Houston Music

Catfish Reef: The Rise of Swishahouse

[Note: this is the second in a series on the origins of Houston rap, to go along with this week's feature on wayward star Mike Jones.]

As a local hip-hop writer and radio host, Matt Sonzala (also a former Houston Press Music Listings Editor) did what he could to promote Houston rap to a larger audience. Within the city, though, that part was always easy.

Thanks to the success of acts such as the Geto Boys and Lil' Troy, who also had their turns in the national spotlight, and the DJ Screw-inspired mix-tape movement, Sonzala says, Houston provided a thriving market for its local talent.

"Houston was just like this independent powerhouse. I've been in a lot of cities, but I've never seen a city support itself like Houston did," Sonzala says. "As for the [national] rise of Houston in 2005, that had been coming a long time."

Much of the groundwork for Houston's big turn as a country-wide craze - which saw rap fans everywhere talking about platinum grills, "tippin'" and "fo-fo's," and embracing the slowed-down sound that Screw pioneered - was laid by Michael "5000" Watts, the North-side DJ who started out as Screw's rival.

The North had a serious rivalry with the South, home of DJ Screw and his SUC, and it was initially left out of the slowed-down movement (lyrics on the Screw tapes were often about how North-siders sucked). So in the mid-'90s, Watts - who gives Screw full credit as his inspiration - began making screw music himself.

Watts let his rappers come with written verses, and he edited, re-mixed and re-mastered. He made sure the lyrics had a broad appeal and brought CDs with him when he booked gigs outside Houston. Each disc, along with his Web site, had his pager number and soon Watts was taking his Jeep to places like Tyler and Alexandria, Louisiana.

Swishahouse rappers like Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and Paul Wall were eventually making considerable money on the independent circuit, living up to the label's motto of "Major without a deal."

By the time Mike Jones came around in 2002 with his aggressive, clever marketing and catchy style, Watts' underground network was national, and the storm came to a head, beginning with the wildly popular single "Still Tippin'" and its screwed hook about "tippin' on fo-fo's, wrapped in fo vogues."

"You know, it's funny, that was like one of the biggest confusing hits," Watts says. "At the time that Tippin' popped, I spent the majority of the interviews explaining what the fuck the hook was."

Swishahouse signed deals with Warners Bros. and Atlantic, and Jones went multi-platinum with Who is Mike Jones?, his first studio release. The hype carried over for artists like Paul Wall and Slim Thug, who are also featured on "Still Tippin'", and the majors were soon swarming on the city in search of talent. For about a year, Houston was the hot new thing on the national rap scene. And then it dropped back down to earth.

Explanations for this vary. But Orian "Lump" Lumpkin, the respected Houston promoter who has helped push a number of local and national acts, says the city will be back in the national spotlight again. The key will be in the artists re-connecting with the local fans - and vice versa.

"Houston is really like a record going around a turntable," Lump says. "It goes around, it passes you by, but it has to come back again."

In the backyard of Lump's home of Martin Luther King sits his 1984 El Camino with a two-toned red and purple racing stripe slicing through the middle. He's redoing the inside. Years ago, there were two JL 12s in the trunk and tweeters near the head-rests, all hooked to three 2,000-watt amps.

"You couldn't swallow in here," Lump says.

Lump puts out music the old-fashioned way, by taking it right to the street - barber shops, schools, clothing stores and strip clubs. Houston rappers used to test out new songs inside the El Camino. That's how he met Mike Jones.

Lump thinks the new offerings from Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall rank with some of this year's best albums. The music just has to be given a chance again - starting in Houston.

"You got to sell records at home first," he says.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio