Houston’s music, like the city itself, has always been a sprawl of possibility and community—but of tenacity and resistance as well. Through artists like Scarface and Mike Jones, its evolution came from upheaval, from a response to quotidian injustices and much larger tragedies. With a disaster like Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, things are quickly and cruelly lost: homes, schools, cherished items, lives. The water rises, and with it the feeling of frailty; at any moment something else might again perish into the turmoil. But it is a city’s cultural footprint that helps to preserve what cannot be saved or rebuilt. And in its music, the spirit of Houston is not easily submerged.
As an outsider, many of my entry points into the city were through its most emphatic ambassadors: The Geto Boys and Slim Thug, Destiny’s Child and UGK. I grew up in Southern California, some 1,500 miles west of Houston, in a city that also knows a great deal about adversity. Two centerpoints of my childhood are 1992 and 1994: years in which Los Angeles endured a civil uprising (commonly but mistakenly referred to as the LA Riots) and one of the deadliest earthquakes ever to ravage the city and surrounding suburbs. But out of affliction comes grit and the desire for a collective cohesion.
I don’t remember what first drew me to music from Houston (though, much of my mother’s side of the family hails from Texas), but I’d wager I recognized a similar spirit in its artists, many of whom made music that rattled with a natural, knowing cool. Hearing Scarface utter, “See where Houston at, it’s on the borderline of hard times” mirrored the truths spoken to by LA rappers like DJ Quik, who was religion to me. As I saw it, Scarface drew from the same reservoir of social depravity and hometown pride as Tupac on “If I Die 2Nite” or Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” It was a music made by people who the world had counted out, a world that had tried to flatten them or remake them or jail them, and so they chose to resist through song, a tried-and-true survival mechanism.
In time, Houston became a mecca of Southern rap, a formidable outpost to Atlanta’s mutating center, giving birth to styles, labels, icons, and genres like screw music, which skillfully trades in ecstatic thump for premeditated, slowed-down slink (the torpid ooze of DJ Screw’s 36-minute-long masterpiece “June 27” deserves its place in rap’s storied pantheon of songs). Though Atlanta largely became the emblematic core for regional sound below the Mason-Dixon line—East Point’s favored sons OutKast turned cult stardom into viable pop careers by releasing five pristine albums from 1994 to 2003—Houston held its stride, cresting just as the Y2K hysterics chilled: acts like Lil Flip, Z-Ro, and Chamillionaire sketched energized depictions of the city, and the residents who filled its myriad of wards, on songs like “U Already Know” and “Sunshine.”
It was during the early 2000s, an especially ripe moment for Texas’s most populous city, when a clearer portrait of Houston’s character came into view. Community has always been an especially vital ingredient in southern rap, and music, at large—from the Dungeon Family to the St. Lunatics to R&B groups like TLC. There remained at all times a collective purpose present, each member on a single accord: that they were doing this for the people, and the city, that had given them so much.
This is why 2004’s “Still Tippin” video is significant beyond true calculation. The Mike Jones track, which also featured neighborhood heroes Slim Thug and Paul Wall, was first recorded for Swisha House’s compilation album, The Day Hell Broke Loose 2 (it was later plugged as a single on Jones’s debut album). Watching the video all those years ago, and even today, conjures feelings of community in ways both genuine and relatable: flanked by a sea of family and friends, the trio expound upon life in Houston and the trappings of what the hustle had afforded them. It didn’t matter what they had, or didn’t have, what they boasted about or how they got it, because they were here, in tandem, unified, one.
In the days since Harvey touched down, the news out of Houston has been vast and unsettling: 31 deaths, roads and highways plunged deep underwater, homes wrecked beyond repair, overcrowd shelters (an estimated 32,000 people statewide), with dozens of residents trapped in the storm’s violent ire, many of whom asked for help via social media. Poor communities of color, it was said, had been hit the hardest (they are often the most at risk for flooding across southern cities). Compounded together, it calls to mind the devastation Katrina wrought on New Orleans in 2005—at the time, with much of the city transformed into a swamp of ruin, a quarter of a million evacuees fled for Houston, many of whom stayed and decided to plant new roots. The headlines, too, were made worse in the shadow of President Trump, a man who has said he considers climate change a “Chinese hoax” and who recently rolled back an executive order signed under the Obama Administration that required infrastructure projects be designed to withstand rising sea levels. But through it all the spirit of Houston has remained resistant, if cautiously optimistic.
On Tuesday, Houston’s FOX affiliate spoke with Trae the Truth, a prolific local rapper who had joined the rescue effort (the day before, respondents had come to his aid during an evacuation). “I felt helpless when I had to be rescued, and I know that feeling,” Trae said as a small motor boat trudged its way through muddied water, speaking to his decision to assist with the recovery effort. “At the end of the day, it’s just unity in Houston. We’re just trying to do what we can.” The music was never just about posturing—it had always been about a people doing their very best to hold their city up, in whatever way they could.