"If you ain’t from Texas this ain’t the place to be because we’re burning this motherfucker down!” shouted Doughbeezy, the otherwise relentlessly friendly Houston rapper, at a recent show. He looked out over the crowd before him with the steady, combative gaze of a practiced performer. He was playing a larger, South-centric showcase called “Welcome to tha South” at South by Southwest, a time when the music industry as a whole fills Austin with the desperate sprawl of corporate sponsorship and mindless networking. Despite the presence of outsiders, there was a surplus of UT burnt ochre and hands throwing up the state’s longhorn symbol. And a lot of people seemed to know his songs. Like, maybe more than for Que or Ty Dolla $ign, artists on the bill with national radio hits. Most of the people there might have been from Texas—a mixed blessing given the setting.
Back in 2008, VICE released Peter Beste’s photo book, True Norwegian Black Metal. Thanks to Satan, the book was a runaway success. So much so that we asked Peter to help us make a film of the same name about Norway’s “most hated man,” Gorgoroth frontman, Gaahl. Having documented the insular black metal scene with more honesty and access than anyone before or since, Peter started up another long-term project—the documentation of Houston’s similarly tight-knit hip-hop community.
After nine years of work, his project is now a book called Houston Rap. We called Peter to talk about Houston, the media misrepresentation of hip-hop culture, Black Power, and just how much the black metal scene has in common with the guns, sizzurp, and DIY ethics of the Texas rap world.
VICE: Hi, Peter. I remember seeing some of the photos from Houston Rap years ago. This must have been a really long-term project for you, right?
Peter Beste: It’s been really long. I started shooting in 2004 and have been planning it since about 2000. The book was originally going to come out a few years ago, but there were a variety of holdups with the publishing process. Having to wait allowed us more time to get deeper into the community, and in retrospect I’m really glad that we did have that extra time. The book would have been more surface level if we released it early, and I think this extra time allowed us to get much deeper into the topics and release a truly unique book.
Was it difficult to gain trust and get access? Did it contribute to how long the book took to make?
That was a small factor, but I was really fortunate because I was immediately introduced to the right folks back in 2004, like Dope E from the Terrorists, K-Rino, and members of Street Military. These guys have immense respect in the hood and were willing to bring me around, introduce me to people, and essentially vouch for me.
Lean On Me: Instagram’s Codeine Kingpin Sent Me Emoji Death Threats
As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.
There is an Atlanta-based drug dealer who is convinced I ripped him off for at least a few pints of Actavis-brand prescription cough syrup—a potent mixture of codeine and promethazine. You and I know it as “lean” or “drank.”
I’ve never consumed lean. I’ve never met this dealer. I’ve never even been to Atlanta.
This entire “encounter” took place on Instagram, where hundreds of accounts are selling lean, weed, and a variety of prescription pills in a virtual open-air drug market. Many of these accounts aren’t even private.
Remember Silk Road? That mysterious, deep-web drug market? (Which, by the way, was recently shut down and seized by the United States government) It’s kind of like that, but on the same iPhone app that you use to take a photo of your brunch. The same app that Facebook bought for a billion dollars, or roughly 2.85 million pints of Actavis, the leading lean brand.
They sell it, often overnight it, and you can text them your order.
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Lean, Oil, Mud, Texas Tea, Dirty Sprite, Drank, Sizzurp—the archetypal Styrofoam cup filled with purple liquid you’re picturing is a cocktail of promethazine and codeine, mixed with Sprite, and garnished with a Jolly Rancher. Lean is often touted by rappers and, like hip-hop itself, it took off in an isolated area (Houston) and propagated itself outwardly. H-Town luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C championed the stuff—and they also died from overdoses.
And, recently, everything is purple. Houston-based rapper Fat Tony—who claims to never drink lean himself—says, “[Lean] has a long history of being associated with rap music because of DJ Screw and Houston music, but now, it’s so popular now because every rap song mentions lean.” The 25-year-old continues, “Look at the top 20 tapes on like livemixtapes and I guarantee that every one of them has several lean mentions, whether it’s a Lil Wayne tape, a Jeremih tape, a Chief Keef tape, a Migos tape, a Rich Homie Quan tape, a Kevin Gates tape, an A$AP tape, or TDE artists like Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul—even Odd Future artists like Mellowhype. It’s more popular in rap music than I’ve ever seen it before.”
A Weird Hotel in Houston Is Freaking Reddit Out
Last week, Reddit’s internet detectives swarmed on a subreddit for Houston, Texas after a user called Joelikesmusic posted a mysterious thread asking insiders what the deal was with a bizarre room at the localHotel ZaZa. As you can see in the picture above, the decor in room 322 errs more on the deeply unsettling, Jodorowsky side of a “comfortable, welcoming hotel experience,” with sinister paintings hanging above a concrete floor, what looks like a two-way mirror next to a bed that’s chained to the wall, and a portrait of Stanford Financial Group president Jay Comeaux overlooking the whole distressing tableau.
The room was accidentally booked for Joelikesmusic’s work colleague, who was then supposedly told that room 322 wasn’t meant to be booked at all. And it’s not difficult to see why—it looks like a snuff movie location. But despite the room being an absolute creep-fest, Kyra Coots, the Houston ZaZa’s head of e-marketing, told the Houseton Chronicle that—like the other themed rooms ZaZa prides itself on—the “Hard Times” room is just a “kooky” take on yet another theme: jail.
Being the internet, people have started to throw around entirely unfounded conclusions about room 322, based on wild speculations they’ve made about things they can ascertain from the photographs.
THE THEORIES ABOUT THE PICTURES ON THE WALL
Some think they’ve linked Stanford’s Jay Comeaux to ZaZa President Benji Homsey, suggesting they could’ve been in the same or related fraternity chapters at university. Comeaux went to Louisiana State University, home of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity and the secretive frat, “the Friars.”
The goal of the Friars is apparently to resurrect DKE’s “Zeta Zeta” chapter—could the name ZaZa itself be a reference to this? Is Benji Homsey the “Benny H.” whose signature is on another of the room’s portraits?
THE THEORIES ABOUT THE ROOM NUMBERS
Others have connected Comeaux and the Friars to the elite Yale Skull and Bones Society, which counts ex-presidents George Bush Jr. and his dad as members. The number 322 is supposedly relevant to the group, as well as the skulls and bones littering the room.
There are websites that claim the Skull and Bones Society dates back to 1832, when it “paid obeisance to Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence, who took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes in 322 BC.” The number 322 is also thought to reference the club’s founding in America after originally being established in Germany, it being the second chapter—1832 - 2. Writer on the occult Nick Farrell told me the numbers refer to “Hebrew geomatria—each letter is a number so you can add up numbers to make words; 322 means any of these. It depends on the context, but ‘lamb’ would be a common one and ‘man’ another, but it could also be the number of a demon.”