Photo courtesy of Z-Ro
Z-Ro is misunderstood. As long as I’ve heard about Joseph Wayne McVey—first as part of Guerilla MAAB, then as a member of the Screwed Up Click, and even back in the heated cyphers where he and perennial Houston underground favorite K-Rino used to go bar for bar—he’s always been slapped with the label of unapproachable. Surly. An asshole.
Well, he’s not. Rather, he’s guarded and old school, raised from an era where masculinity stood at one pivot and never moved. Earlier this spring, we met at the new Screwed Up Records & Tapes shop on West Fuqua in Houston. Ro came out to meet me dressed in all black, his eyes hidden behind black, blocked-off frames. The store’s aesthetic was a mix of modern streetwear boutique and the classic feel of Screw’s old house. The metal gate buzzed open when we entered, and a large husky man, Al-D, the same man who first introduced DJ Screw to Ro, greeted the rapper like an old family member, which in a way, as a part of Screwed Up Click, he is.
Joseph Wayne McVey is, at 38, a Houston legend: a prolific, complicated rapper and arguably the most famous hook man in the city’s rap history. McVey grew up in Ridgemont, a relatively low-to-middle class enclave of Missouri City, Texas. He lost his mother, Dorothy Marie McVey Matthews, when he was six; her name and image have been a constant in his raps for the better part of nearly three decades.
Along with his friend Dinky D and cousin Frazier Thompson, who adopted the moniker Trae (later Trae Tha Truth), he formed Guerilla Maab. The group released their first project, the critically acclaimed Rise, in 1999. By that point, Ro had cut enough raps to gain a bit of a following, and he attracted the attention of some of the scene’s more established players, including the group Street Military and K-Rino’s South Park Coalition. K-Rino, a legend in the underground Houston rap scene, is, to Z-Ro, “the greatest muthaucka to ever hold a mic.”
Yet of all the “family” situations Ro gravitated toward, none seemed like more of a home than DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. To Ro, Screw was more than just someone who thought Z-Ro’s raps were pretty good; he was also a benefactor who showed his protégé that money could be made rapping. Ro stood out amid the gloss and shine of a rubbery Houston pop sound as an artist who spoke with sullen gravity about his life experiences, painting painfully bleak pictures about death, fighting, and more. It wouldn’t be until years later that his gravelly yet approachable singing made him accessible as Houston’s hook king.
After Screw’s passing in 2000, Ro continued to release solo material, putting out album after album for various small labels before aligning with J. Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records. The union seemed perfect, a vouched street act with a loyal legion of fans with the biggest label in the city. Z-Ro released The Life Of Joseph W. McVey, his first album on the label, in 2004 while he was in jail on a drug possession charge, with the dismissive “I Hate You Bitch” as a lead single. It peaked at number 75 on the Billboard charts. The next year, after Z-Ro was released, he put out his second album on Rap-A-Lot, the bleak yet powerful Let The Truth Be Told, which may well be his best project ever.
Screwed Up Records, photo by the author
The years that followed saw a yo-yo effect of Ro releasing an album and then heading to jail, a cycle that impeded his growth as an artist nationally even as he became more and more popular in the South. He remained vocal during the Houston rap boom of the mid-2000s, appearing on Bun B’s “Get Throwed” and Pimp C’s “Isa Playa,” and becoming involved in a now-squashed beef with Slim Thug where he joked he was going to braid Slim’s own hair, among other barbs. Album after album, fight after fight with Rap-A-Lot, bad business deal after bad business deal, jail stint after jail stint, Z-Ro remained a legend, a proud owner of his life with a penchant for being surly and insular as can be.
“Is anybody in the studio?” Ro asked, back at Screwed Up Records & Tapes. Al-D shook his head no, and I followed Ro and a friend of his in. The friend took position near a side table, beginning to roll up a couple ounces of weed while weighing contents of a red Soda and a bottle of lean. Ro sat, the ink on his heavy hands shining in the light. He was ready to talk, candidly in his own nearly sleepy but unmistakable drawl. Every time he wanted to say something, a hitch hit his voice before he got the word out, a noticeable quirk that made me realize something else even more:
Z-Ro, the Houston rap cyborg, is rather human after all.
The author and Z-Ro, photo by the author
Noisey: Where do we even begin? From those Guerilla Maab tapes to now, do see how much shit has changed? Or is it another day in the life?
Z-Ro: It’s another day in the life for me. But for everybody else? Shit done changed. Changed is an understatement. It’s not about if you’re jamming no more, it’s about if you’re going to do something absolutely stupid. And I’m not here to do anything absolutely stupid.
You’ve had this real weird contractual obligation about using the name Z-Ro, Mo City Don.
Nah, it’s nothing contractual. I’ve just got a lot of handles ‘cause motherfuckers don’t realize. There’s a lot of motherfuckers who reinvent themselves to sell records or for show money, shit like that. I never reinvent myself. I just give myself another moniker and make a mixtape off of it. Like Rodeine, my version of a Screw tape. Shit that pops in a nigga’s head. I might see Hakeem and be Rokeem Olajuwon. It’s just slanguage we use that I just bring to my day job, which is, you know, fucking up the microphone.
Like Rotha Vandross.
Rotha Vandross, Silly D. Williams, all them little names—Rohammaed Ali, Kimro Slice. It means something to a motherfucker like me that’s looking at it like, cool, a dude says, “we finna drop a Ro record.” He’s going to say, “I don’t want two Ro records out ‘cause they’ll be competing with each other.” So I say “cool, you can drop that Ro record. I’ll drop this Rotha Vandross record.” It’s still the same nigga, same artist, but it’s a whole ‘nother bag of money that isn’t gonna fuck up this bag of money from a business standpoint. On the day to day shit, I do different shit every time. I might be King of the Ghetto right now, or I might spazz out and be Rohammaed and beat somebody the fuck up. Everybody spazzes in their own way. I character spaz and shit like that.
Do you think people take you the wrong way? You’ve always been insular, non-Hollywood.
I don’t give a fuck what nobody think about me cause that shit… I hope an intelligent motherfucker gets it. And it’s not stupid motherfuckers out there.
I’m on that I will whip your ass all the time if you fuck with me all the time. I’m just comfortable telling people, “Fuck you and whoever you love.” With pride! On the artist side, I’m just out here selling records. So I leave the deep shit for me and K-Rino or the real spiritual, real deep thinker shit for the diehards. I let them decipher shit for themselves. I hope they get the right message, but if not, I got $9.99. I ain’t trippin’.
You said in XXL that the Houston rap scene isn’t united. I don’t feel that the city needs to be all kumbaya to begin with.
Being united isn’t just being all bro-ed up either. The word is synergy. I’m One Deep Entertainment. Mike D’s got Corleone Entertainment. Now we ain’t kicked it with each other at all. But on show night? For one hour out of my life, I’m gonna fuck with y’all and make more than that $14,000. Cause I’m bringing my One Deep Entertainment shirts, condoms, thongs for the hers—hopefully not for the hims. There’s a synergy going on.
You can put your beef to the side for a dollar amount. I come down off my price a little bit, other people up their price up, and we’ll sell a show to a venue. I might make $10,000, but we sell out the venue. We take away the whole 90 to 100 bands and split this up between four to five people? So you’re talking about damn near 20 bands apiece. I’m not gonna say names ‘cause it’s going to sound like talking down, but it’s the truth. Motherfuckers don’t have to sleep together to do that. I’m coming at it like a boss, ‘cause that’s surviving. ‘Cause you’re not just getting your normal wage, you’re getting a chance to perform this same show over and over. Like me and Trae doing the A.B.N. shit. Me and Trae weren’t getting the same solo, but doing the A.B.N. tour we’re getting 18 bands. It’s like a Guerilla Maab album and a Z-Ro album coming out on the same day. It ain’t nothing but synergy, and as an older dude now, I see where it count.
You told me that people don’t put as much effort into making songs anymore, that it used to be more verses. Did that make you step your hook game up?
It’s gradual. What I’m doing in the public eye… what’s gonna be cold for me? I’ve got a bunch of R&B shit that’s still Z-Ro, not on no lovey dovey, I love you shit. But I’m saving that good shit for Rotha Vandross Sings The Blues. But boys gotta realize, the shit you’re listening to now? That’s six years old.
The verses from Melting The Crown?
Man, the hooks! It ain’t even perfecting them. It’s doing them and stashing them. When you’re saving something for the bigger picture, like I am, I’m like, I’ma let some years go by, do my thing feature-wise, and when I come back in the game, I’ma be doing shit people can’t even fathom doing. I did “I Hate You,” then I did another hook. I gave up “I Hate You.” Just imagine what I kept. And I got this from Pimp: “Don’t dwell on that. Do that shit, lock that shit up and do another one. Lock that shit, do that, and do another one!”
I can hear him saying that too.
It was like he was fussing at me with the shit. “What is you doing? You do a song and then you just give that ho to somebody. You trippin’. Get paid, don’t get played.” So what I’m doing now is, after all the bad experiences I’ve had at all the labels I’ve been on—not just Rap-A-Lot—my mind immediately goes to, “that’s all I’ma get? Okay, that’s all I’ma give.”
If I’ve got A-1 and you wanna pay me like a D-4? I’ma give you some D-4 music. My D-4’s still going to be harder than a lot of niggas’ A-1, but on a lot of songs, I explained that shit. Like the Mya song, I explained basically my thoughts about being an artist on the label. We’ve got to get cognitive again. I’m telling you on the song, “I know it look like I got a lot, I’m just whipping the shit to make it look like it’s a lot.” Every song that motherfuckers gravitate towards of mine, I’m not telling you nothing but another one of my struggles, which is probably another motherfucker’s struggle.
The crazy thing is, people think you’re depressed, all the time.
Ain’t no depression, you know? I’m just telling people how I go through things.
Let’s go back to 2005, Let The Truth Be Told. The first track “Mo City Don Freestyle” is without question, the greatest freestyle in Houston rap history. What does that mean to you?
It was weird at first. ‘Cause at first, I’m a deep dude, or at least I’d like to think I am. I just did a freestyle, and I wasn’t talking about shit! But fans love that beat and the music. I’m a dark dude. That beat ain’t dark. Even that sample with that bitch singing? I couldn’t even rap that bitch ‘cause they would have talked about the Himalayas and shit.
I’m playing it at my wedding, I hope you know that. The moment you hear “Slow, loud and banging…”
It’s powerful. And I don’t have a favorite record; ‘cause all that shit comes back to different times and different emotions. Like the “don’t do drugs, do me” period or Z-Ro Tolerance…
The Screw Days.
Yeah. I mean look at us right now. We’re in the Screw Shop. Screw was right when he said he was going to screw the world. I mean, the crew may be different because people got families; boys got jobs where they gotta tuck their chains in. But Screw was right. When we got done recording those tapes, we just walked out. Later, a dude would sell somebody a dub of the tape, and we’d hear it differently because it’s recorded differently. But that shit is everywhere. It’s life for some motherfuckers. But since the Houston sound is what the world is on, doing shit that originated here…
People are doing what they think Screw was. They aren’t creative. They try to mimic Jeezy or whoever they see on TV. Lot of motherfuckers are in fucked up situations where they can’t afford for their creativity to kick in. It’s a lot of talented people in fucked up situations. I was one of them. I couldn’t wait to possibly evade this murder charge. Every day of my life I was like, “Fuck I should have signed this contract.” Shit, J. Prince was like, “Right now I’ll knock off the lawyer, you’ve got to go in for a little while, but you’ve got to sign the contract.” So everybody don’t have time.
Your discography is ridiculous.
Even those old KMJ records. I was dropping them before I even knew I had a fan base. Back then, online buying wasn’t going down back then. So you know, it’s back to dropping mixtapes, like me and Mike D have this Two The Hard Way coming. I don’t know about the me and Slim shit. I’m just focused on dropping these albums I’ve always talked about. Like the Legendary album where I collab with people I think are legends. Me and K-Rino, me and E-40, me and B-Leigt, me and C-Bo—plus me and C-Bo have an album coming called The Blues Brothers. Still Screwed Up with Mike D. Rotha Vandross Sings The Blues. Even though me and O got in the fight and don’t fuck with each other no more I’ve still got a whole album with Lil O, called The Punishment in the vault. The album with me and Blank, The Blood & The Crip. Me and Chris Ward, another album with another title, in the vault.
How do you even record all of this? How?
All my stuff is at my house now. I went to Mike Dean’s house, and he turned me against going to studios. ‘Cause it was some weird shit going on in there.
Mike Dean? No way.
It was crazy. I pulled up, started writing down notes. Shit was crazy. Smoking weed in this bitch. They got a bird in the house. They trained the bird to swoop down to snatch the motherfucking swisher out your hand and take it to his chick.
Wait a minute.
One minute, you’re just smoking. The bird don’t even screech or nothing. You look down and the blunt—
The blunt is gone! You can’t even say nothing. You still dumbfounded by the bird. And then you see the sheep dog. These motherfuckers are so high, they done gave the dog a haircut.
The dog’s walking around looking at you like, “I look real weak right now, don’t I?” They done took the clippers and cut the dog’s underhair off so it look like he’s wearing a mink. Everybody’s laughing at the dog, and the dog’s walking out with his head down. After that, I said, I can’t come over here no more man. [Laughs] So I got all my shit at the house now. If I know the song’s going to be big, I take it to the Cold Chamber or somebody else. But I can just go home now, record. That’s why there’s so many songs.
Brandon Caldwell's trunk is full of funk, and he's never been a punk. Follow him on Twitter.