Lil’ Keke is a living legend. He was an original member of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click, and Screw considered him to be the “golden boy” of the collective. In the late ‘90’s, Don Ke created buzz for Houston rap culture with his classic album, Don’t Mess Wit Texas and he’s refined a lot of the tenets now popular in Texas Hip Hop. Keke remains an active recording artist and in 2018, the Mayor of Houston gave him his own day on July 13, symbolizing the numbers seven, one, and three, which is Houston’s area code. It’s fair to say that Lil’ Keke is self-made.
I spoke with Lil’ Keke in New York City, while he was promoting his latest album, Self Made II. He approached producing this project the same way he approached our discussion— with enthusiasm. He arrived at my office after a boozy lunch and told me that had it not been for the gravity of his new album, he would have just called me on the phone and said, “man, let’s do this next week.”
Don ‘Ke took one year to finish Self Made II. He selected every artist and producer on the project and went into the studio with each to record the songs so that Self Made II would represent a strictly Lil’ Keke curated project. He was similarly engaged with designing the album’s artwork.
Why all the effort?
I mean, the release of Self Made II succeeds the 20th anniversary of his iconic album, Don’t Mess with Texas and the re-release of its single “South Side”—this time, recorded with Houston’s popular soul band, The Suffers. And, Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburg Steelers and Branden LaFell of the New England Patriots were both doing Lil Keke’s “The South Side” as their touch down dances on national television. As far as Houston is concerned, Lil’ Keke is infallible.
. . . Because, in addition to all of Lil’ Keke’s inability to do wrong, he wanted to connect Houston’s rich rap history to its future and turn heads in the process.
Self Made II shows that Lil’ Keke is still holdin’ and in our conversation below he shares how he developed this album, introduces a few of the artists off of it, breaks down a few of his lyrics, and provides some wisdom about how he found success in rap.
Douglas Doneson: How’d you decide to construct Self Made II?
Lil’ Keke: I wanted to bridge the gap between the younger artists and us, the O.G.’s and legends. And, we constructed the album from really going to the studio and really going in with the producers. For the last few years, I’d get emails of tracks, bring it to the producers, go in, lay’em, and just drop it, where [this time] I was hands-on and really personal with recording it.
DD: With respect to the younger artists featured on Self Made II, it is clear that you went out of your way to select artists based on talent and not buzz or social media acclaim.
LK: I wanted to give opportunities to people to do different things on my album. I got a lot of friends and close associates who do music that didn’t make the album. It wasn’t that I don’t like their music, it’s just that this particular album was kind of strategic.
DD: How was it working with Chucky Trill?
LK: Dope. He has a great story; he did a little time and came home. He is really talented. They reached out to me and were like, “man, we want to do some work with you for your album. We want to offer something and if you like it, you keep it. If you don’t, we appreciate the opportunity.” So, we went to the studio and the track they were trying to do wasn’t it. I said, “let’s hear some more.” We picked this other track and man he just went in, you know what I’m saying? I let him do his thang.
DD: Cal Wayne is another dope artist on Self Made II and y’all complement each other really well.
LK: Me and him bump heads but not like the real bump heads. He’s a good artist and represents something that I like; he represents the streets. He only did a verse on here but he can do a lot.
LK: I went to DJ Chose. He is awesome. I like his work ethic. He probably outworks everybody. So, I reached out to him and told him, “man let’s do a jam, I like what you do.” He let me hear a couple of tracks and he was trying to slide the “My Duffle” track by me. I was like, “nah, what about that one?” You know what I’m saying? He really liked it and I thought he wanted to keep it. I was like, “man let me hear that.” So, we ended up putting that together.
DD: How’d you and Big K.R.I.T., cross paths?
LK: Since we did that song, “Me and My Old School” with Slim Thug, he was like, “hey man, I want to do some work with you whenever you are ready.” He saw me working on this album and taking pictures with artists and he called me and said, “man, I want to send you some music tomorrow when I go to the studio.” Well, I fooled him and showed up to the studio in Atlanta; knocked on the door, went in, and we stayed in nine hours and done three tracks.
DD: In an interview, I did with you in 2014, you said that you, Pat Lemon, Corey Blount, and Fat Pat coined a lot of H Town terminology, such as “comin’ dine,” “knowwhatimtabbinbout,” “holdin,” and all that classic H Town stuff. Are there any new phrases or concepts on this album?
LK: Man, I’m a trendsetter. I just feel like if I put on a red shoe and a blue shoe and wear it for a month, they’ll do that. I don’t put a lot into trendsetting. I’m not like, “I’m going to do this and they’ll start doing that.”
You know the culture man. I hear certain thangs. I see it. I was saying, “minor setback for a major come back” in ’96, ’97. If I came and told these people I said that they’d be like, “no you didn’t.” When you set trends and they follow, you just keep going.
DD: A concept you stressed a lot on this album is consistency. On “Come from Nothing” you said, “graduated with a cap and gown from staying down.” On “I’m the Real,” you said, “I stayed me, that’s what paid me.” Tell me about this emphasis on not switching it up. Why is that so important to you?
LK: Man, I made a million dollars off of rapping about cars. Why stop? (Laughs). I am the king of this shit. So, I just stayed me and my whole thing is, I am able to stay me because within staying me I don’t have a problem with changing. We big with that from my area; stayin’ down for the come up. Check this here. I never made an auto-tune song in a 20-year history. I wanted to. I think I could get on there and do it. It’s not that I hated it; I just never done it.
This is real big with me and I tell people: “everybody wants to hit a home run; get straight to the plate; swing; and hit it out of the fence. But they don’t know how to play ball or even get on a base.” While they swinging and missing I done went to first, second, third, and I’m back at home. Everybody ain’t made to hit a home run. The game can be won inside the bases. Get on base sometime. Make you some money. Make you 10. Make you 20. Motherfuckers are going for a million.
Its 20 years later and I’m still going around the bases. You know what I’m saying? Steady scoring another point. My whole thang is, at this point I may never hit a home run, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to win.
DD: Another thing I really like about this album is the artwork. The quality is a lot richer than your previous stuff.
LK: Man. I am so glad you said that. Mike Frost did the artwork. We worked on that cover for four months; like, “no man, that’s not what I am trying to do Mike” and “no man, that’s not what I said.” From the cover to the mixing, to the mastering, to the video, everything man; I just took my time with it.
DD: What do those photos represent?
LK: Everything that I am about. From the bottom to the top. South Park, Sunnyside, Martin Luther King, South Side, and Screw. This is Southside. And we built this. For the last few years, it’s been getting out of hand and twisted about what it’s supposed to be about. I love everything (silence) South Side, South Side; we built the city. You know what I am saying?
DD: 713 is Houston’s area code. You dropped Self Made II on 7/13 and this isn’t the first time you’ve done that.
LK: Man. In 1997, I said, “I am going to make my album, Don’t Mess Wit Texas,” and I am going to put an Astros jersey on and an Astro’s hat. Everybody was scared of that shit.
LK: Because everything was about California and New York in Hip Hop. Ain’t nobody want to stand up and represent for no Texas. That’s what I tell people right now, “y’all are talking all that shit. But in ’97 when I had that Astro’s jersey on and that hat on and named that album Don’t Mess with Texas, wasn’t no H’s in the air.” They weren’t saying nothing. So that was real important to me as far as just representing and not being afraid to represent where I am from.
People are always getting discouraged and trying to do the best move for everybody else. I never do that. I make a move based on feeling and thought and I did that back in the game and the same thing right now with Self Made II.
DD: Anything else you want to say that I didn’t cover?
LK: I always want y’all writers to know we are still humble, grateful, and appreciative. Do you know how much it means to me for you to have these questions? You went into this. You listened. You could have done the normal, “how’s its feel to be with DJ Screw?” I heard that shit a million times man. You went into particulars, listened to the album, you seen the growth, and I want you to know, that’s not something we are looking at like, you are supposed to do. I appreciate it. I am grateful. Just as much as it is an honor for you to interview us, it is an honor for me to answer these questions.
DD: That means a lot to me.
Follow Lil’ Keke on Twitter @DonKe713
Photo credit: Nick Rios ©SoSouth2017