Houston Hip-Hop

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

In late 1999, Swisha House released the landmark compilation, The Day Hell Broke Loose, featuring the entire Swisha House crew including some rappers who later released Swisha House solo records. There was also one track credited to newcomers Paul Wall and a rapper named Camilean (who later became Chamillionaire). But if any rapper seemed to be highlighted, it was hot northside up-and-comer Slim Thug.

After Michael Watts heard Stayve "Slim Thug" Thomas freestyling at a northside teen club, the 18-year-old rapper became one of the first Swisha House acts. It was back in 1999, in the early days of his involvement with Watts, that Slim wrote a freestyle about "still tippin' on fo' fo's, wrapped in fo' Vogues." The flow, which refers to cruising on 44-spoke rims and Vogue white-wall tires, showed up on a Watts mix and became a popular refrain among Houston's car freaks.

As Slim's star began to rise through Swisha House mixes, he teamed up with veteran S.U.C. rapper E.S.G. By then, E.S.G. had served his two-and-a-half years in jail, gotten out and signed with Wreckshop, the hot new southside label that was also putting out records by Fat Pat and Big Moe. The pair's first collaboration, from E.S.G.'s 1999 album Shinin' N' Grindin', was an immediate local sensation. The track "Braids N' Fades" brought together the S.U.C. and Swisha House, the southside and northside, in a strong show of city unity.

The freshly inked Paul Wall touts a few of his favorite things.
The freshly inked Paul Wall touts a few of his favorite things.
After coming up through the ranks together, Chamillionaire (pictured) and Paul Wall have been estranged for several years.
Jonathan Manion
After coming up through the ranks together, Chamillionaire (pictured) and Paul Wall have been estranged for several years.

The collaboration was so successful, E.S.G. and Slim teamed up again for "Candy Coated Excursion," and hit once more. By then, Slim had stepped away from Swisha House and formed a label with E.S.G. called S.E.S. Entertainment. In 2001, S.E.S. released a full album pairing of the rappers, Boss Hogg Outlawz. Though the two soon had a bitter falling out, Slim kept the name and launched his Boss Hogg Outlawz label, through which he released his own mix CDs and duo albums with people like Lil' Keke.

By 2004, Slim Thug had been prominent in Houston for five years, put out albums with local legends and his crew, and released a series of mix CDs. But Slim had never dropped an actual solo album that defined him as an artist. In truth, he was already making the kind of money he stood to make on a major label. As he described it, he was "already platinum" -- not in actual sales, but he was making as much as a platinum-selling major-label artist made.

But then something changed: The local music distributor, Southwest Wholesale -- the company through which virtually all local hip-hop CDs got into stores -- shut down in 2003. It left a huge void and made it much more difficult to sell the number of records that allowed independent labels to flourish, so Slim decided to go for the big time. With help from "king of the South" T.I. and UGK legend Bun B, Slim made a demo track called "3 Kings" that anointed him as Houston's next rap star. Given Slim's local fame, entrepreneurship, and friends in high places, it wasn't hard to find a good deal with a major. Slim signed with music biz legend Jimmy Iovine's Interscope/Geffen label, which released "3 Kings" as a single in the fall of 2004, but didn't have much success with it. Iovine and Slim agreed that, since Slim was unproven nationally, a big-time producer might help his record. They switched Slim over to the Neptunes' Star Trak label, which had signed a deal with Interscope. But [the Neptunes' hometown of] Virginia Beach was a long way from East Texas -- geographically and as a Southern hip-hop flavor.

And that fusion might ultimately have been the record's tragic flaw. While Neptunes' Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were responsible for much of the current era's best pop music, the sound of Slim Thug -- the six-and-a-half-foot giant with the slurred baritone and screwed pace -- didn't necessarily call for what they had to offer. Tracks like "I Ain't Heard of That (Remix)" and "Like a Boss" were terrific, but they only served to dilute the potency of Houston-style material like "Diamonds" (featuring a slowed-down UGK sample) and the posse track "Boyz N Blue." It seems that, when Slim Thug finally got around to defining himself, he didn't really define himself much at all.

Ironically, what seemed to steal the thunder from Slim Thug's major-label debut was Slim himself. That is, Slim's screwed, disembodied voice booming out from the chorus of "Still Tippin'," the track -- credited to Houston rapper Mike Jones -- that, in the spring of 2005, finally broke Houston's "post-screw" style into the mainstream.

Though roughly the same age as Slim, Mike Jones didn't catch his break until much later. First known by the Swisha House crew as a guy named Sache (as in Versace) who hustled cell phones, Jones reverted to his real name and started selling mix tapes around 1999. He did it on his own for a couple of years -- founding his Ice Age Entertainment company and taking full control of his music's marketing. It was there that Jones discovered his biggest talent -- a knack for getting people to remember his otherwise forgettable name: by repeatedly announcing it and his phone number on tapes.

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