Over the past seven months, our Rap Map series has ventured across six different U.S. cities, highlighting a handful of promising artists in each market. As your faithful rap cartographer, I can write with confidence that Houston’s rap scene is unlike any other.
You see, by the mid-2000s, Houston hip-hop was booming on both a national and local level. Artists like Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Scarface, UGK—though really from Port Arthur—and Chamillionaire could all be heard on the airwaves, each brandishing a style that was unique to Houston at the time, notable for syrupy, enunciated flows and bass-driven, heavily-modulated production.
The seeds planted by the late DJ Screw, with his influential chopped and screwed style and legendary A&R abilities, had bloomed beautifully. MCs were practically printing money by selling thousands of mixtape CDs out of their car trunks. Unfortunately, the hip-hop goldrush didn't stick around in H-Town for very long. By the time Mike Jones released his sophomore album, The Voice, in 2009, Houston’s limelight began to dull and their mainstream hot streak grew cold.
Several of the local artists I spoke to for this piece attribute the Houston rap scene's sharp rise and sudden fall to a few factors, including a shifting national attention and outsiders biting Houston artists’ styles and sounds, as well as a lack of music industry infrastructure within the city limits.
While a region like the DMV is finally beginning to enter the national conversation (outside of Wale) for the first time and forging a brand new sound in the process, Houston already had a moment in the spotlight and they already have a signature sound. Now, they must once again garner national attention.
There have been signs of success, though. Travis Scott, who signed his first major label contract with Epic in 2012, is a now bona fide global superstar, and Maxo Kream, fresh off the release of his outstanding new albumPunken, has garnered a piece of the national spotlight thanks to his unique brand of incisive, honest trap. Ironically, Houston’s hottest young bloods aren't making music that audibly reflects Houston's vintage sound. There are hints of it in Travis’ distorted melodies and Maxo’s straightforward vocal cadences, but both are just as much a product of a national, digitized hip-hop scene as they are of Houston.
To get a better idea of which artists might be apart of the city's next national wave—whenever that may hit—we spoke with several Houstonians, both inside and out of the music industry, and listened to hundreds of submissions. In the end, we selected five artists (in no particular order) who we believe best represent the city's resurgent pool of talent.
WOLFE de MÇHLS (@wolfedemchls)
WOLFE de MÇHLS is a 27-year-old producer, singer and rapper. He’s technically from neighboring Missouri City, though artists from that area (see: Z-Ro) have both claimed Houston and been claimed by Houston over the years.
de MÇHLS' music does not fit cleanly into any category. When I asked about his influences, he listed off many names and many genres—naming seminal Houston acts like DJ Screw and Pimp C alongside artists like Phil Collins, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Beatles.
The result is a style that blends the warp and confusion found in vintage Houston hip-hop, especially songs that have been chopped and screwed, with the structure and melody of pop. Each song on his Naked LP stacks layers of vocals and filter effects upon percussion ranging from hand drums to trap snares and airy synths.
There is also a consuming darkness to WOLFE’s music, like a solar eclipse. This tone, as well as the distortion in his music, he explains, comes not from Houston’s music but the city itself.
“These highways at night, man, it’s so amazing,” WOLFE says. “You can see the skyline of downtown Houston, and it’s like everything has this dark tone. It’s almost like Gotham. That’s why Travis' music sounds the way it does. It’s this beautiful dark tone. That’s how I got into pitching and shifting my music.
This sort of thinking shows that art is as much a product of space and time as it is of artistic influence. And artists like WOLFE show that Houston is and always will be a place that inspires great art.
At 32 years of age, Doughbeezy is a rapper that bridges Houston’s golden era with its present. Though he's only been active as an artist since 2010, he has worked with many local legends and has an intense pride in the city and its growth.
Part of that has come in forming the H-Town Rap Battle, an Instagram trend turned IRL event that he says brings together residents from all over the city and different generations of Houston's hip-hop scene.
With his music, Doughbeezy is determined to open up the possibilities for what Houston hip-hop can be, trying to find a middle ground between the culture of the golden era and snappier, quicker-hitting bars.
“I pride myself on it, being from Houston,” Doughbeezy says. “What I try and do is have a balance of lyricism—witty bars, wordplay, things of that nature—and you getting the culture of Houston. When you think of Texas, you think of slowed-down, sipping drank, Slim Thug, Paul Wall. So, I’m trying to find a balance, a whole different side of the H where people take pride in lyricism.”
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On his 2016 LP, Reggie Bush and Kool-Aid 2, Dough flashes the kind of rapid-fire lyricism you might expect of artists like Joyner Lucas or Logic. Yet, his music is undeniably Houstonian and Southern, telling stories and enunciating each word while also showcasing the kind of pride and fire one would expect of any Houston artist.
Danny Watts (@dnnywtts)
Danny Watts is another artist from Houston that is pushing the boundaries of the area’s lyricism.
”I’ve always been a person who is very expressive about how they feel,” Watts says. “I’ve been writing since a young age, using words to express what I’m thinking and how I feel inside has always been my go-to method. When it came to writing music, it just kind of came naturally.”
Watts was first on DJBooth this past October, when we interviewed him about quitting his job, signing to Jonwayne’s Author’s Recording Company and releasing a hell of an LP and titular track in Black Boy Meets World.
Since coming off tour with Jonwayne, Watts has returned to Houston and is planning his next moves. He has no plans to move out to California full-time, but he will be taking trips to the West Coast to record new music.
This Californian connection is a match made in heaven for Watts, an Odd Future stan since Tyler’s Myspace days. Though he’s a proud Houstonian, he’s always been a Californian at heart, and it shows in his music.
Though he does not so much embody the vintage G-Funk of the era, Watts is a more kindred spirit to contemporary California artists like Tyler and Vince Staples. On his album's title track “Black Boy Meets World,” Watts is able to channel his words and a relatively straightforward beat into pure, concentrated emotion and incisive, provoking thought. Watts has a gift for tackling nuanced, difficult issues like masculinity in the form of stunning raps.
Jamie Hancock (@JamiexHancock)
Jamie Hancock, like many of his peers, cares deeply about Houston and Houston hip-hop. So much so that it was he proposed we publish a Houston Rap Map, naming five artists that weren’t himself and even offering to write it.
Artists everywhere: be more like Jamie Hancock.
Though his offer proved unnecessary, his compassion and forward drive are evident in his art.
“Everything that I say is real," Hancock says. “I want people to believe in themselves, like truly, truly, truly believe in themselves. Not confidence, not arrogance, just true belief. So when I rap, I rap about my stories, and stuff that I’ve been through, and stuff that’s going on in my mind, just so I can show people I’m going through it too.”
Songs like “Hennything” show the power of mixing personal storytelling with empathetic intent. The song's hook is simple—“You know that Hennything is possible / So why don’t you put your mind to it”—yet it makes so much sense when aided by the conviction with which Jamie raps it. Still, there’s an obvious double entendre—while obstacles like alcoholism and homelessness get in the way, nothing is insurmountable.
At times, Jamie's work also embodies that classic Houston sound, with lines like, “That mean you goin’ see all my diamonds / I’ve been under pressure for so long so excuse my shining” delivered in a slow and surly manner.
Tobe Nwigwe (@TobeNwigwe)
Whenever an artist’s tagline is something along the lines of “Make purpose popular,” critics often become wary. "Conscious rap," as it has come to be, is often associated with waxing sanctimonious about virtue and good.
Tobe Nwigwe, an active community member and Houston devotee, is not so much concerned with being conscious as he is with making genuine emotional connections to people who need it. The kind of connections, he says, he wishes his neighborhood had access to when he was growing up.
“I don’t trip on being conscious,” Nwigwe says. “I make music specifically for people who can share my type of experience of growing up in the hood. So many of my friends grew up in fatherless homes living with their moms, and type of stuff like that. They really didn’t have an example to live toward, so they did whatever they did or their friends taught them. I make music for those specific people who would be interested in things like purpose if someone could meet them where they are. I wish someone would have met me where I was."
What’s so powerful in this approach, based on personal storytelling instead of preaching, is that Nwigwe's tracks like “What It’s For” are saturated and powerful because the personal experiences related—often over simple, straightforward beats—can then be unpacked into more universal messages and lessons. Nwigwe shows that having a specific audience in mind doesn’t exclude a more general one, but makes your music weightier and refined.