By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Cocaine, I used to move / Until I grabbed the mike and started actin' a fool / High school was cool, but I didn't finish / I dropped out and hit the block and started stackin' my spinach / I'm not in it for the fame; I'm in it for the change / Studewood, North Main, Mike Jones my name / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones / Who? Mike Jones, Jones.
— Mike Jones in "Guilty," from Ballin Underground
As Mike Jones became bigger and bigger, Michael Watts was increasingly being approached by boys from the hood of Studewood where Jones claimed to have hustled drugs on the block. They had a question.
"Who the fuck is Mike Jones?"
Watts hails from nearby Rosewood, in North Houston. Due to a sometimes violent rivalry with the South, home to DJ Screw and his crew, the area was at first left out of the warped, slowed-down mix-tape movement that Screw pioneered. North-siders listened to the music just like everyone else in the city, just in secret, because a lot of the rhymes were about how they sucked. So in the mid-'90s, Watts began making screw music himself.
Where Screw, who passed away in 2000, took pride in doing each record in one take, using only freestyles, Watts let his rappers come with written verses, and he edited, remixed and remastered. He made sure the lyrics had a broad appeal, and brought CDs with him when he booked gigs outside Houston. Each disc, along with his Web site, had his pager number, and soon Watts was taking his Jeep to places like Tyler, Texas, and Alexandria, Louisiana.
"We love our Houston music here. And the sad thing about it, we don't really get any exposure," Watts says. "What's limiting the exposure? It's just commercialism, man."
By the turn of the century, Watts had created an underground network for his independent Swishahouse label that stretched across the country, and artists like Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and Paul Wall were enjoying relative wealth and fame outside the mainstream. Then, almost at once, all of Watts's rappers left, over contract disputes, to join bigger labels or to start record labels of their own.
Soon after, Watts caught wind of a rapper who seemed to be commercialism incarnate, wearing T-shirts with his name and phone number, making personalized songs for strippers across the city and shouting his name, over and over and over again.
Watts was at once impressed and perplexed by his budding new star. For a novice rapper, Jones came in with a detailed business plan, and he knew the ins and outs of the industry better than most veterans. And Watts couldn't pinpoint just where he'd come from. Jones had a way of talking around the question.
"He'll run you in circles," Watts says.
Michael Ansara Jones dreamed of being an NBA star who rapped on the side. Former friends remember a kid who freestyled in the cafeteria and came to school dressed and ready to ball. He wore an authentic No. 45 Jordan jersey before authentic jerseys were in style, black with red pinstripes, and the sneakers to match. And he was good. The legendary street-baller Hot Sauce, who played with Jones in a celebrity game well after he'd put on weight, says, simply, "Mike Jones got game."
Jones moved a lot, though, and what he calls "politics" (transfer rules) limited him to YMCA leagues after his freshman year. Jones dropped out as a senior, in 1999. He says he tried jobs at fast-food restaurants but quickly learned, "It's like Biggie said: You either got a jump shot or you sling the crack rock."
T. Brown, a close friend who would become Jones's hype man (the two have since had a bitter falling out), remembers that he and Jones lived together at a friend's house for a time, and later in a car. They had jobs at a Compaq plant, waking at 6 a.m. to work on an assembly line. Eventually, they started hustling full-time. But instead of selling drugs on the street, they were slinging cell phones from an apartment off Antoine Drive.
Jones sold dime bags here and there for about six months, Brown says, but mainly the two bought hot Sidekicks and sold them off cheap. Between that and more serious scams Brown won't discuss on the record, he says, the two skinny kids were bringing in thousands of dollars a week. All they had to do was sit around, collect the money and order pizza.
"They was like Ninja Turtles with they pizza," one mutual friend says, remembering boxes stashed beneath the sofa — something Brown, now easily 250 pounds, doesn't deny.
Jones was a grandma's boy. During his frequent visits to her house in Studewood, often over games of dominoes, he says, she encouraged him to pull himself together by pursuing rap. She passed away before he made it big, and Jones pays tribute to her with heartfelt songs — "Grandma" and "Grandma II" — on his albums. He credits her for his entire career, from providing the initial push to advising him to use his real name and even make songs for the girls at the strip clubs.