Q&A With Professor Maco Faniel, the OG of Houston Hip-Hop History

Maco Faniel has probably done more than any other living person to illuminate Houston hip-hop. A doctoral student, historian, and native Houstonian, his book Hip Hop in Houston: The Origin and the Legacy (which the Huffington Post called “a must-read”) looks at the Houston scene which birthed chopped and screwed, Bun B, Paul Wall, and many others.

In anticipation of Green Label’s impending visit to Houston for Green Label Live this Sunday (RSVP here), as well as Mountain Dew DIY Fest at North Houston Skatepark on Saturday, we spoke to this walking encyclopedia about hip-hop in his hometown.

Why is it important to have a book on Houston’s hip-hop history?
The book started off in three stages. It was a seminar paper in my Master’s program at Texas Southern University, then it went to my Master’s thesis, then it became a book. In December, 2010, I was watching an interview with Dr. Cornel West and Jay Z and I thought it was a great story, but so many people are left out of this history of hip-hop. I thought at that moment to write about Houston’s hip-hop, and particularly the early years, because most people forget about it.

The story typically begins on the East Coast and goes to the West Coast, and the conversation skips over Southern states, Southwestern states, and the Midwest, as if they don’t contribute to what we know as hip-hop culture. I began from there, and I just wanted to do some recovery work to write Houston into the history.

Houston hip-hop was practically built on independent business models. Tell me how this plays into the city’s musical culture.
Houston is the largest city in the South, and the fourth largest in the US. It’s typically been an independent city because it’s away from major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The independent market was very important to the work because there are enough people in and around Houston to sustain the music. When other people weren’t listening in the late ’80s and early ’ 90s, this allowed people to go platinum without a major label deal.

This independent ethos helped them get their own money and build their own sound. Later on, people mimicked it because Houston did it successfully without the support of major labels.

It’s arguable that Houston hip-hop has been pigeonholed and stereotyped as a particular sound or style within the greater culture. What would you say has contributed to that?
As a scholar I’m critical of that. There are genres and categorizations made by music companies so that they’re able to sell music. There is a “Houston sound,” but not everyone in Houston hip-hop sounds the same. The mainstream hears a particular sound because that’s what they’re selling, but that’s not all that Houston is.

Of course the sound from Houston that’s most popular is chopped and screwed because that was the sound that was making money in the independent market. When it rises to the level of mainstream, that’s what Houston becomes known as in the beginning of the 21st century.

I don’t think the pigeonholing is of Houston’s own doing. You have to look at factors like what record companies want to sell.

It’s a good thing because it allows people from the other side of the world to identify what Houston’s sound is, but it can be limiting because Fat Tony or K-Rino don’t necessarily use a chopped and screwed sound or rap about bling and riding slabs they lose out. But they’re still successful by going against the grain of what people think Houston is.

What are your favorite hip-hop albums to come out of Houston and why?
In no order, I would say: The Resurrection by the Geto Boys, because it was almost the 10-year anniversary of the group, and it’s them rapping as adults about the realities of life on the margins of Houston, particularly in the ghettos. They were reminding people that they were in a prosperous entertainment era but that things were still bleak. There are mature flows on there, and political critiques which they’ve always had. I was in high school and it was something we bumped every day for a long time. It spoke to some things we were experiencing and fearing.

My next one would be Ridin’ Dirty by UGK. I love that because it was riding music. The production work by Pimp C and their flows made for a classic Houston/Gulf Coast hip-hop album. You’re hearing about slabs and candy but you’re also hearing about life, the fun and toughness of what life is like in that city.

Already Platinum by Slim Thug. He went to my high school and graduated a year after me. I had the opportunity to watch him throughout high school in his early career, rapping on mixtapes by Michael “5000 Watts” and OG Ron C with Swishahouse, then going on to do greater things with ESG and the Mad Hatter. Then coming out with this major-label debut and arguing “I’m already platinum; I didn’t need this major label but I’m stepping this up to make a little more money, and expose it to people who don’t already know my work.”

Then there would be the Geto Boys’ 1991 album, We Can’t Be Stopped, which features “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” That was considered the song that put Houston on the map. It allowed me to see my city and places that I knew on national radio where everyone could be talking about it.

What would you say are quintessential songs that represent Houston hip-hop to the fullest?
DJ Screw’s “June 27th” represents Houston hip-hop to the fullest. UGK’s “Front, Back, Side To Side” is one. Z-Ro’s song “Mo’ City Don” is one, “Tops Drop” by Fat Pat. “Southside” by Lil’ Keke. “Pimp Tha Pen” by DJ Screw with Lil Keke. And then of course, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.”

What do you make of DJ Screw’s influence being used by popular emcees such as Drake and A$AP Rocky? Is this respectable homage to you or shameless copying?
On “Pimp Tha Pen,” DJ Screw said, “The world’s gonna drip candy and be all screwed up.” In 2015 we have the chopped and screwed sound as a mainstay in hip-hop. You can’t turn on the radio without someone having that type of sound, or people talking about slabs, using the term “What it do,” and words that came from the south side of Houston.

That’s just like the scratching and using Kool Herc’s breakbeats. All of these things started off where people didn’t think they would make money off it and that it would be around in 2015. It’s a way to pay homage and it does a lot for hip-hop. My issue becomes when people say one of Justin Timberlake’s songs at the Grammys two years ago started chopped and screwed, and credit isn’t given.

It’s become so normal, not only in hip-hop but other genres of music, and people are not citing their sources and the originators of the sound are not getting their financial due or recognition.

What would you say was the pivotal moment in Houston hip-hop crossing over to the mainstream?
Definitely the Geto Boys. When their second album, Grip It! On That Other Level, was remastered and picked up by Rick Rubin’s Def American label, and they changed their name from the Ghetto Boys.

That was a pivotal moment because songs on that album (particularly “Mind Of A Lunatic”) brought them national attention because some young guys in Kansas said they were inspired to commit crime from that song. That gives them attention in Congress and along with other groups—this is why we have the Parental Advisory sticker on CDs.

Then “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” went national and people are understanding that Houston has something to say.

The next pivotal moment would be in the late ’90s to early 2000s, when the chopped and screwed sound was picked up. We have Lil’ Troy who comes out with the hit song “Wanna Be A Baller,” featuring Big Hawk and Yungstar. Then everybody wanted to get their stuff chopped and screwed.

I can’t say one song made that difference. Radio companies were consolidating; you would hear the same thing on the radio in Dallas, Houston, California and Atlanta, and there was a consolidation of record companies. Southern music is making a whole bunch of money and getting a bunch attention at that time, because the radio is playing the same songs everywhere. The record companies started investing in what made sense, they found a market that they weren’t tapping into, and they figured out how to get money from it.

Tell me about the “Free Pimp C” campaign and the impact it had on the city’s culture.
When Pimp C went to jail, Bun B was down. He didn’t know about the future of the group. He began to shout out “Free Pimp C” and jump on a lot of people’s albums saying it. I think it helped them continue to be a mainstay in hip-hop and it was a way for people outside of the city to latch onto a group and a movement from Houston. It helped Bun B and the family deal with the temporary loss of their brother, friend, and collaborator. If it wasn’t for UGK or Pimp C there would be no Big K.R.I.T., David Banner, or Ludacris, who are all influenced by Houston.

Since Pimp C’s passing, Bun B carried Houston, and Port Arthur, on his back. What factors would you say contributed to Bun B practically becoming Houston’s rap ambassador?
He has skills as a rapper and a storyteller, but he’s a full adult with a wife, kids, and grandkids. He’s a very insightful and smart dude, so he can maintain street cred and authenticity, but he can step into the ivory tower to be a co-professor for a religion and hip-hop class. When you listen to the interviews he did while Pimp C was locked up, you can see there’s more than meets the eye. He’s more than just a rapper.

Getting Bun B, Jay Z or Scarface on your album is them vouching for your ability to rap, your skills and authenticity. But Bun B has decided to diversify himself. He raps, but he’s also done a coloring book, and done things with the Houston Opera. That allows him to represent for the city because of the diversity of what he does. His old school fans are still with him and they’re adults with families; he represents them in the stories he tells and the things he does as a grown man.

Who would you say is Houston hip-hop’s most unsung hero, and why?
The first person would be K-Rino. He’s been a successful artist for 30 years, he tours all across the country, and continues to make money. He’s an unsung hero because he refuses to succumb to the pressures of major labels and the radio. He continues to maintain an independent presence and he’s able to control his own destiny. There are benefits to doing that and there are costs; one cost is mainstream acceptance. But he’s a lot of rapper’s favorite rapper.

Another unsung hero would be a guy by the name of Steve Fournier. The story of Houston hip-hop doesn’t begin when the first record label was founded, just like hip-hop didn’t begin in 1979 [with “Rapper’s Delight”]. Steve Fournier was important because he was a DJ and a club promoter who put hip-hop on when there was no radio. He also had a record pool where rap records were being distributed all across the United States. There’s no Houston hip-hop without Steve Fournier, just like there’s no hip-hop in New York without the person who opened up the discos and record stores that allowed people to get breakbeats.

Scarface remains underrated. Why would you say that is?
Part of that has to do with market structure. Scarface is an interesting guy. He’s a great rapper, lyricist, and storyteller, but he can go kick it at a rock or country club. He has resisted the allure of the lights and I think he is also really big about being true to himself. Not to say that other rappers sell out, but what’s important to him is being true to his art. To do so sacrifices are made, and he’s not the person that a corporation can put their brand behind.

The people that the masses know about, corporations put their brand behind them. His artistry and message is more important than the big lights. When it’s all said and done he’s most rapper’s favorite rapper and true fans of hip-hop know he’s one of the gods.

How would you describe the state of Houston hip-hop in 2015?
I make this argument that hip-hop is local despite being national and international. But in 2015, with YouTube, Spotify, and various ways for people to know about artists, where you’re from is diminishing in importance. With the democratization of media platforms, an artist can be popular and make money without the radio. We have a rapper like Fat Tony who’s independent and able to tour, and people know who he is. The Geto Boys are still touring. Doughbeezy, Killa Kyleon and other multiple people are doing their art. Houston is doing what Houston has always done, which is focus on its independence.

Beyonce wears Houston everywhere she goes, Bun B keeps the focus on Houston, Lecrae is partially from Houston. There’s still a major market for music in the world, but with almost 3 million people, Houston is a city that has its own market. Mainstream attention is good, but its independent spirit keeps it going. Because it’s so large and so diverse, Houston’s hip-hop is able to survive even when others have co-opted its style and even when others—especially big record companies—are no longer paying attention. In a time when local and regional styles are almost disappearing, Houston remains true to itself, not necessarily by reproducing the chopped and screwed sound made popular by DJ Screw and Swishahouse, but by not adapting to the sound of other regions. Houston is Houston.

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