Treasures, the Galleria-area strip club, is a strange place to be at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning. It’s my first time there ever and it’s quiet, whatever iniquitous behavior it may have housed mere hours ago now in its rear-view mirror. In my rear-view mirror, I spot a rental car pull into the deserted parking lot, driven by New York City artist Jason Shelowitz. Shelowitz – a.k.a. Jay Shells – is in Houston on Labor Day weekend to conduct a citywide art installation. Dubbed The Rap Quotes, the project sees Shelowitz, a multi-discipline artist and dedicated hip hop fan, install signs with site specific quotes from rap songs in the locales they mention.
We meet on Treasures’ parking lot because the sign he plans to install there mentions the club. It’s a quote from Drake’s “From Time.” By the time I catch up with Shelowitz, he and his documentarian, Aymann Ismail, have already installed two-thirds of the signs the previous day. Today, I’ve been invited for a Rap Quotes ride-along. We’ll spend the morning visiting mostly southwest Houston neighborhoods where landmarks mentioned in songs by Houston rap artists exist. In all, he’s installing nearly 40 signs featuring lyrics by Paul Wall, Big Pokey, Fat Tony, K-Rino, Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, Lil O, Drake, Big Hawk, Wale, Scarface, Big Moe, Fat Pat, Bushwick Bill, Travis Scott, Bun B, Lil Flip, Slim Thug, Mr. 3-2 and Raheem.
We roll into neighborhoods and he surveys the infrastructure for the best place to affix a sign. In back of the rental he’s got a virtual hardware store. Drills, screws, adhesives, zip ties – whatever it takes to install the signs so they proudly signify the rap-importance of the areas they grace. He’s efficient and practiced, having done installations like this before in New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta. He installs a sign within minutes and then takes a moment to soak in the locale while Ismail takes photos and shoots video for posterity.
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This is our Sunday morning. No Houston traffic to fight. Most of the city and probably all of Treasures’ hard-working employees are home sleeping soundly. I follow these two New Yorkers as they fulfill a labor of love for Houston rap. Around noon, we stop at Spanish Flowers for the out-of-towners' obligatory Tex-Mex meal and I ask Shelowitz how this all began. He says he was working on another project when inspiration struck.
"I was listening to Big L's first album, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, he's a Harlem rapper in New York. He always talked about 139 and Lennox Ave., which is a corner in Harlem, and for whatever reason on this day when I heard him mention this lyric I got this idea that I should go put something there with the lyric and make a direct connection between what he was saying and where he was talking about.”
"I already knew it wasn't just going to be the Big L sign. I thought there's thousands of site specific rap lyrics out there that I should do this for."
A mutual friend suggested Ismail as a documentarian. They met at a party and the next morning the two were hoofing through neighborhoods and installing signs. That was five years and 500 signs ago, Shelowitz said.
"The rest is sort of history. It immediately went viral and took off. People went crazy, it became bigger than I ever imagined and then quickly became, for me, an obsession to keep it going,” he said. “I realized that I really tapped into something people were excited about. You know, if you think about any major city, usually places of significance are marked with a brass plaque or something, like ‘In 1959, such and such happened here,’ to commemorate the area. Nobody had done that for things like this."
He was slated to begin work in earnest last year on Houston’s version when Hurricane Harvey struck. Shelowitz delayed the project as the city healed. He sold a couple of pieces and donated to the mayor’s relief fund. He says he never considered shelving Houston in favor of another city. He was eager to add Houston’s rap culture to the project. It’s clear he knows the culture, too. His custom screened T-shirt is emblazoned with 25 lighters. Elsewhere, The Rap Quotes signs are fire engine red. The ones he's brought for Houston are appropriately purple. He said he read books by Lance Scott Walker and J Prince to enhance his knowledge.
"To be perfectly honest, Houston hip hop was on my radar as a kid because the video for 'Mind Playing Tricks on Me' was on steady rotation on MTV when I was probably 11 years old or something,” said Shelowitz, 38. “Seeing Bushwick Bill running across a lawn, jumping in the air to punch somebody in the face, I'll never forget that."
He says he fell off Houston hip hop a bit until his cousin directed him to UGK's “Wood Wheel.”
"I've probably listened to that song like 10,000 times," he admitted. "That song, that sample, it feels like, when I got here, I understand it. That's one of the best parts of this project is when I touch down and realize why the music sounds the way it does by just experiencing the area."
"New York shit is hard and fast and tough, because New York is that way. When we went to Atlanta the first time — which is south, but it has a very different sound than Houston — it feels so appropriate to Atlanta,” he expounded. “In Houston, it's the same way — it's hot, people drive slow, it's a slower lifestyle. It matches. It's amazing how that works. There's sort of nothing more local and colloquial musically than hip hop. It really so closely mirrors the feeling of a place, there's something really unique about it."
"In college, in my freshman year in 1997, someone brought a DJ Screw tape to our dorm. 'Like, you guys know about this shit that's going on in Houston?' No. There was some kind of Internet in 1997 but none of us had it, so everything was word of mouth. Somebody visited somewhere and somebody bought a Screw tape. And they were like, yeah, so I guess in Houston they drink this cough syrup and listen to this slow rap music.' We were like, what the fuck are you talking about?'” Shelowitz recalled.
“They played it and we were like ‘What is this?’ We knew there was some special thing happening in Houston, but we just had this one tape and we listened to the shit out of it and we would just smoke a lot of weed and drink and sit around and be like, 'Okay, I get it.'"
Shelowitz recalled some of the Houston weekend’s exciting highlights over a salt-rimmed margarita. He’d narrowly escaped injury from a pipe-wielding fellow, who was “clearly mentally challenged” in his estimation, while installing a sign at Bellfort and M.L.K. At the laundromat which once housed the Come N Go, famously mentioned in UGK’s “One Day” by the late rapper Mr. 3-2, the laundromat operator was “an adorable grandpa” who knew the song, Shelowitz noted with glee.
"Scarface, in my mind as a New Yorker, he's probably like the most famous rapper to ever come out of Houston. That would be my take," Shelowitz said, setting up the story of a couple of remarkable moments. "I think I put up six different signs for Scarface, three of which are from 'My Block.' So, he has a song where he says, 'Went and seen my homie Short Dawg that slided me a track, went to Mason's Pawn Shop and got me a gat.' So, we go to Mason's Pawn Shop, and I explained what I was doing. I think I started with, 'I have a present for you,' and they were like, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' I put it on the counter and was like, 'Does this mean anything to you?’ and this guy comes over and says, 'Oh yeah, I remember this. I was working here that day.' I was like, 'What the hell do you mean you were working here that day?' and he’s like, 'Yeah, that was like over 20 years ago. Yeah, Scarface really did come in here and buy a gun.' I couldn't believe it!”
Things took a wilder twist when he met with Randy Haaga, from Scarface's music distributor, SoSouth, at MacGregor Park on Day 1 of installations and got to chat with the rapper by phone. As a self-professed "jaded New Yorker" he was a little skeptical when Haaga handed him the phone. Then he heard the unmistakable voice he'd heard on tracks for decades. He said conversing with Scarface while he was at the mecca of SLAB culture was probably the highlight of the Houston trip.
"He was so cool and he seemed genuinely appreciative of what we were doing. That just validates everything, for the rappers themselves to be on board with it and get it."
Also possibly on board, the City of Houston. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office got wind of the installations and has contacted Shelowitz about making some of them permanent. Shelowitz said many of the signs are considered collectibles, so they often come down nearly as fast as they go up.
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"My hope has always been — and if I had to bet that any city was going to do it, it'd be Houston — that the mayor of the city I do this in would see it and say, 'Okay, I'll get behind this and let's do this for real.' And what I would want to do is brass box in a sidewalk - we'll crack up a panel of sidewalk, put the plaque in, pour concrete around it. No one's stealing that. And that's there, let's commemorate these places, they're important, they're in history. So that's my goal.”
Shelowitz will next take the project to Chicago. He also has a book in the works, tentatively titled Rap Quotes Coast to Coast, due in the spring of 2019. Essentially, it’s a picture book of the signs featuring Ismail’s artwork and it’ll include a key map of every sign installation for fans to embark on their own hip hop tour.
In the end, he says, that’s who these installations are for, the fans of the music who geek out over being at the place their favorite rapper has forever immortalized on record.
“First of all, as a fan, for me, it’s super cool to be in that spot. To be in that spot – not for all of it, but for the ones where I’m really a fan – I usually pause for a second like, ‘Oh shit, I’m here,’” he said. “There’s something about hip hop culture and rap music that seems so deeply rooted regionally in the community. It’s like a pride, it’s always sort of been about where you’re from and representing where you’re from, almost like your hometown, your home borough, your block. Even, in some cases, your building. It’s like your team, like your home team.”