In terms of coffee table reads, Houston Rap is probably one you’ll want to shelve when you’ve got your grandma coming round. Made over eight years by two Houston expats photographer Peter Beste and writer Lance Scott Walker, Houston Rap is opened with a foreword by Bun B, lecturer, acclaimed OG and one half of UGK, one of the South’s most inimitable rap groups. His preamble praises Beste and Walker for their commitment to reporting the true dark side of the projects.
We’re not fake people. We’re real people, we’re trill individuals, and we’re not scared to let people know who we are, at our rawest and at our realest, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to be embarrassed of.
Immediately you wonder how some of the characters pictured allowed themselves to be photographed in such compromising images; a man passed out on a stained mattress, another leant out of a window brandishing a hunting rifle. Loads of bare arse, too. Lance Scott Walker explains that being transparent from the very beginning was their key to being allowed in. “When you’re a couple of white boys who go into the neighbourhoods we go into, they sort of send you a message that’s like “don’t come into my neighbourhood, show a lot of respect”. We got really good at explaining ourselves really on, and being very transparent and open. We carried around an early draft of the book and showed people the direction we were going in”.
Houston Rap has been a labour of love for Beste and Walker, their persistence and dedication to the cause something that Beste regards as paramount, having been entrusted by a community whose initial wariness was sometimes hard to overcome. The book’s self funded nature and Beste’s reputation as a photographer gained the pair credit, and the Walker and Beste worked faithfully to penetrate the hoods who eventually welcomed them. “Alot of them were sceptical at first” Beste recalls. “I started in 2004, and a few of them were friendly enough, then I’d come back 6 months later with some of the magazines they’d been printed in. I had to prove myself over time. They loved it. The first big spread was in Dazed, and it’s not the normal kind of press these guys are used to.”
It praises the DIY ethic of the predominantly male music scene, who disillusioned by outside management, have “cut out the middle man” and created their own business model, some artists making half a million dollars a year without leaving Louisiana and Texas. “They cut out the white man. Rather than being paid 40 cents CD sold, they press their own and and sell 50,000 instead of 500,000, but make 10 bucks rather than 50 cents.” Respect and reverence is held in the upmost throughout, to the point where Beste and Walker were approached by people whose stories were offered, rather than tracked down. In an age where the internet lacked its daily necessity, being contacted by strangers was something of a bigger deal. “There’s a guy in the book called Rashad Al Ahmin. We got a phonecall out of the blue from him, it was a number I didn’t recognise. He ended up explaining who he was, and we talked for an hour straight. It got to the end of the conversation and I had to be like “what did you say your name was again?”. I’d never heard of him, but that’s how deep that history is. We became really close”.
Despite friendships made, there is a certain sinister element. Though Beste and Walker were “taken under the wing” of several of rappers and their friends, the scenes photographed and retold are not all heart warming. Divided chronologically into day and night, both halves of Houston Rap show telling displays of intense poverty and desolation. A man passed out on a mattress is particularly wince inducing, though Beste surprises by divulging this as one of the few posed photos in the book.
"That’s Gangsta Nip. The first time I met him, Nip came out looking all suspicious and squinty eyed, all 'why you bringin these white motherfuckers to my house', pacing back and forth, trying to intimidate me, telling me how much I’d have to pay him. It started out like that, but over the next couple of years we became friendly. I finally convinced him one day to come around South Park with me and take some pictures, and we went into this abandoned house where homeless people lived and he just lay on the mattress. He was sort of hamming it up for the camera that day, but I’d say 95% of photos aren’t. Some days I’d have to take 50 cheesy rap photos before I could get one vulnerable photo".
The book seeks not to incriminate but validate a community that is now somewhat fading. With the continuous upward development housing and commodities, some of the areas are facing gentrification as malls are now cropping up in the projects. Lance Walker explains the issue at hand. “The rap history is one thing but the history of the neighbourhood is another. In the book there are issues of gentrification, some of the neighbourhoods have been wiped out. The south side neighbourhood of South Park and the neighbourhood of Fourth and Fifth Ward are having their edges plucked away, almost completely. Houses are being built upwards due to the sprawling size of Houston. Those who are being picked off are those least capable of defending themselves”.
The vibrancy and life of the neighbourhoods and the rap communities that live within them is captured to the credit of Beste and Walker, who have worked tirelessly to communicate the hidden depths of these people who until now have been overlooked as a society within society. Allowed into the Houston Rap scene due to their honestly and perseverance, it was their goal to document the truth without any hint of “whitewashing”. The book draws to a close with raw images of men and women in a strip club, images that are X rated and unlikely to be found in any context within a photo book. Beste is adamant that their existence is vital. “But it’s just like any rap album. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s the positive and the negative...We’re outsiders and white boys who don’t live there, and it made us live up to a higher standard to make it right.” Houston Rap is a vital document of the stories of an untold and slowly fading community, all balls, no glory, and one hundred percent truth.
It praises the DIY ethic of the predominantly male music scene, who disillusioned by outside management, have “cut out the middle man” and created their own business model, some artists making half a million dollars a year without leaving Louisiana and Texas. “They cut out the white man. Rather than being paid 40 cents CD sold, they press their own and and sell 50,000 instead of 500,000, but make 10 bucks rather than 50 cents.”
Houston Rap is published by Sinecure Books