“Purple drink, I still sip. Purple weed, blunt still lit.
Real n**ga, real b**ch, Purple swag, that Trill sh*t.
Them candy cars, I’m comin’ down. That paint drip, I still tip.”
If I were teaching a class on hip hop lyrical structure, with a focus on Southeast Texas street culture, those three bars would be in bold letters on the front page of the syllabus. A picture perfect sample of Houston rap. Rhythm, rhyme and tone, they are pure h-town. Only they’re not.
A$AP Rocky raps those words in his 2011 track, “Purple Swag”.
And he’s not from Texas at all. He’s from Harlem.
Yeah… that Harlem … in New York.
Rocky’s artistic liberties in the production of “Purple Swag” (really his entire discography) as well as artistic liberties taken by other artists as Drake, Future, and Migos, have been criticized in the Houston rap scene as cultural plagiarism. They have also been praised, for helping to elevate a once obscure and disrespected subculture to mainstream recognition. What is certain is that these artists have borrowed heavily from a musical tradition that they may or may not fully understand or appreciate. So who is A$AP? A shameless hack, profiting from a culture that he knows very little about? Or is he a true fan of the art, spreading love for the music that shaped his personal aesthetic?
To understand the rise of Houston rap culture, one must understand what this culture was 20 years ago. From its earliest days in the 1980’s, and well into the late 90’s, whatever Hip Hop scene existed in Houston, existed only in Houston. This was well before the days of social media and YouTube, when music styles were much more regional; and hip hop was dominated by east and west. Southern rap was viewed by mainstream audiences and hip hop intellectuals as far too slow, simple, country. But that didn’t bother the pioneers of the Third Coast. Artists like DJ Screw, Big Moe, Scarface, and Big H.A.W.K. were not interested in national acclaim or mainstream acceptance. They steered clear of east/west hostilities and made music that fit their lifestyle, their world view. They sold it tape by tape, friend to friend, until a movement was born. Today’s hip hop charts are adorned with the lasting legacy of these and other Texas artists. Every screwed up hook and “hold up” ad lib is a testament to their influence. I speak only for myself when I say that I view these acts as tokens of respect. Art is about inspiration. Whatever inspires an artist will undoubtedly shine through in their work. But it’s not all love.
Paul Wall admits that the imitation of Houston Hip Hop, “comes with the territory.” But he believes that far too many artists are stealing from the culture without permission. Particularly when it comes to drinking lean, which he regards as the cornerstone of Houston hip hop. In his opinion, those mainstream artists rapping about lean and candy paint, are not UGK aficionados or DJ Screw fanatics. They are little more than “culture vultures”, stealing another city’s creativity.
Paul’s harsh criticism is not without merit. Rappers like Future and Migos (both from Atlanta) have practically made a career out of lean references, slow beats, and distorted vocals. Yet they do not credit the city and artists that popularized such trends. The word “trill”, which holds significant cultural importance to the Third Coast, has long been popular in Northern California. Most bay area rappers credit their region as the home of trill, a word invented in Port Arthur, Texas and popularized by UGK. This cultural appropriation is understandably frustrating to someone like Paul Wall; an OG of Houston Hip Hop. Someone who has been making trill music for longer than some young rappers have been alive. To trailblazers like him, and to the fans that have long supported their local musicians, the mainstreaming of their culture is as much as source of pride as it is a slap in the face.
To set the record straight, I am a huge A$AP Rocky fan. Mainly because he gives proper credit. Rocky is a true admirer of Houston rap and credits much of his sound and style to the artists that paved the way. I believe no one outside of Houston better represents the city and it’s music. Sadly that is not the case for most who bite Houston’s culture. It’s true that some of the world’s greatest art comes from collaboration. Imitation is a tradition as old as art itself. However, within an art form that values originality and regional pride above all else, there is no crime greater than cultural theft. Nothing could be less trill.