Champions are usually crowned based on the number of times they emerge victorious in competition. Being the people's champ, however, requires something entirely different, but equally tough - possessing the kind of personality that wins the hearts and minds of the public. With the release of his highly anticipated major label debut LP, The People's Champ rapper Paul Wall affirms his status as one of the most appealing and charismatic young voices to emerge from hip hop's Southern hemisphere.
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"My music is about hustling, not just hustling in terms of the block," explains the 24-year-old Houston, Texan. "It's music that inspires you to go out there and get it - doing whatever you gotta do. As far as being the people's champ, I've always treated people with respect whether you work in the mailroom or you're the president of the company. And the people in general have really just embraced me for that. "
Thanks largely to his dynamic third verse behind fellow H-Town pro's Slim Thug and Mike Jones on 2005's hottest single, "Still Tippin'," Paul's nimble flow, clever wordplay, and molasses thick Texas drawl have been embraced by hordes of new fans in recent months. Yet truth be known Paul Wall's been laying the groundwork for his breakthrough moment for a full decade. Like many folks of his generation, Paul dreamt of one day rapping professionally back from his days as a teenager growing up on Houston's Northwest Side. "But just recognizing that it was an uphill battle I thought of trying to work my way into the industry in various other ways," he recalls. Shrewdly, at age 14 he began doing street team promotions in Houston for record labels like Def Jam, Cash Money, and No Limit, while honing his rhyming skills on the side. Eventually by 1997 his circle of street team clients came to include Michael 5000 Watts, impresario of local mixtape juggernaut Swisha House.
"Michael knew I rapped," says Paul. "But I finally got down with him on the music side in 1999 when I did an intro for his radio show. And he showed me a lot of love from that, and put me on the tapes. And I got a huge response. Honestly, the response was so big that people just started asking, what's up with that dude? So he started letting me get on more and more mixtapes."
Inspired by the "Screwed and Chopped" musical innovations of Houston's own legendary DJ Screw (who pioneered the art of slowing and pitching down records and chopping and repeating lines of lyrics to mesmerizing effect), Paul further ingratiated himself to the regional music scene by developing into an accomplished DJ in his own right. With these dual talents in his arsenal he launched an underground recording career that saw his first four independently released albums for the Paid In Full label-Get Your Mind Correct, The Chick Magnet, Controversy Sells, and How To Be a Player-each chart for at least 15 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Rap Chart. Now reunited with Swisha House (in a joint venture with Asylum Records) for The People's Champ, Paul still marvels at his initial success: "The style of music that we were creating in Houston and Texas was just so different that I never thought that the rest of the world would embrace it the way that they have now. A lot of my music is based on the Texas culture and Skrew culture."
No better example of Paul's allegiance to his roots can be heard than on The People's Champ's bangin' lead single, "Sittin' Sideways," featuring original Screwed Up Clique member Big Pokey. Fueled by another infectious slow and low groove from "Still Tippin'" producer Salih Williams, and an unforgettable hook pulled from Pokey's 1997 "June 27th" freestyle- one of Skrew music's most popular vocal performances ever-the song effortlessly pays homage to the Screw legacy while it simultaneously showcases Paul's playful boasts and flair for conveying H-town's local flavor: A legend in the hood for gold grills and poppin' seals/ A icon on the mic for showcasing my verbal skills/ I'm in the club posted up with some gangbangers/ Still flippin' the old school kitty Cadillac on swingers/ I got a styrofoam white cup fulladat drink/ Lookin' for that dank/ My hustle game sharp as a shank.
"Comin' up as a rapper from the South my inspirations and pioneers were artists like UGK, Lil' Keke, Fat Pat, Screwed Up Clique, and Street Military," says Paul. "People that were in Houston just doing it on a local scene, and that I saw represented our culture and the day to day life I saw in Houston. They represented the way we talked, the way we act, the type of drugs we used, the crease in the jeans, the kind of car we drive, the way we fix our cars up. All the things they were talking about when they were rapping were things that I was living."
Elsewhere, The People's Champ's knockout blows arrive from both expected and unexpected angles. While Paul defines his hustling credo over the menacing piano chords of "Trill"-Trill is when you hustle/ Trill is when you grind/ Trill is when you punch in that clock overtime/ Trill is when you keep it real 100 percent/ Hold it down for your team, run your game full sprint-"Stand Up" ingeniously pairs his down south steez with energetic exhortations from Philly's own Freeway, producing a suprisingly winning combination. Paul also reveals his sensitive side on the moving "Oh Girl," a lament of a love gone awry based on the classic 70s soul cut by the Chi-Lites of the same name. But the LP's true emotional centerpiece is "Just Paul Wall," a song on which Paul discusses the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of his life with remarkable honesty and detail: I was abandoned at an early age/ My daddy was a dope fiend-I ain't seen him since the second grade/ I sing the same song-deadbeat dad, single mom/ I was always in the crowd/ Yet still I was all alone... Pain took me from a boy to a man/ I knew I'd make it to the end if I stuck to the plan.
"It was terrible," Paul admits of some of those rough early years. "But I've never been the type to make excuses. I just try to find a solution. I just deal with it and move on."
Such fortitude and perseverance hasn't only informed Paul's life and music, but helped spur other aspects of his career as well. Creating nearly as much of a buzz as his music amongst his rapping peers is Paul's skill at designing custom made gold fronts and grills. What began as a side promotional hustle of Paul passing out flyers for a local jeweler at age 17 has now evolved into TV Jewelry, a company that proudly counts rap superstars T.I., Nelly, Slick Rick, Mike Jones, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Chingy, Master P, Lil' Jon, and many others amongst its growing clientele. Thus when Paul rhymes on "Sittin' Sideways," You see me actin' bad I'm showin' out and pullin' stunts/ Say cheese and show my fronts/ There's more karats than Bugs Bunny's lunch, he's literally putting his money where his mouth is.
In fact, it's difficult to imagine a more appropriate secondary business for this most enterprising, dedicated, and endearing of artists. Paul's future stands to shine as brightly as the rocks that festoon his wide smile. Yet his focus forever remains being just Paul Wall.
"It's just now starting to get on a national level," reflects Paul, "but I don't get caught up in all the bullshit in being a celebrity. Even locally I never got caught up in a my-shit-don't-stink-type attitude. And because of that there's people that weren't even fans of my music, but when they meet me and see the type of person I am, they go back and listen to the music and are like, you know what, man, that shit is jammin'!"
Spoken like a true people's champion.
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