Photo credit: G L Askew II
We taped this interview before we had any idea Z-Ro would later announce his retirement from music – he's said the album he's releasing on June 30th, No Love Boulevard, will be his last. It's our loss, especially because you can tell here (back then) that he was excited to release new work, and felt like he was sitting on heat. But he also details his frustrations with the industry in our conversation, so his retirement is not a total surprise.
We're grateful he spent some time with us when he was still in the game, we're so thankful for the music he gave us while he was, and we wish him the best of luck in all his future pursuits.
Z-RO: I'm Z-Ro.
ALI: Z. Ro. What's happening?
Z-RO: Man, blessed by the best.
FRANNIE: Man, it's an honor. It's been – I've been listening to you for a very, very long time, and I kind of never thought that I would be able to meet you and speak to you. This is a big deal.
Z-RO: That's cool. That's cool. I sure appreciate it.
ALI: Why did you think that you would never be able to meet him or speak to him?
FRANNIE: I guess I thought that I would have to go to Texas, first of all.
Z-RO: Right. Exactly.
FRANNIE: And there's definitely been some doubt over the years that I would get to talk to whoever I thought was most interesting, as opposed to whoever we thought might get the most views or listens or whatever. There's, like, some ways in which I think that people think of you as a special – not like – underground is not the right word, but that not everybody knows about you or is a super-fan, that type of thing. And I'm just really happy that we have a podcast where we can do whatever we want.
ALI: For sure.
ALI: So, 1 Deep, I have to ask cause I see that. Can you explain?
Z-RO: 1 Deep Entertainment is what I do my music under, the way of life also. Like, everything is centered around me, because I mean, what she was saying – a lot of people just really don't know, and I kinda attribute that to people I was dealing with, musically. It seem like when I do my thing by myself, it gets a little bit more broad spread. Like when you're overseeing, you know, you can't blame nobody but yourself in the end if it doesn't go the way you want it to go. And ever since I've stepped out on my own, 1 Deep, it's been going a little differently.
That's the reason I'm here right now, cause that's been the norm, what she said. I never thought I'd got a chance to have this opportunity, because of, you know, people I was dealing with. They were just worried about recoups and returns, and that was it. So I got in the navigation seat. I'm worried about having a legacy. So that's what that's about.
ALI: I'm sorry to jump to the 1 Deep part. That's just – I saw the logo –
Z-RO: Right, right.
ALI: – and it's very significant to Islam.
ALI: I don't know. Has anyone ever told you that?
Z-RO: Yeah, my brother told me that it is.
ALI: Yeah, your brother, yeah.
Z-RO: He's Islamic.
ALI: So that's – that logo, it's like, you hold that up, you're bearing witness to the creator. When you take your shahada, it's like raise your right hand if you in court, put your hand on the bible, whatever. You swear, honor, whatever. So when you become Muslim, you hold your finger up and bear witness. So I'm looking at that; I'm like fixated on it.
Z-RO: Right, right.
ALI: But –
FRANNIE: Well, you went right to it cause we talk about it all the time, sort of that philosophy of relying only on yourself and believing your gut instinct, all that kind of thing. And then also just not letting other people tell you whether your shit is good or not has been really important for us.
Z-RO: It's a way of life.
FRANNIE: Right. Exactly. I saw that you said – you mentioned that in an interview you did with XXL that it wasn't until you sort of centered within yourself, but then you also got with certain people that enabled some of these new, sort of mainstream opportunities for this record. Who are the certain people that you got with that put you in this area?
Z-RO: Well of course the distributor, Empire.
Z-RO: They've done a hell of a job. My publicist Aishah. You know, kudos. She's super-duper, super-duper, super-duper great.
Cause I've never done press like anything related to this before. And this was the main thing that I was missing, cause the music in my opinion – of course in my opinion – I'ma say the music has always been there. The work ethic has always been there. Like, I'm doing press, but I'm trying to find studios. I'm writing songs now. I don't stop. And I don't think anybody else has matched my drive, if you feel me.
FRANNIE: Right. That's so important.
Z-RO: Cause I'ma do the press all day. Then I'm looking to get in somebody's studio all night, sleep for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, get up and do the press all day. I gotta work. Nobody knows when the end is right there, so while I, you know, got blood running warm in my veins, I'm trying to do something. And people before, I'm not saying nothing to discredit anybody's, you know, hustle, but it just didn't match mine. Their hustle didn't match mine.
Then I got with Empire. They like, "What you want to do?" "This is what I want to do." "OK, well let's do it." I'm like, "Just like that?" "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's do it just like that." And you know, I'm used to, "Hey, I want to do this." "Well, hold up right quick. Let me see what I got going on, and let me check my Palm Pilot, and I'll let –" The shenanigans, you know. So that's why a lot of people are still inside the box and trying to get out, as opposed to being outside of the box looking back at it on their way to something else.
So it's shout out to Aishah. Shout out to Empire. Got me feeling like I'm a youngster again or something.
ALI: Well, you talking about Palm Pilots. You gotta take that out though, cause palm pilots sound, like, crazy –
FRANNIE: Like he's been in it for 17 seasons? It's OK.
ALI: I know what you meant. I'm definitely elder statesman, so.
Z-RO: Yeah, that's where I was coming from. Yeah. That's where I was coming from. I mean, these cats are really – that's really what it is.
ALI: Archaic in their thinking.
Z-RO: They not digital. They still want to get out there – I mean, like, c'mon, man. They – "Yeah, we're going to record on DA-88s." Like, man, it's that. And they hustle is old school too.
ALI: Why do you think – is that the environment or it's just – How you happen to just fall into a system like that?
Z-RO: I mean, when you're – like I've explained a couple of times before, when you're out here, you got opportunity. It's going to be hard everywhere you go, cause I know at this point in time, when you look to the left and you look to the right, everybody's an entertainer, aspiring or – whether they wack or whether they great or whatever, mediocre, everybody's doing something. So think about this, cause this is, you know – this L.A. Everybody's doing something, but then you have a whole lot of opportunities out here as well. You can look this way and see a label, look that way and see a label. There's an A&R. You know what I'm saying.
In Houston, you can look anywhere you want to look, there is no opportunity. And the person that's going to offer you opportunity, it's a ulterior motive. It's not for your legacy. It's not to further your career along. It's not to jump start your career. It's strictly and simply: How much can I make off of this person? How much can I make off of this young man? How much can I make off of this young lady? And when they drop your music there, most likely your music is gonna circulate there. If you're good, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, you're done. And then Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and you're done again. There is no going to new markets, because these people are concerned with – I mean, everybody's a hustler. So your entertainment is just a drug that's for sale.
Z-RO: They not trying to really further you along. Like – "Alright, I'ma give you $80,000." So, “I'ma recoup my 80, I'ma make my interest, then whatever's left I'ma split it with you, and I'm not even gon' re-up on your – if it's hard copies, I'm not even going to re-up on that.” If it's digital, they just gon' put it there and leave the whole the promotional run up to you. "Yeah, yeah. Tweet 93 times a hour. Put on a shirt with your label and go stand out here like the little guys with the little signs at the intersection. Insurance or 'Gold Bought Here.'"
ALI: The dancing guys?
Z-RO: Yeah, the dancing guys with the suits on. Like, they gon' leave all that up to you. And then when you in the red in the end, they're like, "Well, you just weren't jamming enough." But y'all didn't do nothing though. You got a whole team of people over here, talking about, "Well, what did he do today? What did she do today? Did she run down 45 South naked or did he just go slap some random –" I mean, we need a ploy to sell records. Instead of selling records, they – really it's just a way to say, "We ain't gon' pay you." Yeah, so, sorry to be longwinded about that, but I'm real passionate about explaining that.
ALI: I think it's important. You don't have to apologize. A lot of creative people, they carry a lot on their shoulders when it comes to being artistic and putting their music out there. And it's for – coming from your own life journey and then your community, your family, your moms, whomever, and so you go to the fullest to do your part. And then you're in an infrastructure where you feel like this is your partner, and they're supposed to do their part, and they're not.
Z-RO: It's a bad marriage.
ALI: Yeah, and it's even more, I think, complicated now than it was maybe like 20 years ago, 15 years ago. So it's good that you talk about it so people understand what is possible out there and what to stay away from.
FRANNIE: It's funny though because there's also this idolization of regional scenes now. There's this idea that it's more pure or more real, but in reality, it's that the whole infrastructure is weak.
ALI: Which is really shocking for a city like Houston, at least from my outside perspective, because there's so many incredible artists that have come through –
Z-RO: So many.
ALI: – that's made the impact, cutting from the underground to mainstream and pushed outside of America. So you would think that, especially with the way that Southern music has come to the forefront of hip-hop on a mainstream level, that that city in particular would definitely have a lot more unity, cohesive, just a huge floodlight.
Z-RO: It's the flip side of the coin.
FRANNIE: Is the answer because Screw died?
Z-RO: Well, Screw dying, it played a part for the Southside. For us in the Screwed Up Click, it played a part. Cause he was holding all us together. A lot of us weren't even together, but Screw held us together. But for the city as a whole, it saddened the city, but if you recall, it seemed like soon as the man went into the ground, a lot of beefs ended with the South and the North. A lot of the killing stopped. A lot of the just "Hey, ain't you from the South?” “Ain't you from the North?" Fighting on sight – all that stopped.
And Houston started to blow up. That's when you start getting Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire. But it was really those cats on the other side of town that was getting the spotlight. And some of us on our side was getting the – I didn't get it too much because of my subject matter, but like if you were talking about the tricked out, candy paint cars, the elbows, the rims, or some type of woman wearing barely nothing, you were gon' blow up. And that's why Paul kind of drifted into the jewelry business with Johnny Dang. People started to do other things.
But the spotlight was on us for a while, and on the Southside we couldn't keep it together with ourselves. And the main thing for us not being able to keep it together was we were really living the life we were talking about in our songs. So if I'm out there saying, "Yeah, man, I'm on the corner. I got a four-and-a-half left and I'm trying to get it off 'fore the sunlight come." That's what I was really doing, because music wasn't providing no money.
Music was just providing – it was like a high. You smoke weed. You get high. A couple of hour later, it's gone. Like, music: you feel good as hell while the song playing or while you sitting there doing the song, everything's good. You walk out the booth; there's more crack to sell. More weed to sell. More codeine to sell. This is what was paying us on the South, because, you know, the record labels wasn't.
And a lot of them cats on the North – and, you know, no disrespect – but a lot of them cats were listening to us and just emulating. It's easy to become something that you're not in front of the camera, so it was a whole – it was a lot of people on the South doing it. You know, they might look at me: “Well, Ro out here five in the morning.” Like that old school song, "Five o'clock in morning, where you gon' be?"
ALI: "Outside on the corner."
Z-RO: I was there 2:30. Kids, grown up, barely grown with some kids, a kid trying to raise some kids, paying bills. It's like, you gotta do what you gotta do. And that was everybody's story that was coming out of Screw house. Screw was kind of like the definition of faith: the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen. Yeah. Screw was kind of like, making that a little bit more tangible for us. Cause you could see Screw. You see this man making five to eight grand a day out selling them tapes. We freestyling on them tapes; he put money in our pockets.
So it was like, "What you gon' do today?" "I'm goin' to Screw house." I'ma sit in the house until the man say, "Hey, you want to make a freestyle?" "You know I want to make a freestyle. This how I'm paying my bills." "I'm staying at the Red Rooster, you feel me right now. I'll meet you." "You know, I'm at the Derrick, about to get my own house." That's what it was. So when he left, back to the streets.
FRANNIE: Can you paint that picture a little bit for people who don't know or who forgot maybe. So one thing for clarity, is the Northside a little bit more well off?
Z-RO: Nah, nah. It's not more well off. It's – I mean, the Northside –
FRANNIE: Why were they looking at you guys?
Z-RO: Because we were the first.
Z-RO: DJ Screw, you talking about the end of the '80s. You're talking about – this is '88. And you know, Screw was out here. Screw was in L.A. But he moved out there. And when he came out there, he was with – he brought the C-Bo records. He brought the Brotha Lynch Hung records. He was filtering all the music from here to there and co-mingling it with our music in the mixes. And one day he was like, "You know, look." Tt was people slowing music down. You had cats like Darryl Scott, would slow down a song. Screw would come and slow down the whole damn album and start mixing it.
And you like, "Sound like – this is slow as hell. I can't –" Like it's something wrong. But then you: "I like this though." Then you start employing people to rap on it. So when the tapes would come out, and I think Paul Wall was instrumental – he would come out there doing promotions for a record label on the North, pick up Screw tapes, go back out to the North, and people be like, "Man, what the hell is that?"
FRANNIE: Oh, wow. OK.
Z-RO: But it's promotion. So you got people out – and I'm on the Northside too. I'm in the Trinity Garden area, not too far from Slim Thug neighborhood, at my people house. And I hear the people riding by like, "Man, what is this slow-ass music?" But then you listening to it like, "Oh, that's my favorite song, but it's just not at the tempo I'm used to." So before you knew it, it's a epidemic.
Z-RO: Walk to the store, cars passing by, don't matter if you on Homestead, which is major block on the North, or if you on Fondren, which is a major block on the South, you're hearing the same tempo of music. Then you hearing people rap on it and freestyle. It's getting famous. So now you got people on all sides of the city doing it. Then you had DJ Michael Watts. He started his own version on the Northside as really – I don't really want to say to compete, but that's damn near what it was.
Because you had people on the Southside doing tapes, talking real bad about people on the Northside because the Northside used to come on our side and shoot people for cars, steal our rims, and, you know, steal our everything, really. You know, breaking in, they call it placking. It was so serious to where these guys in Rosewood, which was the number one hood for coming to take your car, they even tattooed screwdrivers. That's how dedicated they were to using that screwdriver to break in your car and take your car.
So the Southside's get-back was press. Get on the microphone and just start saying raps about them. So then you got DJ Michael 5000 Watts. He got the Swishahouse started. Now they doing the same thing on the Northside, making songs about us. And that's really how all that started. So the stuff we were talking about, like we really living that life, and it was a couple of them – not all of us were living the life – and then you got people his side, on the Northside, doing the same thing, having the same scenario. Not all of them were stealing cars, not all of them were murdering and selling dope.
But when you're rhyming and you're not writing, you gon' say the first rhyme or word that come to mind. And it just might be, you know, "I put a n**** in the trunk last night." And "Life, like, came and took him for his last flight" or something. You just – you freestyling. But then on the cool, you really might work for Geico selling insurance everyday though. But I mean the rhyme was what it was. And for us, most of us, "25 lighters on my dresser."
Yeah, that was accurate. "Riding down 10 with a brick in the dash." Yeah, that was accurate. Like, E.S.G. came on, "I killed a jacka in my house I dialed 911." That was accurate.
So you got all of us taking mini vacations. So now it's a void needing to be filled. You got Lil' Keke and Fat Pat out there, really the freestyle kings, going off, doing what they were doing, and Keke going to jail, Fat Pat dead. E.S.G. going to jail for killing a dude in the house. Big Moe go to jail for something. I go to jail for something. The whole Screwed Up Click is incarcerated. And the ones that's not incarcerated, they hustling so hard to where they can't show they face on the scene. You got cats that's just now getting out of jail from back then. You getting cats with 25 year cases that are coming home and they're like granddaddies now.
ALI: That's crazy.
Z-RO: It's crazy. So the void was filled by people who were like – and it was a smart move. "Oh, they all gone right now. Let's step up." Enter the blow up of Houston. By the time everybody coming out and getting out of jail – we caught in a little bit to it, those of us that were businessmen, business-minded enough to be like, "Oh, nah. Nah. This is supposed to be us. Now let me get in here and get some of that." And really, in my opinion, Lil' Keke was the only one to really benefit off of that, to a certain extent.
But you had Lil' Flip, but he was on his own. He was like, "Swishahouse, Screwed Up Click, I'm Lil' Flip. I'm doing Lil' Flip." And that was the same attitude I adopted. Like, "I don't even rap like these dudes. I'm the oddball." People used to complain to Screw all the time about, "Man, he rapping too fast." He be like, "Y'all listening too slow." But you know.
But Keke got over there, got with the Swishahouse, got him some money, got him a deal, started doing his thing. Flip was doing his thing. The lower-level cats, we started doing our thing on a lower level. And not to say the skill was lower level, but the opportunity probably was. Flip got off his ass though, and he got on the plane. It's a lot of cats in the city they not gon' do what I'm doing right now.
ALI: Why is that though? I don't – it's just – that's – it's kind of mind-boggling, because you – if you get up and do the work and you see the results of it from people like Lil' Flip and a couple of others, then it's like, how does that not motivate you to rethink your whole situation, your movement from every level?
Z-RO: I mean, because if you're not a grown man or a grown woman, it promotes jealousy. It promotes envy. A lot of people looked at Lil' Flip, and it wasn't like, "Ah, man. That's good, man. God is good." Like how they were supposed to be. They weren't like, "Man –" It didn't motivate them to do nothing. You know what they did? Like, "That n**** can't rap." "They like that? He not even about that life." All the things that don't even matter. "He ain't even from Cloverland." Knowing damn well you gon' ride up on the burger stand and see this man out there somewhere.
It just promoted the hate, and a lot of time people just get mad because they call it luck, even though it was hustle. They mad because this “luck” didn't hit them. Really looking at him like, "OK, that's a pretty boy. How the hell did he get – we the ones out here everyday." But that's the reason. You the one that's out here every day. You don't want to – "Hey, man. Let me leave this with you. I'm finna go to New York right quick. I'ma go to California right quick."
But I will say this also. Where we was at, you really couldn't go nowhere though. Cause when you under the conditions – I'm not even gon' say the conditions. I'ma say – I'ma blame it on the geographics. Like, you're living in this certain area. Hell, you leave for 12 hours. You come back home, ain't nothing at your house but your house. That's all you got. Is your house. They gon' take your couch. These people gon' take your bed clothes, along with everything in your – it was really – you're stuck.
ALI: That sound like a song right there.
Z-RO: It was about three or four of them. I've already – yeah. That's why the music is what it is when it comes from my way.
Z-RO: Because I was stuck in that. I even got out of Mo City. Got all the way – I'm almost with the white folks. I'm almost. Like, I can look over Fry Road and be like, "They got gated communities right here." I got like a little – that little wood panel. And I'm like, "I need to get over here in Black Horse Ranch." They got that golf course. They got a Rover Patrol. I'm like, "My Rover Patrol is just me sitting in the garage with the AR." And I'm like, "I'm 17 miles away from Mo City, but I'm still in the hood." Leave to go do a show, come back door kicked in. Leave to go to the store, come back house shot up. Tires flatted. "Yo, you got too much nice stuff."
So I understand the procrastination to a certain extent. And then me having kids. Even at that point in time, "Who I'ma get to keep these kids?" Even putting them in the house with my kids. Do I trust this, cause I know if someone coming in they not gon' ride for my kids like I'm gon' ride for them.
ALI: Right. It makes sense.
ALI: I hear all of this, and it makes me wonder again, like, that just sounds like a set-up or a inspiration for –
Z-RO: To get out.
ALI: Not – well, definitely that's the ultimate, to get out. But to – ah, man, I never thought I'd use this word, cause when I hear it it just sounds so commercial, but formation. You know?
Z-RO: Yeah, yeah.
ALI: To take that from Beyoncé and just have people unite. And it's like, "Alright –
Z-RO: They not gon' do that in Houston.
ALI: “You gotta go – go wherever – you gotta go to Cali. I'ma hold you down."
ALI: “Cause when you come back, you're gonna come with something."
FRANNIE: "Then I'm gonna go."
ALI: "Then I can go."
ALI: "I'll watch the kids. I'll watch the crib. We out here promoting. We revolutionizing against the stuff that's keeping us – holding us down."
Z-RO: Yeah. Right. It's a shaking my head moment.
ALI: I'm scratching my head.
Z-RO: Cause those same people that you gon' leave in your house, that's the same people taking stuff out your house. You know? That's the same – and then I got all daughters. I go out with some of these cats. The stuff that they say to women, it make like – I'm not leaving you around my daughter. Like, you crazy. You damn near raping people. And then they gon' hate on you anyway cause everybody's rapping.
And I'ma be honest: When I started getting on planes and going places, it wasn't until I was in that gated neighborhood, it wasn't until I hustled enough mediocre money and made it major money to go and go get me one of them nice homes that got the people waving at you at the gate, people come next door and just, "Hey, I made some tea cakes, neighbor. You want a few?" The stuff we used to laugh at in the hood. Like, "Ah, man. That's that old –" That's what you want to be when you get older, cause these same people that was telling you, "Ah, look at that," these the people that's gon' kill you in your sleep. So I didn't start taking trips like this until my money was right where I could feel safe about leaving my residence, whether it was children in there or not.
And your homeboys ain't to be trusted, especially the ones who ain't – they still in the three-bedroom. A lot of 'em ain't even in the three – they living with a random girl. They looking at you like, "Man, how many rooms is this? Hot tub, pool. Ah, man, voice-activated rooms? Chunk me something." Yeah, I'ma chunk you an opportunity to a application. Go do you something. Like, "I can't get nothing?" How many of my songs you wrote? How many all-nighters did you pull in whatever studio. Like, nah, this is my blood, sweat, and tears right here. I'll give you a job.
That's translated as, "He turned his back on the hood." You're right. I did. I ain't turned my back. I turned my whole body and went a whole 'nother direction. You're right. You're correct. I turned my body on the whole infrastructure of it. I am out. Like, man, I got kids, and I got a goal to accomplish, to reach. And I'm gon' get it by all means. And I mean, they not looking at life the way I'm looking at life. Same thing for Slim Thug. As you get older, you get more money, you gotta separate yourself or you gon' have less money.
That having a heart for your homies, everybody not gon' man up. They want to sit around and leech off of you, and then when it's all gone, they gone. And I know why it's like that. It's because us that get to any level of success, we empower laziness to our people. "Nah, man. Nah, man. Shut up. Just go – here go $500." Now this fool always looking for $500, instead of always looking for a job, looking for something to do, instead of coming to you offering, "Well, you know what man? Just let me drive you everywhere. I don't have a PPO license, but I can fight. Let me be your personal security. I'm big. I don't work at Lawry's, but I can cook. Let me be the personal chef." Everybody want something for free, and they don't like me cause I have no problem saying, "Hell nah. No." Cause they don't want to do none of them things I just said. They want to ride, meet girls at the show that you not finna deal with. And I mean, that's all of them.
You have a couple good apples that'll come to you with something. Or you have a couple good apples that you could look at and be like, "Man, he doing his thing."
Like my homeboy, my homeboy, out of everybody in my neighborhood – even though it's the – you know when you walk out the store, them cats that be, "Hey, man, where it's at?" The top and ball cats? And I know they get on your nerves every time you see 'em. Like, "Tell me where it's at. $100 right now." That ain't no job, but every time this man get in the car, if I got $20, $30 grand in my pocket, he got $20, $30 grand in his pocket. He ain't asking me for nothing. This man trying put money with me and do something with me.
Then you got a whole lot of other people that got money in they pocket, but they gon' play broke, cause they want some of my money and some of his money. And he out here in L.A. right now. I'm like, "I'm in L.A." "Oh, I'm on the next flight." He somewhere out here right now doing that. "I couldn't come through last night because, you know, man, I was in front of the – I was doing my thing." It ain't no, "Man, I'm in L.A. Can you let me hold $1,000?" He gon' call and be like, "Man, look, man. Let's go somewhere and have a big ol' dinner. Let's go half." And I mean, that's something that you don't really see no more. People want to be in your pocket instead of they own.
So I'm right with you. It should promote formation. But seeing me be successful, I think, to a certain extent, empowers laziness on certain ones of those who have no hustle.
FRANNIE: Yo, can you imagine being Z-Ro's daughter and trying to date?
Z-RO: My oldest daughter 26, and I'm still not having it. I'm still not – she's supposed to be here right now. But I'm not having it. Yeah, it's rough man. I ain't gon' lie. I'm a little – I'm cool with – I'm really like big brother, with a attitude though. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Sometimes big brother's worse than dad actually.
Z-RO: Yeah, cause I don't want her to deal with nobody till she my age, you feel me? Which is retarded in a sense, but I mean, hey, man, it's my oldest daughter.
And then my young daughters looking at her, then they looking at me. So, being a dude, I don't want to have that like James Earl Jones-type of thing going on where I'm just, "You may not go outside." But at the same time, "Nah, you can go outside. I'ma go with you though."
Like, "Can I get a car?" "Yeah, you can get a car. But I'ma be riding with you though." Everything gon' have that though at the end of it though. You know what I'm saying? You got to, cause I'm nervous. Cause I know how I was. I mean, that's how I got all them daughters. So, yeah, man.
FRANNIE: How many daughters do you have?
FRANNIE: Oh my god.
Z-RO: Yeah, it's over.
FRANNIE: I bet that's a fun house.
Z-RO: No, not for me.
FRANNIE: Not for you.
Z-RO: It is a house with money always being spent. It's crazy because I can't do hair, so people be looking kind of crazy when they leave out the door. It's kind of rough. I slick it back and, you know, put the rubber band in the back. It's kind of Buckwheat-ish a little bit but I mean, I try. I try to do my thing.
ALI: That's hilarious.
FRANNIE: Is your career path something you would sort of support any of your daughters if they showed any interest?
Z-RO: I don't want to.
Z-RO: My daughter actually is a hell of a MC. And just looking at my path and what I've been through, like, this is music. This ain't mafia.
Z-RO: But the stuff I've been involved in, it's mafia. "You not gon' give us this song, we gon' jump you at the club." Like half of that stuff I was talking about? It wasn't gangsters. It was record labels.
It's record labels shooting up the house, record labels kicking in the door trying to take the hard drive. Black balling you. Even to this point right now, it's a certain rapper who really, really, really hates me being successful, and he says stuff to other rappers to make other rappers not want to deal with me. So if I didn't have my own cult-like following and fanbase, I'd probably be back in the hood.
And I don't want my kids to be privy to that. I don't want them to – and then, you know, these is women. I'm like, "I don't want to have to go to jail for killing nobody like that." Cause I'm gonna. I'm coming for you. You know, I deal with it. I'm a man. I'm kind of crazy in my own right. So I'ma get crazy when it get crazy. But – and I know my daughter more throwed off than I ever was. Cause she think she me, just with a bra. But at the end of the day, she not.
So if I get a call like, "Hey, man. LayLay in the hospital." Everybody's gonna die. Every – not one or two, everybody's gonna die. I don't mean it as a euphemism. Everybody's gonna die. And I don't want everybody to die. I damn sure don't want to get the death penalty. But it's just something that's going to be going on, because these people –
I changed Pampers. I checked homework. They was, you know, little bit bigger than this glass of water that I was drinking when I first saw 'em. Like, I'm not gon' play behind them.
ALI: That's completely understandable. It's certainly not a glamorous life, anything that you're speaking of. It's just amazing to me that those are the – everything that you're talking about, the record company kicking in your door, waiting for you outside the club, you know, that kind of activity after all you want to do is just get on the microphone and just spill what you feeling. It's just – just to have your little corner of peace in the world, but people against you, they can't let you live.
Z-RO: They can't. They can't.
ALI: And I don't know if – I think sometimes when people listen to the music, they take it for just face value sometimes without really understanding what it feels like to be in that environment, the pressure. They hear just certain aspects of the music and want to be really critical of it without really having a first view of understanding of the impossibilities of – not impossibilities – but the challenges of just having a simple basic life.
ALI: Go home. You wake up. You gotta go to school, you go to school in peace. No pressure. No one pressuring you on your walk to school. If you on the bus, no one's stressing you. None of that. And just hearing you talk about – just a little bit, cause this is a glimpse – you giving us a glimpse of what it is –
ALI: – it's just crazy to me.
Z-RO: I mean, I guess in some ways that's how you know you're good. Cause if you drop your record and people just like, "Tch." You feel me? Don't nobody care.
You drop your record: "Ay, I'm finna move labels." They trying to kill you? “Ah, now I know I'm good. They trying to kill me for leaving.” It's a crazy way to look at it, but it was the reality though.
FRANNIE: So one of the things that happens when I talk to people about rap music – and I could actually use you as an example – to me, it is very clear that you are telling very accurate, your word, stories. I play your music for some people and they don't believe you. I've asked them that; that's like, I have taken them to task. That's whatever. But if you wouldn't mind, have you ever encountered or is that –
Z-RO: Of course.
FRANNIE: Why do you think that that happens?
Z-RO: Well, a lot of people just not receptive. A lot of people haters. But I mean, at the end of the day, like, I don't care. I don't care. It's – but I really believe a lot of people, they couldn't even fathom. They couldn't even fathom 5% of what I'm talking about, let alone last a day, cause a lot of people, they have – they're born into success, or maybe not even success, just into a peaceful situation.
FRANNIE: Comfort. Yeah.
Z-RO: They got a mom and a dad. They got a thing called allowance where you just get money just because you're here in their house. Go to a good school. Maybe they didn't get beat up in class or maybe they never got robbed. A lot of people actually really don't know what that feels like. A lot of people don't know what it feels like. And if you don't know what it feels like to be on the short end of the stick, a lot of times hearing about it will turn you off.
FRANNIE: Right. You just don't want to know.
Z-RO: You don't want to know. That's just like, us sitting on Ridgevan and Castlecreek on the corner in front of the split-level duplex, "What you driving up in here in a Bentley for? We finna take that from you." That was the mentality back then. If you come over there like, "Man, I make so much money last night." Stomach not even growling no more. Back growling now. I don't want to hear about that.
“Did you bring some of that food over here? OK, you didn't. Well, then, hell up out of here, man. We don't want to hear about that." So I mean, I feel it to a certain extent.
Cause when I wasn't in a position to be like – right now, it's like, "OK. I got a $800 oil change I gotta do today. They got to pressure wash the side of the pool. Man, it's a little cool in the wine cooler. I need to see about this." My people like, "Wine cooler? N****, is you crazy? What is a wine cooler?" They don't want to hear about it. And I know that, so I don't tell them about none of that.
We hook up, go get a drink. I mean, I don't even do the same stuff. I'm going to the Improv. I'm going to the comedy club. They still going to the hole-in-the-wall, trying to get lucky and get some company for the night. I'm on something different. Now. So I feel, now, differently about how I used to feel. Cause people would come to school with the good clothes, and you immediately start telling jokes about them. "What are thoooose?" Well, that's actually some $1,500 Louis Vuittons, but because we all had on the – maybe some Stan Smiths.
Z-RO: Or some Cortez. Maybe. We thought we was cool. Then the dude that came in tucked in with them Louis like, "Who's Louis Vih-ten?" Cause we couldn't spell it. Now we know like, oh – we were idiots, you know what I'm saying?
So to explain that, a lot of people just don't want to hear about hard times when they're not knowing what hard times is.
Z-RO: Then a lot of people have hard times and they hate being reminded.
FRANNIE: I was thinking of it also specifically with regard to your songs about crooked cops and police brutality and tensions in the community, and you know, I got hit with this all the time. People are like, "Why hasn't hip-hop dealt with this? Why hasn't hip-hop been talking about this?" You know? And I always just say it has. You just haven't been listening.
FRANNIE: But I think part of it is just they don't believe the words.
Z-RO: Nah, they don't. They don't. The last song I did about police, they night of the incident in Dallas, I did a song in New York while watching on the screen as this Dallas thing was unfolding.
FRANNIE: With Mike Dean?
Z-RO: With Mike Dean. And a lot of people just want to be negative and just, "He's calling for the black community to rise up and do something." I'm like, "Nah, I'm explaining the situation." You're getting up here on the podium and saying a plea for help for your officers: "We need peace." I'm just telling you. We been asking for peace for how many years? How long did you think you was gon' lash out without getting backlashed? And I'm saying if y'all want some peace, give us some justice. I mean, it's –
FRANNIE: It's not complicated.
Z-RO: Everything you do has a reaction. You slap me, I'ma slap the shit out you. You show me love I'ma show you love. You throw up something it's going to come down. And I mean, these are people. These ain't objects. And I'm looking at it like, you know, what make the cop life more important than mine? You not no cop for real. You a man or a woman. I'm not no rapper for real. I'm a man. You're a man; you're a woman up under what you do for a living. But I think it's real, real, real bad that – but because this person is, you know, an authority figure, he's Jesus.
FRANNIE: Some people's lives are more valued. Yeah.
Z-RO: And it's not even that. It's just, they're more believable to certain people because of their job.
FRANNIE: Right. Right.
Z-RO: But I just said these are people. All people mess up. People lie all the time. And you know if you get caught in your lie, you're gonna get fired. Or in the worst case scenario you're thinking about, "My paycheck. What if they suspend me without pay? What am I going to do?" You're not caring about this person's family.
And I mean, people just heard me saying – and then the key thing about it was, "Mr. Officer, crooked officer." I don't make war on no police but I'm talking to those that are not straight. People want to disregard that just to have something negative to say. So I mean, a lot of that is people not listening. They listen to one part and just, "Yeah, man. That's messed up! You're a racist!"
I said crooked cop. I didn't say crooked orange cop, crooked yellow cop. Crooked. A lot of these people are black. I'm talking the cops, whatever texture and shade you are. Every five minutes it's something from a white cop, a black cop. It don't matter what you – you're a cop. And it's the blue wall of silence. Lot of people fear that. So you gon' do what you think your blue brother wants you to do.
And I don't – I'm not talking – I'm not speaking about all cops. Man, I got a lot of cop friends. I got a lot of cop friends. All the time, I employ these people to protect me at events. And it's not just at events. These people be at my house. So I'm not speaking to the whole union.
FRANNIE: You're not generalizing. You're not the one generalizing.
Z-RO: Nah, I'm not generalizing. I'm just telling them, "Hey, man, you want something; we want something."
You know, pull me over, you ask for my I.D.? OK, I'm getting my I.D. You ain't gotta shoot me. You just asked me to get it. "Where your I.D.?" "OK, it's –" Pow. I'm gone. "He was reaching!" You just told him to reach and get his I.D. And you shot the man how many times? Like, c'mon, man. You totally passed the taser. You totally negated that. It's, "Oh, you gotta die. You move too quick, you gotta die." "You said what? Oh, you gotta die." "Oh, you not gon' put your hands? Let me choke you to death." It's a hurtful situation to me.
FRANNIE: I think maybe to Ali's point earlier, what's really compelling about your music is that that song doesn't sound grim and hopeless and dark. And a lot of times that happens in your music, where the story – the storyline is bleak, but the music is really alive and joyful, ebullient. Is that what you were talking about?
ALI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yup.
Z-RO: I just got this. My police partner jamming to my song.
FRANNIE: Oh my god. That's amazing.
Z-RO: Jamming to my song.
FRANNIE: Look at the – oh, he's really going in too.
Z-RO: Yeah, he's really like – just to show this is one of my best friends.
FRANNIE: He kind of looks related to you.
ALI: To me?
Z-RO: He text me. And this is my homie.
FRANNIE: Full uniform.
Z-RO: Full uniform. He text me, "97.9 jamming you, big bro."
FRANNIE: Oh nice, you on the – oh, that's amazing.
Z-RO: Yeah, this is my guy right here. I don't have a problem with police.
Z-RO: This is my guy right here. So a lot of people get that misconstrued like I'm saying, not listening to what I'm saying, just listening to what they want to hear.
FRANNIE: Right. Well, what was your question about the sound? Was it about beat selection or –
ALI: Yeah, just going into – because the topics are definitely – and there's all kinds of topics. But the music definitely I feel has a lighter sound to it now.
ALI: So what was your – going into this Driving And Drinking, Drinking And – what was it?
Z-RO: Drankin' & Drivin'. Yeah.
ALI: Drinking And Driving. Yeah.
FRANNIE: He doesn't know how to say that because he's never drunk before. He doesn't even know.
Z-RO: That's a good thing.
FRANNIE: I mean neither, so.
Z-RO: Ah, really?
It's really a business move. I always do this type of music, but one thing about it, if I'm not being paid what I want to be paid or what I think I deserve to be getting, I'm not gon' give you my best. I'm famous for being dark, infamous, for doing the music that nobody else really does. And I really know how to pick records. Like, I know what my core fanbase wants from me.
And to be perfectly honest, my core fanbase is not about Drankin' & Drivin'. The people who – the day ones? Those are the strugglers. Those are the – it ain't too much struggling on Drankin' & Drivin'. But one thing about it is the songs that were selected were songs to put fat on the brain, songs to make people think. And then with, like, "My Money," a lot of my core followers can't get jiggy with "My Money" because they don't have none. Only reason I got some is because I stayed doing what I was doing to make them fans.
But if I'm going to get B2 type of pay from you, I'm not going to give you my A1 music that I know is going to make a boatload of money or at least be somewhat successful. So I give a whole lot of slower, dark instrumentation to the labels when they want to bird-feed me. And I know it's gonna be enough to take care of me until the next release of a record. But I'm just not prepared – cause I've wasted great bodies of work before.
Like, in my opinion – of course, everybody loves the Crack album. Everybody loves Let The Truth Be Told. But then you're talking about '05 and '06. It's a decade in between. And finances changed. Situations changed, label-wise. Pay grades changed. So, thus my music did. When I was about to give you A, B, and C, like, "Huh, here you go." Like, "We used to give you $70. Now we can only give you $25." "Oh, OK. Hold on. Let me see this. Here you go. D, E, F." I know my D/E/F is going to satisfy my fans to a certain extent, long as I'm telling them, "Hey, man, I'ma give y'all appetizers. Entree is on the way."
Z-RO: They keep appetizing me so I gotta appetize y'all. Take this spinach dip right quick. We gon' – I might have to give you some fondue next, and then after that I might have to give you fried pickles, but I promise we gon' get to the Hawaiian ribeye, and then we gon' get to the veal. We gon' get to it. We gon' get there.
But I always let my fanbase know why I'm doing what I'm doing. "Bro, why you –“ Man, I was like, "Bro, I'm still in Chrysler 300." That's why. That's why. OK, got the first Bentley. OK, alright, I can give them some Bentley music, that's still gon' have what I'm famous for.
And I've been doing this – I've been a lot of lighter music the whole while, if people listen to my whole bodies of work. It's just that the stuff that's stuck with people – cause when I go dark, it's dark. And it's not really dark; it's just, I don't censor. I tell it like it is. I'm not going to change up a word to make you feel better.
And then I really think it's because if Philip did me something, my whole fanbase finna know it's Philip. Like, I ain't going to be like, "This cat!" Nah, man, it was Philip Lewis, man. Philip Lewis did this here so, hey, Philip Lewis, this Bud's for you. And I'm finna do my thing. So people, they used to that 2Pac type of aggression with me, cause it's personal.
And people really can empathize. They really can be like, "Man, I just went through that. I'm going through that right now." Especially with "I Hate You B****." They was like – oh, man, so many people. Lot of chicks, they like it, cause they think they dude's a b**** or something like that. And –
FRANNIE: That was actually – one of our very first interviews ever was with Mike Dean, and we were talking about that song. He told us the story of how that came to be.
FRANNIE: I think he claimed he saved your relationship or something like that.
Z-RO: Well, nah, he didn't save it. He saved me. Yeah, he saved me.
But I mean, you know, that's the reason why the music is where it is, because I really saw opportunity this time to actually get some capital. With the rest of those albums, it's a chance to get show money. You're talking about ten to 12, five a night. That's it. You never get money from the record label.
Z-RO: This time I'm on my own label, and I got a distributor that pays me directly. I ain't gotta wait for no check to get cut into a smaller check.
ALI: Isn't that nice?
Z-RO: Ah, man. It's a breath of –
FRANNIE: It's the dream.
ALI: I don't think – I mean, well, I don't want to go into it, but when you waiting like 18 months for a royalty check from your record company, you like, "I don't – please make –“
Z-RO: And they had the money seven months ago.
ALI: Yeah. They had – they been had the money. You're like, "Please make me under –" so, I totally understand. It's a good place to be when you –
Z-RO: Yeah. Yeah. Man.
FRANNIE: And that means that we can expect more very soon, yeah?
Z-RO: Yeah, I got four records ready to go now.
Z-RO: The only reason why they haven't came out is because they were like, "We don't want you to compete with yourself right now."
FRANNIE: Timing. Yeah, that's smart.
Z-RO: "You just came out with Drankin' & Drivin'." I'm like, "You don't understand." Like, man –
ALI: They used to tell that to Prince too though, so.
Z-RO: Yeah. Yeah, and I'm trying, and I don't want to piss nobody off, but I'm steady leaking songs on Instagram.
FRANNIE: One a quarter.
Z-RO: I can't hold it. I'm like – I'm just – I'm excited right now.
FRANNIE: Man, it's exciting for us. It feels like you're back back.
Z-RO: Yeah, I mean, it feel like I'm back. Like, I ain't even really know I went somewhere –
FRANNIE: I know. True.
Z-RO: – but I'm back. I feel like I'm back though. And it's a great feeling to know that you can – it's the first time I can actually look forward to some money, and I ain't having to get on the stage. I mean, I'ma do it. That's my job. But for the longest time, the performance is the only payoff. Doing the hook for somebody, doing the verse for somebody. Doing the beats for somebody, you know, to sell tracks or – that's the norm. You never get a check, aside from SoundExchange or something like that, iTunes or TuneCore.
But for your sales? Like, I'm looking at that like, "What the hell? Like, I'm finna get paid for the sales? Like, nah, I gotta do shows." My manager in the other room like – "If he book eight shows in a month, OK, I got $80 grand, a month. And you mean to tell me, I'ma have more than that? Cause I'ma get – for each CD that was sold, for each download that was – oh, wow, this is unbelievable." Cause I knew it was supposed to always be like that. But when you're used to it never being like that, it's like, OK, getting paid for record sales is – this is an urban legend. This is like Michael Myers. You know Michael Myers not really going to come to your house. Neither is your royalty check.
ALI: That's a great analogy.
Z-RO: Yeah. For real. I have Rother Vandross Sings The Blues, which is my all R&B album ready to go.
FRANNIE: We need it.
Z-RO: Yeah. Yeah. We got Ghetto Gospel ready to go, which is a whole political look at Z-Ro. And I mean, I got 2 Da Hard Way ready to go, with my Muslim brother Mike D from the Screwed Up Click. I got that ready to go. I mean, me and Slim Thug's album, The King And The Boss, ready to go, been ready to go for about four years now. But even in his interviews: "Hey Slim, what's up with the you and Z-Ro record?" "Ah, man. I was waiting on him to be a free agent." Cause you know you'll drop something and before you know it, it's 30,000 cease-and-desists and you can't get no money; your bank accounts is on froze. And you back in the hood. But yeah, I'm ready now though.
ALI: Good to hear.
FRANNIE: Thank god.
FRANNIE: Thank you so much for taking all this time and for coming – especially when you're out of town and everything.
Z-RO: Oh, I had to do this. Yeah, I had to do this. I had to.
FRANNIE: We can't wait to support.
Z-RO: Appreciate it.
ALI: Before we say goodbye to you – I don't know if you've been asked this before – but let's go back to your 15-year-old self, and you want to direct him on the road, what do you tell him?
Z-RO: Man, leave the pen and contract where it is when you get there. Stay independent as long as you can. That's what I would tell me.
Z-RO: I would tell me, “Hey man, don't none of them people mean you no good. If you can hold on a little bit longer and do this yourself, be Master P. Be E-40. Be Too $hort. Press up your stuff and sling it out the trunk. That's what I'd tell me.
Z-RO: Quit being blind.
FRANNIE: Will you do a drop for us?
Z-RO: Of course.
FRANNIE: Thank you.
Z-RO: Of course I will. Just let me know what to say.
FRANNIE: Oh, it's whatever you want. But you know, just Microphone Check.
ALI: Whatever you want. Just Microphone Check.
Z-RO: Yo, this your boy Z-Ro a.k.a. the King Of The Ghetto. You tuned into Microphone Check. Keep it locked, cause you mess around and get stole if you ain't. Church.
FRANNIE: Thank you.
ALI: Dope. Thank you.
Z-RO: Man, I appreciate y'all.
ALI: Appreciate you.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that was really great.