Swishahouse Studios needs a State Historical Marker. The music – and the magic – created inside of it during the ’90s thrust "the 44" into the national spotlight. Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Chamillionaire grew up within the once-agrarian northside neighborhoods, partially abandoned during the white flight of the ’50s and ’60s and becoming one of this country's largest unincorporated African-American communities.
In 2005, Wall created a citizenship test for Houstonians, introducing those outside of America’s fourth-largest city to what meant so much to so many: “What you know about swangaz and vogues/What you know ‘bout purple drank?” He later declares what those outside of the 713 not only did not know, but did not understand: “You don’t know ‘bout Michael Watts/You don’t know about DJ Screw.” Even though DJ Screw represented Houston’s Southside, Wall and Swishahouse adopted Screw’s invention, putting their own spin on the late DJ’s inventive skill.
Wall, Michael "5000" Watts and other Northsiders embraced their surroundings, good and bad. Southsider and Swishahouse legend Lil Keke’s “Gettin’ Paid” commiserates with his fellow Northsiders, focusing on the struggle and how to make ends meet. Lil Keke Da Don proclaims that “…[B]idness been slow, this mouthpiece fa sho/ And I know that no hoe/ Can interfere with this cash flow.” Chamillionaire introduced the phrase “ridin’ dirty,’ making it part of our national vernacular. The struggle for the 44 has been — and still is — real.
Twenty-six-year-old rapper and producer Mark Drew wrote a love letter to growing up in Acres Homes through the fibers of his own experience. September is a celebration of the human spirit, and his new album tells the story from beginning to now. He is the young kid, now a grown man, who grew up in the spirit of the 44 and benefited from its light.
The title track samples the famous Earth, Wind & Fire hit. No coincidence Drew begins with "September," referencing the date of his birth – the 21st – to provide the most biographical track in his growing catalog. The words leap off of his tongue, and his flow is both slick and reflective. One-part Q-Tip, another part Mos Def, Drew revels in being the “Little boy with all the hope in him/ Being in the clutch/ And there ain’t no choke in him,” coming with the bars about the teacher who said he shouldn’t rap, listening to Blueprint in the fifth grade and dreaming of the moment he shows out beyond the 713.
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Esoteric and personal allusions universal to the experience of growing up in Acres Homes flourish on his deeply reflective track “Antoine Dr.” “It’s like ’05/ And I am in the whip/ And I ride around for the first time again” provides the exposition for a trip down memory lane, in which “Ridin’ Dirty” is the theme song in a part of Houston “this trill.” Drew paints the details with precision, and we sit in the passenger seat of his ride, listening to him talk about The White Knights, Spanish girls blowing up his line and seeing Slim Thug in Garden City. Ayyell Gibson’s minimalistic production gives Drew the space to wax nostalgic as we take in the world through his eyes.
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A seismic shift moves September into unstable territory. Following the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and made a few months before this week's all-too-disturbing shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, “Hold On” brings hope in a time when hope is spread thinly. Drew asks if life could use a do-over. Heavy, it weighs feelings of regret against the alternative. And he knows that second chances cannot wash away shame’s grimy residue. Yet, what is the alternative? Again, Gibson’s production creates solidarity between the speaker and the music, helping Drew work through missteps and misunderstandings.
Drew's narrative of rolling into adulthood, “Glory,” features two distinctly fresh voices commiserating with the artist's struggles growing up, FlygerWoods and TAME. Drew and company take us down Glory Road with an ironic twist: This road is an unpaved road with the potholes of failure in the way of success. FlygerWoods demonstrates how critically misunderstood hip-hop's lyrical intricacies can be, spitting triplet rhythms when the beat disappears in the middle of the track. Working with the Sauce Twinz has helped chisel FlygerWoods into a voice not to be ignored.
Drew’s last album, Red Lights at 3AM, portrayed him as a burgeoning lyricist with exceptional production chops. September is Houston’s 808’s and Heartbreak; each meticulous detail bears his essence, rewarding us with a mission statement that has more than money and fame written into it.