The Empire Strikes Back

What do you do when you've created a movement, a culture even, and then are suddenly neglected for all your contributions? Apparently you get mad as hell and show everybody that with the snap of a finger, you can make them your bitch again. These days that seems to be the general attitude of Rap-A-Lot Records and its president and founder, James A. Prince.

It's easy to see how Prince could perceive himself as the black Rodney Dangerfield in this town. It was just 14 years ago, back when he was called James "Lil' J" Smith, that he created the Houston rap temple known as Rap-A-Lot. With the help of a bunch of angry orators known as the Geto Boys, Prince and Rap-A-Lot paved the way for dozens of local MCs and rap labels to motor-mouth their way out of this city. But do today's rap audiences still see the label as a vital operation that can diligently, efficiently sling out hardcore Houston rap?

The general thinking on Rap-A-Lot is that it has played itself out, that it's an old, slow elephant roaming around in a field full of spry cheetahs. The scene is more about new slick cats like Big Moe and South Park Mexican. Add to that the various troubles that have besieged the label over the past few months (a multi-agency task force's on-again, off-again investigation of Prince and his associates topping the list), and you end up wondering if Rap-A-Lot will ever get the love it deserves.

Fortunately, as we cross over into the 21st century, Rap-A-Lot has a plan. This year the label has officially become the new and improved Rap-A-Lot 2K. This fall the once-powerful empire released four large-scale albums in two months, loudly reclaiming aesthetic territory it used to rule, as if to say, "We started this muthafucka, now let's show 'em how it's really done."

Musically, all four releases convey that raw, no-frills style that is seriously lacking in contemporary local rap. Even the album covers are stark and to-the-point. The bold cover for Willie D's Loved by Few, Hated by Many shows the rapper strapping on his bulletproof vest. The cover of Do or Die's Victory has the trio clad in black leather jackets, raising their fists as if they were starting a new branch of the Black Panthers. Scarface's cover for The Last of a Dying Breed is even more minimal and profound: It's an image of an unborn baby.

The first two releases come from the new-school kids, Do or Die and Tela. Do or Die hails from Chicago, not Houston, and the trio's music underscores that geographic difference: On Victory, DOD boasts an aggressive East Coast sound. A.K., brother N.A.R.D. and longtime friend Belo are some proud thugs, graciously willing to show skeptics just how bug-out crazy they really are. Their songs are furious, full of visceral verbalizing and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony-style harmonizing. (Oh, yes, hard-as-hell brothas can still throw down a good harmony every once in a while, presumably for all the chickenheads out there.) With song titles like "Murderers, Pimps and Thugs" and "Thuggin' It Out," the subject matter isn't that expansive. But at least it isn't boring. You never end up saying, "Yeah, right" at the end of each song. You will probably end up saying, "Shit, is my front door locked?"

As for Tela's The World Ain't Enuff, the Memphis native designates himself as the playa all playas aspire to be. The album begins with Tela taking a bong hit and telling listeners his life story -- how he transformed himself from ambitious street kid to ghetto mastermind. He then leaps into his big self-serving anthem, "Tela." The whole project feels like Tela is auditioning for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella family, since it's filled with the rapid-fire delivery and booty-bumping beats you'd expect from the MC and his crew. The standout here comes when Tela teams up with the undervalued Jazze Pha on the hypnotic, dub-drenched "Table Dance." All of Tela's Bacchanalian desires seem to culminate on that one track.

These bucks may be younger, faster and even smarter than their seasoned predecessors Scarface and Willie D, but shit, they'll never, ever be crazier than these muthafuckas. As always, the old pros stand out for the sheer unrestrained vigor they display on their albums. The Scarface and Willie D projects prove that these two are still the same paranoid playas we all know and love. They're like two dark-skinned Tony Montanas, sitting at their coke-covered desks, waiting for their enemies to make the first move.

Let's face it, the Geto Boys should be recognized for being the first rap group to riff on subjects that black people wouldn't be caught dead discussing, like legitimately going insane. With landmark tracks like "Mind of a Lunatic" and the seminal rap classic "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," the Geto Boys were the first to make psychological turmoil a cool thing to rap about.

On The Last of a Dying Breed, Scarface continues to delve deep into his psyche, coming up with some wild shit that would make even Beck scratch his head in befuddlement. Check out these lines from "Look Me in the Eyes": "I'm poisoning my mind / trying to find release / but I can't get no peace / 'cuz Tupac has been chasing me." Huh? Believe it or not, the ride gets a lot smoother, and pleasantly bumpy. Scarface shares this trip with several other passengers, including Jay-Z, Too Short and the Dogg Pound's Daz and Kurupt. But it's when Scarface teams up with UGK on the robust battle number "They Down with Us" that we catch Scarface in his element: just being an MC putting a hurtin' on other MCs. And we kinda forget that about the man, that he still can be one of the swiftest, wittiest rappers around.

With Loved by Few, Hated by Many, Willie D shows that even in his middle age, he still keeps looking over his shoulder. Wrapping his words of militant melancholy around standardized synthesizer-and-drum-machine beats, Willie D doesn't let the fact that he's a respected and revered member of Houston society prevent him from compiling some vicious antiestablishment rants. "If you don't feel me, kill me," he advises on one track, a line that becomes the unofficial motto of the album.

While most of the stuff on Loved by Few is hit-or-miss, Willie D does create unique moments of frustration that are amazing to listen to. The man truly hits his mark on "If I Was White," on which he scoffs at the idea of racial unity since white people are so damn shady. In his usual happy-to-be-pissed manner, he goes off on the sociocultural contradictions white America serves up, from neglecting to give Denzel Washington an Oscar this year ("You think you did something 'cuz you gave one to Cuba") to all-white juries deciding the fate of black men. "Fuck baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet," Willie D says near the end. "If I Was White" presents Willie D at his most gleefully agitated. It makes you wonder why more MCs can't be on the same page.

The common theme that runs through these new releases is that even if audiences are not down with the new, retooled Rap-A-Lot, the company's still gonna be all right. The label has been around for 14 years, and chances are it'll be around when most of these neophyte imprints have became vague memories. Besides, the boys will always have each other. On their new albums, Do or Die, Tela, Scarface and Willie D each mention at least once how much love they have for Prince and the whole Rap-A-Lot gang. At the label, the bonds are stronger than ever, and you can be either down with them or against them.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey