Michael Watts is having an affair. No, not that type of affair. His mistress is a new musical innovation dubbed "trillstep." Watts is, of course, better known for his steady relationship with chopped and screwed. He rose to prominence in the '90s as the north side's answer to Southside pioneer DJ Screw.
Watts started Swishahouse Records with fellow deejay OG Ron C in 1997. By 2005, it had become a catalyst for the city's hip-hop hegemony. Swishahouse artists dominated the scene, hoisting Houston onto a national scene that had only paid a cursory glance up to that point.
In short, you can't write the history of hip-hop in this city without devoting considerable ink to Michael "5000" Watts, a.k.a. Mr. Swishahouse. A.k.a. Mr. 5 Fingers. A.k.a. Mr. Independent Hustle. A.k.a. Mr. North Side. Watts is not only a revered deejay, he's the nester of North Houston rap, there when it sparked, there when it fizzled out.
3rd Annual "Don't Sleep on It" Youth Health Expo
With DJ Michael "5000" Watts, Killa Kyleon, MPS, 1040 Boyz, Beat King, Big Wood, D Boss and the Swishahouse Family, 1 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center, 4014 Market, www.dontsleeponit.org.
If you're reading this, you've probably heard of Chamillionaire, Paul Wall and Mike Jones. They started out at Swishahouse and went on to nab major deals and platinum plaques. It's hard to know where Cham and Wall would be today if Watts hadn't agreed to let them freestyle on his 97.9 The Box radio show.
But put past glory aside for now. There's something else on Watts's mind these days.
On a scalding Houston evening, the Houston Press heads to the north side and drives through the nondescript alley that houses Swishahouse Studios to talk to Watts about Saturday's "Don't Sleep on It" health-awareness concert in the Fifth Ward. He's been hosting these for about three years, and this year's event is a collaboration with the Houston Syphilis Elimination Advisory Council (SEAC) and the Texas Department of State Health Services.
His studio resembles a mad scientist's lab — assorted DJ equipment, laptops, plaques. Watts is in a black tee and khaki shorts. He greets me with a firm handshake and offers me a chair. He doesn't smile once. He makes eye contact and speaks calmly, measuring his words with the patience of a sage who's seen it all.
And he has.
The Press asks Watts what he thinks about Houston's current hip-hop climate, specifically the so-called Old Houston vs. New Houston debate. There's a sense of separation in the city, mostly between veterans who want to maintain old traditions, and new-schoolers, who seem to care less about regional boundaries.
Watts doesn't take sides.
"I mean, it's like that in any genre of music, you know," he says. "Of course, man, you got two different generations, and they grew up on two different principles. But, it's always gonna be a conflict. It's no different from when we was growing up versus what our parents wanted us to listen to versus what we wanted to listen to."
Unfortunately for the New School, the music industry is more crowded than ever. If you think of record deals as cake, more people have forks but everyone's starving. Watts knows — after all, he helped groom the first wave of New Houston back when the cake was still available in slices.
His artists eventually moved on to bigger and better ventures, but they retained a hard-hat work ethic that would prove useful long after the major deals.
"Those guys were willing to work, man," explains Watts. "I think that's the thing that separated them from a lot of new guys that's coming out now," Watt says. "They knew what work was. They weren't like the type of people to sit around and wait for somebody to do something for them. They went out there and was pushing just as hard as the label was."
He adds: "I think a lot of the new generation doesn't really know what it takes, because there's not that many people they can use as an example that are successful, like, that's right here in the community. I mean, you got a couple of 'em – you got Beat King, you got Kirko Bangz."
There's actually one thing Watts cares about more than hard work: Staying relevant. He employs terms like "changing with the times" and "staying current" so frequently it's safe to assume that this philosophy is now imprinted on the minds of his employees.
To his credit, he does practice what he preaches. Take trillstep, for instance. It's basically a Swishahouse innovation that blends Houston raps with dubstep beats. It hasn't caught on like Houston's other export, chopped and screwed, but the potential is huge.
Trillstep is part of Watts's vision for Swishahouse, a vision that hinges on cautiously evolving. It's like that Lexus commercial: Anything not moving forward is moving backwards.
As for "Don't Sleep on It" (or, for short, the Michael "5000" Watts Independent Artist Showcase), the purpose is to drum up awareness on syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Everyone gets free screenings, door prizes and refreshments with a side dish of local music, all for an irresistible price of zero dollars.
Watts tells me that the main thing he hopes to accomplish is to have people "learn their status." That's an important point because syphilis is totally treatable (with antibiotics), which takes the edge off the whole "learning your status" business.
"But instead of just coming on out there," Watts continues, "we would rather do something that's fun for the community, like do a showcase. We don't want to make it like you have to go to school on Saturday, or something like that. We want to make it fun."
But no one cares about some hip-hop guy and a show attached to a health cause. That's how it reads on paper, a hip-hop artist putting on a show attached to a health cause. Right?
It's tempting to dismiss the show as another artist treating a social cause like a hobby, as they go about driving million-dollar cars and sleeping peacefully on Egyptian bed linen. People take celebrity causes about as seriously as they do windshield flyers and sex pills.
One thing that makes Watts's effort hard to dismiss, though, is that the man doesn't bullshit. He doesn't try to sell you anything. Plus, his goals seem to extend beyond self-interest.
For example, when our conversation shifts to S.U.C. vs Swishahouse, i.e., the entanglement of legacies by virtue of Watts building his career on a style DJ Screw clearly invented, he does what anyone who thinks bigger than himself would do: Give huge credit where it's due.
"Honestly, man, if it wasn't for DJ Screw doing what he did, there wouldn't be a Swishahouse," Watts says. "This was directly created off what he had started."
You should care because, when we ask why he picked health awareness to push, he doesn't spout some noble horse dung about the importance of Doing Good and Changing the World, he gives us facts. Depressing facts. And — if you care about these things — a little research courtesy of CDC.gov turns up some numbers that back up the gravity of Houston's syphilis problem:
5: Houston's rank among all U.S. cities for new cases.
2: Where Texas ranks on reported cases of syphilis
1/3: Fraction of all Houstonians with new syphilis infection who also have HIV.
1: Harris County's rank among all Texas counties in congenital syphilis.
1: Houston's rank on reported cases of congenital syphilis in infants.
When we suggest that this concert could be perceived as a publicity coup for Swishahouse, Watts doesn't vehemently deny it or respond with a defensive quip. He simply reminds me that the purpose of the show is to lighten the mood for the kids, and that yes, it's publicity for everyone involved.
He has a point. It's publicity for the Department of Health, the SEAC, everyone trying to make a positive impact in the city.
Houston is already an influential city in rap, as Drake and A$AP Rocky will tell you. Is the city capable of leading the war on STDs? Watts certainly hopes so. He does end the discussion on a hip-hop note, offering a word of counsel to the new generation of Houston rappers.
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"Don't be scared to go outside the box and do something different," he says. "I always get asked, 'How can I be successful like Swishahouse was? We doin' the same thing that y'all doing, but it's not working.'"
He has an easy answer: "It's already been done."
"Different" for Michael Watts and Swishahouse these days starts with a T-word. The label boasts its own dubstep DJ, a guy named Badbwoy BMC, who helped usher in the new sound on the aptly titled mixtape Welcome 2 Trillstep. A new batch of original material will follow this summer.
Will Watts find the antidote to Houston's commercial slumber of late? Who knows? For now he's content to help Houstonians make smarter health decisions, wheeling an ailing city in the right direction one trillstep at a time.