Article by Kyle Kramer
llustration by Shea Serrano
“If you ain’t from Texas this ain’t the place to be because we’re burning this motherfucker down!” shouted Doughbeezy, the otherwise relentlessly friendly Houston rapper, at a recent show. He looked out over the crowd before him with the steady, combative gaze of a practiced performer. He was playing a larger, South-centric showcase called “Welcome to tha South” at South by Southwest, a time when the music industry as a whole fills Austin with the desperate sprawl of corporate sponsorship and mindless networking. Despite the presence of outsiders, there was a surplus of UT burnt ochre and hands throwing up the state’s longhorn symbol. And a lot of people seemed to know his songs. Like, maybe more than for Que or Ty Dolla $ign, artists on the bill with national radio hits. Most of the people there might have been from Texas—a mixed blessing given the setting.
There’s no way of getting around it: Houston rap faces a weird visibility challenge these days. Although it goes without saying that to love and appreciate hip-hop in 2014 means loving and appreciating Texas (or Houston, mostly), said love and appreciation is often delivered in kind of an abstract, lip-service-paying sense. “It’s a Catch-22,” the Houston rapper DeLorean explained to me backstage later during that same showcase. “They want to hear Drake rap about Houston, but they don’t want to hear Houston rappers rap about Houston.” While a few names might be familiar to national audiences—Kirko Bangz, Travi$ Scott, Dorrough Music spring immediately to mind—the ones that usually get tossed out in reference to Texas are more likely to be artists like Scarface, UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C, or Screwed Up Click, whose defining moments happened at least a generation of rappers ago. Houston last crossed the public consciousness with the mid-2000s run of the label Swishahouse, which launched three iconic successes in Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug (concurrently with former signee Chamillionaire). Houston’s place in rap history makes its name ubiquitous, but it works mostly to the detriment and frustration of its current crop of new artists, who often find audiences are more interested in talking about the stuff that happened years ago than the stuff happening now.
Perhaps due to this fixation with the past both outside and inside of Texas, perhaps due to the lack of much industry infrastructure that’s not closely tied to previous Houston successes and the pre-Internet model that they followed, breaking out of the local Dallas or Houston markets is, by all accounts, a serious challenge. A co-sign from a more established Houston rapper such as Bun B, Slim Thug, or Paul Wall goes a long way, but there are only so many co-signs to go around and without one you might go nowhere, several artists I spoke to suggested. “You can have a real buzz in Houston and [have] nobody still not know about you for a little bit,” Emekwanem Biosah, who raps as Maxo Kream, told me. Unlike, say, Atlanta or New York, where artists might have lots of different resources for blustering their way into the industry limelight and any artist with a viral video is going to get carefully scouted, there’s pretty much one established path in Texas: Be the guy who everyone gets behind and then hope the national audience pays attention.
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