Photos by Matt Seger
It’s Z-Ro’s second time in New York—the first was only about a year ago—and the Houston rapper is clearly thrilled by it. He looks down the Brooklyn street where we’re standing, taking pictures, and shakes his head in disbelief, still a little bit stunned that anyone here would want to talk to him about his music, as if he didn’t have two very consistent decades of great art to back himself up. Behind his formidable sunglasses, which he doesn’t remove the whole time we’re together, even when sitting in a dimly lit basement studio, one imagines wide eyes. This whole song and dance of self-promotion, the thing where you go talk to the New York media, is new to Z-Ro, whose career, despite tangles with labels and all manner of interpersonal drama, has mostly just happened—and happened to mostly work out.
Z-Ro, it might be safe to say, is not an artist of these times, although he's only 39. Contemporary music lives and dies based on the extent to which it can make a sudden impact and dominate conversations on social media; Z-Ro has built a legacy that is anything but sudden, that becomes richer in aggregate, when viewed over many years. In this way, he is very much a continuation of the legacy of his mentor DJ Screw, an artist whose aesthetic has thrived as a Tumblr touchstone and influence in recent years but whose greatest appeal was perhaps the constancy of his presence, the way he supplied a soundtrack for an entire city every week for years, without fail, with no promises as to what the exact content would be.
There’s no one Z-Ro song that you might point to as the Z-Ro song, the crossover hit that casual music fans know and love. But there are dozens of Z-Ro songs that any particular fan might name as their Z-Ro song. Z-Ro makes music that people connect to on a deeply emotional level, that is honest to the point of discomfort (a Drake song with the gender politics of Z-Ro’s “I Hate U” or the newly released “Baby Momma Blues” would set the internet on fire). He often echoes, as he drifts between song and rap, our ugliest, most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, confronting them in a swarthy, anguished baritone. In Z-Ro’s universe, there is nothing more gangster than being open about all the maddening, devastating shit that life puts you through.
“It lets you know that OK this person may be real after all,” he told me, talking about the emotions at the core of the best gangster rap. “It’s not all about the fun and the women and the money and whatnot. It’s reality in it too.”
Z-Ro’s newest album, Drankin’ and Drivin’, released last week, continues this tradition of rock-solid, smoothly delivered songs that draw on deep-seated emotion, most notably on “Since We Lost Y’all,” a devastating tribute to dead friends featuring Krayzie Bone. There’s also plenty of the me-against-the-world cantankerous Z-Ro charm: This is a guy who opens up a song like “Successful” with the lines Y’all thought I was gonna wear them long johns forever / now I’m a chinchilla nigga I’m ready for cold weather.” In a similar vein is “Where the Real,” which Noisey is premiering the video for today.
As for where the real is, and what the real is, well there’s nothing realer than Z-Ro’s story, which he laid out the first several years of when we sat down to talk in New York. A conversation with Z-Ro could have gone on for hours, but just hearing a few stories about his time with DJ Screw felt like winning a million dollars.
Noisey: Where do you think the Houston sound and your sound came from? It’s so melodic, like especially when you think of UGK and Pimp C's production.
Z-Ro: A lot of it comes from what you just said, Pimp C. He was doing a lot of his own hooks for everybody else back then. As for for me, it was something I had to learn how to do because I couldn’t pay to get R&B singers to sing my stuff for me. I had to acquire that skill so I could save a little money. But as far as the culture as a whole back there, a lot of it comes from a lot of DJ Screw tapes. Fat Pat would get on there, all of a sudden he’s rapping, and then he would all of a sudden break out in a song. Lil Keke was famous for doing that, rapping and then out of nowhere break out into a melody and keep the melody for 36 bars then go back into a rap. That’s something you’re hearing when you’re a teenager, so after you hear that you’re like, man Lil Keke went off, Fat Pat went off, or Big Moe. So when you get to doing your thing what's in the forefront of your head is what you’ve been listening. So of course you’re going to try, and if somebody is like, “hey man that sounds kind of good” you’re going to stay with it.
Was there someone who encouraged you and flipped the switch of you realizing what your talent was, like you were describing?
It was the exact opposite. There were a lot of people who were like, “man, shut the fuck up. We don’t want to hear that shit. Go back in there and cook the crack. That's what you’re good at. That shit you’re doing that’s nothing.” Which made me want to do it more, I was like fuck y’all I’m going to do this shit, I’m tired of selling crack.
Was music something you were around at that point? How did you get drawn into it?
I got drawn into it on a summer vacation. I went to the North Side, damn near Slim Thug’s neighborhood. I’m in Trinity Garden for the summer at a relative’s house, and they were in there with the four-tracks and microphones. They stole my aunt’s speakers out of the living room and had them in the room, and they were recording and shit. I was like, “what the fuck are y’all doing?” And I was broke, so I’m asking my cousin like, “you’ve been doing this since nine in the morning man it’s 4 AM. Why?” And he told me, “man if this shit hit I’m going to come back to this motherfucker and buy every CVS on the North Side.” I said, “you’d be able to do that shit from selling this raggedy shit you’re doing?” I was like, shit, I want a CVS, give me a piece of paper.
I started writing. I was kind of better than them, but I did poetry a lot. I didn't do shit that rhymed, so I’d just write some crazy shit. Sometimes I’d just write words, slam poetry type shit. It was just my feelings. I just started making that shit rhyme, and they were like, “that shit is weird as fuck, but it’s jamming when you make it rhyme.” And I was like, OK, cool I’ll stick with it.
So by the time I come back to my side of town it's back to the hustle, and of course there’s nothing to do when you’re doing what you’re doing except for listening to music. So when certain shit come on the radio, the right R&B, you’d change the words up a bit. My shit was SWV, “I Get So Weak.” So I’m singing that, with lyrics about my life, and I turn around and motherfuckers are bobbing their head like, “I’m not just saying you’re good, but that shit was jamming, you should write that.” That’s what we were doing, though. We’re in these streets, hustling, no one has a job in this motherfucker, but we got guns and crack cocaine. Nobody is even 20 years old. We’re fucked up. But that’s what it was, and that’s what made the shit special. I think that’s where the desire to do it as a profession came from.
Did your cousin ever end up owning any CVSes?
No. He tried to rob one of the motherfuckers and went to jail for like 11 years.
How old were you at this point?
I had to be like 14.
So at 14 you were already around this dope house and crack?
Yeah, it was the norm. Not like it’s a bragging right because it’s really not, but it was the norm because where else are you going to go when you want to be belligerent and disobedient? Motherfuckers didn’t give a fuck if you were 12, 13, or 14: If you’re not following my rules get the fuck out of my house. So you’re out of the house, you got to find somewhere to go. These are the motherfuckers who are going to take you in.
So you’re singing, and what happens? How do you end up with DJ Screw finding out who you are?
I went to do a talent show at a club. I didn’t win. There were motherfuckers at this talent show like Crime Boss that ended up being on Suave House. I thought it was some cheating shit because they already had a deal. I do my shit, and I’m doing a song called “Lord Tell Me Why.” It was off my first album. And Screw’s brother Al D, he’s on the side of the stage, just looking. I didn’t know who the fuck he was, but he wasn’t bobbing his head or anything, so I was like I must suck. Nobody is bobbing their head. They’re just looking at me like, man, I hope this dude sits the fuck down so we can get back to the real shit. But what it was, was they were all paying attention to the shit I was saying because it didn't sound like candy paint, syrup shit. They're thinking, “this is my life he’s talking about.” So as I’m walking down there’s no clap or nothing. They’re just following me with their eyes, and I’m like OK, I’m about to go the fuck back from where I came from.
Then this motherfucker walked up like, “man, I’ve never heard some shit like that before, like are you 2pac or some shit?” And I’m like, “no, my name is Z-Ro.” Then he was like, “I’m going to let you talk to my brother.” I was like “who are you?” And he was like “I’m Al D, and my brother is DJ Screw,” and I’m like “get the fuck out of here.” I’m walking off, and he passes me the phone. It’s DJ Screw, he’s like, “Do you have some money in your pocket? Hold on, let me talk to my brother.” His brother went into his pocket and gave me a foil paper full of sherms. He was like, “sell these, here go a couple of dollars, come with me.” I was like, “I took the bus here,” and he was like “hop in with me.” We went straight to Screw's house, and when we got there it’s all the people I’ve been listening to. My heart is beating fast, nervous as fuck because I know at one point they’re going to be like “pass the mic to the little homie.” And I was scared like my voice isn’t even going to work anymore, seeing all the people that I listen to on these Screw tapes. Then Screw comes out and the first thing he does is reach into his pocket and hands me some money.
He just handed you money? He hadn’t even heard you yet?
Yeah, but I hear his brother say, “he’s on my level, but he’s singing and he’s really out here.” So the first thing he did was like, “let’s go into the study,” and I was like, fuck. My heart started beating fast again. But it was to talk, and he was asking me “what do you want to see happen with your life?” And I was like this shit doesn’t feel like music; this shit feels like counseling. But I said I want to make make some money, I want to buy a bed, I want to have a normal life and shit, some regular shit. So he was like, “all right, cool, well we’re about to make this tape. Stick around.”
And once you get to Screw's house you’re fucking trapped. You can’t go anywhere for three days because once he goes to sleep and he has the burglar bar key in his pocket it’s over. You need to get a cover and a spot on the floor. So for the next 72 hours I was in his house, did a tape. And after we did the first tape, he was like “look, I want to let you know something: You’re in.” I was like, “I know I’m in, we’ve been in this bitch the past 72 hours.” He was like, “nah you’re in the S.U.C.” I said “what’s that?” He was like, “the Screwed Up Click. You’re in. I’m about to put this other guy Lil Flip in. You’re the last two motherfuckers I’m putting in.”
What do you think it was that you said on “Lord Please Tell Me Why” that grabbed their attention?
I think it was the content, period, because you’re talking about a time in rap when the norm in Houston was “man hold up, syrup in my cup.” It was more of the Screw tapes. And for me to be in the Screwed Up Click and not rap like a Screwed Up Clickster, I was on some reality shit, saying shit that everybody was going through. My thing was to talk about issues everybody was going through. I didn’t know what it felt like to ride in a candy red Lexus or the candy green Jaguar. I didn’t know about any of that shit. I was poor as fuck. It was the fact that I wasn’t the norm, I wasn’t on the type of subject matter they were on. I was a different type of dude, so I was rapping different.
Was it kind of weird for you to come into that world with them and it’s like here I am drinking lean, what am I doing here?
It was, especially when I had to rap. I’m listening to the shit they’re saying, and they’re on some real Screwed Up Click shit, and then I’m on some real rapping shit. Some of them would go complain to Screw like, “man why he flipping his tongue and shit? This is the S.U.C. this isn’t the tongue flip clique.” They were like, “he’s rapping too fast,” and Screw said, “y’all just listening too slow. He’s going to be the one.” He’d tell me “keep doing what you’re doing, you’re here because you don’t remind me of anything that’s already here. You’ll be the one, just keep doing your shit.” Especially after the Crumbs 2 Bricks tape, everybody was on their shit, and I’m flipping my tongue faster than a motherfucker, and now they’re like, “oh shit, this shit is jammin.”
So this is your world for a few years? What else is going on?
Actually, it was a short period of time. Screw left us in 2000, and I didn’t really get inducted until the end of '97. So I had two years with him, and it’s not a whole lot of content there because it’s not all about rap. A lot of that shit was trying to calm me down to stop me from doing other type of shit and sending me to the studio to do real songs. Screw was like, “I’m not saying you can’t rap over here anymore, but you need to go where you can get nine or ten backup tracks, and you need to go to digital, get in there with the white guys that know buttons and shit. All I can do is slow this shit down and make your head bob. You need to go in there and do your thing.” So from the tapes came street fame and then with that came opportunities with the other rappers around the city. Like, “man that verse you did on World Wide Southside, how much for a verse like that on my shit?” I was like how much? I didn’t even know what to say. I was like, shit I can get paid off of this shit? It was like the beginning of a street team, putting my name in people’s ear and letting people know the skills I had. It was the promo I was looking for at the beginning stage, at least.
I found out how to escape Screw’s house. When he was asleep I’d purposely act like I was locking the garage, but then I would never turn it. So I’d sneak out and leave. Right before I’d pull up at my house he’d pull up like, why you leave? I’d be like, “man I’m tired of sleeping on the floor. There’s a bed here, so I’m going to sleep here.” He’d give me like $400, and I’d be like “what’s this for?” He’s say, “you got to understand you’ve become an asked-for feature on a lot of my tapes.” And every tape Screw did, he was going to run 10,000 copies and sell all of them. So he’s like, “this $400 I’m giving you is nothing compared to what I’m about to make off of this tape.” He’d be making like $15,000 a day off his whole catalog. So damn near every time I’m doing a freestyle I’m getting $400. We’re spending time together, riding with him places out of town, he’s DJing events. I’m in attendance with him, putting in a little work with him. So I guess he was taking care of me a little bit, giving me some pocket change.
What changed when he passed away?
The love was gone. It was all about money then. When he left it was fucked up because it was about to be my first album, my first solo record. And the day my wax came in was the day he died. After then it was try to get a dollar because obviously we don’t have this outlet anymore. We don’t have anybody really rooting for us. I wasn’t ever looking for any money from Screw because he was the money. You should’ve seen the lines. The line was probably as long as two New York blocks. Some people walking, some people in cars. This man had a system: When my gate open at 10 o'clock I start selling tapes. At 9:20 this line was already—it’s like the Jordans are going to come out at Foot Locker or some shit. Motherfuckers is all the way down the street waiting.
Let's talk about the new album real quick. Is there a song on there that stands out to you in particular?
I like them all, but the one with Krayzie Bone, “Since We Miss Y’all,” it’s heartfelt for me because I wrote that for my little homeboy that just passed Thanksgiving last year. And then with the beat damn near sounding like “Crossroads” and then being able to acquire Krayzie, it was too real for me. This one was for one of my day ones. He was younger then me, but it was a real stressful situation how he died. Nobody knows the absolute truth. We found him with his shoulders and back broken, whoever did it to him made sure he couldn’t get oxygen to the brain, so it was real fucked up. So when Krayzie heard it he was like, “oh I got to get on this shit too.” Krayzie was sick and came straight out of his sickness and did this verse and killed it. This shit means something to me. RIP Damon Woodson on this one.
Matt Seger shoots photos and video for VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.