It's true. Just like he says, Paul Wall really is, as the title of his major-label official debut has it, The People's Champ. That much is obvious at his CD signing on a steamy Tuesday afternoon at a Best Buy in a bedraggled, seen-better-days block of South Gessner in Sharpstown. The parking lot is literally overflowing -- people are stashing their slabs across the street in front of a once-bustling strip mall or at the defunct Audi dealership next door. The Boxx, Swishahouse and Wall himself have brought along their colorful wrapped vans, and just outside the door, street teamers hand out party flyers and Trae CD singles. ("The Asshole is back!" the latter promise.)
Inside, it's a madhouse. His line of cell-phone-camera-brandishing well-wishers and fans wends its way through several aisles of electronic gadgetry -- all the way from "audio cleaners" to "personal portables." It's an amazing cross-section of H-town humanity, equally divided among black, white and brown and ranging in age from four months to 40 years. What they all have in common is that they all seem like hardworking, nose-to-the-grindstone folks from the blue-collar 'hoods between the Loop and the Beltway -- in other words, they're all like Wall himself, the Jersey Village kid whose work ethic is second to none.
"This is what the People's Champ is," says Grid.Iron producer Todd "Pretty Todd" Berry, Wall's most frequent musical collaborator. "If you're tryin' to ask what that is, you have to just see it. He's got people here across the board."
And what does The People's Champ sound like? Let's just say it's the crest of this wave of H-town rap, a candy-painted, syrup-sippin' celebration of ghetto grub, grippin' grain, deuce-chunkin', trunk-poppin' and parkin' lot-pimpin'. In addition to the newly minted H-town classic "Sittin' Sidewayz" (which, like Mike Jones's "Still Tippin'" and Big Moe's "Purple Stuff," is a Salih Williams production), standout tracks include the Bun B collabo and primer on H-town slang and lore "They Don't Know" (which originally came out locally a while back), the funky, organ-driven "Ridin' Dirty," the cabaret jazzy, Kanye West-produced "Drive Slow" and the mellow closer "Just Paul Wall," which is carried by a sample of James Taylor's "Long Ago and Far Away" as reimagined by smooth jazz guitarist Earl Klugh. (How's that for a cultural dialectic: sensitive white singer-songwriter's tune recorded by black jazz guitarist and then sampled by the blackest-sounding white rapper ever?)
No, The People's Champ doesn't break any new ground, but it covers the same old cars-weed-drank-girls-partyin' subjects with style -- Wall's got serious flow -- and banging beats.
Meanwhile, just look at all the energy Wall is putting into this signing. He sits at a table, flanked by a couple of H-town's finest (one of them heavily tattooed), his Vietnamese-American, ice-grill-sporting jewelry store partner Johnny Dang and hulking Swishahouse honcho Michael Watts. Wall greets each and every one of the approximately 1,000 fans with what looks like a sincere, gem-encrusted, 20-carat smile. Teenage girls swoon -- after all, Wall's other nickname is "the Chick Magnet" -- and little boys gaze back in wonder as parents look on approvingly. Wall sits, flashes his grill and signs until every last one of them walks away with a few precious seconds of their hero's time. (And Wall was scheduled to repeat this scene immediately afterward up at Greenspoint Mall, where the crowd figured to be even bigger on his native north side.)
After seven years of scuffling on the hip-hop scene, this is his day, and Wall is loving it. "It's so multicultural here," he says, speaking of Houston generally and this signing specifically. "We're right on the border with Mexico, and we're right on the Gulf of Mexico, which is next door to the Caribbean, and there's so many different cultures and races here. We're out here getting our money, and we'll make it a lot farther as a city and as a nation if we support each other than we would if we just drag each other down. We don't need the great divide, you know?"
"The thing about Paul is it's never about the color of your skin," says Pretty Todd. "If you're a good dude, then he's good to you."
It's strange how Wall's pale skin has never been a factor -- at all -- on Houston's rap scene. "Paul is I don't want to say accepted, because that's not the right word," says Pretty Todd. "If you don't know him, you just think he's a white dude with a grill, but if you know him, it's just .I don't know, it's hard to explain. You just have to meet him to know this is not a Haystak, this is not a Bubba Sparxxx, this is not a Vanilla Ice. Paul is just a genuine guy -- the People's Champ."
Born Paul Slayton, 24-year-old Wall started on the road to that title back in Jersey Village, where he grew up in a home that was unstable for much of his childhood. Wall seems to believe that his parents' various chemical dependencies were good for him, if only in the long run. "Having a biological father that was a heroin addict and a cocaine addict too, and my mother is a recovering alcoholic -- that just motivates you so much," he says. "Watching my mother struggle through that and me bein' right there by her side -- she was always really spiritual. That motivated and inspired me to be able to get through any struggles, hurdles or potholes I had comin' my way. Especially when she met my stepfather -- he took me in as a son and trained me how to be a man."
Wall has also found a few hip-hop surrogate fathers along the way, Swishahouse's Watts not least among them. Wall says Watts gave him the best advice he ever got in the rap game. "He told me that if you always show love, you gonna get it in return, but if you stop showin' love, then people gonna stop showin' you love."
Swishahouse A&R man T. Farris -- who Wall says in the liner notes to The People's Champ "threw me a rope when I was sinking in quicksand" -- is another member of Wall's rap family, albeit more as a brother than a dad. "He always stood by my side. Me and him was always friends above all else, and as I climbed the ranks as a rapper, he did the same as an executive at Swishahouse. G. Dash and Michael Watts always showed me love regardless of any situation, but T. Farris reached out and really made it happen where I could come back to Swishahouse. He believed in me when a lot of other people didn't really believe in me."
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Wall and Farris once worked side-by-side as street teamers for Swishahouse, but as Wall's rap career took off, he and Color Changin' Click partner/Jersey Village buddy Chamillionaire left Swishahouse to release mixtapes like 2002's Get Ya Mind Correct under their own Paid in Full imprint. After the bitter split between Wall and Cham in 2003, Farris, by this time the president of A&R at Swishahouse, helped Wall rejoin the fold in time to land him a memorable guest verse ("I got the In-ter-net goin' nuts ") with Mike Jones and Slim Thug on "Still Tippin'," the kick-the-door-down breakthrough hit this city's rap scene hasn't had since the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me."
"I love him to death, man," Farris says. "I love him like a brother."
No doubt, this was a great day for Houston, and we won't be surprised if Wall -- unlike Lil' Flip and Slim Thug -- cracks platinum status with this record. But looking ahead, Houston rappers need to keep on developing. It's only a matter of time before the novelty of Houston slang wears off, so we've got to keep the beats fresh and start developing distinct personalities and exploring new subject matter. Rap-A-Lot always has -- guys like Devin, Bun B and Z-Ro are true poets -- but all the huge Houston hits lately have been party tunes about cars and syrup and/or simple old-fashioned brags. To reach that next level, someone in this batch -- it could be Paul Wall, or it could be his estranged buddy Chamillionaire, whose debut is coming soon -- has to develop a rounded, quirky personality like Eminem, Big Boi or Jay-Z, and we've got to keep coming up with tracks as dope as those of Salih Williams, who is fast becoming (to my mind, anyway) the Kanye West of Texas.
But this day was about celebration, so I kept my doubts to myself. It would have been churlish not to. As for Wall, what does he see for Houston in his crystal ball? "We've been doin' our thang for a while, but just think of all the people that's still unheard of," he says. "We're the No. 4 city in the country and, like, No. 7 in the world" -- actually we're not seventh in the world, but Wall majored in mass communications at UH, not geography -- "so statistically the odds are there's gonna be a lotta talent coming from Houston. So now that we got everybody's attention, I think definitely there's gonna be a lot of stars coming out of Texas and specifically Houston, not just in hip-hop but in all brands of music."