You could say it was the South Park Rapper's early single "MacGregor Park," which celebrated the titanic block parties that still swarm the Third Ward park to this day. You could say it was when Houston's first major-label hip-hop signee, Raheem, got his record deal. Or when budding Rap-A-Lot Records mogul James Prince began hand-picking schoolyard rappers and a couple of Jersey imports to form what would eventually become Houston's highest-selling, most enduring rap ensemble, the Geto Boys.
But while Prince was building an empire on the city's north side, an equally influential (if not more) cadre of rappers was emerging across town.
South Park is a weathered, mostly black neighborhood just south of Loop 610 and east of Highway 288. The houses are showing their age; there are tattered lawns, abandoned businesses and crime. But the neighborhood is by no means desolate, and that's because South Park, for more than two decades, has given us some of the South's greatest rap artists — many of whom will return to their old neighborhood for the sixth annual SPC Weekend, which starts Friday.
It was there in the mid-'80s that the grandchildren of the WWII veterans who settled the neighborhood began battle-rapping one another in the hallways of their high schools, in empty parking lots and in clubs like the Rhinestone Wrangler. One particularly lengthy contest that occurred one afternoon at a neutral location known as the Battleground (a parking lot at MLK and Bellfort) between two of the area's most notorious rappers, Ganksta N-I-P and K-Rino, resulted in a draw. The pair shook hands, their respective posses merged and the South Park Coalition was born.
"I just wanted to put together an organization of local rappers and unify the city in a sense," says K-Rino. "Because it was a lot of battling and hatred going on in those days. I just felt like we could be stronger if we came together. At the time I didn't know that it would grow like it did."
And it did. When N-I-P signed with Rap-A-Lot in 1991 and then released The South Park Psycho the following year, it drew attention to the SPC members who made guest appearances on it. The Terrorists had also issued an album on Rap-A-Lot in late '91, and now K-Rino, Klondike Kat, Murder One and the late A.C. Chill were bringing South Park into the national spotlight.
The primary strength of the South Park Coalition, and the reason it's been able to continue on as a tight-knit collective of artists for so many years, is because it operates at a slow burn. The members have been unified and consistent, and whatever else comes with that is fine.
"You move faster solo," explains Dope E of the Terrorists, "and you take a chance of everything you got getting taken away from you. When you move as a unit, you move slower...but you're unstoppable."
SPC's members are now the elder statesmen of Houston rap, a half generation older than the younger Screwed Up Click (also from South Park), and they're as active now as ever. In fact, not only is K-Rino currently prolific — releasing three albums this year alone — but as an MC, he's arguably at his best. One of the most-respected artists in Houston, Rino releases his records on his own label, Black Book International, and maintains a stream of appearances around the world to appease what has become a worldwide fan base.
By now, the SPC Weekend roster numbers well into the dozens (65, by one recent count), but the main event features a small cross-section. This year's bill includes K-Rino, Point Blank, Ganksta N-I-P, Klondike Kat, the Terrorists, Murder One, PSK-13, Rhyme Felon, Street Military, DBX, Ruff Eyque and the 144 Elite. Expect a host of surprises as well, like when famously reclusive rapper Z-Ro, fresh out of jail, rolled up unexpected to the 2006 event and did a short set onstage with Point Blank.
"I look forward to that weekend like a lot of people look forward to the car shows," says writer/promoter Matt Sonzala. "The car shows come up with all the big stars, but with SPC Weekend you get all the legends, like the people who really did start rap music in Houston. You'll see K-Rino and all the players in the SPC, but you might also see 3-2 and Bushwick Bill... you might see Z-Ro, Trae, people like that come out there to all kind of celebrate those pioneers."
"It's definitely high energy," Dope E adds. "Peaceful energy. I see a happy energy...appreciative energy, and that dedicated energy all combined."
"It's a chance for us to interact with the fans," says Murder One, another original SPC member. "And not just fans, but friends. There are people coming in from overseas. And A.C. Chill...he would want us to keep doing this."
A.C. Chill's sudden passing in late 2005 from a brain aneurysm has been an added incentive for the SPC to keep going — not that the group has ever really needed it.
"Paul Wall and all of those guys — they know who started this shit," Sonzala says. "When Rap-A-Lot was starting and the SPC was starting, there was nothing here. They just built it from the ground up. And they all pretty much continue on to this day. That's what's amazing."