Paul Wall is having what appears to be the time of his life. He’s sitting in front of his computer on Zoom, showing me the different Houston-centric backdrops he has pre-loaded. NRG Stadium, where the Texans play; a diamond-encrusted grill; a modified Cadillac, lowered to the ground with its trunk open to reveal the kind of sound system made especially for his city’s unique style of music. For a stretch of time in the 2000s, Paul Wall and the glistening grill in his mouth were a familiar symbol of Houston’s dynamic and enduring rap scene. Wall, who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, navigated the underground and the mainstream with cool ease. Today, he’s amused at going viral on Twitter. Someone on the internet made the claim that Mac Miller was “the only white rapper that didn’t try to sound like Eminem,” and Wall couldn’t pass up the chance to have a little fun. “Paul wall has entered the chat,” he replied.
Capitalizing on the viral moment, Wall took to TikTok to expand his position. With no disrespect to Miller or Eminem, the only person he wants to be compared to is Houston Rap icon Lil’ Keke. And why wouldn’t he feel this way? Having come up alongside other legends like Mike Jones and Slim Thug, Paul Wall is an undersung hero of a particular moment in rap history. But he’d never say as much. Wall’s demeanor is at once ostentatious (“The disco ball in my mouth insinuates I’m balling,” he rapped on Kanye’s “Drive Slow”) and humble. He spends his time these days working with local charities and supporting people in need in Houston. He’s an outspoken advocate of Black Lives Matter, and a committed father. No matter the level of celebrity he reaches, he always manages to embody his nickname, “The People’s Champ.” He describes a moment in the mid-2000s when he was out with the New York MC Cam’ron.”He said ‘you need to get your brush-off game up, man.’ Because I went to the club with him and everybody that came to say something to me, I’m stopping, taking pictures. He’s like, ‘Man, we ain’t taking no pictures, what are you doing?'”
For a certified elder statesman of hip-hop, Paul Wall is uniquely tech-savvy — I can tell from his Zoom proficiency. With his viral fame, a new generation is catching wind of his talents. Even before that, the rapper was already having a good month. In addition to toasting his birthday, Wall received the first dose of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine last week.
We caught up with the legendary MC and talked about his pandemic year, and how he feels about Houston, his career, and getting back to work after Covid.
* paul wall has entered the chat *
— Paul Wall (@paulwallbaby) March 9, 2021
When you saw that tweet about Eminem, what made you feel like you needed to step in?
I was just having fun with it. Honestly, I personally would prefer to have my name not mentioned alongside codifiers, like “white rapper” or things like that, because the codifiers I like are Texas rappers. If you were to compare me to Lil’ Keke or the people that really inspired me, like UGK… In my mind, that’s who I think I should be compared to. But I’m the one making the music, not necessarily the one digesting, listening, and growing up with it through adolescence. So other people take it how they take it, but if they have the top 100 white rappers of all time and I’m not on the list, that’s cool with me.
How do you feel about the way white people in hip-hop are seen today, versus when you were coming up?
It’s always interesting to me, because as a rapper that’s white, I often meet other rappers that are white that tell me that they’re inspired by me. A lot of times it’s because we both are white. When I was growing up, white people made fun of me. So it was always strange to me as I would gain prominence in hip hop, white people kind of accepted me more and they would talk to me more. It’s so weird to me, growing up, thinking about that in my life. It really is a complete change.
How does hip-hop feel different today?
To me, a big part of why it’s so different is that the hip-hop tree, in general, has grown so much. There are so many different branches of different styles, and the sub-genres are fruitful. There’s healthy commerce for each branch. It used to be hip-hop was one thing, although it was extremely multifaceted, it was [seen as] one thing, and you either liked it or didn’t like it. As the generations shift, as the era of hip-hop shifts from one sound to the next, the new artists come with something different and a new way of looking at things.
You’re very social-media-savvy. You’re even big on TikTok.
Yes. I like to have fun with it. When you’re trying to do something because you’re trying to stay relevant or it’s the thing to do, then it’s a chore. But when you just have fun with it, then it’s fun. I got two kids and a lot of nieces I take care of. They’re all teenagers. They keep me young.
Mainstream rap was paying a lot of attention to Houston when you were coming up, and now you’ve got Megan Thee Stallion and you’ve got Travis Scott. Some of the biggest names in rap are from the city. What do you think makes Houston so special in rap music?
There are a few things I look at for a sustainable hip-hop market. There are different cities around the country where they have a hip-hop market, but it’s difficult to make it out of there and to be accepted in other markets. It’s difficult for multiple people to make it out of there and then for there to be the continuous flow of new artists coming out of there. So what does it take for that? Well, for one, Houston being the fourth-largest city in the country definitely helps. We have the population. They’re all not hip-hop fans, but we have a population that can support a healthy market. Also, what it takes is a healthy underground, and also patience on the artist’s side. Everybody wants to go straight to the pros. I look at the time Lil’ Keke spent working on his craft, working on building his fan base, working on diversifying his style, and just improving upon himself in those years before he put out Don’t Mess Wit Texas [in 1997]. That’s why it had such a dramatic, huge impact. You got to grow, you got to work on your crossover skills, you got to work on your three-point. You got to work on your jump, and your defense, all of that. And it takes years and years of practice sometimes to get to that.
Houston rappers have also had a consistent advocate with someone like the manager T. Farris, who worked with everyone from Lil’ Keke to Z-Ro to now Megan Thee Stallion.
Sometimes I think about what if there was no T — just remove T. Farris from existence on this earth. Would my career be the same, or Mike Jones’s career or Megan’s career? Now, we still might have had success, because it might be something that is in us regardless, but it definitely would not be the same. So in order for there to be a Paul Wall, a Megan Thee Stallion, there has to be somebody managing them, giving them advice, mentoring them. Not just on how you can have the biggest impact financially, not on how you can have the biggest impact on Spotify, or how you can have the biggest impact in the first week or the most sales. But somebody who really cares about you as a person. We got to have people like that.
Another thing that a lot of people were talking about last week on Twitter was the song you did with Kanye in 2005, “Drive Slow.” I’m curious what you remember from that moment?
Man, I mean, even now, 15 years, 16 years later, it’s still an unbelievable moment that I can’t believe I got to do a song with Kanye West, and a video. He put me on his song and then he let me put it on my album. I still can’t believe it. And then for me to really go off the way I did, shit, even better. I’m glad I went off, because it’s a song with Kanye. It’s a lot riding on my shoulders, for Houston rap, you know what I’m saying? If I don’t come with it, I’m going to let all of them down. So that’s definitely part of me being proud. I didn’t fumble the ball. I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, you know what I’m saying, but with that verse, I definitely am pleased with myself. Like, okay, I came with it on there. Shit, this many years later, I still came with it.
Got my first COVID vaccine shot today 💉 Super safe and easy! pic.twitter.com/6bNLd9u3kN
— Paul Wall (@paulwallbaby) March 8, 2021
We just passed a year of quarantine. How has this whole process been for you, and what have you learned out of this past year of lockdown?
It feels like being grounded for a year. That’s what it feels like. Definitely, the fear was a virus of its own. For the majority of the quarantine, I was extremely nervous about my kids, my parents, my neighbors, other people I know, my wife, myself, my future, the future of our society. We’ve already been primed from all the movies that came out over the years that there’s going to be an apocalypse. So it’s like, “Oh yeah, it is the zombie apocalypse.” It’s coming, right? It’s one of those things where you know it ain’t real, but you almost wouldn’t be shocked if it did happen. But I became aware of what I would exude. If I’m fearful, I’m exuding that. My body tendencies, my facial expressions, tone of voice, things I say, me being grumpy or on edge, all of those things, they rub off on my kids, they rub off on my wife, and then it’s just an environment of uncertainty and fear and anxiety. I think my biggest thing I’ve learned is patience. There’s a sense of anxiety in just going out. You got to work off that anxiety, the fear. But also the reality that it is a reality. Covid is real.
Can you tell us what it was like to get the vaccine?
The way I saw it was that I’m going to have to get it anyway. It made me think, why be on the late show? Why be the last? Let me get it as soon as I can. The earlier I get it, the earlier I can get back to a sense of normalcy. And that was a huge driving factor. Having traveled a lot outside of this country. I’ve had a lot of vaccines and shots to go to different countries. Some of them have different effects. This shot was a light prick compared to the different shots I’ve had. And the moment I got the shot, the weight was lifted. I could feel my spunk back, my gas tank wasn’t full, but I could feel the tank filling up. The anxiety wasn’t completely gone, but you could feel it melting away, literally melting away. For this to be my profession is literally a dream come true and a prayer answered. For me to get back to that, it’s something I can’t wait to do. I can’t wait to continue to live my dream, to make music and perform.