Houston’s Rap Scene
A crop of young H-town musicians is poised to reshape hip-hop.
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States but can feel like it contains the entire planet. Its freeways intertwine like blood vessels, as cars course through its more than 600 square miles each day. Unlike many cities its size, Houston’s population hubs are dispersed and multifaceted. The city’s diverse immigrants, transplants, and native Texans enjoy their own enclaves of self-determination. There’s a cluster of nearly a dozen Nigerian churches in the Alief suburb; Little Saigon, home to a bustling Vietnamese community, sits adjacent to Chinatown. And yet the city feels cohesive. Houston is a place where people chase the American dream, for better and for worse. Its cheap, accessible land makes it a hot spot for the entrepreneurial, nevermind that it takes half an hour to get just about anywhere.
When the city’s rap scene captivated the mainstream in the mid2000s — with Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and Chamillionaire becoming household names — Houston’s culture was miles ahead, captivating a nationwide audience. Then, of course, there is Beyoncé, who needs no explanation.
Like the generation before them, the new crop of Houston musicians is a sign of what’s to come nationally. Already, artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Lizzo, and Travis Scott illustrate the ways Houston has spread to the mainstream. Artists in Houston tend to not seek attention in the way acts from other major cities do, opting instead to build buzz intentionally. It’s why Megan seemingly arrived on the scene as a fully formed superstar. She’d spent years rapping at parties around Houston before anyone outside of the city had taken notice.
Things have always worked that way in Houston. Screwed Up Records and Tapes, near the suburb Missouri City, sits in a nondescript strip mall with a gravel parking lot and an auto-repair shop flanking its farthest corner. It feels similar to streetwear staple Supreme’s original Lafayette Street storefront in New York by the late Nineties, known
to attract obsessive brand acolytes as well as casual shoppers. Screwed Up’s most compelling feature is several impossibly thick binders containing a list of more than 350 screw tapes made by DJ Screw, the legendary producer whose slow-rolling chopped-and-screwed sound defined H-town rap. You simply pick one out and request it from the attendant. It’s a spellbinding archive of one of Houston’s most significant movements, and a testament to the independent ethos of the city.
In the early 1900s, local leaders took out advertisements in black publications calling it “Heavenly Houston.” For a time, the neighborhood of Third Ward, birthplace of Beyoncé, was home to a thriving community of black-owned businesses. “My neighborhood is kind of known for the progressive black Afrocentric shit,” the rapper Fat Tony explains. “Back in the day, there was a Black Panther chapter in Third, where the police murdered Carl Hampton. There’s places like the S.H.A.P.E Center, which has a free vegan lunch every Sunday for the community.” The neighborhood shaped Tony’s creative identity: “All of that freedom set me up to try anything.”
“Growing up in Third Ward, that’s what started it all,” says OMB Bloodbath, who tells me she’s the first Third Ward-born artist since Bey to sign a major-label deal. “I’d be going to everybody block rapping for dollars. ‘I’ll rap. Give me money.’ ”
If you ask anyone in the know, Houston’s current wave of hip-hop stems from streetwear and sneaker culture. You can trace a number of the city’s current stars — Travis Scott, Don Toliver, Maxo Kream — to the H-Town Sneaker Summit, which began in 2004. Rows and rows of rare sneakers — from Dunks to Jordans to Bapes and everything in between — are shuttled in from various independent vendors for what amounts to a giant swap meet. As the city entered the 2010s, young sneakerheads started to link up and build their own movements.
The “Kream” at the end of Maxo Kream’s name stands for “Kicks Rule Everything Around Me.” I know this because we were classmates in high school at the dawn of Nike’s foray into skateboarding, when some of the most coveted shoes in sneaker culture were released. When I meet Maxo on a balmy spring day, he gives me a sly look before telling me I looked familiar. After exchanging pleasantries, I followed him to his house, a modern and luxurious home near the Galleria Mall.
When Maxo arrived on the scene around 2011, with a ferocious remix of Kendrick Lamar’s “Rigamortis,” young artists in Houston didn’t have much to look up to. Pimp C had died in 2007, and the city’s golden era in the mainstream had faded. Our school district, in the suburb of Sugar Land, was the subject of a New York Times report about the changing demographics of the country at large. Fort Bend County, which contains Sugar Land, was 19 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black, and 36 percent white when I graduated in 2010.
The demographics of hip-hop have long been changing along with the rest of the country. It’s an innate understanding that young people from the city have. Houston is not only one of the most diverse cities in America but also one of the most integrated. The children of doctors and oil magnates go to school with people on food stamps. “These suburb white boys, these Hispanic kids — they really relate with all this street shit I’m talking about. Messed up parents, too,” Maxo explains. “And I’m in Supreme. I’m wearing the shit that they’re into.”
The musician Reggie also grew up in Sugar Land, though his family is from Arkansas. He makes the kind of patiently vulnerable songs that are increasingly hard to come by in today’s landscape. His newer music, a pair of lush and heartfelt singles released over the past year, stick with you unlike anything currently out there. Reggie remembers trying to get his footing when he started making music. Whereas hubs like Atlanta, L.A., and New York have an infrastructure of creative professionals — marketing agencies, PR firms, major-label studios, etc. — Houston has none of that. Most people have fairly conventional jobs in health care or energy. “We used to do all types of weird hustling shit. We ain’t know what the fuck we were supposed to do,” Reggie explains. “Bun B went to my church, and I wrote down my YouTube link on the top of the offering envelope and ran that bitch to him. That nigga looked at that shit and just said, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
For a lot of young artists coming up in the city, the lack of support fueled a fire. The musician HVN, alongside his friend BBY Kodie, are something like the standard-bearers of the new generation, their sound as freewheeling and untethered as the culture in Houston. HVN started his brand Don’t Die after a stroke due to complications with sickle cell. It was his frustration with the lack of venues willing to book Kodie that inspired his parties of the same name around 2015 — a raison d’être for the city’s youth. “Me and my friends would go skate downtown and be like, ‘Bro, there’s nothing to do in Houston at all. It’s fucking boring,’ ” HVN explains. “Don’t Die helped with that.”
The current vanguard in Houston is indebted to Travis Scott, who’s from a neighboring high school in Fort Bend County. Scott has become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in rap, and he’s making a point to bring it back to Houston. His Space Village storefront and cafe is an heir to H-Town Sneaker Summit, in reverence to shoes as well as potential for connection. His Cactus Jack Label is home to Don Toliver, who is poised to be another breakout star from the city.
Scott’s sonic influence — a brash and cathartic meld of Yeezus- era Kanye West and Houston rap melodics — has come to define the new music coming out of the city. Toliver’s debut, Heaven or Hell, points to an evolution of that sound, picking up where DJ Screw left off, experimenting with sonic landscapes to make something new. “I feel like we got a bird’s-eye view on what’s going on around the world,” Toliver says. “There’s people out here that really know what’s going on with fashion and music, way ahead of time. People here move so swiftly, we might just make it happen rather than talking about it.”