Nothing can prepare you for the illimitable lunar immensity of Houston. It's no wonder that this is the home of the NASA Space Center. Other than maybe the Badlands, the unbuckling sprawl of the greater metropolitan area feels like the closest kinsman to the fenceless infinity above. They don't have a What-A-Burger on the moon yet, but there are chapters that remain unwritten.
If you add up the suburbs, it amounts to over 10,000 square miles ontologically resistant to the oversimplified interpretations of foreigners. John Steinbeck once wrote that, "Texas is a state of mind, but it's more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion." As with any faith, it's inscrutable to non-believers and rooted in those intangibles that you can't explain, you can only feel.
This may be one of the better ways to explain the multi-dimensional legend of Z-Ro. He's one of those people whom you think would be taller—not because he's short—but because you'd expect him to be 6'7 with 0.3 percent body fat and a Matrix-like ability to elude bullets. Or as he raps on the "Mo City Don" freestyle, I'm the "ghetto Popeye, but I don't need no spinach."
Like his home state and city, Z-Ro inspires a ferocious pride and loyalty that leaves you convinced that in the year 2242, young Houston rappers will offer battle cries of "Remember the Mo City Don!" At one point in my time with him, I overheard a young Latina woman approaching him to say, "you're number one on my Spotify… every single song." He's in that rarefied pantheon alongside Scarface, 2Pac, and Killer Mike—a sanctified blend of preacher and artist—one prone to frequent bouts of depression, profound introspection, and profane outbursts. It's almost impossible to understand Z-Ro, but even more difficult not to appreciate him.
As an outsider, I'm wary to tell you the best way to see Houston, but it's hard to think of a better one than rolling around in the pantherine black Chrysler 300 with the Rap-A-Lot and Screwed Up Click veteran known to the government as Joseph McVey IV, but familiar to his fans as Z-Ro the Crooked, Rother Vandross, The King of the Ghetto, Rohamad Ali, Relvis Presley, or Kimbro Slice. When I entered, he removed a Harlem Nights DVD.
At that moment, he was intermittently hitting and passing a blunt, and bumping "No Love," a cut from his 2016 album, Legendary, at concrete-warping volume. Here in the Texas tundra, it received a second life—his melodic blend of singing and rapping seems mystically attuned to the pulmonary rhythms of freeway traffic, rapidly shifting climate, motherless vegetation, and myriad churches. As with most great rap music, it's intrinsically bound to a sense of place. It sounds great everywhere, but it only sounds at home in Houston.
We were on our way to the Screw Shop, the hallowed tabernacle built by DJ Screw, the late founder of the Screwed Up Click. In the annals of Houston rap, this is the equivalent of the main station of the cross in Jerusalem—except you can still get every chopped and screwed CD ever made, plus the Pymp Tyte tape if supplies last. There are spray painted tribute murals, taped up advertisements, and an old wooden frame with SUC graffiti from the Clinton era ("Draped Up, Dripped Out," Joseph Wayne McVey = Z-Ro)
It was Screw who gave Ro his first shot, shortly before passing away from a codeine overdose. Even without his co-sign, it's difficult to imagine Z-Ro staying anonymous for very long. His life has been scarred with tragedy: the death of his mother, bouts of homelessness, jail stints, one-time friends and collaborators turned enemies. But he absorbs, synthesizes, and transmutes that pain back into the music, giving it a radioactive power that seems almost superhuman. Ro is a vessel for weird spirits, a haunted bluesman in a rapper's body, an enigma to everyone but himself. Not long after our time together, Ro announced that he would be bowing out of music with a final album, No Love Boulevard. This mood, though, is eternal.
Once we got to the Screw shop, he fell mostly silent, briefly talking to the proprietors who he's known for decades, pointing out a whiteboard that lists every Screw tape.
"You can tell when he died, because someone else kept going with their fucked up handwriting." It's true. Screw's penmanship was meticulous. This is the sort of thing you'd expect a man like Z-Ro to notice. After all, he suffers no fools, demands the respect that he's earned, and wields a covenant with higher powers that suggests that no one can better understand that narrow divide between the divine and the damned.
Noisey: Your music obviously has heavy spiritual overtones to it. Was that sense of God something that you felt from an early age?
Z-Ro: Even when my mom and my dad split, they remained heavily involved in the church. After my mom died, my auntie and my grandma Dorothy kept taking me to church. Every time the door opened up, we in that mothafucka—even when I didn't wanna go. You can be forced to do something so much you start liking it.
Eventually, it became a matter of doing my own investigations about God. Let me look at science and see whether I believe in the Big Bang Theory or "let there be light"? I looked at dogs, cats, gorillas, snakes, and humans and was like, there's gotta be something greater than us that's allowing us to be here, and it's not just chance.
Since an early age I've wanted to live my life as right as I can here, so that I can go on to good things after I leave. It's common sense. I saw my momma die. I saw life leaving her body, and even at the funeral, I always wondered, "where she is now? It can't be over. She's not in this box. She lived too good. I know God ain't just got her living in a box."
Everybody don't believe in God, but I believe there's something after here, and if it there are those two places after here, I don't wanna go to the one that's warmer than a mothafucka.
"Everybody don't believe in God, but I believe there's something after here, and if it there are those two places after here, I don't wanna go to the one that's warmer than a mothafucka."
You're from Houston. You must already be sick of the heat.
Yeah, it's warm, but Revelations says that shit has a "fervent" heat. I heard that word "fervent" and I'm like, "that shit hotter than a mothafucka." That ain't no 112-degree day like how we have here sometimes.
What was it like growing up in Mo City [a neighborhood in the far Southwest of Houston]?
My whole life I was taught that Mo City was where it's a fashion show: the light skin women, everybody driving their cars, the good life. So when I got there, I was like "Oh shit. This is like South Park, but everybody got money so everybody has a nice gat." You get over here to Mo City and everybody's momma got some money, and everybody got a fucking Uzi.
Mo City gave me my gangster mentality because I didn't see none of that shit in Hyde Park. You saw fights everywhere, but as far as murder, I didn't actually see that until I got to the Mo. That gave me my street savvy. It's crazy because this is one of the parts of town that you'd would be like, "Really? Mo City?" It's kinda like saying I got my stripes in Beverly Hills. It's hard to believe.
Did you start singing in the church?
I experienced singing in the church, but I first started singing along to R&B songs because that's what my aunt used to listen to in the car. Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Billy Ocean, and then at my dad's house it was Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, The Floaters, The Spinners, Four Tops, and The Temptations.
Were you allowed to listen to rap?
My aunt bought me my first rap album. She didn't think the Beastie Boys was a bad influence, so she got me Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill for Christmas one year. She didn't know the language in it… no parental advisory sticker on that mothafucka. I'm listening to this, and I'm like what the fuck is going on here? But I liked it and then from that I was like, I can do this.
Do you remember when you first heard 2Pac?
It was actually an encounter. I wanna say this is the Strictly 4 My Niggaz era. He was doing a show in Louisiana. I was visiting over there for a family reunion, and my cousins told me to come to the show. When I got there, the crowd was like, "what the fuck is this? Who's this guy? Who's up here on stage being socially conscious about black people?" They were like, "bring on the doing drug music!" He got mad at the crowd and started throwing chairs at them. He was just like, fuck y'all. I'm the only one on stage. I'm listening to what he's saying, I'm like, "Damn, this dude's deep."
At one point, he looked down at me and was like, "Man, shout out to you right there." Everybody else in the club was like, "Fuck this nigga." From there I went and bought the album and started listening to it and that was that. Everybody else seemed to be about separating people, but his shit was about bringing people together—our people.
Was all the early Rap-A-Lot stuff floating around your consciousness at that time too?
I didn't really listen to Rap-A-Lot that much. I listened to K-Rino—the best in the world in my opinion. I'd listen to Street Military. I'd listen to Dope Dealing Terrorists, 2Pac-type shit. Street Military was on some real gangster shit. K-Rino was on some infinite intellect type shit. Point Blank was just on some I'm-mad-at-the-world type shit, and I'm on all of that, I'm drinking all day. That's what created Z-Ro.
Were you really angry as a kid?
I wasn't angry, but I was misunderstood and misplaced. When I started, Houston was "mayn hol' up / syrup in my cup." Candy paint, syrup, swangers on your car. I'm like, everybody's talking about that. Fat Pat, Lil Keke, Big Hawk, Big Moe, Lil O, Botany Boyz. How can I stand out? I'm not gonna talk about none of that. I'm gonna talk about something different.
This enabled me to be in my own lane while all of those people were competing with each other talking about the same shit. So now they got a competition—"My swanga song gotta be different than his swanga song, my syrup song gotta be different than his syrup song." I'm on the sideline like, "I'm gonna talk about this light bill that I can't pay. I'm gonna talk about this nigga who keep stealing from me. I'm gonna talk about what I know everybody can relate to, whether you rich or poor, your problems, your haters."
"I'm on the sideline like, 'I'm gonna talk about this light bill that I can't pay... I'm gonna talk about what I know everybody can relate to, whether you rich or poor, your problems, your haters.'"
Did you finish college?
Oh hell nah. I left that shit as soon as I got shot. I couldn't follow through what it took for me to keep my scholarship because it was based on playing basketball. I was done. When you get shot in the back with a .357, you can't pass a physical no more. I was done with school with that day.
I met Screw that day, but it didn't start that day. Originally, it started when I was onstage at this club doing my "Lord Tell Me Why" song. Nobody clapped for me, but as I'm walking offstage, a guy is walking in a beeline to see me. I'm like, "who the fuck is that?" because back then, I didn't have no one to see me coming. I didn't know what DJ Screw's brother Al-D looked like. Hell, I didn't know what Pimp C looked like until he got out of jail in 2005. So I'm like, "who the fuck this dude?" and I'm grabbing my gun. But he's like "Say little homie, you was jamming." I was like, "'preciate it."
He was like, "my brother wanna talk to you." "Who the fuck is your brother?" Then he tells me it's DJ Screw. I'm like, "yeah right, DJ Screw yo' brother? And you up in here with a wrinkled-ass white T-shirt on and your jeans fucked up? DJ Screw cannot be your brother." Then he calls him, and he's like "Hello? What it do?" I'm like, "oh shit, this that dude's voice from the tapes," and that's how that shit started.
Is it true that Screw would lock everyone in the studio for 72 hours?
Yup, you trapped. Once you got in there, and that motherfucker burglar bar out, your whole life was on hold. You gotta go to work? You shouldn't have come. Once he go to sleep it's over. He slept for a long duration.
I figured out a couple of ways to get out, though. Back then, drank was important, so I'm like damn, you could wake him up and be like "Hey Screw." "Mmh?" "The drink man at the door." "Where he at? Who called him? Here go get my key." I'd open that motherfucker up, lock it back, open the door, throw the keys back through the bar, lock that mothafucka and walk out or go out through the garage. Back then I was skinny enough to damn near make it through the bars.
I didn't even have shit to do, it's just I was broke, and I was fucked up. When you're broke and fucked up, you don't wanna be around people who aren't broke and fucked up. You'd look up and Big Moe would be walking in, and you know he got about 20 grand worth of drink. Everybody rolling up kush. Back then I'm smoking regular weed. I'm like, "what kinda weed y'all got that ain't got seeds in it? What is that shit and why does it smell so pungent?" They like, "nigga, what the fuck does pungent mean?" I'm like oh my bad, it's loud, it's loud.
What were things you took away from that period of your life?
I was really over there to mess with Screw. Since I was different, I'd get hated on. They'd be like, "Man, Screw, why is he here? He be rapping too fast." He was like, "you mothafuckas listening too slow. He gon' be the one, he gon' lead the clique one day." Screw like, "man keep walking up." When I got there, Flip was just then blowing up and he was the highest paid in the clique, and didn't nobody else in the clique fuck with him because they thought he separated himself, which was a smart thing to do.
I didn't think I was gonna get there, but then I got there and I fucked around and passed Flip up. You get paid the most, and then the hate comes. Screw's vision came true.
How did it affect you when Screw died and you were on your own? And how did you get from there to the Rap-A-Lot era?
I'd actually tried to go to Rap-A-Lot before I got down with Screw. This was in '98. I went there and had a meeting with J. Prince. This was my first meeting with a CEO. We went up in the office and I played him my first song that Screw's brother Al-D had liked.
There's an office full of people and J. Prince listened to it, and then cut the song off and was like, "Say man, this song is alright, but I would never ever do business with a man that call himself nothing. Why the fuck is your name Z-Ro? I can't market that, y'all need to leave."
That was how I met J. Prince. I don't even know if he remembers that, but that was my introduction to him. So I went with Screw. The day that Screw died in November was the same day my wax came back for Z-Ro vs. the World. By that time, I've got three albums out. I've got Look What You Did To Me, Z-Ro vs. the World, and then the first Guerrilla Maab, Rise . So by this time, I'm not a staple, but I'm familiar. I was getting a little money from it. I'm on profitable records, paying my rent, having a little spending money. At that point it wasn't no stopping. I had to continue for personal reasons like rent, bills, food, clothing. It affected me personally, but I couldn't stop.
"Imagine if you're better than Jordan, but ain't nobody let you play. It'll fuck you up. Just imagine being an intellectual and you gotta be around dumb mothafuckas all day."
At any point, did you ever think about quitting music?
Every day. Every day because I've been black balled. Imagine if you're better than Jordan, but ain't nobody let you play. It'll fuck you up. Just imagine being an intellectual and you gotta be around dumb mothafuckas all day, it's gon' be like what the fuck am I smart for?
It's usually not the greatest that get the most attention; it's invariably the guys who are pretty good and don't threaten people.
Their social skills are probably a little bit better than mine. That's what the marriage was like with ABN. There was this other guy; he was good at talking to people. I don't fucking like people. I'm good in the studio. I don't like people until I meet them and talk to them and if I crack a joke then, "okay, I fuck with you." But if it's just "Hey man what's up?" "Sup?" I don't fuck with you. I'm never wrong, I'm not trying to be a judge of people, but I know myself. He used to be good with wanting to go get the people, bringing them to the studio, and that's what I excel at. By myself, I don't have the networking thing like that.
What do you think of the state of Houston music right now?
It's muddy. It's a formula with everybody is trying to be like Atlanta. You look at people that was doing Screw rap, now they turned up. You look at people who were conscious at first, but now they're doing other types of music. It's not my business to even have an opinion about it, but I just notice it and I'm like, if it was me, I would've stuck to my guns. I'm not gonna let a dollar sign or a potential dollar sign change my psyche.
You've spent almost 20 years becoming a force in Houston. What do you want to do in the future to shape the city and place you came from?
I'm gonna say this first: I don't believe the city can be shaped. I'm just a realist. You're fucked to hell, everybody. All you can do is do what you can do. So I do my part of giving back. To even understand the police more, I damn near had to become one.
What does that mean?
It means I'm definitely never going to jail again. I know that because of the community outreach shit that I do. I'm partnered up with a precinct out here that I know for a fact is against killing civilians unless immediately necessary. I try and bridge the gaps. I work with them. They're out here to find rapists and murderers, but you ain't finna sell no drugs in front of them. They finna park their car, they finna play basketball with you, slap bones with you, and if they seen Junior fighting Leroy, they not gonna taze the shit out of both of them. They believe in dialogue.
When did you start doing this?
I've been doing this shit under the radar for about two years. Within the last 13 months that's when they reached out and were like, "we want you to help us, people respect you. You got the gangsters on your side, and we need people to realize that all of us are not out to kill y'all." And a lot of them are my color. It started out with one precinct, but now another precinct reached out. So I've been doing more of this than rapping right now.
At the end of the day, what I'm doing right now is gonna keep my daughters alive and make them able to survive a traffic stop. It's worth doing.
What do you think people still misunderstood about you?
That I'm an asshole. People take being straight up as having an attitude. If somebody says some dumb shit, they look at me like I'm an asshole because I'ma be like, "hey, you just said some dumb shit."
People don't like the truth.
Nah, they don't like the truth. But you know what people don't like more than the truth? They don't like being corrected. I ain't gonna lie. If you call me a bitch in front of all these people, then I'm gonna' call you a bitch back with a whole lot of adverbs and adjectives following behind it. Expediently.
What gives your life meaning, and what is life's meaning to you?
I'm trying to live here as long as I can naturally, but living the right way so I can go to the right place when I'm gone. That's all I'm trying to do. I'm trying to be a man while I'm here, even if people don't understand what that means or what it all entails. I'm trying to be a man here, so I can be a man when I leave here, because I know this isn't it.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.