Where is Paul Wall? That is the eternal question, but in this particular crook of time (late December 2016), the people's champ is nowhere to be found. He was supposed to meet me at the Christmas party of Jonny Dang and Co., the world's largest custom grills jewelry emporium that he co-owns with the irrepressibly jovial, TV Jonny, but Wall has gone dark, which is fairly difficult for a man with a thousand carats in his mouth.
The sideways sitter was supposed to drop off his kids somewhere or pick up his wife, but no one is exactly clear how the communications got misconstrued. All I know is that he's a few hours late and I'd be mad if not for the fact that TV Jonny's Christmas Party is like if David Lynch directed a script written by Birdman about the retail jewelry business, but aimed it at an adults-only holiday audience.
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I have seen TV Jonny himself, a diminutive and impossibly high-spirited Vietnamese émigré, holding a gilded pimp cup to the heavens while freestyle rapping in fractured English over Young Joc's "It's Goin' Down." (* Ron Howard voice* "It didn't.") He's surrounded by a black man in a black cowboy hat handling ad-libs, and a retinue of scantily clad, Santa-hatted women Snapchatting themselves with their finest duckface.
At one point, someone screams "FREEZE!" The entire party must do a mannequin challenge. Instinctively, 100 otherwise semi-sane adult revelers become statues while a man stalks through the party filming the endeavor. "Black Beatles" plays at nearly deafening volume, and as soon as the videographer passes me, I take a bite of an egg roll and sip the party's special cocktail: the Hennessey-propelled, "King of Bling." Real crowd pleasers.
After perusing enough retina-blinding diamond crucifixes, watches, and bedazzled grills to make Jacob the Jeweler look like Zales, it dawns on me that Paul Wall won't show up tonight. I take another egg roll for the road and leave.
We finally link up the following morning in a Starbucks parking lot in a section of Houston known as the Heights. For about ten minutes, I'm convinced that Wall is going to stand me up again until a candy apple red Cadillac with spinners rolls into the parking lot. It's got a Houston Oilers plate that reads "Native." Paul Wall is as Texas as a Bowie Knife, a flattened armadillo, and two XXL Styrofoam cups filled up with Grimace Purple. It could only be him.
It feels almost pointless to introduce Paul Wall at this point in his career. He first broke out in 2005 with "Still Tippin'" and his platinum major label debut, The People's Champ (which was the city's last million-selling album until Travis Scott snapped that streak). But before the Slab God introduced greater America to the art of blinding grills, he and Chamillionaire released a string of legendary locals-only mixtapes including the now widely acknowledged classic, Get Ya Mind Correct.
Since leaving the major label system several years ago, Wall has weathered several controversies including accusations that he glorifies sipping lean and a recent arrest alongside Baby Bash that occurred several days after our interview. (Texas authorities are reportedly charging him with felony intent to distribute between four and 400 grams of the controlled substance Tetrahydrocannabinol, a waxy marijuana extract).
Despite those minor blips, Wall's stature remains inviolate both in and out of Houston. He's an entrepreneur with investments in the California medical marijuana industry, Fanta leaf blunt wraps, the partnership with TV Jonny, and of course, his still lucrative rap career. He shows up for our interview in a Houston T-shirt, and a red beanie with the old Houston Oilers derrick. It's 10 AM, but nonetheless, he offers to roll a blunt and give a tour of his hometown. Southern hospitality at its finest. Even if his albums no longer go platinum, Wall unmistakably remains the People's Champ. The charismatic and drawling ex-communications student at the University of Houston is at that great point in his career, where all he has to do is show up and be Paul Wall. What more could you want?
Noisey: You've said that you want to make music with a more positive message. Do you feel that's just a function of getting older and becoming more socially responsible?
Paul Wall: Definitely. I linked up with Swishahouse when I was 17 or 18, and was a child through most of my first few records. The music wasn't childish or corny but you could see it was from a place of a child—somebody that was a little more ignorant or ratchet. Now that I have kids, there's a bigger sense of responsibility. It's realizing that I have to be able to explain any lyric that I've ever said to my daughter and my son. I have to be able to go, 'this is why I said it, this is the reasoning behind it,' and if I can't do that then I probably shouldn't be saying it.
Was the Screwed Up Click the first rap to really inspire you?
That was definitely what inspired me man. In Houston, we wouldn't do a normal New York freestyle cypher. It would be our way and our style of doing it…like a screwed up Texas version of a cypher.
SUC gave Houston it's own personal identity that separated it from the rest of the world. Rap-A-Lot put us on the map where we could contend with anyone in terms of Scarface being able to go bar for bar with anybody. J. Prince showed us, and the whole rap game, how to make music independently and hustle it without needing someone else. He gave us the blueprint, helped mold us, and then right after that, the SUC came right behind and gave us the identity of our culture— the things that make us unique and different compared to other cities. This is a city where anybody can do it. You just have to go out there and work. If you have a pride about you where you're too cool to do something, then it'll hold you back and get you left behind. This is a city where the guy washing the cars ends up owning the dealership.
Who was your favorite rapper in SUC?
Lil Keke. He was always my favorite rapper with anything though—even to this day he's my shit. I think he's the greatest rapper ever.
What's your favorite Screwtape?
My favorites were [Chapter 013] "Leanin' on a Switch'" and [Chapter 036] "Who Next Wit Plex." I actually got a piece and chain made that was the size of a Screwtape and I put "Who Next Wit Plex" on one side, and on the other side I put, "Choppin Em' up Part 2," which was the first Swishahouse tape that I was ever on.
How has it changed from ten to 15 years ago when you first came up?
We have more tools to our disposal, and more respect in the game. People understand our culture more. Some of it has been taken and borrowed from us, so we don't get credit from it and that's a tough part. The same identity that separated us and made us unique—that people used to laugh at—is now a worldwide identity that a lot of people don't even associate with being from Texas.
So that burdens us and hurts us a little bit. Where Texas artists came with a Texas style, it's now Texas artists coming with a mainstream style that people don't associate as being a Texas style. So it's tough doing our thing, but being looked at like we're being copycats.
"Where Texas artists came with a Texas style, it's now Texas artists coming with a mainstream style that people don't associate as being a Texas style."
I was just in Japan and saw a local kid wearing a "Been Trill" hoodie and you had to figure he only knew about the word from A$AP Rocky.
You know DJ Screw started off saying he was going to "screw the world," and it's crazy to see it come true. Sometimes it happens in different ways or with different artists, like with A$AP. But he gave our culture so much exposure just because that was one of the first times we were accepted by New York artists. I mean, he was inspired to want to sound like us.
More than New York artists.
Some people get mad at that, but it's out of a sense of jealousy. It's out of a sense of—the only way that it's OK is if whether or not he does a song with me. I gauge an artist on their character and how they show love to the Texas culture, or to DJ Screw or Pimp C. Some people do it in a way in where they come through the city and just want to be cool and get a pass, so they say rest in peace to Pimp C, or they say it in their raps to be cool. But for whatever reason I appreciate that—they're keeping our heroes, legends, and icons on the map.
Between Rocky and Drake, that's two of the five biggest rappers of that generation putting on for Houston and being from nowhere near Texas.
And now with Travis Scott being from Houston. A lot of people don't even realize he's from Houston, but to me, he's just carrying the torch. I love him being the next Houston rapper to go platinum after me. He's doing his thing. It's funny. I remember when me and Chamillionare first came out in 2001 there was so many people telling us at that time, "Man, swangers will never be nationwide…sippin' syrup will never be nationwide, that's some local H Town shit. Y'all will always be local because you only talk about local H Town shit." But the dopest artists worldwide to me are always the local ones.
To an outsider coming in, what's interesting about Houston is how micro-local it is, where each section of town has their own hero.
People used to always dog us out for reppin' for that, because to them it was like, "Y'all still talking about that local shit?" And then as it caught on and became the national trend, now people be like, "oh man Houston fell off." But I'm like, "How did Houston fall off we got the number one rapper in the game, Drake?" Shit, he from Toronto but he's repping for Houston. The only reason why he's repping for the six now is because everyone in Houston dogged him out, but if we would've just accepted him just like everyone else, he would've still been repping for us. Some people are mad about it because why? Because Drake don't got a song with them. If Drake had a song with them then their opinion about him would change. But what he's doing for our Houston culture dope as fuck. J Prince's son is the one who put him on and he's still reppin' for J Prince and his son, so he's repping for Rap-A-Lot like he's really repping for our city. Houston isn't about a you or an I or a me, it's about a "we."
Did everything start to change for you when you and Chamillionaire dropped Get Ya Mind Correct in 2002 or was it even before that?
Before that, you could see everything leading up. Every month, we would drop a new mixtape and go out there and hustle them, so we were making a lot of money. If we were to do that for the rest of our lives, we could've lived extremely successfully. But Internet bootlegging happened and music stores shut down. We thought it would last forever, but you don't realize that it came with a built-in ceiling. When Get Ya Mind Correct came out, it was like the ceiling was removed. I didn't even know there was a second level. The notoriety you get from when your song is on the radio versus when your song is on a mixtape is two completely different things. And when you get a song get big enough to where it gets played on two stations at the same time in the same city, you're like, "Damn!" Some people in Houston stop me for something I did ten years ago or they might stop me for what I just put out last month. Some people will only stop you and fuck with you if you're hot, but then other people just really fuck with you and appreciate the music you made over the years, or appreciate all we've done for the community.
"You know DJ Screw started off saying he was going to 'screw the world,' and it's crazy to see it come true."
How did things change after "Still Tippin' exploded?
That's when the cracks started to show up. For example, Chamillionaire and I didn't get a lot of love in Houston when we first came out. Houston was a SUC city to the fullest at the time, and other than that it was only Slim Thug. However, we got love in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, all outside of Houston. We were cool with that…we hit the freeway, we were out of town non-stop and built up our fan base in units and numbers, and it just trickled down to Houston. A lot of people here didn't know that we were doing that, so to them we just came up overnight. But they don't know that we've been gone for six months grinding. The independent hustle here is tremendous. It took years of there being an independent scene just for me and Chamillionare, Mike Jones and Slim Thug to get major label deals. Afterwards, the labels were like, "Oh shit there's some talent in Houston let's go see who else they got." So they came down here and signed anybody and everybody. Every single label signed someone, and in the process put on people who skipped a whole series of steps: building their fan base, working on their showmanship, and performance. That means something to fans.
It takes years of building your fan base and learning how to talk to them. You don't realize when you're younger that how I treat this person coming up to me will affect their view of me for the rest of their lives. You can lose several fans because that one person will tell all the rest of their people about it, or they could be like, "Man, that dude was cool as hell."
Do you feel like that intense local focus hurt the Houston artists because they weren't as likely to go out on the road outside of Texas and do tiny little shows to build a national fanbase?
Maybe. Most of us didn't really go on national tours. I think I was one of the only ones. I went on tour with Tech N9ne, Fallout Boy, two solo tours and one with Chamillionaire. But the reason why we're not big on tours is because when we were major artists we were getting $30,000 dollars a concert in Texas. But on tour, they'd offer us $10,000 dollars. So why would I take $10,000 when I can stay home, do two shows on a weekend and make $60,000. That's the same money as a whole week of touring. People don't realize, there are so many small towns in Texas. Even in Houston, I did 54 shows in Houston in 2015. There's so many places that have a little game room, bar, or a little neighborhood boutique club that only people in the neighborhood go to. As long as you set them up the right way, shit, we'll be eating.
Is regionalism in Texas still as important as it was?
Our generation of artists helped inspire but it also caused division. If you weren't apart of that wave, you felt disconnected and forgotten, and a lot of people felt forgotten. They felt like just being a fan or supporting that wave meant that they were being a dick rider, and that's just a big stigma we have in Houston. I'll have to give artists pep talks before they do their shows here, because it can be a sold out show, but the whole crowd will be just mean mugging you. They'll be diehard fans, but they won't let you know it because they don't want to feel like a dick rider.
What odd jobs did you do before you started rapping?
I always had two or three jobs, even when we were putting mixtapes out. Chamillionaire and I used to work at a call center doing surveys. I used to work at Target. We used to wash dishes at Golden Corral. I stocked stuff up on the overnight shift at Babies R' Us. I used to work at Coney Island doing fries. I cut grass, washed floors.
How did you get into selling grills?
In '98, a guy from Brooklyn came down with the removal style gold teeth and promoted it as, "the New York style gold teeth." He opened up a store and that was actually the main store where we used to buy our Swishahouse CDs and tapes from. At the time, everyone down here had permanent gold teeth where you had to get your teeth shaved down and then the gold put in, and they were permanent. So we all were like, "Shit, we can get the removal kind like Wu-Tang got?" That's how it started. So I contacted him and was like look, "Let me pass out flyers for you, bro." And in exchange, I asked for a personalized grill sold to me at wholesale. I ended up passing out so many flyers and brought so much business to him that he was like, "I have to get you on the team." Then he just showed me how to do it. Eventually, one of my homeboys opened up a store in Trinity Gardens and we already sold Swishahouse CD's out of there, so I asked if I could sell grills out of there too. From there, I was introduced to TV Jonny, who was actually making all the grills; we were just the salesmen. It was over from there.
That was about 2000?
Yup. There's so much money to be made in grills. So many people want them but we realized quickly that people aren't going to go far to get them. For instance, people from the southeast side don't go to the southwest side…. people from the north side won't come way to the south side to get grills. So it would be a challenge to get people from the other parts of the city to come to us to get grills. So what we'd do a lot of the times was go to them. We could've opened up a lot of stores like Franchise Grill jewelry stores, around the city and around the nation, but instead, TV Jonny empowered a lot of people to be their own entrepreneur and to sell their own jewelry and build their brand. One thing that I love about Johnny is that he's not selfish—he could've easily went and franchised the shit out it because people were steadily asking us to do that. But we didn't want to take on the burden of that. With jewelry, it's like a used car salesman's business where there's value in the product and then there's the mark up where the profit is made, and that mark up is very flexible. Typically, jewelry is marked up three hundred percent, so shit we came in the game and marked a lot of shit up two hundred percent, and got a lot of business.
"Me being the people's champ and still being the people's champ, I'm just happy to do this because it's my dream job, but a lot of people see the smile and think that everything is all fun and games, but it's not you know. There's a lot of struggle and pain that comes with it."
What do you think it is about Houston that's spawned such an entrepreneurial tradition?
The Bay is like our twin city in my mind when it comes to the independent hustle game—where they love their independent artists like we do. You know we lose sight that the biggest pop star in the world, Beyonce, is from right here. So if she could do it, you can do it. In general, these kids from around here understand that you can be whatever you want to be—you just have to go out there and get it.
What do you hope people understand about you?
Me being the people's champ and still being the people's champ, I'm just happy to do this because it's my dream job, but a lot of people see the smile and think that everything is all fun and games, but it's not you know. There's a lot of struggle and pain that comes with it. It's just that when you survive and overcome something, some people take it different ways and it brings you down to where you feel burdened. I feel joy to have overcome my struggles. I love my life. Shit man, anything I ever asked for in my life I done got. You know that don't mean I'm satisfied, but shit I wanted a family, I love Cadillac cars, I always wanted jewelry with grills, and I got everything.
What's the meaning of life to you?
It's just the simple things that you were taught when you were a kid: treat people how you want to be treated. If we treat others the way that we want to be treated, I think a lot of our problems would be solved. But I mean there's so many different aspects to life—giving back is a big part of my life. That's how you keep life going. No matter how big a tree gets, the tree always has seeds or nuts that can birth other trees, and that's something we lose sight of in our quest for glory. We're always chasing personal glory or achievement, but nothing is more important than giving back.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.