The rap game is not always kind to its elder statesmen. It takes an incredible amount of hard work, perseverance and sheer talent to keep fans interested as more than two decades worth of trends come and go. We can probably count the number of artists who began in the '80s and are still going strong on our fingers.
The founding members of the South Park Coalition, Houston's original, highly influential hip hop clique, have managed the feat without any semblance of support from radio airplay or major label money. This Saturday, the S.P.C. family will come together onstage at Numbers to celebrate the group's 25th anniversary.
It's a remarkable milestone. The Coalition has survived not only the shifting winds of hip-hop tastes since 1987, but the drugs and violence that threatened to tear their namesake Southside neighborhood apart in the '80s and '90s. Though the group's eldest members are now creeping into middle age, they were just kids when the S.P.C was originally assembled.
Founder K-Rino has been at the forefront of all Coalition activities since the clique's inception. A world-class lyricist, the O.G. MC has 22 independent solo albums under his belt, and he's still releasing killer music at a torrid pace in 2012. Twenty-five years ago, though, all that was barely a glimmer in his eye.
"It was still in its infant stages then, as far as hip hop and rap goes," he says. "We'd been exposed to the breakdancing aspect of hip hop and to some degree the DJing, but the rap was still pretty new -- maybe about three, four years old. We were starting to get our feet wet in terms of competing in talent shows and battles, school talent shows and things of that nature.
"We were all just amateurs then, and the industry side of it wasn't even in our minds at that time."
The Coalition originally sprang up around two South Park high schools -- Jones and Sterling. Separated by a stretch of Martin Luther King Blvd., the two schools were home to rival hip-hop crews that battled one another at talent shows and other local events across the city.
Eventually, the heated rivalry would come to a head in late '87, when Sterling champion K-Rino faced off against Jones' top MC, horrorcore godfather Ganksta N-I-P. The battle to end all battles took place on the neutral territory of the corner of MLK and Bellfort.
"The South Park Coalition had already formed by then, maybe a few months old, and we had a big battle, man," K-Rino said. "We went so many rounds that the people just couldn't determine who was the winner, and I think after all those years of us really not even liking each other as artists or knowing each other as people, when we clashed, that mutual respect developed."
Rino and N-I-P managed to catch the same Metro bus home from the encounter, striking up a fast friendship along the ride.
"When we got cool and we became friends, that automatically merged the Jones rappers with the Sterling rappers, which strengthened the South Park Coalition," K-Rino said. "Because I was instantly in a mode like, 'We gotta bring these guys in with us.'"
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful artistic collaboration. K-Rino's crew was soon joined by N-I-P, Klondike Kat, A.C. Chill, Murder One and many more local rappers in it for the long haul. Today, the clique boasts nearly 100 members and 200 albums under the S.P.C. banner.
It wasn't just the neighborhood that brought them together. For the highly independent group to thrive so far outside the traditional East-Coast hip-hop media center, "grinding" was essential. It was a philosophy that would in time carry over to other aspiring groups over the years, from the Screwed Up Click to the Swishahouse stable.
"It's no set program, no set process that you have to go through to join (the S.P.C.)," K-Rino said. "What actually qualifies you is just showing the loyalty and the dedication to the organization, and that only comes through just doing the work.
"A lot of people ask the same question, you know, 'How can I get down with S.P.C.?'" he said. "I mean, you just get down! 'Hey man, let me pass these fliers out.' 'Hey man, let me check on this particular task or that particular task," and over a period of time, without even saying it or doing anything official, it's just understood--that person's down with the cause."
A lot of the people down with the S.P.C. are scheduled to pop in for a rare appearance together onstage Saturday. K-Rino, Ganksta N-I-P, Point Blank, PSK-13, the Terrorists, Street Military and a host of other members will come together to celebrate the group that helped define the Houston sound and attitude.
"We want to put the fans in a nostalgic state of mind for the old heads who'll come out and remember when we had the underground sewed up and we was the hottest thing in the streets," K-Rino said. "They'll get a chance to see all of us at one time in the same place, doin' it the way we used to do it and continue to do it, just not as often collectively. Because we're all still doing music, but we've kind of branched out to our own hustles and doing it our own ways."
It's not just old-timers that will turn out to hear them, though. By largely eschewing rap trends throughout their careers, K-Rino and the other S.P.C. lifers have managed to create timeless music that remains relevant to younger fans today. Thanks to the unlimited reach of the Internet, the clique has found enthusiastic listeners as far away as Germany and Australia, a fact Rino is justifiably proud of.
"I think what keeps us together is our fans, more than anything," he said. "We have such a strong following, such a large following, that the fanbase is always going to associate us with one another and we'll be forever linked anyway. When you think about Ganksta N-I-P, when you think about K-Rino, you think about Klondike Kat, you know?
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"The unified mentality of our fans, I think, carries over into us," he continued. "Not to mention the fact that we all are good friends, you know. We've known each other 20-plus years. There's a friendship there that has transcended rap." It's a friendship (and partnership) that K-Rino expects will continue long into the future. He sees Saturday's celebration not as a capstone, but as a building block for the future of the S.P.C.
"I'm hoping that this event will be a springboard for a new South Park Coalition project, and just motivate a lot of the guys who might not be doing it anymore to get back in the studio," he said. "Because, you know, I don't believe that you should ever stop doing what you love to do, even if you've kind of moved on to another phase in your life. Once you do this, man, it's in your heart forever."