Interview: Billy Cook
Billy Cook is twenty-five years into a career as Houston’s hook man extraordinaire, racking up credits from Z-Ro to Chamillionaire while building a strong catalog of solo work. His forthcoming album, Billy Cook: So Iconic, will be his tenth.
In a city with a rap culture like Houston’s, is it easy to get pigeonholed? Once you start singing, once you do a hook, do people stop calling about anything else?
Yeah, I did at one point in time. I always wanted people to acknowledge me by putting me on a verse, vs. just being on a hook. I knew that I was more than just a hook person - if I can write a hook, of course I can write a verse. But in the beginning, it was easy for me to get on by doing the hooks. I did a lot of hooks for free, up until people starting asking “how much do you charge? First person to ask me that, I had the dumb look on my face. It was 8Ball & MJG. I left a studio called Uptown Studios and they said to come around the corner to their studio. I didn’t know I was popular like that, I was still trying to just get my name out there. And it really worked out for me in the long run, that was the third record that I got major recognition on. The first one was the record I did with Big Mike (“Somethin’ Serious), which went gold. It’s still sellin’. The second was Fat Pat, “Superstar, off the Ghetto Dreams album.
I was an r’n’b guy - I’d just come off tour with Frankie Beverley’s Maze, R. Kelly, and the Isley Brothers, so I was used to just backin’ people up singing. I had never sung on records. So it was just step up and step up, not just gettin’ recognition and connecting with people. I was always getting numbers and email addresses - well, I wasn’t gettin’ no email addresses at the time because I wasn’t really big on technology, but I was gettin’ numbers. Somebody’s number changed, well hopefully you’ll run into them again. But I kept penetratin’ the industry by doing hooks for everybody. I had to create my own lane, and for that I needed a team. Not everybody immediately needs management because you’ve got to have something to manage [laughs], but you do need guidance.
Could an r’n’b guy find that sort of guidance in Houston?
It was more from my internal team and people on the outside, everybody in Houston was together but, at the same time, divided. They was clique-ish. Just like if you go to LA, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, people have people they deal with. But I was gettin’ advice because I would ask it. I understood that answers are the only thing that can’t hide from questions. I was asking a lot of questions so I could find my own place in the music - to find what I needed to do to be seen, heard, and taken seriously with my craft.
What had your plan been initially when you were doing the hooks for free?
It was not just to be heard, but to get a deal. I thought I had to have a deal, had to have somebody invest money into me. But everything doesn’t equate to money when you talk about investing.
How were you going about trying to break out of the Houston market?
As the internet, digital markets started coming into play, people was able to find me. Before that, they wasn’t so forth coming when people would ask about who it was singing on they record. Because they knew that if they gave over my number and I got on a track then I was gonna have my workload increased. So it was “well, let me see if I can get in touch with him, that type of thing. I call it professional jealousy, because when you’re gifted people want you to stay hidden. That’s my hidden jewel, that’s my ace in the hole. This is what’s makin’ me different from everybody else. They know that if you ever make it out, maybe then you won’t be thinking of them. It’s one thing to think about people once you make it big, but what it really is is to bring people with you even before you make it big. That’s what I’m focusing on. I already know I’m gonna make it big, so I’m preparing for that now. I’m doin’ everything with my endgame in mind. Overnight success isn’t overnight. You can work in this music business for years and not get anything, then when you have a hit they call it an overnight success. But is that hit overnight in one year, or ten?
Is it hard to balance all your uncredited feature work with the mindset behind your solo work and the accompanying spotlight?
Yeah [laughs]. I got a lot of work out there that I didn’t get recognition for. But I was able to, some kind of way, make people aware that it was me even if my name wasn’t on the record. Like the Ghetto Dreams album, my name’s not on the record but I went out and performed it. I was on the record with Bun B and T.I., on the Trill album. “I’m a G. People didn’t know it was me until I started performin’ the record, put it on mixtapes. And that wasn’t Bun’s fault, when you’re a Texas icon that isn’t your department. I was the first person on the record in the studio, so when that got done it’s easy to forget what you started with. There were some records I did that had my name on the record, but where they wanted something a little more marketable for the single. The streets know what they want, but they held onto that so that people would still buy the album. It was something that would leave more of a lingering scent on the project.
Have you done any songwriting for people?
I have, but not as much as I used to. Some of the records I just don’t remember, I’ve been involved with over six hundred of them now. Now, I try to get away from doing all the writing myself, I surround myself with other writers because it makes it easier for me. At one point in time I had became a recluse. I was still being a social butterfly, but staying away from a lot of people to re-develop my sound, re-invent who I was. I don’t want to fade away, I want to be that more enriched sound like back in the day, like Marvin Gaye, The Platters, the Ron Isleys, The Dells, those old-school artists.
Did you feel pressure to get into a group at any point?
I was actually in a group, I was in a group called Strictly For You. That was in high school. Right after that, got out of high school and signed with Rap-A-Lot, with a group called One Shade of Black. We dropped the “black and just became One Shade. They were so gangsta rap that the r’n’b genre was a different avenue for them, and it didn’t work out. I was on the label as an independent artist and as a group, so I had two deals. I had a situation on the table with a label called MCA that I didn’t take because I was caught up in two friends. It wasn’t business, I was doing companionship. That put me in that mindset to approach deals as business first. Instead of felling backwards, I fell forward. I was in a group called UTP, Juvenile’s group. UTP was me, Corey Cee, Wacko, Young Buck, and Skip. That in itself put me on a different vein in the industry. And then that didn’t work out. So group things? Maybe later on, if we could come back as One Shade… people say you could come back and do a greatest hits, but we never even had a hit in that era. It was the greatest group that was never heard. Five of us, all lead singers.
I’m interested in what you said about writing hooks vs. writing verses.
My hooks are very soulful. You never hear anyone say “hey, man, sing this one from my soul. I sing straight from the heart, but also from experience. It’s almost like when a guitar player plays a guitar and gets calluses on his hand, or a piano player’s muscle memory. I’ve had wear and tear, I’m conditioned. I don’t have one style, I’m the man with a thousand voices. 99.9% of the people in Houston have never sung the National Anthem at the Toyota Center. When I sing a hook, I’m settin’ the tone for the track.
I was listening to that A.B.N. track “Miss My Dawg and wondering what you thought about the merit of setting something like Z-Ro’s really raw singing against your cleaner approach.
What that is, is being thoughtful on a track. Being compassionate, becoming one with the track, but being aware of everybody else’s texture and style. Knowing what they bring to the table, and intending to motivate them to step that up. We have two different styles, but they’re not that far off from one another. Z-Ro, a lot of people don’t realize, really can sing. That’s what sets him off apart from other rappers, now everybody else is tryin’ to do it and needs auto-tune. Most people sing on the record and then you hear ‘em talk, oh man. But me and ‘Ro, we have a chemistry. I’ve never heard anybody ask me about a collaboration except “when are you and ‘Ro gonna do something together?
You gotta be different. Nobody tryin’ to use a rotary phone anymore. Nobody tryin’ - well, some people still tryin’ to use flip phones, you know, it’s coming back slowly. But as technology and everything changes, we should be innovative and change as well. People usin’ FaceTime now, you don’t gotta drive three or four hundred miles to see your grandparents anymore. But those great producers, those great rappers, still understand the characteristics of that old, that authentic equipment.
You’ve got a couple different Christmas albums - where did those come from?
The first one was just to have a Christmas album. To show people that hey, I want to sell some records, but I also wanted to be year-round. You’re not catchin’ gangsta rappers rappin’ Christmas albums. But back in the day, most r’n’b artists did those kinds of records. So I figured I could record it, tighten up the sounds, dedicate a portion of my sales to the troops. I wanted to communicate to people that I cared. It was Christmas Time, and then we put out Velvet Christmas. I felt like a lot of the major artists singing on Christmas records weren’t from the heart, the old-school, down-home blues, if you know what I mean. It was so cleaned up - if I walk outside, I can smell the trees, I know I can smell the roses, I can smell the grass if it was just cut. But if the air’s too clean, it’s like walkin’ through a hospital.
I came out the church. All through school, I was singing. It might’ve sounded bad, but everybody back in the day thought they could really sing. I had family members who played multiple different instruments, but I knew I really wanted to sing. I left home at an early age, was on my own, house-to-house, and singing was the only thing that actually made me feel whole, you know? That’s where my roots are from, singin’ in the church and singin’ in the streets. I moved from Dallas to Houston, and then back to East Texas, to my hometown. And when I went there, I was playin’ basketball, stayin’ with my aunt, and all I had to listen to was Michael Jackson records. The Off the Wall record, the “Billie Jean album. Growing up I was made to listen to gospel, but hangin’ around my dad they would always listen to blues records. Johnnie Taylor records, I was singin’ songs like “Cheating in the Next Room, and then listening to a lot of Babyface in that era when he had just came out. Right on into the r’n’b scene, writing poetry and songs in junior high school. I was always singin’, and I was a dreamer too. I was writing affirmations, I was writin’ my life and didn’t know it.
Did you ever have a recurring dream or anything that you thought affected your career in some way?
Yeah, I wrote a song that actually came to pass on the Livin’ My Dream album. I was talking about “they call me superstar when I land in Tokyo and I wound up going to Japan. I was at the studio and some people were followin’ us trying to get some CDs, and there was a guy who said it was his dream to be on a record with me. His name was AK-69. He’s gone platinum in Japan. But how that came about was that we’d had some teachers from Japan, scholars, who just loved Texas music and came to Houston. They visited, stayed with us, and we started to get more and more people until town until we met some of them at Ronnie Bookman’s studio. They wanted me and Big H.A.W.K. from the S.U.C. to come on a tour to Japan. Everything was put together, and then a few months later H.A.W.K. passed. So it was just me going to Japan. That song, “Livin’ My Dream, I wanted that to be my own version of “Platinum in da Ghetto. And now I write things on paper with the expectation that they’re gonna come true.
You were talking about the difference between different voices as being “textural. I was wondering if you could expand on that.
Tone, tonality. Have you ever seen a person go get their ear tested? It’s kinda the same as when people go get their eyes checked. Are you nearsighted, farsighted, can you see the red dot, can you read the bottom line? In hearing, they test for high, medium, low pitch. Music is the same way, even how I hear harmonies - when I say tonality, everybody has a tone. Country singers have a tone where they have a twang in it. It’s what you been around. I’ve been around so many types of music all my life, I created my own style and tone based on what I liked hearing. If I hear a bad note, I can’t stand it. Tone is everything. It gives you your identity in the music. H-Town, Beyonce, Joe, Tyrese, you know when they’re singing. Beyonce, you know it’s her. Totally different than Christina Aguilera. Like Anita Baker, you know it’s a big difference between Anita Baker and Toni Braxton, even if they have the same style.