In the fall of 1991, an unusual song found its way onto the radio. It was called “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and was performed by a Houston hip-hop trio called Geto Boys. A slow, mournful plaint, “Mind” relied on long, harmonically complex guitar samples—a departure from the short horn bursts and rapid drums then dominating hip-hop. If the song had an antecedent, it was the blues, not music you might have heard in a disco. Geto Boys—Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and Willie D—had deep, unmistakably Southern voices, and their lyrics didn’t celebrate or protest anything. “Mind” is an unsettling song, its opening couplets freighted with anxiety: “At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn. / Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned. / Four walls just staring at a nigger. / I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger.” For several months, “Mind” was on the radio all the time. Then Geto Boys—and Southern hip-hop—seemed to disappear. In the fourteen years since “Mind” was released, the band has showed up again on the Billboard pop charts only twice, most recently in 1996.
Now Houston hip-hop is back, enjoying a musical hegemony that happens only occasionally in pop. Not since Nirvana made Seattle the capital of grunge, in 1991, have a city, a sound, and a significant chart presence been so closely linked. One of the year’s biggest hip-hop songs, “Still Tippin’ ”—which was released on Swishahouse, an independent label, in 2003, and rereleased by Warner Bros. in January—introduced Americans to three influential Houston m.c.s: the needling, self-deprecating Mike Jones; the swaggering, bass-voiced giant Slim Thug; and the cheerfully louche white rapper Paul Wall. Wall’s major-label début record, “The Peoples Champ,” entered the charts at No. 1 in September, and Jones’s first major-label album, “Who Is Mike Jones?,” which was released in April, has gone platinum. Two other local m.c.s, Aztek and Short Dog, who are virtually unknown outside the city, have been signed by established industry figures—Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, respectively—and the Geto Boys’ new album, “The Foundation,” has been well received.
“Still Tippin’ ” is an elegant primer on Houston hip-hop. The music is unhurried and woozy, as if it had been left too long in the sun. A violin phrase wells up again and again, like a bubble in a blender, while the rappers hew to the sticky beat, drawling about cars, women, and diamond grills (the precious-metal molds inlaid with diamonds that rappers wear on their front teeth). The easy finesse of Houston’s m.c.s can make East Coast hip-hop sound stressed out, uptight, or just plain square. The Houston sound is, above all, slow, a perpetually decelerating music that is equally good at conveying menace, calm, and grief. (The sound was taken to a logical extreme in the early nineties, when a Houston native named DJ Screw found a way to play hip-hop records at nearly half speed, creating a genre that was eventually named after him—screw. Skillfully executed, screw music turns hip-hop and R. & B. back into blues and gospel.) The city’s heat seems to encourage both languor and soul-spilling; Houston m.c.s rap charmingly about their possessions but are comfortable singing about death, racist cops, and life in prison.
They are also an unusually collegial group; every m.c. and producer I met in Houston gave me phone numbers for other musicians. The intense and sometimes lethal professional rivalries that characterize the New York hip-hop scene seemed hardly to exist; in Houston, everyone is on everyone else’s record, and one rapper’s commercial success is invariably two or three others’ as well.
Almost every Houston rapper owes something—musical inspiration, performance opportunities, moral support—to Bun B, the hip-hop community’s thirty-two-year-old elder. For fourteen years, Bun B has performed and recorded as one half of the duo UGK (Underground Kingz). On October 18th, he released his first solo album, “Trill.” In seven days, it sold almost a hundred and twenty thousand copies, entering the Billboard charts at No. 6. “Trill” is a focussed and occasionally brilliant example of Houston rap, preoccupied with the status-enhancing possibilities of guns, cars, and women, but more convincing than the work of Bun’s juniors, mostly because of his forceful delivery. Bun has a steady tenor voice and carves his straightforward rhymes with precision. He stretches out the middle of the word “ain’t,” then bites the “t” off cleanly, as in: “Cause we doin’ it real big, in case you thinkin’ we ain’t.” His presentation is unfussy, direct, and loud.
As UGK, Bun and his partner, Pimp C, found an audience with “Pocket Full of Stones,” a vivid song about drug dealing that was featured on the soundtrack of the 1993 film “Menace II Society.” Six years later, UGK performed several tough-minded, pro-South verses on Jay-Z’s top-forty single “Big Pimpin’ ”—including Bun’s memorable admonishment “Go read a book, you illiterate son of a bitch, and step up yo’ vocab.” In 2002, after Pimp C was charged with a parole violation stemming from an aggravated-assault conviction and imprisoned, Bun B entered a period of intense productivity, contributing guest verses to dozens of tracks, by almost every major artist in hip-hop, and hosting numerous local mix tapes.
“Trill” starts in fifth gear, with “Bun,” a track so rapid that it sounds almost Northeastern. The verses of “Bun,” standard bragging and boasting fare, are punctuated on every other beat by a small chorus chanting his name. Bun himself is atypically wound up, riding the front of the beat as though he were running in place and had to stop every few words to catch his breath: “You know it’s certified” (pause) “ain’t with them games, ’cause” (pause) “we whoopin’ ass, then” (pause) “we takin’ names.” After “Bun,” the album’s pace subsides to a more geographically appropriate sway.
“The Story” is a thoroughly successful track, a potential template for rappers stuck for ideas: talk about what you’ve done, not what you intend to do. Hip-hop has come to depend on threats and imagined grandeur, but “The Story” is satisfyingly empirical, a rare glimpse into an artist’s uneasy relationships with his label and his fans. Bun B talks candidly about his partner’s legal problems, the importance of appearing on “Big Pimpin’,” and the pressure he feels from the duo’s record label to release a sequel to the song. Bun worries that, to his core Southern audience, collaborating with a top-ten rapper like Jay-Z could seem awfully pop, as opposed to street: “It sounded O.K., but me, I had to ask, / ‘If we don’t do “Big Pimpin’ 2,” will you still put us on blast?’ / A song like that might take a nigga to the top, but my true fan base might think a nigga flopped. / They got mad, and put niggas on hold / for damn near a year until the buzz got cold.”
If you are a Houston m.c. of any note, you probably drive a “slab,” the local word for an enormous American car from the nineteen-seventies or eighties that has been overhauled and tricked out in high-gloss “candy paint.” Watch the video for any new Houston song and you’ll see at least one slab whose trunk, possibly containing a neon sign, may open hydraulically, and dramatically. As Bun B puts it in the album’s best track and first single, “Draped Up”: “Push a button and my car is wavin’ bye to you, punk.”
The song, which was produced by Salih Williams, a sly Austin musician who was also responsible for “Still Tippin’, ” is marvellously sinuous and dark, a mix of low humming sounds and raspy digital melodies; it calls to mind a hovercraft covered with blinking Christmas lights. (The song’s video features no hovercrafts, sadly, but it is only a matter of time before a rapper steps up the vehicular competition.) The chorus is a sample taken from “Pimp Tha Pen,” a 1995 collaboration between DJ Screw and the rapper Lil’ Keke: “Draped up and dripped out, know what I’m talking about?” (“Draped up and dripped out” describes both cars and people—a reference to rappers’ fancy clothes and gold and platinum chains and their vehicles’ custom details.) One of Bun’s lines captures the feeling of much Houston hip-hop these days, glee mixed with vindication: “Back in the days, all they ever did was doubt us. / Now the South is in the house, and they can’t do nothing about us.”