Houston is a mecca for all kinds of music

Cactus Music in Houston, Texas, is the place to find everything from hip-hop to Tejano, Jimi Hendrix posters and musically themed lunchboxes, as well ...
Super Happy Fun Land, an organic music and performance venue in Houston, dubs itself'a bizarre yet charming and laid back place to hang out and have f...

Cactus Music in Houston, Texas, is the place to find everything from hip-hop to Tejano, Jimi Hendrix posters and musically themed lunchboxes, as well ...

Super Happy Fun Land, an organic music and performance venue in Houston, dubs itself'a bizarre yet charming and laid back place to hang out and have f...

This is a city's city: standing proud, happy and bright at the center with a rugged ring around the middle. Traffic never seems to end; people never seem to sleep; and zoning seems to be nonexistent. Houston literally hums.
That's never more apparent than when speaking with its residents. Each one has a particular favorite place to go, a place that usually involves the universal equalizer: music.
From what might be the nation's oldest recording studio to a world-class family business, music seems to be at the heart of the city, steadfastly holding the populace together. Still, most residents seem surprised that anyone outside their hometown has bothered to notice.
"What an amazing array of extremely talented artists here in any genre you could name," says Chris Gray, music editor of the weekly Houston Press. "And everybody around here knows it. ... But we kind of like that it's a secret. At the same time, we'd like some of those people to get the success and recognition they deserve."
Houston has the usual offerings: There's the House of Blues downtown and other concert venues such as the Toyota Center and nightclub-music hall Boondocks, where hometown bluesman Lil Joe Washington plays every Tuesday night.
Gray lists other offerings: The Westheimer Block Party, put on by his paper, is on hiatus, but there's Summerfest in June and the International Festival in April.
The biggest venue is probably the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which has top-tier music acts for its annual, almost monthlong run in March.
But Houston's music scene, known as the home of chopped and screwed (a music production technique), Rap-A-Lot Records and Beyonce, is about so much more than that. Free your mind, says Moe Ramsey, a musician and self-described activist who was getting ready to take in a show at Super Happy Fun Land.
"A lot of the music industry hasn't embraced all walks of life, all ideology. Rap is one of our main musical exports and some pop-rock," he says. "Music execs say, 'I know what kids like.' Right now, what's in is what sells."
Ramsey's standing amid a new art installation at Super Happy Fun Land, just outside downtown. Super Happy Fun Land looks like it sounds: The Halloween and Christmas decorations co-exist next to fliers for music at that space and elsewhere.
Amid theater seating in part of the warehouselike space, a Raggedy Ann display and other mismatched seating - old couches, a rocking chair, bar stools, a tricycle - some men have started drumming. Soon, a piano player joins in. A little girl runs back and forth, squealing every now and then.
"It must be nice to be in a place where you can actually encourage that," one patron said as he watched the proceedings. One could only nod.
Super Happy Fun Land will celebrate its seventh anniversary at the end of March. It's the second year in this space.
"We are artists and musicians. We had a small coffeehouse, and we had an open mike. We were looking for a place where we can play music. We were kind of looking for a studio," says co-owner Brian Arthur.
"In the first month, we had like maybe five shows. By the third month, we had 20. We enjoyed having a free kind of environment. We really see ourselves as kind of a community center."
Super Happy Fun Land isn't open unless it has a show. Luckily, it's open almost every night. That provides a haven for Cody Greenwood, 21, who plays in several bands.
"There are lots of bands that don't fit into the punk-rock or the indie scene. A lot of musicians in Houston play in more than one band. It's like we're on a raft in the middle of the ocean," Greenwood says. "This is our raft in the middle of the ocean."
Not far from Super Happy Fun Land, but light-years away in some respects, stands the headquarters of Music World Entertainment. Presided over by Mathew Knowles, it's a family business. And business is good. Not least because this company and the family behind it are part of the community, and Houston itself informs everything it does.
"They've never forgotten what Houston means to them and the support they've gotten from the beginning," Music World COO John Cawley says while sitting in his office upstairs in the old Rice Mansion. "We are successful because we give back."
By now, even if you aren't a fan of the genre, you know bits of the story: Mathew Knowles quit his high-ranking sales job to manage his daughter Beyonce's career. The lesson: Some gambling is good. The artist roster includes another daughter, Solange, who has just been named a spokeswoman for Rimmel London cosmetics; gospel music trio Trinitee 5:7; and Destiny's Child.
In-house producers the Bama Boyz were the architects of house parties that brought together the musical community in the past. They sought to bring in local artists who wouldn't normally meet and greet - and play. Once, they brought in the top five indie bands in Houston. Other times, they opened the doors to dance crews, people in fashion and singers.
Next? Opening for tours and a concept Cawley calls a "Music World Monster Bash." His plan is to bring in different genres with a big-name act included, children's activities and comedic acts for each weekend, starting in May and going through July.
Cawley talks about a grand connection to people. Some of that connection is obvious: The very stylish, very hip House of Dereon Media Center on the grounds hosts everything from bar mitzvahs to reunions. It used to be a storage facility for Destiny's Child's tour costumes.
"When we do something, we always think of something else to do with it. We're going to now take our resources and platforms to bring in a festival-type atmosphere," Cawley said.
Music World Entertainment is full of bright eyes. Says producer-songwriter John Wells of the Bama Boyz, after playing a particularly catchy song that I'm sure you'll be listening to soon: "Music is inspirational. I think we all get fed one from another. We feed the community."
Do you see it yet? Diversity is the norm. So says Dan Workman, co-owner and president of SugarHill Recordings, located in Houston's notorious Third Ward and "where Freddy Fender cut all of his hit records."
Houston has solid music history, according to Workman: It's at the farthest southern point of the blues belt; Telephone Road was the hotbed of the R&B scene, and SugarHill was right in the middle.
"Houston is now very diverse. Most cities are known for one thing," Workman says. "Houston's gone through a lot of transformations: R&B, soul, psychedelic rock was born here, ZZ Top, gangsta rap.
"Houston has done so many things so well that it's never had one thing that could characterize it."
Workman lists more artists in more genres: Blue October, Clay Walker, the Hometown Boys, a burgeoning avant-garde jazz scene. "People who even live here don't realize how diverse it is," he says.
SugarHill Recording Studios is down a small road, past a bunch of houses with some serious security fences. There's one completely around the studio grounds, really just a concrete parking lot. One thing it's not is palatial.
"There's stuff built on top of stuff on top of stuff," Workman says. "It's like an archaeological site."
Indeed. There are signed photos of artists who have recorded at SugarHill. The soundstage of one studio was part of the house that was once there; the kitchen area now is a drum booth. There are platinum record plaques (Destiny's Child, Beyonce - again) and a proclamation from Houston's mayor declaring Feb. 13 in Houston as Dan Workman Day.
"The photos on the walls speak a lot louder than any brags we could make," Workman says. "I stayed in Houston and didn't go to L.A. or New York. I got to be somebody here in my hometown, and that's something special."
If SugarHill is like an archaeological site, then the big find is a cold room behind Workman's art-laden office. It's the tape vault, where you can look at the track scripts that list what was recorded each day and what instruments were used, and you can hold the original recordings from blues legend Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Barbara Lynn. There's also a small room built right into the wall where they would go to make sound effects such as reverb, before machines could do it all.
And there are the stories. The term zydeco was coined right there in Studio A when Hugh Moe misunderstood a song's name ("Zologo") and wrote it down as "zydeco." In another, Mathew Knowles called one day to find out what Destiny's Child had been working on. "Bootylicious," Workman told him. Knowles immediately said, "No, no, no." The song went on to become one of the group's biggest hits.
SugarHill also has a hand in music all over Houston. It sponsors a battle of the bands for Bel-Aire Men's Club, works with Workshop Houston, did an instrument drive for Galveston after a hurricane. And SugarHill would love to start a music festival.
"I would love for a hip-hop act to open for a Tejano band," Workman says.
Cactus Music is the place to find everything from hip-hop to Tejano. On this Saturday, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers are singing a sad little lament on a small stage in the store. The band from Massachusetts is surrounded by physical manifestations of music, including a banner that reads, "We love Houston music."
Here at Cactus, you can buy a Jimi Hendrix poster, the CD to match and possibly the vinyl. You can also buy "House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios," a new book by Andy and Roger Wood (University of Texas Press, US$34.95). There are new and used box sets and CDs, T-shirts and musically themed lunchboxes. The people, some lining up for free beer, are there to listen.
"Though Houston's never lost touch with its roots, it's not stuck in the past," says Gray, who became music editor at the Houston Press in 2007. "We're enjoying what we're doing so much that we're not really worrying what people think about it.
"It's almost irrelevant."
SugarHill Recording Studios, 5626 Brock St. The studio was started in 1941. On the day I was there, a Christian rock band was setting up. Check out Live From SugarHill at Contact:
Music World Entertainment, 1505 Hadley St. The grounds have studios that include rehearsal space. There are plans to start giving tours. Contact:
Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. I bought Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full, a Stevie Ray Vaughan compilation and a gag gift. Contact:
Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk St. This hippie-influenced hangout was featured in Spin magazine as a top night spot and in the Houston Press as the best night venue for local artists. The food is cooked in an adjoining room, and they ask only for donations. Sometimes there's ice cream. Contact:
Houston touring and events: 1-800-446-8786;
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: 832-667-1000;
Houston Press:

Updated : 2021-04-18 10:36 GMT+08:00