'He Shook the World': George Floyd's Legendary Houston Legacy - Rolling Stone
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‘He Shook the World’: George Floyd’s Legendary Houston Legacy

Before a police officer killed him, Big Floyd was a rapper in Texas’ influential Screwed Up Click. Now, the musicians that knew him are left to reflect on his life in Houston — and what comes next

George Floyd

Houston rappers Paul Wall, Bun B, Trae tha Truth, and Cal Wayne discuss the legacy of George Floyd

Photos in illustration by Bob Levey/Getty Images, Gary Miller/Getty Images, Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images, Izzeddin Idilbi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Cal Wayne’s words come fast, toppling over one another. “I ain’t gon’ lie it’s devastating,” the Houston rapper says. “I idolized him.”

Then Cal describes the morning he received a text from a friend that changed his life, about an event that would lead to millions of Americans taking to the streets in protest. “That’s your brother,” the message read. It included a video. Before Cal could watch the entire clip, his girlfriend came home, delivering news he couldn’t believe. She implored him to finish watching what he initially believed was only an arrest. “I looked, and watched it,” Cal says. “I didn’t realize they just killed my nigga.”

Cal knew George Floyd his entire life; George was the man who always believed in his rap career. “That’s my next-door neighbor,” he says. “I actually lived with him for three years. When I was young, my mom went to prison. His mother just came and got us, and we just stayed with her.”

On May 25th, George Floyd was arrested by four Minneapolis police officers outside of a Cup Foods convenience store after an employee claimed he tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. For more than eight minutes, Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee, while three officers — Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng — watched. “I can’t breathe, man,” Floyd pleaded, crying out for his mother before falling unconscious. “Please.” Floyd died; according to an independent examiner hired by his family, the cause was “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” He was 46.

“[George] had no aggression to him,” Cal says. “He wouldn’t hurt nobody.”

On the evening before protesters march to Houston City’s Hall, two of the event’s organizers, Bun B and Trae tha Truth, sound raw. Even though Floyd was killed in Minneapolis — he’d moved there searching to better his life in 2014 — he was raised in Houston’s Third Ward. And as Texas rappers and fathers, both Bun and Trae witnessed the personal toll that Floyd’s passing had on the people around them.

“This Friday was the first day that my own son had to come to the realization that, as a father of black children, something could happen to his children in this world just because they’re black,” Bun B says. “It actually brought me to tears for him, having that realization.”

Trae found out about Floyd’s death lying next to his daughter in their living room. When one of his friends called asking about the identity of the man in the soon-to-be viral video, Trae had to look for himself. “I was just lost at the moment. Watching it, just took me for a loop,” Trae adds. “Then I called Cal Wayne. He was always with George before he actually moved to Minnesota. When I called him, he was crying. It was a lot going on.”

For a decade, as Trae organized community events with his partner Tiffany Cofield, Floyd was there. “George would actually drive [Tiffany],” Trae says. “They would drive up there together for a lot of stuff I was doing, they would be there helping me hands-on. When I would come help the projects I would give them supplies, food, different stuff. He’d always be out there.”

“He believed in people to a point it seemed he believed in people more than he even believed in himself,” Trae adds.

Back in the early 2010s, when Trae’s music was banned from radio stations following a shooting at a community event he organized, Floyd supported him when many artists and supporters had fled. In a video posted to Trae’s Instagram, a young Floyd — decked in a backward fitted hat — advocates for his friend and, by extension, his community. “It’s about coming together, man,” he implores his city. “Because God is good.”

“I was banned from radio worldwide,” Trae says. “It will make 11 years this year. At a point, a lot of people left. They didn’t want to talk to me. They didn’t want to have no affiliation, because I was going through a tough time as far as being blackballed. He randomly on his own went to protesting himself and doing videos saying everything that Trae do for the community; y’all trying to stop him and it’s not right. He always spoke up for what’s right, even when young dudes in the neighborhood may be doing some stuff that ain’t cool. When there was a lot of killing going on throughout our city, he would always speak up, like, ‘This ain’t the way.’”

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For those growing up in Houston, George, also known as Big Floyd, was part of a crucial local scene that influenced much of modern hip-hop. An affiliate of the Screwed Up Click, Floyd’s voice appeared on cult-classic mixtapes helmed by the legendary DJ Screw. As the inventor of “chopped and screwed” — a technique of slowing down a record’s sonics until the vocals and production sounded like they had been dragged through molasses — the late DJ, who died in 2000, created a sonic blueprint impacting the charts to this day. “[DJ Screw] was an innovator,’” Russell Washington, the president of Bigtyme Records told The New York Times in 2000. “Who would have thought someone would come along, reduce the music’s speed, and put on all local artists that no one had ever heard of, and sell 300,000 records?”

“It automatically ties him to a legendary legacy,” Bun B says of Big Floyd’s involvement with the Screwed Up Click. “By having that level of proximity to DJ Screw, you are automatically afforded a certain status in the city of Houston, and held in high regard.”

In the late Nineties, Houston rap stood alone, with its own aesthetic and cultural orbit. The divide between those who rapped as a full-time profession and hobbyists was often fluid. DJ Screw’s prolific mixtape output inspired many like Floyd to try their hand at rapping between other pursuits. It was an era before CDs, MP3 downloads, and social media, which has made keeping the memory of these foundational talents alive a “vocal tradition [that] gets passed on from one person to another,” according to Paul Wall.

“[Big Floyd] would rap on tapes, but you would also hear other rappers say his name on tapes. Big Pokey saying something about Big Floyd. Lil’ Keke saying something about Big Floyd. Mike D saying something about Big Floyd,” Wall begins. “For the people that would come, it would be people from everyday walks of life. His mixtape [Chapter 007:] Ballin’ In Da Mall, that’s one of the ones where there’s like legend behind the mixtape. He supposedly worked at Foot Locker, him and some other people. It was one of their birthdays. I think it was Big Floyd’s birthday and they come. And ‘what you want to do for your birthday?’ ‘I want to do a Screw tape.’ ‘Aight, on my birthday we’ll go over there.’ That’s what a lot of people would do. It’s your birthday, you’d go and make a Screw tape.”

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Paul Wall, along with the rest of Swishahouse (Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug), fulfilled the commercial promise that the previous generation’s Screwed Up Click never got the chance to. As a white rapper, Wall is not only deferential to the memory of the rappers who populated Screw’s mixtapes, but also the Houston culture that accepted him. “It don’t matter where I grew up. It don’t matter how much money I give to causes in the community. It don’t matter how many rallies or protests I go to. It don’t matter how many songs I make spreading positivity or sending a message. It don’t matter how much time I spend within the community. It don’t matter that I have a black wife,” Wall says. “Being a white person in America, you represent being a benefactor of slavery of what this country was built on.”

Bun B and Trae tha Truth traveled to Minneapolis to protest for Floyd and every other black American killed by the police; days later, they turned their attention to his birthplace. Although Bun B didn’t know Floyd personally, he knew someone who had. Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player, is Bun B’s lifelong friend and a man that called Floyd his “twin.” “Imagine this, a man growing up in an area where the odds are already against him,” Jackson said at a press conference last week. “You get an opportunity to move away from the environment that brought you down. You get away. You be successful. You get a job. Your life starts turning in the right direction. You stumble a little bit again. That’s not worth your life, though.”

Bun B, Trae tha Truth, Floyd’s family, and protesters are calling for legislation ranging from an independent community review board with subpoena power that can obtain and look at evidence without police interference to harsher penalties for police who commit crimes like the ones that resulted in Floyd’s death. While new legislation won’t bring back the countless black lives murdered by the police, if successful, it will begin to make sure the world isn’t robbed of another Big Floyd.

A few hours removed from the protest, I ask Cal how it feels to see the entire world fight for Floyd.

“That’s the best part of it,” Cal says. “He shook the world. Big Floyd is really Big Floyd now. He’s a martyr now.”

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