In Houston, we like old-school big bodies—Cadillacs, Lincolns, Oldsmobiles—with bright candy paint and big rims known as “swangas.” We call these cars “slabs.”

Just like our music, our car culture was born in the streets of Houston in the early eighties. Ever since, the two art forms have been inseparable.

As a trendsetter of Houston hip-hop, it’s only appropriate that I began my music career in a car. This car wasn’t a slab, though. It was a “hooptie,” shorthand for an everyday car with tinted windows—in this case a burgundy 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. When I was fifteen, I bought my hooptie for $200 from a guy who lived around the corner from my house. The car didn’t have a motor, so one of my friends stole another car and “Uncle Baybay,” my neighbor, installed the stolen motor for me.

My friends and I would roll around the southside, and because the car didn’t have a radio, we played tapes on handheld, dual-cassette radios and freestyled over them. I started getting better and better and, before I knew it, I was one of the top freestylers in the neighborhood. We were also on the way to starting our own group on the block, the Herschelwood Hardheadz.

By 1991 or 1992, my barber, Steve—who used to cut designs, like Ninja Turtles, in my hair—had begun cutting DJ Screw’s hair. Back then, Screw was starting to get famous for his signature slowed-down tracks that later became known as chopped and screwed. He was still a mixtape DJ, and you’d pay him $10 for a mixtape of slowed-down songs, and you could record your own freestyle at the end.

These tapes had begun floating around our neighborhood. Instead of listening to the radio, we could listen to people we actually knew. That was huge! I was obsessed with the idea of getting on one of these tapes. So I convinced Steve to take me to DJ Screw’s house.

Not every fifteen-year-old kid was bold enough to show up at Screw’s house. But I’ve always been relentless. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot. If I wanted something, I had to get it myself. My mother was a housekeeper. My father loved me, but he was fifty when I was born and couldn’t relate to my life. By the time I was fourteen, I was skipping school and hustling in the streets. But I was self-reliant. Whatever clothes I had, whatever food I had in my belly, it came from me. I’ve worked at Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Kroger. I wasn’t going to school wearing old shoes.

My adolescent life unfolded during the worst parts of the crack era. Users were stealing from their own houses and dealers were engaging in violence. We were living so fast that the trauma we were inflicting on our community didn’t register.

Despite the challenges, I was lucky. I was always smart and blessed with the gift of gab. I’d be in the lunchroom freestyling and have the whole place packed!

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Even back then, as a teenager, I was very crafty with my first lines. My first time at Screw’s house was no different. I said something about “Lil Keke rollin’ foreign.” That line might sound ordinary today, but back then it was different. Suddenly, everyone in the neighborhood was talking about that one line—so much so that Screw agreed to let me come back and make my own tape.

The next time I went to Screw’s house, I got on the mic and wrecked it. Screw didn’t understand how long I’d been practicing. He was so impressed, he started spreading the word to everyone who walked in his door.

One day, me and my friends are chilling on the block, and a big white Cadillac with swangas pulls up. The driver rolls down his window and asks for “Lil Keke.” We were so bad back then, stealing rims and cars and everything, that we thought we might be in trouble. Everyone was looking at me like, “Man, Keke, what you done did this time?”

The man behind the wheel said, “Man, you the one who’s been rapping on those tapes?”

I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “I got a tape I’m going to make and I want you to come and rap on it, come on.”

After a while, people in nice cars started coming around, looking for me. I was only sixteen or seventeen at the time.

One day, I’m at Screw’s house and I hear a knock on the door and in walks Fat Pat. Pat was something of a myth. I’d never heard any of his music, but the rumor was that he’d won a big local freestyle competition. People already called him the freestyle king and my neighborhood wouldn’t let me forget that fact.

When Pat walked in the door, I’m shook. It’s actually him; I’m thinking, it’s Fat Pat!

The first thing Screw says is, “Pat, this is the little homie I’ve been telling you about right here, Lil Keke.” Pat is like, “Turn it on, let’s do one right now!”

I was naturally nervous.

So Screw turns on the beat and Pat freestyles four or five lines; then he just starts singing: “Ihhhhhhhh, I got it on my mind!”

Lil Duke, another local artist, did a few lines of freestyle. Pat sang the hook again, and then I finished the song with my freestyle. Screw was like, “Wow, this is an actual song!” It was the first song me and Pat ever did together, and it was the beginning of the Lil Keke and Fat Pat era. Pretty soon, everyone was knocking on his door saying, “I want Pat and Ke.” From there, the legend of DJ Screw and the rap collective I became a part of, Screwed Up Click, began to grow.

Eventually, around 1996, Screw was working on his iconic album, 3 N the Mornin’ Part Two. I asked him about getting on the album every single day. I knew this was going to be my first chance to get on a screw tape that would be in a store. You’d be able to go into Soundwaves and buy it.

Then one day Screw beeps me—I had a beeper at the time—and he’s like, “I’m over at Maestro’s recording. I want you to come do a verse for 3 N the Mornin’.”

Whenever I was with Screw, I’d be freestyling and he’d be mixing and scratching up all these records, and then without warning, he’d just hand me that mic. He did the same thing for 3 ’N the Mornin’. The song was playing in the studio, and Screw starts pointing to me. He thought I was going to do a freestyle, but I had something else planned. I didn’t hesitate: “I’m draped up and dripped out / Know what I’m talkin ’bout! / Three in da morning getting tha gat out tha stash spot.” I did the verse in one take. It wasn’t a freestyle. It was a rap that I’d written in my head.

That song ended up being the lead single off 3 ’N the Mornin’, and the first chopped and slowed song that ever went on the radio. It took on a life of its own and now, some twenty odd years later, Drake has used my “draped up and dripped out” line on his big mixtape So Far Gone and Beyoncé has performed the southside dance I made famous in my song of the same name.

Because of all that, I can provide for my family. But my impact is bigger than my loved ones or even my block. I’ve become a mentor and a community activist whose volunteer work was honored by Barack Obama.

My fortune, my influence, and my story is connected to that moment with Screw at Maestro studio. That’s when I became a Texas legend.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.

The Stories Behind the Music

Texas musical luminaries reveal the family histories, powerful influences, and big breaks that made them the artists they are today. Read more.