The history of Los Angeles rap and Houston rap as twangy cousins dates back more than a few decades. The first rap record in the 1980s from Houston, MacGregor Park, is about a strip of land located in Southeast Houston where cars populate the scene in various hues of color, class, and distinction. The creator of MacGregor Park was a gentleman who chose the name The LA Rapper. Over on the west coast, Dr. Dre and DJ Quik’s smooth, and chirpy reworkings of funk classics relied on the funk of ‘90s Houston rap as a slick common denominator.
One notable standout in this arena was N.O. Joe’s “gumbo funk” style, which, as his name suggests, originated in New Orleans, and was heavily influenced by the gospel church. Many hip-hop disciples state of Texas, including Dallas producer Cardo, have embraced how influential California has been on Texas rap. But perhaps no one has more than LE$, a 31-year-old rapper from Louisiana who moved to Houston more than a decade ago, and in the process, perfected this particular sound.
LE$, born Lester Matthews, seems nothing like a rapper at first glimpse. He dresses comfortably in clothes stitched with his Steak X Shrimp logo. He may choose one or two accessories to set off his attire, but nothing alarming or gaudy like a blinged-out chain. His neck and arms are covered in a dark scrawl of tattoos. But his eyes, a very noticeable sunburnt brown, flicker with the charm of someone whose signature skill so far in life is to create arresting, imagery-driven rap songs. There’s “free” game, there’s wisdom, and then there is LE$ sprinkling in just enough of both to make him one of the more relatable rappers around in 2017.
For months, LE$’s profile has been on the uptick. He’s been on the scene long enough that Texas-based burger chain Whataburger used his image in a recent Instagram campaign. According to LES, the biggest get is Pappadeaux’s, the famed seafood chain. In LES’ eyes, getting free plates of the dish he models his clothing and apparel line after would be icing on the cake.
“I think they’re all dope,” he says, when I ask about the music he’s released so far. “I think E36 personally is most ‘my sh*t.’ That’s when I like, grew my little wings and wasn’t afraid to be myself and do what the f*ck I wanna do. Everything else before I was being molded by my situations.”
LE$’ rhyme schemes and patterns glide. He doesn’t have the downhill speed of an A to Z storytellers such as Maxo Kream, one of his favorite rappers in Houston and a good friend. He doesn’t have the energy of Sauce Walka, who raps like the Ultimate Warrior stuck in a phone booth. Instead, LE$ delivers raps with a subtle humor and an old school, common sense logic. He doesn’t jostle for anything too big, doesn’t spend time concerned with the crumbs of the world. His voice has a buzz to it, a hum that casually makes him a descendant of New Orleans, Houston, and Los Angeles all the same.
“I hated that jacket of ‘weed rap’ ’cause it felt like people were trying to put me in a certain box,” he says of an old, lazy label attached to his work. “That was one of the things I was afraid of when I first started out. ‘Cause I like trying different things. It used to piss me off because there are rappers that make way more weed rap songs than I ever have, but people try to take my vibe and turn it into something else. Me and Sauce Walka? We talk about the same sh*t damn near, just on different beats and in a different way. I don’t like when they try to categorize anybody, honestly.”
In a rap career that has spanned more than half a decade, he’s released over 25 proper mixtapes and albums. Some of those projects were crafted under the umbrella of Slim Thug’s Boss Hogg Outlawz camp. For a two-year stretch, many were created under Curren$y’s Jet Life imprint. Now, LE$ is his own man and has been for quite some time, however, he remains on great terms with each of his former label bosses. Curren$y, considered by some to be the most direct comparison to LE$, took the Houston rapper onto Jet Life in late 2015, and the two began working soon after that.
“Everybody wanted to look back at Jay-Z and Jaz-O and Big Daddy Kane,” he says. “Everybody had their situations where people figured out their sh*t and branched out. Rayface told me to flood the market. When the BHO situation dispersed, we all starting doing different things. Slim started Boss Life, Ray started fading away from the music, and as a new artist, I felt that I had to start something new. Make a new move.”
He laughs, “I’m happy. I think it all worked out. I still consider Slim one of my big brothers.”
Two years ago, he finally ceased releasing projects for free because he had flooded the market with, in his words, “way too much free sh*t.” Every month for almost two years, he released a new mixtape or project. With his proper debut, last summer’s Olde English, he eased up. His most recent two projects, in particular, Midnight Club and Summer Madness, are lush, spacious LA-centric rap records. Both were written and recorded in LA and solely produced by DJ Mr. Rogers.
Now, the look and feel of LE$’ music has a visual component that pops upon initial viewing. Every photo with LE$ and Rogers features them posted near tricked-out early model BMW’s with gold Dayton rims looks like a motivational poster. The music, synth-driven with little nods to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Loose Ends’ “Hanging On A String,” absorb everything beautiful and sunny about both Los Angeles and Houston. They’re the cool kids, without appearing like what LE$ casually refers to as “WWE characters.”
Most of LE$’ best work has come under the guiding hand of Rogers and fellow Houston producer Happy Perez behind the boards. LE$ and his producers understand that the bridge between both LA and Houston is the unique aspect of distance. Both are car-driven markets — most consumers in each city listen to music while driving on packed highways or out-of-the-way surface streets while avoiding traffic. Many play music to grind out their shifts at day jobs, needing distraction or motivation to hustle their way through to the weekend; that’s who LE$ aims to reach with his music.
“My biggest thing? I rap for regular n—s. I stand by that so much because I am one,” he says. “I’ve seen so much funny sh*t that if they shot something about it, it would be from a regular n—-‘s point of view. I could never have a woman randomly put a chain on me or have two chicks kiss me on the cheek. Or stand in a music video with two flaming garbage cans around me and sh*t. I’ve always been a person where it has to make sense.”
Creating the music that pushes people through dead-end shifts at jobs creates fans. Making the kind of music that makes a regular life seem dope as hell creates disciples. LE$ has both.
“It’s important to be a regular joe sometimes,” he continues. “I remember the sh*t I would listen to on the way to a 4:30 AM shift. Now it’s dudes tweeting me early in the morning saying, ‘I rode on my way to work bumping that new LE$.'”
All of this love is why he seems so relaxed inside of an art gallery on the North side of town. The night is focused around his prime videographer and photographer, Jorgey Casanova, but fans immediately recognize LE$ and take photos with him. Even as he’s being interviewed, fans still walk up and dap him up and give him verbal affirmation.
His picture is prominently displayed on the wall, a large piece where he’s riding shotgun with fellow car enthusiast and Houston rap legend Paul Wall. It later gets boxed up so that he can proudly display the photo in his Steak X Shrimp office, a midtown creative spot where Jorgey’s large collection of UGK memorabilia sits on shelves near a Geto Boys platinum plaque, a large photo of Cam’Ron in his pink fur, and more.
Jorgey hovers around briefly but gets pulled away to sign skateboard decks inscribed with his “A KID FROM THE SOUTH” motto. LE$ chuckles, “He prefers being that way. He likes being behind the scenes.”
Together, he, Jorgey, and Rogers have created an unmatched aesthetic. Rogers, Houston’s busiest, most popular DJ and radio host on 93.7 The Beat, and LE$ began making music together in 2010, when the rapper took ten of Rogers beats and made ten records out of them. Jorgey shot a video for LE$’ second tape, The Struggle Continues, in 2012. Since then, the three have been almost inseparable, sometimes waking up at the crack of dawn to get certain shots down in the beach city of Galveston.
“[We’re] best friends,” LE$ says. “That’s why the sh*t works so good. I talk to Jorgey like every day, that’s my friend. You know when you’re really friends with people, that’s a big part of it. I don’t have to tell him anything; he just does it. From the covers, all I have to do is sell him on an idea. Then he makes it doper than I ever imagined. It’s amazing, a blessing, to have someone help get your vision across. Because the sh*t is hard by yourself.”
“My goal was to just work with anybody,” Jorgey, 27, tells me later. “I reached out to everybody, and nobody responded. But the only person to respond was LE$ and everything just worked out from there. There’ll be times where we don’t even speak on it but we’ll get done what needs to be done.”
Although he’s absent from the gallery, Rogers’ presence is still felt. The DJ spent the last month and a half collecting donations and riding around the city passing out water, clothes and more as part of Hurricane Harvey relief. What originally started as him putting up money for hotel rooms in the city has morphed into something larger.
On some nights, he doesn’t even sleep. He and Trae Tha Truth, who’ve dubbed themselves Relief Gang, have gone any and everywhere, from Houston to Port Arthur to Beaumont and back, assisting families and communities in need. “It’s devastating to see thousands of our neighbors living through this craziness left by Harvey,” Rogers said. “We are one and together we will rebuild. It’s been amazing to witness the power of social media in a positive way; we met so many people who traveled from all over the US to help.”
It all comes back around to the art studio, the same one Jorgey used to walk by when he was a teenager. The only space big enough with white walls, he planned his A KID FROM THE SOUTH gallery here, drawing enough people and fans that LE$ and others hailed it as a success that was better than “most rapper’s release parties and concerts.”
Jorgey agrees, “Somebody wanted to buy my UGK records and I told them, that’s mine,” he told me back at the office. “I’m never giving those up. They can’t get those.”
As the night winds down, LE$ begins pontificating on his fears and desires. Rap-wise, he has no real qualms because he knows his voice, his sound, and his base. He can still ring up people who’ve been in his shoes, like Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs, and chop it up with them. When he attached his voice to Freddie Joachim’s production for E36, everything shifted. He’s at a level of comfort few underground rappers ever achieve. But the world still worries him.
“I fear, man,” he says with an understated tone. “I try to stay away from the news because it’s too depressing and if you listen to older people, they’ll tell you that it’s all happened before. From n—-s trying to ‘push the button’ and deal with North Korea, cops killing unarmed black people… sometimes you have to unplug, man. The only thing that truly scares me? Men with power. The wrong men with power.”
So, in his music, LE$ continues speaking truth to that corrupt power, one mixtape at a time.