For all but the hardest of hardcore local hip-hop adherents, there are going to be a few unfamiliar faces in Sinecure Books' new Houston Rap chronicle. When photographer Peter Beste and writer Lance Scott Walker began the project nearly ten years ago, they set out to document not just the most famous rappers in H-Town, but the underground innovators and originators who have been the backbone of the local scene for the past two decades.
That's not to say the book skimps on the all-stars, mind you. Scarface, Bun B, Paul Wall and other Houston emcees known far and wide are all present and accounted for in the new book, and often captured in ways fans have never seen before. But as we've discussed before on this blog, Beste and Walker weren't interested in simply shooting the big moneymakers. They made a concerted effort to delve far deeper into Houston's hip-hop culture than that, photographing and interviewing many of the old heads who laid the groundwork for the city's slowed-and-throwed sound and image.
It wasn't always an easy world to break into. But the pair had some help early on that paid big dividends in establishing cred with the locals they most wanted to meet with.
"The first person I contacted was K-Rino, who was a great guy to start with," Beste says. "He's the founder of the South Park Coalition and started rapping in, like, '83, and probably has the most underground respect of anybody in that whole scene, as far as I'm concerned.
"I found him through Texas promoter Matt Sonzala, who's been working with these guys for years," the photographer continues. "We had a mutual friend, and he gave me numbers for K-Rino, Dope-E from the Terrorists and Big Mike, who used to be in the Ghetto Boys, and a few other real old-school cats. That got us started."
K-Rino and his S.P.C. compatriots in Street Military were the first people that Beste shot for the project. While the well-earned respect these old-school MCs command in the Houston hip-hop community is considerable -- very few have done it longer, or better -- gaining access to all of the faces and places the photographer was after was still no easy sell with some of the others he wished to document.
In the foreword to Houston Rap, Bun B himself explains the wariness some locals felt toward the white outsiders Beste and Walker as they patiently probed the H-Town neighborhoods where hip-hop resides.
"A lot of times, when we see these books or documentations of certain scenes, or if you go deep into the inner city, there's always wonder in the back of one's mind if this is for the expansion of understanding or just simply an exploitation of the environment," the UGK hitmaker writes. "The people in the community are already being exploited. They don't need it any more than it's already happening. So we have to be very careful when we allow people to come into our communities, into our homes, into our families and accept them and allow them to see things that we would never let other people see."
Other rappers were a tad less magnanimous in their caution, Beste says, none moreso than the fearsome South Park Psycho: Ganksta N-I-P of the South Park Coalition.
"Ganksta N-I-P, he was resistant for a really long time," the photographer says. "He brought us over to his house, and let's just say he didn't receive us very well. There was a little incident involving a gun with him. A year later, I guess he realized I was OK and opened up to me.
"Bushwick Bill was another one who was in the book, but not nearly as much as I'd like," he continues. "He's kind of all over the place, living in various cities at different times and isn't the most receptive guy; I'm sure he gets tons of press requests. We got pretty much everyone we wanted to get, but a lot of them took a really long time."
Beste's persistence paid off. In fact, some of Houston's hardest and most intimidating underground personalities eventually became his closest and most trusted contacts on the project.
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"Once I got Ganksta N-I-P to open up, he made every effort to take me around to the rawest places in South Park -- alleys way off the main roads, and to these decrepit, old, broken-down houses and all these other kinds of places that Ganksta N-I-P would rap about," he says. "Another would be Dope-E from the Terrorists. He turned out to be one of our best friends in this whole scene. They were both really great to work with; Willie D was another one.
"There's so many artists I really loved as a kid, and to be let into their worlds and their minds, to a degree, was just a really amazing experience," Beste adds.
The results of the photographer's entreaties speak for themselves. If you're a fan of Houston rap, you can't help but be delighted by the images of Scarface teeing up a shot on the fairway, Devin the Dude firing up the Volcano vaporizer beneath a Pink Floyd poster or Klondike Kat cuddling a tiny pit bull puppy. Beste was able to build enough trust to capture his subjects with their guard down, behind the façade of stardom and notoriety. The photos are a far cry from the blinged-out fantasy poses depicted in glossy rap magazines.
Far less famous rappers than these made it into the book as well, in addition to the fans, freaks, hustlers and, frankly, hoes who are drawn to them. It's as complete a portrait of underground Houston hip-hop as we're likely to get.
The hardest part of putting it together, says Lance Scott Walker, might've been knowing when to stop.
"It's just an enormous amount of people in Houston making records with their own followings and their own little scenes," the writer says. "You keep uncovering them, and every time you think you've heard about every artist, you run across somebody else. You start digging around and you start discovering people around them and people they collaborated with and where they came from and who they went on to produce.
"Even now, it continues to surprise me," he adds. "I continue to find out about artists who are sort of underground, hidden or forgotten about. You could make an encyclopedia and you wouldn't get everybody in."
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