Houston Hip-Hop

Mike Watts and his stable of northside rappers take a southside legend's style to the masses

After years of being dismissed as a novelty and then as a sort of stepchild to its East and West Coast precedents, Southern hip-hop is only now receiving its due. That road to respectability began here in Texas, primarily with the breakthrough national success of the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," the first hit to show that Southerners could rap as well as anybody from The Bronx or South Central.

When Houston's first short run at the top of the Dirty South hip-hop heap ended in the mid-'90s, other regional hubs rose in New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, coastal Virginia and, most prominently, Atlanta. By the turn of the century, most of the Billboard chart hits were coming out of those cities, while Houston's scene remained regional and underground. But as we all know, that situation did not last, as Houston exploded onto the national consciousness in 2005.

In the new bookThird Coast, those stories are being told with the gravity, diligence and aplomb they deserve by New York-based author and journalist Roni Sarig. An excerpt follows, detailing the recent rise of Michael Watts's northside hit factory Swishahouse and its stable of chart-topping MCs. -- John Nova Lomax

Mike Watts and his stable of northside rappers take a southside legend's style to the masses
SLFEMP
Mike Watts and his stable of northside rappers take a southside legend's style to the masses
DJ Screw's taped concoction oozed out of the southside and redefined Texas rap.
Deron Neblett
DJ Screw's taped concoction oozed out of the southside and redefined Texas rap.


Excerpted from the forthcoming Da Capo Press book Third Coastby Roni Sarig. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.


Of all Southern hip-hop's flavors, none captures the lazy pace of an oppressively hot and humid day in the big dirty as well as screw music. In the early '90s, the warped, slurred concoction -- named after its creator, DJ Screw -- oozed out of Houston slow as molasses. This was music at the heart of a culture so often characterized by its languid pace.

People generally attribute the South's slower pace to the heat, but that's not the whole story. How, then, to explain the high energy in Miami, where sweat only serves as social lubrication, increasing the tempo of its manic native hip-hop? Matt Sonzala, the Houston-based writer and radio host, offers one explanation: the drugs. "Go to Miami and what do you get a ton of? Cocaine. Go to Texas, what do you get a ton of? Mexican weed and pills [and codeine cough syrup]. It's oversimplifying to a certain extent, but the party is different."

It could also be that the choice of drug merely reflects the innate mood of an area; the way people party extends from the way they live. So the question remains why one part of the South sped up hip-hop, while another part slowed it down. The common bonds: Southern rebellion -- neither side was content to leave it alone -- and the bass that throbs through both extremes.


What brought screw music to the mainstream was neither DJ Screw nor the Screwed Up Click, but rather Screw's more media-savvy, crosstown rival-turned-successor, Michael "5000" Watts. Because of screw music's immense local popularity, other DJs inevitably tried it. But Watts was the only one who came close to rivaling Screw himself. And Watts's success helped preserve the music and legend of Screw for people who didn't catch on to slowed-down music until after Screw's death.

Critical to Watts's rise was the fact that he was from the northside. For years, screw fans in north Houston had to sit through the S.U.C. dissing their neighborhood. With Watts, they finally had one of their own to provide the slowed-down sounds they'd come to love. Also, Watts had no interest in Screw's homemade style and direct sales -- he put his stuff on CD from the start, used Pro Tools and digital CD mixing for higher fidelity, and sold his mixes in stores. Watts had some important connections to the mass market going in: By the time he started doing slowed-down mixes in 1996, he was working as a DJ at The Box.

Watts had met Screw a few times, but they were not close. Publicly, the two had a complicated relationship. Watts never denied Screw had invented screw music -- and was always willing to give credit when asked -- but he didn't seem to have an overly reverential attitude toward Screw either. Watts saw no problem with adopting screw music as his own style as well. There was, after all, no way to patent this mixing technique.

To Screw fans on the southside, Watts was just biting Screw's style -- legal, perhaps, but not the most honorable way to build a DJ reputation. "The northside was pretty much happy to have him, and the southside had Screw," says Sonzala. "One of the things Screwed Up people say now is, 'Man, they got Michael Watts on the radio. Back then they didn't want to hear no Screw radio shows even though it was the hottest thing in the streets.'"

Resentment between northside and southside was nothing new in Houston hip-hop. The two centers of black life had long accentuated their differences in everything from music to car accessories to hairstyles. Rap battles went back to the very beginning, when South Park Coalition's K-Rino battled Rap-A-Lot's Jukebox. For the most part, violence never erupted between rappers, though that wasn't always the case on the street.

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