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Mike Jones! Who?

The story of a Houston rapper who got bigger and bigger until he shrank back down to earth

"Lil mamma! Lil ma!" Magno shouts."I got this music!"

The woman walks into the Greenspoint Fast Track station, which is buzzing on a warm Friday night. Small-time drug deals go down around the pumps. Magno stands along the outside wall, leaning on a forgotten Houston Chronicle bin, on top of which sits a small stack of his CDs. Ten bucks apiece.

"I make 100 percent of my livin' from straight grindin'," Magno says.

King Mello was billed as the next big act for Jones's Ice Age label. He ended up putting out this album himself.
King Mello was billed as the next big act for Jones's Ice Age label. He ended up putting out this album himself.
K.D., who was the Ice Age barber, says Jones treated his crew like his kids. K.D.'s brother C.T. (seated) was one of the first to fall out with Jones.
Mike Giglio
K.D., who was the Ice Age barber, says Jones treated his crew like his kids. K.D.'s brother C.T. (seated) was one of the first to fall out with Jones.

He wears an oversized white T-shirt with baggy green shorts and a white cap. A green do rag hangs down from his neck. On his feet are a green pair of slippers with sneaker soles — "Road edition," he says. "Specially made for a hood nigga who wears his house shoes all day long."

Magno started rapping on the Internet. As a high-schooler, he'd enter text battles online and usually win. Then he submitted audio to sites like rapboard.com using a $5 mike. When the feedback was good, he let his friends hear. They persuaded him to make a tape, which was in his pocket the day he met Farris on the North Harris Community College campus. For the first few months after he joined Swishahouse, Magno was the only artist on the label.

One day Mike Jones walked into the studio. He and Magno knew each other from the basketball courts and immediately hit it off. They plugged into the Swishahouse network and began touring together. Magno calls it rap school. He, Jones and Farris would drive to every show, selling CDs at gas stations along the way to earn extra money (and splitting value meals to save it) and making appearances at record stores and radio stations to get exposure.

At first, they faced angry fans who wondered where all their favorite rappers had gone. But the endless grind eventually paid off. Jones says their chemistry onstage even carried over to the court, where the two were an unstoppable team. He gave Magno — who had been going by Magnificent — his nickname, saying he needed something with more clip.

Rap aficionados around Houston still revere Magno's music, which combines clever wordplay and a conversational East Coast flow with a distinct Southern lean. But Jones had some impressive rhymes himself. Watts says he had an entire hard drive of them that Jones wouldn't let him use, preferring to keep his style, as he describes it now, "simple and plain."

"People don't understand, man. Mike has a lot of talent," Magno says. "In person — when you get Mike in person — he's one of the best freestylers out there. You have to stop him; he'll keep going."

Jones was all business, never drinking or using drugs, and sticking fast to his accessible image. He refused to wear expensive clothes or jewelry even after the money started rolling in. Instead, Magno remembers a modestly dressed Jones keeping up to $10,000 on his person, in crisp rolls spread out in different pockets, to surprise people who still took him for broke. He'd sign every autograph after shows, no matter how many hours it took.

In February of 2003, after seven months together on the road, Jones and Magno released their first album, 1st Round Draft Picks. It sold 10,000 copies in its first week, then another 10,000 in its second, incredible numbers for an independent release. Soon the crowds were singing the lyrics to their songs. And they were also chanting: "Who? Mike Jones!"

When promoters came calling to Farris, Magno remembers, they were increasingly asking only for Jones. ("That's just what Mike used to tell him," Alicia says. "They was asking for both of them.") Farris became distant, and Jones and Farris soon began leaving for weekend trips on their own. At the concerts, Jones would perform songs from their album, rapping Magno's verses, or just cutting them out, and promoting his upcoming mix tape Ballin Underground.

"Mike's a manipulator, man. And I knew what he was doing," Magno says. "Cuz I know Mike. Like you know your buddy, man."

G-Dash, the Swishahouse CEO who handles its business side, remembers sitting Jones and Magno down to discuss a solution. Jones, who was drawing up to $20,000 a show, could bring Magno along for a small percentage. Jones refused to negotiate.

Jones thinks any criticism is ridiculous.

"I was tryin' to get in on my own while mine was hot," he says. "I thought I signed my own contract. I thought I came into this game myself. I thought I'd leave myself."

When Ballin Underground dropped in June of 2003, selling an unheard-of 250,000 copies, Jones was on his way to unprecedented underground success. One promoter compares Jones's first visit to Cleveland, which came before his deal with Warner Bros., to the arrival of the Beatles.

Jones was quickly taking over the label. On late 2003's wildly popular Swishahouse mix The Day Hell Broke Loose 2, Jones was featured on 13 of 15 songs, including the seminal "Still Tippin'" — a track that featured verses from Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall, along with a mesmerizing, crawling beat and screwed hook, and was credited to Jones.

Magno, meanwhile, had his verse cut from the song and was featured on just two tracks in all. As the deal with Warner Bros. approached — which G-Dash negotiated for Swishahouse, in order to extend Jones's contract — Magno was bounced from the label.

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