Gangsta rap, R.I.P.? The ripples from the death of Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas last month continue to roll out, with more than a few critics latching onto Shakur's shooting as added evidence (if any were needed) that gangsta rap is headed toward its own funeral. For years, critics have bemoaned the format's overwhelming negativity and lack of fresh ideas. And now, with one of its cover boys done in by the very sort of street violence gangsta rap glamorizes, the doomsayers have high-profile evidence to make a case for gangsta rap's inevitable demise.

The only problem with much of this serious pontificating is that it comes from the same sort of middle-class white boys who never really understood gangsta rap's appeal in the first place. As a middle-class white boy myself, I should know. Indeed, if you ask Houston rappers about the ominous debris from Shakur's Las Vegas drive-by, you may get only a shrug. To them, this latest round of trouble is seen not so much as the fall of gangsta rap but as a slight stumble, if that. For the local hip-hop industry, iffy forecasts for the genre's future are pretty much business as usual. Bad press has always adhered to its artists. So what's new?

"There's been negativity attached to rap since the very first record came out," says Mad Hatta, who co-hosts the Gulf Coast rap/hip-hop radio show Straight from the Streetz 8 to 10 p.m. Sundays on the Box/97.9 FM. "Personally, I don't see any slowdown here. As long as there's still people living in poverty, with bad things happening to them, there will be people to rap about it."

Of course, Houston's rappers operate in something of a self-imposed media vacuum, sealed off to an extent from most of the bickering and hype that issues out of Los Angeles and New York. Despite the TV docudrama/soap opera that was played out on the tube in the wake of the Shakur shooting, a less glitzy reality is what traditionally has fueled gangsta rap, and no one foresees a shortage of that in Houston's ghettos any time soon.

"It depends on which side of the fence you're on, and who you're talking to -- some folks look at it as gangsta rap, others look at it as life experience," says Straight from the Streetz producer Larry Gardiner. "One of the foundations of writing is: Write what you know. Some things you just can't whitewash."

With the exception of its handful of elite spokesmen, gangsta rap is very much an underground phenomenon, though with thicker wads of cash changing hands than any other D.I.Y. movement has ever witnessed. Many smaller Houston rappers sell by word of mouth and do so en masse -- to the tune of 200,000 or more copies per release -- without any boost from national radio or MTV. And Hatta sees no end to this rash of creative and entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

"[Local acts have] got videos, CDs and cassettes just like the big boys," he says. The CDs and cassettes have always moved easily through networks of music shops, and now Hatta and Gardiner's Irie Productions are offering Gulf Coast rap/hip-hop acts an outlet for their video output as well. A music-video version of Straight from the Streetz debuted last month on the local affiliate of the Warner Bros. Network and is currently televised 1 to 2 p.m. Saturdays on WB, with a shorter version running from 7:30 to 8 p.m. Sundays on Black Entertainment Television.

"MTV has these hard standards -- but we have standards, too," Hatta says. "It's not going to be easy for people to make it on our show. But at least we'll give them the opportunity."

Etc.... In other rap/hip-hop developments at the Box, Geto Boy Willie D has landed his own show at the station Monday nights 8 to 10 p.m. Willie D's Reality Check mixes music with tough talk on a range of juicy issues. Topics addressed thus far include AIDS, voter registration and the CIA's link to the crack cocaine epidemic in central Los Angeles.

My visit to the Orphans' stage at the Westheimer Street Festival October 19 was an ear-bending experience. The band's set was consumed by the noise coming from a Houston Headline stage, which, inexplicably, was but a few yards away. (Who's the genius who granted side-by-side permits to two music stages?) To their credit, the Orphans made the best of a fairly ludicrous situation. Content not let another's superior PA spoil their fun, the Houston roots rockers played on valiantly amidst the hippie thunder coming from next door. I sat close enough to the band (so close I could read the set list taped to the stage) to actually hear traces of "Farmer Ted," "Dear Janie" and other mainstays in the Orphans' evolving catalog of sharp originals.

In town this week: Thursday, post-punk lounge enthusiasts the Lucky Strikes and the Naughty Ones at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge; Friday, lesbian punkers the Third Sex at Fitzgerald's, and obliquely tuneful new wave hippies Geggy Tah with Soul Coughing at the Urban Art Bar; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Kenny Rogers with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall; Whopper spokesband Modern English at Fitzgerald's Tuesday.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland