Rock vs. Rap: Who Really Ruled H-Town?

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The early to mid-'90s were good times for underground music in Houston. At clubs like the Axiom, the Vatican and Fitzgerald's, an eclectic mix of punk, metal, funk and ska bands like deadhorse, Sprawl and more regularly played packed shows in front of 500+ fans.

Much has changed since, but those of us who were stuck in junior-high detention back then are in luck. A fascinating new documentary called "When We Ruled H-Town," co-directed by J. Schneider from bong-toting rockers Taste of Garlic, takes a nostalgic look back at those heady days in the pre-Napster era when it seemed inevitable that someone, ANYONE from Houston's thriving underground rock scene would blow up big nationally and put the city on the map. That scenario never quite happened, but it wasn't for lack of talent. Check out the film's premiere on Thursday to learn more.

There was much more bubbling up from the underground in Houston in the early '90s than just rock, of course. The Geto Boys were helping to kick off the rise of Dirty South hip-hop, and DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click were hard at work twisting rap in an incredible new psychedelic direction. Ask anyone about Houston's musical legacy of the past 20 years, and these names are bound to pop up.

There wasn't a lot of overlap between the rock and hip-hop scenes, but that's not to say there was none at all, according to Schneider.

"Taste of Garlic had rappers come play with us," he says. "We'd have a bunch of rock bands play and then we'd have a rap act. In fact, Spunk, on their CD, had the DJ for Geto Boys scratch on one of their songs. I remember when we were nominated for Houston Press Music Awards, we went and we got to see the Geto Boys there.

"We were like, "Whoa, it's Bushwick Bill," you know?

"Our band had punk, funk, rap and rock all kind of infused. It was a big mix of every kind of music that we played with, and weren't scared to include rappers."

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That's as may be, but Rocks Off wanted to know who really ruled H-town in the early '90s: The rockers or the rappers. For answers, we turned to Julie Grob, Coordinator of Digital Projects & Instruction for Special Collections for the University of Houston Libraries.

These days, Julie plays an important role in documenting the city's musical history by overseeing the library's amazing H-town hip-hop collection, which includes the DJ Screw Sound Recordings -- Screw's personal collection of vinyl that was used to create his legendary "chopped and screwed" mixtapes.

From 1989 to 1991, however, Grob worked at the Axiom, a central hub of Houston rock, eventually becoming the club's co-manager. In charge of booking the club for a time, she witnessed the rise of the city's '90s rock scene as the crowds for local acts began to grow.

"The biggest crowds were undoubtedly for deadhorse," she says. "Their shows would just be a sea of wall-to-wall people banging their heads. The Axiom had no air conditioning, so that could get pretty interesting.

"Some of the biggest bands, like Sprawl and deadhorse, also sold out larger clubs," she adds," but they were loyal enough to keep playing the Axiom because they got their starts there."

Given her firsthand knowledge of Houston's '90s rock scene as well as her growing expertise on the city's hip-hop history, Grob seemed the perfect person to give us a few answers as to which camp truly reigned supreme back in the day.

The verdict?


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5 comments
MattSonzala
MattSonzala

Also lemme be clear, 90% of the rappers in that era didn't make much noise outside of Texas until way later either. We had a special thing going in the 90s for sure.

MattSonzala
MattSonzala

Man I wish I was in Texas this week I'd definitely come down for this. As a person who participated in both scenes for a good part of the 90s I'd definitely say that the rap stuff was "bigger" but the reason the two can and should be compared and contrasted is that Houston was a city that really supported its own. Most of the bands in When We Ruled H-Town (I saw a screener last year) never made much noise outside of Houston. But they all went out there and tried and what they didn't get nationally was more than made up for at home. I can remember being shocked at how many fans some of these bands had at their shows and some of them would play every week, maybe more than that! It was pretty insane to see. Houston definitely supported Houston. And that to me is what really made that era special for indie rock and indie rap.

 

Those days were super dope. Seeing everyone in the scene literally on a daily basis practicing at Francisco Studios and then out almost every night in the clubs, that was a super fun time. I used to go to a punk show at the Axiom and leave there at 1:30 am and hit a club on the north side or south side knowing the acts there wouldn't start until 2am. It was quite a time. Wish I could be there this weekend...

H_e_x
H_e_x

 @NathanSmith  @H_e_x I'm honestly surprised that the first hit is a review from the New York Times. I have got to say I didn't expect that.

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