Suave House is one of the most revered names in southern Hip-Hop. The label that was home to such luminaries as Eightball & MJG, Tela and Crime Boss was born of raw ambition and singular vision. A 16-year old Tony Draper built the rap institution from the ground up; and in doing so, drafted a blueprint that other soon-to-be-powerhouses would follow. The Cash Moneys, Slip-N-Slides, No Limits were forged in the fire that Suave House ignited.
The Memphis native had to do it his way.
"I was forced to go independent," Draper recalls. "Being born in Memphis, raised in Houston, a student of Hip-Hop, I started out as a DJ. I was loving Hip-Hop from the East Coast and West Coast, but [was] raised on soul music, as well."
Draper started his own label after recording a few demos that he couldn't get the big East Coast labels to take seriously.
"I used to try to send demos out to labels; Sleeping Bag Records, Tough Break, Profile. They would all say 'Right now, we're not signing acts' -- whatever, whatever. At the time, the South being heard by an A&R in New York wasn't realistic."
So the ambitious teenager launched his own label, then called simply Suave, and recruited Prince Johnny C, original member of the Houston-based rap group Geto Boys, as his producer and shopped Suave material to local record shops around the South.
"Originally, I was going to Mom 'n Pop stores and putting it on consignment," says Draper. "At that time, the Mom 'n Pops were better than any street team. When you'd go into a Mom 'n Pop, they'd let every consumer know what was new and what was hot.
"I figured if I could put out a product and sell it and make $30-40,000, then I have a fanbase somewhere. I just need to dig deeper into the distribution aspect of it. I got my mind made up that I'm going to stay independent."
Draper had discovered a local Houston rapper named Big Mike while they both were working at Olive Garden, and he'd helped Mike land a deal with Houston powerhouse Rap-A-Lot Records. Draper working with Rap-A-Lot's J. Prince gave him a solid foundation on the Houston rap scene and Draper transferred that savvy to his own burgeoning label.
But everything changed when Draper took a trip back to Memphis.
"I went to Memphis to visit my brother," he explains. "While I was in Memphis, they had 'Memphis In May,' where all these groups performed down on Beale St. I'm down there, and I see this fat guy and this skinny guy. I'm like 'Yo, I like these dudes.'"
"These dudes" were Memphis rap duo Premro Smith and Marlon Goodwin, better known as Eightball & MJG. "They were rough around the edges," says Draper. "But I'm like 'Give me six months and I'll bring you to Houston.' I'm only a couple of years older than these guys. But when I tell them what I'm gonna do, I honor it."
In Eightball & MJG, Draper saw two raw talents that could be the next big thing out of Memphis. Their pimp tales and street sensibility would be a major brand-builder for Suave House, and the sound of their debut album set the stage for what would be coming out of both Texas and Tennessee in the coming years.
"We produced Comin' Out Hard in my house," Draper recalls. "I remember being in Tony Draper's baby mother's apartment, in the back room, belting out those tracks," MJG told NPR in 2014. "Some of the neighbors was loving it, and we had one to two call the police on us."
Comin' Out Hard became an underground sensation through word of mouth and lots of grinding by Draper, who looped together a loose patchwork of one-stop distribution companies from Chicago to Dallas to help give the album national distribution.
But he still needed to announce who Suave House was.
"At that time, the Source was the bible of Hip-Hop," he explains. "I bought an ad in the Source every month. You'd see two full color ads on Suave House and Tony Draper. On every artist."
His approach worked. Comin' Out Hard was an independent success and kickstarted a hot run for Suave House.
"I backed Comin' Out Hard with another Eightball and MJG album, On the Outside Looking In. Then I did Crime Boss [All In the Game.] Now, I'm 700-800,000 records sold, straight independent."
With Suave House firmly established, alongside major successes for other southern rap acts like OutKast, UGK and Scarface; southern Hip-Hop is suddenly becoming a hot commodity, and everyone wanted a piece.
"Now I go to New York, and I got deals and offers from everybody," says Draper. "But I passed all the deals up [because] all of these deals were ownership of masters. I was like 'Naw.' What they'd tell me was 'Why do you want these masters, they not worth nothin.''
"I said 'If they not worth nothin,' why do you want them?'"
Draper and Suave House eventually signed a deal with Relativity Records in 1995, and saw high profile success with acts like South Circle and Tela, and Eightball & MJG found even higher proflle visibility with their third album, On Top Of the World. With things rolling, Suave House jumped from Relativity to Universal in 1997.
Suave House would go through transitions in the late 1990s amidst changing times and shifting dynamics within the company. Tela would defect to Rap-A-Lot for his second album; while Eightball & MJG departed after their critically-acclaimed In Our Lifetime. The label would also sign an up-and-comer out of Miami named Rick Ross. Ross would eventually land at Slip-N-Slide/Def Jam, but Suave House eventually released Rise To Power, an album of his material from his tenure with the label.
Suave House's 90s run helped build southern Hip-Hop; it was part of the catalyst for the movement. A label built on soulful production, real street rhymes and the focus of one Tony Draper. He understood the importance of controlling your own destiny, and it's been his mantra ever since.
"When you're a real independent label, you're paying for everything," Draper says. "You're not crying to the parent company because they not doing this or not doing that for you. When you are truly independent, when you leave the parent company, your artists come with you. When you leave and your artists stay there, you're not independent, bruh."
* HEADER CREDIT: Eightball & MJG Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images