Declaring himself the “first motherfucker with a record out of Houston” in retrospect on “5th Ward,” Raheem was likely referring to “Car Freak,” the first Ghetto Boys single from 1987. While some (K-Rino for instance) might disagree when it comes to singles, a case could be made for “The Vigilante” as the first Houston rap album, but don’t take my word for it. There are enough reasons why it is a crucial release either way.
In a feature on the HoustonSoReal blog, K-Rino recalled: “Down here when nobody gave us any respect, they looked at us as country and thought nobody could possibly make it from Houston. J. Prince put it on his shoulders and said ‘Forget a major label’ and eventually made them have to come to him. That’s why Houston is like it is now. There’s no other market in hip-hop that has support for independent labels like we have down here. That’s what makes us unique cause other markets focus on getting a deal. We come independent, then work our way up to the deal.”
Interestingly, at the time “The Vigilante” was released, Rap-A-Lot Records was on the verge of partnering with a potent major, similarly to Cold Chillin’ or Def Jam in New York. The label released four albums in 1988, the other three being the Ghetto Boys’ “Making Trouble,” Def IV’s “Nice and Hard” and Royal Flush’s “Uh Oh!” The latter two, both East Coast groups, were signed because A&M Records had offered Rap-A-Lot a package deal that included four artists and the upstart label at the time apparently wasn’t able to provide four Houston rap acts. Then, according to the book ‘Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide,’ in a curious twist of fate ’17-year old Raheem got too drunk before a listening party and managed to blow the entire deal.’ As annoying as that might have been back then, it seems to have motivated Rap-A-Lot to foster local artists and do business independently.
So in its own humble way “The Vigilante” can be considered a watershed moment for southern rap because the bold first step was also a misstep. The inexperience of all involved cannot be ignored. But lack of experience doesn’t necessarily lead to bad results. Raheem and his producers Karl Stephenson and James Smith get creative with a blend of samples and original instrumentation. They get assistance on three tracks from a certain Davy D, who in all likeliness was Queens producer David Reeves AKA Davy DMX.
They hit an early peak with “Dance Floor,” which rides the bassline from Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Trucking” while adding sweeping funk organs to a surprisingly well arranged beat that isn’t structured like your typical late ’80s rap track but still slams. “All in the industry want a new dance tune,” Raheem observes, but he rather dances around opponents, “never wearin’ a smile,” “gettin’ physical, cause that’s the way it’s done.” “Dance Floor” has been identified as dissing L.L. Cool J and Eazy-E. “Jack the Ripper’s a punk / I never liked you, sucker, and your records stunk” and another line in “Punks Give Me Respect” confirms the grudge against Cool J, but in the second case he doubtlessly meant local rival Prince Ezzy-E, who would later be the lead rapper of Raheem’s label mates O.G. Style and fire back on “Catch ‘Em Slippin.”
Lyrically, Raheem alternates between bragging, battling and storytelling. His vocabulary is mostly clean, lending subtance to the occasional ‘motherfucker.’ There’s not an instance where you’d be led to believe the young man needed any help writing his lyrics. In fact he generally lives up to the following self-description from “You’re the Greatest”: “I’m a ghetto boy, a knucklehead with only one thought in my mind / that’s to be the deffest rapper with the coldest rhyme.” “You’re the Greatest” may be a second-rate ’80s rap ballad, but it’s still a good songwriting effort that takes into account Raheem’s youth.
Still he doesn’t exactly break new ground. “Freak to Me” starts out as a typical scorned rapper tale when he describes how his love interest gives him the cold shoulder: “She wants a brother with the money and I ain’t got none (…) Tried to talk up on the action and the girl said: (Please!) / and gave me looks like she had terror like I had a disease.” He goes as far as denying his profession (“[She] hated rappers with a passion, so I said I sang”), but all the while plans getting back at her. The inevitable payback shows a rather nasty side of Raheem. The following “I’m Mackin'” isn’t much different, again incorporating freaky female vocal bits and ending with women being sexually exploited (this time even a drug addict). If you ever happen to look for expletive-free but still sexually explicit pimp talk with hints of early Fresh Prince, look no further.
Let’s not forget that Raheem has also positive messages, which he presents in cautionary tales (mostly about drugs) on “Peace” and “Say No.” The latter contains some nice Jamaican grooves for the Vigilante to handle. He goes all out for the dancehall vibe with “Punks Give Me Respect,” where he engages in flippant bad boy talk: “Beat the shit out a fag, snatch an old lady’s bag / and make an auctioneer stutter cause I’m so bad / I’m a musical genius, you’re a disco duck / you ain’t servin’ no purpose, boy, so what the fuck?”
While “Punks Give Me Respect”‘s break consists of a hypeman yelling over guitars rock-rap style, “Shotgun” is another standard ’80s adaption of rock that processes guitars in all kinds of twisted ways. But what starts out as routine slowly turns into a monster jam that sounds exactly as bold and futuristic as intended. On the mic, Raheem shows just as much foresight with his description of rap artists getting jerked:
“You know the time, yo, it’s time to think Rap-A-Lot
And all you other crews, this is what you got:
A pocket full of money, you were screwed on the contract
I read the same one, look boy, read that
Percentage a small one, you better look, son
But now you signed – real dumb, real dumb
Managers laughing, teeth are chattering
You’re all alone with the record that’s shattering
Hittin’ every city on stage lookin’ pretty
flirtin’ with the girls, actin’ so hot seditty
Party people waitin’ for your boss to unfold you
That’s just publicity, that’s what they told you
Laughin’ in your face actin’ friendsy-friendsy
You’re on the subway, me in a Benzi
Rappin’ on your records like you’re really paid in full
all the time you’re as hungry as a pitbull”
Trumping expectations as well, “Venom” (the name of his DJ) isn’t your average ’88 DJ track either, but rather an uptempo beat collage aiming for the dancefloor. While “You’re on Notice” samples the ‘Batman’ theme, the most old school Raheem song has to be the title track. The ’86/’87 East Coast influence is felt from the beginning when he belts, “The true motherfucker, lord of all written’s back / so pledge allegiance to your pop, the one who taught you rap” over cutting and stripped down drums, but the real treat is the break with its ringing gunshots and cinematic synths. Between this and a handful of Schoolly D and Ice-T songs it doesn’t get more gangster as far as rap tracks from the ’80s go.
Several surprisingly strong tracks notwithstanding, “The Vigilante” just doesn’t quite fit together. He disses the rapper he bears the most resemblance to and then samples the man a couple of songs later. He’s about to put his city on the map but not once mentions Houston, only the 5th Ward. He’s “bad as Al Pacino,” “comin’ like Tyson,” “rap’s gladiator” and “the Ghetto Boy on attack” but rolls with a dude named Ralph the Enforcer to handle the dirty work (see “Shotgun” and “You’re on Notice”). Then again one has to admit that Raheem Bashawn unleashes his “16 years of fury” in a convincing manner and comes harder than a lot of grown rappers.
In 1988, Raheem’s claim that the Ghetto Boys were “the hardest posse ever to hit charts” was still only a prediction. At this point the fate of Rap-A-Lot was up in the air. It’s easy to imagine that the four albums released that year made James Smith think hard about how to really get things moving in this rap biz and then act quickly. With Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill he found three characters that were guaranteed to attract attention and from 1989 on those three (together with well chosen in-house producers) laid the foundation for the powerhouse that would be Rap-A-Lot Records. If anything, “The Vigilante” offers insight into a time of transition for small rap labels who were suddenly offered the chance to put out albums. Even local listeners were bound to be confused hearing Raheem refer to himself as a ‘ghetto boy’ but not spotting him on “Making Trouble.” And even though Raheem’s debut sounds more up-to-date than the one from the regrouped Ghetto Boys, the seeds of Rap-A-Lot’s success were planted elsewhere.