Screwston, Texas

Mike Dean and Z-Ro Gaze Over the Horizon

Legendary Houston rap producer Mike Dean talks to Canadian Internet host Narduawar in October 2016.
Legendary Houston rap producer Mike Dean talks to Canadian Internet host Narduawar in October 2016.
Z-Ro's preoccupation with numbers needs to be recognized. Of his 20 solo albums beginning with 1998’s Look What You Did to Me, Rotha Vandross has clocked no higher than No. 48 on the Billboard 200. Ro’s highest-charting album, 2008’s Crack, is arguably the high point (no pun intended) of his unofficial “on drugs” series, in which he released albums titled Crack, Cocaine, Heroin, Meth and Angel Dust within a five-year span. Save Heroin, all of them arrived in September or October.

Z-Ro understands that regardless of how potent he is as a rapper, an elder statesman with the dry humor and wit of a comedian, he’s essentially putting out albums to serve a certain base and that’s it. Online, Ro heads will flock to stream his latest works and not do their part to spread his name to other, more nubile ears. In other words, Z-Ro is at a career point where people who know Ro, know Ro. Responding to complete strangers who aren't with it yet is tiresome.

So when Z-Ro announced that next month’s No Love Boulevard would be his official solo-album swan song, it became his most talked-about moment on social media. Common reaction? An exasperated push of the words “Last one.” Here’s the thing: Nobody truly believes Z-Ro is hanging his microphone up for good.

After all, he’s still tag-teaming with Mike D for the sequel to Two the Hard Way and putting the final touches on Ghetto Gospel with Beanz N Kornbread, the production duo responsible for his most effortless radio single in “These Days.” Prolific and Z-Ro are synonymous, about as close bedfellows as baked chicken and rolls from the Hartz Chicken on Fondren and Main. You know Z-Ro is going to rap his ass off; you know he's going to serve the public exactly what they’ve been hooked on since the earliest of days, when he was cutting his teeth on Screw tapes. Ro is a legend, one of those erstwhile figures that seem to be eternal just because you know their presence. But a world without a Z-Ro solo album? Impossible. Unfathomable.

Quick, you can hear Sade’s “Cherish the Day” at this very second. She can sing “you won’t catch me running” and you’ll immediately backdoor with “losing the way that I lose, I get gray hairs,” won’t you? You want to load your imaginary AK at this very moment. I know the feeling. Z-Ro, in the comparative sense, is like Allen Iverson in that way. You don’t argue Z-Ro in mixed company the same way you don’t argue A.I. It becomes an emotional argument, like Spades games or figuring out whether or not Hakeem’s Rockets could have beaten Jordan’s Bulls. Logic gets ignored with Z-Ro, even when it has been evident over the past two decades and change that he’s as unflappable a rapper on the microphone as there can be.

“I’ve turned in great bodies of work [but] when muthafuckas take it and leave it [on the shelf], I don’t like that shit,” Z-Ro told XXL in 2016. “So pretty soon I’m finna to stop giving you shit that you’re going to leave right there and nobody going to know about. I’ve done, in my opinion and plenty of others, some masterpieces and them shits don’t get out of Houston.”

Getting out of Houston is the end goal. For Z-Ro, it’s being heard as a rapper and musician beyond the city. He’s long given his blueprint for offering up his best work when the stars align, the “D-4 vs. A-1” argument he explained in a lengthy profile I did with him for Noisey when he was promoting Melting the Crown. Album 21 being No Love Boulevard means we may possibly never see Rotha Vandross Sings the Blues or rather, No Love Boulevard is Rotha. The odd yet organic and proper thing about the rest of the world (read: New York media) treating Joseph Wayne McVey as a rap star in 2016 that it was long overdue. For Mike Dean, the accolades are slowly rolling in, long after he, N.O. Joe and Scarface first managed to create the definitive Houston rap solo album in 1994.

Dean and Ro know each other well, yet while one wants to call it a day on releasing solo albums, the other is adding to his résumé. Mike Dean, the guitar player and guy who emphasized that “loud” be your biggest strength in music, is now a label head.

The growth of profiles and presence has led Dean to emerge into the spotlight, and it's long overdue. Without him, maybe Kanye West doesn’t get his drums finally right for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne. Maybe Travis Scott doesn’t find the perfect vessel to funnel ideas through. Maybe Beyoncé’s Lemonade doesn’t find its thump in the midst of a hurricane of black emotion. Dean, for the better part of a quarter-century, has been a Houston hip-hop staple. Z-Ro learned all of his in-house production tricks from being around Dean, just not the part about training a bird to steal weed from your guests.

It’s Dean’s guitar work that traces along Scarface’s 1994 album The Diary, and his name lingers in the production credits for a number of Rap-A-Lot acts from 1994 on. The explosion of his aughts work has once more made him en vogue, a figure who can be found behind the boards with a cloud of weed smoke not far behind. A label head? In an era when labels are damn near dead, the album as a model has been torn down to a bare minimum and singles are emphasized more than ever? To him, it’s more of a “why the hell not?”

“I figured I'd start a label and sign some new acts,” Dean told Billboard, which broke the news. “Seems like a good time to start it. I got a studio out here [in Los Angeles] and I'm able to meet a lot of new artists.”

The first of these artists to align themselves with Dean’s M.W.A (Mexican Wrestling Association) imprint? Dice Soho. The pairing doesn’t feel forced or even awkward as for the better part of two years, Soho has ditched dying his hair various colors for crafting the same type of noise-heavy wave that Dean specializes in —braggadocious, shiny rap records that feed off of youthful exuberance and catchy one-liners. When Dice spent time in Los Angeles, he was there with Dean, crafting records such as “Goin’ Up” with Rae Sremmurd’s Slim Jxmmi.

It feels like a rightful position to be for Soho. Any young artist would kill to be next to a guy who could put you in the same spaces with your idols and the potential to make plenty of money. Dean has played backstage and behind the scenes long enough to see where contracts trip up even the most savvy of rappers, and arming himself with a cache of artists from across the country is not as shrewd a move as you think. Hip-hop is losing its borders; the invisible wall that helped homogenize talent by regions is all but cracked and destroyed. What the M.W.A. figurehead wants more than anything? According to his statement to Billboard, something very tangible.

“I hope to have three or four artists on the roster with a couple of producers and just make some dope shit,” he said.

The very basis of being a musician is touching people and, as Dean said rather effectively, making “dope shit.” For him, there’s no longer a full line of questions about who he’s recently worked with on their big album. Now people are asking him about spearheading the future and employing some talent from across the country to do so. He and Z-Ro, the “No Justice No Peace” brothers, are at different places in where they want to push. Z-Ro hosts a radio show with local trial lawyer Charles Adams on Saturdays on KPRC 950 AM. The Angry Justice show is part community awareness, part Z-Ro spitballing thoughts from his mind on a more nuanced platform. Cultural appropriation, random pop-ups from significant others, nothing truly is off limits. I’d like to believe Ro likes it that way. Same for Dean.

At this point in their careers, the only people they have to answer to? Themselves.