Houston Rap Lives On: An Interview with Lance Scott Walker
Lance Scott Walker is the Houston rap historian. Between three books, Houston Rap, Houston Rap Tapes, the newly released Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop, and a radio show, Lance Scott Walker has dedicated his life to chronicling the people who made Houston Hip-Hop what it is. Alongside photographer Peter Beste, Walker has created an archive of Houston rap history by interviewing who the people behind Houston rap really are.
I got the great honor of interviewing Lance Scott Walker, an interview authority himself. Walker truly loves Houston hip-hop; this passion of his exudes from everything he says. Consequently, as result of our conversation, I learned much about what makes Houston Hip-Hop remarkable, and gained quite a bit of respect for what Houston Hip-Hop does for the city and the world.
The rap community tends to make itself pretty exclusive to one type of person, but it seems like you have made yourself accepted. You are able to gather very intimate stories from very private people. What do you attribute that to?
Walker: “Trust. I mean the more you talk to someone and the more you explain what your intentions are and reveal what you know is really important in building trust with anyone that you are talking to and creating a foundation and a space where they feel like they can open up and tell you things that maybe they hadn’t told anyone and maybe they hadn’t realized that they’ve never told anyone. The truth is, there are all kinds of different people that I interviewed in the project. Some of them are very famous and they’ve been interviewed many times and they’ve been through that whole process but then there are plenty of others who have really never been interviewed. I like to take the same approach with both of them which is to load enough information into my questions to where they realize that I’ve studied, I’ve done my homework, and that I care. That on top of explaining what I’m doing and being very clear about everything and being upfront…that’s what helps build the trust between the interviewer and the interviewee.”
How do you feel about the exclusivity of rap? Do you think the cultural specificity of rap lends itself to this or do you think the rap community should be more accepting of people of different backgrounds, race, gender, etc.?
W: “Well, I think you can ask two people the same question and they’d have different answers. It’s always about personal experience. I don’t see that exclusivity because I have been accepted and I have been allowed into that space. That said, I don’t think it’s so much as an exclusivity as it is independence and artists that are doing their thing and focusing on their thing moving forward. For someone like me being allowed into that space, I only see the openness. I don’t see that exclusivity. But, you know, everyone’s got a different experience and that’s part of what’s behind the project. To take my conversations with people from around the scene and different parts of different scenes…just the whole of Houston. And to break our conversations down into black and white. Literally, into text black text on white paper and out the window goes the quality of the recording, out the window goes the thickness of the accent…although I try to produce that on paper too, and it levels the playing field. And in leveling the playing field, what I hope is that other people can come in and read those stories and read about the people that I’ve interviewed and if there is any sense of exclusivity before that then maybe that’s gone afterwards. Maybe they realize how similar so many of us are even if we run in different circles or if we do different things with our free time or with our careers.”
I’ve noticed that the discography of Houston is massive. So, how did you decide what you wanted to put in this specific book?
W: “Well, it’s sort of a cross section. I mean, I’m fully aware of how many people are not in the book and I will never not be fully aware of that. I threw a cast net and I tried to touch on many different things going on in Houston: many different scenes, many different labels, many, kind of, micro-scenes…and sort of give a cross-section of different things that are going on in Houston. In that process, you know, with the index of the book, I try to expand that cast net as much as I can even if there’s somebody I don’t interview, in particular. Well, you know, we talk about ’em on these pages or I ask somebody else about them or maybe they’re no longer with us and I can’t interview them. It narrows my choices in that respect. Number one, it was who was accessible, because there were some people who did not concede to an interview and some who never called me back or I could just never get in touch with, and others who just said politely, I decline. I could see why in some cases because some people who declined had written their own books. So, I understand. Not everyone is going to be in there, but what I can try to do is to branch out in every direction and touch on all the different things that are going, and not ignore anyone. The radio show helps in that respect because it allows me to put more of that history out there even if it’s something that I didn’t get a chance to touch on in the book.”
You have had a lot of experience with how rap has changed over time. I wanted to ask about how you view the role of technology and its impact on rap. I know we have SoundCloud and Bandcamp, both of which have increased visibility for rappers. However, on the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of increase in homogeneity, in both style and content. Can you speak to that?
LSW: “Yeah, well I mean, when everybody’s got nice fancy shiny tools then everybody’s got nice fancy shiny songs. There are a lot of tools out there. It’s a lot, lot easier to make records now, from start to finish. From the recording, production, and everything to producing it and putting it out there and distributing it. All those things are easier now. But that doesn’t mean it’s easier to get your music out there necessarily, because while we do have all those platforms it’s also really saturated out there. There’s so, so many more artists now because it’s easier. Yeah, it’s easier to make the music now, in some respects, but there’s also so much more noise that it’s harder for artists to cut through. I don’t think that just adapting the tools is enough. I think we just need a cultural shift in how music is produced and distributed and consumed. Over, really, the last 15 years, it’s been a massive change. And, I got a front row seat to that with the book because in 2004-2005, when we started, that was really when the bottom dropped out from under physical sales. And at that same time, we had Napster, we had LimeWire, we had myspace…things were changing. Peter and I got to have a window into seeing a lot of artists who, at that point, had been around 15 to 20 years, having to change up what they were doing and get myspace pages and figure out how to produce CDs and get their stuff online. They had to develop a whole different game plan. I think we’re still in that process. I think there’s just too many people making music and too many people with an interest in having the system work for there not to continue to be innovation in that respect. There are a lot more tools now but I think it’s a lot harder to cut through the noise. It makes it easier to make music, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to get your music where you want it.”
It’s really hard to say that Houston hip-hop is exclusively one thing. Some people equate it to chopped and screwed culture, slabs, and lean. But, I think there’s more to it. I think people from Houston have a story to tell. Is there something specific that draws you to Houston hip-hop that made you want to write about it?
W: “Yeah, it’s independence. The independence of Houston hip-hop is what attracted me. I love Houston. I have a deep deep love for Houston. I’m from Galveston but I lived in Houston for 14 years. And I love the city of Houston. The attraction of the project for me was to build on Houston’s history and how much I love it. So, the independence of Houston artists is something that has continued to attract me, because hip-hop records are the first records that I ever bought when I was in middle school in the mid-80s. But, I fell in love with punk rock not long after that. You know, I listen to all kinds of music, but punk rock has been a big center point in my life and I think that Houston hip-hop artists are very, very punk rock. And, by the way, if someone says that all Houston is is lean, slabs, and chopped and screwed, they have no idea what they’re talking about. There’s way, way too much music out there and I would say that only just a fraction of whats going has anything to do with that sound.”
I was watching an interview of Questlove the other day and he said, “Nothing has contextualized the music that came before it more than 90’s hip-hop. It made miracles of the boring section of your parents’ record collection.” I know Houston hip-hop didn’t make it to the global stage until the early 2000s, however its roots (no pun intended) extended much further than that. So, my question is as follow: do you think 90s era hip-hop in Houston was on an equal scale with the rest of the world, where it was contextualizing the music that came before it; or do you think the 2000s was?
W: “Well, I’d say neither really. Because what he’s talking about is sampling…which is a beautiful thing in hip-hop because it does teach you in reverse about records that came before it and musical history that came before it. Even though the context is lost on plenty of people. They may be listening to a record and not understand where that sample comes from. I wouldn’t say that that would be something that was prevalent in Houston just because Houston has not classically been a super, super sample-heavy town. I guess you could say, in its early phases, everybody was doing sample-heavy music but if you look at the stuff that was coming out, in particular, what he’s talking about, in the 90s in Houston…I’d say no. I’d say there were a lot of artists in Houston that were building their own studios and making their own recordings and playing keyboards and drum machines and that sort of thing. But, I would not say that it was overwhelmingly sample-heavy. Depending on what kind of strain of music that you’re listening to that’ s going on in Houston, somebody else might feel a little bit differently. Certainly, if you look at the case of DJ Screw, he was digging up old R&B records and funk records and boogie records and spinning those on his tapes. Certainly, retroactively, in that sense it does. You know, I guess there’s all kinds of ways of looking at it. But, a lot of artists in Houston, when I think about stuff in the 90s and particular stuff that was coming out throughout the decade, they weren’t sample-heavy artists. If you’re looking for stuff like Trinity Garden Cartel, Criminal Element; Street Military had some samples going on but there was lots of stuff that they were making on their own. It just varies all across the board. But, compared to a city like New York or Philly or something like that where they were really crate digging and going super sample heavy…no, I’d say Houston was doing something a lot different.”
I’ve noticed that there’s been a trend in rap towards more conservative and careful lyrics. There’s definitely consideration for what’s politically correct. So, I was listening to UGK’s “Murder” and Tobe Nwigwe’s “Murder,” and the contrast is interesting. UGK is very…Bun B and Pimp C driving home the point not to mess with them by promoting violence and misogyny, but, at the same time, it’s a fantastic track. And on the flip side, you have Tobe Nwigwe talking about authenticity of character and cultural appropriation. Do you think this shift in lyrical content is good in that it promotes more positive messages and acceptance, or is it silencing the true essence of rap – which, to me, is talking about the things that aren’t talked about?
W: “No, I think you can do both. I think you can have an awareness of what going on in the world and the impact your lyrics will have on it and you can also tell the truth. I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. I think that to, you know, to tell the truth of what’s going on in the streets and what’s going on in the neighborhood and what’s going on in different households or wherever it is, to tell the truth is the most important thing that rap does around the world. So, I think there’s totally room in that for awareness of the impact of your lyrics, and the responsibility that you have as artists, that reach young people around the world. But, you also don’t want to lie to them. It’s sort of two-sided. I think artists that have been around a while might go back and look at some of their earlier lyrics and go, ‘Oh yeah, you know, I probably wouldn’t say that now.’ But that’s part of it, too. If an artist has a lyric or set of lyrics from their past that might not be the most responsible thing, well, if that artist is still around and they’re still building into their career and legacy, then look what they’re saying now. Are they growing into that awareness? I think that’s part of the beauty of artists that have been around as long as they have like UGK because you can go back and listen to what they’re saying 15, 20, 25 years ago. But then, in the case of Bun B, who is still out there making relevant music, you can hear what he’s saying now and grow with him and grow with the music. And that’s the greatest thing that hip-hop offers everyone…the chance for growth.”
Additionally, check out the Brothers in Rhyme: Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and the Screwed Up Click exhibit at the MD Anderson Library on the University of Houston campus.
Finally, check out this mix of seven hours of Houston Hip-Hop put together by Lance Scott Walker.