Illustrations 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.
“You have to overgrind out there [in Texas],” Doughbeezy explained to me the next night in Austin, after another solid set for a less Texas-heavy crowd at Noisey's own SXSW showcase. “But the good thing is that the respect you get from coming out there is greater than you get coming from somewhere else just because people already recognize and understand that there's not a lot of opportunity there. So if Texas does co-sign an artist out of here, they know it's got to be something.”
The potential exception to this rule is SXSW, the one week every year during which all of the music industry descends on the state. With seemingly every major player in hip-hop and tens of thousands of fans just a couple hours' drive away, Dallas and Houston artists have a strong incentive to come. But even though there was a lot of attention focused this year in Texas, there wasn't much attention on Texas, due in part to a long list of A-list acts like Kanye West, Jay Z, and Lil Wayne who made the trip. Even the acts that people were coming to supposedly discover—Young Thug, Migos, YG, Ty Dolla $ign, Que, Isaiah Rashad, etc.—were more or less predetermined, and, with major radio hits, high-powered cosigns, or both to their names, already pretty familiar. Even though they had the advantages of a short drive and, in many cases, an established local fan base, Texas artists faced a little bit harder of a time.
“Like, what you going to go see?” DeLorean asked rhetorically backstage after his Wednesday night performance at the same SXSW showcase as Doughbeezy. “DeLo's show or Nas doing Illmatic?” Given that the Houston and Dallas undergrounds have produced a particularly strong set of artists in recent years—a cadre of figures at least as talented as many from more traditional industry hubs getting substantially more hype—I decided to see what Texas had to offer. What I found was a group of artists, who, broadly speaking, had turned their long grind to their advantage, performing polished live shows (never with backing tracks, which couldn't be said of most of their peers) and coming across in person as particularly mature and humble, even as they seemed hungry for more success.
Doughbeezy, whose mixtape Footprints on the Moon came out at the beginning of February, was in many ways the most visible of the set during SXSW. Austin was plastered with posters of the project's cover, which shows him in an astronaut with an oxygen tube that instead pipes cough syrup into his mask—all the better to send him even farther into space. A frenetic, giddy rapper whose lyrics spill out cartoonishly, Doughbeezy came up freestyling around town for fun. He never really considered putting out any recorded music, but things got more serious after he became a crowd favorite at two local show series, Kick Back Sundays and a competition called Best Rappers in Houston. He put out a debut mixtape of freestyles called Reggie Bush and Kool-Aid in 2012. The ensuing success encouraged him to quit his job decorating cakes at the Wal-Mart bakery (no, that's not where the name Doughbeezy came from; yes, that is the best pre-rap career of all time), and a follow-up, Blue Magic, set out to establish his talent at making actual music rather than just spitting bars.
As far as those coveted co-signs go, Doughbeezy's earned the nod of approval from Bun, Thugga, and Kirko Bangz. He's also got a song on Footprints on the Moon, “I'm From Texas,” that hits the right notes of regional pride and catchiness and could catapult him to broader acceptance. Helped by the reminder to throw up a middle finger for the hook, it was one of the only new songs I heard in Austin that got stuck in my head: It goes “Fuck you, I'm from Texas.” It went over particularly well live that Wednesday, as did two indicative collaborations each with fellow rappers Propain and Killa Kyleon. The chemistry and energy during each of these performances offered strong confirmation that, for perhaps the first time in years, Houston has enough solid artists on deck to be at a tipping point.
If someone's going to bring renewed attention to Houston, the best chances probably lie with Propain, who quietly released one of 2013’s best mixtapes, the devastatingly great Ridin' Slab, in July. With a thick accent and languorous, shimmering production from friends/in-house producers Donnie Houston and G Luck and B Don, Propain has an unmistakably Houston flair, but he raps with the intensity and dexterity of Meek Mill and projects a measured, introspective tone that would put him at home alongside Kendrick Lamar. He's only now doing anything to push the singles, but one song, “Two Rounds,” which features Rich Homie Quan (a former Houston resident who Propain connected with through a mutual acquaintance), has been picking up radio play in some markets. A wistful booty call jam, it's an obvious crossover moment, but it also shows the reassuringly human streak that makes Propain's music so compelling. He describes his music as being for “a whole mass of underdogs,” and nowhere is it clearer than on the rivetingly personal “Father's Day,” where Propain verges on collapse as he vents about his absent father.
Propain, born Chris Dudley, started rapping young and almost got signed to a record deal in the eighth grade with a friend (the friend's dad pulled them out of it). While he was initially focused on playing basketball, a chance encounter freestyling for Scarface that ended with the older artist complimenting Propain's rapping inspired him to focus on music more intensely. A 2011 mixtape, Dangerous Minds, which had features from Slim Thug, Bun B, and Chamillionaire, signaled a breakthrough, but Ridin' Slab, which took nearly two years to put together, was a major step forward—“the rebirth of Propain,” he calls it. “It took a lot of clearing my mind out of the old process of making music, of trying to make something that's hot, and [instead] sticking to what I believe in, what I love,” he added.
It's usually a corny cop-out of underground music scenes to claim that nobody cares about the music anymore, man, instead of just acknowledging that it sucks. The thing about Houston’s newest crop of artists is they don’t suck. Their music is polished. It sets a high benchmark for itself, holding itself to a near-unparalleled standard of quality despite the lack of outside validation. Something like SXSW can come across as a horrible industry clusterfuck, but at its core it’s still a crucial part of the crazy experiment of turning making music into a lasting career. Propain described it as an event he came to as a fan before he was coming to promote his music, while for Maxo Kream, it provided key inspiration along the way: After his trip to Austin in 2011, he was finally moved to get serious about a music career, and he pulled over on the way home to make his first video (“La La La,” which now has 128,000 views on YouTube). The festival drove DeLorean to see beyond Houston's own scene when he first came a few years ago.
“You see how far behind you are,” he explained. “It makes you be like 'okay, I'm not the best rapper in the world yet.' It was an eye opener. It was a learning process that I think artists need to go through. It was kind of like leaving for college, and you're just given that experience. You've got to get out and realize that it's more than just people at home telling you that you're hot.”
“I think the craziest thing is pressing up all those CDs to hand out and seeing them all over the ground,” Kyle Riley, who raps as Killa Kyleon, told me when we caught up by phone a few days after the festival. But he points instead to something that Texas artists probably have an advantage in, coming from places where grinding out a career with live shows is more common than landing radio airtime. “I tell people the best thing to do is go out there and be seen. Be seen performing your music.”
Killa Kyleon is physically huge, and, although he's friendly in conversation, his brash stage presence not only proves his point but also suggests he's not the kind of person you'd want to have catch you dropping his CD in the trash as soon as he gives it to you. In one of my favorite pieces of stage banter ever, he commented on the lack of lighting on a part of the stage by pointing out that his chains, “two huge Cubans,” gave off enough light that it wasn't a problem. Kyleon's style has a sort of classic lyrical gruffness to it—“I feel like rap's missing that from the South, that really hard lyrical sound,” he told me.
There may be nobody in Texas who's as clued into the challenges of attracting attention outside of Houston or aware of the patience building a rap career outside of a traditional industry hub takes as Kyleon. He grew up on the South Side of Houston around some of the lower-profile street members of Screwed Up Click and eventually ended up recording with SUC's Big Pokey and Chris Ward. Ward introduced Kyleon to North Side rapper Slim Thug, whose Boss Hawg Outlawz label then helped launch Kyleon's career in the early 2000s. Things have grown steadily over the past ten years on the back of consistent mixtape output, and an actual album is set to come out this spring. Kyleon still gets lumped in with emerging artists—in addition to this piece, for instance, he also was recently nominated as an XXL Freshman—but he shrugs it off and points to experience as an advantage. He spins Houston, which lacks the support of a city like Atlanta, the same way, pointing out its unique stylistic advantage.
“The way we fix our cars, the way we talk, the way we dress: We real, real extremely flamboyant out here,” he explained. “We flamboyant street cats.”
Since I haven't fully explained it yet, here's the distinction between Texas's two main cities, roughly: Houston is the city of storytelling raps, laid-back vibes, and the lean-sipping that encourages said vibes; Dallas is the turn-up city, known for its boogie movement, which launched dances like the Stanky Leg and the Dougie. The most famous hip-hop artist to come out of Dallas is Erykah Badu, who, according to Dallas trio The Outfit, TX, totally embodies a more nostalgic, alternative side of the city's culture. Also key to this side, apparently, is a compulsion for creased pants, which I thought was too odd to be a general thing, but, clued into it, soon heard referenced in a song by Dallas's other promising underground act, A.Dd+.
A.Dd+ bridges these poles of influence while also offering something different, with a vibe that's a little reminiscent of the everyman charm of Devin the Dude and the wackiness of Odd Future. On record, members Paris Pershun and Slim Gravy are vibrant lyricists, who, alongside more standard punchlines and bravado, rap about things like the stress of trying to get to work before the bus starts running, as well as about getting fired from your job for smoking weed. Slim, whose real name is Dionte Rembert, described the group's music as showing that “it's okay to be goofy, it's okay to be lame.” In Austin, I saw them open for Danny Brown and turn in possibly the best set I saw all week, ending the show by wading into the crowd and turning a staircase in the back into its own makeshift stage. But these qualities haven't always translated to more opportunities, Slim explained.
“I put in a lot of work and I go hard, and I get looked over because somebody is friends with somebody else,” he told me. “Right now, Texas looks wack, and we look slow compared to the rest of America when it comes to this hip-hop shit.” While the internet has latched onto the Houston sound of DJ Screw and run with it, many Texan artists are still Internet-averse.
“We know the world moves faster, seemingly, and I think it's just a fucking illusion, but down here this shit has not changed,” Mel of The Outfit, TX, told me one afternoon over beers, adding that many Dallas rappers are still skeptical of using the Internet to promote their music. “And I think it has pros and cons.” The Outfit, TX are from Dallas, but they came together as a group while going to college in Houston and therefore have a unique vantage point. They cite influences that range from Tears for Fears to Green Day to Lil Boosie to Method Man, and make music that drifts between murky, synth-driven instrumentals and spacey, subdued party jams.
They also have the perfect origin story for a Texas rap group: Members Mel and JayHawk met arguing over whether Bun B or Pimp C was the better MC (they eventually agreed it was impossible to decide). Mel and the third member, Dorian, handle the production in-house, and the live show incorporates synthesizers for more of a live band feel. They're the ideal bridge between Texas's patient musical tradition and the internet music subculture that reveres it, and they've managed to build some deserved blog buzz as a result.
Another artist successfully bridging that gap is Maxo Kream, who's racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube videos for his songs and has his Kream Clicc posse flood Twitter every Tuesday to help make him a local trending topic. Maxo has also developed a buzz outside of Texas in part through his alignment with the Houston-admiring A$AP crew, who have been allies ever since he helped A$AP Ferg score some lean on a trip to Houston a couple years ago. Taking a stronger focus on both street shit and streetwear (his fashion interest started in earnest after he robbed a house as a teenager and made off with a large stash of collector sneakers) than many of his Houston peers, his music is also more in tune with the stripped-down sounds of peers on the West Coast, the heavy haze that’s become the go-to signifier of “Houston” throughout the internet, and the macabre bent of classic Houston act Scarface. He's also not afraid to call out what he sees as a failure of Houston artists to adjust to a changing city.
“My city loves me. They fuck with me hard just because I'm talking about what's really going on in Houston now,” he explained to me, adding that the vision most people have of slabs idling down MLK Boulevard in Houston is outdated, or at least not really in tune with the more reckless street scene of most of the South Side.
Other avenues of self-promotion aside, though, Maxo Kream has seen some tangible benefits from SXSW, despite this being his first year coming as an official performer. In the wake of meeting Ferg, he solidified his A$AP ties by running into another member of the crew last year at the Illmore afterparty. He's not alone: Almost all the artists I spoke to described first coming in an unofficial capacity to hand out CDs or to see what shows they could get into. (“We were those guys,” Mel of The Outfit, TX, said. “We were really out here one year in matching T-shirts.”). Doughbeezy described sneaking into a Bun B party his first year and making both a key business contact and an unexpected cameo in a Trae tha Truth video. Slim Gravy talked about putting on a such a crazy show their first year that the venue got shut down and Talib Kweli, who was present, would later ask the group to tour with him.
“As a Texas artist you have an advantage not to have to travel across the world,” DeLorean explained, of the business potential at SXSW. “You can just take a two hour drive if you come from Houston. Me not taking this advantage would be very stupid of me because it's people out here getting deals.” He had a roll-with-the-punches, anything-could-happen attitude to the week, coming on the Megabus with the understanding that traveling alone would make it easier to navigate lines make it into the types of events where he could meet someone important for his career. But outside of Austin, DeLo has long seen the benefits of Houston's new generation bypassing the old guard and taking things into their own hands. He headlined and played a key role in a series of shows in Houston for independent artists called The Frontline, which, among other things, helped break Kirko Bangz. DeLo has also attracted quite a bit of buzz elsewhere, especially in the wake of last year's stately, soulful mixtape Grace, which landed him complimentary write-ups at places like Pitchfork and got him a chance to perform on BET's “The Back Room.” He's preparing a follow-up, Look Alive, that promises to be “more hype.”
Like all the other Texas artists I spoke to, he was humble and patient, but he also projected a hunger that seems to be bubbling up in the region as this generation of artists becomes a little more self-assured in its talents and takes the task of promotion into its own hands. They’ve come a long way. DeLo described starting the Front Line in a time when Mike Jones, the last Houston rapper to hit the mainstream, was no longer relevant. There was a vacuum of people doing anything and a total lack of label attention to boot. He pointed to the way new artists recently have begun to shed some of the issues that could create institutional barriers, striking out more as individuals instead of waiting in line as part of a group. He applauded this change. But there's still a bigger one that needs to be made. Texas needs to convince the rest of the world that it's worth paying attention to, which probably isn't going to happen just because suddenly all of the music industry has decided to visit Texas for the week. It could happen as Houston finds a way to sell an updated version of its style, or Texas artists do a better job of embracing online promotion, or local rappers turn their excellent live shows to their advantage in new markets. There's enough good music and enough artists on the cusp of success that just the right spark at home could, as Doughbeezy suggested, burn this motherfucker down.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article presented DeLorean as the founder of the Frontline. He was a headlining performer, but the series was started by Houston promoter/MC Kane Brock.
Fuck you, Kyle Kramer is from North Carolina. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
Fuck you, Shea Serrano is also from Texas. He's on Twitter - @SheaSerrano
We have many other long things about rap music for you read, like when R. Kelly made fun of us, when we went to the strip club with Freddie Gibbs, and when Meek Mill told us about the time he almost died.