Rap, the oral expressive component of hip-hop culture, is recognized as rhythmic spoken prose usually performed over beat-driven music that derives from older African and African-American oral traditions. These traditions include negro spirituals, slave songs, toasting, and playing the dozens. The term “hip-hop,” often used synonymously with rap and rap-influenced rhythm-and-blues music, specifically refers to a distinct urban cultural movement that began in the Bronx, New York City, during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Hip-Hop culture emerged at a time when America was coming out of a decade of tension that arose from major domestic and foreign events, including the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, Cuban missile crisis, race riots, “Black power,” and women’s rights. This tension was rooted in civil, human, democratic, and economic rights engendered by African Americans, women, and other Americans demanding that the country live out its noble creeds, offering hope for the most marginalized of society. The next decade opened up with the importation of drugs into urban locales, massive poverty, nihilism, and cynicism towards promises of freedom and equality. These social changes were expressed through the music—soul and then through disco. The Bronx in New York City was a symbol of the shift from hope to nihilism; it was a hotbed of crime, dilapidated housing projects, mass unemployment, and poverty. Young African Americans and Latinos in the Bronx were looking for a way to have fun in the midst of this social unrest. With new technology in hand and reinterpretation of older forms of expression, these young people began hip-hopping.
Originally involving “turntablists” (turntable deejays), graffiti artists, break dancers, and emcees who evolved into rappers, hip-hop emerged from the funk/soul and disco culture prevalent at that time. Hip-hop disc jockeys began taking their large speakers and huge record collections to project parks and basement parties and blasted rhythmic and sonic sounds that the young people could dance to. A key technological innovation called the mixer helped to change the culture of parties and discos. With the mixer, deejays were able to transition from song to song without a break in the music, thus the party kept going because the beats kept coming. They also began to blend multiple songs using two turntables to create an array of innovative sonic effects. Techniques such as “needle dropping” (which allowed deejays to prolong drum breaks) and “scratching” (moving a record back and forth against the turntable’s needle which allowed the turntable to be a sort of vocal instrument thereby interspersing vocal portions of the song through the performance) helped provide the unique new hip-hop sound.
Jamaican immigrant, DJ Kool Herc, was one of three disc jockeys (along with Grand Master Flash and African Bambaata) who began these technical innovations and helped hip-hop culture spread in the early 1970s. Based in the Bronx section of New York City, these deejays took their turntables to parks, house parties, and clubs, where dancers started developing innovative steps to accompany the extended drum breaks. This new style, known as “break dancing,” spread among local African-American and Latino youth. Breakdancing was often used to cancel out fights between rival youth and gangs. Simutaneously, youth began tagging subway trains, brick walls, or anything that they could use as a platform to announce their existence to the world and also to make the enfranchised people of the city pay attention to urban marginalization. This tagging became known as graffiti and was used as the art of this new culture called hip-hop.
Because he often spoke in rhythm over his musical tracks, Kool Herc helped originate modern rap as well. Other deejays employed the use of an emcee to serve as a hype man during their parties or to make announcements over the beat. They did this in a rhyming form. This emceeing soon developed into rapping, where performers would battle each other in neighborhood parks and in school yards, over the extended drum breaks of the deejays. This birthed the most popular form of hip-hop culture, rapping. Though it became an integral part of the new hip-hop culture, rap actually was rooted in such older African and African-American oral traditions as spoken blues, “jive” talk, the dozens, storytelling from the African griot, and a rhythmic Jamaican form of speech known as “toasting.”
The early hip-hop culture in New York led to a proliferation of underground disc jockeys and rappers in the area that soon caught the attention of local producers who encouraged deejays and rappers to record their raps and sell their recordings. The release of the song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang in 1979 brought both rap and hip-hop culture national and international attention. “Rapper’s Delight” was actually an interpolation of a popular disco song entitled “Good Times” by the female group Chic. The musicians who provided the instrumentation for “Rapper’s Delight” used the drum break of “Good Times” as its track.
The Sugarhill Gang’s groundbreaking single went to the top of the charts and found an audience with urban youth throughout the country. Other early rappers, such as Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, released best-selling albums and helped ensure a devoted following for the new genre. Because most rap songs told of the difficulties of urban street life, they provided a more realistic soundtrack for working-class youths than did mainstream pop music.
New York continued to dominate the hip-hop movement well into the 1980s, with acts such as Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys, a trio of White rappers who garnered a following outside the predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods where hip-hop was most popular. Rap’s national popularity spread as such television networks as MTV and BET began to broadcast hip-hop programming to capitalize on the music’s growing popularity among youth of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new subgenre of rap emerged known as “gangsta rap.” This more hard-edged style appealed directly to inner city Black and Hispanic males with tales of impoverished and segregated locales riddled with gang life, drug use, and hard crime. The 1989 release of the album Straight Outta Compton by the Los Angeles group Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.) ushered in an era of explicit lyrics and violent themes that expressed the frustrations that many urban ethnic minorities experienced in relation to a lack of educational and employment opportunities. Gangsta rappers, such as California’s Ice-T, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur, perfected a West Coast style of hard rap that rivaled the East Coast sounds of Schoolly D, Public Enemy, Nas, and Biggie Smalls. Exceptionally violent and explicit lyrics proved to be very marketable, and, by the late 1990s, rap and hip-hop records outsold all other forms of popular music.
Some of the first major hip-hop artists from Texas got their start in the “gangsta” genre. With the urging of three teenagers—Keith Rogers (Sire Juke Box), Thelton Polk (Sir Rap-A-Lot), and Oscar Ceres (Raheem), entrepreneurs James “Lil’ J” Smith and Cliff Blodget started the Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records in 1986 with Sire Juke Box, Sir Rap-A-Lot, and Raheem as the Ghetto Boys who released a single entitled “Car Freak.” The label intentionally sought out the best rappers in the city who were winning battle rap contests and performing at local clubs and by 1988 had released an album, Making Trouble, by the Geto Boys. The second lineup of the Geto Boys, who soon became known for their tales of life in Houston’s Fifth Ward, consisted of Jamaican-born Bushwick Bill (Richard Shaw) who moved from New York City, DJ Ready Red (Collins Leysath) from Trenton, New Jersey, and Sire Jukebox (Keith Rogers) from Houston’s Third Ward. The Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot Records released a few moderately successful albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but when James Smith negotiated a distribution deal with Priority Records in 1991, the Geto Boys, who now consisted of Bushwick Bill, Fifth Ward native Willie D (Willie Dennis), and South Acre’s Scarface (Brad Jordan), had a new album entitled We Can’t Be Stopped that became a national hit. The group’s notoriety increased dramatically in light of the growing national debate over the social dangers of gangsta rap.
With the success of We Can’t Be Stopped, several personnel from the Rap-A-Lot label left to try their own fortunes in the business. Producer and engineer Doug King opened Newstyle Records in Houston, and Blodget started Flash Point Records in Austin. Other smaller labels appeared in Austin, Dallas, and elsewhere. Notably, White rapper Robert Matthew Van Winkle, known as Vanilla Ice, was a Dallas native whose 1990 album To the Extreme, featuring “Ice Ice Baby,” had hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts and helped further introduce hip-hop to a mainstream White audience.
But “H-town,” as Houston was called, remained the epicenter of hip-hop and rap in Texas. Throughout the 1990s, the Geto Boys continued to release hit albums, both individually and together as a group, including 1993’s Till Death Do Us Part and Scarface’s 1993 The World is Yours. As the band gained greater international popularity, scores of other rappers and producers emerged, hoping to duplicate the success of the Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot. Local production studios, distribution houses, packaging companies, design firms, and a radio station supportive of local artists, 97.9 The Box, helped contribute to a flourishing Houston hip-hop scene, independent of most major record labels.
This environment attracted rappers from all over Harris County and the surrounding area. Port Arthur natives Bun-B (Bernard Freeman) and Pimp C (Chad Butler) formed the Underground Kingz (UGK) in the late 1980s and gained national exposure due to their song “Pocket Full of Stones” being featured on the soundtrack of the film Menace II Society (1993). They gained ever more success in 1996 with their album Ridin’ Dirty. Immensely popular in the Gulf Coast and other southern states, UGK took their hard raps to the forefront of the national stage with cameo appearances on two major albums—Jay-Z’s Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (1999) and Three 6 Mafia’s When the Smoke Clears (2000). New York rap mogul Jay-Z personally invited UGK to appear on his anthem “Big Pimpin,’” and Memphis powerhouse Three 6 Mafia joined with the Texans in their track “Sippin on Some Sizzurp,” an ode to the codeine-infused promethazine cough syrup popularized by Houston rappers in the 1990s. While not releasing any platinum-certified albums themselves, UGK helped promote the Houston-area rap style on two of the most popular rap albums of the year, energizing the field of Houston hip-hop talent and attracting more national interest to the region.
In addition to the Geto Boys and UGK, the 1990s brought national attention to such Houston rappers as South Park Mexican (SPM) and Lil’ Troy, whose song “Wanna Be a Baller” reached the Billboard Top 40. That decade, a pioneering artist, DJ Screw (Robert Davis born in Bastrop, Texas, and a resident of Houston’s south side) introduced an entirely new subgenre of rap which revolutionized the rap industry. Screw’s signature technique involved “slowing down” the tempo of a given song for the entire duration of the track and repeating selected drum kicks and phrases. This style eventually became known as “chopped and screwed.” As demand for this new sound skyrocketed, Screw began selling mixtapes, known as “Grey Tapes,” out of his home for locals and then people would travel from across Texas and other Gulf Coast states to get their “Grey Tape” or their music chopped and screwed by DJ Screw. He later opened Screwed Up Records and Tapes on Cullen Boulevard in South Houston to sell his mixtapes. Along with chopping and screwing popular songs, he also utilized the techniques by pioneering deejays by allowing friends and local emcees/rappers to rap over the slowed down tracks. Many of these emcees/rappers become known as the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.), which included Fat Pat, Big Pokey, Lil’ Keke, Big Hawk, Big Moe, Lil’ Flip, Z-Roe, Trae Da Truth, and others. The music they produced came to be known locally as “riding music,” suitable for cruising slowly around the vast sprawl of Houston, and especially favorable for listening to while ingesting “lean” or “syrup”—the prescription cough syrup/soda/candy cocktail found in abundance on the streets.
The excitement surrounding the rapid development of the Texas rap scene was marred, however, by several untimely deaths. Fat Pat (Patrick Hawkins), perhaps one of the most promising rappers in the S.U.C., was shot dead while collecting money from a show promoter in 1998, and DJ Screw died in 2000 of a possible drug overdose. Big Hawk (Fat Pat’s brother John Hawkins) was shot and killed in 2006. Rapper Pimp C died in 2007 from an accidental overdose of promethazine cough syrup
DJ Screw’s innovative “chopped and screwed” music became nationally popular following his death due mainly to the efforts of a North Houston disc jockey named Michael “5000” Watts. Watts’s record label, Swisha House Records, popularized the style outside of Houston by aggressively marketing their mixtapes throughout the South. Watts perfected Screw’s technique and recruited the most innovative and exciting rappers on Houston’s north side to join Swisha House. The release of the 2004 single “Still Tippin,’” featuring three of the most prominent Swisha House alumni, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall, quickly garnered international attention. In 2005 Jones, Slim Thug, and Wall each released national debut albums, Who is Mike Jones?, Already Platinum, and The People’s Champ, respectively, which were all certified gold or platinum. Houston rapper Chamillionaire (Hakeem Seriki), former musical partner of Paul Wall, won a Grammy for his hit “Ridin’” in 2007. In the early twenty-first century Texas continued to produce a number of young rap artists who blended a variety of regional styles thereby helping contribute to the ongoing evolution of this genre.