That's the Breaks

Houston rap labels and their artists look for that big deal

"As far as exploiting his name and his death, exploitation is a part of this business, and I'm not ashamed to say it. His family's gotta eat. His family needs income. He left a child behind. So, you know, people are gonna say what they want to. You gotta be prepared for that if you gonna be on top."

Dixon refuses to have Wreckshop titled "The House That Fat Pat Built." A couple of new albums are slated to be released, ESG's Shinin' and Grindin' in February and All in Yo' Face, the debut from Pimp Tyte, scheduled for March 23. Wreckshop is even about to start a joint music venture in the summer with DJ Screw's Screwed Up Entertainment.

"It wasn't just, 'Let's put out a Fat Pat album,' " he says. "It's been a plan, from the beginning. And you got to have a plan. And if you'll take anything else with you, if you come to see us operate, we operate like a company. It's a business. It's not no out-the-trunk-of-my-car, unorganized-type shit. We're trying to have structure. We're trying to build something that's perpetual, that's gonna be here. You see what I'm sayin'?"

Houstonian Dereik Smith, 29, has a medium-stocky build, wears a blue bandanna around his head, drives a black '94 Ford Explorer, has a wife and a little girl, and raps for the Lord. Two years ago, Smith formed Southern Gospeltality Records, an independent label that specializes in Christian rap, which Smith calls "gospel rap." On a rainy Saturday afternoon, he's sitting in his Explorer with several of his labelmates ("soldiers," he calls them) in the parking lot of the Windsor Village Community Park. A show of gospel and Christian local acts is being put on near the basketball court, and Smith and his stable of artists are killing time before they hit the stage for their late-afternoon set.

Smith begins explaining what led him to bust the mike and release rap records in Jesus' name. "Basically, the reason why I started Southern Gospeltality Records and the whole mission was God called me to get out of gangsta rap," Smith says. "He called me out of that and asked me and gave me an assignment to go out and reach friends -- those people that were out there. He gave me an assignment to go back out there and reach them with the word of God."

From 1992 to 1995, Smith was marketing director of local rap outfit Dead Game Records. In 1995, he did jail time for what he calls "a pistol case": He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon after a Brazoria County cop searched his Explorer. He was only locked up for two days but was put on probation for a year and, as Smith claims, became "a prisoner in my mind."

After he attended a Rap Pages convention in Los Angeles in October 1996, he flew home to find that some of his comrades in the Houston rap scene were succumbing to drugs, mainly crack. Friends began going to jail. One got killed. Soon after, Smith dropped out of the gangsta-rap game completely, was "saved" and started building a gospel rap label. "I was always moving toward getting a label," he says, "but God just changed my heart."

Smith began Southern Gospeltality in January 1997, but it wasn't until the next year that the label released its first album, Street Life Not Death. The album is a decent mix of rhythmically potent, uplifting numbers by Gospeltality artists D.P.C., Black Seed, Amani, Tragedy and Smith himself (under the nom de guerre Son of Jesse). The music sounds like obligatory Houston g-rap, except the lyrics are surprisingly positive. (From "4 the City 2nite": "So I'm sending this message in a 40 bottle / Ice cold / Hoping God take my soul.")

Though the album has sold only 4,500 copies, its singles have received radio play in 22 stations (mostly Christian) across North America, including Canada and Puerto Rico. Smith admits he wants to reach more mainstreamers with the music. "I decided that I was no longer gonna compromise what He was telling me to do," he says. "I decided I was gonna start living 100 percent for Christ and go out there with Southern Gospeltality and try to reach not just the people, but actually reach the rappers. The ones that send the messages, the corrupt communications, out to these people, and try to reach those people so that they could, in turn, be discipled into spreading messages. Jesus Christ, God, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Christian Corey, a fierce singer who, at 19, is the youngest member of the Southern Gospeltality camp, empathizes with Smith's holy-ghost vibe. "Most people say 'studio' or 'record label,' " he says. "I say I look at it like a family, you know what I'm sayin'?" Stephen "Stikk" Anders, the 31-year-old who produced most of the Street Life Not Death album, figures the best way to spread the word is through beats. "We want 'em to get that word down in 'em while they're bobbing their heads," he says.

Smith is still continuing to put it down for JC, working on another artist compilation album, Spiritual Warfare, slated for release in late March. He's also in talks with a big label to distribute Southern Gospeltality music, but he doesn't want to jinx that by telling who they are. Smith just wants his music, and his message, to be heard.

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