Two decades after his debut album, Lil Keke has become Mr. 7-1-3.
Two decades after his debut album, Lil Keke has become Mr. 7-1-3.
Photo by Marco Torres

20 Years In, You Still Can't Mess With Lil Keke

Lil Keke is Houston’s first perpetual underdog. In the weird timeframe of Houston rappers, his story sticks out. Shea Serrano once compared him to Eddie Johnson, yet even that feels unfitting. Johnson was a solid NBA forward for 17 seasons and did enough to somehow score 19,000 points. A stronger comparison for how Keke’s career has gone? Bernard King. And the dual combination of “Southside” and Don’t Mess Wit Texas, his debut album, which turned 20 last month, are the best arguments for it.

As he stands, Lil Keke is one of the few Houston artists who can lay claim to a two-decade career and also be a sage on what it takes to maintain a legacy. From 1995 until 2000 at the least, he was a foot-soldier supreme for the Screwed Up Click. Bouncing his creativity and flow off of Fat Pat embroiled them in a friendly rivalry and battle for dominance over Screw’s mixes. Between him and E.S.G., they are the chief authors of Houston’s adopted-slang Bible. Keke was a star and self-made man long before Houston approached its national zenith 12 years ago. He’ll forever be remembered for “Southside” and his tantalizing run through the city from 1996 until 1999, but mostly for “Southside,” a gripping anthem and dance that may outlive us all.

“I don't do this for free; I make money off of this,” Keke told me in 2012. “If I don't make no sense of getting to the money, then I don't understand it. I don't knock it, but it's going to run you into the ground.”

The youngest in the Screwed Up Click always seemed the hungriest. Keke dominated the early arc of Screw tapes leading up to Don’t Mess Wit Texas; Yungstar latching on around “June 27th” until his breakthrough year of 1998; and finally Lil’ Flip being the last of the camp’s hard-headed yet gifted rhymers before Screw’s untimely death in 2000. By the end of ’96 and going into ’97, Keke was the hottest member of the S.U.C. The ironic part is how his biggest hit came via pure accident.

According to an interview he conducted with Radio One in 2015, “Southside” arrived solely thanks to a jailhouse freestyle. Per Keke, this inmate, whose name has been lost to history, began talking down on the Southside, similarly to the Queensbridge/South Bronx battles of the 1980s. Keke responded by rapping about the Southside. True to his nature of normally “working around a hook” in order to create a song, the young Herschelwood native took the events of that night and built around it. “Boys still wish Keke had his case,” he rapped on Screw’s The Originator tape, where he and Pat went back and forth over Puff Daddy and Mase’s “Been Around the World.”

When “Southside” arrived in early 1997, it served as both a neighborhood anthem and a tough-talk rejoinder to the northside/southside beef. The single was so strong that it appeared again on 1998’s The Commission, Keke’s second album. But in the summer of 1997, “Southside” swallowed up everything within shouting distance, officially cementing the future Don as the biggest independent name in the city. The now-defunct Jam Down records released Don’t Mess Wit Texas in June of 1997, layering it as a tribute to the looseness of Screw’s mixes and the bubbly, slick shit-talk that Keke was known for.

Working a Screw tape for national identity had been done before. E.S.G.’s Ocean of Funk, from 1994, leads off with Screw himself on “Swangin’ & Bangin’,” but Keke was different. When he was in his late teens, Keke cut his teeth jumping on Screw tapes and treating them like albums. A phone call meant you were getting on a tape. Don’t Mess Wit Texas got the same attention and effort as a Screw tape, with silly drug talk from the Herschelwood Hardheadz on “Money In the Making” and Madd Hatta playing makeshift host to set up “It’s Goin’ Down.” Keke offered to remain neutral in regards to beefs that weren’t centralized to his daily life. Big Moe shows up to reinvent Con Funk Shun’s “Love’s Train” for “Serious Smoke,” which is a prime Screwed Up Click example of flipping R&B staples to appease Houston fans. (See also: Z-Ro turning Sade’s “Cherish the Day” into a haunting piece of threat music on “Respect My Mind.”)

By Keke album standards, Don’t Mess Wit Texas found its groove early and stayed that way. The template would persist for future big Keke albums from 2001’s Platinum In Tha Ghetto to 2008’s Loved By Few, Hated By Many. It’s the lone album in his extensive discography to place on the Billboard charts, but it’s also the album that has his most prolific moments. “It’s Goin’ Down” and “Southside” remain staples, two singles that maintain all of their neighborhood mentality without reaching for radio. Double D and Sean Jamison’s production, prickly in some spaces and overwhelmingly smooth in others, helped create what amounted to a party record. And why not? Keke’s entire demeanor, whether it be being found with a “long-haired Samoan” or hanging under Screw’s tutelage, was about having fun. Whatever that felt right being heard blaring loudly from the speakers of candy cars that traversed up and down 59 and 45 was what Keke wanted.

There won’t be another Keke album that features all mainstays from that era. Keke found his best rapping partners in Fat Pat, the eclectic 3-2, Big Moe, part of the Botany Boyz and more on one album. That’s perfectly fine, a perfect unifier of the cosmos and time. Two decades later, it’s Keke who has his own day in the city, fittingly on 7/13. He’ll be celebrating two decades in Houston as the most-sampled rapper in Houston history and then some this weekend at the Screw Shop. New Yorkers have a fond recollection of Bernard King because he came like a comet, slipped a bit and still found a way to put up numbers later in his career.

Just like the Don Keke.

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