There was a time in Houston when "rap music" meant Rap-A-Lot, and that was it. For the better part of the decade, that rap label, led by James "Lil' J" Smith (now known as James Prince), was at the epicenter of rap in the region. Thanks in part to The Geto Boys and their masterworks, The Geto Boys (1990) and We Can't Be Stopped (1991), the label attracted national attention.
Soon, the independent-rap production bug infected the rest of the city, and small labels began popping up all over town. Rap label execs sold (or "slanged") homemade tapes at rap concerts, local record stores and even from the trunks of their cars. But until last year, Houston was basically a one-label town.
That was when Suave House Records began getting press, then scored a multimillion-dollar distribution deal with Universal and began releasing commercially viable releases by the likes of Eightball and MJG, whose 1998 solo double album, Lost, went double platinum. Suddenly, it wasn't just Rap-A-Lot.
And now it's not only Rap-A-Lot and Suave House. Dozens of other independent rap labels, whether operating from a swanky office or the CEO's home, are taking up space in Space City. Though mostly unsuccessful, some have been around for a few years (Bigtyme, Key Players, D.I.M.E., N-Terrorgation, Underground, Street Keeper). Others are so fresh that, like Inmate and Def Souf, they're not even listed in the phone book. Some are merely extensions of already prominent local labels (such as Albatross's Funky Products division and Momentum, which hopes to snag the once ubiquitous Tone-Loc next year); others seem to cater to only, for the moment, one artist. (EIE Records' roster, for example, shows only one group, RWO a.k.a. The Org.)
Much of these labels' music seems to carry the same theme, sound and style: gangsta rap, born of synthesizers and drum machines, and which addresses the subject matter of a Scorsese or De Palma bloodbath movie -- guns, sex, money. This music was original once, when The Geto Boys took its subversively unflinching inner-city rhetoric, accompanied it with some pimp-friendly grooves, and spun it into mainstream gold. For Houston rap fans it was like having their own Niggaz With Attitude sans the Raiders gear.
But now, second-rate G's have recycled, rehashed, remixed and reduced that same music to derivative shtick. And as inner-city gangs across America lose their stranglehold on black youth, so is gangsta rap weakening in its popularity. Will Hudgins, editor of the Southern rap magazine Crunk and head of the album-cover-designing Deluxe Communications, feels that in a city as rich and diverse as Houston, the rap music should be equally eclectic. "If you put, maybe, 15 independent albums out from Houston, probably 13 and 14 of them are gonna sound the same," he says. "I don't think it should be that way, but that's the way it's been. [Gangsta is] sort of like a Houston sound."
Besides the creative deadlock, the newcomers often face another common problem: They often don't know how to keep the business side going. Pam Harris, editor/publisher of Street Flava and vice president of sales for the magazine's TV show, says that most record label brass fail to consider the business side of running a company. "They didn't do any preplanning," she explains. "They viewed it as more of a hobby, not a business. The key to successful labels is not just the music, it's the business."
So do any of the local rap labels have a chance at success? Actually, yes. The upstarts may not rate with Rap-A-Lot or Suave House just yet, but they have their acts together, so to speak. These labels try to be distinctive, creatively as well as professionally, which is a nice change of pace from labels that feature artists concerned only with bitches an' money.
It's quiet at the offices of Jam Down Entertainment -- too quiet.
The phone hardly rings. Staffers aren't running in and out. The place is damn-near vacant, except for the receptionist. Wearing a gold ensemble, she sings while the discofied R&B of The Gap Band forms a rhythmic buzz on the radio. The reception-area walls are adorned with album-cover portraits of the label's more popular artists: Lil' Keke, Al-D, Most Hated, Triple Threat.
But before you can even take in all the homeboy poses and baggy clothes, Patrick Lewis and his associates walk in. (If you can call it "walking" -- Lewis bolts through the door like Clark Kent rushing for a phone booth.) The office begins to hustle and bustle. Phones ring. Doors slam. Staffers wear out the soles of their shoes.
From the look of his eased face and the sound of his somber Jamaican accent, Lewis, 35, barely resembles somebody who could hang your ass to dry if you messed around with his business. (Which he could.) In his spacious office, he's joined by his longtime partner Gerard Mark, 30, the husky general manager of Jam Down. Both are willing to talk about their label's quest for the Big Time. Wheels are in motion.
Releases from the label have been getting local attention, especially since Jam Down cut a distribution deal with the mighty Polygram last year. In March, Jam Down will release It Was All a Dream, the third release from their most successful artist, Lil' Keke, and All Work, No Play, the new work from the ever-mythical DJ Screw.
The DJ had bumped into the Jam Down people during a failing Triple Threat project, which Screw was producing. Through Screw, Jam Down hooked up with Lil' Keke, who performed on Screw's celebrated 3 N' the Morning albums. Screw's first album, 1997's Don't Mess Wit Texas, sold up to 80,000 copies in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Even then everybody believed Jam Down had potential. "We didn't have this label, actually, like it is today," says Lewis. "It was just basically a $5 record name and the little money we had." Loans and money made from parties helped pay for distribution. "To get to this level, we started selling the little tapes," says Lewis. "And then, more money comes in."
Houston has developed a treacherous reputation for not giving much love to artists who break out of their regional status. (Remember the singing trio H-Town? Didn't think so.) But Lewis doesn't think that reputation is fair. He believes Houston rap listeners give many of today's local rappers (his Jam Down stable included) their props. "Houston is supporting big-time now," Lewis says. "Right now, you can't really put out a tape without having Houston on your side. 'Cuz if you don't have Houston on your side right now, it's gonna be hard to get somebody else because Houston is a major market."
Still, the down-and-dirty form of Texas-bred hardcore rap that Jam Down and many other Houston rap labels specialize in rarely gets its share of airplay around these parts. "It's basically an underground thing," Lewis says. "But it just don't have enough [DJs] supporting it in this market. They don't have no clubs. They don't have nothing happening for them here."
Jam Down's distribution strategy is simple. "We're not into all that shit with the movies and all that," Lewis says. "We're not into that. When we do get to that level, fine. But we need a gold and platinum album first."
But even with his laid-back attitude, Lewis can still utter a promise to those who are ready to go to the mat with Jam Down. "Either roll with us," Lewis says, "or get rolled over."
"The design for this company is not to be a Rap-A-Lot or to be a Suave House," says Derrick Dixon, 29, CEO of southwest Houston's Wreckshop Records. "It's to be a Priority or a Relativity. To be a MCA. To even be a Polygram. You see what I'm sayin'? So it's all in the vision that we have that's gonna separate us."
Strong words, but it's not like the man hasn't tried it before. In 1992, the Beaumont-born Dixon, who has an MBA in marketing from Clark Atlanta University, moved to Atlanta to form Gemini Entertainment. After five years of occasional "creative conflict," Dixon set his sights on forming a label in Houston. In 1997, he formed Wreckshop.
Dixon, now a husband and father, claims he named the company after his "lifestyle." More important, he named it for the wrecks, crashes and other obstacles of life. There was that auto accident in high school, in which he was injured, and then there was a young rapper named Fat Pat (nee Patrick Hawkins).
In March 1997, Fat Pat had signed a Wreckshop contract. Dixon recruited a production team and began working to meet a debut release date in early 1998.
But on February 3, 1998, Fat Pat was fatally shot once in the head at the Meadows Southwest Apartments in southwest Houston. Three of his friends had been waiting in the car while Pat went to collect money from a promoter.
Two men were later charged with murder. Fat Pat was 27.
"I can actually say I built my company around Pat," says Dixon, sitting with older brother Floyd Dixon, Wreckshop vice president, and Big D, promotions and marketing director. "So, for me to lose Pat that early in the game was a major loss." A month after Fat Pat was killed, his posthumous album, Ghetto Dreams, was released. It has sold up to 100,000 copies to date. Later in the fall, Dixon and Wreckshop released Throwed in the Game, another collection of tracks Pat had recorded with Wreckshop artists Pimp Tyte, Double D, ESG, Noke D, Big Hawk (Fat Pat's brother) and singer Ronnie Spencer. Dixon believes, unabashedly, the show had to go on.
"First of all, nobody else believed in Pat until I came along, you know," he says. "And I feel like no one else was willing to take the gamble that I was on Fat Pat as a solo artist. And I took that. I had no idea what was gonna happen to Pat, and my job was to sell records. Pat was here, and now that he's not here, my job is still to sell records. Pat didn't want ... Pat don't want his name to die. Pat wants his name to live on forever and ever. We don't have no more material on him. But his name will always be referenced as long as Wreckshop is here. So, it ain't like he dead -- it ain't ever gonna be no, 'he dead and that's it about Fat Pat.'
"As far as exploiting his name and his death, exploitation is a part of this business, and I'm not ashamed to say it. His family's gotta eat. His family needs income. He left a child behind. So, you know, people are gonna say what they want to. You gotta be prepared for that if you gonna be on top."
Dixon refuses to have Wreckshop titled "The House That Fat Pat Built." A couple of new albums are slated to be released, ESG's Shinin' and Grindin' in February and All in Yo' Face, the debut from Pimp Tyte, scheduled for March 23. Wreckshop is even about to start a joint music venture in the summer with DJ Screw's Screwed Up Entertainment.
"It wasn't just, 'Let's put out a Fat Pat album,' " he says. "It's been a plan, from the beginning. And you got to have a plan. And if you'll take anything else with you, if you come to see us operate, we operate like a company. It's a business. It's not no out-the-trunk-of-my-car, unorganized-type shit. We're trying to have structure. We're trying to build something that's perpetual, that's gonna be here. You see what I'm sayin'?"
Houstonian Dereik Smith, 29, has a medium-stocky build, wears a blue bandanna around his head, drives a black '94 Ford Explorer, has a wife and a little girl, and raps for the Lord. Two years ago, Smith formed Southern Gospeltality Records, an independent label that specializes in Christian rap, which Smith calls "gospel rap." On a rainy Saturday afternoon, he's sitting in his Explorer with several of his labelmates ("soldiers," he calls them) in the parking lot of the Windsor Village Community Park. A show of gospel and Christian local acts is being put on near the basketball court, and Smith and his stable of artists are killing time before they hit the stage for their late-afternoon set.
Smith begins explaining what led him to bust the mike and release rap records in Jesus' name. "Basically, the reason why I started Southern Gospeltality Records and the whole mission was God called me to get out of gangsta rap," Smith says. "He called me out of that and asked me and gave me an assignment to go out and reach friends -- those people that were out there. He gave me an assignment to go back out there and reach them with the word of God."
From 1992 to 1995, Smith was marketing director of local rap outfit Dead Game Records. In 1995, he did jail time for what he calls "a pistol case": He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon after a Brazoria County cop searched his Explorer. He was only locked up for two days but was put on probation for a year and, as Smith claims, became "a prisoner in my mind."
After he attended a Rap Pages convention in Los Angeles in October 1996, he flew home to find that some of his comrades in the Houston rap scene were succumbing to drugs, mainly crack. Friends began going to jail. One got killed. Soon after, Smith dropped out of the gangsta-rap game completely, was "saved" and started building a gospel rap label. "I was always moving toward getting a label," he says, "but God just changed my heart."
Smith began Southern Gospeltality in January 1997, but it wasn't until the next year that the label released its first album, Street Life Not Death. The album is a decent mix of rhythmically potent, uplifting numbers by Gospeltality artists D.P.C., Black Seed, Amani, Tragedy and Smith himself (under the nom de guerre Son of Jesse). The music sounds like obligatory Houston g-rap, except the lyrics are surprisingly positive. (From "4 the City 2nite": "So I'm sending this message in a 40 bottle / Ice cold / Hoping God take my soul.")
Though the album has sold only 4,500 copies, its singles have received radio play in 22 stations (mostly Christian) across North America, including Canada and Puerto Rico. Smith admits he wants to reach more mainstreamers with the music. "I decided that I was no longer gonna compromise what He was telling me to do," he says. "I decided I was gonna start living 100 percent for Christ and go out there with Southern Gospeltality and try to reach not just the people, but actually reach the rappers. The ones that send the messages, the corrupt communications, out to these people, and try to reach those people so that they could, in turn, be discipled into spreading messages. Jesus Christ, God, you know what I'm sayin'?"
Christian Corey, a fierce singer who, at 19, is the youngest member of the Southern Gospeltality camp, empathizes with Smith's holy-ghost vibe. "Most people say 'studio' or 'record label,' " he says. "I say I look at it like a family, you know what I'm sayin'?" Stephen "Stikk" Anders, the 31-year-old who produced most of the Street Life Not Death album, figures the best way to spread the word is through beats. "We want 'em to get that word down in 'em while they're bobbing their heads," he says.
Smith is still continuing to put it down for JC, working on another artist compilation album, Spiritual Warfare, slated for release in late March. He's also in talks with a big label to distribute Southern Gospeltality music, but he doesn't want to jinx that by telling who they are. Smith just wants his music, and his message, to be heard.
"In certain areas that we're in," Smith explains, "people may not be able to grasp gospel rap. And that's fine. Because anytime you're bringing something new to the mainstream, people tend to shy away from it. But you gotta realize that. See, this is a record label, but it's also a ministry. We have been commanded to carry out this assignment. So, whether we get the response that the secular people get, with open arms or not, we get love from the man upstairs, you see what I'm sayin'. For the most part, everywhere we go, people say that we have blessed them."
With traces of gray brimming out of his five o'clock shadow, Daryl Johnson, 40, sits in a booth at a restaurant, burger-and-fries basket in one hand, medium-sized drink in the other, as rush-hour drama unfolds through the window beside him.
And even though his mouth is full he plans on talking about his label, Imani Entertainment. With him is Paris Eley, a slightly older fellow (52, actually) with a full salt-and-pepper beard and a navy-blue baseball cap cocked backward. Oddly, wearing a T-shirt from Green Day, a punk rock band. ("I don't really pay that much attention about who's on the T-shirt," Eley says.)
Late last year, the Virginia-born Eley jumped aboard this soon-to-be-year-old label as president. He has been in the music business about 35 years. His stints have included a ten-year run as vice president of promotions at CBS Records during the '70s, a position at A&M Records (he worked on promotions for Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814) and a spell at Motown, where he helped usher in artists like Boyz II Men and Johnny Gill.
So why would a man with such an extensive background clunk down and become the president of a neophyte independent label? After his previous jobs had sent him to New York and Los Angeles, he discovered his longing to be close to his wife of 14 years and his four children. He also wanted to build a business from the ground up. "I thought it was time I have something," he says, wearing a diamond-encrusted pinkie ring with a sparkling letter P on his right hand. "I joined forces with this 'kid,' " he says with a laugh, referring to Johnson, "because I'm smitten with his tenacity. I'm smitten with his dedication. So why not work with him?"
Johnson, a Buffalo, New York, native, tried music after being a shoe buyer for a men's clothing store. With a couple of partners, he launched Bratty Boy Records in 1994. But soon after, Johnson lost interest in the venture. After a three-year hiatus, he returned to the music-distributing game, trying to hook up studio time for an artist. A quartet of Texas lads, Magical Sol Brothas, was getting ready to record. Johnson remembered the boys from his Bratty Boy days, so he reintroduced himself and, soon after, got them to agree to release their next album on his nascent label.
The first, and currently only, artists Johnson has on Imani (the African term for "faith"), the Magical Sol Brothas released their second album, Black N Mild, last August. A funky, rollicking collection of hip-hop tunes, the album wasn't greeted with the usual underground Houston rap fanfare. Sales have been lackluster. The album's first single, the Michael Jackson-sampled "Getcha Backs off the Wall," failed to catch on with radio DJs. Johnson is greeting this challenge with a combination of optimism and introspection.
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"The thing about [the music business] is it's a business where you can actually starve," Johnson says, giggling over his food. "And being an up-and-coming label, we're trying to strive to be the best, and that's what I really want to do."
Johnson and Eley want more of the kind of rap that the Sol Brothas excel at, but they refuse to be pigeonholed as just a rap label. "I think music needs to have a diversity sound," says Eley. "Even though we are from the South, you know, music is universal. And that is how we wanna deliver it. I mean, we like the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, the Midwest. And the guys are making records, I think, that everyone can relate to."
Says Johnson: "[Hip-hop legend] Russell Simmons brought up a very valid point that the white kids of suburbia -- those are our record buyers. That's who's buying our music. And I'm not trying to say that the black kids don't support our music. It's just that they don't have the money."
But whether their Imani game is appeasing mass audiences or a small cult of listeners, both Johnson and Eley are pacing it with calculated efficiency. They're in negotiations to distribute their music on Private Eye Records, a division of the music bigwig Mercury. They've "restructured" the marketing and promotion of the Black N Mild album, and the Brothas are touring Sam Goody record stores. (They plan to tour Virgin Megastores next month.) The label is also pushing the Brothas' latest single, the zydeco-influenced "I, I ..." in other markets, including Louisiana, in the hopes that it will eventually find its way back into H-town. Johnson feels the work they're exhibiting is what makes an independent label tick. In his mind, substance kicks style's ass any day of the week. "Just because you have a big, fancy office in a building doesn't put you in the business," he says. "You need a record. You need an album. You need radio. You need marketing and promotions. Then you're in the record business. Until those ingredients happen, you're a label with an office.