This is only about half of my conversation with Houston rap legend Paul Wall.
I cut it down partially for length, but also because this is an international magazine and a lot of what we discussed was really fucking American in a way that I wasn’t sure would translate without a lot of context.
Case in point: we linked up to discuss slab god, Paul’s eighth solo album. Slabs are Houston’s signature contribution to car culture, defined more or less by candy paint, decorative extra spare tires, rims that poke out from the wheel well, and a trunk full of bang that says the owner’s phrase of choice in neon. Paul owns three Cadillac slabs, one of which pops trunk to reveal “RIP LIL E-MANN” in blue neon. And slab god is an album for and about slabs, both for triumphantly swangin’ down the block at five miles an hour on $8,000 of block money, and for cruising your city’s extensive network of superhighways getting your thoughts together.
When I ask Paul about a line on ‘Top Diine’ where he takes a shot at folks buying rare rims on the internet, he expounds on the responsibility of ridin’ slab. It’s not just about having a cool-ass car: it’s about the work that went into making the money that bought it, especially in the many many disadvantaged corners of Texas. To Paul, slabs are Horatio Alger stories on wheels and ridin’ slab makes you a role model, whether you like it or not. His problem is less about the availability of previously hard-to-find car parts online per sé and more about the conflation of being rich, being cool and being real.
I know the US doesn’t own car culture, nor do we have a monopoly on telling poor people that their problem is they don’t work hard enough. (Side note: fuck Horatio Alger in general.) But the way Paul Wall talks about slabs is like the American Dream at its best. The endgame isn’t just to get rich and buy ridiculous shit; it’s to blaze a trail and open doors so others can follow in your footsteps.
(We also spoke at length about Paul’s many trips to Iraq and Afghanistan to perform for American troops – “I’m for none of the wars but I’m for the soldiers a million percent” – and getting mortared while performing for a thousand people, many of whom were waving Texas flags.)
How much weight did you lose?
Almost 150 pounds. Some of it I gained back on purpose though — if you go from 300 pounds to a normal size the thought is “Damn, what happened?” That’s why I’m very vocal about my surgery — I don’t want anyone thinking I got Aids or something.
There’s a stigma around getting surgery to lose weight…
I was ashamed to get surgery! I thought it was some type of vain thing like plastic surgery, but it’s not! It saved my life. And it was my last resort. My doctor told me I was morbidly obese – if you’re 50 pounds overweight it takes 15 years off your life. I was 150 pounds overweight. I tried diet and exercise – I don’t mean no punk diet or punk exercise!
You don’t halfass things.
I was running over six miles a day every single day and in a month I lost a total of two pounds. It’s so discouraging. Especially when you need seatbelt extensions on a plane and you’re sweating from getting up to go to the bathroom.
How does syrup play into the weight and health issues in Texas?
It comes with the lifestyle. You’re sipping all day long. You drink all that sugar in the soda, then you get hungry and you pig out because it gives you the munchies too. And because you’re enjoying yourself, you don’t realize how bad it is for you. After a while of just sipping syrup and being big, we all have friends who passed away, not from overdosing on syrup but from the lifestyle.
I never understood how even after Screw, Pimp and Moe passed there was still no backlash to codeine culture in Texas.
It’s confusing to some people and a little controversial. The only people I know who died and it was syrup-related was Pimp C, DJ Screw, Big Moe and my homeboy Big Mixx. But Big Mixx was almost 500 pounds. He sipped syrup every day of his life but he also went to Timmy Chan’s and French’s every day of his life.
Pimp C’s wife, she’ll be the first to tell you he didn’t die of a drug overdose, he died of sleep apnea. Doctor told him, “If you don’t use this mask when you sleep, eventually you’re gonna die.” He didn’t use it and eventually he died. He did have codeine in his system, and I gotta be realistic and say what if he didn’t sip syrup that day, would he still be here? Maybe. We don’t know.
When everyone is overweight, it’s hard to draw a line between the lifestyle and the drugs.
Right, and you gotta realize too we’re taught everything’s bigger in Texas. “Look at my big strong boy, he gonna go in the NFL and be a lineman.” If you don’t finish your food it’s a sign of disrespect! And the food ain’t like kale salad and mixed greens – if we eatin’ greens it’s with bacon and grease. Being big is so much more acceptable. When you get fatter, it’s not like, “Yo, you’re getting fat.” It’s, “Congratulations, you’re eatin’ good, you must be doin’ good!”
At the end of the day, we really don’t know the limitations of sipping syrup. There’s studies that say how much alcohol you have to drink to get alcohol poisoning. But with syrup, they combine it all with all the opiates – if you OD on vicodin or oxycontin or heroin, it’s all the same in the statistics. So in all of our minds, it was always misleading. We never really thought it was the syrup that killed anyone.
Another thing is the syrup has changed, a lot for the worse. They put way more alcohol in it and that’s the shit that affects your kidney and your liver. If people are gettin’ fucked up and overdosing, it’s only gonna get worse now. In the DJ Screw days it was common to drink a four — four ounces. We used to call it a Big Moe, four ounces in one liter. Nowadays it’s not like that. Back in the day, no one ever would sip less than a deuce. I remember sippin’ three ounces and Lil Keke and Z-Ro sayin’ I was punk sippin’. “Man, you sippin’ a three? We sippin’ four!”
Nowadays ain’t nobody sipping a three. They sip one ounce. Some people sip a half-ounce because it’s so expensive. There’s less people sipping every day and if they do they sip one. So the cutback been across the board. Some of that comes from wondering what the limits are — “I don’t wanna overdose” — but the main reason is it’s so expensive. But I look at it as a good thing, they might be saving lives.
Why’d it get so expensive?
The pharmacies, that’s where the price increase is. It still costs $12 to make but they caught on to how much it cost in the streets so they started driving up their prices. And every time their price goes up, drank man price goes up.
A big problem with opiate addiction is that when addicts can’t find pills they turn to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get. Is that an issue with syrup?
I’m sure there are people doing that but I have never ever seen a syrup sipper go from syrup to heroin. I seen a syrup sipper go to weed, I seen a sipper go to poppin’ Norcos and pills, but I never once as long as I could remember…
…there’s always a step in the middle, in your experience.
Yeah. Part of that was that all the rappers we admired taught us that crack was bad and heroin was bad. And even in our neighborhood, the people smoking crack or doing heroin are dope fiends. People that sip syrup and smoke weed are normal. They got everyday jobs and even if they hustle, they not walkin’ around here lookin’ strung out, breaking into people’s houses to get a fix. No junkie shit going on, even though we might be functional addicts.
Also, me personally, my biological father was addicted to heroin. I haven’t seen him since I was six. So that always… in the back of my mind I always been like, “Is this the new heroin?” I don’t want to be my dad, I don’t want to abuse my kids or abandon them or do any of the type of shit that he did. So I’m aware of that. I grew up going to Al-Anon and Alateen with my mom, so I learned what it meant to be an addict.
A lot of people don’t even know what causes addiction, they think it’s magic — once you take it once you can’t stop. People don’t know about that but growing up, I did. It still didn’t stop me from becoming an addict but it kept me from going too far with it. It kept me from doing heroin!
On ‘R.I.P. Act’ you literally mourn how they took Actavis syrup off the market. What was so special about Actavis?
At the time it was the premiere brand. It ain’t better than Barr or Alpharma, but compared to the brands that are out now? Night and day. Like I said, the brands that are out now got a lot more alcohol in it.
Just fillers and shit.
Yeah, nasty shit. The taste of [Actavis], first of all, was amazingly delicious.
Someone should come out with like the O’Doul’s of Actavis, just for the flavor.
We sent some Actavis to a flavor scientist.
My homeboy in the Bay makes flavor enhancers and has people that copy flavors so I was like, “Bro, I got a flavor for you!” They couldn’t figure it out though!
“We sent some Actavis to a flavor scientist.”
‘Steady Mobbin’ is a tribute to The Jacka, who was killed earlier this year. This is absolutely no shots but, like a lot of successful Bay Area rappers, he was underground in a way that folks from outside of California that fuck with him can usually tell you how they got into his music.
I was in this group called Expensive Taste with Travis Barker from Blink-182 and Skinhead Rob from The Transplants. Rob’s from Fresno [California] and he turned me onto a lot of dope artists – Mac Dre, Jacka, Husalah, Mob Figaz, Mitchy Slick, Krondon. He just always had a playlist that was out of this world.
But I actually met Jacka when the Super Bowl was in Houston . I heard somebody say he was there, and this was around the time where I was in my prime, all on MTV and BET! But I met him I was like a kid in a candy store, I told him he was one of like four rappers I was listening to at the time.
Who were the other three?
Lil Keke, Andre Nickatina and Husalah. Maybe Z-Ro. That’s pretty much all I listen to to this day. Slim Thug, maybe a couple other underground artists like Freeway or Ampichino from Ohio.
It’s always been cool how fandom is a part of your career, like you go out of your way to work with rappers you are excited about, not just because they’re poppin’. When you put Freeway on ‘State to State’ it was clear you made that happen.
I came out my pocket for that too! He just happened to be in town and I was a fan. Me, my homeboys, we all listen to Freeway. For him and Jacka to link up though!
That’s two rappers who are (or were, in Jacka’s case) very open about and influenced by being Muslim. On ‘Steady Mobbin’ you talk about taking Shahadah and going to Mecca. Are you getting into Islam yourself?
Jacka, he would always tease me like, “Yo, when you gonna come take Shahadah and be a Muslim? What’s up?” I’d be like, “It’s comin!” My mom raised me not to think my religion is right, yours is wrong, you’re going to Hell. It’s more like, this is my path to God, whatever your path to God is I encourage that. I got friends that are Muslim in Houston definitely, but being close to Jacka and Husalah and Freeway, they brought me closer to Islam to teach me what it means, some lifestyle things, some spiritual things. And you get that from listening to their music. They’ll drop some spiritual gems that will motivate you.
So it was respectful but kind of a running joke between y’all.
Yeah, definitely, but that’s one thing I really loved about Jacka – any time I be with Jacka, he had me feeling like I could conquer the world. Any time I was feeling insecure about something or had a hang up about something, he could take that all away. He put that encouragement on everyone around him, he always wanted to better people around him and spread knowledge. He’s not doing this to party and buy some cars and fuck hoes, he really is sending a message with his music and trying to better his community. I always respected that.
On ‘Steady Mobbin’ you note that if a cop had shot Jacka, the reaction to his death would have been different. Can you expand on that?
This was a time when all that police brutality was in the news, then when Jacka got killed there was people upset and hurt and crying but it wasn’t the same type of protest where, hands down if a cop had did it, we probably still would be protesting! But because it was a member of the community, we just charge it to the game. But it’s just as heinous a crime as if the police would have did it. Well, if the police would have did it it’s different because they supposed to protect you, but even so…
…you were taken by how everyone is kind of used to people dying.
Yeah it’s just… “charge it to the game”.