Early in 2012, I received an e-mail from a man who corresponds with me regularly. His message was a short 45 words. It wasn't a question, but it wasn't a declaration, either; I suppose you could classify it as a revelation, but that seems a bit melodramatic. Mostly it was just an insightful statement. With his permission, I've replicated it below:
"It feels like Houston rap is close. It feels like in the next three to six years, it will prove itself to be a rap powerhouse. But even if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. Because Houston is Houston, and no other city can say that."
Only a handful of locations in the United States can make similar statements: New York, L.A., the Bay Area, Miami, New Orleans, maybe Memphis and probably Chicago now. Houston rap is obviously proud, and its traditions are obviously rich, but it seems like each and every day, more and more people outside Texas are beginning to realize it.
Or maybe they're not. But even if they're not, it doesn't matter. Because Houston is Houston, and no other city can say that. Which is a big part of the reason that Houston's 2012 was so enjoyable to experience.
The 12 things we learned about Houston rap in 2012:
12. Paul Wall as an Old Man Is Wonderful: Slim Thug has seemed the most comfortable moving among the newer class of rappers in town, and Bun B has appeared to settle into the mentor role most seamlessly. But Paul Wall has seemed the most invigorated creatively. He hasn't reinvented himself — older rappers who attempt to do that are rarely met civilly — but has streamlined himself, peeling away all of the unnecessary pieces. Need proof? His newest tape, No Sleep Til Houston, is an unfettered, confident, interesting jumble of enjoyable paulwallisms.
11. Delo Is Sturdy as Oak: His Hood Politics Vol. 3 is way better than Hood Politics Vol. 1, as good as Hood Politics Vol. 2 and superior to nearly everything else that came out in Houston this year.
10. Nobody Is Paying Enough Attention to Houston's Female Rappers: They're just too good. And they're growing. The best of their group — Amber London, Tawn-P, UZOY, Just Brittany, TroubleSum — are capable of keeping pace with just about any of the guys in town. We won't be able to pretend they're not important for too much longer.
9. Killa Kyleon Has Become the Most Underrated Houston Rapper of All Time: Of. All. Time.
8. The Outfit, TX Made a Beautiful Album Nobody Was Expecting: In all likelihood, this is the first you're hearing of The Outfit, TX. That's totally understandable. The crew, for the most part, was basically invisible up until this year. But then, holy crap, they released Starships & Rockets: Cooly Fooly Space Age Funk. It is a brave, ambitious modernization of early-era S.U.C. rap, tinged with high fives and hat tips to some of Southern hip-hop's greatest acts, which somehow manages to be completely original. It is so thick and meta and enjoyably byzantine that there's always something new to experience when listening to it.
7. Street Rap Is Coming Back: With the popularity of more abstract rappers these past couple of years, street rap's collective grip on Houston loosened. But 2012 brought with it strong projects from Rock Show, Rob Gullatte, Yung Quis, M.U.G. and a few others. It's beginning to feel like the new generation of Houston listeners will not go without its own gangster branch.
6. Trae Tha Truth Is Made of Stone: Besides the usual bevy of accomplishments he squeezes out of nothing each year, Trae's most notable achievement this go-round was flipping his status as a Houston legend into a deal with T.I.'s Grand Hustle label. He is still banned by Houston's most popular radio station and all its affiliates. Naturally, he was as loud in 2012 as he's ever been. And he survived a gunshot wound.
5. Z-Ro Will Be Magnanimous In 2013: He is officially out of his contract with Rap-A-Lot. Praise be to the most high.
4. We Are All Watching Doughbeezy Turn Into Doughbeezy: To crib my own notes, via Rocks Off's countdown of 2012's best underground mixtapes:
"Doughbeezy has become Houston's arch-hustler, more an all-around experience than solely a rapper. He appears to actively hunt fame and recognition, singularly driven and superheroically inspired. It doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that if he were banned from rapping, he'd just do the shit out of something else until people started giving him lots of money to do so.
"It's remarkable, really. That said, he is still a goddamn monster rapper, and the hearty, imaginative Blue Magic was nearly twice as good as his last tape, Reggie Bush and Kool-Aid. His fame seems inevitable, sure. But at this point, so too is his talent."
3. Kirko Bangz Is Officially a Star, Whether You Like It or Not: A small segment of Houston cheerleaders hoped the scene's first new breakout star would be one of its grittier, less sex-robot-like acts, somebody comparable to, say, L.A.'s Kendrick Lamar. There's at least a hint of logic behind that particular desire, but it is 98 percent ridiculous. Kirko's name rings out nationally: He is a radio regular and has become a coveted guest feature. His upcoming debut album carries with it no small amount of importance because it will, in part, serve as evidence for or against Houston's viability. Root for him.
2. Le$ Will Win, Either Because He's Talented or Because He Will Clog the Internet with Music: He released five mixtapes this year. FIVE. If you only have room in your rotation for one, make it his most recent, the gorgeous The Struggle Continues.
1. The Niceguys Released One of the Very Best Rap Albums of the Year, Anywhere: James Kelley is on par with any of America's top tapes that came out this year: powerful, lethal, unencumbered, perfectly done. With zero accommodations or attempts at placation, the Niceguys did only what they wanted to do creatively, and what they wanted to do creatively was right every single time. The production was as smart and high-end as the rapping, with moments that butted up against the gods ("265 (Inglorious Basterds)," "Overtoast") and moments that touched rings with the demons ("Live a Little," "War Eagle"). If they never make an album better than this, that will be completely okay.
Only in Houston
Back to La Futura
The Top 10 Houston music stories of 2012.
Looking back over the major music-related stories around Houston last year, 2012 was a little light on the kind of headlines you'll usually see in a year-end "music scene" recap: obituaries, arrests, venues closing down, general bad behavior, that sort of thing. There was some of that, but not as much as in most years.
Instead, it seemed like there were an unusual number of happy endings and other positive developments, something that makes Rocks Off a little nervous for 2013. Let's just all try to enjoy the good vibes while they last.
10. Back to La Futura: After shuffling record labels and generally taking their sweet time, in September ZZ Top released their first studio album in nine years, the Rick Rubin-boosted La Futura. It made a more than respectable debut at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 (their highest ever), and most critics applauded the lil' ol' band's good sense to stick to their strong suit: gutbucket Texas boogie.
9. Old White Guys Still Pack 'em In: Two packed Houston arenas saw beyond-their-years, but not past-their-prime, performances by a couple of '60s icons, Sir Paul McCartney and the Brian-Wilson-inclusive Beach Boys. Next year we already know we're getting Eric Clapton, but the rock geezers everyone is really hoping for are named Bruce and Sir Mick. (And Keef, Ronnie and Charlie, of course.)
8. Walters, Alive and Kicking: After effectively being run off Washington Avenue, then enduring months of permit purgatory, Walters reopened behind UH-Downtown in late 2011, bigger and with fewer D-bags stumbling in for Jaeger shots at last call. Now that it has a real parking lot, which was added in the fall, Walters has been fully restored to its place as a linchpin of Houston's underground-rock scene. Long may it run.
7. Houston Rap Gets Institutionalized: Save the "higher learning" jokes, because last year two prominent Houston universities officially made local rap part of their curriculum. Through the efforts of librarian Julie Grob, the University of Houston completed cataloging its wealth of items related to the late DJ Screw and in March hosted the Awready! hip-hop conference that included performances and panels such as "Slabs and Syrup" and "The Legacy of DJ Screw." Meanwhile, Swisha House Records donated memorabilia including cassettes, flyers and the label's 2009 Houston Press Music Award to the Special Collections department of Rice University's Fondren Library.
6. Nightculture Rising: Perfectly positioned to capitalize on electronic dance music's seemingly overnight surge in popularity, Houston-based Nightculture Inc. opened on Wall Street early last year — supposedly the first-ever EDM company to go public (NGHT) — and bought outright the city's top techno temple, Stereo Live, in May. It saw an immediate return on its investment by keeping the dance floor filled with top names across the EDM spectrum, from filthy dubstep to sublime progressive house, and in the fall partnered with national promoter Disco Donnie Presents to bring the Houston area its first-ever electronic-music festival.
5. Something Wicked: Although Tiësto had to drop out when the Dutch DJ hurt his back, fill-in Kaskade and several other A-list EDM artists such as Zedd, Le Castle Vania, Flux Pavilion, Modestep and W&W helped send Something Wicked to a successful maiden voyage in a field adjacent to Sam Houston Race Park. Nightculture later announced an impressive official attendance of some 12,000 people, and certainly a large part of the fun came from perfect late-October weather, the wooded setting and all the costumes. Enough with the Indian headdresses, though.
4. The Trae Shooting: Leader of the Assholes by Nature rap family, popular Houston MC Trae tha Truth — as soft-spoken offstage as he is aggressive on it — was wounded in the shoulder while leaving a strip clup in the early morning of June 20. The gunfire wounded two others and killed two members of the ABN inner circle, Dinky D and Poppa C, as well as a 30-year-old Houston woman.
Police arrested a suspect with a long criminal history about two weeks later and said they believed Poppa C, real name Coy Thompson, was the intended target. If there's a silver lining in this sad story, it's that Trae was back on his feet in time for July's annual Trae Day, which he turned into a community fair at Emancipation Park rather than a concert. He later returned from touring (including Europe) to finally perform in Houston again, with cousin Z-Ro at November's ABN reunion at House of Blues.
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3. Summer Fest a $14M Big Deal: Headlined by Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, the Flaming Lips and an aromatic haze over Eleanor Tinsley Park, the fourth Free Press Summer Fest drew an estimated 81,000 people last year, breaking the old record by nearly 25 percent. In October, a University of Houston study commissioned by FPSF founders Free Press Houston and Pegstar Concerts found that the two-day festival brought about $14 million into the local economy and that one in four attendees came in from out of town — a figure that made one of the study's authors tell Rocks Off that the number of cultural tourists coming to Houston for events such as FPSF "may be more than we think."
2. Static: There are so many more sophisticated ways to listen to music without paying for it these days that it's a little puzzling two of our biggest stories of the year involved the seemingly lifeless medium of terrestrial FM radio. But both the 103.7 sale/selling out in May and December's Walton and Johnson flap (which wasn't even really about music) were proof that our readers love them some squeaky wheels. There's not much else to say, except to add one more word in support of 89.7 FM, Alvin Community College's "Gulf Coast Rocker" and radio done right.
1. Gimme Noise: Heard any good noise complaints recently? Last year at this time, that was all Houston was hearing, as the controversial noise ordinance revision passed by City Council in October 2011 led to squawking all over the music scene. The amended law gave police much greater enforcement authority (unfairly, many said) and led to numerous fines and even jail time for several bars and music venues.
For a while it seemed like you couldn't go to Boondocks, one of the hardest-hit venues, without seeing an HPD squad car in the parking lot. But miraculously — thanks, we'd like to think, in some small part to May's Houston Press cover story "Sound Effects" — by last summer, most of the cases had been tossed.