The early to mid-'90s were good times for underground music in Houston. At clubs like the Axiom, the Vatican and Fitzgerald's, an eclectic mix of punk, metal, funk and ska bands like deadhorse, Sprawl and more regularly played packed shows in front of 500+ fans.
Much has changed since, but those of us who were stuck in junior-high detention back then are in luck. A fascinating new documentary called "When We Ruled H-Town," co-directed by J. Schneider from bong-toting rockers Taste of Garlic, takes a nostalgic look back at those heady days in the pre-Napster era when it seemed inevitable that someone, ANYONE from Houston's thriving underground rock scene would blow up big nationally and put the city on the map. That scenario never quite happened, but it wasn't for lack of talent. Check out the film's premiere on Thursday to learn more.
There was much more bubbling up from the underground in Houston in the early '90s than just rock, of course. The Geto Boys were helping to kick off the rise of Dirty South hip-hop, and DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click were hard at work twisting rap in an incredible new psychedelic direction. Ask anyone about Houston's musical legacy of the past 20 years, and these names are bound to pop up.
There wasn't a lot of overlap between the rock and hip-hop scenes, but that's not to say there was none at all, according to Schneider.
"Taste of Garlic had rappers come play with us," he says. "We'd have a bunch of rock bands play and then we'd have a rap act. In fact, Spunk, on their CD, had the DJ for Geto Boys scratch on one of their songs. I remember when we were nominated for Houston Press Music Awards, we went and we got to see the Geto Boys there.
"We were like, "Whoa, it's Bushwick Bill," you know?
"Our band had punk, funk, rap and rock all kind of infused. It was a big mix of every kind of music that we played with, and weren't scared to include rappers."
That's as may be, but Rocks Off wanted to know who really ruled H-town in the early '90s: The rockers or the rappers. For answers, we turned to Julie Grob, Coordinator of Digital Projects & Instruction for Special Collections for the University of Houston Libraries.
These days, Julie plays an important role in documenting the city's musical history by overseeing the library's amazing H-town hip-hop collection, which includes the DJ Screw Sound Recordings -- Screw's personal collection of vinyl that was used to create his legendary "chopped and screwed" mixtapes.
From 1989 to 1991, however, Grob worked at the Axiom, a central hub of Houston rock, eventually becoming the club's co-manager. In charge of booking the club for a time, she witnessed the rise of the city's '90s rock scene as the crowds for local acts began to grow.
"The biggest crowds were undoubtedly for deadhorse," she says. "Their shows would just be a sea of wall-to-wall people banging their heads. The Axiom had no air conditioning, so that could get pretty interesting.
"Some of the biggest bands, like Sprawl and deadhorse, also sold out larger clubs," she adds," but they were loyal enough to keep playing the Axiom because they got their starts there."
Given her firsthand knowledge of Houston's '90s rock scene as well as her growing expertise on the city's hip-hop history, Grob seemed the perfect person to give us a few answers as to which camp truly reigned supreme back in the day.
"The rappers, no question," Grob says. "If you look at the albums that were released by Rap-A-Lot from the early- to mid-'90s, it's just classic after classic. Many of those albums sold very well to supportive fans here in Houston, and by about 1994, DJ Screw was starting to dominate the Southside with his screw tapes."
A compelling argument. But then again, no one has ever made a feature-length documentary about the Screwed Up Click. Might the rock scene have made an impact larger than anyone initially realized?
"We certainly had bands in the Axiom scene who achieved a level of success, with deadhorse being distributed nationally through Big Chief Records, and the Pain Teens developing an international cult following," Grob says. "I think deadhorse had the talent and the passion to break out nationally, but they had terrible luck.
"On the hip-hop side, though, the Geto Boys released We Can't Be Stopped in 1991, which is not just a classic Houston album, but one of the most classic hip-hop albums of all time. It went platinum! And DJ Screw created a genre of hip hop, "chopped and screwed," which forged a distinctive identity for Houston hip-hop and is known around the world."
So, there you have it: Potent as it was, Houston's '90s rock scene is today overshadowed by the indelible rap music produced over roughly the same period by some now-legendary artists.
No shame in that; DJ Screw was the shit. For those who were there at the Axiom and other long-shuttered clubs, though, "June 27" will probably never compare to their first Spunk show.
"Music is a really personal thing, so it's really about what kind of music had the biggest impact on you during that formative, heady period of your youth, whether it was punk rock or hip-hop," Grob says.
Nicely put, but you don't have to take her word for it. Check out the "When We Ruled H-town" showcase at Fitzgerald's this weekend to get a fresh taste of the rock talent Houston boasted back in the day before making up your mind.
Too impatient to wait? Yeah, the Internet'll do that to you. Fine. To tide you over, enjoy this YouTube collection of classic Houston rock and rap from the era:
Sprawl, "Sprawl House"
Ganksta NIP, "Horror Movie Rap"
deadhorse, "Scottish Hell/Subhumanity"
DJ Screw, "Jamaica Funk"
Monster Soup, "Slut"
Odd Squad, "Fa Sho"
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The When We Ruled H-Town reunion starts 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. See whenweruledhtown.com for more.