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“We rewrote a whole culture, man,” the Houston rapper Lil Keke tells me when I get him on the phone. And it’s impossible to argue. Along with the late Fat Pat, Keke was one of the founding members of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click, a crew whose voluminous output of so-called Screw tapes, chopped and screwed by the man who gave the slowed-down style its name, influenced the sound of almost every major star of today. From rappers like Drake and ASAP Rocky to pop icons like Beyoncé, scores of artists have borrowed sounds or rhymes from the S.U.C.
Even outside of Screw tapes, Keke has built a formidable reputation. His 1997 debut album Don't Mess wit Texas, which contains the classic track “Southside," is generally considered to be one of the best rap albums to ever come out of Houston, and he, Fat Pat, and DJ DMD were behind the iconic “25 Lighters.” Keke continues to release music at a frenetic pace—he has over 75 albums to his name.
He has a brand-new project, Slfmade II, so I called him to talk about H-town history, what being self-made really means, and more. And yes, before you can ask, he’s already heard your “In My Feelings” jokes.
First off, how many times have people quoted the Drake song to you since it came out?
I wish I had an album sale for every time it got told to me. I’d probably be platinum by now. Whatever [number] times one million, that’s what it’s been. It’s been hell.
I’mma probably do something. Not the dance or nothing like that, but I’mma [record] something maybe in the next week or so. You know, it’s about fun. It’s been great publicity around my album, and all that has been good. My timeline’s been full of it. And when I say “full of it,” that’s an understatement.
What is your definition of “self-made”? Why does that term appeal to you?
People always ask me what’s my definition of self-made, and they want to know do I mean I did it by myself. Nah. I had genuine help, help with a motive, good advice, bad advice. But my definition of self-made was I had to steel in myself before I could even worry about what people were doing. I had to see everything that I had to do. I had to stop procrastinating, stop taking no for an answer, be ready to fight criticism and save money, invest into myself, help myself, believe in myself. Those are my definitions of self-made. It’s all the inner things. This is soul searching for me, when I say self-made.
One of your most famous moments was “25 Lighters,” which has become an iconic song that is quoted all the time. What’s your favorite use you’ve ever heard of “25 Lighters”?
Well, you know, I’ve heard them all. I’ve heard the ZZ Top one, the new young cat [Wifisfuneral], he paid so much homage to me in New York... Just to be honest, there is no version like the version we done. It’ll never be. I just love that they pay homage and pay respect and keep the song going, but my favorite will always be the first one because I still perform it at my concert. It’s still one of the big songs on my show.
Besides that, I like all of them. I’m not one of the ones to knock those things down or make that a bad thing. Now sometimes, the business got to be put together the right way. But as far as them having an idea, [if] they wanna use this and keep going with what we did from over 20 years ago from a culture that we started, that’s great with me. I never downplay that.
This is soul searching for me, when I say self-made.
2018 marks 20 years since Fat Pat passed. Can you talk about your relationship with him? He was one of the other original members of the Screwed Up Click.
Me and Pat were friendly, competitive rivals. Fat Pat is actually my idol, you know what I’m saying? [When] I grew up, I wanted to be Fat Pat. Fat Pat’s older than me.
As far as S.U.C., that was built by us together. I was there from day one. Me and Pat, the whole movement, I didn’t miss a moment. There’s nobody that beat me in the Screw house. Nobody. That’s understood first. Pat meant everything to me because he was my competitive balance. He was who I wanted to be. I always grew up looking up to Fat Pat, and me and Fat Pat had the most classic Screw tapes ever.
It was a time when the Screwed Up Click was supposed to be me, Fat Pat, and Screw, like Run D.M.C.—the DJ and the two rappers. We were the most two significant artists that came out of the S.U.C. Not saying that others weren’t successful and didn’t have great things going on, but Fat Pat and Lil Keke, those are the two names from Screw[’s] house. So with that being said, we meant everything to each other.
There’s been a lot written about DJ Screw over the years. What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about Screw and the S.U.C?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that this music that we made was syrup-influenced. It ain’t had shit to do with it, man. It’s no different than the artists in the ’70s sniffing cocaine.
What people didn’t understand about the music, we didn’t record it slow. The music was fast. This was over fast beats. [Screw] slowed it down. They thinking we drunk all this drink and we were just slobbering out the mouth, and then we went in and made these slow-paced [songs]. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We were sitting around having fun. We just happened to be doing music as we was doing it.
What is your favorite Screw tape?
I would say Home Sweet Home. The significance of that is because when I was young I had to go through a little few months of time [in jail], and when I went to go do that time, that's where I wrote the song “Southside.” And when I came home the first thing that I did was Home Sweet Home. I had Screw turn on that Whodini beat, and I did that “Southside” for the first time at Screw house on Home Sweet Home. When I got ready to do the real song on my album, I changed up a few things. But that was the first version of “Southside,” when I first came home. That song was one of the biggest songs of my career.
I wanted to bring it back to the term “self-made.” Forbes defines being self-made as someone who didn’t inherit their company. After the controversy around Kylie Jenner, they shared their scale of how self-made someone is from 1-10. So, from 1-10, how self-made is Lil Keke?
What’s the other side of 10? 11,12,13? [Laughs.] I come from nothing, man. I started from the bottom. When you’re in California and you do a little bubbling and you know your music is starting to take off, Interscope and all that is downtown. When you're in New York and you're bubbling and getting big, Bad Boy and Capitol Records is downtown. When you getting bubbling down here, it ain’t shit. You take the hard way. You get on it and hold babies and shake hands and take pictures and drive to all these cities in Texas and Louisiana. That sets you up for a career where you make three, four, five hundred thousand dollars, 20 years straight.
It was a time when the Screwed Up Click was supposed to be me, Fat Pat, and Screw, like Run D.M.C.—the DJ and the two rappers.
What’s next for you? I assume given how frequently you release material that you have a couple more albums coming up this year.
I have a couple more [projects], but we into other things. We into real estate and small business. But as far as the music standpoint, I’m gonna eventually invest in a younger artist and bring them forward. I got a book on the way talking ’bout my whole career—the industry, everything I been through.
From a music standpoint, I done 40 songs for Slfmade [II], I only used 18. I got another 22 left. So we gonna break them down, do compilations, help my younger artists. We gonna continue to do music. That's what we do. I’m singing songs I did in ’95, ’96, and ’97, and I’m still here rocking crowds. The music that we make is catalog music.