When Maurice Williams, better known in local rap circles as Nuwine, was just six months old, he was kicked out of a day-care center. "I was bad from day one, man," Williams says. "I can't remember it, but my mama does."
Sitting in the Galleria's Cheesecake Factory one crowded Thursday afternoon, munching on potato skins and a mountain of fried red-onion rings with his manager, Darren Holmes, the 27-year-old husband and father of five discusses his life as a bad seed, a rotten apple, a Todd Bridges, if you will. "I was one of those brothas you see on the news or read about," he says of his ghetto hoodlum past. But sure enough, he found a way out of street-level hell: rapping. And rapping about God.
"I just never took it seriously," he says of his oratory skills. "After my conversion, I started living my life right. It's pretty much all I had to survive with. So I had to take it seriously. Little did I know that it would provide for me and my family, and it would take me as far as I've been."
When he was growing up in Houston's revered and feared Fifth Ward, Williams had to think of something to get out of the street game. "I had a harsh life," he says, "raised up in poverty, got into a life of crime." By the time he was 18, he'd been in and out of jail more than ten times. His existence as a Class A thug reached a tragic apex one night in 1991. At a Stop N Go, Williams ran into a homey in the parking lot and exchanged pleasantries. The homey was a gangbanger and was with his crew at the time, and a rival gang was also on the premises. Assuming Nuwine was with the homey's gang, a rival gang member pulled out his 9mm and began shooting. One bullet broke Williams's nose and shattered his cheekbone. He had to be taken by helicopter to Hermann Hospital. "The officers were amazed I was still living," he says.
Although Williams began to attend church with his mother after the incident, he didn't completely make the transition from hood to godly hip-hopper until he was locked up again in 1993, this time facing a sentence of 15 years for aggravated robbery. It was in this jail cell Williams began pondering his life. "I would start thinking about my life," he remembers. "I'd cry out to God and say, 'God, I don't know you, but I wanna know you.' "
Thanks to his lawyers, he didn't do all that hard time. But he did begin to get his career and his life together. He got the name Nuwine from two references: "Nu," meaning the new life he has adopted for himself, and "Wine," which is, according to Williams, the street name for the Big G. "God's street name is 'Wine,' " he says with a laugh. "Not too many people know that." In 1996 he released his first album, The Bloody 5th, on Grapetree Records, which was later nominated for a Dove Award. Six other albums followed, all on his independent label, Wine-O, all of them tallying about 100,000 in sales.
Williams's goal is not to pummel audiences with God stuff, but to offer an enlightening, sensible alternative to raunchy rap. "I see that the young people of this generation need more than a song about shaking your butts," he says. "And the young people of this generation are looking for the role models. They're looking toward the role models. And the only thing they're getting from role models is stacking your paper and shaking your butts. So that's what I see, and that's what I write about, but then I give the solution to the problem without exploiting the problem."
In true rapper-with-a-message fashion, Williams holds his own perspectives on rap music. "I'm gonna break it down like this: What is rap? R-A-P, right? That stands for Rhythm and Poetry. Most rappers talk about what they've been through, right, what they know and what they see. I'm no different. It's just my route was different. I rap about what I know. I know that God is real, without a shadow of a doubt. This ain't no religious, ritualistic imagination. I know, for myself, that God is real. What I've been through, everything's possible, I've done it, you know what I'm sayin'. And I've got scars to prove it."
Williams feels that a sense of spirituality is what is needed in today's youth. "It's like the schools," he says. "They used to have prayer in school. I mean, everybody stood up and prayed. It didn't mean nothing. But it was respect for a higher power, which is God. And when they took prayer out, guns came in, you know what I'm sayin'. That's the truth.
"This ain't theory from Nuwine. It's fact. It's the truth."
Whether or not you agree with his opinions, Williams stresses that he isn't some sappy hack who's only in it to preach the word. "I don't come feeding you any religion," he says. "I come feeding you reality."
But aren't there cynical naysayers who feel that his music may be merely religious-fanatic hokum set to a bouncing beat?
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"Can I be honest wit 'cha?" he asks. "In the seven years of me doing this, I've never in my life got one negative response to my music. I haven't even heard nobody say, 'I don't like your songs.' Everybody who's ever heard [my music] either have full respect for what I do, or they just can't stop bobbing their head."
Truth be told, his music isn't preachy or overbearing. In fact, on Ghetto Mission, his 21-track opus to be released next month, the songs sound like pure Southern-based rap, except the lyrics are uplifting and have nothing to do with pussy, weed or alcohol. Ghetto Mission will be released on Real Deal Records, the new label formed by boxer Evander Holyfield. The two met in 1996, when they were part of a community benefit, and have been friends ever since.
Williams was the first to sign with Holyfield's year-and-a-half-old label and is looking for big numbers with Ghetto Mission. His hope is that the album sells, oh, seven million records (those are Backstreet Boys numbers!), but Williams would also like to be up there with "Michael Jackson sales, like 50, 60 million."
Williams is also planning to collaborate with Holyfield on a movie project based on Williams's life. You can also catch him every Thursday at 4 p.m. on KLTJ, Channel 22, hosting his own show, also called Ghetto Mission. But for the time being, he is concentrating on his music, his upcoming album and how audiences will react. "My music is real different, man," he says. "And it's real, you know what I'm sayin'. I think music shapes the world, and music influences a lot of things. And I think my music is gonna take a big influence on people changing, as far as changing for the better, and bettering themselves naturally and spiritually. Physically and spiritually."