers often face another common problem: They often don't know how to keep the business side going. Pam Harris, editor/publisher of Street Flava and vice president of sales for the magazine's TV show, says that most record label brass fail to consider the business side of running a company. "They didn't do any preplanning," she explains. "They viewed it as more of a hobby, not a business. The key to successful labels is not just the music, it's the business."

So do any of the local rap labels have a chance at success? Actually, yes. The upstarts may not rate with Rap-A-Lot or Suave House just yet, but they have their acts together, so to speak. These labels try to be distinctive, creatively as well as professionally, which is a nice change of pace from labels that feature artists concerned only with bitches an' money.

It's quiet at the offices of Jam Down Entertainment -- too quiet.
The phone hardly rings. Staffers aren't running in and out. The place is damn-near vacant, except for the receptionist. Wearing a gold ensemble, she sings while the discofied R&B of The Gap Band forms a rhythmic buzz on the radio. The reception-area walls are adorned with album-cover portraits of the label's more popular artists: Lil' Keke, Al-D, Most Hated, Triple Threat.

But before you can even take in all the homeboy poses and baggy clothes, Patrick Lewis and his associates walk in. (If you can call it "walking" -- Lewis bolts through the door like Clark Kent rushing for a phone booth.) The office begins to hustle and bustle. Phones ring. Doors slam. Staffers wear out the soles of their shoes.

From the look of his eased face and the sound of his somber Jamaican accent, Lewis, 35, barely resembles somebody who could hang your ass to dry if you messed around with his business. (Which he could.) In his spacious office, he's joined by his longtime partner Gerard Mark, 30, the husky general manager of Jam Down. Both are willing to talk about their label's quest for the Big Time. Wheels are in motion.

Releases from the label have been getting local attention, especially since Jam Down cut a distribution deal with the mighty Polygram last year. In March, Jam Down will release It Was All a Dream, the third release from their most successful artist, Lil' Keke, and All Work, No Play, the new work from the ever-mythical DJ Screw.

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