At the corner of Liberty Road and Staples Street, deep in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Drake is not in the building but *on* it. It’s an unusually cool late afternoon in spring—the temperature hasn’t risen above the low 60s all day—and the artist, dressed in white sweats and a thick white hoodie from his OVO clothing line that’s emblazoned with the word october, is toting a tall white cup with unknown contents. He has just ascended onto the roof of Mo Mo’s Chicken and Waffle, a tan-painted soul-food joint that has a garish purple sign out front bearing its name and all the charm of a suburban strip mall.
The Canadian actor, two-time Saturday Night Live host and multiplatinum-selling rapper, whose 2016 album Views has been streamed more than 1 billion times on Spotify, Apple Music and other services, is surrounded by an imposingly large crew that includes longtime friend and associate James “Jas” Prince and his father, James Prince—Fifth Ward native, owner of Mo Mo’s and, more significantly, godfather of Southern hip-hop.
Paterfamilias James—known to most by his one-letter nickname, J.—and Jas are a foundational family in hip-hop. In the mid-1980s the elder Prince founded the influential Houston record label Rap-A-Lot, through which he released some of the darkest and most uncompromising hip-hop in the music’s history, including the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” ranked by Rolling Stone as the fifth-greatest hip-hop song of all time. Twenty-plus years later, son Jas drove the trajectory of Drake’s career from aspiring Canadian rapper struggling to be heard on social media to one of the most dominant artists of the streaming era.
“Houston is a very special place,” Drake explains over text message. “You can find inspiration in a two- or three-day trip there. It became a big part of my life because it was essentially where I got signed. The Prince family are a staple in this city. I witnessed that and immediately wanted to have that same respect in Toronto that J. Prince has in his city, making positive changes and giving people music and moments that will last forever.”
For a while, Drake—in town to celebrate Jas’s upcoming 29th birthday—and the Prince clan seem content greeting and taking selfies with the approximately 5,000 fans who have shut down Liberty Road, amid the incessant shout-outs from the DJ (“Drake is in the building!”).
But hours later, just as the sun begins to set, Drake picks up a microphone, strides somewhat perilously toward the edge of the roof and launches into a distinctly Houstonian spin on his “Hotline Bling.” “Ever since you left the Fifth Ward…,” he croons, leaving the line dangling in the air. The revelers roar with delight; he’s just replaced a portion of the lyric “Ever since I left the city / You got a reputation for yourself now” with a nod to their neighborhood. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd lining Liberty Road chants along to this new, Texas version of the song. Later, the raucous birthday party will be covered by media ranging from the Houston Chronicle to TMZ (drake shuts down houston street; we gotta party!!!).
Just one day earlier, Drake played a party during the annual film, interactive media and music conference South by Southwest, but it’s this Houston show at Mo Mo’s that truly thrills. It’s so far removed from the machinations of the music industry and so close to the heart of one of the most vital cities in hip-hop and R&B history, the breeding ground for everyone from Beyoncé to the late, iconic street rapper Pimp C, whom Drake samples on Views. And it’s a moment—atop a chicken and waffle shop in a low-income, majority African American neighborhood in the South, with an artist who is not just the biggest star in hip-hop but one of only two men (Michael Jackson being the other) to concurrently hold the Billboard top spot for song and album for seven straight weeks—that demonstrates the extraordinary and enduring power of the Prince family brand.
The story of the Prince empire’s acquisition of Aubrey “Drake” Graham begins in 2007 in a place as unlikely as Mo Mo’s: Myspace. It was on the social media network, on a visually cluttered and sophomoric page—myspace.com/ thisisdrake—that the former Degrassi: The Next Generation child star and aspiring Toronto rapper posted several songs, including the light, finger-snap-driven rhythmic hip-hop of “Replacement Girl,” along with an extremely clunky bio proclaiming “collective attendance of over 20,000 fans for mall tours.”
Fortunately for Drake, more than 1,000 miles south in Houston, Jas Prince was in a similarly amateurish place. He’d graduated from Houston’s private Alexander Smith Academy, where he’d excelled at soccer, track, football and baseball, and had spent his summers working a series of jobs at Rap-A-Lot that included sweeping floors, sorting mail and handing out flyers for the label’s street team. But he earned the disapproval of his extremely entrepreneurial father by spending his post-high-school years merely hanging out—and not forging business deals—with longtime family friends from Cash Money Records, including Lil Wayne. “Don’t just be kicking around Wayne and not getting any business done,” James scolded Jas back then. “Go to him. Let him know you have $1 million of your own money to start a label.”
The offer of a seven-figure investment was a moment of profound good fortune that typically shines only on children of the one percent like Jas. But he wasn’t interested in his father’s deal. Instead, he sought to convince Wayne that the pair should manage this artist Jas had heard on Myspace. However, after hearing Drake, the rapper’s response was bluntly dismissive: “It sucks,” Jas remembers Wayne saying. “Don’t ever play this shit for me again.” James Prince had a similar reaction. “He played Drake for me,” James recalls, “and I was like, ‘Jas, you like this?’ I wasn’t feeling it. But Jas said, ‘Dad, this is the new sound. Trust me on this.’” James pressed his son, querying him about the new sound’s hometown. “Toronto,” Jas replied. James was stunned; it was as if Jas wanted to sign a rapper from another—and very much whiter—planet. “Canada?” James asked skeptically. “But then he said a key word to me,” James continues. “‘He’s buzzing in Canada.’ My ears stuck up like a German shepherd’s.”
Encouraged by his father’s interest—however slight—Jas concocted a plan to win Wayne over. “I sent Drake tracks he wasn’t supposed to have,” he says, “like hot Wayne songs. And I was like, ‘Rap over them.’” Drake acquiesced and quickly sent the finished product back to Jas. Armed with a demo that included Drake rhyming over much more potent tracks than his mostly weightless work on Myspace, Jas slid the CD into the car stereo as he and Wayne drove to their favorite jeweler, Exotic Diamonds, on Westheimer Road in the ritzy Galleria area. “I’m looking at him and I see him bobbing his head,” Jas says. “I’m like, Okay, cool. I turn it up. We’re jamming. I play the next song. He turns it down. ‘Who is this?’ ‘That’s the nigga Drake you told me sucked.’ I play the next song, ‘Brand New,’ one that Drake is singing on. And Wayne’s like, ‘Who’s this?’”
“Oh, that’s Drake. He sings and he acts.”
“Where is Drake?”
“Can we get him here?”
“Let me call him.”
Jas dialed Drake, who was sitting in a barber’s chair in Toronto, unaware that Jas was sitting with one of the greatest rappers in the history of hip-hop. “Let me call you back,” Drake said dismissively. “Hold up one second,” Jas interrupted, handing the phone to Wayne.
“Wayne got on the phone like, ‘What’s up?’” Jas recalls. “Drake’s like, ‘Who’s this?’ ‘It’s Weezy.’” There was stunned silence on the other end of the line as Wayne handed the phone back to Jas. With Lil Wayne finally feeling Drake, Jas urged the artist to take the earliest flight out of Toronto to Houston.
The next day was Wayne and Jas’s first face-to-face meeting with Drake. Up until that point he and Jas had been communicating only via technology. “I brought him on the bus to meet Wayne, and it was awkward,” Jas says. “Wayne wasn’t saying nothing to him.” Wayne suggested they all ride in his tour bus from Houston to Atlanta, but even the nearly 800-mile road trip didn’t bring Wayne and Drake any closer together. Back then, Wayne kept stacks of clothing in the bunks that were meant for sleeping, forcing all onboard to squeeze uncomfortably into the seats up front. And those seats were populated by emerging artists from Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment—which would later sign and then break Nicki Minaj—who viewed the newbie Drake with deep suspicion.
But then Wayne, Drake and Jas hit the recording studio in Atlanta, and the awkwardness of the bus ride gave way to profound chemistry. There, Wayne and Drake recorded “Stunt Hard” and, most magnificently, “Forever,” which in 2008 would be transformed into a stellar posse cut featuring Wayne and hip-hop heavyweights Eminem and Kanye West. “Forever” employs a reliable template: flipping stellar beats made for others into a brand-new context. (The song’s beat had been used by Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall as well as by Drake’s camp.) “Three weeks after that, the songs leaked,” Jas says. “It was like, ‘Who is this kid rapping with Wayne, basically killing it?’”
In the space of months, Drake went from Myspace obscurity to the most buzzed-about rapper in hip-hop, one who could hold his own on a posse track with Kanye and Eminem. That his streak of success continues nearly one decade later—in June, Views held the number one spot on the Billboard album chart for five weeks straight, the longest run since Adele’s 25 in 2015—makes his origin story all the more remarkable.
Drake’s post-Atlanta sessions were cemented by a series of lucrative deals that Jas and the Cash Money crew struck for him. In December 2008, Drake signed an exclusive recording-artist agreement with Aspire Music Group, which was run by Lil Wayne’s longtime manager, Cortez Bryant. In June 2009, Aspire entered into a deal to furnish “the exclusive recording services of Drake” to Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records. The following month, an arrangement was drawn up whereby Jas and a company he’d created just to manage Drake, Young Empire Music Group, would receive 22 percent of Aspire’s one-third share of profit advances, net profits and other advances from Drake’s Young Money/Cash Money deal. The same month, Drake received a $2 million advance from Young Money, Cash Money and Aspire.
More than seven years later, however, the fruits of that flurry of deal-making are very much in dispute. Jas claims that Cash Money has not paid out more than $5 million in Drake profits, a claim Cash Money vigorously denies, according to court documents. After a series of angry exchanges between the Prince and Cash Money camps—including an April 22, 2014 e-mail from James obtained by Playboy that reads, “I was born at night but not last night what’s up with the money homie”—Jas and Young Empire sued Cash Money in federal court in Florida. Attorneys for Cash Money later filed a motion to dismiss the August 2014 lawsuit; the motion was granted by a federal judge in May 2015. (Jas says he refiled the lawsuit in a different venue, in New York, in late 2015 and that the case is still pending.)
The behind-the-scenes legal wrangling between Jas and Cash Money cannot tarnish Drake’s triumph, nor can it break the bonds among Jas, Drake and the city that gave us the Prince hip-hop dynasty. Drake now stages an annual Houston Appreciation Weekend every Memorial Day, and in May, he skipped the Billboard Music Awards to play golf with Jas in Las Vegas. And Drake’s nearly unprecedented success is just the latest chapter in the decades-long Prince family history.
Hip-hop has long been known as much for its impresarios as for its rappers—Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy, Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Cash Money, Dr. Dre and his Beats empire—and the Princes are firmly in this tradition of self-made men. But James and Jas are at once far less known than hip-hop’s entrepreneurial icons and more quietly influential.
James founded Rap-A-Lot in the Fifth Ward in 1986, primarily as a means to get his brother Thelton Polk, who rhymed under the name Sir Rap-A-Lot, off the streets. “You rap,” James remembers telling his brother, “I’m gonna support you.”
Back then, hip-hop was confined to the coasts. “James Prince was one of the first empire builders in an area not called Los Angeles or New York City,” says Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Even in major cities and among its biggest stars, hip-hop was just barely becoming a commercial enterprise. In 1986, Run-DMC released its third album, Raising Hell, which crashed the top 10 on Billboard’s albums chart primarily because of its Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way.” An independent rapper like Sir Rap-A-Lot, in a city with no hip-hop history to speak of, couldn’t survive without the financial backing of his brother James, who ran a bevy of small businesses in Houston, including a used-car lot in the northwest part of the city.
The establishment of Rap-A-Lot was a hip-hop business proposition decades ahead of its time. Its founding came long before the Atlanta-driven Dirty South movement took off and nearly a decade before one of that region’s early pivotal moments: Outkast being named best new rap group at the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards in 1995. “The South got something to say!” proclaimed the group’s André 3000 prophetically as he was nearly drowned out by jeers from the crowd at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater. More than 20 years later, the South, particularly Atlanta, isn’t just a dominant force in hip-hop; it is the music’s center. Now, nearly every rapper of any import—Young Thug, Migos, Future—has deeply planted Southern roots.
The rise of Rap-A-Lot in the mid- to late 1980s and into the early 1990s proved that the South did indeed have something to say from the music’s inception, despite bias from the coastal elites. “They felt like we was country,” James says. “They made fun of our accents, but we spoke the language of the ghetto.”
James doesn’t mean “ghetto” in the narrow neighborhood sense but as a signifier for poor, struggling people everywhere. And Rap-A-Lot act the Geto Boys—which at first featured James’s brother Sir Rap-A-Lot, who later left the group—reflected that wide-ranging sensibility, rejecting the well-trodden world of gangster rap.
The Geto Boys released protest songs (1991’s “Fuck a War” is an anthem against the first Iraq war in which the group proclaims, “I ain’t goin’ to war for a shit talkin’ president”), songs about duplicitous street guys (1988’s “Snitches” foreshadows hip-hop’s embrace of “Stop Snitching” in the mid-2000s) and songs about suicide, depression, loneliness and paranoia, such as 1991’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which is not only one of hip-hop’s darkest and most introspective songs but also one of its best. “James Prince was bold,” says Can’t Stop author Chang. “He went against all the norms. Because you know that sex sells, but does horror sell? Does mental illness sell?”
Indeed, Rap-A-Lot pushed hip-hop’s sonic and lyrical possibilities at a time when the music was truly antiestablishment. In 1989 the FBI sent an angry letter to N.W.A’s distributor, Priority Records, about the group’s anthem “Fuck Tha Police” that scolded them for “advocating violence and assault” against law enforcement.
By the early 1990s the environment was so challenging for acts like N.W.A and the Geto Boys that when hip-hop maestro Rick Rubin released remixed and repackaged Geto Boys material on his Def American label in 1990, it came with a warning sticker affixed to the CD: “Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist and indecent.”
Having its artists saddled with “explicit lyrics” stickers in the early 1990s would seem like a frictionless run-in with power compared with Rap-A-Lot’s turbulent end of the decade. In the late 1990s the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Houston Police Department targeted James and Rap-A-Lot in a wide-ranging drug-trafficking investigation. “He [Prince] and his associates were believed to be large-scale drug dealers,” then Indiana representative Dan Burton later said in a congressional hearing. Years earlier, a car with dealer license plates allegedly from a Houston used-car lot owned by James had been stopped near El Paso with 76 kilos of cocaine stuffed in a hidden compartment. The investigation netted more than 20 convictions, yet James was never arrested, charged or indicted. He claimed the case was nothing more than part of a pattern of years-long harassment by law enforcement.
Long-serving African American congresswoman Maxine Waters wrote the Department of Justice about the investigation: “Simply put, Mr. Prince believes strongly that the Department of Justice must intercede into the questionable practices of the DEA and provide him with the necessary protection to ensure that his life and livelihood are not subject to ongoing harassment and intimidation.”
Waters’s support of James stoked a wave of resentment within the DEA ranks. In the early 2000s, a DEA agent on the Rap-A-Lot case claimed the probe had been shut down and he was demoted after James allegedly donated $200,000 to then vice president Al Gore’s presidential campaign. James’s camp called the allegation “absurd,” and despite congressional hearings on the thwarted investigation, no records ever emerged of contributions from James or Rap-A-Lot to the Gore campaign or the Democratic National Committee.
“Can’t be stopped, not even by a badge,” Geto Boys’ Scarface boasted in a song after the investigation had been quashed, infuriating the feds and engendering headlines such as rap artist taunts dea and two agents by name. “Ain’t enough bullshit in the United States to come stop this Rap-A-Lot Mafia shit.”
It’s a late morning in mid-March 2016, more than 15 years after the death of the Rap-A-Lot DEA investigation, and James is eased back comfortably in a leather chair on the stage in a fourth-floor ballroom inside the Austin Convention Center. He is about to deliver a keynote address at South by Southwest, a highly prestigious festival slot that this year was also occupied by Tony Visconti, longtime producer for David Bowie and, incredibly, FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama.
“Rap-A-Lot Records and South by Southwest are both celebrating their 30th year,” Melissa O’Brien, the festival’s music conference panels chief tells me. “We chose James as one of our keynotes because of his longevity in the music business and his stature as the godfather of Southern hip-hop.”
Though small in stature—just over five-foot-six—with his wide build, ruddy cheeks and beard, James has the look of a bear you’d never want to encounter in the woods. But there’s also something relaxed and retiree-like about this hip-hop elder statesman: Today he sports a white dress shirt with blue paisley designs on its bulky cuffs, loose-fitting jeans and plain white tennis shoes.
In a slow, laconic Southern drawl that nonetheless carries with it the authority of a true boss, James addresses the packed ballroom of lanyard-sporting hip-hop heads, an ethnically and geographically diverse group that includes everyone from Houston rappers to Japanese hip-hop obsessives. He recounts the days when the full weight of the DEA was bearing down on him. “I was under attack by the feds,” he says. “These guys put a full-blown attack on our hip-hop movement because we was making so much money. They felt something was crooked about our money.” He cocks an eyebrow knowingly. “They thought I was one-dimensional, so I diversified my portfolio.” The federal scrutiny, he says, simply served as inspiration for his next move: as manager of boxing greats including Andre Ward and Floyd Mayweather Jr. “My first love was boxing,” James says. “Music turned out to be a good distraction.”
Later that afternoon, James and I meet in the lobby of his hotel in downtown Austin. After briefly introducing me to Jas, who hovers nearby, James explains that he’s worried about cooperating with me on this story. “I hear you’re the man with the stories,” he says. I thank him for what sounds like a compliment, but then he suddenly leans toward me, turning unexpectedly serious. “That you like to dig.” Before I can reply, he apologizes and says he has to catch a private jet to California—one of his boxers, Ward, has a fight next weekend in Oakland. “We’ll talk,” James says, walking out through the hotel’s revolving door and disappearing into a black car. A few hours later a photo appears on Jas’s Instagram account of him and his dad with a couple of friends posing in front of a private jet, bearing the caption “Family!” It’s an appropriate message; I soon realize the moment is less about James shirking an interview than it is about him passing his hip-hop mantle to his son.
A month later I’m back in Houston, this time to meet with Jas, not James, at the Rap-A-Lot offices in the northwest section of the city, in a midcentury concrete structure with a pane of one-way glass that stretches its entire length—a near-perfect representation of the secretive, unflashy nature of the Prince family business.
As I pull up the driveway to the garage, a steel gate slowly slides open to reveal Jas, in tan Yeezys, skinny black jeans and a green T-shirt, and the Prince family’s representative, Vivian Gomez. Like his father, Jas is small and sports a close beard, but he has softer features and Drake’s fashion-conscious style, and he offers a gentle, compassionate handshake. Before we head upstairs he shows off his father’s car collection, which includes a Bentley Azure, a silver Lamborghini Diablo and a 1938 Packard. It’s a sprawling set of prized autos that, like the Prince family itself, encompasses decades of history.
Upstairs, the hallways of Rap-A-Lot offer a crash course in the rise of Houston hip-hop: Gold and platinum albums from label stars including the Geto Boys and Scarface hang on the walls. The Geto Boys’ 1991 platinum album, We Can’t Be Stopped, features a photo of member Bushwick Bill strapped to a hospital gurney after supposedly being shot by his girlfriend during an Everclear-soaked domestic-violence incident. In comparison, James Prince’s always-on-the-edge empire couldn’t be further from the sensitive pop leanings of Drake.
A framed 2006 Source magazine cover featuring James, Bun B and other Houston greats proclaims, don’t mess with texas: why houston’s reign won’t stop. The image captures a mid-2000s moment, when the city ruled supreme in the hip-hop world thanks to such hits as Houston-based Mike Jones’s “Still Tippin’.” A distribution deal with Warner Bros. brought Houston hip-hop to the mainstream, a pact that James Prince forged. “My dad did the deal with Warner Bros.,” Jas says. “That was his deal. Nobody really knows that. It was his movement. He put it together.” On James’s desk sits a wood-carved nameplate given to him by an imprisoned fan. Indeed, James’s name rings so strongly in the federal and state prison system that he regularly receives “hobbycraft”—homemade gifts—from inmates around the country.
These n****s awakened a sleeping giant,” James Prince warned. “Do right by me and pay every penny due.
In a business known for rough players like Suge Knight, it is a reputation that is singularly intimidating. For years James has been linked to Larry Hoover, alleged leader of the sprawling Chicago-born street gang the Gangster Disciples, which according to the Department of Justice is currently active in some 24 states. James has denied all accusations of criminality and has often taken to court anyone who has linked him to Hoover. In 2007, according to court documents, he sued BET, Apple and Viacom for defamation over the network’s American Gangster documentary series, an episode of which pictured him and Hoover together.
But the specter of the Gangster Disciples looms large—in both the streets and in the hip-hop community—over anyone who might cross James. When federal prosecutors in Georgia indicted dozens of Gangster Disciples on charges ranging from drug trafficking to murder earlier this year, they alleged that the gang had threatened a rapper they would identify only as R.R. “with physical harm unless rapper R.R. paid the Gangster Disciples for the use of the gang’s name and symbols.” R.R. is widely believed to be multiplatinum rapper Rick Ross; in 2012 members of the gang threatened him in a video posted online—and later picked up by TMZ—for using its name and appropriating its imagery.
Such suspected gang ties are all the more frightening because of the very real acts of violence that have reportedly been linked to James, including a 2003 incident in which he was accused of sending associates to the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas to beat associates of former client Floyd Mayweather Jr. with baseball bats. The James-Mayweather beef was allegedly over an unpaid debt, and in 2015 a similar skirmish broke out between James and Cash Money. In the midst of son Jas’s battle with Cash Money over Drake profits, James released a “courtesy call,” posted on TMZ, warning, “These niggas awakened a sleeping giant.… I will not allow it to stay on my track record that Cash Money took anything from me and my son. Do right by me and pay every penny due.”
With the Rap-A-Lot office tour concluded, Jas and I head to the heart of the Fifth Ward, his ancestral home and the site of Drake’s recent rooftop show. Here I see the flip side of the gangster mythology: the love of home and the bonds between family, both blood and neighbor, and the importance of home turf. “I love Houston,” Jas says as he navigates the traffic on I-610 in his Mercedes G-Class SUV. “I did a lot of fishing, riding horses growing up. This is Texas; there’s horses everywhere.” He points to smaller side roads beside 610. “Ride horses all through here,” he says.
After switching to I-69, we exit the freeway and, just a few feet from the off-ramp in the Fifth Ward, stop at the corner of Lyons Avenue and Schwartz Street. There’s a tiled mural, the first panel of which reads welcome to fifth ward, est. 1865. Below this welcome is the inscription, from Matthew 7:16, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
Created in 2006, the mural—Fruits of the Fifth Ward—recognizes the many greats produced by the neighborhood, including bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins; boxing titan George Foreman; congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman to deliver a keynote at the Democratic National Convention; and on the fourth and last panel, James Prince. Directly beneath James, rendered by the artist with a knowing smile, is another verse from the Gospel of Matthew, this time 7:18: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”
When we drive to the heart of the Fifth Ward—which is dominated by blocks of dilapidated 1970s-style ranch residences and 1930s shotgun homes—it’s clear that James has taken such biblical guidance to heart. In the 3000 block of Jensen Drive he opened a sprawling community center that’s available to neighborhoods kids at no cost, every day, from eight a.m. to nine p.m., featuring a basketball court, a study room and several band rooms replete with brass instruments.
They ain’t came and touch anything,” says Jas of the Fifth Ward. “Before they touch it my dad will buy it.
Inside one of the band rooms, Jas picks up a pair of drumsticks and taps distractedly on a long row of snares as he dials up one of his new artists, Tone Stith, whom Jas describes as “equal parts Prince, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.” Jas was introduced to the 21-year-old artist thanks to longtime friend Justin Bieber, who was so impressed with Stith’s covers of his work that he implored Jas to listen to them. Since connecting with Jas in 2013, Stith has written and produced two songs, “Liquor” and “Make Love,” for Chris Brown’s 2015 album, Royalty. When Stith picks up the call, I can hear him shouting with glee at the FaceTime guided tour of the band room—Jas later tells me Stith’s a huge band head—shouting, “Drumline is coming!” We head to the corner of Liberty and Staples, where Drake has just held court, and Jas points out a building where, he says, his father has built a “ghetto Fifth Ward penthouse with two condos.” James is attached to this Fifth Ward intersection because he was raised right around the corner, on nearby Ranch Street. Jas’s grandmother also grew up on Ranch.
As we drive back toward Interstate 610, I ask Jas if the Fifth Ward has ever undergone the sort of transformation seen in majority-black neighborhoods in Chicago and New Orleans, where city government demolished the projects and replaced them with mixed-income housing, changing the face of these areas forever. “Nah, we still have our projects,” Jas says with a laugh. “One thing about Fifth Ward, they ain’t came and touch anything.” He pauses and smiles. “Before they touch it,” he says, “my dad will buy it.”
James Prince owns Fifth Ward real estate, washaterias, a waffle house, a condom company, a record label and a boxing-management company. But the jewel of the Prince empire is Prince Estates, a sprawling ranch in rural East Texas about a one-hour drive from Mo Mo’s. It’s a rolling pastoral property comprising lakes, horse stables and horse trails, along with 120 Black Angus cows that mill about the property, all managed by an affable rancher in the Prince family’s employ named Ben Dyer.
When I meet Jas on the ranch on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon, he is already astride a sleek, beautiful brown horse with a blonde mane and is dressed in a blue T-shirt and faded jeans that are tucked into his cowboy boots. He gallops around the ranch with the authority and ease of a true equestrian, swatting the horse with a switch in his left hand on the few occasions it disobeys his orders.
Returning to the stable where I’m waiting, Jas urges me to mount up as well. We ride several miles deep into the property, to a wooden cabin that was once owned by country music star Clint Black. Inside, we take refuge in the air-conditioning as Dyer and the ranch hands tend to the horses’ needs. Jas tells me Prince Estates is such a profound refuge for him that he’ll often come out here, ride one of his horses into the farthest reaches and take a nap under one of the many live oaks.
It’s here that Jas reflects on the father-son empire. Sometimes, he confesses, he’ll wonder of his dad, What did he do back in the day to gain the respect he has? Jas wanders over to an antique phonograph in the living room and drops the needle. As 19th century waltz music plays, the crackle and pop of old vinyl augmenting the eeriness, he reflects on the Prince family empire and, as Houstonian Beyoncé recently put it, “Daddy Lessons.” “Drake at over 1 billion for just Views,” Jas says, beaming. “Even Drake is surprised. My dad, this is what he taught me.” He surveys Prince Estates, and his pride in the ranch visibly swells.
It’s hard not to be swept up in the moment. The 1,000-plus acres owned by the Princes sits in Hempstead, a small city in Waller County, Texas. This is the site of one of the most painful and poignant moments in the Black Lives Matter era, the July 2015 arrest during a violent traffic stop of motorist Sandra Bland, who then—allegedly—hanged herself in the county lockup. Waller County’s white supremacist history stretches centuries before Bland’s death: At least five lynchings occurred there between 1877 and 1950, and in 2008 the Department of Justice filed a complaint against the county over its voter registration practices that allegedly violated both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So the ownership of land in the deepest South by two black Princes, James and Jas, is a revolutionary act that harkens back to General Sherman’s Civil War order to redistribute land to black families (best known as “40 acres and a mule”), which was later overturned by President Andrew Johnson. But here is a spread the Prince family took, step by step, hustle by hustle, track by track, download by download. “Own it,” Jas says, stretching out on a couch in the cabin. “That’s what I learned from my dad. He’s big on owning. Not renting or leasing. No, own it.”
Videography by Eric Longden