Houston's Hip-Hop Scene Remembers George Floyd | KGOU
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Houston's Hip-Hop Scene Remembers George Floyd

Jun 10, 2020
Originally published on June 12, 2020 4:59 pm

George Floyd was buried in his hometown of Houston, Texas, this week. Floyd left his mark on the city through his friends and family, but also through the music he made under the name Big Floyd.

George Floyd grew up in Houston's Third Ward — the home of the city's hip-hop and rap scene. Floyd used to spend hours in producer DjD's home studio, making the kind of slow-the-music-down form of rap made famous by the late DJ Screw, who also knew and worked with Floyd.

Houston's chopped and screwed scene, as the genre is called, is a lesser-known but proud one. It seems like everyone who's part of it loves to rep their city, including Houston's most famous native.

"Beyonce is from the Third Ward. She shouts it out every chance she gets," music writer Kiana Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald is another Texas native. She knew Floyd's music and says that the news of his death was particularly devastating for people around the scene because of how much loss they have experienced already.

"When the connection was made about George Floyd being a member of the Screwed Up Click, even tangentially, I was just like, 'No, this cannot be happening,' " she says. "Because we've lost so many people already in the Houston scene, in S.U.C., leading with DJ Screw. It was just a gut punch."

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Fitzgerald says after she made the connection, she immediately went to listen to some of Big Floyd's music.

"Me and my sister, the first thing we did was hop up, get in the car and listen to his tapes. And I was just like, 'I wish that I had been able to appreciate this when he was alive,' " she says. "Big Floyd was just a big, affable character. I think you can hear it in its freestyles: He just loved to have fun. He loved to joke around. And he was also pretty serious on the mic as well. He was someone that wasn't afraid to talk about what was going on in his life."

Music played a huge role in Floyd's life: There was the screw-top music, but also Christian hip-hop, which friends say Floyd listened to a lot. Ronnie Lillard, who records Christian hip-hop under the name Reconcile, got to know George Floyd through the presence of his church in the Third Ward. He says that though the genres are radically different in terms of content, there was a real connection between the two forms of hip-hop that Floyd loved.

"Christian hip-hop's DNA in Houston has a lot to do with the Houston rap culture and screw music. If you took it out to the streets and it didn't sound like screw music, nobody wanted to hear you," he says. "We had found a way to blend street culture with redemptive stories about change and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just like you got guys who rap about doing negative activity and they feel like they had to actually be what they're rapping about, we're actually being what we're rapping about, and that's advocates of change in the city."

A song Lillard says sums up that connection is "Never Would Have Made It." It's a Christian rap song, and they shot the music video in the Third Ward.

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"We actually shot that in Cuney Homes Projects, right in the middle of the court. It sounds like the most Houston music you can make," he says. "You've got the organs, keys, because that was the sound of Texas rap. You've got that church influence."

When he's not recording, Lillard also works in ministry with youths in juvenile detention in Miami. He says that Floyd's attempts to rebuild his life after his own incarceration were exactly what he tries to help young people do.

"Floyd coming out of jail and changing his life and becoming somebody who was a beacon of light and hope and refuge and a mentor and everything that he became, that's what we pray to see happen to young men," he says. "So for him to be cut down as he's blossoming in that — it's very disheartening."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are many ways you can get to know a person - through their friendships, their actions, their triumphs and struggles. And for George Floyd, there's something else - his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE FLOYD: (Rapping) Left me straight Ricky (ph), Big Floyd coming though slow. Can...

SHAPIRO: Our Morning Edition colleague David Greene is in Houston and opens this chapter in Floyd's life.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: George Floyd grew up in Houston's Third Ward, a neighborhood right at the heart of Houston's rap and hip-hop scene. We visited a home studio there the other night where Floyd would spend hours with a DJ making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLOYD: (Rapping) Coming out the sand, drum beating like a band. This that big Floyd living large in that game. Only...

GREENE: This slow-the-music-down form of rap was made famous by the late DJ Screw, who knew and worked with Floyd. Houston - it's a lesser-known but proud music scene - seems like everyone who's part of it loves to rep their city, including Houston's most famous native.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAWLESS")

BEYONCE: (Rapping) H-Town vicious, H, H-Town vicious. I'm so crown-crown. Bow down...

KIANA FITZGERALD: You know, Beyonce's from the Third Ward. She shouts it out every chance she gets.

GREENE: That's the music writer Kiana Fitzgerald, another Texas native who knew Floyd's music. When she heard that George Floyd was killed...

FITZGERALD: I was just like, no. Like, this cannot be happening - because we've lost so many people in that scene already - in the Houston scene. It was just a gut punch. And me and my sister - the first thing we did was hop up, get in the car and listen to his tapes. Big Floyd was just a big, affable character. I think you can hear it in his freestyles. He just loved to have fun. He loved to joke around. And he was also pretty serious on the mic as well. He was someone that wasn't afraid to talk about what was going on in his life.

GREENE: Music played a huge role in Floyd's life. There was the screw-top music and then, later on, Christian hip-hop. That's rapper Ronnie Lillard's genre. He goes by Reconcile. And he knew Floyd really well. He says Floyd got into Houston's music scene in the '90s.

RONNIE LILLARD: When Floyd got back from South Florida State College, screw music that started bubbling up. What would happen was promethazine and mixing it with Sprite or Fanta or whatever it is - it was the street culture drug. It would give you the feeling of everything kind of moving slow. It's a downer, you know?

And so what they found out was you have a tape cassette player - when the batteries would drain, the tape wouldn't spin as fast. And so the music - the rap music would sound a little slurred, a little slow. So DJ Screw came up with the idea. He liked how the music sounded like that. So what they would do is they would, on purpose, have low batteries, mix - start making screw tapes. They would take your favorite rap songs and slow them down. And that's what it - that feel of the culture came up - Houston rap music, screw music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLOYD: (Rapping) This the Floyd island (ph). Home for the weekend, then I flip back to college. Got to make bars straight feel me, dine at the college cultures like me 'cause (unintelligible).

GREENE: So the screw music you're talking about - and then you have Floyd's interest in, like, Christian rap and hip-hop - are those two entirely different genres, or are they related somehow?

LILLARD: Two entirely different genres, but Christian hip-hop's DNA in Houston has a lot to do with the Houston rap culture and screw music 'cause it was like, if you took it out to the streets and it didn't sound like screw music, nobody want to hear it, you know?

So by the time I met Floyd, I had been doing rap since 2009. At that time in the city, we were the face of, like, Christian hip-hop. We had found a way to blend street culture with redemptive stories about change and the gospel of Jesus Christ and found a way to weave that into actual social justice and be the hands and feet of what we're talking about. So you know, just like you got guys who rap about doing negative activity and they feel like they have to actually be what they're rapping about, we're actually being what we're rapping about. And that was advocates of change in the city.

So when I was going to school at Rice University, I lived in Third Ward. And because of our ministry out there and because of the outreach that kind of grew from that brotherhood, there wasn't nobody in Third Ward I didn't know. So soon as Floyd touched down, you know, it was only natural that I was introduced to him. You know, he had influence in the neighborhood and - for positivity. So...

GREENE: Is there a song that stands out that Floyd just loved or you felt like it really connected to his life?

LILLARD: Oh, yeah. I'll tell you right now. The song is "Never Would Have Made It." And we actually shot that in Cuney Homes projects right in the middle on the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT")

MARVIN SAPP: (Singing) Never would've made it. Never could've made it without you.

LILLARD: (Rapping) Trailer parks, projects, box Chevys sitting high. Gold teeth, black tees, swishas (ph) blowing...

It sounds like the most Houston music that you can make. You know, you got the organs, keys because that was the sound of Texas rap. You got that church influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT")

LILLARD: (Rapping) Trying to get my head right. Many nights full of pain, shedding tears on the floor 'cause when mama told him deuce, we ain't see him no more. No food on the stove...

GREENE: What do you think Floyd liked about it?

LILLARD: Well, it's just a redemptive message. You know, I never would've made it without God, you know? The song's about being lost, but not only just being lost because of where you're from and what you were taught from the street culture and, you know, all that negativity and depravity, but also being lost because of the choices that you make.

GREENE: When you think about someone who was searching for redemption, searching for something greater in this kind of music - to lose him at this moment and in this way.

LILLARD: I mean, it's absolutely crazy. Like, right now, I'm the director of juvenile justice ministry for Dade County. In every facility, we have re-entry programs, work directly with Department of Justice. And every day, I work with kids who, as soon as I watch a story on the news about murder, I'll see that kid either that night or the very next day. You know, we work with very hard demographics - kids that come from absolutely nothing.

And it's so crazy 'cause when you turn on CNN and people even talk about the Black Lives Matter or try to downplay the African American experience - they have no idea how challenging and hard and broken that our communities are. And so Floyd coming out of jail and changing his life and becoming somebody who was a beacon of light and hope and a refuge and a mentor and everything that he had became - that's what we pray to see happen to young men. We pray for it. That's exactly what we want to see.

Like, there's - like, we're out here reaching people, talking to people, spending our time with people, investing our money into people and, you know, investing wisdom and stories and sharing our lives so people would turn that corner. And the fact that he did was everything that you want to see out of what you're trying to do.

And so for him to be cut down as he's blossoming in that is very disheartening. It's very disheartening. You know, he went to Minnesota. He was part of a discipleship program at a church. He went a bit further get his life on track, you know, for everything he wanted to be - a provider, a father. You know, he had a lot of life in front of him. And he had a tremendous voice in the community of good, you know? So...

GREENE: That was Ronnie Lillard, a rapper who goes by Reconcile. He was talking to us about George Floyd and his role in the Houston music scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT")

LILLARD: (Rapping) Less if he can save me. Lord Jesus, I'm asking. This world is passing, staring at my dog casket. Straight wilding out for no reason, sin had me defeated. And when it seemed I couldn't make it... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.