Interview: E.S.G.


Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana as Cedric Hill, E.S.G. has released a steady steam of music ever since moving to Houston in 1994. He’s best known for the all-time classic “Swangin’ and Bangin’ and as a member of Screwed Up Clik.

Your first couple of albums had such vivid, distinct cover art - where’d that come from?

Just sittin’ around, gettin’ high, chillin’. You know, what can we do different? And the name of the album’s Ocean of Funk, right? So we had the picture of the car, and then Pen & Pixel, right, they was still kinda new but they used to push the envelope on the artwork. So how can we make this picture of us in the car match that? So right off the bad, they put me on the water. It was crazy, the cover itself made people “god damn, I gotta try this shit out, and then the music matched it.

See, at that time I was heavily influenced by West Coast music. This was like the birth of G-funk, you know what I’m sayin’? Back then they had sherms, people used to smoke water. That was the big drug in the urban community, and then of course sippin’ syrup, you know. So everything was like a, how can I put it, a new urban hippie. So I came up with the song “Ocean of Funk, came up with the intro, and it fit. Not G-funk, but the ocean of funk. Like a gumbo. A little West Coast, a little East Coast, Southern, all in one big pot.

Where was that California influence coming from?

It was just musical. You go to DJ Screw house, Screw’s favorite group was Above the Law. They was jammin’ like a motherfucker. When we was little kids, the movies that we seen with hip-hop in them was either Beat Street or Breakin’. Breakin’ was more West Coast hip-hop, so you had all those kind of songs. Ice-T, all that. You had your East Coast, but the lingo… Run-DMC, LL Cool J, all that, of course they was big influences on younger kids, but by the time we got to teenagers it was more wantin’ to jam some N.W.A., all that kind of shit. And most of the East Coast artists didn’t use those southern samples like that.

I remember my first big, big concert, it was me, Notorious B.I.G., and all of us, and Diddy tried to come backstage. He was tryin’ to look to see who I was, but my homies said “you can’t come back here, don’t care who you is. Next thing I know, a lot of samples that Diddy and them used started to have a southern influence. If you think of Jodeci, right, Diddy worked with them first with Andre Harrell, but Jodeci and them was singin’, bein’ around with an r’n’b group from Houston called H-Town. And if you look at Jodeci’s singin’, dancin’, and shit, in actuality that whole mode is fuckin’ H-Town. There was a group called the Convicts, rest in peace 3-2, that was out in Cali doin’ work with Dr. Dre and them. 3-2 used to rap like this: “really doe, ah, big baby / smokin’ on the killa / I’m the n***a / da da da. They go to California, work with Dre, and after that you hear it come out in the G-funk sound with Snoop Dogg. Our influence had its fingerprints on a lot of shit that people don’t really know about.

When did you end up moving to Houston from Bogalusa?

After high school, after college. I became official in ‘94; my dad used to live here so in ‘93 I was visitin’ and shit. I became stuck here, livin’ here, official, in ‘94.

Was it hard to break into the rap scene at all?

It wasn’t hard at all, because nobody had seen what I could do. Everybody was kinda blown away. How can I put it? “I’m in a Cadillac / buzzin’ in the Pinto / pull up to the light at San Jacinto / I can only go right, I can’t go left / I got freesty- .

[We stop at an intersection, then turn right onto San Jacinto, a one-way street.]

... so they wasn’t used to that, so everybody was blown away when they saw it like “damn, how this n***a doin’ all this shit? That’s how it was so easy to fit in. We go to DJ Screw house, most people there were street cats who didn’t really rap. I was a rapper, it was in my blood, so I’d go there with tons of songs. You remember the movie, Jason’s Lyric? That was a movie they shot here with Treach, Bokeem Woodbine, all those people comin’ up in acting, Scarface on the soundtrack and all them. We’d go rap for them at these big clubs and they’d go crazy, man. At the time, they would’ve had Jack the Rapper - he was in Atlanta, he was in Orlando - and all my big homies would go. And I’d go with ‘em, I hooked 2Pac up with some chicks one time. Anybody who could rap, we’d pull up on ‘em, tear they ass up. The image of rappin’ in Houston at that time was more gangsta - trench coats, big boots. They wasn’t rappin’ about diamonds, grills, Southside fades. That was more of our style as the youngsters.

What do you think prompted that switch in subject matter and slang?

It was the kids! Us. Just like how there’s a new generation of the Trippie Redds and everything they do now. It was the same thing. Then there was the culture shift - at that time, youngsters were more into hustling, gettin’ money. Less robbin, stealin’, feel what I’m saying? The gang culture wasn’t as violent here, so most of the youngsters was thinking of ways to get money. So that was what we glorified - hustlin’, gettin’ money, lookin’ clean. We didn’t want to wear the trench coats, we went to the Guess store. We was influenced by Guess, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, 95 Air Max. That’s how the jewelry became so influenced by Houston. Yeah, you have your New York jewelry, but all these artists… Rick Ross, Nelly, T.I., the first time they all get grillz they would do that in Houston.

At Screw’s house, was there a sense that you had to be tight off the bat to jump in? Or could you watch and learn?

No, you could watch and learn, but here’s the key: if you were a, so say, neighborhood guy, a hood star, d-boy, and you got money, you’d probably paid for that session and so you could take over. You buy your block, this is your tape. Whoever raps on your tape don’t even have to be a rapper. You know, Screw would have on the list - I got Corrigan comin’ at nine. Whoever’s cool with Corrigan, he’ll let ‘em in the gate. Now Corrigan can’t rap, but he paid for this time, he can do what he wanna do. Each different person who had that time blocked off would have four or five rappers with them, and maybe one or two were great. So that’s how we got people eventually involved with the clique, we would see the guys that was the best ones.

What there any sort of formal induction into Screwed Up Clik?

It wasn’t a gang initiation or anything like that. A lot of the other guys didn’t look at rap as a business, or like we could make money off of it. Like the late, great Big H.A.W.K., I used to be tellin’ him how we could get paid for this shit. Like when I went to school, I’d already had wax, like my vinyl. Most guys went there just to rap, so Screw realized that it was serious. So we used to sit down and talk structure, CEOs, “Screwed Up Entertainment. That’s the kind of ideas I had, but not everybody had the vision. It wasn’t nothin’ like a clique thing, like you had to wear red. There was people that couldn’t rap that was still down with S.U.C. As he passed, later on tried to say this person is, this person isn’t, but it was never like that. Once Screw passed, not everybody could make it no more. Not everybody could go to the radio station to get a song played, go to the studio to get something mixed and mastered. People without that business mind would fall by the wayside.

Your work makes pretty consistent reference to speaking for the South as a whole - was there a sense of unity across the whole region?

I mean, we would sell 50,000 CDs, 100,000 CDs collectively here. So we didn’t need media, didn’t need mainstream. We didn’t give a damn if we wasn’t gonna be at the Grammys. We didn’t care about having shows in LA. We were established here, so we would look at it like “shit, n***a, we can do a hundred shows a year in this one market. At the height of most of our careers here we’d still get to eat, we just not travelin’ around all fifty states. It’s a mixture of five states. You had your Cash Money, Rap-A-Lot, No Limit, but all the independent artists below that always felt like we weren’t respected. Lloyd Banks made a reference to Big Moe: “I been smokin’ purple stuff way before that fat n***a. He didn’t understand “purple stuff was what we was drinkin’. So when we used to hear stuff like that we’d attack ‘em, fuck y’all. 50 Cent come to Houston, he couldn’t leave his hotel. Y’all not gon’ talk about us and then bring y’all ass down here. We was defensive of our Third Coast. Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, that’s the core. Everything else is secondary.

What kept you working independently rather than stepping up to a label?

Well, you know, me and Slim flew out to LA, met with Warner Brothers, went to New York to sit down with Steve Rifkind, Def Jam, and it was always about a $20 million deal. Then when you get down to it, it’s $250,000 now and then the rest… so you look at it as, we selling 50,000 to 100,000 independent everytime, at making at least $5 a unit. So we was making that ourselves, we just didn’t understand the market value that just being on a major label would bring. And as our career has went, that’s how a lot of us has lasted. If I sign a deal and then I need to put seven, eight years on the backburner to raise my son, then at the end of that there’s no budget left for me. I become one of those artists that doesn’t control his own destiny, that’s sittin’ around waiting for somebody else to try and sign me. If we some Interscope-type shit or something with a label deal like Roc-A-Fella had, or like TDE got, that’s successful to me. To have that machine behind you, but still control your squad.

What got you started rapping?

Man, as a kid everybody was dancin’ and doin’ other shit, and I wanted to be like Run-DMC. So I’d be in my room as a kid workin’ on it, and then sixth grade was when it really hit me. All these kids was rappin’, but they was rappin’ shit that other people made up. Man, I heard that song, that ain’t your song! I rapped my own shit, I’d listen to the LL Cool Js and listen to their format and how he would rap. So I’d take my own words, my own southern words, and fit them into the cadences. I never had no second intentions of doing beats, taking a producer job. Rappin’ was what I wanted to do.

Were there any sort of local resources for kids who wanted to make music or get involved?

Not really, no real resources. The resources had to come from whatever you could do to make the money for it. If you had a job, you had a job. If you robbed banks, you robbed banks. Sellin’ sneakers, sellin’ weed. That’s how most of the labels started across the country. But then we had Southwest Wholesale, that was an independent company. They were head-and-shoulders above any other market at the time in distribution. So until the 2000s, we had Southwest Wholesale and they had thousands of accounts across the United States. Show up and tell ‘em you puttin’ out an album, they’ll give you $50,000. That was the hub of southern music.

Talking about taking time off to raise your son, was there a point that you started thinking of yourself as something other than a rapper first?

I never thought that, because I’m too competitive, but I had sunk into - not “sunk into, because it was a great place - I had mentally put myself a place where this was my life. Pick him up, take him to school, help him with his homework, do all this… do my shows on the weekend. All my time in the studio, everything was based around my son. They’d be like “man, come by the studio tonight at 1am, 2am, I can’t do that. Be at my studio at four. I’d pick him up at three, I could be at the studio at four. Get somethin’ to eat at 8, go home. I never threw my career away, though. I would always hit you with a hit, a regional hit, every two or three years. Or the songs that I would do for other people would start blowin’ up, the “Wanna Be A Baller, the work with Slim Thug, Drake reachin’ out. And then when my son got older - he just made eighteen about a year ago - the fire just came back. Because I had more time to travel and work. Like the universe give you a second chance - ok, we like what you did. You sat down with your kid, raised a great kid. Never been to jail, never been suspended. Now go on, run out there and get it goin’ again.

Do you find that you need to be out there, doing new things to remain creative?

I used to not find that, but now I do. It gives you more shit to look at and more shit to think of. Studios, to me, is important in the recording process. If you go to a little small house studio, yeah you can create magic. Everybody know that. But when you go to that big, bad motherfucker with that big-ass board, eight rooms, rock band over there, that shits gives you another feeling spiritually. The creative juices go to another level. Go record in LA one weekend; shit, that’s a feelin’. As opposed to goin’ to a room on the other side of town for the weekend.

Do you get a lot of younger rappers or producers coming to you for advice or anything?

What?! All motherfuckin’ day. I’m one of the ones that’s gonna give that advice out, you feel me?

You make yourself available?

Not to everybody. I used to. You know, you come back and it’s a simple thing, you give me some encouraging words or what you think I should do, that’s fine. But once you want me to map out your career or something, you’re gonna have to schedule an appointment or talk to my manager or something. I got companies, clients, clients of clients. I’m not available to everybody, but I’m approached if you a good kid. If you approach me with a good heart. You can get a lot of game. But if you approach me on some “man, I’m finna take over this shit, da da da then I’ma look at you in a different light. Guess you already got all the answers.

What do you think they most need to know?

How to block out the mainstream. You know, “should I sign to Atlanta, because Atlanta’s hot? “Should I try to dress like him because he’s hot? As opposed to knowing that the craft, the music, should be your first priority. Not how you look, not the beats you have. And a lot of times they don’t think of that. N***as be concerned with the wrong shit. Maybe you want a Benz or a Bentley to look good with your image, but you can invest that in your career. Man, it costs $30 to fill this big, bad motherfucker right here up.

A lot of artists get one song on the radio and it’s “ah, I made it! That’s one step. There’s four or five more after that in becomin’ successful. You look at artists like Slim Thug, Slim Thug ain’t worried about no deal. Why? Because he got all this goin’ on regionally. Shit, you can live just like Rick Ross and everybody else live right here. Get into the real estate, get into the fuckin’ clothing and all that. Bein’ on screwtapes was just a hobby for me. A lot of other people look at that as the thing that turned them into rap artists.

What was the environment like at those sessions?

Man, it looked like a million records in crates everywhere. The wall knocked out so it was one gigantic room. Then you got more crates to make your ten seats, ten rappers sittin’ on the crates. Everybody around pickin’ the tapes. So you gonna pick the songs, the beats for the tapes for the first two, three, four hours while everybody’s talkin’, smokin’ and sippin’, havin’ fun. Man, we gon’ put this on there put that on there. So you done that from ten ‘til one or two in the morning. One or two in the mornin’, Screw’s mixing. You might get to do your flows at 4am. By the time you get to go home, it’s 10am the next day.

And that would yield one tape.

Yeah, one ninety minute to two hour cassette, full of songs and flows. Then at some point you gotta make the food run, who gon’ make the food run? Gotta get Whataburger or something like that. The food run’s gonna hold you up another hour. Take twenty, thirty minutes to go get the food, and when you get back Screw gon’ start eatin’. Don’t let him get too fucked up, if he get two fucked up that’s another hour or two delay. You might get stuck, and if you get stuck you won’t finish the tape ‘til two days later.

The thing is, you’d be through with it though, but then you can’t get it yet, you know what I’m sayin’? Once he chop it and make it, it’s not always slowed down yet. So we would rap at normal speed, he’d do all his mixing at normal speed. Then he slows it all down so you have to come back and get it. I probably still got twenty of ‘em or so, some that still ain’t even came out yet.

Hours in, if you did something crazy would you know right then in the moment, or would you surprise yourself sometimes listening back?

Oh hell yeah, n***as knew. Some of that shit was freestyles and all that, but some of those was raps you got in your head, ready.

Of your various other businesses, is there anything that’s more of a passion than an interest?

The TV shit. That brought a new energy. Everything else is cool, the marketing company’s amazing because I’ve always used my brain to help people for free, and now I can do it for a paycheck. But the movie shit, man. Me writin’, directin’. I still act in ‘em, I took acting classes so I give it my all, but the film shit is like rappin’. It’s great because you get to see how it turns out at the end, see it put all together. The acting shit is cool, I do stand-up comedy too. The comedy shit is ridiculous, it’s takin’ off. I did Improv Everywhere, that shit was so overwhelming. Now they tryin’ to book me too much, I had to back that up and take smaller steps. But I know with the comedy, that’s a longevity move. Same with the TV and movies and shit. I’m in my early forties, so I see six, seven more years on the mic at the most. Then straight movies, directin’. There’s no age limit on comedy.

And when I’m done, I wanna really get some developers, some tools, and try to help change the fuckin’ ghetto in certain ways. And I know most people say that, but the schools that I used to go to and all my friends used to go to are fuckin’ terrible. And it don’t start with just the city or none of that, it starts in the hood, with changin’ the kids mindset. This rap shit is entertainment dog, this shit you seein’ on TV is entertainment. You n***as do not have to be out here, killin’ people just because people rappin’ about guns. Future’s sayin’ “stick talk, but he’s not runnin’ around with the sticks killin’ n***as. And these fools are out here really doin’ it. That age, fourteen to fifteen, they’re gettin’ dazed and confused. I rap the same kinda shit, but it’s my due diligence to try and talk to ‘em. Just give ‘em some tools. The DJ Screw and S.U.C. movie is one of my goals. That has to be seen. That story has to be told, with all the different lives and careers that were touched.