One thing about the revered Houston hip-hop mogul James Prince that you won’t find in his new memoir, The Art & Science of Respect: The man knows how to make an entrance. On a Wednesday night at 10 p.m., at the tail end of a Bun B listening party at celebrity jeweler Johnny Dang’s storefront on Richmond, Prince, who founded local label Rap-A-Lot Records in 1986, enters the room, flanked by three linebacker-sized dudes. But, Prince explains, he doesn’t have security.
“These are my friends, my homies,” he says.
In a room full of platinum grills, Nike track suits, and studded Louis Vuitton high tops, Prince stops the show in his untucked pink dress shirt and dad jeans. He’s late, he says, because he’s been mediating a truce between rival gangs from the Third Ward and Southlawn at his office near Timbergrove. He’s already Instagrammed the meeting: There have been 16–20 people who have lost their lives in these killings and it’s time for the REAL HOMIES in these communities to unite with me moving forward to prevent future shootings or deaths.
The light catches on his discreet diamond pinky ring and Rolex as he makes his way through the crowd, stopping for pictures, hugs, fist bumps, and handshakes. Upstairs, the UGK ice sculpture may be melting, but behind a roped-off area, the party has just begun. Crystal goblets of red wine appear, along with soul food and fresh fruit. Prince eats a single chicken wing as fans approach and ask him to sign his book.
But for all the fuss, the man appears so reserved, so pensive, we can’t help but wonder if the 53-year-old father of seven grown children actually enjoys events like this. “It’s nice to feel appreciated,” he says. Someone hands him a plate of fruit. “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” he says, digging in.
The next day, inside his palatial penthouse in Upper Kirby—with its modern furniture and sprawling view—we ask Prince the same question as everybody else: How did he get here?
“When you come up from the ’hood, the negativity—some people, it breaks along the journey,” he says. “I never allowed any of it to penetrate into my spirit to where I was knocked off track from chasing my dream.”
Prince was born in 1965 to 16-year-old Sharon Johnson—already mother to a year-old daughter, Zenia. They lived in the infamous Coke Apartments in the Fifth Ward—“known as the Bloody Nickel,” he says. From the beginning, Prince’s dream was to end his family’s cycle of poverty. But there was no blueprint for how to make it out. “A lot of the time you may grow up looking at the wrong thing and thinking that’s the way to go.”
Prince played football and made money cutting grass, working on a welding truck, and hunting in Shady Acres with his cousins, selling birds and rabbits. He also learned how to shoot dice and sold stolen marijuana plants for cash before hitting puberty. “Everything,” he says, “was about getting paid.”
Tragedy was rampant: Prince’s sister was struck by a train on her walk home from junior high school and died, a nightmare that haunted him for years. He watched friends and family get shipped off to prison, or succumb to violence or drug addiction. He bounced between schools and homes.
But Prince managed to graduate from Kashmere High and get a job at Colonial Savings and Loan in the Fault Department. At 20 he was laid off. He started selling bucket cars, vowing to work only for himself. “Friends were laughing at me,” he says. “But I learned the game."
He bought an abandoned building on Shepherd and turned it into Smith Auto Sales before getting into the exotic car business, selling to athletes. By 21 he’d saved $100,000. By 23 he’d bought his mother a house, and himself a 30-acre ranch.
At night he’d roll up to his favorite club, the Rhinestone Wrangler in southwest Houston, in a 1940s coupe or a Benz or a Rolls, and watch rap battles. “I’ve seen some of everything in there. Lot of girls dancing creatively. Lot of good fights. Bad shootouts on the outside.”
Hip-hop was a big part of his life—Eric B and Rakim’s "Paid in Full," Prince remembers, was his anthem—but he didn’t see it as a means of making money. Instead, he started Rap-A-Lot on the second floor of Smith Auto in an attempt to keep his younger half-brother, Thelton, aka Sir Rap-A-Lot, from hustling on the streets.
Success wasn’t immediate. In 1988 Prince moved the label to New York, where he formed relationships with Def Jam executives Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons. He observed them. “I actually saw the checks. LL Cool J checks. Run DMC checks.” Six-figure checks. He packed everything up in a van and moved back to Houston, determined to make a fortune.
He found rappers Willie D and Scarface, pairing them with dwarf rapper Bushwick Bill as the Geto Boys. The ’89 launch of Grip It! On That Other Level landed them a distribution deal with Rick Rubin’s Def American; the follow-up, classic Houston album We Can’t Be Stopped, featuring Prince’s favorite track, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” went platinum.
Rap-a-Lot grew, employing guys fresh out of prison along with college grads. In 1989 the federal government investigated the label, but no illegal activity was found, and the case was eventually dropped. Prince went on to work with everyone from Devin The Dude to Drake to boxer Floyd Mayweather.
Today his 1,000-acre ranch outside of Houston brings in $200,000 each year from hay and Angus cattle. He owns an island off Belize. His memoir chronicles all this and more: I’m an entrepreneur, he writes. My masterpiece is my bank account.
But for all the dough, the gold records, the success, what’s the highest respect he’s ever been paid? That’s easy: “the mural they included me on,” he says, “in Fifth Ward.”