When Bun B and his entourage descend, the block is empty -- a vacant lot on one side, a ramshackle house shy a few windows on the other. The bodega on the corner has glass doors so dirty you can't tell if it's open or closed. But once the rapper's associates begin setting up his album-cover photo shoot -- planting a tripod and lighting rigs in the street, wheeling in a candy-blue '70 Oldsmobile Cutlass with glimmering chrome rims -- the neighborhood begins to awake. Barefoot kids hover tentatively. A young man with gold fangs gawks openly at the amply curved models waiting for instructions. And the house, which had been ghostly quiet, spills a dozen or so occupants onto the street. One guy, lacking a crate or a chair, sinks deep into a creaky baby stroller. Its previous occupant, a young girl with pigtails, snoozes in his lap.
This is where it all began, in the Fifth Ward. A tattered neighborhood on Houston's North Side, it's full of wide-open streets lined by buildings that seem to shrug, as if in defeat. Two decades ago an entrepreneur named James Smith, a.k.a. James Prince, founded Rap-A-Lot Records in a spare office above the used-car lot that was his day gig. These days Rap-A-Lot is an established brand, and Bun B -- a veteran of the legendary Texas group UGK now striking out solo -- is one of its new stars. As the camera starts snapping, Bun pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and thumbs through it casually. Behind him, the sky rages blue, the heat searing on this late May afternoon. Kids mingle in the backdrop of the shot, excited to be a part of something, anything.
Later, Houston hip-hop's past gives way to a glimpse of what the future might hold. Bun B's photo shoot moves from the Fifth Ward to the home of former Houston Rocket Steve Francis, in an affluent suburb near Memorial Park. The basketball star's house is comically huge, with a backyard that features both a half-court and an orgy-ready freestanding stone shower. While his friends shoot horse and watch a Suns/Spurs playoff game, Bun, stout and serious -- though not quite stern -- plays the role of new-jack hustler, posing in front of the mansion alongside Francis' lily-white Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Heretofore, Houston had been a city where only athletes, oil magnates, and Enron employees could shine. Its hip-hop scene's rise to national prominence has been slow, very much in keeping with the oozy pace of the music itself.
"Being from Houston wasn't always cool, at least in the eyes of the hip-hop industry," says Bun, who sold more than two million albums with UGK, despite never having a national hit. "But now I can make an album all about Houston shit, with Houston rappers and producers on it, and people in Los Angeles and New York, they care to hear that. The spotlight is on us. We just need to take advantage of it."
Throughout most of the 1980s and '90s, hip-hop was a binary affair. There were East Coast records, West Coast records, and not much in between -- at least, those were the assumptions under which the mainstream operated. The past five years, though, have seen a seismic shift. The poles no longer matter; the South has all but obliterated them. This region is now responsible for almost half of the records on hip-hop radio. Cities once relegated to footnotes -- Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Memphis -- are in charge.
And Houston is next, though ironically, no city needs it less. This wave of Houston breakthrough artists -- Lil' Flip, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Bun B, among others -- were all Southern royalty long before major labels came knocking. Generally ignored through the '90s, Houston's hip-hop scene learned a great deal about DIY. "You could sell 100,000 records at eight dollars apiece -- that's good money," says Slim Thug, his lanky 6'6" frame folded into a couch at the artsy and austere Hotel Derek. Out of the industry's gaze, Houston became a model of self-sufficiency.
So when "Still Tippin'," the collaboration between Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall, broke through to the mainstream this past spring, it seemed like a deviation from the norm. But the song's saga is typical of the Houston scene. It initially appeared two years ago as a track on the Swishahouse mix tape The Day Hell Broke Loose 2, AKA, Major Without a Major Deal, the latter phrase being the label's unofficial motto. "Our goal was to get our video on BET without a major label," says Paul Wall. Major labels, he says, "were so far away they had no idea of the impact we were making. They saw the music as local music that would never break out."
And then it did. "Still Tippin'" caught on at BET, which helped Swishahouse earn a label deal through Asylum/Warner Bros. The industry floodgates opened. Rap-A-Lot, which had been without major distribution for some time, also hooked up with Warner Bros. Slim Thug, who'd been signed to Interscope and had seen his Already Platinum album delayed indefinitely, suddenly had a firm release date and additional money in his video budget. Jones, who was fortunate enough to have "Still Tippin'" on his album Who Is Mike Jones? went platinum in six weeks. Paul Wall and Chamillionaire were elevated to next-big-thing status; both have major-label debuts -- The People's Champ and The Sound of Revenge, respectively -- due this year. Even Jay-Z has signed a pair of Houston MCs -- Aztek and Krueger -- in his new role as Def Jam macher, perhaps the strongest indication that formerly partisan sensibilities are slowly eroding.
To read the rest of the Houston hip hop story, pick up the September issue of Spin on newsstands everywhere, or click here to subscribe.