Near 9 p.m. Monday.
"Ay, you want something to chase it with? We're drinking it straight."
E.S.G., possibly the most unassuming, underappreciated regional legend ever to have existed, is standing in front of the Go Hustler Smoke Shop, a strip center business located in the rumble of Third Ward.
There are other businesses in the row — a discount cleaners, a place to get your hair braided, a place to get your hair cut (they are two separate establishments), a place to buy liquor and a place to get your taxes done — but, at the moment, the smoke shop is the only one with any activity.
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E. is having an impromptu mixer, advertised as a listening party for his latest album, Owner's Manual, but executed as reason to stand around and hang out and, should the opportunity present itself, maybe sell a few copies.
He looks at the Styrofoam cup that's just been handed to him. He takes the top off. It's filled halfway. His mouth, straight and serious, leans into a slight smirk. He adjusts his posture. Then he looks up, aiming his eyes at the person that handed it to him.
"Like what," he asks.
The person names a fruit flavor; something to tame whatever it is that's in the cup.
He looks back at the drink, then back at the person.
There are eight guys standing within earshot, and a separate group of four a little further away.
They all appear to be here specifically to see E.S.G.
Everything has paused.
A quiet three or four seconds.
"Nah, I'm good," says E. "I'm a G."
He swishes the liquid around the cup slightly, then takes a sip.
E.S.G. is smart. And insightful. And, unquestionably, one of Houston's most vital pieces of rap history. But a prison sentence in the mid-'90s stifled perhaps his best chance at national stardom. He has continued to make music, but has not caught fire like he'd maybe like it to (gangsters don't record viral videos, yo).
Right now, outside this smoke shop, he is discussing the trajectory of D-I-Y rap, explaining how Houston rappers have always embraced the methodology, particularly pre-Napster, and how curious it is that now, with the Internet's influence on the music's business model in full bloom, more and more are gravitating back toward it. Mid-explanation, while he's talking about how a proper placing on iTunes can lead to X amount of sales, a man approaches, shakes hands with him, makes brief small talk, then trades him a $10 bill for a copy of Owner's Manual, which is in a narrow cardboard box sitting on the concrete next to E.S.G.'s right foot.
He has literally done this a million times; the Internet claims he has sold more than 1,000,000 albums independently over the course of his 17-year-career. The transaction is seamless.
Toward the end of a summation of his long discography (with Owner's Manual, E.S.G. has entered the teens), two of Houston's budding stars, Fat Tony and Andrew "A.D.D." Davis, algorithms of hipness and actualizations of rap modernity, wander up.
They heard about the mixer on Twitter, the only place it was "advertised."
E.S.G. pauses to address them, calling Fat Tony by name, even though they've never been properly introduced.
"I didn't know E.S.G. knew me," laughs Tony.
E.'s debut album came out in 1994. Tony's came out in 2010.
They interact briefly, then split, and E.S.G. resumes his lecture.
This latest album, playing loud enough inside the store to be heard plainly outside, plays mostly as it's billed: a How-To guide for young rappers; How To Create The Lifestyle That You Want With Rapping, How To Not Become Irrelevant While Rapping, How To Walk Through The Hyperpsychotic Business End Of Rapping, etc. (Hard work, honesty and intelligence.)
Last month, Drake, one of the most recognizable names in all of rap, released Take Care, his sophomore LP. It features two samples of E.S.G.'s music, a quick snippet from the intro of Sailin' Da South and the wonky spine of Ocean of Funk's iconic single "Swangin' and Bangin'."
E. takes out his phone, thumbs through to his pictures, selects one, then tilts the screen. It's a shot of the top of a check issued from Drake's record label for sample clearance.
"When I met him, he told me I was a legend to him," says E.S.G. of Drake. "When they e-mailed me and told me they wanted to use my songs, it was like the Lord was saying, 'Here you go. This is for all you've been through, for all your hard work.'"
He is hustle incarnate, but he's a little bit lucky, too.
As has been the case for the past decade, conversation eventually turns to his son, Bryson, newbie rapper and potential successor.
"His mama wasn't letting him come here," E. says with a head nod.
Bryson, only 11 years old, has already firmed up a remarkable story of his own.
Beyond the immediate accolades — he's performed at 97.9's Los Magnificos Custom Car Show, the Dub Car Show, and freestyled live on various stations — there are the nearly unbelievable stats.
Today, Bryson, rap name Killa B, is a strong young lad; played football (Mama made him stop when a child the family knew was paralyzed during a game), plays basketball (he scored 14 points in a recent game, which in an Under 12 league is basically like scoring 65) and is an eager student.
When he was born, though, delivered three full months too early, his future seemed bleak.
He was barely more than a pound at birth, with eyes that weren't fully developed, a brain that was hemorrhaging, a problem with one of his heart's arteries and a hole in his intestines.
"You know how doctors are," says E.S.G. "They tell you the worst. They try to scare you. They said he might be blind or cripple. My wife was scared. I wasn't. I knew he'd be fine."
There is reverence in E.'s voice when he talks about B.
In February, B will release his first tape, a ten-track effort aptly titled Miracle Baby. There are songs about school, and there are songs about girls ("That bitch is so super-duper jamming," says E.) and there are songs about clothes.
Shortly thereafter, E.'s next mixtape, Space Cadets, featuring Bun B, Slim Thug, Snoop and more, releases.
"I don't push anything on him," says E.S.G. "He loves sports and school and music. He does them all. We just watch, help where we can.
"I might have a beat in mind that I think he should rap on, but I'll show him four or five. Nine times out of ten, he picks the most jamming one. It's in his blood. He was born for it."
The next night, after a couple hours of radio silence, five pictures pop up on E.S.G.'s Twitter page.
They are of B working on a wooden car that's a project for a school, markers and posterboard and wooden blocks laid out on a table.
In one of them, he is grinning broadly.
E.S.G. has never fully received the accolades he deserves. And he never may. But his son might.
And that's good enough.
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