“Growin’ up in P.A. I knew nobody out there talked like us
Nothin’ but that country slang, “What up dog?” “What up cuz?”
Late night you see us buzzin’ off 40s, menthol, wine and weed
Sittin’ on the back porch, gettin’ zooted, feelin’ fine indeed
Listenin’ to Eric B. & Rakim, or EPMD
Cool C and Steady B, plus that Public Enemy
Not to mention N.W.A, DJ Quik and MC Eiht
Down south we listened to it all, we didn’t discriminate
Then along came Geto Boys, Raheem, and the Royal Flush
Rap-A-Lot Records based out of Houston represents for us
O.G. Style, the Convicts, Def IV and Too Much Trouble
Odd Squad and Ganksta NIP put it down for H-Town on the double
So I said it’s time to hustle, got down with my brother C
Put together UGK, and shit, the rest is history
We make hits by the dozen, put it down when they said we wasn’t
Trust me it’s nothin’, just another day in the life of your country cousins”
(Bun B, “Country Cousins,” Talib Kweli, ’07)
Have you read the above? If you haven’t, here’s what it said. In the Port Arthur of the mid- to late 1980s a young Bernard Freeman could often be found hanging with his friends, enjoying the odd intoxicant together with the latest rap tape. They loved the music, whether it came from New York or Los Angeles, but they also realized that while they could relate to a lot of what these rappers said, they themselves might have put it a little bit differently. Eager to hear someone rap with a southern accent, they welcomed the arrival of Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, who put out hometown artists such as Raheem, Geto Boys, Convicts, and O.G. Style. Freeman in fact felt so inspired that he hooked up with his pal Chad Butler to try and get their own rap career in gear, right out of Port Arthur. Against all odds they succeeded, in the long haul establishing themselves as rap music’s country cousins.
To some, these country cousins have become too numerous in recent times. If you miss the days when the East and the West Coast had this rap shit on lock, well, now you know what it feels like to be underrepresented. But maybe in time you will realize that in these modern rap times someone is always there to represent you. And should you come to the conclusion that these people actually misrepresent you, you’re cordially invited to go out there and represent your damn self. That’s what Freeman and Butler did as Underground Kingz, and in the process they inspired others to do the same. Like another monument of southern rap, Eightball & MJG, UGK have a long memory. They might have held a grudge stemming from when mainstream hip-hop marginalized them because of their origin. But they never let that cloud their memory. They always gave it up for the artists that came before them. What’s different is that their generation created and discovered local heroes. Some of these local heroes became just as important to them as the national stars. That’s what Bun B is saying.
Every region has its rap pioneers. There is one label that since the late ’80s has acted as an excellent platform for rappers who had the unfortunate distinction of living in a city other than NY or LA. The aforementioned Rap-A-Lot Records. One of the label’s earliest full-lengths was “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” by duo O.G. Style, comprised of Eric ‘The Original E’ Woods and DJ Boss. On January 3rd 2008 Eric Woods died at age 37, two years after his former partner passed away. It wasn’t the stereotypical fast life that claimed these lives, it was kidney failure in Boss’ and a cerebral hemorrhage in E’s case. Our condolences to the families of both men, as we mourn with the Texas rap scene, who suffers the third substantial loss in three months.
The 4th Ward native’s history as a hip-hop artist goes back as far as the mid-’80s, when he was known as Prince Ezzy-E, a name he shortened to The Original E (or simply The E) when Compton’s Eazy-E emerged on the national scene. One song indicates that they might have originally been a trio going by the name of Phase 3, but in 1990 the duo debuted as O.G. Style with the single “Catch ‘Em Slippin.” Despite the song being intended as a diss directed at Raheem, O.G. Style were signed to Raheem’s label Rap-A-Lot. Although they disbanded after “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” both members remained active musicians. DJ Boss formed the group 4 Deep. Now calling himself Big Boss, he produced local artists and released instrumental projects such as HYJNX and Funky Products, and is credited for providing the groundwork for UGK’s classic song “One Day.” The Original E meanwhile adopted O.G. Style as his new alias and became involved with broadcasting. He returned in 2001 with “I Still Know How to Play ‘Em” and an online artist platform that produced a series of mixtapes, before releasing his third album, “Return of da Game,” in 2005.
In the Rap-A-Lot catalog, “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” is one of the few albums that don’t rely on the label’s in-house producers. Both musically and lyrically it might be the closest thing to an East Coast album Rap-A-Lot put out in the ’90s. It kicks off with the compact “Intro,” a one-and-a-half-minute showcase over the thumping groove WC & The MAAD Circle rocked the same year on their album’s title track. As far as album intros that feature rapping go, this is a highly intense one that has the potential to make the listener reach for the rewind button almost too early. While the lyrical level isn’t exceptional, E plays to his strengths and displays an effortless flow and clear diction. With lines like “As I flow from the intro the party’s packed / MC’s are terrified as I ransack / State your claim, bub, join my fanclub / This ain’t a lip sync and I don’t dub / I just surpass MC’s cause it’s me they fear / Lights out, heads were dead when the smoke cleared,” E marks his territory as early as possible.
“Sucker” continues in this vein, only with a more restrained rap style that includes DJ Boss repeating each rhyme at the end of the line. The outcome would have been simple even by 1986 standards, but KRS-One has made similarly simplistic rhyme styles work. In the end, “Sucker” doesn’t reveal E’s limitations, it shows his willingness to interact with the beat (in this case slowly shuffling drums accentuated by a rolling piano) and to have some variation in his expression. At the other end of the speedometer is “The ‘E’,” a tightly woven drum track pierced by funky stabs and scratching over which the rapper displays admirable breath control. “Funky Payback” makes competent use of “Mary Jane.” “This Is How it Should Be Done” serves the expected Rakim quote over a rubbery bassline. “Kick the Ballistics” tweaks the guitar from “Kool Is Back” to accompany yet another muscular rhythm track. “Listen to the Drum” is an excellent example of a DJ setting up a challenging beat structure for his rapper to master, each of them in his way “teachin’ the use of a drum.” And then there’s the duo’s most famous cut, “Catch ‘Em Slippin,” in whose creation none other than Houston transplant DJ Premier allegedly had a hand in by providing his SP-12 sampler. Serving as the blueprint for most tracks here, “Catch ‘Em Slippin” begins with a dry but dominant drum track before a sample is worked in, in this case King Floyd’s “Groove Me” alternating with Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut.”
From the sound of it, “Catch ‘Em Slippin” was re-recorded for the album, which raises the question whether there are two versions that are significantly different. In case it called out Raheem’s name before, it didn’t on the album version, still clearly it was in response to something:
“Why don’t I just sit back
let ’em make a dumb track
Act like it’s a hype track
Play scared and don’t write back
Let him play big shot, thinkin’ that he’s real hot
All the time I be schemin’ on a big plot
Baitin’ the man till the kid gets headstrong
He’s gettin’ real souped, but yo, he’s dead wrong
I ain’t goin’ out like a sucker, no way, Jack
Time to get busy, this is my payback”
These basic battle tracks reveal a level-headed individual who considers himself “a perfectionist,” who doesn’t “believe in four-leaf clovers” and who makes sure to point out, “The rhyme style is dope but I’m sober.” The E champions virtues such as originality and experience. “This Is How it Should Be Done” sums things up as “no razzle-dazzle, just E rhymin’ over a cool drum.” That doesn’t prevent him from putting himself on a pedestal like a true MC should. He’s “the classiest act when the party is packed / Suckers step to the back, it’s the style that they lack.” He’s “not the sucker imitator with rhymes that sound conventional.” Instead it is his “intention to innovate your mind, not to waste your time.” With a “vocabulary at its peak,” he triumphs over petty performers who “make a dollar here and there,” imposing himself as a “scholar” and “poet” who’s confident that “I intrigue those who study me, not braggin’, I know it.”
If you think that doesn’t sound quite like 1991, so did probably the good people at Rap-A-Lot Records. In a year when they delivered such low blows as “We Can’t Be Stopped,” “Mr. Scarface Is Back,” or the Convicts album, “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” was going to stick out like a sore thumb. This is of course pure speculation, but it’s feasible that the label took measures to attune the album to the rest of the growing catalog. Case in point – the phrase “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” (taken from the “Catch ‘Em Slippin” hook) was (with an added exclamation mark) apparently more representative of Rap-A-Lot’s scare tactics than the album title O.G. Style announce on the record itself, “Funky Payback.”
But the most telling clue that O.G. Style might have felt pressured to toughen up are two specific tracks. While elsewhere the rare cuss words are censored in one form or another, “10 B 3” and “Power” strictly follow party line. “10 B 3” is preceeded by “Free World,” a popular skit that made it on the Convicts album and a DJ Screw mix. The main song details a prison break with plenty of casualties, while “Power” examines the “survival of the strong” in the streets, concluding, “It doesn’t matter if you’re right or in the fuckin’ wrong.” These songs don’t necessarily contradict the album’s message song, “Knowledge Is the Gift,” it’s just a completely different approach as The E goes from concerned commentator to getting his own hands dirty.
The bonus track “Ain’t We Funky,” hooking up The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby” with additional guitars, once more harkens back to more innocent times when O.G. Style were conceived as a simple MC/DJ tag-team, “funky as can be, DJ Boss and E / two individuals whose rituals are thought of highly.” But rap music had already begun to change. “We’ll be around for days, cause we’re funky,” The E would conclude “Aint We Funky,” but in 1991 being funky just wasn’t enough anymore. They tried to adapt, but for whatever reason aborted the experiment and went separate ways.
In a recent article in the Houston Chronicle reporting Eric ‘O.G. Style’ Wood’s death, fellow H-Town veteran K-Rino is quoted as saying, “He was a real lyrical rapper,” “a real skillful artist, real clever with wordplay. He had a hell of a voice and his delivery was as good as anybody’s. He was one of the best Houston ever produced. It’s a shame he was in a category of forgotten rappers. There’s a new generation coming up that don’t even know who these people are who built the foundation for what happens today. The new guys don’t mention guys like O.G. Style on BET and MTV. And then they get written out of history.” And yet as it turns out, there are many people who remember O.G. Style, whether it’s the group O.G. Style that put out the not-so-ordinary “I Know How to Play ‘Em!” or the dedicated rapper O.G. Style, who continued to contribute to the local scene until his untimely death.