Houston lost a pillar of its hip-hop community when Big Pokey died after collapsing onstage during a performance on June 17. He was 48. The rapper, born Milton Powell, embodied the essence of the city’s scene like few others, with a velvet drawl that already sounded slowed down and smoothed out before DJ Screw, the turntablist who led the Screwed Up Click, the rap collective of which Pokey was a founding member, ever touched it.   

Pokey was considered Houston’s freestyle king by peers, who also called him Sensei, and fans alike, a wizened master of flows known just as much for his humble mentality and sense of humor as his slick bars. His effortless verses served as the anchors for some of the city’s most iconic tracks and mixtapes. In celebration of Pokey’s legacy, here are five of Pokey’s standout performances. 

“June 27” (Big Pokey’s verse begins around the 14 minute mark)

DJ Screw: “June 27” Freestyle (1996)

If NASA were to launch into space another record, this time comprised of songs essential for alien civilizations to understand Texas—they might need the help—it should contain the “June 27” freestyle, maybe the most epochal recording in all of Texas rap—though the disc would have to be purple instead of gold. On June 27, 1996, the Screwed Up Click gathered at Screw’s south side house to celebrate the birthday of fellow S.U.C. member Big DeMo and to record some freestyles. Screw queued up a chopped and screwed remix of a deep cut by hip-hop duo Kriss Kross, and for the next 36-odd minutes, S.U.C. members stepped up and issued freestyles that would collectively serve as the urtext of the Houston rap sound. Pokey delivers the fifth verse (around the fourteen-minute mark), and Screw’s slowed-down mix lent itself perfectly to Pokey’s dripping flow. One of his bars in particular—“Sitting sideways, boys in a daze / On a Sunday night, I might bang me some Maze”—would inspire an entire legacy of its own as the origin point of fellow Houston rapper Paul Wall’s “Sittin’ Sidewayz,” the biggest mainstream hit that Pokey would be involved in. 

DJ Screw: “Bow Down” Freestyle (1997)

The 22-minute “Bow Down,” from the 1997 Screw tape Headed 2 Da League, repurposes the song of the same name from the Ice Cube–led West Coast supergroup Westside Connection. But this time, Pokey rides solo for the entire track, a perpetual motion machine of pure flow as Screw endlessly loops back the beat more times than most rappers could handle. “Bow Down” also illustrates Pokey’s genius approach to freestyling; he uses the same looping melody throughout the recording, almost like a banjo finger roll, placing new combinations of words into the same base melody until his flow becomes an effortless pattern. But more than anything, the track captures just how fun Screw’s sessions must have been for the people who were there. It’s so easy to imagine the rest of the Click just out of the frame, nodding heads and tapping toes in support of Pokey’s almost inhuman vocal marathon.

Big Pokey: “Ball’N-Parlay” (1999)

There’s a joyful exuberance to “Ball’N-Parlay,” one of the signature cuts from Pokey’s debut album, Hardest Pit in the Litter. If Pokey was Houston’s freestyle king, Big Moe was the king of hooks, and his soulful voice makes the song a uniquely blissful anthem, the kind of track you blast on the first sweaty day of the year. The song is a highlight of the frequent partnership between Big Pokey and Lil’ Keke, which is representative of the collaborative nature of Houston rap. Their back-and-forth deliveries mesh seamlessly together, Pokey’s bass-y register providing a firm foundation for Keke’s more nimble flow. “Ball’N-Parlay” lives on as a staple of the Tuskegee University Marching Band, its exuberant sing-along energy uniquely suited to bright horns and an energetic drum line.

Big Pokey: “Get By” (2021)

The rap industry has a notorious habit of trend hopping, all too often abandoning one regional rap scene in favor of a shiny new one. After the tragic loss of DJ Screw, the mainstream industry mostly lost interest in Screwed Up Click rappers like Pokey. But Houston has always had a defiantly independent streak, and many of the city’s rap veterans endured by building a loyal local audience. After a busy run through the aughts—releasing four albums, participating in a number of mixtapes, and making appearances on posse cuts like Slim Thug’s “Welcome 2 Houston”—Pokey was largely silent throughout the 2010s. But he reemerged in 2021 with his sixth and final album, Sensei. “Get By” is an effortless slice of stoner rap, the kind of breezy, top-down Cadillac music that Houston does better than anywhere else. You can hear the grain of age in Pokey’s voice, but like salt-and-pepper hair, the weathered grit only makes him seem more distinguished.

Megan Thee Stallion: “Southside Royalty Freestyle” (2022)

Chopped and screwed music has only become more influential with time, spreading from trunk speakers in nineties Houston to recording studios around the world; you can almost taste the “purple drank”—many Houston rappers’ drug of choice, a mind-bending mix of cough syrup, soda, and hard candy—dripping off countless rap songs recorded far from the slab city in the 2010s and 2020s, including ones from Drake and A$AP Rocky and anything from the entire subgenre of “cloud rap.” But all too often, the living veterans of Houston rap have been left out of the actual conversation, reduced to ghostly samples. Far be it of Houston’s own Megan Thee Stallion to do anything like that. Instead of just interpolating a sample from 4 Deep’s “Rollin’ 4 Deep”—a flip of the Isley Brothers’ “Let’s Fall in Love, Pts. 1 & 2” and the basis for one of Screw’s greatest remixes—and calling it a day, Megan gives Big Pokey and Lil’ Keke space to prove that they can still do their thing. Along for the ride is Sauce Walka, another new-generation Houston rapper indebted to the legacy of slowed-down music, who finishes with the truth: Houston is “the most copied and underappreciated city in the game. . . . Everybody wanna have double cups.”