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Houston’s hip-hop prince goes low-key and finds himself on top of the charts—and the world!
By Marc Lee

So what happened to the guy with the scary gold teeth and the menacing stare? Turns out Chamillionaire, Houston’s Grammy-winning hip-hop artist whose 2005 disc The Sound of Revenge was an international hit, has found out there’s more to life than gold, girls and grilles. For instance, there’s bowling.

Whenever he’s not on the road, he likes to head out to Jillian’s on Katy Freeway and roll a few frames. “My partner, Ernest, got me into it,” he says. “I never bowled before, but the first time out I threw four strikes. Ernest was like, ‘Are you sure you’ve never bowled?’ So now I’m kind of addicted to it.”

Cham, who also goes by the “Mixtape Messiah” and several other monikers, has just put the finishing polish on his second record, Ultimate Victory, which is scheduled for release later this month. He grew up in the Acres Homes area, splitting time between his parents’ houses. And, as with most kids his age who grew up in disenfranchised urban areas, hip-hop isn’t just music, but a culture — more importantly, a way out of the ‘hood.

In his teens, he cut mixtapes at Houston’s Swishahouse Records, collaborating with other Houston rappers, like the also soon-to-befamous Paul Wall. He and Wall hawked the tapes on the street, in clubs and from the car. Eventually all that paid off; hip-hop fans passed around the mixes and found that Cham’s style—steeped in the relaxed beats of the Dirty South, intelligently humorous and lyrical—spoke to them.

“He can rap about all the usual stuff, but he has wit and twists it and turns it so it really means something,” says Matt Sonzala, whose Damage Control radio show on KPFT and HoustonSoReal blog explore the city scene. “He’s got a good voice and character. He’s a great representative for Houston.”

You can see a good example of that in the combined videos for “Hip-Hop Police” and “Evening News,” which are all over YouTube. The issue-oriented songs deal with what Chamillionaire sees as the failure of the hip-hop industry as it’s grown from an edgy underground movement to full-blown, sell-out pop music—and governmental and corporate hypocrisy. Subjects not usually taken on in mainstream hip-hop.

“I’ve always been into issues,” Cham says. “Rappers will get into the studio and talk about them, but they never do anything on record with it. I decided I had to do it. This is our format, and those things should be said.” It all sounds deadly serious, but there’s always a sharply humorous current running through the tracks—the “Evening News” video presents Cham as a middle-age white broadcaster with a bad rug, while a news crawler shows headlines like “Flava Flav Enrolls in Harvard.”

Upcoming tour dates, still unconfirmed, will likely bring him back through H-Town. “When I’m there, I’m there to relax,” he says. “People sometimes try to get me to go to the clubs, but I’m at a club every single night. If I go, I like to hit the clubs on Main Street, where I can walk from club to club. I’d rather just knock out the whole thing at once.”

If he’s not hiding out at home, he spends time at his custom car shop, Fly Rydes, on the north side with Ernest, and maybe reflects on where this whole journey has taken him. “Ultimate Victory is sort of a continuation of the first album, where I was going around and getting revenge on everybody. But now I understand that living life the way you want to is the real ultimate victory.”

How’s that for throwing a strike?