But before it went nonoperational, Houston's 24-year-old Miguel Gomez, better known as Aztek Escobar — who uses the microphone to evoke the strongest of emotions and tell real-life stories of the streets — did what most hip-hop observers on the surface would describe as the unthinkable, but was to Aztek a natural evolution of his life's vision.
He walked away from Roc La Familia.
At the end of 2007, Escobar asked the greatest rapper alive to let him go from his label face to face, man to man. Since that happened, Aztek has remained completely silent about the severed business relationship, while, pursuant to the split, contradicting those legal and technical developments with the label through strong proclamations that "I am Roc La Familia. It ain't over 'til I say it's over" in his lyrics and YouTube videos.
That, without a doubt, left a tremendous gray area for those who wanted, and still want, concrete, definitive answers about why Aztek and the label broke ties, but Aztek has been virtually silent on the subject.
But in a sudden turn of events, Aztek granted us his first interview in three years to shed light on the great mystery that's hung over Houston's Latino hip-hop scene. The answer is perhaps less climactic and more predictable than people would want.
Still, Aztek's personal reasoning and justification for walking away draws inspiration from, and gives more definition to, the fact that Houston hip-hop is in itself perhaps too round in its "pop-trunk-selling, independent, we-are-our-own-CEO" philosophy to fit in the square major-label holes that control an artist businesswise and creatively.
In 2005, when the hip-hop national spotlight shone brightest on Houston, that certainly wasn't the mentality. Major labels were mining Houston's ghetto caves for new talent, and found it in artists like Chamillionare and Mike Jones.
Aztek was another nugget, the first artist to be signed to Jay-Z's Roc La Familia. Things for this Houstonian, raised by an all-woman family, changed dramatically.
Before Roc La Familia, Aztek had to bully his way into all-black clubs to gain very hard-earned respect and wait for hours in radio-station lobbies to hand DJs freestyles they could play on the radio. After, he rode with Jay-Z in a Rolls-Royce Phantom to Toronto and posed for paparazzi with Kanye West.
"Being at the top" is a cliché, but Aztek was there. He was deep in stardom.
Boxing is his passion, and there's footage on the Internet of Aztek and Freddie Roach, famed trainer of Manny "Pac-Man" Pacquiao, having casual conversation. In the same video, Atlanta's Young Jeezy spots Aztek in a crowd and embraces him like a brother.
Latino hip-hop followers growing up in Texas are often known to embrace black urban culture as a way of life but still maintain a deeply rooted pride in their Hispanic heritage, so the rise of East and West Coast artists like Big Pun and Cypress Hill inspired pride. Still, that music, however popular and embraced, didn't necessarily represent their unique upbringing and experiences in Texas.
But after the great industry strides made by South Park Mexican, news of Aztek's teaming with Jay-Z put him in a position to be Houston's next great brown hope, especially for Texas's many Mexican Americans who found it tricky to relate to the Chicano rap of California or the Puerto Rican flow of New York.
Though Colombian, Aztek grew up in Houston, where a large majority of Hispanics are Mexican-American, and he expressed their street experiences through emotional storytelling and powerful lyrical delivery. His joining Roc La Familia represented a rare instance of black-brown unity, and looked like an exciting sign of things to come. Jay-Z was creating a platform for the nation's burgeoning Latino hip-hop audience to have something to call its own, and Houston was first at-bat.
But when Aztek first signed on, Jay-Z said something at the beginning of his Latino signing's mixtape that might have been an eerie manifestation of the things that were about to happen.
"Much bigger than just music, it's the coming together of black and brown people," Jigga declares. "Oh, they gonna shut us down for this one, but before they do we gonna have a great time. Aztek, let them know what we about to do to the world, carbon."
Jay-Z refers to "they," a vague word that often pops up when some Latinos talk about their community's progress or lack thereof. "They" sometimes refers to "the man," or unseen forces that don't want to see Latinos rise up in a given industry or society in general. Oftentimes, "they" is dismissed as a conspiracy theory or an easy scapegoat, but in this case "they" have a face — one Aztek says he saw up close.