To a small extent, Houston's musical sound jumps around time periods. Cultures. Genres. The spastic rhythm of zydeco mixes like watercolors when met with the hard bass guitars and screeching, amplified wails of rock. The blues drones on in sorrowful hints and glimpses of emotional reprieve. And Houston's rap scene?
A gumbo of all of the above.
Without the blues in some form or fashion, the backbone of the production that leaves the walls of so many different studios in the city from Wire Road to iMix and 713 wouldn't exist. Without that trudging thought of moving whether it be in large, loud spaces like an 808 drum or driving the point home in a Southern Baptist sort of way with an organ or dark piano melody, Houston rap wouldn't sound the way it does.
Samples of blues greats has always played a factor in shaping the greatest records to leave the city and travel elsewhere. UGK's "Pocket Full of Stones," labeled as the de facto record to grip your steering wheel and let life take you places, is built upon two key components: one, producer Pimp C and two, his manipulation of Mellow Man Ace's "Gettin' Funky With The Joint." No matter how you cut it, whether it be funk or just hard-boiled drums trying to destroy your ribs on every measure, the blues is still the basis for everything -- and some of Houston's best producers know it.
There are outlets for producers to be heard. The Space City Beat Battle has long adopted hip-hop's competition motif and ran with it. Others post into the abysses of Soundcloud or Bandcamp, or upload to YouTube. Some find their way through placements on Houston-based projects that eventually get their name travelling in certain circles. These four individual producers have taken their own approach to the Houston landscape, one instrument at a time.
DONNIE HOUSTON Ageless is what you could consider Donnie Houston. The Sam Houston State and Texas Southern University grad hasn't found a way to use his journalism degree how he likes it. Instead, his turntable skills and work behind the boards has kept him busy -- and has done so for almost 10 years now.
"I like for my production to evoke some type of emotion," he says. "Sometimes that emotion is one that makes you feel good, like the song "Moment" or one that makes you sad or think, like "Father's Day."
Since rebranding himself two years ago, Houston has kept an increased profile by making sure good friend and constantly moving rapper Propain. The two have collaborated for years and Houston's production was noted heavily on the rapper's celebrated 2013 release, Ridin' Slab as well as his collaborative EP with De'Wayne Jackson, Halftime.
His sound has been curated strictly by sampling records, lifting sounds from the '70s and '80s to make the music he wanted to make. Houston's collaborative effort with fellow Soul Brother Jett I. Masstyr has yet to materialize, yet there's still hope for it to see the light of day
"At this particular moment, I started to think about all my favorite hip-hop songs in my life and the majority of them contained a sample of some sort," Houston says. "As a result, when I started producing in 2006, I was only interested in learning to sample."'
TRAKKSOUNDS Behind a piano is mostly where Trakksounds finds himself. As a producer who works solely in amalgamation (a hybrid of multiple sounds that wind up coming out cinematic), he charts his upcoming release as what led him to not only create with fellow beatsmiths Albie Dickson and Chinky P but help stretch the sounds of artists such as Isaac Reid.
"It definitely comes a lot from the music I grew up on," Trakksounds says. "I studied a lot of producers that I admired and blended different techniques."
At only 24 years of age and with plenty of ink already given to his own solo projects, Trakksounds has played the keys for a high number of acts in Houston and beyond. His crowning achievement may have come earlier this year, when the young Houstonian was named Producer of the Year at the 2014 Houston Press Music Awards. His sound has found constant elevation from simple piano melodies to more spacious, funk creations like "Ridin" for Jack Freeman and "Andelé" for Doeman.
"I want my sound to be a mix of 1970s soul and funk and '90s bounce, and 2014 and beyond's futuristic sound," he says. He's already gotten minor props as the next in line to the N.O. Joe and Mike Dean class of organists who decided to bring in the roots of the church into the music.
"Being from the South made me love that sound a lot," he says.
GEORGE YOUNG Whether he's huddled on the Northside making beats or commentating on the highs and lows of Houston's sports scene, George Young always remains optimistic. His production, much like Trakksounds', has been lent to beat battles and other competitions, but its highest moments have crested on street tapes from other Northside luminaries like KAB Tha Don, Mike Red and himself.
"My sound for the most part is based around polished sounds/samples with hard drums and bass at the foundation of it," he says comfortably. "I love the classic sampling styles of producers like Kanye and Primo but being from the South, I was raised on hard 808s and clap snares. Those two elements give my tracks a certain duality."
Young's penchant for sampling Houston-related material, from audio clips and constant sayings which have been embedded into the soul are what made his long-awaited VENTAGE tape pop and hiss with the feel of a mid-'90s rap tape. It bellowed when it wanted to, got introspective through deep piano stabs and shakes every single bit of space in existence.
He speaks of his creation process the way a scientist would discuss an equation and how it works. Words and phrases like "primal energy" and "sophistication of samples or chords". He understands without hesitation that the drum is king in most situations in the South, especially when some of your heroes behind the boards are Mannie Fresh, DJ Toomp & Mr. Lee. "I also love the detailed approach of Mike Dean," Young says of his top producers. "His beats made me use reverb (echo) to give tracks more depth. Almost like the beat becomes a 3-dimensional world u can fall into."
There are clapping snares on "Creative," one of VENTAGE's standouts where the guitars constantly play the same note, rotund and unable to do anything else. "Phat Beach" lifts drums and syncopated '80s pop like Thor's hammer and makes you understand their weight.
"I want my production to make a lasting impression and i never make the same beat twice, or I at least try not to," he says. "Nothing is off limits as far as sounds."
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BEATKING In his 29 years, BeatKing has been happy maybe the last decade or so (thereabouts), when he took his creative juices from Prairie View all over the state and then some. Between him, June James and a mix of others, the club scene in Texas has been dominated by a combination of ratchet call and response; heavy, almost earth-shattering bass and the clearest sense of direction.
When he's absolutely crushing things with wit and grace, BeatKing is unstoppable. His sounds may be repetitive, a sort of caveman-like in approach where he finds a melody, straps some 808s to it and watches it destroy every bit of space around it. When he spoke to Grantland about the production on his recently released Underground Cassette Tape Music mixtape with Gangsta Boo, he remarked, "I can make the slow Houston shit, but now I got to mix it with the gangster pimp shit Three 6 Mafia did. I knew we wanted to not make it pretty."
As on as BeatKing has been the past year or so, his production hasn't jumped beyond playing around with how an 808 could affect a club or how his voice, packed with the baritone kick of a shotgun blast, could get you to do something. Every track of his on the radio, save for the Bell Biv Devoe flip of "When Will I See You Smile Again" for the mischievous and strip-club-ready "Smile" (which was handled by Mr. Lee), has that Jaws tagline and a steady pumping stream of bass.
To BeatKing, he's only doing what he grew up on -- stretching the sound DJ Paul and Juicy J created before him. It's a sound that has dominated Houston for quite some time.
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