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Sip and Spin

A Rough Guide To The Candy-Painted, Syrup-Soaked Sound Of Houston Hip-Hop

Okan Arabacioglu

By Kye Stephenson | Posted 10/5/2005

Despite being the fourth-largest city in the United States, when many people think of Houston, it’s still all cowboy boots, country music, and shit-kicker drawls. But Houston also means syrup sippin’, the molasses-dipped screwed-and-chopped sound, and hardcore hip-hop. This past spring when Mike Jones dropped “Still Tippin’,” featuring fellow Houston MCs Slim Thug and Paul Wall, few people outside (or inside) of Houston could have predicted the city’s hip-hop scene was on the verge of rearranging the pop charts. But then Jones’ song—which originally appeared on a local Houston mix tape in 2004—started popping up on radio playlists nationwide. By summer 2005, the swerving, horizontal sound of Houston hip-hop was a nationwide craze.

But Houston has always treated its local acts like hip-hop royalty before they ever sold a copy outside the 713. Slim Thug moved so many units independently that, when he finally did sign a contract with Interscope, he titled his debut album Already Platinum. The riotous lead single, “Like a Boss,” finds Slim rhetorically asking, in his husky baritone, “Who the boss playa/ who the Dirty South boss?” His local success—along with that of Lil’ Flip, Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, and many others—speaks volumes about the decades-old support system in Houston and the entrepreneurial spirit it breeds in its rappers.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Houston legends the Geto Boys—Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill, backed by Rap-A-Lot Records founder James “Prince” Smith—laid down eerie tracks full of gangsta tales reflecting the harsh environment of the city’s Fifth Ward ghettos. The nationally distributed Rap-a-Lot has been the premier incubator for homegrown talent for almost 20 years. In the early ’90s, Bun B and Pimp C formed UGK (Underground Kingz) and became instant hood celebrities. Though UGK garnered little mainstream notoriety at the time, Houston’s current stars frequently mention it and its grimy 1996 classic Ridin Dirty as a major inspiration. Pimp C, currently doing an eight-year bid for aggravated assault, has become a hip-hop cause célèbre, with free pimp c T-shirts a constant sight in Southern rap videos. Bun B appears on Slim Thug’s “I Ain’t Heard of That,” Paul Wall’s “They Don’t Know,” Mike Jones’ “Know What I’m Sayin’,” and about a hundred other rap singles in the last 18 months.

But the major architect of the modern Houston sound was DJ Screw, whose influence continues to be felt after his 2000 death from a heart attack. Screw became a Houston legend selling his now legendary “gray tapes”—named for the gray Maxell cassettes they were recorded on—with remixed versions of local and national hip-hop hits. The style his tapes popularized became known as “screwing and chopping.” Essentially, this involved slowing the beats-per-minute down to a sluggish turtle pace (“screwing”) and repeating certain key phrases with staccato stabs (“chopping”). Members of his crew, the Screwed Up Click, would then freestyle over the crawling beats. It fit perfectly with another of Houston’s favorite pastimes—syrup sippin’.

Syrup—a concoction that includes a healthy amount of codeine—is a Houston staple, and synonymous with screw music, but now firmly established as a general hip-hop tipple of choice. While DJ Screw didn’t invent the dangerous potion, he’s generally regarded as the man who popularized it, paving the way for screw artists such as Swishahouse’s Michael “5000” Watts. Slim Thug’s “Boyz N Blue” from Already Platinum comes pre-screwed, exaggerating both the beats and his baritone. The hook on Mike Jones’ “Back Then” is a screwed snippet from “Still Tippin’,” typical H-town recycling. The unique sound has even entered the hip-hop mainstream: Check Kanye West’s “Drive Slow,” off Late Registration, which features Paul Wall and queasily drops in tempo on its final bars.

Paul Wall may be Houston’s brightest star for his mouth alone. Like Slim Thug, Paul was also “already platinum” before he was signed to a major. In Wall’s case, he was an accomplished jeweler, crafting platinum and diamond grills for artists such as T.I., Master P, Lil’ Jon, and even Travis Barker, drummer for Blink-182. (Also his own sparkling mug on the cover of his debut, The People’s Champ.) Wall spins endless variations on candy-painted new cars (“Sittin’ Sidewayz”), syrup drinkin’ (“Sip-N-Get-High”), and platinum grills (“So Many Diamonds”) over the same kind of woozy Salih Williams production that made “Still Tippin’” so hot. It’s practically a Houston hip-hop guidebook.

The Peoples Champ (Atlantic) was released two weeks ago, soaring to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and displacing Wall’s benefactor, Mr. West. Mike Jones saw Who Is Mike Jones? go platinum in only six weeks, and while Slim Thug hasn’t pulled the same numbers, he remains a media fixture. And with UGK’s Bun B readying his solo release Trill for later this month, followed by Chamillionaire’s debut, The Sound of Revenge, and the recent signing of Houston native Aztek Escobar to Jay-Z’s new Roc La Familia label, Houston hip-hop isn’t just a regional rap style anymore. It is rap, at least for the moment. And when the pop charts finally chill on the sound, they can rest assured they’ll still be platinum at home.

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