Houston-based Lil’ Keke, of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click, and Give Up, Texas' notorious street artist, were both recently in New York promoting their new projects. We got in touch with the Texas heavy hitters together in an attempt to re-acquaint rap and graffiti, two once closely related elements that helped form hip-hop culture.
From hip-hop’s inception in the 1970s, its four major components—rap music, graffiti, DJing, and breakdancing—have been utilized by political activists, counter cultures, and marginalized classes in society in order to subvert the often blindly followed status quo. From Lil’ Keke and Give Up’s concentrated responses and ephemeral exchanges, it's clear that parallels still exist between real rap and street art. Get acquainted with the two powerhouses through Candy Paint and Wheatpaste: An Interview With Houston Natives Lil' Keke and Give Up.
In the rap game we’ve all said the same thing, so it’s all about how you rephrase it and how you get it across to people.
Who is Lil’ Keke?
Lil' Keke: Keke is a Houston native raised on the Southside of Houston. He is a very successful independent artist who sold over a million records independently. He is a great dad and a great football coach.
Who is Give Up?
Give Up: Give Up is a Houston-based street artist, poster artist, and graffiti artist. I’m just trying to make a name for myself across the globe.
Lil’ Keke, what is your songwriting process?
LK: I don’t really write songs without the music. I may have a hook or something jot down that I think I want to say, but I really don’t get caught up in a song until I get the actual track. If you notice anything about Keke music, it will be in a rhythm fit to the beat. I am from the freestyle era, so I can write a whole song in 15 minutes. I have done an album in one day.
Give Up, what artistic mediums do you utilize to express yourself? Can you describe your creative process?
GU: Mainly, in the last handful of years, I’ve been doing wheatpaste postering, stickering, and things like that. When I start, I’ll have the concept or theme. Then, I to go shoot photos and manipulate those photos, possibly collage them together. Mainly I photocopy in the old punk rock, by hand, cut-and-paste style and then screen-print them. Then, I just try to get them up on any surface they’ll stick to.
In hip-hop, sampling is customary, whether it is sampling a phrase in rap or an image in street art. A significant trait both of you share is that neither of you borrow from others. Lil’ Keke, you are credited with coming up with original phrases and words that have been frequently sampled in many songs. Give Up, you pride yourself on using all of you own images and not misappropriating anything. Why is it important to both of you to create your own original material and context?
LK: It’s not something I place a bunch of importance on. It is just something that I do. I am a well sampled artist. There are a lot of out-of-town artists that got the culture and the talk that we have from me. I built the S.L.A.B. talk. It is naturally who I am. I have never recited a rap written by somebody else. Every rap I have ever said, I wrote. My swag and how I do it just ended up coming out as really trendsetting.
GU: To that same end, if I put something out there visually, it has to all come from me because that is my voice, and that’s what I am saying. If I just take somebody else’s image, I am putting up their voice; I am putting up somebody else’s idea; I am putting up somebody else’s experience. And if somebody sees my stuff, I want them to know it’s my stuff.
LK: In the rap game we’ve all said the same thing. We all talk about cars and houses. So it’s all about how you rephrase it and how you get it across to people. In some raps that I write, I make sure I am explaining them differently from what I’ve said before. I am talking about red cars, blue cars, convertibles, women, money, etc. So people call me the S.L.A.B. king based on all the different ways I can talk about S.L.A.B.
Lil’ Keke, what if any, has been your experience with graffiti?
LK: I have had artists come in and paint my logos on the wall. There is a big graffiti place in Houston called The Mullet. I’ve been thinking about doing a video over there. I am not from a place where it is so popular. In my neighborhood, there aren't a whole bunch of railroad tracks and walls with graffiti on them, so I can’t say I am directly in tune with it, but I feel it, and I understand it. Do I have a full understanding of it? I can understand it’s a passion, but at the end of the day, I respect it. I respect anything artistic.
I take my past, present, and what I want my future to be in the streets, and I display it through my music.
Give Up, what if any, has been your experience with rap music?
GU: Coming from a place like Houston, where rap is so important and Houston rappers are so prolific, you can’t not know about it. From a graffiti standpoint, there has been this idea that those two things historically go together. But when I was originally coming up in graffiti in the early ‘90s, all the dudes I knew that wrote were dirt bags; they were Punk rockers. Everybody listens to rap because everything is connected, but that wasn’t who got me introduced to graffiti. It was like ’97 when I went into my first Screw shop and I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” And I didn’t know what I was walking into. I thought I was just walking into the record store and I might find some metal records or something. It changed everything right then.
Lil’ Keke, in a previous interview you stated, “When you think of Houston music, I am the music,” and, "Anytime my career was going up or going down, I could always count on the city to get behind it.” Give Up, in a previous interview you said, “Being on the street is as much a part of a particular piece as the image itself.” Can you both explain the meaning of being in the streets and its importance to you?
LK: The streets are very important to me. I was raised there. We are just like artists because I paint pictures, but I just paint them verbally. I take my past, present, and what I want my future to be in the streets, and I display it through my music. The streets are very important to me because I never use any other platform to present myself. When all goes bad, I am able to go back to my platform, and that’s what helps me survive. On Broadway, T.V., radio, social media, the Internet, magazines, or whatever, it all goes back to the streets because they will be there when the magazines are gone, radio play stops, and all that stops.
GU: If that’s where you came from and that’s where you started from, street art, graffiti, or whatever, that’s where it exists and lives. You can get the opportunity to go into galleries, but it changes the dynamic. Not that that’s wrong—that’s great—but you’ve got to stay in the street to stay relevant, to stay real to graffiti roots, otherwise you are doing graffiti style art in a different venue, and it loses something. It loses a little bit of heart I think. I still love the streets. Why would I want to leave?
Where are you from, and how has that impacted you artistically?
LK: I am from the Southside. I was raised in South Park. My side of town is filled with a lot of temptation. This is where the S.L.A.B. talk comes from. On my side of town, there is a lot of ridin’, a lot of cars, Johnny Dang, King Johnny, the Galleria, Richmond, Westheimer, Minute Maid [Park] Reliant Stadium, and the Toyota Center. So the bright lights, the big city, the cars, and being a hood star were presented to me early in high school. My side of town really shaped my whole career. When I first started, I really catered to my side of town as an underground artist with DJ Screw. Everything that came out of my mouth was really catered to my side of town—Southside this Southside that—so it definitely shaped who I am.
GU: I am originally from a really small town, but when I was a teenager and started getting into graffiti, skateboarding, and music, there was no opportunity there, so I came into Houston. I’ve lived in the Montrose, over on Westheimer, in Galena Park, Jacinto City, Humble, and Spring. I have planted a little bit of roots in every part of Houston, and from a street aspect, if you want to get known, you can’t only be known in your neighborhood. You’ve got to get up everywhere, and you’ve got to travel around.
Can you tell me about Houston and its cultural landscape (or lack thereof) and how that affected your artistic success?
LK: It didn’t affect me at all because we have our own culture, and I came up catering to that. Now I don’t see a “lack thereof” or anything missing because the whole game is going to do everything that we do. They want to smoke like us, drink like us—they want to do everything that we do. Right now, we are here in New York. For an artist here, when he wakes up, Universal is around the corner, Def Jam is around the corner. We don’t have those companies around the corner [in Houston]. It was so easy to appeal myself to masses and crowds because I had won my people in my culture. They were behind me 100 percent.
GU: I don’t think that when I was first getting started, I was even aware that anybody else was doing anything. I had my little circle of punk rock hardcore whatever, and I wanted to do graffiti. I wasn’t worried about there being a culture or an art scene. I just wanted to get up. Then you look back over however many years, like Lil’ Keke was saying, and you start creating your own history. It happens organically.
Give Up, I am going to play you a Lil’ Keke song and ask you to comment on it. And Lil’ Keke, I am going to show you some work by Give Up and ask you to comment on that.
GU: If you are from Houston, you can’t not know this. That’s Houston. The language Lil’ Keke was saying about poppin’ trunk, sippin’ syrup, and all that, that is Houston now. That is what people know. At a time, like Lil’ Keke was saying, you were creating your story, and you were creating your vocabulary, so to speak, but it’s just the voice of the city. Now it’s associated with Houston, and that’s what people know. But it’s not just Houston anymore because it’s gotten so much bigger.
LK: That’s cold the way he is setting a trend. Where I am from we call that...he’s letting his nuts hang.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
LK: My Money Don’t Sleep album comes out July 13, 2014 with tracks featuring 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti, Kevin Gates, 8Ball. It comes out under my label #7Thirteen and Swishahouse.
GU: I'm staying active in the street, and I’ve got a print thing coming up with Coronado Studio as soon as I get back to Houston. Then I’ve got a thing at this new skate park that’s opening in Houston, but it’s under wraps right now. Finally, I have a show in New York City the second week of July at Mark Flood Resents.