This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.
In 2016, Houston hip-hop is known far and wide, the music of the city that brought the world slowed-down sounds made specifically to boom out of big shiny cars. Top 40 hit singles, television commercials, and sports talk show theme songs have all co-opted the sounds of the Houston streets to the extent that a pitched down track about any number of things today almost sounds normal.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Like everything, this sound, and lifestyle, had a beginning, a meager one in fact with only a small subset of the city’s rap community imbibing in it in the early 1990s. But by 1996, the sound, the lifestyle, and the story had taken over Houston to such an extent that it might as well have been an island unto itself in the big picture of hip-hop. Around that era, DJ Screw was the king, and artists from the Screwed Up Click like ESG, Fat Pat, and Lil Keke, alongside Port Arthur transplants UGK, ruled the streets. In fact, outside of the Geto Boys, and a couple other people on Rap-A-Lot Records, you would be hard pressed to find a rap fan who listened to much of anything else.
While the underground surrounding DJ Screw was bubbling, the Geto Boys released what would become their most critically acclaimed album, The Resurrection. As the city was slowing down, the GB’s were still cranking up and delivering some of the most hardcore street tales, over their signature thick, funky, often aggressive-sounding beats. UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty came raw and real like their predecessors but dove into a more syrupy swamp of classic soul-tinged tracks. Both records helped establish Houston as a hip-hop city on par with New York and L.A. with its own sounds, trends, and heroes.
It was 20 years ago this year that Houston really accepted its hometown sound as its own and never looked back. Here, Bun B and ESG revisit that time and how their city rose up in the mainstream.
Twenty years ago, 1996, that was in the middle of a pretty dynamic era for Houston.
Bun B: Man, really. This was the era…. We had seen Death Row come to prominence, the 2Pac ascendance, we saw Bad Boy and all of that, and this was just the era where Houston kind of figured out how to make shit work. The music actually reflected not just the lifestyle of the city in general, but specific neighborhoods in the city.
Everything started coming into prominence with the DJ Screw tapes and being able to go to Screw and get on a tape, host a tape, and get on and freestyle. So coming from Port Arthur we were seeing all of this from the outside looking in, but we also saw it from the inside because we knew Screw and people in the Screwed Up Click.
this was just the era where Houston figured out how to make sh*t work. —Bun B
As the city started to take shape and these candy cars and these rims, these swangers really started popping up for the first time in mass numbers. Houston really started to have its own identity. We realized that we didn't have to look like, or sound like, or be like anybody else down this way. Being from Port Arthur we came and really took in the whole vibe of Houston and saw the whole dynamic that was happening between the north and the south sides, and we saw the influence of the Screw tapes, and all of that kind of culminated into what our third album, Ridin' Dirty, is. Ridin' Dirty is really about the lifestyle of a young cat, in the city of Houston, riding in one of these candy cars, living this lifestyle day to day.
And Screw was just so influential to everything that was musically starting to happen to the city that there was no way that we could do an album that didn't reflect that in a certain form or fashion. "Diamonds and Wood" is basically our version of what a Screw tape feels like.
Looking back at 1996 and trying to remember what happened that year, you had the Rap-A-Lot 10th anniversary album, the Geto Boys’ The Resurrection, Facemob, of course Ridin' Dirty, and it was just after ESG's Sailin’ da South, but when you think about what was really happening in Houston, Screw tapes were the albums for the people.
ESG: It was just a new era as far as everything these people was rapping about, the thoughts and feelings they had about the street life, that was really what H-Town was about. I'm talking about a bunch of young niggas getting money everywhere. So like 1996 was all about the little South Side phase. Everybody wore Guess. Shit, it was just goin’ down.
People think that a lot of artists from H-town wouldn’t have gotten to where they got if they hadn’t been on Screw tapes, but a lot of us, man, we was just kids and had the dream of doing this. Going to DJ Screw’s house, for a lot of artists, was it.
We saw the success though. You had these groups with names like UGK, the Geto Boys, and all us coming right after that, Fat Pat, Lil Keke, the list goes on and on, but at that time a lot of people didn’t think of it with a business mind. There was so many bosses down here, the independent game was crazy. Everybody copied the game off of us. At that time we was all our own bosses, dropping all our own projects.
There’s always been a lot happening in Houston, but I feel like when your debut, Sailin’ da South came out, it was very Rap-A-Lot dominated. Then you dropped and the independent game changed.
ESG: I ain’t gonna lie, it was just me and my little partners. My boy was like "Say, man, do a song talkin’ about everything that’s goin’ on. I want you to tell me everything you about to do with your Slab.” So I just started writing that, and that’s how my first hit, “Swangin’ and Bangin’,” was created. We took that to Screw, and when I heard my song on a Screw tape for the first time, we just went crazy.
Back in those days when you hit the road and went to those small towns in Texas and Louisiana, there were tons of independent stores selling almost nothing but Houston music.
ESG: Look at these cats right now like Rich Homie Quan. They independent doing it just like we used to then. Back then we learned that merchandising and touring, that’s where the money was going to come in, in addition to selling CDs. It’s not like the old days. The average kid coming out, he can’t walk into Target and have his 20,000 pieces distributed in their stores. It don’t happen like that. But back then we could be in every store down South. Back then we had so many record stores, we could do in-stores all over, man….
What was an average day like for you out on the road when Sailin’ da South came out? What was it like to go through small towns like Killeen and Tyler moving product and doing shows?
ESG: Man, back then I didn’t have to hand my music out like mixtapes. Naw, we bought 15,000 pieces, took them to our local distributor, Southwest Wholesale, and they would contact all the stores and do the shipping. We would get $8 a CD. We didn’t even know how big we was, we was just some hood kids. I’ll never forget they shut a mall down in Austin. Man, a girl started crying, and I tripped out. They was like, “Man, she love you, ESG.” Back then I don’t care who would come to H-Town and do a show, I don’t care how big you were, you had to put some H-Town artists on there to bring in some people.
Most of the biggest bosses, they came from down here, mayne. All the CEOs you talk about, whoever they are, most of them watched us. Man, Baby from Cash Money and them used to be riding in the car with me and Screw. Way back in the day we were all out here, just young niggas trying to get it. H-Town was like what Atlanta is right now.
Way back in the day we were all out here, just young n*ggas trying to get it. H-Town was like what Atlanta is right now. —ESG
What all has changed with Houston in the past 20 years? Y’all are grown up now and have careers and some of the people you speak of became millionaires.
ESG: The ways of distribution have changed, but not a lot else. These days so many new artists come out and try to jump around the culture. They want to feel like they are bringing something new, but man, they speaking the same culture we spoke on back then. It’s the same shit that’s going on. The culture is embedded in us.
But sales-wise it’s not like it was with the Screw tapes. Man, he was selling 4,000 cassette tapes in one day for $10. When Fat Pat died, we did a tape and pressed up 5,000 and man, 4,000 was gone in just one day, from one store front. You don’t see that now.
Yeah, Fat Pat and Lil Keke were stars back then before having an album, just off of Screw tapes.
ESG: Yeah man, it was all Screw tapes. Botany Boys put out an album, and then eventually others started putting out albums, but Screw tapes were for artists who weren’t known. If you was live when you did your Screw tape, you was gonna get fame.
1996 was the 10-year anniversary of Rap-A-Lot, and 20 years later, the Geto Boys are still around. Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick all still do music and have done it for 30 years. Bun Bun B: Rap-A-Lot has always been at the forefront of the direction of content and what we collectively cared about. It was always good for us to watch the Geto Boys, and Scarface and J. Prince give that direction and say this is what we need to be stressing, this is what they don't really give us credit for, this is what's happening in the world, and this is what the hood needs to hear. We would then take our direction from there and give our twist on it as it pertained to the hoods that we lived in and the hoods that we came from. They are our pioneers.
There weren’t a great number of rap artists and groups from the South, and at the time we weren’t looked upon as being on the same level lyrically of the New York guys at the time. So it was refreshing to hear these guys come through and still be making music and representing the city and the South in general and not giving a fuck about letting their nuts hang. That made us feel like yeah, we have the right OGs.
The guy who actually did the first verse on Ridin' Dirty, Mr. 3-2, actually had his Rap-A-Lot debut in 1996 with the Wicked Buddah Baby album.
Bun B: Yeah and you know 3-2 I would probably say in 1996, you would be hard pressed to find somebody that was in the pocket lyrically better than 3-2 at the time. He and Big Mike were really just at the top of their game. 3-2 was a guy that I would sit around and roll weed and freestyle with for hours. He definitely helped me sharpen my tools so to speak. People like 3-2 and Rick Royal helped me to be a better MC. I was very lucky to be around some of the best people doing it at that moment. It led to me feeling free enough to be like, "Fuck this, I'm just going to be a lyricist."
In 1996 did you have any idea that music today in 2016 with all the technology and the way things are happening right now would move in such a direction?
Bun B: Well, I mean you have to understand, I don’t think a lot of people even know this, but Ridin’ Dirty is one of the first rap albums ever recorded on ProTools. At the time ProTools was really only used for commercials and things like that. I was against it at the time because they were trying to push upon me the ability to punch in. And I had just written “Murder.” That was about to be my greatest lyrical example, my greatest performance on record. And I was like “I don’t give a fuck if you have the ability to punch in and shit, I’m gonna do this with breath control, not eight bars and punch in.” It was crazy. I literally took the hardest way possible to do that verse, with the most updated technology at that time. Now with punching in, nobody even cares about that thing anymore. I came up on two-inch reels so I felt a certain way about recording digitally. And Pimp was very concerned about losing certain generations of sound, coming from two-inch reel.
Another thing that happened in 1996 was it was around the first time that we started getting West Coast weed and British Columbia weed too. So that had a big influence on us in the studio as well.
My people used to laugh at me and say I was crazy for sipping syrup, and now I don’t sip syrup and everybody else does. —Bun B
And you heard about that on Screw tapes and on UGK songs.
Bun B: Absolutely. We just tried to implement everything that was really happening in the music. Talking about the whole explosion of BC weed coming into Houston at the time and being an artist and trying to make music, but still hustling on the side and being on the grind. You know this was when syrup was still very early. My people used to laugh at me and say I was crazy for sipping syrup, and now I don’t sip syrup and everybody else does.
It was a little cheaper back then.
Bun B: Oh what? Drank? Yeah, drank and weed prices have changed a lot. In order to get hydro weed back then the prices were insane. But the drank was super cheap. And now the weed is cheap and the drank is expensive. Live long enough, you’ll be surprised what you see.
Want more from The 1996 Project? Visit the links below.
"The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success"
"Never Change: Is Jay Z the Same Rapper He Was 20 Years Ago?"
"The Best Rap Songs of 1996"