If you were an 18-year-old aspiring rapper and high-school dropout at the turn of the century, would you have known to look at the hook of "Follow My Lead" — your first paid feature — and use its words as a map to salvation from death or lifelong incarceration?
If, by the grace of God, you somehow had the foresight to see code in the lyrics, could you have seen past the contradiction of Texas rap legend South Park Mexican asking his listeners to do as he says but not as he does?
On the surface, "Follow My Lead" is one track among dozens by SPM, the fall-from-grace poster child currently serving a 45-year prison sentence for sexual assault of a child. But in Houston's underground rap scene, the song represents one of the first major breaks in Houston native Christian Garcia's career.
That hypnotic-sounding "Follow My Lead" hook turned out to be an eerie, ironic preview of the decade to follow for Garcia, now better known to the streets as Lucky Luciano.
On a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, a mature 28-year-old musician shows up to an empty Heights restaurant. Stripped of his diamond grill, bling, black shades, hip-hop apparel and gangster swagger, Luciano is barely recognizable. You wouldn't know he's at the helm of an entire movement of underground rappers.
Lucky personifies the cultural evolution of thousands of Hispanic youth and adults entering their thirties who arrived in Houston in the early '80s, and whose assimilation into Americana took a sharp, unexpected turn.
When their families migrated to Houston from South Texas, or perhaps a small Mexican village, they didn't know "screw" would be anything more than a carpentry tool, or that "syrup" would be anything more than something to put on an American breakfast.
Or that black urban culture would define their children's upbringing, whether they liked it or not. But it did, by blending with brown. Houston's cultural melting pot looks like an unintentional science experiment, and Lucky Luciano is the result.
Where SPM's story effectively ends with his 2002 sentencing, Lucky Luciano's begins. From prison, SPM instructed his family to find Luciano and sign him to his label, Dope House Records.
"I got a record deal out of the situation," says Lucky. "He told his mother from jail, 'Find Lucky and see what we have to do to get him over here.' They needed a new artist."
Luciano's signing bonus with Dope House was $10,000, which he quickly spent, plus a Cadillac Escalade he quickly wrecked. It was a downward spiral that looked similar to SPM's self-proclaimed battle with the intoxication of stardom.
"My problem was drugs and alcohol," says Lucky. "That's why I'm still here and not at another level right now."
By "here," he means the underground rap scene, which isn't necessarily treating him bad financially. "Another level," then, is Paul Wall and Chamillionaire.
"I've known Paul Wall for about 20 years and Chamillionare was a grade above me," Lucky says. "We all went to school together, from elementary to junior high, all the way up. When they were doing their thing and coming up, they were really business-minded, and I wasn't, and they knew that. They stayed away from me because I was trouble."
Luciano will be the first to admit that although he has mastered the entrepreneurial blueprint of creating, packaging, distributing and selling his own music — a moneymaking scheme invented by DJ Screw and mastered by SPM and Chingo Bling — poor decision-making cornered him into being an underground artist.
He'll be the first to admit that SPM wrote him from prison and warned him of the dangers that come with success, because he knew firsthand: Follow my business lead to success, Lucky, but don't follow my personal one.
But how do you say "no" to a stripper who wants you to hold and spend her money? How do you not follow the lead of the G-string? When Lucky ran out of money from the royalty checks he was getting from a feature on Baby Bash's platinum-selling album, his local celebrity won him the lust of strippers at Houston's Centerfolds.
The smoke and mirrors of materialistic possessions accumulated through his early earnings, his VIP status at the club and his affiliation with other big-name artists wooed the strippers into making Lucky their personal piggy bank. At a time of potential financial despair, Lucky got lucky.
"I was pimpin' strippers," he says. "I was never really ever broke. These bitches were making $1,000 a night. I went from living in hotels to a high-rise in the Galleria on the 16th floor. The first time it happened, I didn't ask for her money or nothing. She just came and gave me her money. We went to the hotel afterwards and they fired her because they said she left with a customer."
Lucky took that stripper to a gentlemen's establishment in Dallas and put her to work.
"She was pregnant at the time," he says. "She didn't last too long."
But others did. Lucky was flipping the average cuties mesmerized by who he was in the Houston music game into strippers at Centerfolds for almost three years, from 2003 to 2006.
"I knew the girls that worked the door," he remembers. "I'd call and say, 'I'm fixing to send a girl.' Waiting for these bitches to get off of work at two or three in the morning, you have to do something. I'd be drinking and doing drugs waiting for these hoes to get out of work."
In his last year of pimping strippers, Lucky scored a meeting in New York with Atlantic Records. It was a mere formality, Lucky thought, so he hit the town, celebrating with all the goodies a drug addict and alcoholic could get his hands on.
He made that meeting, but was so intoxicated from the night before that Atlantic's executives didn't want to take a chance on him. Months later, another Houston artist, Chingo Bling, signed a deal with Asylum Records.
However, the lost opportunity served as a major turning point in Lucky's career. Flying high on the riches of strippers and an occasional mixtape and album sales, he knew his plane was going down.
So Lucky got back to the basics. He got married in 2006, and since then has released 20 mixtapes and/or albums. He ships his music to places as wide-ranging as Phoenix and Japan, and does shows from Denver to Chicago that leave him knee-deep in six-figure earnings. The Texas Latin Rap Awards named him 2009 Artist of the Year.
Now, he and Chingo visit high schools preaching the importance of separating fantasy lyrics from how to be truly successful in life. He no longer drinks or does drugs, and is caring for two children (ages two and five).
"I know what I'm trying to accomplish is bigger than a party," Lucky says. "I've sipped enough syrup and smoked enough weed for two lifetimes. I tell the kids, 'If you chase the high, you ain't gonna get the money. You've got to chase the money. Don't chase the high."
"We make it sound real cool, but when you are really living that life, when you are really sipping syrup, popping pills and doing coke, you are going to become an alcoholic and a drug addict," he finishes. "And there isn't anything good that comes out of that shit."
In other words, don't do as Lucky raps.Do as he lives today.