The Hardcore History of Rap-A-Lot, Houston’s Most Important Hip-Hop Label
Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records set a precedent for underground rap labels when it reclaimed the South and released a record number of albums, including classics like The Geto Boys’s We Can’t Be Stopped.
But before founder James Prince started the label, in 1987, and forced local stations to play his artists, they would play whatever the industry people in New York City told them to. Many would’ve had a stake in the music, and like any businessman, Prince understood these record executives weren’t just going to hand over their stations; he would have to take it from them—and he did.
The hip-hop industry in the late ’80s in Houston was just an extension of what was going on in New York City—everything was channeled through the major hub in the east, and even though the talent was there, Houston artists wouldn’t get much radio play.
Prince was exactly the sort of personality that could change that. A fierce street hustler, he started his career in the late ’80s, selling exotic used cars to gangsters and sports stars, and was equally comfortable in both worlds. At the time, Houston was a drug paradise, and the horrorcore lyrics that characterize Rap-A-Lot are like Gonzo journalism accounts of street life at this time.
According to all of Prince’s interviews, he started Rap-A-Lot to keep his brother Sir Rap-A-Lot, one of the founding members of The Geto Boys, off the streets. Since he knew many high profile people through the car lots, he had a Rolodex of people he could call in to pull strings when he branched into the music industry.
His first breakthrough was with The Geto Boys. Assembled by Prince in Houston’s Fifth Ward, it included his brother as well as Raheem, Sire Jukebox, and was originally called “the Ghetto Boys.” Their first release, however, Making Trouble, drew minimal attention, so Prince replaced Raheem and Sir Rap-A-Lot, citing creative differences. With new members DJ Ready Red, Bushwick Bill and Willie D in place for Grip It! On That Other Level in 1989, Prince was able to exercise greater control. The album turned out to be a huge success, selling millions and attracting the attention of legendary Run-D.M.C. producer Rick Rubin. The Geto Boys, with Rubin, came out in 1990, and We Can’t Be Stopped, in 1991. The rest is history.
Prince’s strategy was threefold: exercise control, release lots, and collect. It’s well known he used to write lyrics for his artists, and was such a tyrant that he would even replace his own brother in a musical group to make more money. When Bushwick Bill got shot in the eye, Prince called the photographer right away and capitalized on the moment for the infamous We Can’t Be Stopped album cover, showing Bill on a hospital bed with a swollen face with Willie D and Scarface wheeling him along.
If you crossed Prince, though, you got touched. Even his own clients got it sometimes. There’s the story of Bushwick Bill getting beat up outside a club after he’d complained about pay. Then there was the incident at Floyd Mayweather’s gym: Mayweather’s camp wanted to split with Prince, so Prince sent his goons over to the gym to smarten them up.
According to Prince, in an NPR interview from 2012, “it was like flies to honey” how rappers flocked to Rap-A-Lot in the mid-’90s, like Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, UGK, and Ganksta N-I-P.
Prince would sift through thousands of demo tapes and release 10-plus albums a year. After selling thousands of copies independently, Prince would then strike a deal with another label and/or distributor and sell even more. Like when Rap-A-Lot teamed with Rick Rubin’s Def American to put out The Geto Boys in 1990: Rubin remixed The Geto Boys’s Grip It! On That Other Level and arranged for David Geffen to distribute it (Warner Bros. put it out though when Geffen didn’t want to be associated with misogynist content).
Because he was ruthless, Prince stood up for many a rapper on the losing end of a contractual battle. Occasionally he would issue “courtesy calls” to competitors he thought had conducted unfair business. For example, he is said to have stopped a Young Money tour bus because he thought his son, Jas, was owed from a Drake album. (When Prince left the music business to focus on boxing, he left Jas in charge. Jas Prince discovered Drake before Comeback Season, and the families have been close ever since. Recently, Prince attacked Cash Money over the mismanagement of Drake’s royalties. If Prince is right, the Williams brothers owe Rap-A-Lot millions.)
Pimp C was another of Prince’s artists. When Pimp C alleged Master P owed him money and the latter was so offended he went to Prince for clearance to finish him, Prince stood up for Pimp C and told Master P no.
Rap-A-Lot continues to drop albums, but without the need for a middle man, Prince’s role has diminished—he’s all but handed over operations to Jas, as he pursues boxing, and only comes back occasionally to defend Drake.
“A few years ago I used to say that there was a conspiracy taking place to kill off and destroy all future black entrepreneurs, to [prevent them from doing] the same thing that myself and Cash Money and all of them did,” said Prince to NPR in 2012.
In the same interview, he accused the majors of stealing the idea of the “360 deal,” a new model that has come into play since revenue from record sales collapsed. It means the label gets a percentage of a star’s total income, including tours, appearances and merchandise; Prince claims the majors adopted this technique to run him out of business.
“When that Internet became so dominant where it enabled the bootleggers to steal the music so much more rapidly, it hit independents so hard,” he said. “Even from a retail end and the Mom and Pop store point of view. That was a major killing point of the game: to not be able to control that which you’ve created and worked so hard on. Trust me when I tell you that it’s nowhere even close to where it used to be. The majors are more in control now than they have been in a long time.”
Although Rap-A-Lot doesn’t put out as many albums, the label and its notorious founder are still revered in rap circles. Prince recently stepped in to defend Drake against Diddy, and Z-Ro’s Melting the Crown came out through Rap-A-Lot in February. It’s just tough to make as much money when artists circumvent both the majors and indies to reach fans via the Internet. You can make “courtesy calls” to Diddy and Charlemagne, but not to fans. Not yet, at least.