From the first time you heard it, you knew Trae's "Swang" was a huge song. Like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," it is simply magical -- musical opium. The chilled, jazzy track recycles, slows down and enhances LL Cool J's circular guitar pattern from "Hey Lover"; the lyrics -- in the original version, courtesy of Trae, Hawk and the late Fat Pat -- salute Fat Pat and DJ Screw, two of the legendary Screwed Up Click's most renowned fallen heroes.
Overall, it's that rare jam that paints a detailed picture in your mind and takes you to a specific time and place. Hearing it, you can't help but picture dudes rollin' their slabs slow through the southside streets after dark.
"It's only right for me to bring my culture and my team," Trae said in an interview with Ozone's Matt Sonzala earlier this year. "Trae will always ride for his people. 'Swang,' that was a term Screwed Up Click used period. That's just our shit. Pat is a legend, man, and with me and Hawk around he ain't never gonna fade away. And then Screw, I ain't gonna let that shit fade away. I brought that shit back because I felt my first impact needed to be what I represent and who the fuck they need to be respecting right now because this man paved the way for everybody. And that's real."
Of course, Trae was speaking before the first of May, which was when Hawk was ambushed and killed in a case that freakishly resembled that of Fat Pat, his brother. "Swang" was always a little bit eerie -- all posthumous rap is, and the music on the track enhances the spooky vibe. But Hawk's death, coming just as a song about his late brother was taking over Texas and Louisiana, turned "Swang" into something downright unearthly. "That took it to a whole other level," Trae says, in an interview with Racket at Rap-A-Lot headquarters. "It is what it is, but at the end of the day I'm gonna keep strivin.' "
Trae -- a product of the city's southwest side -- has been strivin' since back in the late '90s, when he marched under the banners of both the Screwed Up Click and his own gang Assholes By Nature. When he was all of about 16, Trae first appeared on his cousin Z-Ro's debut release, Look What You Did to Me. Soon after, in 1999, a fresh-out-of-jail Trae and his posse the Guerilla Maab released Rise, and it has drawn comparisons to the Geto Boys' Grip It on That Other Level for sheer realness, energy and emotion. Since then, Trae has released a tall stack of mixtapes and regionally renowned albums, and now, with his new album, Restless (street date: June 27), and a distribution deal with Rap-A-Lot, one of his records will get a nationwide push for the first time.
Quite a body of work for a guy the Houston Chronicle described as a "relative newcomer" back in April. "It's funny, 'cause I've been rapping since I was 12 and I've been in the rap game since I was 16," he says. "To the streets, I ain't nothin' new. I've been here, just like I'm gonna be here even longer."
Rap-A-Lot Records is housed in a nondescript building in a dreary, Office Space-like zone of corporate zombie-dom, hard by a bunch of buildings that house things like the local head office of the YMCA and a bunch of humdrum businesses that offer vague services like "computer solutions" and "customer care." It would be easy to whiz right past the record label at an HPD-approved 35 miles an hour and not think much of the building. But once you enter the razor-wire-encased compound, it's clear this ain't no Dunder Mifflin Paper.
Rap-A-Lot squats on pillars over the company's parking lot, which in this case looks more like a car show. CEO J. Prince has always had a thing for motors -- Rap-A-Lot's beginnings were in a North Shepherd car lot 20 years ago, and today, the "Godfather of the South" still stashes a dozen or two fine-ass rides at his office. There's a few candy-painted '80s slabs, an assortment of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, a squadron of rare Harley-Davidsons and a couple of Model-T-looking jalopies, not to mention a stretch Hummer and an immaculate, vintage T-Bird and what looks like a 1957 Chevy Bel Air -- equally pristine. (The breadth of Prince's collection shows him to be a guy who really loves cars -- not just a guy who uses them as status symbols. Not many rappers or rap impresarios would tool around town in an 80-year-old Packard, no matter how expensive it was.)
Talk about ghetto synergy: The Hummer is painted up with the record company's distinct logo, while other cars tout J. Prince's other businesses -- a limo service and a boxing gym, among others. And once you step past all that, you walk up a flight of stairs and into the building proper -- the place where Southern rap was born and where the heart and soul of Gulf Coast gangster rap beats still. The interior has an ebony and metallic silver Oakland Raiders vibe, and the walls are festooned with platinum and gold albums testifying to the label's success over the years. Meanwhile, a door marked "Free at Last Bail Bonds" hints that this is no Contemporary Christian label. Not many record labels have in-house bondsmen, but then not many record labels are like Rap-A-Lot.
Today's a big day at the office, the listening session to launch Trae's Restless. A few dozen DJs (of both the club and radio variety), promoters, publicists and journalists are herded into a sort of rec room, where we are wined and dined with soda pop, chicken wings and onion rings. (I'm thinking the evening's theme is " ÔSwang,' wangs, rangs and thangs.") We are also treated to a promotional DVD of Trae touting Restless at clubs and in the streets of downtown by night.
After about half an hour of this, Trae's manager appears and hands out listener response sheets. On them, we are asked to rate the beats and lyrics of each of the tracks on a scale ranging from "Wack" to "Hit." And then we're away -- we're introduced to a track, we listen, we deduct the wackitude-to-hititude ratio, the manager introduces another, and repeat. (For what it's worth, the track "Cadillac," which features Three Six Mafia, is a good bet for a follow-up single.)
Then the manager comes out and thanks all for coming, as does a Rap-A-Lot executive. (J. Prince couldn't attend.) The Rap-A-Lot guy jokes that everybody should meet up later at a northside strip club -- "Anybody who wanna go to Harlem Knights, just let me know. I got y'all. Just let me know. But we'll only be in the parking lot -- we ain't gonna go in..."
Last, Trae himself appears, thanks us all, signs some glossies, and the crowd disperses. Someone hands Trae a lean, three-year-old boy with cornrows and ringlets, presumably Trae's son. The boy is crying his eyes out -- an ear infection, Trae thinks. The boy quiets down as soon as his head hits Trae's shoulder. Trae comforts the boy some more, and we take a seat on a couch in the Rap-A-Lot lobby and talk for a few minutes.
Trae is very much in keeping with Rap-A-Lot's high standards -- they're the street-tough steak to the rest of H-town's blinged-out sizzle. His rhymes are packed with authenticity, and he's skilled on the mike. When he wants to be, Trae ranks with Z-Ro and Twista as one of the fastest rappers alive. What's more, there's a method to his machine-gun madness; he spits his breathy and serpentine rhymes so fast that his words will sound especially dope on slowed-down tracks. He still sounds fast on screwed stuff, but he's easier to understand; meanwhile, a different class of fans -- those who don't sip syrup -- consider him a rapid-fire virtuoso.
Count Trae among those who don't partake -- of syrup or anything else, for that matter. "I take life head-on," he says. "I want to face things when they hit me right then and there. Each person's got they own preference for why they do what they do; mine is to deal with everything for what it is."
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While Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Lil' Flip and Paul Wall -- four of the biggest names from Houston's hitmaking class of 2005 -- all now have legions of vociferous haters, on the Internet and elsewhere, Trae is damn near universally respected, especially at street level. "I say the truth about the streets," he says. "I been out here a long time. I seen a lot -- a lotta bad things happened in my eyesight. I've seen and did a lot more things than most people."
Granted, you hear braggadocio like that from almost every rapper, but in Trae's case it's the hard, cold truth. At age 11, Trae witnessed the killing of a family friend, a young girl Trae describes as more of a sister. When Trae hit 12, his brother Dinky was given three life sentences. A couple of years later, Trae himself did time for aggravated robbery.
And there's anecdotal evidence, too: A guy once tried to sell me a home-burned CD that prominently featured Trae's music -- on a Metro bus. (Doesn't get more street than that.) One of the few local artists with as much ghetto cred as Trae is Z-Ro, his cousin and longtime partner in rhyme. Although Z-Ro appears on one song ("No Help") on Restless, he and Trae are still at odds. "We made that track a long time ago," he says. While Trae won't talk about why he and Z-Ro are on the outs, a hint comes later in the interview: Z-Ro is headed back to prison for a parole violation, and Trae's younger brother was caught up in the drama. "They hit the case together," he says. "And they both going to jail."
But Trae could be headed elsewhere: to a brand-new level of national fame.