It's a breezy night in late April, and Houston MC Victor Gurrola Jr., known as V-Zilla the Monster, is showing that he's an embattled, tortured soul. He's giving the Houston Press an exclusive listen to his developing album, Interview With a Monster.
He does this in a drippy and dark basement that could be a backdrop for the next Saw installment. It's his studio and it happens to be buried underneath a downtown Houston nightclub he helps promote, where – like a cruel joke – modern day club rats trickle in and feed above him on music that he sometimes despises and that surely isn't his.
V-Zilla isn't talking. He's pouring out his heart for a straight hour without taking a breath or pausing. Sometimes he forgets he's being interviewed. His eyes drift upward to the sky and he literally begins pleading with the heavens. He's revealing his constant and never-ending battles with family, death, hip-hop, the past, the future, God and Houston.
The irony is any one of those things could be his savior from drowning and dying in an ocean of depression, desperation and regret, stemming from 20 years of decisions gone right, but mostly wrong, undiscovered potential and maybe being in the wrong city.
Zilla's weakness is that he can't operate unless his foundation is strong and he's in a happy home. His family could understand a little more and believe in his dream as he does.
Death, in the form of suicide – which he often raps about – could rid the psychological demons who celebrate his mental demise on the dance floor that is his soul.
Hip-hop could just cooperate and remember what it once was in 1992, make the boom-bap era important again, because that's what he's good at, and revitalize his calling.
If V-Zilla's past as a rising international underground sensation, who toured Europe and who The Source said was next to blow in its famous "Don't Mess With Texas" issue, transported itself to the future, that too could save Zilla. Or maybe the past could tweak itself and he never would have joined celebrated Houston rapper Rob G's S.W.A.T. crew, in an attempt to gain his city's admiration, which has eluded him for so long.
Only in doing that, he effectively sold himself out as an artist trying to align himself with more of a Southern flair, which is so not Zilla. The risk didn't pay off. He disappointed a base of national underground fans he got precisely because he didn't sound Houston, and as he puts it, set himself four years back as a "backup singer in a boy band."
God, to whom he sings for help on choruses and pokes in the chest with rapper punch lines all in the same track, could be more present along Zilla's recently unfulfilling journey. It's a journey where he's seen himself age in the mirror, and in that reflection, watched younger artists behind him – who don't hold a candle to Zilla lyrically or creatively, but are more sought after by the masses – be where he wants to be.
Then there's that fight he's picked with Houston, the city with whom he has a love-hate relationship. It's the father who never took notice and for whom Zilla was never good enough, but who he still loves deep inside. The one who prioritized Zilla's other hip-hop brothers, but didn't embrace him, because he didn't pop trunks or sip lean like family tradition mandates.
In "Dear Houston," a leaked track on his upcoming album, Zilla goes nose to nose with his hometown.
He raps: "You gave birth to that Southern love and bred legends/ But you never passed the game on to the next brethren/ Instead you gave us new niggas never actin' equal/ No collaboration/ Just a bunch of fucking egos."
"The H doesn't stand for Houston in my heart no more," Zilla admits. "It stands for 'Haters.'"
"I waited for the backlash," he said of the release of "Dear Houston." "I was hoping it was coming through so that way I could see who the chickenshit motherfuckers were and who the real niggas were. "
"The opposite happened," he continues. "Everybody started hitting me up: 'God damn, Zilla. You said everything niggas are afraid to say.' Sometimes you need a wake-up call."
Maybe it's not a wake-up call as much as it is the story and sentiment of hundreds of talented, aging MCs in big and small cities across America who didn't get chosen by the universe – no matter how hard their hustle – to contribute to this global phenomenon that is hip-hop on a highly visible level. It's the tale of those who were more talented, but got passed up by the less talented for possibly a long list of reasons, or just one.
So the story then transforms from reminiscing on what could have been to resenting what happened. Zilla's story feels like Jim Brown shaking his head at whiny, attention-seeking football millionaires who don't value his era's sacrifices; asking under his breath, "Why couldn't I have made millions of dollars, too?"
Only in hip-hop, unlike sports, physical abilities aren't the contingent factor. Bodies may dwindle with age, but minds stay sharp and lyrical talent doesn't necessarily dissipate with time, but time can fast close the window of opportunity for a rapper to blow up, especially when he's closing in on the wrong side of 35. That's the thorn in the hip-hop rose.
"I don't have a resentment towards the cats coming up," clarifies Zilla. "It's all about the process. It's an unfair process and when you're caught up in the unfair portion of that process, you start fucking hating everything about it."
Being situated in the Dirty South doesn't help Zilla. He's often referred to as a New York or East Coast rapper, one that can astound hip-hop heads with his true lyricism, incredible wordplay and an intelligent, laser-sharp delivery.
Zilla is no doubt in the upper echelon of Houston underground MCs. He's not hip like the Niceguys, not artsy like Preemo nor gritty like Delo. He's chosen not to emulate what's in his backyard, a regional Southern rap culture that occupies a different lane of hip-hop's superhighway. Simply put, Zilla is an early-'90s hip-hop throwback. A purist.
"Houston's not my lane," says Zilla. "It's never going to be my lane. I'm an MC. I'm not a rapper. This city is full of rappers. This city doesn't have but a handful of MCs. The ones that are here, they're incredible lyricists and nobody's ever heard of them."
Zilla will mouth off several – all from Houston – like K-Rino and hip-hop groups Hafaza, Lower Life Form and the The Niyat.
"Most of these cats are like, 'Man, that's East Coast,'" Zilla claims. "That's NY shit. They fucking shut it down before they hear it. I don't hate my city. I hate the fact that there's no support in my city."
Interview amplifies the rebellious tone of V-Zilla's music. The elements that give boom-bap's signature sound – hard-hitting kick and snare drums – are the backdrop to his reminiscence and exorcism of demons. The murderous lyrical assault often seen on his mixtapes takes a back seat, and a content-oriented Zilla emerges and dominates. He's trying to tell his story, and successfully does so.
The album's guest features are among its highlights. Houston's Cornbreadd, Philadelphia's Reef the Lost Cauze and East Hartford's Blacastan reinforce the '90s transport with impressive showings and back up Zilla's Pete Rock & CL Smooth relapse.
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Overall, Interview does boom-bap justice, and should age to become an important addition to the Houston rap catalogue. It displays a diversity, imagination and greater range of what the city is capable of contributing to hip-hop.
"Since 2008, I've been destroying myself and rebuilding myself back up, and in the process, I've lost everything," Zilla told the Houston Press' Rocks Off music blog in early 2010.
"I might be the greatest that never made it."
When they reminisce over you...my God.