Interview – Paul Wall initially wanted to be a DJ. For a period of time in the late ’90s, the burgeoning Houston entrepreneur would do promotions in exchange for vinyl records. That way, he could get his hands on the latest music from record labels such as Cash Money,Def Jam Recordings and No Limit Records. He really had no ambitions to be a rapper at the time, not because he didn’t like Hip Hop, but because he had no idea what a successful rapper really looked like.
“I really didn’t think it was possible because there was really no one from my neighborhood that I knew or saw that made it successfully as a professional rapper,” Wall tells HipHopDX. “So it was like, OK, I don’t know if its even possible.’ But I love to DJ, so I could see a career path in DJing — working at the radio station, DJing at clubs, making mixtapes, things like that.
“That was my dream job. So doing promotions was my way to get the vibe. Back in those days, when you played music as a DJ, the only way you could play music was on a vinyl. You couldn’t play CDs. You couldn’t play tapes. Nothing like that. It’s only vinyl.”
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Crate-digging missions often proved futile, so passing out flyers became his means to collecting a wide array of records.
“You couldn’t buy the vinyl from the store,” he says. “Well, there might be one store that sold it, but they didn’t have everything, so the only way to get the vinyl was through the people who did promotions from the record company. One guy named Lump, he did promotions for Universal, for Cash Money. I was working with him because I love Cash Money. He’d give me a list of DJs and be like, ‘You going to bring this vinyl to every one of these DJs and then I’ll give you one.’ Then I got to keep my own. Then my boy Ace, he was the head rep for Def Jam. Same exact thing. My boy Five Four and Mean Green had No Limits.
“I had easy access to all the vinyl and all I had to do to get it was basically pass out flyers and go get in the club free, which I was too young to do anyway. I’d hang hang out in DJ booth, the DJ would shout me out — I’m doing whatever I want, like I work there. It was like, ‘That’s all I got to do?’”
While passing out flyers, Wall met his future business partner Johnny Dang, a Vietnamese jeweler known for crafting elaborate grills — and the rest is history. They’ve been working together since 1998 and have built a successful empire under the Grillz name. Wall never thought he’d even own a grill, much less end up making them for countless celebrity clients such as Kanye West, Nelly and Paris Hilton.
“We all wanted them but at that time, there wasn’t no-pull out grills,” he explains. “It was all permanent. The only thing we knew about permanent grills was watching Wu-Tang videos. We would jump up like, ‘Man, is that what Wu-Tang got?’ Because we thought it was magic when they would be pulling they grill out. We did know. I bumped into Johnny and he was like, ‘Oh, you the one that been passing out all these flyers.’ And I’m like, ‘Shit. You the ones with the grills. What you mean?’ That’s how I ended up working for him.”
Wall has stumbled on to several business opportunities this way, like with Swishahouse which was “legendary” in his north side neighborhood. Getting a chance to do promotions with the homegrown label, he says “didn’t get no bigger than that.”
During this time, Wall was rapping for fun alongside his childhood friend Chamillionaire and PKT (Pimp Killa Thug) as The Sleepwalkers, a group that would eventually evolve into The Color Changin’ Click.
“When I got to work doing other things for [Swishahouse CEO] Michael Watts and Ron C, of course I always wanted to rap with them, but I didn’t think it was a possibility,” he remembers. “I never asked because I didn’t think it was possible. I was rapping at the time. Our group was The Sleepwalkers and we were trying to do our thing, but it was more like a hobby. We’d go pay for studio time, perform here and there — the same thing everybody always do.
“But I didn’t think we ever really legitimately thought it was going to happen. It was just like something we did with friends for fun. I can’t speak for either one of them, but I just remember me at the time, it was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if my career’s going to a rapper, but I can have a career as a DJ,’ because I was good at that as well. I was real good at blending and I had a good compilation where it wasn’t just whatever the radio hits were. I would play the underground music.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and Wall’s sophomore solo album, 2005’s The Peoples Champ, just turned 15. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 upon its release and has since been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It turns out, rap wasn’t just a possibility for Wall — it was a lucrative career path.
As the 39-year-old H-Town icon prepares to drop his twelfth studio album Subculture, he’s in a place in his life where he can reflect on his years in the game and offer some experience to the next generation. Above all, he genuinely values his fans and realizes he’s not entitled to fame, wealth, admiration or anything of that ilk.
“This is what I prayed for,” he says. “I’ve never felt entitled. Some of these dudes from my childhood and my upbringing and different hardships fell along the way. But all of this, for me to be talking to you is unbelievable for me, so I appreciate and I know that. I saw so many people come and go. I seen some people come, go and come back again. I’ve never taken it lightly that this is my dream job.”
It all goes back to meeting the late Bushwick Bill at an airport. There he was, all three feet and five inches of him, and it was like Wall had a sighting of Jesus. To him, the Geto Boys were everything Houston rap could be.
“When I was 12 years old, I met Bushwick Bill at the Houston Airport,” he explains. “He was by himself and with a whole, big ole thing of luggage — about 10 people worth of luggage. He was just sitting there by himself, asleep, knocked out at about noon or one in the afternoon. Me not knowing no better, I walk up to him, wake him up like, ‘Man, you Bushwick Bill?’ I start talking to him and he’s looking around like, ‘Who is this little kid?’
“He never once told me to leave him alone or to get away from him. He had a whole conversation with me like I was his homeboy or something. And I kind of realized I was out of line — one, for waking him up and two, what am I doing talking to him? Three, he might have security. Security might come whoop my ass, even if I am a kid. So I was like, ‘Sorry to wake you up. Hope you have a good day.’ I left and that always stuck with me.”
Wall also had the opposite experience when an artist was so rude to him, he’s erased his name from his memory.
“I met another artist when I was doing street promotions for Def Jam,” he says. “I don’t even recall who it is, which tells you the caliber of person they were. It’s not like it was JAY-Z or Method Man or something — it wasn’t nobody like that. But it was somebody I had been working very hard to promote because they had an album coming out and I was putting all their posters up everywhere, going so hard.
“Then came the time for the meet-and-greet and, of course, I did feel a little entitlement because I was putting in a lot of work that I thought, ‘Well at least you would know who I was or knew that I did that.’ But I walked up to him to say what’s up and he didn’t want to shake my hand. He’s looking at me like I was crazy. He was like, ‘Boy, get away from me.’ I was under the impression that artists were going to be like Bushwick was, and that was a reality check.”
Wall carries those experiences with him and it shows in the way he treats his fans (and journalists, for that matter), which is likely an integral part of his success. While recording Subculture at Red Bull Music Studios, a first for the company, there was no indication of what was about to come. Shortly after he wrapped up the sessions, COVID-19 hit, the world shut down and the music industry came to a screeching halt — but The Peoples Champ remains optimistic.
“I’ve always tried to find a silver lining,” he says “I’ve always been a glass is half-full kind of person. On the song ‘The Real Ones,’ I started off by saying, ‘The feeling of defeat is quite toxic.’ To me, it’s the contagious aspect of it as well. When you’re down and out or you’re defeated or whatever, if you have that mentality, next thing you know the people around you start having that mentality. Sometimes it starts with your mind, and this is something that I do myself. If I’m feeling down, I’ll fake smile. I’m trying to trick my brain into being happy. It might work one out of 50 times, but I’m getting there.”
Subculture is currently available on all streaming platforms. Check out the project above and Red Bull Music Studios’ behind-the-scenes documentary about making the album below.