Interview: Photographer Peter Beste Goes Beyond the Music

Houston Rap Peter BesteThough the South has played an important role in sustaining rap by keeping its innovative spirit alive, the rappers of the South often go unnoticed. Furthermore, rappers in some parts of the South go especially unnoticed. After 9 dedicated years, Peter Beste, Lance Scott Walker, Johan Kugelberg and Bun B, have crafted a book exposing and documenting the deepest and realest parts of the rap scene in Houston, Texas. Houston Rap delves deep into the historic Fifth Ward, Third Ward, Southside and South Park neighborhoods, showcasing a culture unlike any other. If you call yourself even the slightest bit of a rap enthusiast, Houston Rap is a necessity on your winter reading list and your personal library.

Houston Rap is a detailed compilation of the ups, downs and in-betweens faced by not just those involved in the rap game, but the entire community. The book is divided into sections covering topics ranging from gang violence, the daily hustle, the struggle to rise above government conspiracies, bling, beautiful women and the lives of Houston’s most talented. Featuring interviews with Z-Ro, Geto Boys, Bun B, members of the South Park Coalition, the Screwed up Click and more, this book gives Houston rap the recognition it deserves, beyond just a playlist or an article. Read our interview with Peter Beste, the book’s photographer and Houston native.

*****************************************************************************

RESPECT: When you and Lance started this project back in 2004, what did you expect to find going into Houston?

Peter: We tried to go in without too many expectations.  One of my goals was to track down some of these old school characters, some of which who had faded into obscurity, and document them in their own environments. For example, Willie D‘s former protege, female rapper Choice, who released an album on Rap-A-Lot in the early 90s was one of the first people I tried to find.  She predated Lil Kim by many years rapping about sex and that kind of stuff.  We tracked her down and she was working some corporate desk job and hadn’t rapped for years.  We visited Pharoah from Street Military who is currently serving 60 years in prison, as well as many other legends and founders.  We wanted to find the people who created this amazing sound and document their everyday lives. We wanted to make it more than just a documentary about hip-hop, as we’ve all seen endless examples of those. I think the many years we spent with this project allowed us to dig a lot deeper and to get into these peoples’ lives, witness and document the struggles of their neighborhoods, and really try to avoid the typical, superficial topics we see everyday on MTV and in the mainstream rap press.

The book essentially covers a 24 hour period from dawn until dawn,  and covers topics of philosophy, religion, neighborhood gentrification and many heavier more personal topics – all in the rappers’ own words. Of course it’s filled with neighborhood mythology and tons of Houston rap history, but we really wanted to get a broader, more sociological, or anthropological picture of this really special time and place in American history.

Peter Beste

Choice, Houston rapper

RESPECT: The book includes a lot of what many would refer to as eye-opening pictures; were you prepared for that level of violence and extremeness?

Peter: We knew what we were getting into as far as the drugs and the violence and the other stuff that we would inevitably run into. I think what shocked me the most was the extreme nature of the police state and the effect of the prison-industrial complex on these neighborhoods. It’s an incredibly vicious cycle, and it’s almost like they are preyed upon by the system in order to fill the private prisons. That was really disheartening for me. We took that topic head on and published letters from various rappers who were incarcerated at the time and talked to a lot of the wiser, more awakened rappers about the uneven playing field they are faced with. Of course this applies to more than just Houston –  it’s countrywide, and even worldwide, to a degree. The private prison industry is such a huge money- maker for a very few people, and to be blunt,  I believe there is a trap set to fill the prisons and to gentrify these neighborhoods.

Peter Beste

Guns-n-Syrup

RESPECT:  Bun B makes an excellent point in the foreword when he says,

A lot of times, when we see these books or documentations of certain scenes, or if you go deep into the inner city, there’s always a wonder in the back of one’s mind if this is for the expansion of the understanding or just simply an exploitation of the environment. I’ve always handled these type of things with a little trepidation because the inner city community is already exploited. The people in the community are already being exploited.” 

What precautions did you as a photographer have to take to maintain a sense of respect towards the people in Houston?

Peter: Lance and I went into this project with a genuine respect for these people. We want to see them succeed. At the same time, we wanted to document their world in an accurate way without sugarcoating it. We show the good, the bad and the ugly. I think it was a really fine line to walk, but this approach came pretty naturally to both of us. We went in there without putting any of these artists on a pedestal, and approached them as real people. We developed some genuine relationships in the process, and this book was a natural byproduct of that.

Peter Beste

Dat Boy Grace, Houston Rapper

RESPECT: I can attest to the book’s remarks that Houston and especially the cities’ rap scene go widely unnoticed by outsiders. After seeing the various neighborhoods and the city for yourself, what do you think inhibited awareness of the talent in Houston?

Peter:  Houston is geographically isolated, and was more or less ignored by the mainstream until the 2005 popularity explosion, with the exception of the Geto Boys and UGK. This isolation allowed Houston’s aspiring artists to develop on their own, creating their own sound, their own business model, their own CEOs, their own distribution networks, their own record labels, and even their own drugs. It was this fierce independent spirit we were attracted to – a kind of hustler, do it yourself mentality, building something out of nothing. Over time people all around the world started seeing the unique qualities and the interesting nature of the music and lifestyle. Nowadays rappers all around the world are slowing their music down, sampling DJ Screw, talking about purple drank, and various other Houston elements. Many Houston rappers are smart businessmen who realized the major labels had a history of screwing artists, especially inner-city black artists. Many of them realized that they could sign to a major label and get 50 cents per album sold, or they could cut out the middle man and learn how to do it all themselves. They learned how to produce their own records, selling them out of their trunks and through their own distribution networks, which made them $7 or $8 an album, while maintaining their integrity and doing things on their own terms.

Peter Beste

K Water’s Recording Studio

RESPECT: How different do you think the genre of Rap would be if every artist had to pave their own way like the rappers in Houston did, and still do?  In the book, Z-Ro touches on the element of authenticity found among Houston rappers;  “There’s a difference between you know, drawing a stick figure and then painting a portrait. I’m trying to paint a portrait.” What would you say is the most noticeable difference between the mentalities of rappers of more major cities compared to Houston?

Peter: Some rappers get “lucky” and get signed immediately, and they don’t really have to pay dues the same way. They basically sign this contract that gives the major label rights to basically every bit of their entire creative output, from their merchandise sales to live concerts – everything. Many artists in this position are hooked up with certain producers and become more of a hired gun rather than a self- sufficient individual artist. I think if everybody had to follow the underground Houston model, there would be more wise and well-rounded rappers in this world. I’m not trying to say Houston is the only city like this, but they definitely cut their own teeth and figured out a thing that works for them through trial and error.

The bottom line is that they didn’t have an external script to follow. That is respectable to me. I’m not into popstar rappers,  I’m interested in the raw, underground, street rappers who tell stories about their life and their struggles without the sugarcoating.  There are very few local artists who signed major label deals right off the bat in Houston – very few before the 2005 explosion. The Geto Boys exploded nationally in the early 90s, but were on Rap-A-Lot, which is a local independent label which had some major label backing. Once the Geto Boys broke nationally around 1991 or so, it made the average aspiring rapper in the Third Ward, Fifth Ward, or South Park realize that maybe they can do it too – maybe the world can take a Houston artist seriously. Geto Boys were a huge inspiration for a lot of people.

Peter Beste

Z-Ro, in his kitchen

RESPECT: I know this is a difficult question, but if you had to pick, what would you say is the most influential song or album to come out of Houston?

Peter: I’d say my two favorite Southern rap albums are UGK’s Ridin Dirty and DEA‘s Screwed For Life. UGK are from nearby Port Arthur but they moved to Houston and are heavily associated with the Houston scene and sound. DEA, or Dead End Alliance consisted of DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Hawk and Kay-K. Sadly, Kay-K is the only one who is still alive from that original line-up. Dead End is probably the roughest section of South Park and their 1998 album Screwed for Life is one of their classic soundtracks. This album features a young Z-Ro, Lil Keke, Big Pokey, and many other members of the Screwed Up Click.

Peter Beste

DEA

RESPECT: You mentioned DJ Screw. Talking more about him, what do you think has allowed his legacy to live on so strongly?

Peter: Screw had a profound effect both musically and spiritually on Houston as a whole. He brought people together. Up until the early ‘90s, there was this massive beef between the North side and the South side of town. Constant carjacking’s and shootings – it was really nasty. Screw is partially credited with squashing that beef and bringing people together, and making what they were doing about Houston as a whole rather than just one neighborhood. He was a selfless visionary who brought up everybody with him, which is pretty rare in the rap game. What became the Screwed Up Click was a loose association of aspiring local rappers and friends who would come hang out at Screw‘s house all night while he was making his mixes and  freestyle over Screw’s beats. He would record them on a little grey tape and then sell them around the neighborhood. Before long it became the soundtrack to ride around the streets of South Park, and it spread like wildfire – first throughout the city, then throughout the world.  People would be like, “Who’s this guy? Oh, that’s Lil Keke, that’s Fat Pat.” All these people and many more became  huge sensations based on the midnight sessions at Screw’s house. He made dozens of people famous and started a whole movement.

Many people would say that Screw was his own radio station. He made dubbed tape copies of his mixes, and if you were lucky enough to get a Screw tape, you would dub it for all of your friends and then they would dub it for theirs, and there would be 10th generation tape copies spreading around the world.

Peter Beste

DJ Screw’s grave

RESPECT: Thanks to DJ Screw, music that is Chopped and Screwed has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Why do you think syrup and screwed tracks took off so quickly in Houston?

Peter: A lot of people say that Screw music was kind of a soundtrack to the hot weather and sprawling highways of Houston, and was essentially theme music for the landscape and lifestyle of the city. There’s so many different components to it and it goes so deep, but the bottom line is that is communicates to a lot of people, even 13 years after his death. Lots of folks can relate to it.

RESPECT: Now that you’ve completed the book and finished this journey, what do you think is the main thing people need to know about the culture of Houston and more specifically the rap culture?

Peter: There are so many different artists, so many different neighborhoods, and so many different styles of rap the city has invented and perfected. What I want the average person to know is that Houston goes much deeper than candy painted cars and purple drank, which is sadly what is focused on by the mainstream. All one has to do is scratch the surface and you will find one of the richest and most culturally relevant musical styles of the 20th/21st century.

Peter Beste

C-Note in South Park

RESPECT: Where do you see the Houston rap culture going in the next couple of years?

Peter: Mainstream attention comes and goes, but I believe that the average Houston rapper will continue to do what they do regardless of that outside attention. Texas is big enough to support its own.  They’ve built this from nothing, and at the end of the day they are still going to continue making their own music, promote it their own way and do what they want to do. The styles and the sounds and the names and the faces will change over time, but I think that the do- it-yourself mentality and that drive to succeed on their own terms will stick around for a very long time. The underdog story of artists succeeding on their own terms is inspiring for anyone.

Peter Beste Bun B Houston Rap

Bun B and Friends

Houston Rap is currently in stores. You can order the “Sinecure Exclusive” edition which includes Houston Rap in a beautiful slipcase painted by Gonzo 247 (pictured above), a fold-out poster, and a DJ Screw/ Fat Pat 7” vinyl record. You can also order the “Deluxe Bundle” which features the slipcased Houston Rap book, the  DJ Screw/ Fat Pat 7”,  DJ Screw ALL SCREWED UP 2LP, a signed print,  the companion book Houston Rap Tapes, and a Fat Pat: Ghetto Dreams documentary DVD, which all comes in a Sinecure Books Tote Bag. Both of these special editions are super limited and are available at www.sinecurebooks.com.  If you want a signed copy of only the book itself, you can order it directly from www.peterbeste.com.

Rarely do you find such a real, accurate, and eye-opening book on the rap culture. RESPECT. sincerely hopes you don’t pass up the opportunity to broaden your rap knowledge with this extraordinary book.