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Mouth of the South

To some, 2007 is the year hip-hop kicked the bucket. Nas famously declared the music dead last December, and last month Time published some numbers that bolstered his point.

Hip-hop album sales have shrunk 44 percent since 2000, spiraling a full 30 percent in the last year. Seventeen of this year's top 20 urban releases have come from R&B; last year, hip-hop claimed half. (Yes, sales are down for every genre, but hip-hop's have fallen even farther than most.)

Only so much of this slump can be explained by downloading and old-­fashioned hard-copy 'hood piracy. Supply and demand takes care of the rest.

Namely, there's not much demand for this seemingly endless supply of ringtone rap: moronic chants over crude beats, a litany of lyrics about monotonous materialism, mindless misogyny and cartoonish hedonism, and cheesy keyboard riffs that sound like Andre the Giant jabbing his carrot-like digits at a Little Tykes Casio.

What's more, stars like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Kanye West are ridiculously overexposed, while what little fresh blood is pumped into the system increasingly comes from the aforementioned one-hit-wonder ringtone rappers. (In this case, you wonder how they ever had even one hit.)

As hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang put it in a recent interview with the British daily The Guardian, "the industry is milking older cows 'til they're dry, and killing the calves before they've grown."

"Without question, I agree with that 1,000 percent," says K-Rino, the conscience of Houston rap, king of the Houston battle rappers, true pioneer of Southern hip-hop and founder of the South Park Coalition, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend.

"Once something catches fire, they drain it beyond the existence of fluid," he continues. "They just drain it until it's a dust storm."

K-Rino believes the industry gets so caught up in squeezing the fruits of its most prominent artists for that last teaspoon of juice that they neglect to plant new trees.

"The hip-hop game burns people out," he says. "You're seeing the same five or ten people year in, year out for a four- or five-year period, till people finally cut 'em loose and a new crop comes in. But there's no more diversity in the game. If one artist jumps out, then every other label gonna jump out with another that fits that mold."

K-Rino believes today's labels should look to Motown for a better example. "The Temptations and the Miracles didn't sound alike, Diana Ross and them didn't sound like these cats here, but they were all under the same umbrella," he says. "That's what builds a relationship between a fan and a label. The fan is able to identify and know what they're gettin' when they see this label."

What's not working nationally isn't working locally either. "That's why Houston ain't hot no more," K-Rino says. "Houston ain't hot because there was no filterin' in of different styles to represent the city. And now we're at the point where we've pretty much gotta start over."

While no city has put out more crap than Atlanta, it has also dominated the South and beaten Houston hands down. K-Rino credits that city's diversity of rap sounds, citing the varied grooves of people like Ludacris, T.I., Young Jeezy and Young Joc.

"With us?" he contrasts. "Everybody got the same thing: diamonds, cars, whatever else, diamonds, cars, whatever else," he says. "It's a circle and it's played out and there's nobody there to get the rebound."

In a perfect world, K-Rino would be just the guy to nab that carom off the glass and slam it home. Few rappers nationwide can touch his lyrical skills — his words practically require headphones just to keep up, and even then you find yourself lingering a little too long over memorable phrases to keep up.

"It takes years for my words to kick in, it's true," he raps on the title track of The Hitt List, one of his 17 albums. "Lines I kicked in '92, just now got fools goin' hooo!'"

K-Rino regularly takes on a wide variety of material few rappers even attempt. His clear-eyed reading of street reality, religion — K-Rino is a devout member of the Nation of Islam — and politics is on a par with people like KRS-One and Gil Scott-Heron.

What's more, he frequently flashes a wicked sense of humor. "People misunderstand — they think you got to preach on every song," he says. "Naw! Just speak about somethin' that's real, somethin' that's gonna get people in their mind or heart."

He's never smoked, boozed or drugged, not even weed. How out of sync is that with Houston rappers? He also hasn't owned a car for years, and he's proud of it. That doesn't exactly mesh with the industry's current mood.

"I don't really hold my tongue when it comes to political, religious or social views," he says. "And I'm not gonna do the watered-down materialism garbage."

Now in his late thirties, K-Rino came of age with hip-hop as it billowed out of New York in the mid-'80s. Back then, the music was rarely played in Houston clubs or on the radio save KTSU's Saturday-afternoon Kidz Jamm. Devotees had to get their fixes from records or hit up rare touring shows.

K-Rino became a lifelong rap junkie at Southern Star Amphitheater in the mid-'80s. The Fresh Fest, a package tour with headliners Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Fat Boys and "all of them cats that was in the movie Krush Groove" pushed him over the edge.

"Man, it was packed," he says. "Watching it, I was like, 'Man, I got to be that person one day that's up there.'"

He went home a changed kid, as did all the other fledgling local rappers. Not long after that, K-Rino would meet another in a fateful rap battle. K-Rino was then the top MC at South Park's Sterling High; Ganksta Nip was his archrival across the 'hood at Jones.

"We was enemies," K-Rino remembers. "We used to go at it. In '87 we just decided we were gonna go ahead on and settle this once and for all."

Their enmity was leavened by a healthy respect, so the two teenage rappers met at a neutral site. "It was like, 'I'm not gonna come to your school and battle you, and you're not gonna come to my school and battle me,'" remembers K-Rino. "So we met on the corner of Bellfort and Martin Luther King, and from that point on, that place was called 'The Battleground.'"

Today K-Rino remembers the battle lasting hours and hours. "Finally the crowd was like, 'I don't know. We just gonna call it a draw,'" he says.

Afterward, K-Rino and Nip happened to head home in the same direction. "We hopped on the same Metro bus when we was goin' home," he remembers. "It was a crazy situation. Normally when you do something like that, you go your way and he goes his, but we took off in the same direction.

"Just me and him," he continues. "So we got on the bus and started talkin' — 'Man, that was crazy.' 'Yeah, that was tight.' After that you wouldn't see one of us without seeing the other."

What's more, their epic combat set events in motion that would soon birth the South Park Coalition, Houston's first rap clique. (The Geto Boys preceded the SPC, but the trio wasn't a clique.)

"Every week after that we was promotin' battles," K-Rino remembers. "It was like, 'All right, you and you meet at The Battleground at four o'clock.' Boys had to prove they stripes on that spot."

Eventually, other cliques would rise. K-Rino's Sterling classmate Robert Davis (a.k.a. DJ Screw) would found the Screwed Up Click, which over the years has included Lil' Flip, Lil' Keke, Big Pokey, brothers Fat Pat and Big Hawk, Big Mello, Yungstar, Big Moe and Trae; and E.S.G. Swishahouse, which launched Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire and Slim Thug, formed on the north side.

Besides intermittent breakouts, Houston rap simmered underground until 2005, when it hit the charts like never before. Then it fell apart again, all while K-Rino watched from the underground, releasing one killer album after another.

Today, he's content as an uncom­promising underground legend commanding universal respect, whose musical influence can easily be detected in the rhymes of artists as diverse as Chamillionaire and Z-Ro.

He's not content to let revisionist history marginalize his clique's feats; MTV's Houston rap documentary failed to even mention SPC.

"They tryin' to write us out of history," he says. "You hear about the Screwed Up Click, you hear about Swishahouse, you hear about Rap-A-Lot. You hear about all these different entities who played major roles and shaped the city, but they never mention us, and I've got a problem with that."

So K-Rino continues to host a yearly SPC Weekend, and promises the opposite of a typical, poorly produced rap show.

"People can expect to hear real lyrics, not a bunch of people onstage muffled and hoppin' around, lookin' crazy," he says. "We from the old school, so you're gonna get to see a lot of H-Town legends and classic artists in the building. I ain't sayin' we're gonna have lions jumpin' through a ring of fire, but it is just gonna be a good solid show."

If hip-hop at large could pull that off on a macro scale, it might not be in terminal meltdown today.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com


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