Houston was the city making the most noise in hip-hop in 2005. After years of being mostly ignored by the national media, Houston’s Mike Jones debuted at number three on the charts, only to be outdone by his Houston teammate Slim Thug, who debuted at number two. Paul Wall was the final member of the tight-knit crew of Houston’s rising stars. Accordingly, his album, The People’s Champ, topped the charts in its first week.
It wasn’t much of a surprise: Wall had been killing it on his guest spots throughout the year, heightening anticipation for his full-length (many people even say he stole the show on Jones’s “Still Tippin’ ” and on Kanye’s “Drive Slow”). Given such recent successes and his diamond-encrusted grilles (something his jewelry store, TV Jewelry, specializes in), we expected stories of extravagance and partying. We learned the opposite is true: Paul Wall is focused on grindin’, regardless of whether he’s at the top or the bottom.
How many times have you been up to New York now?
[Laughs.] I don’t know – about 300 times. We’ve been up here more than we’ve been up in Houston, actually. Just trying to promote as much as we can; just doing as much press as we can.
What do you like to do when you’re up here?
The main thing is record. There’s just so many opportunities to record with so many different artists. That’s just what I’ve been doing. Like the Diplomats: JR Writer, Juelz, Cam’ron, Jim Jones. All of them. I just did something with Ashanti yesterday. Did something with Daddy Yankee. Worked with Usher up here. I did something for the Biggie duets album. Whatever I can do. I feel like my number one enemy is time, because it’s the only thing against me right now. Just so much to do in such little time. I got so many opportunities in front of me, but I just don’t really have the time.
Let me get this straight: the album dropped, and it went number one and sold a lot of units, but basically you just kept working?
Oh, yeah, man. I saw a lot of other artists that, once they reached a certain level of success, they kind of [started thinking they] didn’t have to work any more. But myself looking at that, it’s the exact opposite. Once you get in the door, that’s when you really get in full gear. Put it in high gear and then you really start to work. It’s working non-stop now. We put it in overtime now. We thought we weren’t sleeping before, but we really ain’t sleeping now. It’s all work now.
Do you remember the first time you heard hip-hop? How old were you?
I don’t remember how old I was, but I have memories. There were always two different versions of hip-hop. You have regular hip-hop and you have screwed-and-chopped hip-hop. Now you have a lot of people say, “Why’s it so slow?” But back then all you heard was, “Why’s it so fast?” Because we listened to the mixtapes more than we listened to the radio. We watched the TV just to see what videos were out. It was kind of weird because the videos on TV weren’t what we were listening to. Or we would hear a Screw tape and it would sound so different. Why’s it sound like this on TV? Why’s it sound so fast? For a long time we didn’t – or at least I didn’t – grasp the concept that it was generally slower than normal. I felt everything else was faster.
Do you remember the first time you tried rhyming? Was it awkward?
Nah, ’cause it was just something that everyone did. In my neighborhood, all my friends did it. It’s like the first time you played basketball. It’s what we did. We played basketball and we’d rap. We just did it for fun, and we had fun doing it. And eventually I started making money off of it.
Do you still play hoops at all?
Only in celebrity games, trying to raise money. But not liked I used to. I used to love playing basketball.
What about Slim Thug? Is he any good?
Yeah, he’s pretty good. The funny thing is that when we were in high school he wasn’t too good. But now he got better. I think the last time I played basketball was with my boy Kenyon Martin playing horse. He was doing all kinds of crazy shit I couldn’t do. It wasn’t fair.
How’d you link up with Kenyon Martin?
He’s from Dallas. That’s one of our biggest markets. Did a lot of shows there.
I noticed you getting a lot of calls and messages over there. How many are you getting nowadays versus before? It’s got to be insane, right?
Yeah, but we weed it out. If it’s about business it goes to T-Farris or Goo. If it’s personal, you call me, but even then it’s all work for me, so it’s not too much personal stuff unless it’s my moms saying she saw me on Jimmy Kimmel.
You did Jimmy Kimmel and Howard Stern, right?
Did Jimmy Kimmel, Howard Stern, a big AOL performance yesterday.
How would you compare being on Jimmy Kimmel versus Howard Stern?
Well, [I performed] on Jimmy Kimmel, where as Howard Stern was more like an interview. Just two different types of shows, but I had a great time doing both of them.
When you were coming up and selling all those mixtapes, did you ever expect to achieve all this commercial success?
I never ever expected to get anywhere near this level. I was always dreamed and hoped, but I never felt the rest of the world would grasp onto what we had. I knew we had something going because we were so successful in our region, but it’s kind of hard to get the rest of the world to understand it. Because the rest of the world always looked at it as if we were doing something different, whereas we looked at it as if we were just doing us and the rest of the world was different. But through time and the evolving of music and the sound, not only in our area but in the rest of the world, we’ve all kind of made steps toward each other. And eventually God blessed us with the opportunity we have, and now we’re here.
Even before, you were doing pretty well financially, just off the mixtapes, right?
Oh, yeah. Extremely, and even with the grilles. Everything we had going on. I used to have so many different hustles. I still do, but back then I was doing street promotions, I was rapping, I was selling mixtapes, I was selling albums, I was deejaying, I was promoting the clubs. I’d be deejaying and getting a cut of the door. Selling jewelry. Doing whatever I could.
That blows my mind. How old were you when you started making good money, ’cause you’re still pretty young now?
I’m twenty-four now. I was about nineteen, twenty when there was a serious possibility for me to be doing this full-time. Even then I was working a full-time job, and I was like I’m guaranteed this much money with every paycheck, and this is what I’ll use to pay bills. All this other extra stuff I’m doing – rapping, selling mixtapes – that’s just my extra money to play around with.
Were you hustling when you were a little kid to? You have a paper route or something?
I was selling lollipops in kindergarten. I was doing whatever I could. I didn’t have a paper route, but in Houston everyone has a lawn with grass, and in the summertime you have to cut your grass every week because it gets so hot and it grows so thick and so fast. So that’s what I was doing. Cutting people’s grass as a youngster, just doing whatever I could to get paid, doing what I could to save up. That’s something my mom instilled in me: Take a certain percentage out, even if it’s two dollars here or five dollars there. It all added up. She instilled in me not just to spend it when you get it. That really stuck with me. I’m getting money, but I’m not spending it. I’ll spend certain parts of it, as far splurging on jewelry.
When you talk about savings, are you putting it away or investing it?
Some of it goes to investing, some of it goes into a savings account just gaining interest. You put your money in a savings account and let it sit for seven years and it’s going to double, but I’m not looking at seven years from now. I’m looking at twenty years from now, thirty years from now. I’m putting this money away and I’m ballin’ now, but thirty years from now, just wait. Then I’m really gonna be ballin’.
You should look into starting another line of business, where you act as a financial advisor to other rappers.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, most people don’t listen – especially artists and rappers. Everyone thinks they have all the answers, and I definitely don’t feel as if I have all the answers. I’m listening. You got two ears and one mouth, so I’m listening twice as much as I talk.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have a sister and a brother. Three god sisters.
Is your brother older or younger?
What do they do? Were they into hip-hop?
A little bit here and there. My sister is a music freak. She likes every kind of music: country, rock, rap, alternative rock, jazz, classical. My brother is kind of the same way, but mostly rock and hip-hop.
Were you into rock at all?
I listened to whatever. My mom used to always listen to Roberta Flack and Sade along with all the old Motown acts like Smokey Robinson. I listened to that growing up, but when I started getting into rap it was just me doing that. I listen to a lot of kinds of music, though.
I notice you make references to the Internet in your songs. Do you still check out a lot of different sites or are you too busy now?
I still check out sites here and there, but for the most part I don’t have time. I still maintain my site, djpaulwall.com and I got another one, HelpforHouston.com. It’s a non-profit organization I have where we give back to the youth.
How long has that been up?
We just started it a few months back, when Katrina came and Rita came. We really gave a lot to them and solicited a lot of clothing companies and they donated a lot of clothes. Ecko cleared their whole warehouse out. My boy Travis Barker, who I have a group with, donated 5,000 pieces of clothing from his company Famous Stars and Straps. My boy Algiers, which I’m wearing now, donated 4,000 pieces. So we did a lot for people that lost everything. We gave them brand new clothes with the packaging and tags all still on them.
Did you think your album would debut at number one the week before it came out?
We kind of expected it to be successful considering the people before me- Mike Jones did well. He was number three. Slim Thug did well. He came in at number two. So we kind of figured it’d be in the Top 5. But to be number one, none of us expected that. We couldn’t have even dreamed of that.
Did you celebrate after you heard?
We didn’t really have time to. We were just across the country, going from city to city, trying to sell more CDs. Just trying to do it bigger and better. That’s what it’s all about for us. We’re not trying to get caught up in the moment. We’re trying to get bigger and better and keep growing.
Are things now cool between you and Chamillionaire? Everything is settled?
You know, my main focus is promoting this Houston movement and the Texas movement and doing my thing in terms of what I got going with [The People’s Champ] and future albums. I got another album coming out, The Day That Hell Broke Loose Part 3. It’s getting ready to drop, a Swishahouse compilation. I got the group with Travis Barker from Blink-182 and Skinhead Rob from Transplants. We got a group called Expensive Taste. But that’s really my whole focus right now. Anything other than that I’m not really concerned about.
That project with Travis Barker: Is that mostly a hip-hop album or is it a rock album?
It’s kind of a mix. The Transplants were signed to Atlantic like myself, and I met him in the offices one time and we just hooked up. They let me hear the album, and I was just like, You gotta let me screw and chop this album. This is gonna drop the chain. So we screwed and chopped it, and I think they’ll be ready to release it in the next couple weeks. It was just phenomenal to hear the music screwed and chopped. We were just talking and kind of formed a group. Two of the members from the Transplants and myself.
Travis Barker is doing a lot of the production. Me and Rob are doing the rapping. We’re going to do whatever we can to make whatever kind of music we can make. But we all come from different backgrounds of music, different walks of life, so you’re going to hear us being us on there. None of us is going to compromise who we are. I’m going to be me, just like Rob is going to be him and Travis Barker is going to be him. But I think it’s going to be real interesting to hear what we do together.
Is that coming out on Atlantic?
Yeah, I think it’s going to be coming out on Atlantic.
I noticed that “Drive Slow” is on both your album and Kanye’s album. How’d that end up happening?
Originally it was Kanye West’s song, but he just blessed me and allowed me to put it on my album, too. I’m extremely grateful for that. He didn’t have to do that. He went out and took a risk just by putting me on the album in general. Before my album dropped, I was just third verse on “Still Tippin’.” I wasn’t even nowhere near where I am today. I was just the last verse on a song. It was beautiful – just an honor to be on the song.
What’s your favorite song on your album.
“Ridin’ Dirty” featuring Trey Songz. It really depicts Houston and Texas culture in a musical way. There are a lot of live instruments on there – guitars, organs. It’s just a great song. I feel privileged just to be on the song, because the song is jammin’ without me. Man, it’s off the chain.
What about your future work. Do you think of yourself as still improving?
Oh, yeah. I’ve grown tremendously from my last album, The Chick Magnet, to where I am today with The People’s Champ, and there’s a lot more growing I can do. There’s definitely a lot more growing. I’m growing day to day with every verse I do. Little by little. Hopefully, I keep growing.
Do you ever look back at your life and think of one moment that changed everything?
I think it was when T Ferris – T Ferris is the president of Swishahouse as well as my management – when he put me on the song “Still Tippin’.” ‘Cause up until then I was just a local underground rapper. But when he put me on “Still Tippin’,” that song was the breaking point for myself, Mike Jones and Slim Thug. It launched our careers to a whole new level. It launched us into mainstream America, on a national level. Up until that point we were just local.
What have you been listening to lately?
You know what, I’m basically stuck in 1996: “Riding Dirty” by UGK is one of my all-time favorites. That, as well as some old DJ Screw mixtapes, Who’s Next to Flex, Leaning on a Switch. There’s a Swishahouse mixtape called Rolling Strapped with Slim Thug on there. That’s one of my favorites. I’m listening to a lot of older stuff to this day. Lil Keke’s Don’t Mess with Texas. That album is one of my favorites. Ghetto Dreams by Fat Pat. All the CDs came out about the same time.
How many times have you listened to these CDs? Hundreds of times?
Oh, yeah. To the point where the CD breaks or is so scratched you gotta get a new one. As long as they have them in stores, I’m going to keep buying them.
You still go out and buy them?
I just want to support the movement. It’s all good.
You ever get any crazy customers in your jewelry store that you’d never expect?
Well, doing the grilles specifically – we’ve done them for Bow Wow, Twista, Omarion, Diddy, Kanye West, Nelly.
How old was the youngest kid who came in for a grille?
Paul Wall: We’ve had parents come in with their kids. But you really don’t do them. I did them for my girlfriend’s little brother. He’s eleven. It’s not permanent, but we’re not going to do any five-year-olds.
Do any artists try to get discounts?
Everyone wants them free. We will hook you up a great price, though. Usually for artists, we usually only charge ’em for the diamonds; we won’t charge them for the labor. So it comes out to be pretty good – at least, a lot less than what it normally would cost.
In return you get promotion.