The car-hopping contest is in full bounce at the Low-rider show in San Antonio, Texas's Alamo Dome. Tricked out Chrysler LeBarons and Toyota mini-trucks with bionic hydraulic systems compete to see whose front end can hop the highest, or shimmy the most erratically from tire to tire without busting an axle. The audience--lots of women in dark lip liner and tight skirts and men with tattoos in white tank tops--watch from behind the safety of thin plastic cordoning tape, while in the back of the venue, crowds browse through a vast showroom of prize-winning lowrider cars. Texas rapper South Park Mexican (who copped his name from the Houston area he grew up in) and his posse arrive just in time to catch the tail end of the hopping contest. The rap collective will hit the venue's center stage after the bruised cars are towed away and the odd bits of bumper and grille are swept off the main floor. "That s--t's crazy," says SPM (a.k.a. Carlos Coy), smiling and nodding at a lunging Cadillac. "My people know how to party."
And these are Coy's people. Not just because the predominantly Mexican-American crowd represent la raza (the race), but because they can recite nearly every lyric off all four South Park Mexican solo albums and recognize the names of almost all 13 rappers on his family-run, Houston-based label, Dope House Records. Coy is the Southwest's most successful independent hip-hop artist and, now, the country's most prominent Mexican-American rapper/label head. "Texas loves us," says a boastful Coy. "That's how we went from making $400 a month to $40,000 a month in less than two years."
Yet there is a lot to brag about, especially since Texas seems, on the surface at least, like the last place you'd find the next big rap thing. Though the last few years have seen the rise of such non-New York or L.A. acts as the Cash Money gang from New Orleans and Eminem from Detroit, to most Americans the Lone Star State simply connotes cows, country music and more cows. Now the diverse mix of black and Hispanic culture throughout the state, and especially in Houston, has proved to be the backbone for one of the freshest rap scenes around. Clubs are booming from El Paso to Austin, but Houston is the core of the happenings. Rappers such as C-Note and Lil' O, on independent labels like Swishahouse and Sucka Free, offer a flow that's slower than their Eastern peers' and smoother than their Southern competitors'. The cadence is drawling, the beats minimal and the grooves pleasantly warped: it's a sound that can be attributed to the influence of the late DJ Screw--Houston rap's godfather figure--and the effects of the city's drug du jour, codeine cough syrup.
Though Houston rap is thriving as a whole, its woozy beats spreading across the Southwest, it's clear that South Park Mexican is now its biggest star. His first three albums on Dope House Records, opened in 1995, have sold a total of 450,000 copies on word of mouth alone. Now his new single "You Know My Name" is playing alongside Christina Aguilera on mainstream radio stations throughout the United States. He's popular with the Hispanic crowd because the 30-year-old Coy promotes a Mexican-American voice by signing Chicano rappers such as Baby Beesh, Juan Gotti and Grimm to his label. They spin "playa" tales in English and Spanish while dropping in Tex-Mex references to hynas (honeys), wings and rice and hopping hydraulics. But Coy also bandstands the likes of African-American artists Rasheed and the Hillwood Hustlers, as well as Honduran rapper Low G.
All this mixing of musical cultures and flavors comes naturally. Coy grew up and learned to rap in the predominantly black neighborhood of Hillwood in South Park, where, he says, he was the only Mexican-American around (hence the name). The son of a plumber, he claims his day job was selling dope before he focused his energy on becoming "Houston's baddest rapper." This dream culminated in his recent recording deal with Universal Records, which will release his fourth and newest album, "Time Is Money," nationwide this week. The goal: to tap the nation's largely ignored Latin rap market.
"This is not your same old chollo, lowrider s--t," says SPM protege Baby Beesh backstage at the car show, as the Dope House crew "prepares" to perform by flirting with girls and drinking Mountain Dew. "This is 2000. Young Mexicans listen to rap and want to hear something bad, some beat. That's what we're giving 'em." And judging from the crowd's response when they hit the stage, Coy and crew are clearly giving these kids what they want. The stocky, goateed SPM woos the 300-plus crowd with rhymes about his high-rolling status ("bet 50 G's on my boy La Hoya") and his newfound infamy ("you know my name: SPM"). He raps in relaxed tones, a lilting Texan drawl mixed with Chicano intonations and slang. His smooth and nasal delivery makes the regional hit "High So High" feel like a hypnotic ride down a long highway. At the short set's close, Coy announces he has a new album coming out: "When I'm done promoting it, MTV gonna stand for Mexican Television," he says. The crowd goes nuts, and the Dope House gang responds by showering them with free CDs, T shirts and posters.
After leaving the stage to shake hands with fans below, Coy remarks: "A lot of Mexican kids have low self-esteem, so I let them know that they can do more than just work like an animal for peanuts. When you watch professional sports, sitcoms or comedy shows, it's all black and white. It's like we ain't good for nothing except cleaning 100 offices a night, laying shingles on someone's roof in 108-degree heat or cooking and washing dishes, and nobody screams, claps or cheers for that." But Coy gets the major love as he works the floor. He's intensely charming, smiling wide, making direct eye contact and complimenting people whenever possible. It's clear he honed this part-salesman-part-friend approach in his early days peddling tapes and CDs at swap meets around Texas. "I didn't care if it was two old ladies who walked by my booth, I'd say, 'Hey, you got a grandson who likes rap? Take a listen!' " He signs a final few posters, and exits out a back door for the comfort of his brand-new Mercedes.
The next day at Dope House headquarters in Houston, everyone is waiting for Coy to arrive. A few guys sit on the loading dock of the cinder-block building, which would blend in with the adjacent warehouses but for a surrounding high-security fence and two white, company-owned limos in the lot. The crew of 10 will pile into one of these autos later today and take a two-hour trip to Austin to do a promotional radio interview, then play a show. But inside, the ever-stressed office manager, Madie, looks exasperated as she tries to work over the din of resounding bass from the studio and nonstop boasting from the crew ("Jennifer Lopez would go for me way before you, nigga"). Finally, Coy pulls up in the Mercedes with his brother, an ex-chemical-plant manager and now partner in Dope House (SPM also named his dad vice president and his sister general manager). He says he's late because on the way, he stopped to fill up with gas and sold another one of his CDs to a potential SPM fan at the pump. "My philosophy is that every time I sell a piece of my music, I plant a seed," says Coy back in his car, leading the way to Austin with the limo in tow. "One kid takes that back to his neighborhood, and the next thing you know, all his friends are loving it. That's how word got around really fast about SPM, and I'm not gonna stop now." And one more SPM fan is born.