How Billy Gibbons Got His Groove Back
The strange story behind ZZ Top’s best new song in decades.
Put yourself in Billy Gibbons’ shoes. Back in the eighties, you fronted one of the biggest bands in the world. You sold tens of millions of albums, toured the globe incessantly, and became the weird, bearded face of Texas cool. But that was a generation ago, and now you and your bandmates are in your sixties and want to prove that you’re still relevant. What could you possibly do?
Well, you could take a fourteen-year-old hip-hop song about using cheap plastic lighters to sell crack, and you could cover it. Which is exactly what ZZ Top did. And “I Gotsta Get Paid,” released in June on a four-song EP called Texicali, is the band’s best song in decades. It opens with a nasty, distorted guitar riff, one of those simple hooks that Gibbons has been creating forever, the kind that sounds as if it was cribbed from Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker but also feels thoroughly postmodern, summoned by a guy obsessed with hot rods, leggy blondes, and cheap sunglasses. Then Frank Beard’s drums and Dusty Hill’s bass kick in, and Gibbons gets to the point: “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, you know I gotsta get paid.” In the verses he reads a litany of mystery. “I got twenty-five lighters for my twenty-five folks,” Gibbons sings. “Gonna break the bank with twenty-five more.” His guitar growls like a lawn mower. “Twenty-five fly diamonds in my ring, twenty-five twelves in the trunk to bang.”
Remember the first time you heard “La Grange” and knew something was going on—something secret and dirty—and you had no idea what it was, but you really wanted to know? It’s the same with “I Gotsta Get Paid.” What are those lighters doing on the dresser? What’s a fly diamond? A twelve? “I Gotsta Get Paid” has got that thing that the great ZZ Top songs have: a combination of playfulness (“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”), gnarl (“La Grange”), and inscrutability (“Master of Sparks”).
It’s that thing that once made the group so huge, with MTV megahits like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” But that was a long time ago. ZZ Top hasn’t had a platinum album since 1994 or a song in the Billboard Hot 100 since 1991. The group’s last three albums, all for RCA, were largely murky and dull. The band hasn’t even released an album since Mescalero, in 2003. Three years later the group severed its contract with RCA and ended its longtime relationship with manager Bill Ham, who is often credited with being the architect of its sound and image.
Something had to change. In 2008 ZZ Top announced it was doing an album with Rick Rubin, the Grammy-winning producer who had a hand in reviving the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Rubin’s specialty is artists who have lost their way—or just their mojo. He helps them get back in touch with what they do best.
Sitting at a table in the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe last December, Gibbons was excited about the album, which is still untitled but due out this fall. It sounded, he said, like a cross between Tres Hombres and Eliminator, ZZ Top’s two best albums. The band had initially gone to Malibu, where Rubin lives, to write, rehearse, and record, all under his direction. Rubin has a reputation as a front-end producer, a guy whose influence is heard more in the things the artists do before they actually get in the studio, like writing. He’s a Zen-like figure who pushes musicians to, in Gibbons’s words, “spend more time reaching down deeper than they normally would.” But the band just wasn’t happy with the recorded results. “We never got anything [good],” Gibbons said. The trio ultimately went to Gibbons’ studio on the west side of Houston, Foam Box, and rerecorded the songs. “We did it all in Houston,” he said.
He talked about some of the songs—a cover of Mississippi blues singer Willie Brown’s “Future Blues” as well as an original he called “If I’d Only Been a Mexican.” But he was most excited about “I Gotsta Get Paid”—and about its provenance.
“ ‘Twenty-five lighters on my dresser’—it’s old Houston ghetto slang,” Gibbons said. “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid.” He first heard it back in 1998 in a huge local hit by a Houston producer and rapper named DJ DMD; since then Gibbons hadn’t been able to get it out of his head. “These guys figured it out: you could go to a convenience store, buy a box of Bic lighters, twenty-five to a carton, take them home, disassemble them, take out the fluid and the inner workings, and clean them. A very nice, inconspicuous method of transmission—you can stand on the corner and sell crack. The line [the customer’s] got to know: ‘Say, man, you got a light?’ ”
Gibbons in person is as skinny as a skate kid. On this particular day he was wearing slacks with suspenders, a white shirt, and that strange hat that looks like a hairy shower cap pulled down low, just above his eyes and over his ears. It was breakfast time, and he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. The man who has looked 32 for three decades now finally looks all of his 62 years, with wrinkles and creases under his eyes.
Gibbons speaks in a thick drawl and shows a keen interest in everything around him, from autograph seekers to the breakfast dishes of his companions. One of them was Stewart Skloss, the chairman of Pura Vida, a tequila company Gibbons has invested in in a very public way, doing ads and promotional gigs. Ten years ago you would never have seen any member of ZZ Top stepping out of the group. The band had a rule against that. But now Gibbons has become a visible entrepreneur, selling his own hot sauce, shirts, guitar strings, and picks. He has a recurring role on the TV show Bones more or less playing himself. And for the past few years, he has shared stages with plenty of people not named Frank or Dusty—people like Johnny Depp and popular bands like Queens of the Stone Age and the Raconteurs.
Gibbons is a creature of enthusiasms who loves to tell wild, sprawling stories that take unexpected turns. He told one about how his father, who was a conductor and concert pianist, took him at age seven to see B. B. King record “Tired of Your Jive” at ACA Studios in Houston—and how fifty years later he recorded the same song with King in another studio far away. Gibbons grew up in Houston, where he soaked up the local blues, R&B, country, and zydeco scenes, and feels the city has never gotten its due. He loves bragging about Houston music, whether it’s guitarists like Hopkins or blues singers like Big Mama Thornton. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s a huge fan of Houston hip-hop. Rappers, after all, often riff on the same things he does: girls, cars, and sex. Back in the nineties, Gibbons spent a lot of time hanging out with some of the city’s most famous rappers—guys like Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and DJ Screw—comparing notes, telling stories. And it was around that time that he heard an incredibly catchy song about lighters on a dresser.
Dorie Dorsey, better known to hip-hop fans as DJ DMD, thought it was a prank. Someone who said he was from ZZ Top’s management company called in February and told him the band was covering “25 Lighters” on its next album—and giving him and his co-writers shared songwriting credit. “I didn’t believe him,” Dorsey says. “I thought someone was trying to play me. So I put him on speakerphone and called my wife and daughters in. Then he played forty seconds of the song. I was blown away. I’m like, ‘That’s ZZ Top, I know that voice.’ One of my girls said, ‘Daddy, that’s your words!’ ”
Dorsey is 41 and lives in suburban Cypress, just west of Houston, with his wife, Tiffany, and two teenage daughters. He is tall and thin, with a shaved head, rectangular glasses, and an abbreviated mustache. He works nights at Texas Instruments, where he’s a software manufacturing specialist, and laughs easily when talking about the strange turns his life has taken recently. Dorsey grew up in Port Arthur, where his father and uncle owned a record store that he helped run. He rapped a little, but mostly he liked deejaying and collecting beats and hooks from old songs that he would turn into instrumental tracks for others to rap over. “I love mixing records,” he says. “I love grooves.” In 1985 he started calling himself DJ DMD. Soon he was producing young rappers like Bun B and Pimp C, who would go on to form the famed Port Arthur duo UGK.
By the early nineties Dorsey was spending a lot of time in Houston, which was fast becoming the most exciting music scene in the state. The city had hundreds of rappers, a lot of labels, clubs to play in, and studios to record in. The most popular was Digital Services. The often depraved Geto Boys recorded their albums there, and so did a wholesome young group called Destiny’s Child.
In 1996 Dorsey got Houston rappers DJ Screw, Fat Pat, and Lil Keke to guest-rap on a beat he had made from an old Isley Brothers song; he called it “So Real.” Rappers do this all the time—it’s part of the nature of hip-hop—borrowing and sharing beats, lyrics, melodies. Two years later, Dorsey put together a beat and the keyboard hook from an old Al B. Sure hit called “Nite and Day.” He was looking for words to go over the track and began playing around with some of the leftover rapping that Lil Keke and Fat Pat had done for the “So Real” session. He stumbled on a cool line Keke had used back then: “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid.” Keke, who often rapped about the gangsta lifestyle, had lifted part of the line from a 1995 song called “All in My Mind” by Memphis duo 8Ball & MJG, and Dorsey liked it so much he made it the hook and called the new song “25 Lighters.” While Dorsey was putting it all together, Fat Pat—who had become the city’s biggest rap star—was shot and killed, a murder that remains unsolved. Dorsey decided to keep Pat’s rap in the mix and seek permission from the estate later. He rapped a verse about the 25 lighters himself and made a rough demo mix.
Dorsey was so excited about the result that he burned it onto a blank CD and dropped it off at the powerhouse hip-hop station 97.9 FM, the Box, so he could get the opinion of a DJ friend. It was Thursday night, eight o’clock. On the way home, Dorsey, who had his car stereo tuned to the Box, suddenly heard the song coming through the speakers. By the end of his shift, the DJ—who hadn’t known it was just a demo—had played it another three times. The next morning it was in rotation. By Sunday night you couldn’t go anywhere in Houston without hearing Dorsey’s words:
I got twenty-five lighters for my twenty-five folks
’Bout to break the mic, then break twenty-five more
’Bout to rip the track with ’bout twenty-five flows
And I’m pimping like a mac with ’bout twenty-five hos
Twenty-five fly carat diamonds in my ring
Twenty-five twelves in the trunk got to bang.
“It had an incredible beat and a cool hook that went all through the song,” remembers Bun B, who is now perhaps the most influential figure in Houston hip-hop. “ ‘Twenty-five lighters, twenty-five folks, twenty-five this, twenty-five that.’ It was the right theme, the right music, the right people, the right time.” The song got so big Dorsey found himself in the middle of a bidding war to distribute a full album. Elektra won and sent a New York film crew down to shoot a video, which was set amid a festive weekend cookout, with a hundred scenesters dancing, laughing, and singing along. Houston seemed like one big party, and “25 Lighters” was the song on everyone’s lips.
Even before “25 Lighters” broke, Billy Gibbons and his bandmates were spending a lot of time at Digital Services, where they rented the rehearsal room to prepare for their constant tours and laid down the tracks for Rhythmeen in 1996. Digital also had a roomy lounge, with a loft, Ping-Pong table, and video game console. Artists and their posses hung out there at all hours of the day and night.
At Digital, Gibbons met Bushwick Bill and Scarface from the Geto Boys, 8Ball & MJG (who lived in Memphis but recorded in Houston), and a shy singer named Beyoncé Knowles. Gibbons talked with them about their songs and their methods; Bun B remembers producer Mannie Fresh talking about giving Gibbons tips on programming a drum machine. Another time Gibbons sat at a piano and played old R&B songs with the rapper KB. “In addition to the camaraderie, there was a lot of work done in the lounge,” Gibbons says. “Probably more work done there than anywhere else.”
The gregarious Gibbons loved all the socializing. But seeing the rappers work also reminded him of the simple way he had made music many years before. “It was a real wake-up call,” he said. “Here we were on one end of the building, backing up our two semis full of equipment to the loading dock, and there were all these black guys walking around with a notebook and a pen. Something clicked. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t you know it, these guys have done it again.’ It all goes back to black.”
Nothing he saw and heard, though, grabbed him like “25 Lighters,” says Gary Moon, a longtime ZZ Top engineer. “Billy was crazy about that song. He was attracted to the hook: ‘I gotsta get paid.’ ” Gibbons admired the ingenuity of the street hustlers the song seemed to be about, who had to use their wiles to get around the authorities. He had spent his whole career lionizing black musicians, many of whom were also forced by circumstance to get things done in a down and dirty way. And what could be downer and dirtier than someone hollowing out cheap lighters, filling them with crack, and selling them on street corners—and then someone else turning this arcana into a pop song?
More than ten years passed, but Gibbons kept the song in the back of his mind. “When Billy latches on to something,” says Moon, “he doesn’t let it go.” Gibbons had also been listening to a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins, who would build an entire song around a scrappy guitar riff. The words and the riff came together like a gutty old blues song. “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid”—it might have been a line from a song on Hopkins’s 1960 album Mojo Hand.
Whether the line was actually about slinging crack—well, that was another matter. In fact, on 8Ball & MJG’s “All in My Mind,” the first known recorded use of the phrase “twenty five lighters,” back in 1995, MJG raps, “Two hundred and eighty pounds of hay, every damn day I have to test her / Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir.” In other words, I have a large volume of marijuana, which I enjoy smoking daily, hence I have a lot of lighters. It was only when Lil Keke added the phrase “I gotsta get paid” that things got entrepreneurial. (Though it’s still unclear if that was his intent; Keke declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The meaning of “25 Lighters” soon took on a life of its own. In 1999 Dorsey told an interviewer, “Everybody has been having their own ideas of what ‘25 Lighters’ means. I done heard dope, crack—I’ve heard people say some of the wildest things.” The drug dealing interpretation was strengthened by one of Keke’s lines: “On the ’vard is where I sling when I claim my name” (one possible translation: I sell drugs on the boulevard). “For years people thought that song could mean different things,” says Tosin, an online retailer of Southern hip-hop CDs. “But one idea was that the lighters were being hollowed out to hide crack. Dealers have been finding hiding places for crack for years, from Skittles bags to matchboxes.”
Jodi Silva, a public information officer with the Houston Police Department, confirms that, yes, dealers did indeed sling crack in lighters. “One of our narcotics officers remembers arresting four or five different people who had crack cocaine stored in lighters.” But the officer couldn’t remember whether these arrests happened before 1998 or after. Maybe art imitated life, or maybe vice versa.
By the time Dorsey used the line, cutting and pasting various words onto a beat, he regarded it as just one more sound in a collage. “The phrase ‘twenty-five lighters’ didn’t mean anything to me,” he says now. “I really didn’t do drugs. I just liked the sound of the number twenty-five. I played with it, and it sounded good. I’m a DJ—I like things that sound good.” But, he laughs, “I let the legend go.”
Lots of great pop music is in the ear of the beholder. What does “Stairway to Heaven” mean, anyway? Or “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Depends on who’s listening. Same with the phrase “twenty-five lighters on my dresser.” The words were written by a man who seemed to really enjoy smoking weed, revised by a guy who idealized the gangsta life, mixed by a DJ who just liked the sound of them, and, finally, reconfigured by a middle-aged rocker who has spent his career taking the music of African Americans and bending it to his strange will.
Aptly enough, Dorsey has taken “25 Lighters” through one further iteration. Fourteen years ago, the success of the song sent him off the rails. “I was a young fool. I left my wife and two daughters, chasing money and girls.” In 2003 he had a spiritual experience—“I gave my life to Jesus”—got out of the music business, reunited with his family, and took a job at TI. In 2010 he began thinking about a comeback; his name was still out there, and, of course, so was “25 Lighters.” Dorsey decided that this time he would make music for the Lord. Since he still owned all of his master tapes, he took the instrumental tracks, rewrote the words, and re-rapped them. One of the songs is now called “#25BiblesOnMyDresser.” The hook—the words that replace the ones that got Billy Gibbons so excited years ago?
“I gotsta get saved.”
“I Gotsta Get Paid” had its official debut not at an awards show or a Hollywood press conference but in an almost-two-minute-long commercial for the malt liquor Jeremiah Weed, which sponsored ZZ Top’s La Grange Fest in Austin last year. In the ad, which first appeared online in May, unsuspecting patrons of a convenience store open the doors of a walk-in cooler to find the band blasting away at the song, soon surrounded by dancing hotties and somewhat-less-hot bearded men. The buzz for the ad quickly became buzz for the song, which most ZZ Top fans saw as a return to form. A month later, the rest of the Texicali EP was released on iTunes to glowing reviews. “If the forthcoming album matches the quality of the songs on display here,” wrote No Depression, “then that little ol’ band from Texas will assuredly have a hit on their hands.” Indeed, the three other songs on the EP sound as if they could have come from an early album, like Tres Hombres, with that laid-back but ferocious Stonesy, bluesy vibe of seventies ZZ Top. “Chartreuse” even has a riff that sounds like “Tush,” while “Over You” feels like “Hot, Blue and Righteous.”
Maybe it was Rubin’s Zen influence that focused the band, though back in Vegas in December, Gibbons wasn’t feeling particularly Buddhist about his producer. “I have to fly to California tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got a meeting with Rubin. ‘Meeting’—sitting on an ocean bluff looking at the water and not speaking.”
Rubin clearly believes that his unconventional methods made a difference. “I think it’s easy for any successful artist to get caught in the trap of doing things the same way over a period of time,” he said via email. “I spent time with Billy listening to old blues and reconnecting him to the music that originally spoke to him the most, and then encouraged him to take things too far.”
Maybe Gibbons just needed a producer’s push to get back in touch with the passions that first inspired him to make music—the riff, rhythm, and rhyme of the streets. Gibbons has never been shy about mining African American culture, about going, as he puts it, back to black. This time his influences just happened to be carrying notebooks and pens instead of guitars.