It isn’t hard to look back and recall the explosion of hip-hop in Houston during the 1990s. It was simply something that couldn’t be ignored. Simultaneously, it was spawned by and birthed a brand-new culture that represented Houston in a more honest and genuine way than any had before. It sounded like Houston, plain and simple. Someone had finally nailed it. Houston has always had its own dirt charm; but before the boom of screw, there just wasn’t as much to concretely showcase our Houston pride.
Longtime Houston music promoter Andrew Youngblood puts it best: "There is a certain [grimy] feel I'm very proud of," he says. "And I love how dirty the city can feel! But I think overall we're just very proud of the city, and [Houstonians] think it's the best in the world.”
All of a sudden, almost from out of the woodwork, a generation found a style of music it could claim as its own. Houston had finally found a way to show everyone, starting with the region, the state and on to the world, that there was way more to Houston than being the "Space City." But once a city becomes defined by its music, things can change. It can stifle creativity from future artists who feel that they need to sound or act a certain way, the logic being, 'It's worked before; it should work again.'
You’re left with a repeat scene, something that may work and garner success, but ultimately isn’t new or particularly creative. This is a problem that our city may have appeared to have for many years. However, that is just undeniably false as once again, seemingly from the woodwork, a new generation of young rappers is ushering in the second coming of Houston hip-hop.
It is almost like an accolade to have grown up around such an important part of our city's history; there is a certain prestige that comes with living through that era, and it becomes an enormous source of pride. Yet something tends to happen when a city becomes defined by a cultural genre of music: which is just that, the city becomes defined by that music, which in turn becomes a commodity that some feel they should try to adhere to, or match, as if to preserve it.
For a while, I wondered if Houston was becoming a victim of this, another city stagnating its creativity by purposefully emulating the style of the artists who had influenced us. First off, I will admit my own ignorance in thinking that Houston rap could only be defined by a single era that would most likely be our only shining gem in changing the music plain. But hey, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything at all.
There is definitely a point where influence, personal growth and evolution collide at the perfect time. What you get is something perfect, something that clearly isn’t an imitation but that most definitely would not exist without years of being directly influenced by the folks who came before.
“I don't think the Houston hip-hop scene is changing, just evolving," says local hip-hop champ Guilla. “The tradition is still there, but tradition is not going to hold back progress.”
And that is the current state of Houston hip-hop: We are quite simply entering its second era of greatness. And this time, it is the perfect combination of sounding fresh and new while honoring and continuing to follow the DIY ethics and paths built by our pioneers. Another face of this new wave is Anthony Obi, a.k.a. Fat Tony, the prince of everything Houston hip-hop with a splash of L.A. In his own fashion, Tony is as important to his generation of Houston hip-hop as the Geto Boys or UGK were to theirs. But more important, this is a guy who has never tried to be a "chopped and screwed" rapper.
“As a songwriter, I want to make sure my work holds up when compared to Houston rap icons like Scarface. I don't want to emulate anything but their greatness," says Fat Tony of his predecessors. “Houston's rap history is important to me as a fan, and I strive to honor it as an artist but I feel no pressure to do so.”
Instead, Houston hip-hop now follows the path of the city’s past idols and legends without stepping right inside of every single one of their footprints. Even a quick look around Houston’s rap scene should be enough to convince you that we may have one of the most creatively diverse group of musicians in the nation. From Fat Tony to Guilla, or Kyle Hubbard to Lyric Michelle, or B L A C K I E to Jon Black, we clearly have a very different hip-hop scene compared to 20 years ago. But one thing that ties all of these artists together is that they all work with one another. And while the music they make may sound very little like that for which Houston has become known, you see, nothing has really changed at all. We are still one massive, vibrant and ever-changing city that is bound together by our sense of hustle, history and community.
In fact, Houston is experiencing a creative renaissance, and not just in hip-hop — our entire music, comedy and culinary scenes are all booming. And while all of those things have their respective roots here, like Bill Hicks to comedy, hip-hop has always been the prized gem of this city. Up until this point, some of you may have felt it had been frozen in our city's history, and would inevitably fade away as time progresses. But now we can also find a little comfort knowing that while Houston hip-hop has definitely moved on, chopped and screwed is also not going anywhere.
Guilla’s newest album, Children of the Sun, is available here. Fat Tony’s newest EP, Look, is available here. Lyric Michelle's latest LP, MissDirection, is available here. Jon Black's new EP, Gotta Be a Lion, will be released on May 27.