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Keep It Trill

by Published on
photo by Mike Frost
Paul Wall and his candy Cadillac.

On March 17,  MCs Chamillionaire and Paul Wall kicked off a national tour at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival. The show was a reunion for the two rappers, who helped develop the Houston hip-hop sound in the late 1990s. Back then, Houston hip-hop was a grassroots affair. With the music industry focused on rappers from the two coasts, local artists like DJ Screw and Lil’ Keke had to start their own labels, lobby local radio stations for air time, and sell mix tapes out of their cars. Chamillionaire and Wall, who had gone to high school together in nearby Jersey Village, released their tracks through independent label Swishahouse, which was becoming the breeding ground for the new sound. Fiercely regional, Swishahouse built a local fan base by putting out music by Houston, about Houston, and for Houston.

Things changed in 2005 when the music industry wised up to the Houston scene’s commercial potential and brought the Third Coast “chopped and screwed” sound to the mainstream. Wall and Chamillionaire were arguably Houston’s biggest breakout stars. Wall’s The Peoples Champ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart that September. Two months later, Chamillionaire released The Sound of Revenge, which went platinum and won a Grammy. Suddenly obscure, dirty, unheralded Houston rap was mainstream. Wall and Chamillionaire shared an affection for the slowed-down sound of DJ Screw, but lyrically they ended up on opposite ends of an ideological divide. Wall aimed his songs at the loyal Texas hip-hop audience. Chamillionaire went straight for commercial success.

Wall’s songs were so Houston-centric they required a glossary. His hit single, “They Don’t Know,” was the ultimate declaration of regional chauvinism. Wall built that song as a catechism of hip-hop exclusivity, quizzing listeners on their knowledge of Texas rap vernacular. What do you know, he asked, about swangaz and vogues (rims and tires). Or candy paint (custom paint job)? Or P.A.T. (Port Arthur, Texas)? The punchline was that the MC answered his own question the same way every time: “nothin’.” “They Don’t Know” was a clubhouse declaration, a secret handshake, written not to invite listeners but to distinguish between those who belonged and those who didn’t. For Paul Wall, knowing about “chunkin’ a deuce” was like pronouncing “shibboleth” with an “h.” It proved he was trill or, to the initiated, true and real.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtwJvgPJ9xw

Music video by Chamillionaire performing Ridin’. (C) 2005 Universal Records a division of UMG Recordings Inc.

Not so for Chamillionaire, who seems made for mass appeal. He’s handsome and personable. He performed for American troops following the Fort Hood massacre last year. His first big radio hits, “Ridin’” and “Turn It Up,” weren’t willfully esoteric or Texas-specific; they were just classic, catchy pop songs. Chamillionaire acted as an ambassador for the Houston scene, not just an embodiment of it, which explains why he became its breakout star and Wall remains a devotee’s secret favorite.

Staying local has its rewards, as proved by Houston’s pioneering duo UGK. They were signed to Jive Records in 1992, but the label never really invested in them. While some of their former label mates sunk into obscurity (remember Whodini?), UGK’s surviving MC, Bun B, has had one of the longest careers in hip-hop by catering to Texas fans. It’s a model Wall has clearly studied. He may have smaller record sales than Chamillionaire, but he’s maintained underground appeal. Chamillionaire, meanwhile, has become the biggest-selling ringtone artist of all time. What will Texas fans think of him after all the national media attention dies away? Hard to say. In the meantime, you can count on both MCs to provide a heavy dose of synthesized string hooks, beats slower than I-10 traffic at rush hour, and the shiniest teeth you’ll ever lay eyes on. That’s how they do things in Houston.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.