After years of being dismissed as a novelty and then as a sort of stepchild to its East and West Coast precedents, Southern hip-hop is only now receiving its due. That road to respectability began here in Texas, primarily with the breakthrough national success of the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," the first hit to show that Southerners could rap as well as anybody from The Bronx or South Central.
When Houston's first short run at the top of the Dirty South hip-hop heap ended in the mid-'90s, other regional hubs rose in New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, coastal Virginia and, most prominently, Atlanta. By the turn of the century, most of the Billboard chart hits were coming out of those cities, while Houston's scene remained regional and underground. But as we all know, that situation did not last, as Houston exploded onto the national consciousness in 2005.
In the new book Third Coast, those stories are being told with the gravity, diligence and aplomb they deserve by New York-based author and journalist Roni Sarig. An excerpt follows, detailing the recent rise of Michael Watts's northside hit factory Swishahouse and its stable of chart-topping MCs. -- John Nova Lomax
Excerpted from the forthcoming Da Capo Press book Third Coast by Roni Sarig. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.
Of all Southern hip-hop's flavors, none captures the lazy pace of an oppressively hot and humid day in the big dirty as well as screw music. In the early '90s, the warped, slurred concoction -- named after its creator, DJ Screw -- oozed out of Houston slow as molasses. This was music at the heart of a culture so often characterized by its languid pace.
People generally attribute the South's slower pace to the heat, but that's not the whole story. How, then, to explain the high energy in Miami, where sweat only serves as social lubrication, increasing the tempo of its manic native hip-hop? Matt Sonzala, the Houston-based writer and radio host, offers one explanation: the drugs. "Go to Miami and what do you get a ton of? Cocaine. Go to Texas, what do you get a ton of? Mexican weed and pills [and codeine cough syrup]. It's oversimplifying to a certain extent, but the party is different."
It could also be that the choice of drug merely reflects the innate mood of an area; the way people party extends from the way they live. So the question remains why one part of the South sped up hip-hop, while another part slowed it down. The common bonds: Southern rebellion -- neither side was content to leave it alone -- and the bass that throbs through both extremes.
What brought screw music to the mainstream was neither DJ Screw nor the Screwed Up Click, but rather Screw's more media-savvy, crosstown rival-turned-successor, Michael "5000" Watts. Because of screw music's immense local popularity, other DJs inevitably tried it. But Watts was the only one who came close to rivaling Screw himself. And Watts's success helped preserve the music and legend of Screw for people who didn't catch on to slowed-down music until after Screw's death.
Critical to Watts's rise was the fact that he was from the northside. For years, screw fans in north Houston had to sit through the S.U.C. dissing their neighborhood. With Watts, they finally had one of their own to provide the slowed-down sounds they'd come to love. Also, Watts had no interest in Screw's homemade style and direct sales -- he put his stuff on CD from the start, used Pro Tools and digital CD mixing for higher fidelity, and sold his mixes in stores. Watts had some important connections to the mass market going in: By the time he started doing slowed-down mixes in 1996, he was working as a DJ at The Box.
Watts had met Screw a few times, but they were not close. Publicly, the two had a complicated relationship. Watts never denied Screw had invented screw music -- and was always willing to give credit when asked -- but he didn't seem to have an overly reverential attitude toward Screw either. Watts saw no problem with adopting screw music as his own style as well. There was, after all, no way to patent this mixing technique.
To Screw fans on the southside, Watts was just biting Screw's style -- legal, perhaps, but not the most honorable way to build a DJ reputation. "The northside was pretty much happy to have him, and the southside had Screw," says Sonzala. "One of the things Screwed Up people say now is, 'Man, they got Michael Watts on the radio. Back then they didn't want to hear no Screw radio shows even though it was the hottest thing in the streets.'"
Resentment between northside and southside was nothing new in Houston hip-hop. The two centers of black life had long accentuated their differences in everything from music to car accessories to hairstyles. Rap battles went back to the very beginning, when South Park Coalition's K-Rino battled Rap-A-Lot's Jukebox. For the most part, violence never erupted between rappers, though that wasn't always the case on the street.
Then, in 1993, former Geto Boys Willie D and Scarface had a confrontation in a club. Less than a year earlier, Willie (a 5th Ward northsider) had left the group on bad terms and Scarface (a southsider) read some of the barbs on Willie's solo album as being directed toward him. "We ran into each other at a club on the southside," Willie told Rap Pages three years after the incident. "He came up to me and asked me about it, and I told him to take it however he wanted to take it. He went for his shit, and I went for mine. I was 'bout 199 niggas strong, and he was there deep, and before you know it shots started going off."
Following the shooting, in which Willie says people on both sides were killed, tensions peaked between the northside and southside. They finally subsided when Willie D rejoined the Geto Boys for 1996's The Resurrection. By then, perhaps Houston was too fatigued by the fighting to get riled up about the Watts/Screw rivalry starting to brew. K-Rino, the scene's elder statesman, addressed the north/south divide in his song "You Ain't Real": "You holler northside, southside, leave it alone/killing each other over land that you don't even own."
Still, Watts's popularity grew to a point where -- because of his national distribution deal, his record stores sales, and his radio show -- he and partner OG Ron C were arguably more famous nationally for making screw music than Screw was. At that point, S.U.C. members began to resent his success. On Screw's later mix tapes, it was common to hear S.U.C. members specify that if DJ Screw didn't make the tape, then it wasn't really a screw tape. Further annoying southsiders was the way Watts seemed willing to embrace the term "chopped and screwed" as a name for his slowed-down mixes (he later stopped using the term). To show their deference to DJ Screw, many southsiders avoided calling their slowed remixes "screwed," because Screw hadn't actually done the mix. Instead, they'd call it "slowed and chopped."
Once Screw died (of a codeine overdose in November 2000), however, the petty bickering over Watts seemed pointless. Screwed Up Click members even started working with Watts's Swisha House company. Lil' Flip was first to work with Swisha, on OG Ron C's 2001 mix, I-45, and then both the Botany Boyz and Lil' Keke appeared on Watts's mixes. S.U.C. veteran E.S.G. even made an album with up-and-coming Swisha House rapper Slim Thug, 2001's Boss Hogg Outlawz. "You got Pepsi and you got Coke, it's always like that," E.S.G. says, shrugging away the divide between Screw's and Watts's camps.
But just as north and south Houston seemed poised to live happily ever after, an interview with Watts showed up in the underground hip-hop magazine Murder Dog quoting him as saying he'd taken screw music to a whole new level. True enough, on a commercial level Watts certainly had brought screw to a wider audience. Still, his words felt like a slight to DJ Screw, and the S.U.C. went on the warpath. Rappers Z-Ro and Al-D shot back first, with the track "Screw Did That" on Z's 2002 album Life. Z-Ro was brutal: "Screwed and chopped by who? Probably never met the man . . . /Bitch nigga, you get out of dodge fast/5,000 watts of skills? Naw, 5,000 pounds of trash/Watch what you say in the magazines, ol' fat-ass nigga/Instead of nibblin' off my nigga's cheese, ol' rat ass nigga/I call it like I see it, and I can't be nothing but real/I guess they can't originate, so they do nothing but steal."
Surely it was some consolation to Watts that, while the S.U.C. dissed him, he was making a fortune off of slowed-down mixes. In 2000, Eightball & MJG's Space Age 4 Eva became the first major-label album to release a chopped and screwed version -- and Mike Watts was behind it. Watts launched his Web site around the same time, something Screw never had at his height. "I started getting hits from all over the nation," Watts says. "That's when I knew it was far beyond a local thing."
The north/south beef subsided as Houston acts began to once again enjoy large-scale mainstream success. "Everybody in Houston goes through that -- from age 16 to 24, that's the age group really tripping on the north/southside rivalry," Houston rap veteran Devin the Dude says. "Once you grow out of it and look at the big picture you're just like, 'Let's try to move units in China, ain't no sense in tripping about somebody across town.'"
While the Screwed Up Click remained a loosely defined group, Swisha House -- the label Mike Watts set up in 1997 with his partner G Dash -- served as an official organization with a roster of rappers and producers. Swisha House started releasing screwed mix CDs by Watts and OG Ron C, but where Screw never transitioned to creating original music, Swisha House was soon making tracks for its artists.
In late 1999, Swisha House released the landmark compilation, The Day Hell Broke Loose, featuring the entire Swisha House crew including some rappers who later released Swisha House solo records. There was also one track credited to newcomers Paul Wall and a rapper named Camilean (who later became Chamillionaire). But if any rapper seemed to be highlighted, it was hot northside up-and-comer Slim Thug.
After Michael Watts heard Stayve "Slim Thug" Thomas freestyling at a northside teen club, the 18-year-old rapper became one of the first Swisha House acts. It was back in 1999, in the early days of his involvement with Watts, that Slim wrote a freestyle about "still tippin' on fo' fo's, wrapped in fo' Vogues." The flow, which refers to cruising on 44-spoke rims and Vogue white-wall tires, showed up on a Watts mix and became a popular refrain among Houston's car freaks.
As Slim's star began to rise through Swisha House mixes, he teamed up with veteran S.U.C. rapper E.S.G. By then, E.S.G. had served his two-and-a-half years in jail, gotten out and signed with Wreckshop, the hot new southside label that was also putting out records by Fat Pat and Big Moe. The pair's first collaboration, from E.S.G.'s 1999 album Shinin' N' Grindin', was an immediate local sensation. The track "Braids N' Fades" brought together the S.U.C. and Swisha House, the southside and northside, in a strong show of city unity.
The collaboration was so successful, E.S.G. and Slim teamed up again for "Candy Coated Excursion," and hit once more. By then, Slim had stepped away from Swisha House and formed a label with E.S.G. called S.E.S. Entertainment. In 2001, S.E.S. released a full album pairing of the rappers, Boss Hogg Outlawz. Though the two soon had a bitter falling out, Slim kept the name and launched his Boss Hogg Outlawz label, through which he released his own mix CDs and duo albums with people like Lil' Keke.
By 2004, Slim Thug had been prominent in Houston for five years, put out albums with local legends and his crew, and released a series of mix CDs. But Slim had never dropped an actual solo album that defined him as an artist. In truth, he was already making the kind of money he stood to make on a major label. As he described it, he was "already platinum" -- not in actual sales, but he was making as much as a platinum-selling major-label artist made.
But then something changed: The local music distributor, Southwest Wholesale -- the company through which virtually all local hip-hop CDs got into stores -- shut down in 2003. It left a huge void and made it much more difficult to sell the number of records that allowed independent labels to flourish, so Slim decided to go for the big time. With help from "king of the South" T.I. and UGK legend Bun B, Slim made a demo track called "3 Kings" that anointed him as Houston's next rap star. Given Slim's local fame, entrepreneurship, and friends in high places, it wasn't hard to find a good deal with a major. Slim signed with music biz legend Jimmy Iovine's Interscope/Geffen label, which released "3 Kings" as a single in the fall of 2004, but didn't have much success with it. Iovine and Slim agreed that, since Slim was unproven nationally, a big-time producer might help his record. They switched Slim over to the Neptunes' Star Trak label, which had signed a deal with Interscope. But [the Neptunes' hometown of] Virginia Beach was a long way from East Texas -- geographically and as a Southern hip-hop flavor.
And that fusion might ultimately have been the record's tragic flaw. While Neptunes' Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were responsible for much of the current era's best pop music, the sound of Slim Thug -- the six-and-a-half-foot giant with the slurred baritone and screwed pace -- didn't necessarily call for what they had to offer. Tracks like "I Ain't Heard of That (Remix)" and "Like a Boss" were terrific, but they only served to dilute the potency of Houston-style material like "Diamonds" (featuring a slowed-down UGK sample) and the posse track "Boyz N Blue." It seems that, when Slim Thug finally got around to defining himself, he didn't really define himself much at all.
Ironically, what seemed to steal the thunder from Slim Thug's major-label debut was Slim himself. That is, Slim's screwed, disembodied voice booming out from the chorus of "Still Tippin'," the track -- credited to Houston rapper Mike Jones -- that, in the spring of 2005, finally broke Houston's "post-screw" style into the mainstream.
Though roughly the same age as Slim, Mike Jones didn't catch his break until much later. First known by the Swisha House crew as a guy named Sache (as in Versace) who hustled cell phones, Jones reverted to his real name and started selling mix tapes around 1999. He did it on his own for a couple of years -- founding his Ice Age Entertainment company and taking full control of his music's marketing. It was there that Jones discovered his biggest talent -- a knack for getting people to remember his otherwise forgettable name: by repeatedly announcing it and his phone number on tapes.
In 2002, Jones took his mixes to the Houston strip clubs, where he created a custom tape for every dancer, using the stripper's favorite tracks and adding in his "Mike Jones!" call-outs. His phone number (the often seen and heard 281-330-8004), his email address, even his instant message account all showed up on his mixes. One night it drew the attention of Mike Watts, who decided to bring Jones into the Swisha House fold.
By then, many from Swisha House's original roster had left, including Slim Thug, Lil' Mario, and Chamillionaire. So Mike Jones quickly became the label's central artist, and when Swisha House put together 2004's The Day Hell Broke Loose, Vol. 2: Major Without a Major Deal, Mike Jones was featured front and center alongside familiar Swisha House names like Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Magno.
Among the standout tracks on Major... was "Still Tippin'," a song that sampled the screwed version of Slim Thug's 1999 freestyle: "still tippin' on fo' fo's, wrapped in fo' Vogues." The Swisha House version -- which featured a track by the in-house producer T. Farris and verses from Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and Slim Thug himself -- was one of two versions in circulation. The other was included on the Rap-A-Lot compilation, The Day After Hell Broke Loose, and featured a Southern funk track by producer Bigg Tyme and verses from Jones, Chamillionaire, and Slim. Farris remade the track as a spare, dreamy beat laced with a slinky violin line, and with Chamillionaire -- who'd fallen out with Swisha House -- replaced by his former rhyme partner, Paul Wall. Rap-A-Lot's version earned some notice in the summer of 2004, but the following spring Swisha House's version exploded as a theme to Houston hip-hop's renaissance.
"Still Tippin'" was emblematic of this latest wave from Houston. First, it featured the movement's three biggest stars: Slim Thug (the real star of the song), Mike Jones, and Paul Wall. Second, it incorporated screw elements -- in this case, the slowed chorus. And third, it served as a prelude to the stream of Houston hits and terminology that would roll into the national pop culture over the next year: tippin' down the block with wood grain steering wheels, forty-four rims or spinners, Vogue tires, candy paint and drop tops; sippin' lean with diamonds in the mouth; shouting out "Who is Mike Jones?" and "The People's Champ" and the hook to future hits "Back Then" and "Internet Going Nutz."
Who Is Mike Jones? built up a huge amount of hype before its release, but it largely measured up. It was full of memorable songs, including post-screw cuts like "Screw Dat" and "Back Then," where Swisha House producer Salih Williams created dynamic, progressive tracks that retain their distinctly Houston feel (note to the Neptunes). Who Is Mike Jones? was aggressively accessible, with singing hooks and a something-for-everyone approach that included pimped-out riding songs ("Turning Lane") and eccentric songs ("Cuttin'"), woman-hating songs ("Scandalous Hoes") and conscious raps ("5 Years From Now," which questioned the Iraq War). And for good measure, there was a closing song about Jones's grandma -- she first suggested, "Who Is Mike Jones?"
As for the incessant "Mike Jones!" call-outs and other promotional bits, the gimmick wore on the listener long before the record was over. What initially sold Mike Jones -- his regular-guy, out-of-nowhere image -- became irritating once he established himself as one of Houston's new hit makers, once his phone started attracting a reported 15,000 calls per day. A new album, The American Dream, and a planned autobiographical feature film of the same name will determine whether Mike Jones can move beyond the gimmicks.
Before they were down with Swisha House, Paul Slayton and Hakeem Seriki were just a couple of neighborhood friends going to elementary school together in a lower-middle-class section of northwest Houston. As best friends often do, they had similar interests: By middle school, they loved hip-hop and wanted to rap. Almost from the time DJ Screw first appeared, Paul and Hakeem were fans, though in the years when the Screwed Up Click were dissing the northside, they kept their obsession quiet. It was never an issue, as far as anyone can remember, that Paul happened to be white.
Paid in Full was the label started by Watts's coworker at The Box, afternoon drive-time host Madd Hatta. He started the label to put out his own records, which he released as Mista Madd, but he found his biggest success with Paul Wall & Chamillionaire's 2002 debut, Get Ya Mind Correct. The record managed to sell 150,000 copies based on its dynamic flow. Chamillion particularly shines, switching between sharp, often humorous, rapping and no-nonsense R&B crooning. But what really makes the record click is the interplay between Paul and Chamillion, who vibe together as only longtime friends can. On "Thinking Thoed," Paul actually says, "To tell you the truth, Chamillionaire's better than me, his flip-flop shines a little bit wetter than me/But it don't matter, we're both on the same team." And Cham returns the compliment: "Paul I'm impressed, I thought you was the best/But you just said I was the best so it's a tie, I guess."
Incredibly, given the chemistry they exhibited on Get Ya Mind Correct, the normal tensions of spending a lot of time with one person and having to make decisions as a team started breaking Paul and Chamillion apart about four years ago. When they stopped getting along, they kept it together for a while as a business. But soon they determined that wasn't worth it either. After nearly 15 years as buddies and partners, they stopped talking completely.
Chamillionaire formed his Chamilitary label, teaming with another former Swisha House member, OG Ron C, who became his DJ. After his triple CD Mixtape Messiah did big business in 2004, Chamillion signed with Universal Records to drop his major-label debut, late 2005's The Sound of Revenge. After a slow start, the record took off in 2006 and went platinum with the help of the number-one single, "Ridin'." Cham thanked his fans by offering a Mixtape Messiah 2 sequel for free on his Web site. Meanwhile, his official follow-up to Revenge, called Ultimate Victory, was set for early 2007.
Paul stuck it out a while with Paid in Full. He did a solo album, The Chick Magnet, in 2004, and then rounded out the duo's obligation with 2005's Controversy Sells, a Paul Wall & Chamillionaire album that pasted together old and new recordings to create what was, essentially, an imaginary collaboration between two people not on speaking terms. But tensions between the former friends never erupted. "The situation between me and Paul is real personal; Paul is like a brother to me," Chamillion explained to Murder Dog. "Out of respect for that I don't wanna drop a CD dissing him or anything like that. That chapter of my life is done, I'm moving on."
After his stint at Paid in Full, Paul landed back at Swisha House, which had now grown from a mix CD operation into a full-fledged label. With "Still Tippin'" bubbling throughout the region, Swisha was about to sign its deal with Warner Bros. and Paul Wall was next in line, after Mike Jones, to drop a major-label release.
Coming five months after Who Is Mike Jones? and two months after Already Platinum, Paul Wall's The People's Champ finally arrived. Benefiting from the attention he'd gotten with his predecessors -- and perhaps aided slightly in his crossover appeal by his skin color -- Paul Wall entered the charts, both pop and urban, at number one. Houston was back on the national hip-hop landscape in a big way -- with far more mainstream appeal than the days of the Geto Boys and UGK. Some even began to whisper of Houston's potential to challenge Atlanta's dominance as Southern hip-hop's center -- though, in truth, the city never came close to having the music-industry infrastructure that allows Atlanta to succeed.
Reprising almost the exact formula used for "Still Tippin'," Paul Wall recruited Austin-based producer Salih Williams to once again draw a hook from an old screw tape and build a new track around it. This time, Michael Watts suggested he use a nearly ten-year-old freestyle by Big Pokey, from DJ Screw's June 27 mix. "I'm sitting sideways, boys in a daze/On a Sunday night I might bang me some Maze," goes Pokey's slowed chorus. Like "Still Tippin'," it referenced Houston car culture: "sittin' sideways" referred to one's hunched posture while swerving a 'Lac or Impala down the avenue. The track, "Sittin' Sidewayz," became The People's Champ's first single.
Oddly, the same thing that made Wall's record successful also made it frustrating. It often plays like a beginner's course on Houston hip-hop, with song titles jumping from one key phrase to another: "Sittin' Sidewayz," "Trill," "Sippin' tha Barre," "Got Plex," "Sip-N-Get-High." And with the album's second single, "They Don't Know," Wall manages to catalog the entire scene in two verses, broken up by a wonderful chorus that collages classic Houston quotes (including Fat Pat's line, "Third Coast born, that means we're Texas raised"):
"What you know about swangers and vogues,
what you know about purple drank?
What you know about poppin' trunk,
with neon lights and candy paint?
What you know about white shirts,
starched down jeans with a razor crease,
Platinum and gold on top our teeth,
big ol' chains with a iced out piece?
You don't know about Michael Watts,
you don't know about DJ Screw,
What you know about 'Man, hold up,'
'I done came down' and 'What it do?'
You don't know about P.A.T.,
what you know about 'Free Pimp C'?
What you know about the Swishahouse,
man, what you know bout the S.U.C.?...
You don't know about chunkin' a deuce,
you don't know 'bout a Southside fade
Down here we be ridin' D's,
but you don't know about choppin' blades
Texas Southern or Prairie View,
what you know about Battle of the Bands?
Down here we got ghetto grub,
like Williams Chicken or Timmy Chan's
You can catch me ridin' swang,
what you know about sippin' syrup?
You don't know about pourin' it up,
purple drank so speech is slurred,
You don't know about the way we talk,
boys say we got country words,
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But I don't really care what you heard,'
cause you don't know about the Dirty Third."
Paul Wall had emerged as the great translator of the subculture that brewed in Houston for more than a decade -- and he was about as close to an Eminem (that is, a white guy fully accepted within the culture) that the South has created. The People's Champ was his classic treatise of how they do things in his hometown -- an invaluable road map to a place that thrived for years before anyone on the outside knew about it. But, ultimately, road maps don't make for great literature. For all its local color, Wall's record didn't so much paint a portrait of his world as it just rattled off the signifiers, as if that was enough. The People's Champ made Houston hip-hop sound like one big gimmick, when the record should have been a natural extension of the homegrown culture.
(Editor's note: Paul Wall has a chance to remedy that criticism when his next album, Get Money Stay True, comes out on April 3. All of the other rappers profiled in this story have albums due in the next few weeks. Chamillionaire's Ultimate Victory is due out March 27, Slim Thug's Boss of All Bosses is due April 27 and Mike Jones's The American Dream is due May 8.)