By Nate "Igor" Smith
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"What you know about purple drank/What you know about poppin' trunk, neon lights, and candy paint," raps Paul Wall on "They Don't Know," his 2004 kaleidoscope of Houston's rap landscape. "What you know about white shirts, starched-down jeans with a razor crease/Platinum and gold on top our teeth/Big old chains with an iced-out piece?"
A small player on the national hip-hop scene for more than a decade, Houston came to prominence in the early Nineties for birthing the supergroups Geto Boys and UGK. But the pair's uncomfortably raw takes on gangsta rap Geto Boys are notorious for insanely criminal nightmares like "Mind of a Lunatic" and "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" masked the city's unique cultural traits.
Fast-forward to 2006, and the world has changed. Everyone knows about diamond-encrusted grills and jewelry, sipping syrup, guzzling Texas tea, and rolling on 22s. DJ Screw, the late mixtape producer who infamously slowed down rap songs into a psychedelic crawl, is widely acknowledged as a hip-hop pioneer. Once largely ignored as another Southern backwater, Houston's rap scene is a phenomenon dissected by major music publications, and Wall, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, and a few others are all national rap stars.
"People been telling us for years to stop rapping about candy paint and 84s and poppin' trunks. But we got platinum plaques off of it now, because we kept rapping about it," says Wall during a phone interview. "I'm proud to see how far Houston rap has come.
"But in order to really get a feel for what Houston is about, you gotta come experience it for yourself," Wall continues. "It's like when you go to New York and you go to Times Square. That's an experience. Or like when you go to Miami and you go to South Beach and you walk down Collins Avenue or Ocean Drive. That's an experience.
"Of course, not everybody can come to Houston," he says. A goal of his along with other artists who "stay true" to the city's unique culture and sound is to be an ambassador and communicate that experience to those who don't live there. "People understand a lot of slang, but it's deeper than that," he says.
On "Just Paul Wall," he raps that he's been poor most of his life. "My biological father was addicted to heroin. I grew up with a single mother. Struggling and surviving was me, my sister, and my mom," says Wall. "We struggled for a large portion of my childhood. But then she eventually remarried with a real man who showed me how to become a man. He raised me from then on. And from then on, my life got better, financially and mentally too."
Underground rap fans knew about Wall for years. As one-half of the rap group Paul Wall and Chamillionaire, he won The Source magazine's Independent Album of the Year award in 2003 for Get Ya Mind Correct. After splitting with Chamillionaire, Wall issued his own solo albums 2004's Chick Magnet and 2005's Controversy Sells which sold more than 100,000 copies each.
"It was a hobby for a long time. But my boy [and Swishahouse owner] Michael Watts took me under his wing and taught me how to make a hustle out of it," says Wall. "When I started making money off of it to the point where I could support myself pay my bills, pay my rent, pay my car note that's when I quit my other hustles and focused full-time on the rap."
When Wall's label Swishahouse signed a distribution deal with Asylum (itself an imprint of Warner Music Group's Atlantic division), he was the second to pop, right after Mike Jones went platinum with Who Is Mike Jones? His first national hit, "Sittin' Sidewayz," introduced a hazy, laid-back voice that often sped up into double-time. "I got a Styrofoam white cup full of that drank/Lookin' for that dank/My hustle game sharp as a shank," he raps. "Big bank take little bank/84s and candy paint/Tryin' to find some homey love/My mackin' game is top rank."
On The Peoples Champ, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and is certified platinum, Wall rhymes about cars, grills, clothes, and girls or, in his words, "hoes." But his swagger is different from Houston's other stars, and it's not just because he's the most prominent white person on its scene. He voices an undeniably cool charisma and stylized bravado that draw you in, even as he tends to rely on the same topics for his raps candy paint, grills, and game.
Oddly, though, he chooses not to talk about the days when he hustled and sold drugs (although some of his early independent albums contain street-oriented lyrics). "There are things I've done in the past that I'm not real proud of, and I don't necessarily brag about it, whereas other rappers will brag about those types of things," he says. "It's not something I did to be cool. It's something I did because I had no choice."
Still a hustler, albeit now a legal entrepreneur, Paul Wall is known for crafting gaudily flashy grills through his own store, TV Jewelry, and an Internet site, www.grillsbypaulwall.com. On Nelly's number one hit, "Grillz," Paul Wall brags, "I got my mouth lookin' something like a crystal ball." The album cover for The Peoples Champfeatures a close-up photo of Wall baring his teeth, which are encased in silver grills studded with diamonds. No pretty-boy Eminem, he looks grimy as fuck.