Young and Hungry

It's dusk on a Wednesday night, and Lil' KeKe and his entourage have sequestered themselves in the Jam Down Entertainment studios on Telephone Road with a bounty of fast food from a local joint known as Spanky's. Primary on the Houston rapper's mind is a piping hot order of chili cheese fries, and he sits himself down at a desk in the reception area and goes to town while Jam Down executives, various acquaintances and members of KeKe's spinoff group, the Herschelwood Hardheads, soak in his greasy indulgence.

"I'm hungry, dog," KeKe says time and time again, as if to both defend his gluttony and announce where his priorities are at the moment. A Hardhead who goes by the name of Duke, sitting on a nearby sofa, warns his physically fit, Nike-clothed partner that if he keeps that up, he's going to get fat. Seemingly oblivious to such health issues, KeKe pops another plastic forkful into his mouth and mutters, "I'm hungry, dog."

Occasionally, KeKe lifts his head from the plate to take charge of the room with some attention-grabbing comment or maneuver. KeKe has always had a knack for snatching the spotlight in any situation, but now it's getting to the point where he doesn't have to work at it so hard. Some weeks ago, students mobbed the 21-year-old rapper when he dropped by Fleming Middle School to deliver a birthday present to a friend, an incident that he's obviously proud to acknowledge. "It wasn't even the lunch break or nothing," KeKe says. "They had to get the principal to get them to go back to class."

Fact is, such situations are becoming increasingly common for Lil' KeKe these days. Since its release in July, the rapper's striking debut CD, Don't Mess wit' Texas, has sold more than 30,000 copies, largely on word of mouth alone. Meanwhile, the CD's first single, "Southside," has found radio momentum on KBXX/97.9 FM, The Box.

"It feels good to go to a concert and see 300 or 400 cars out there," says KeKe. "My mother's happy that her son has excelled in something. I started out really liking something that I wanted to do."

Hip-hop is something KeKe (a.k.a. Marcus Lakee Edwards) has been dead set on pursuing since he was a kid growing up in southeast Houston. Coming of age in Herschelwood, KeKe had an adolescence that was "rough, but not enough to complain about it," marked by various minor run-ins with the law. KeKe attributes his relatively sane childhood to a caring family. His father (who died of cancer a year ago and to whom KeKe dedicates Texas) was a trucker, his mom is a hospital worker, and his sister works in the correctional field.

KeKe originally began spouting rhymes with his Hardheads clique, which along with Duke includes members Archie Lee and Knocky. He put his solo stamp on the Houston rap scene when he guested on "From Pimp to Pen," a track on DJ Screw's seminal, slow-riding hip-hop effort 3 N Tha Mornin'. That led to an appearance on Jam Down rapper Al-D's Mind at Ease. Apparently, the folks at Jam Down were so wowed by KeKe that they invited him to do another track with Al-D, and that track eventually led to KeKe's own solo project. As is often the case with a scene that relies so heavily on lip service, the buzz on KeKe found its way to other area rappers, including Point Blank, 3-2 and the Botany Boys, and he guested on efforts by them as well.

Perhaps the factor that most distinguishes KeKe from many others in the Gulf Coast hip-hop line is that he accentuates the positive. It's not that his lyrics lack the of-the-moment social relevance integral to hard-hitting urban strains, but his angle is decidedly giddy and extroverted, buoyed by an undeniable feeling of bloodshed-free abandon.

"My form of rapping isn't ... about violence," KeKe explains. "It isn't about a color -- blue or red; it isn't about racial situations -- black or white. The difference in my style is that I'm really talking about ballin'."

But KeKe offers that his interpretation of the term is a broad one. "Ballin' means having fun. Really having fun -- consecutively, every day," he says. "Traveling, shopping, ballin', you know what I'm sayin'? Everybody knows about the tragedies and bad things that go on in life, so I really base my music on having fun, so the people out there can have something else to think about."

KeKe believes that it's his collective good-time vibe -- combined with an undeniable sense of home-turf pride -- that has so many latching onto his local hit, "Southside." "What I mean is Florida, Texas, New Mexico -- that's my southside, you know," he says. "Really, I try to do whatever I can to get the southside recognized. It's a dance, really."

But, KeKe emphasizes, "Southside" isn't the sort of dance (like the Macarena) that makes you want to tighten a noose around your neck and call it a day. "It's not as serious as that, you know. I don't dance. Gangstas don't dance -- they just boogie. It's just a movement from side to side."

Behind the Jam Down reception desk, KeKe takes his attention away from his fries to provide visual accompaniment, lifting his shoulders and bouncing them back and forth. "There ain't no actual steps to the dance," he confides. "It's really more of a rhythm."

KeKe hopes to expand on that rhythm with the Herschelwood Hardheads, with whom he's working on a full-length release due out next February. Meanwhile, he continues to lay out a strategy for his own rise to stardom with the aid of an arsenal of superlatives.

"By the next solo album, I'm gonna take the world by storm," he says. "What I mean by that is not take it over -- not barge my way in or knock over some big guys. What I mean is, staying my ground and doing exactly what I feel."

A hungry dog, after all, will not be denied.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey