Lil Keke Supports the New Wave of Southern Hip-Hop Artists
Lil Keke is a Houston rap legend. And with that status, he's not only kept the quality of his music up over the years, he's also consistently shown love to the acts that followed.
Keke's new album SlfMade II finds the 42-year-old rapper staying current via collaborations with established talents like Big K.R.I.T., while also linking up with fellow Texas rap icons like Bun B and Slim Thug. The game has changed drastically since Keke got his start in DJ Screw's "Screwed Up Click" (also known as S.U.C.) in the early 1990s—and subsequently blew up off of his song "Southside" in 1997— but as he discusses his new project with XXL, he comes off as a self-aware artist who is ready to move with the tide while keeping true to his own sound.
In a sitdown at XXL's Manhattan office, Keke talks SlfMade II, streaming, rappers getting too caught up in social media and more.
XXL: Why did you decide to drop Slfmade II now?
Lil Keke: Last year was the 20th anniversary of my first album Don't Mess With Texas and it was damn near a year after the first Slfmade. The reason behind Slfmade is, where we from, we do different things to promote the album and promote the brands. I always use my music to do it, so when I got ready to make the brand Slfmade, my major brand was 7thirteen—I wanted to find a way to separate. My core fans that was outside of my city, 7thirteen, which is the area code, I wanted to do something for 'em, so I came up with Slfmade.
I started it with an album; it took off really well. That kinda fell into my 20th anniversary and it threw my scheduling off. But that 20th anniversary gave me a great opportunity to just work for the year, instead of rushing through the album. I was able to do Slfmade II at a great pace, really working with the producers inside the studio. The perfect thing was to drop it on my proclamation day, which is 713 Day (July 13).
How'd you get a proclamation day in the city?
Besides the fact of community relations, I sold 4 million records independent. That's the day that I wanted; that's the day that really represents me. I had named my company 7Thirteen before I even got the day. It's a lot of days given out in the city but the work I put in [for] 20 years—coming from the Screw tapes and everything—for them to give me 713 Day was very significant for me.
How did you choose the features this time around?
Based on the kinda music that I was looking to do. Every song I kinda calculated—I wanted a young kinda song, I went this way. I wanted an OG song, I went with Bun on this here. My goal was to bridge the gap between the young cats in the city, and legends like myself. They already show us love but I wanted them to start recognizing and showing more love for what I'm doing now. When they see me, [they say], "Southside, that's Keke. Don't Mess With Texas. We love him to death, respect." I want them to see me and say, "Man, I love that new 'My Duffle,' and I love that new Slfmade II." And that was real important, so I think the timing and taking a year to put that together was great.
Big K.R.I.T. sticks out, because he's not Texas-based, but he fits into what you're trying to do. How did you link up with him?
To me, Big K.R.I.T. is the closest thing to Pimp C alive. His love for the Texas culture is unbelievable. A few years back, me, him and Slim Thug did a track called "Me and My Old School" and K.R.I.T. always promised me that he'd do some music. I just never got the music from him. So he saw me working on my new album, posting it on Instagram, he hit me and said he wanted to do some tracks. Well, I shocked him and flew down to Atlanta, went in the studio and made three of em in nine hours.
I love K.R.I.T. I love K.R.I.T. as an artist, but I love K.R.I.T. as a producer. He's great, really talented. He's really about it and he don't take no shorts. When the guitar man came in, he was just jammin', going hard. K.R.I.T. had a funny look on his face. I'm over there lookin' like, "Mayne, whats wrong? Shit is jammin!" He was just like, "Yeah, that's it, but that ain't it. That ain't what I'm sayin'." And he made that guitar dude play until he came up with that. That was a great experience.
"Legend Talk" chronicles your journey through the game. What's the most valuable thing you've learned in your career?
Patience. Because this game is gonna make you patient. You may have a run—I had a beautiful run, sold millions of records. You have to be patient and humble yourself to know that you have to keep reinventing. You have to keep rolling. If Jay-Z still dropping an album, it's no way I ain't still workin'. I'm not sayin' from a selling standpoint. That means that man—the work has to get done. So I learned throughout those years to be patient and I got tough skin. If you don't have tough skin, it ain't for you. You have to be ready for criticism, ridicule, all this. I was able to keep my head up and my eyes forward when it came to criticism and talkin' and all that.
"My Duffle" and "No Love" both talk about the street and what comes with that, but you don't particularly glorify it. You talk more about the tougher side and what it takes from you. Is that a conscious choice?
If you listen to Slfmade II, [track] number five is called "I'm Tired." Big K.R.I.T. made that. It's kind of a testament to what you sayin', of living that kind of life. But at the same time I'm tired of losing my partners to it. The understanding of that was givin' my fans a little bit more than what they used to. I try not to be a hypocrite and I try not to steer you in the wrong way at the same time.
So the thing about "Legend Talk," "No Love" and all that, like I said, it was to bridge the gap with the youngsters. But at the same time, I'm showing them I can get with y'all but I ain't gotta turn up. I wanted to go in from a young feel with a reality base on it. And then if you listen to the shift of the album, then it start OG'ing with K.R.I.T., Slim and Bun. Because those songs [are] in a row, my core fans are gonna gravitate to it. But for those young fans for me to wake them up early in the album with "Legend Talk" and "No Love" and "My Duffle," it's gon' be a good transition.
What's the biggest difference between the music industry now and when you started?
Oh, it's way overcrowded. The popularity of it has made people wanna get in it. Back when we was getting into it, nobody wanted to take that chance and it wasn't as crowded, [so] we made more money. You had to put in more work, be more dedicated. Like it was easy for us to go in and drop albums and sell 50,000 [or] 100,000 independent[ly]. Now you have to really work, so it's a difference. Social media has created these visible stars—they Instagram stars, they stars from likes and followers, they not stars from actual groundwork. And sometimes, they can get that mixed up. You'll be a great big artist on Instagram and then it don't translate to selling.
Or you go do a show and you can't have the same amount of people.
Making records and selling records is two different things. Likes and followers are not customers. I'm real big on that. That's the major difference.
How do you think streaming would've benefitted you in the early S.U.C. days, when you're selling tapes hand-to-hand?
I would've been platinum. Imagine if streaming had existed all the way back then, how do you think that would've changed Houston's trajectory? The resurgence that came out of nowhere in the early 2000s, you think it would've happened earlier?
It probably would've because you gotta understand that Texas artists—even when we get those deals—our focal point is on independence. From a streaming standpoint, it probably would've gave us more of a drive to go harder. We would've seen more people. When we were young making this, it was a time we was making money. We didn't care about nothing but impressing our fans. We're making that much money on it, it didn't matter.
I'm way more popular than I was young. I've sold a lot of records and had a lot of fun young, but social media, now, I'm way more visible. I may be in the Miami airport and somebody from Chicago, they'd be [like], "Aye man, that's Lil Keke." Now, because they see you more, they follow you. See back in the game, [if] we ain't heard of you, we ain't really dealin' with ya. So now, you pick up more fans and more people by association. You were only able to get tuned in when I was able to hand you the CD and you was able to go listen to it. Now, you can look at one of your friends in California and see somebody that they followin' and pickin' up off of that.
What younger rappers are you a fan of nowadays?
Yung Bleu is really talented.
I like Bleu. YFN Lucci. I'm a fan of the game, of what's happening. That's how I lasted. I have longevity because I was always able to understand what was next, what was coming and be a part of it. I got cats all over my album, young cats, lil cats that's comin' up. Skee Taste just signed a new deal. All kinds of lil young cats. So I'm with the culture. I remember being that young cat.
That means a lot to younger rappers.
Man, I went and got them and let them do they thing. Like Chuckie Trill on "No Love"? That's him. "Legend Talk," that's XO, "My Duffle" that's [DJ] Chose, I'm letting them do they thang, and I'mma put an OG stamp on it, and do what I do.
When did you notice your influence over Houston rap?
Long time ago. A lot of the lingo is lingo we created. I knew about the influences because the culture that we set is still very much alive. You have them youngsters that's going they way, but we call it "stuck" and we got some people stuck in the '90s—they don't even hear nothing else, no kinda 2000, never leaving the Screw era. They gon' die behind it. That just lets me know how affected [people were], and what really showed me was, last year was my 20th anniversary. Man, to see "Southside" come full circle, damn near like it was a new song again, people lovin it and jammin' it, kids doing dances. Man that shit remind me of like the Isley Brothers. When I see a seven year old or an eight year old, singing "Southside," it reminds me of how I sing Isley Brothers. We ain't never had that in Houston, we just know that music. I'm talking about you just automatically know Maze. You can't remember [when] you bought a Maze tape. But boy, they in concert, you'll sing all that shit.
What's the best thing a fan has ever said to you?
I've had a man ask me do I wanna have sex with his wife. "You can have her tonight, Ke!" I be like, "Nah, man!" I'm scared of that move, really. That's too strong right there. So I've had that happen. People tell me every day—lots of DM's—I made they day, made they life, certain things I said changed how they looked at shit. I be really proud of that, 'cause a lot of motivation things that I shoot out, people think they're for them, [but] they're for me. I'm very self-consulting. I have to tell myself something to try and help myself out. But when I tell it to somebody and they telling me back what it done for them, that's really important to me.
See New Music Releases for July 2018