As we approach the end of the fattest, dopest, flyest, funky-freshest year in H-town hip-hop history, it would behoove us to take a brief look back at the city's rap history. And so we've come up with this: the top ten Houston hip-hop jams of all time.
10. "Still Tippin," Mike Jones/Slim Thug/ Paul Wall, The Day Hell Broke Loose Volume 2, later released on Who Is Mike Jones?. For years Houston was like the Luv Ya Blue Oilers -- you remember, the team that knocked at the door several years and never quite kicked the sumbitch in. That was H-town rap -- various "Lil'" guys like Flip, Keke and Troy got to the equivalent of the conference championships, but this was the song that won us the hip-hop Super Bowl. The weird little violin sample furnished by producer Salih Williams stands out, as does Paul Wall's "I got the Internet goin' nuts" line, despite the fact he follows it with another line that ends with "nuts."
9. "Purple Stuff," Big Moe, Purple World. The funkiest track from the immense Screwed Up Click rapper's repertoire and the most accessible and melodic of all of H-Town's odes to codeine. Moe is often called the Nate Dogg of the South, and you can hear why with his singsong style, fat bass lines and chunky keyboards. As befits a Southerner, though, Moe is bluesier than Dogg ever has been; he's from deep in the Third Ward, and you can hear it in his music. (Moe's hypnotic "Just a Dog" could just as easily go here, but it only mentions lean in passing. This list has to have a straight-up drank anthem, and this is the best one.)
8. "On My Block," Scarface, The Fix. The warm old-school piano brings a '70s vibe to Scarface's bittersweet reminiscences on growing up in South Park, "where everything is everything fo' sheezy." You could pick any number of Scarface tunes -- "Mr. Scarface," "Money and the Power," "A Minute to Pray," "Guess Who's Back," maybe even the hyper-raunchy "Fuck Faces" -- but this is his most H-town-centric, so on it goes. (And it even furnished the name for an MTV series.)
7. "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta," Geto Boys, Uncut Dope: Geto Boys' Best. Currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to its star turn in endless cable replays of Office Space, this one's an oddity for a couple of reasons. First, it's one of the quietest rap tunes ever -- it feels like it's from a different planet from the typical club banger of today; it's "easy listening gangsta rap." Second, there's no Willie D, and here Bushwick Bill and Scarface are joined by none other than Rap-A-Lot boss man James Prince, whose chillingly soft-spoken verse is probably the most gangsta of them all.
6. "Pocket Full of Stones, Part 2" Underground Kingz, Super Tight. Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli and veteran New Orleans keyboardist David Torkanowsky add some Big Easy cayenne to UGK's Port Arthur gumbo funk, and the Cypress Hill-like deep voice/nasal voice interplay between Bun B and Pimp C was never better than on this monstrous sequel. No Texas rap collection is complete without a copy of Super Tight, and this is just one example why.
5. "High So High," South Park Mexican, The 3rd Wish: To Rock the World. Before it all came crashing down with his 2002 conviction for molesting a nine-year-old girl, SPM pretty much single-handedly cemented hip-hop as the music of choice for second- and third-generation Latinos across Texas and beyond. Before SPM, Texans of Mexican descent thought rap belonged to African-Americans, or that only East L.A. rappers like Frost could make it. SPM made them all believe that the rap game was one they could play and win.
4. "City Under Siege," Geto Boys, The Geto Boys. "Red pass me my pump, Bill pass me my nine Now tell 'em what's on your mind." The psychotic rape-murder fantasy "Mind of a Lunatic" stole the spotlight from this killer track off the same album. "City Under Siege" really encapsulates the scary vibe of Houston's oil bust, when the murder rate was sky-high and the cityscape was dotted with boarded-up strip malls, apartment complexes and derelict office buildings.
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Scarface's addled dopeman remake of the jingle "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" kicks off the track, which segues through verses on the nuts and bolts of crack sales and the corruption of the Bush family and Ronald Reagan -- "They don't care about niggas on welfare, as long as their kind ain't there," opined Bushwick Bill, 15 years before Kanye West. K-Otix/The Legendary K.O., Willie D and Bushwick then riff on then-endemic police brutality -- Bushwick name-checks Ida Delaney, one high-profile victim of a particularly egregious case -- and theorize that cops are just on the force so they can avenge themselves on the people who kicked their ass in high school. "You couldn't hang if we were cappin' or punchin'," Willie D snarls. "So go suck a dick and write a ticket or somethin'," Bushwick chips in. Next they move on to snitches -- that rap staple. "Pimp on me and I'll make bail," Willie D warns. "Hunt you down and kick you through the GOAL! POSTS! of HELL!" And then Bushwick closes with a sort of all-purpose screed aimed at parents, teachers, curfew, homework and the police. The bass, drum track and keyboards then all peter out, and all you can hear is what sounds like a vacuum cleaner whining away, and somewhat shouts "Shit!" and then it's over. Pretty damn rock and roll.
3. "South Side," Lil' Keke. For me this was the best of the 1995-2002 Dark Age of Houston Hip-hop, back when Rap-A-Lot was moribund, the nationals weren't in here lobbing checks around, and all of the rappers were self-producing their stuff and peddling it through Southwest Wholesale or out da trunk. This was the era of DJ Screw, Fat Pat, the Botany Boys, Yungstar, South Park Mexican and people like that, and musically, it doesn't hold up as well as the early days or the more recent stuff. Not that these people weren't every bit as talented as the people with the big hits today, but very little money went into production, and most of the records have a sound-alike quality -- the beats are often tinny and the keyboards all sound like Casios from Value Village. But it was an important time when our local rap scene first developed the sense of independence and hustling work ethic that has served Houston well since. Keke's "South Side" pretty much kicked off this era, and even today it transcends the cheap production and stands up relatively well, both musically and as a declaration of independence for Dirty South rappers. (Not to mention as an anthem for all points south of Buffalo Bayou.)
2. "Cooter Brown," Devin the Dude, To Tha X-Treme. No, it wasn't a smash hit, and it's not particularly emblematic of any kind of local trend or anything like that. But here is what "Cooter Brown" is: a great tragicomic tale told with incredible skill over one of the downright prettiest beats you'll ever hear. It's just wonderful, amazing hip-hop music -- billowing harps, a sped-up Willie Hutch sample and Devin's spot-on personification of the perpetually fucked-up title character, who really does mean well until he gets in the Mickey's 40-ouncers, Hennessy and weed. It's the only hip-hop tune I've ever personally taken the time to type out all the lyrics to, and sometimes I just pull 'em up and gaze in wonder. There's no use quoting a bunch of snippets here -- it's better as a lengthy narrative and you have to hear Devin's sly phrasing. One example will suffice -- the way he says "niggas lookin' at me thro-wo-woe is me" is pure genius.
1. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," Geto Boys, We Can't Be Stopped. Sure, I could go out there and pick something else, be all provocative and counterintuitive and shit, but I won't. This was a sensational track behind some incredible rhymes, and it showed the nation that Gulf Coast rap was just as good as the West Coast and East Coast stuff, if not better. And with Halloween rolling around, what better time to dig out your copy of We Can't Be Stopped (which features the most ghoulish cover of any album, ever). Even though Halloween isn't falling on a weekend, you and the Geto Boys can go out trick-or-treatin', and robbin' little kids for bags. Just watch out if a giant old man gets behind your ass.