20 Years Later: Why 1996 Was Such A Crucial Year In Houston's Hip-Hop History
The sound of Houston rap, a permeable gumbo of synthesized G-Funk bathed and washed in soul samples, organs and bass-heavy drums was just coming into its own in the mid 90s. In 1994, Scarface and his team, N.O. Joe, Mike Dean and his own Uncle Eddie crafted The Diary.
That album, rooted in Joe’s own idea of mixing church with Scarface’s rhymes as a menacing orator made it one of the greatest solo discs to ever leave the Beltway and firmly established Scarface outside The Geto Boys as a solo mainstay.
A year later, E.S.G, the Everyday Street Gangsta who had a little bit of Louisiana in his blood but plenty of Houston in his heart had released Sailin’ Da South, his sophomore album that contained “Swangin’ N Bangin," a minor flip of Public Enemy’s “Gotta Do What I Gotta Do” built around synths and occasional drums. The tie between The Diary and Sailin’ Da South is that they began a timeline of events that resulted in 1996 being one of the strongest years all-around in Houston rap.
If The Diary proved Houston rap could sell on the charts, Sailin’ Da South eventually made E.S.G. bedfellows with the greatest A&R in the history of Houston — DJ Screw. The disc jockey/producer/A&R who at the time had a contract with Russell Washington’s Big Tyme Recordz began releasing his screwed & chopped mixes through the imprint, tagging together West Coast favorites from Spice 1, Dr. Dre, Compton’s Most Wanted and burgeoning Houston rap group Street Military.
However, Screw wanted more. By 1996, his roster of friends who had hung around his apartment was the Houston version of a lyricists lounge. And 1996 would not only be pivotal in crafting his legacy but also that of a duo from Port Arthur, Texas who spent most of 1994 promoting an album that, unbeknownst to Middle America was made under the influence of dipped weed.
Scarface, UGK, DJ Screw & The Screwed Up Click helped establish the multitude of musical styles in the developing Houston sound. It could be hard boiled trunk funk, it could be solemn piano melody that was more reminiscent of the blues than whatever came of New York City rap. Although Face had hit a high water mark with The Diary, J. Prince of Rap-A-Lot Records wanted another Geto Boys album.
The Resurrection became the first major Houston rap release of 1996, a Geto Boys reunion where everything seemingly clicked. “Still” eventually translated the group’s early horror core into a burped-out funk middle finger towards authority. “Group harder than an erection,” Willie D blasted on the record, which gained greater highs after its usage in Mike Judge’s Office Space film. A flip of War’s “The World Is A Ghetto” turned into the group’s most on the nose record. The Geto Boys seemed celebratory, even if they consistently discussed death and harsh situations occurring left and right. “It’s double jeopardy if you’re black or Latino,” Bushwick Bill rapped on “The World Is A Ghetto” and he seemed more like the shortest prophet than a group’s Chucky-esque mascot.
Records like The Resurrection were propelled by the magic created from The Diary. Transitive moments like these proved that the Getos were more than “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and more. When they first arrived in 1990, they were among the early rap groups battling their label and the government over explicit lyrics. By 1996, it was welcomed. Gangsta was in fashion and the bones they made in Houston’s Third & Fifth Wards made them more akin to wise sages than newcomers. A three year break between albums reaffirmed that. Meanwhile, further east in Port Arthur, Pimp C had heard of N.O. Joe and what he had done on The Diary. A classically trained musician himself, Pimp C understood that UGK was still tinkering to craft their own masterpiece.
When Ridin’ Dirty arrived in August 1996, it signaled a change in how people viewed UGK across the country. Whether it be Pimp C’s production and sample choices from Mayfield to Pink Floyd, the hard cutting, unflinching nerve behind records such as “Fuck My Car” and “Murder” -- or Bun B turning into a human rap supernova on “Murder” alone, it affirmed to the world that UGK wasn’t just some gold tooth, Southern rap group without a purpose. They were men on a mission. As much internal strife Pimp C was attributing to making records in the industry and wanting proper credit, all of the anger and fury was funneled into Ridin’ Dirty.
On “One Day," Pimp & N.O. Joe slowed the Isley Brothers’ “Ain’t I Been Good To You” to an unmistakable crawl, something like a slow moving funeral parade. Ronnie Spencer was asked to mimic Ronald Isley and eventually turned a career out of being a damn near perfect Isley that never made the group. It’s funeral music, a musical turn that has made men quiver like children and sit back and somberly reflect. For Chad Butler & Bernard Freeman, it was daily life near Port Arthur, Texas.
If The Diary is Scarface doing his best to portray himself as Houston’s rap Muddy Waters then Ridin’ Dirty is Pimp C & Bun B doing their best at making a rap attachment to The Thrill Is Gone. It’s blues in the way that every bit of pain and suffering gets stretched into brief masks of happiness. In Houston rap history, there may not have been a more furious second verse than “Murder” from Bun B. There may not be a more “perfect” encapsulation of what UGK was and eternally will be than “Diamonds & Wood,” which Pimp C credited as his favorite UGK song ever. The hook alone let something else be known about UGK, they, like most of Houston were jamming screw. The sample, deriving from .380’s “Elbows Swang” wasn’t repurposed to be cool or to be of the times, it was a dropped pin in the land of an already Southern rap album. Even though The Geto Boys & UGK had created moments with their respective albums, only one man had the tools to provide the sound of an entire city whenever he hopped behind the tables.
DJ Screw is connected to Scarface by mere proxy. He’s connected to UGK by appreciation and collaboration. In 1996, Screw & UGK created Chapter 182: Ridin’ Dirty, a screwed and chopped UGK tape where Pimp and Bun freestyled over records of the day at Screw’s house. The tapess become a rarity, almost a mythical one in the legacy of DJ Screw. Screw had already begun building a roster in 1996 of rappers who would become neighborhood then regional all-stars. There was Lil’ Keke, a mosquito needle of a rapper who rapped about drug discrepancies and constant braggadocio. When he broke through on “Pimp Tha Pen” on Screw’s classic 3 ’N The Mornin’ Pt. 2, he started crafting the language that became synonymous with the city. Phonetically, words like “plex”, “elbows”, “slab” had already been part of Houston’s lexicon but they were further out in the global stratosphere now.
3 ’N The Mornin’ Pt. 2 kept up with Screw’s love for E.S.G., the man who shouted him out on Sailin’ Da South and brought joy to his heart. Pt. 2 differed from Pt. 1 in how much Screw avoided looking at the West Coast to tie his music together. E.S.G. warned people about jacking for Screw tapes since they were so popular, Big Moe broke through singing about codeine and .380’s “Elbows Swang” made an appearance, setting the stage of the song’s usage in “Diamonds & Wood”. If there was any one great thing behind DJ Screw, it was his ability to connect the dots with complete strangers who then became lifelong friends. The most famous Screw song was recorded in 1996, the “June 27th” freestyle made for D-Mo that lasted for 35 minutes, making stars out of Big Moe, Big Pokey & Yungstar, all over Kriss Kross’ “Da Streets Ain’t Right”.
1996 was a transformative year in Houston rap, establishing one timeless album, a return to form for a rap trio who first kicked the door down and a DJ who would become not just synonymous with the city but in rap culture as a whole. It may not be the best year the city’s ever produced but it yields to very few in terms of the seeds planted that would blossom years later.