If this weather's got you interested in curling up on the couch with a warm blanket and a good book, you're in luck. Sinecure Books has just put out a great one: photographer Peter Beste's Houston Rap, a years-in-the-making picture book detailing the locals and locales that have defined the city's hip-hop scene for more than two decades.
If you're envisioning a few dozen pages of gold grills and Cadillacs, go ahead and stop right there. This may be a coffee-table book, but it's no superficial treatment. Beste set out to create a historical document of a very specific time and place in the American experience. Since 2004, he's been snapping photos in the streets, clubs, studios and living rooms where H-town rap has been and continues to be a way of life, and he brought in writer Lance Scott Walker to help collect an authoritative oral history of the scene and its major participants dating back to its earliest days.
Scarface and Mike Jones are in there, sure, as are plenty of guns, gold and drank. But you'll also find arresting images of boarded-up storefronts, after-hours strip joints, overgrown parking lots and the colorful people who populate such places. Houston Rap is the most intimate and detailed portrait yet of the faces, places and problems in Houston's oldest remaining black communities — not to mention the bass-heavy soundtrack to daily life there.
So how did a couple of white dudes living and working in New York City come to spend nearly a decade diving so deeply into such a closed-off, localized world? Turns out they were hooked early, as music-obsessed kids growing up on the fringes of what was once considered just another anonymous burb in the great hip-hop wasteland between NYC and L.A.
"Growing up outside of Houston in the early '90s, I was really attracted or mystified by a lot of the early Rap-A-Lot artists, like the Geto Boys and Ganksta N-I-P, Point Blank and people like that," Beste says. "And then years later, I started photography at St. Edwards University in Austin, and they had a strong emphasis on documentary photography. And that's really what spoke to me in terms of photography. I guess my interest in Houston rap came back up in those years, and it just seemed like the perfect documentary project."
Beste began working on the book in 2004, starting with pictures of H-town O.G.s K-Rino and Street Military. The more he shot, the more stories he heard. A rich narrative began to emerge of the evolution of Houston hip-hop, and that's when Beste gave Walker a call. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Houston rap scene to both men was the intense DIY nature of the movement. Much like their punk idols, the musicians Beste and Walker saw and heard in Houston were putting out their own records on their own labels, oftentimes selling them out of the trunks of their own cars.
"It was that really original, underdog world that I was attracted to," Beste says. "The DIY ethic that grew out of all of that, I have a whole lot of respect for. I come from a punk-rock background, so that DIY aesthetic was really attractive to me. It just made me respect them a lot, and it kept my interest for many, many years."
Interest is one thing. Access is another. It was a long and sometimes scary process to get players large and small in the scene to open up to a couple of outsiders. But the pair was determined to shine a light on a thriving hip-hop underground completely unknown to most people living a few miles away, let alone in another state or country.
"Houston has always been overlooked, dismissed," Walker says. "How many people do you know that you've talked to from out of town, and you tell 'em you're from Houston and they're like, 'Aw, I went to Houston one time; it sucked! Freeways and concrete and gas stations and strip centers.' Well, yeah, but there's so much beneath that.
"You kind of need a tour guide," he continues. "It's not the most welcoming city to visit if you don't know where you're going and you don't know anything about it. But that's also because Houston does its own thing. Houston is its own little planet."
A planet that can now be explored, courtesy of Beste and Walker, from the warm, cozy comfort of your trill-ass couch.
A December to Remember
Toyota Center is in the middle of a blockbuster month.
For a venue celebrating its tenth year of operation, Toyota Center may have never experienced such high-caliber occupancy as it will this month.
In late autumn, the murmurs from inside the venue's marketing department could be heard all the way across the street at the George R. Brown Convention Center. While the Rockets were finalizing the smiling "H-TOWN" visage of center Dwight Howard and guard James Harden that now greets fans, two more names were added to the arena's December concert schedule.
Jay Z. Kanye West.
Those names together should sound familiar. Both men performed at Toyota Center in December 2011 on the rather gross and extravagant "Watch the Throne" tour. But this time around, the two are promoting completely separate ideas and albums: West a flamboyant middle finger toward conventionalism called Yeezus, Jay Z a rather polished nod to commercialism and inventive "new rules" under the name Magna Carta Holy Grail.
The Toyota Center staff plugged in the respective dates and realized both shows would land in a stretch of the calendar that already included pop royalty Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. Combining those two with the mid-November appearances of superstars Rihanna and Drake, soon the arena can say it will have seen six of music's biggest names enter its doors within a month's time.
"We've had many sections of the year where we've seen plenty of traffic," says Toyota Center associate general manager Amanda Mann. "But definitely nothing of this variety in the urban market."
Attending all four concerts, beginning with Timberlake this past Thursday through Jay Z next Thursday (two weeks later), would rack up a minimum bill of $166. For premium seating levels for all four shows, tickets could easily set you back $725. Of course, that's not factoring in tour merchandise, concessions and whatever else you may happen to run into. Entertain the company of someone else, and your escapade could vault into the $1,450 range (again, with premium seating in mind).
But what those figures mean to the common fan is nothing. What they mean to the venue itself is quite astonishing.
This past March, rodeo season still towed in plenty of crowds to Toyota Center for concerts including Muse, Eric Clapton, Maroon 5, Elton John and Alicia Keys. A box-office windfall of some $3 million, that would normally rank as the venue's busy period. This month, its urban swing promises to match that figure, and maybe then some.
Outside of possibly Lady Gaga — who herself announced a July 2014 Toyota Center appearance last week — and Katy Perry, no one in pop moves the barometer any more than Beyoncé and Timberlake. Jay Z's wife made her second appearance in Houston this year on Tuesday, following a July date that quickly sold out. Her followup adventure also sold out, with some fans thankful for a chance to snag a few nosebleed seats. But her selling out a second show in five months, in her hometown, seems relatively easy — even with a highest single-ticket price of $250
Also selling out the venue was Timberlake, whose "comeback" album, The 20/20 Experience, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in March with a staggering 968,000 copies sold. His appearance may go back to an old business deal he signed with Live Nation following his 2007 world tour, but you'd be hard-pressed to find fans who want to relive his *NSYNC glory days, either; he's as hot as he's ever been.
Among the rap acts, one member of The Throne has seen his tickets going faster than the other's.
"Tickets to Jay Z's show were flying," reveals Mann. "We sold the second-most presale tickets only to Los Angeles."
This news is hardly surprising, given the near-universal praise he's received and his past Houston connections. Every show here since he opened the neighboring House of Blues in 2008 has carried its own weight, almost as momentous as any of his hometown New York shows.
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The wild card, as he often seems to be these days, is West, who at press time still had a few tickets available for last Saturday's show with Kendrick Lamar. Curiosity could be a bigger factor for a West show than with, say, Timberlake and Jay Z, who not only shared a stadium tour this past summer but seem so straitlaced onstage that anything out of a normal set list would be a shock.
Much of the word surrounding Kanye's current tour has been not on his actual performance but on his antics, such as stopping a recent Tampa show because of lighting. And who could forget his last solo tour stop in Houston in 2008, which he called to a halt when a side monitor went out?
But however Kanye's show goes down, December could rate as the most lucrative concert month in Toyota Center's history. It may go down as the most talked-about month as well.
See reviews of Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Beyoncé's recent Toyota Center shows at blogs.houstonpress.com/live_shots.