Lil’ O calls his newest album, The Greatest of All Players, his magnum opus. The Nigerian-American Houston legend, whose career has spanned for over 20 years, seemingly gets better with age. In a genre that is considered a “young man’s game,” it’s easy for artists to fizzle out as the years go by, especially in today’s fleeting climate. However, the “Back Back” emcee claims himself as one of the best to ever do it and pridefully stands by it.
We spoke to the Southwest Houston emcee about growing up as a Nigerian, how he met DJ Screw, and why he believes The Greatest of All Players is his best work.
DE: For some reason, it never crossed my mind that you are Nigerian and that you grew up in Southwest Houston like myself. Talk to me about growing in that environment.
LO: Growing up Nigerian, I understand how it is being the son of immigrants. They came from Nigeria and the way they grew up over there versus how we grew up here is two different things. My dad was a physician and even though he was a doctor, people that grew up here don’t understand the Nigerian mentality. We couldn’t ask for Jordans because my dad didn’t understand the cultural importance of it. I grew up wearing hand-me-downs, so I wore my brother’s clothes and I passed them to my other little brothers because we’re the sons of African immigrants. So people don’t understand the way you’re raised, but because you’re Nigerian, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I always had to work. My first job was when I was 12 years old and I was the paperboy in my neighborhood. I would wake up at three in the morning with my big brother and I just remember wrapping those papers and putting them in the plastic so much. My hands would be black because the newspapers had the ink. I remember my mom saying, “You better not put your hands on the wall when I get back or Imma beat your ass!” So I’ve always had to work hard, grind, and watch how money was spent because that’s how I was raised. I was always into education as well. So even when I started turning left and running wild in the streets, I still had those core values that saved me to this day.
DE: For sure. You know, when Nigerian parents migrate into the U.S., all they want for their children is to have a better opportunity than they did. So when their children don’t take the typical doctor, lawyer, or engineer route, you’re the failure of the family hahaha.
LO: Hahahahaha! “What have I done to deserve this?” That’s exactly how my dad was. From trapping to drug dealing and my dad would just be like, “Ah! A criminal!” I had a real strained relationship with my old man, but I’m so thankful for how close we are now. I changed my life around and I was able to make them proud of me again. It was a dark time for us because once the streets got a hold of me, there was no turning back.
DE: So when was the moment where your father said, “ I get it.” Did he see the check?
LO: When I first signed my first major record deal and he saw my advance. And then, certain people would keep on telling him that I had a video and stuff like that. So he understood that I was doing something with it, but he would still say, “Okay, you’re doing your music and I’m glad that you’re not in the streets but read your books.” Hahaha. After “Back Back” took off, that’s when he realized that I was onto something. “Can’t Stop” did well underground, but it’s bigger now because it’s so iconic. It was honestly pretty big back then too.
DE: That’s the song that led you to DJ Screw.
LO: Well, Screw was the one who broke the record. He made all this happen. I dropped it off at his crib and he loved it. He put it right on the screw tapes and just smashed on it. It was one of the biggest records in the streets but there were no social media back then. “Back Back” was all on the radio, but “Can’t Stop” was big in the streets so it didn’t get back to my dad like that.
DE: You talked about growing up in the southwest earlier. What district did you go to? I was in the Alief district.
LO: Oh, you from the SWAT! That’s the epicenter of where a lot of Nigerians migrated to at first. We first started at Sharpstown and then, like most Nigerians, we migrated to Fort Bend.
DE: Where did you get the nickname “Da Fat Rat Wit Da Cheeze?” That’s one of the most unique rap nicknames ever.
LO: Well, back in the dope game, people weren’t as reckless with selling dope like they are now posting stuff on social media. We talked in code so any hustler from that era knows that dope means cheese. So back then, I used to drink a lot of drank and I was fat. I was around the corner one day and someone said, “You look like a lil’ fat rat!” I was ranking with my partner and I said, “That’s alright! Fat rat got the cheese though!” So it just stuck with everyone as I started going up in the game.
DE: This is a quote from Matthew Knowles. “The first artist that I got a major record deal for was not Beyonce. It was not Solange. It was a rapper named Lil’ O.” How does that make you feel hearing that? Also, how did you and Matthew Knowles meet?
LO: I love Matthew because he’s like a mentor to me. My aunt knew Matthew Knowles and she knew that I was taking music seriously. She already knew that MCA and Universal were on the verge of signing me, so my aunt Melinda connected us and the rest is history. Matthew was the guy that taught me how to be so professional with music as far as media training, knowing how to get contracts signed, making sure you got your paperwork together, and how to register your publishing. You don’t understand what he’s doing at the time because you’re just a kid. There’s a different kind of arrogance when you’re young and broke, but when you’re a young and rich trapper, it’s a certain arrogance to yourself. So you don’t know that someone is planting jewels in you.
So as I got older, stood on my own, and noticed all the other artists around me, they didn’t even know about publishing. They didn’t even know about getting paperwork signed. Do you remember in the movie, The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi was telling him to wax on wax off? The kid didn’t understand what he was trying to teach him and he got mad. However, he realized that he was teaching him a defense technique. And that’s what Matthew Knowles is to me. He’s my Mr. Miyagi. He taught me how to navigate in this music industry so I hold him in real regard. I love that guy because he’s the reason why I’m able to be a boss right now.
DE: We have to talk about “Can’t Stop” with you and Destiny’s Child. Do you remember the recording process of making that song?
LO: I always tell people when you’re making history, you don’t know you’re making it especially as a kid. Having Destiny’s Child on the song was just natural to me Beyonce’s daddy was my manager and we were all family. The whole clique (Beyonce, Kelly, Latavia, and Latoya) is super talented so we would vibe in the studios all the time. Whether it was “Can’t Stop” or me hearing their records. I got a couple of songs with Destiny’s Child that is not released. So they’ve always been class acts, great girls, and hard workers. I’m extremely proud of what they’ve done for themselves and the city.
DE: That song caught the attention of DJ Screw which turned you into an original member of the Screwed Up Click. Talk to me about your first meet-up with DJ Screw.
LO: My first meetup was just like every street kid on the southside. He would sell the tapes from his house. He had the burglar bars up so you put your hand through the burglar bars, give him the bread, and he puts the tape through the burglar bars. So when I went to get my tapes, I had the test press of “Can’t Stop” on wax and I just shot my shot. I told him my name, the song, and asked him if he can check it out. He eventually did and 30 minutes later he called me back and said, “Man, this shit is hot. You need to come back and start fuckin’ with me. I’m finna put this on my tape right now.” I thought he was bullshittin’ but then he put it on the legendary Screw tape Only Rollin’ Red and the rest is history.
DE: When you got on Only Rollin’ Red and went back to Matthew Knowles and Destiny’s Child, were they aware of who Screw was at the time?
LO: To be honest, I don’t think so because Matthew is a corporate guy. Destiny’s Child were sweet girls; they’re not street girls. So they knew of Screw, but they didn’t know the magnitude of it. You had to be out there to understand how big Screw was. Screw tapes were like Coronavirus spreading in the streets, but it hadn’t got to the higher-ups yet. Even the guys at the radio stations didn’t get it yet and they thought it was a game. This was the beginning of the culture.
DE: You’re releasing your album, The Greatest of All Players, on November 19th. More than 20 years ago in the same month, you released your second studio album, Da Fat Rat wit da Cheeze.
LO: That’s crazy. I realized that about a week ago and it’s just something about November. That’s also my birthday month. I’m so excited man because I have a lot of classic projects under my belt. The Lil’ O catalog is one of the most expensive and revered catalogs in Texas history. Da Fat Rat wit da Cheeze, Blood Money, Food on tha Table, etc. You take your pick and different people will tell you which one was a classic. I told myself that I didn’t want to put anything out if it’s not going to match those standards. The Greatest of All Players not only matches those standards, but I think it’s my best work and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. It’s an incredible project.
When you think of classic albums like Da Fat Rat wit da Cheeze, Ridin’ Dirty, or Don’t Mess wit Texas, 20 years from now, this will be another one they’re going to have to put in the books. It sounds, feels, looks right, and the features are incredible. Bun B, Big Pokey, Lil’ Keke, Killa Kyleon, DJ Chose, Brian Angel from Day 26, and Big Marcus are all on the album. More importantly, they’re on the right songs because I always tell people that being a great songwriter is not about having features. You have to have them on the right song to where it sounds like magic and that’s what my album sounds like. The world is in for a real treat with The Greatest of All Players.
DE: How would describe this project to fans who’ve been with you for over 20 years?
LO: For those that have been rocking with me over these 20 years, they’re going to be in awe because I’ve never let the streets down. My resume is impeccable, but they’re going to be more in shock on how I’m still doing it at this level. I’m at a point where I feel like Neo in the Matrix when he realized who he was. A lot of people can’t do what I do for this long at this level. Eventually, most artists will slowly see their skills deteriorate. However, for me, I’ve aged in reverse and I sound better than ever. I feel like I’m putting out my best work and it’s going to shock people. Sometimes you gotta talk yo shit if you know you can back it up. I feel like this is one of the greatest albums ever made and I’ll stand on it. I don’t care if you’re a new or old artist. I find it hard for someone to top this album anywhere. Understand that I am one of the best to do it not just out of H-Town, Texas, but in hip-hop history. I stand on that.
DE: Let’s go back to your classic album Da Fat Rat wit da Cheeze. What are some fond memories that you have about that project?
LO: It was the first album that made me feel like I made it. It’s one thing to have a huge record as an underground artist, but when something goes mainstream and you hear your song all over the country and they’re playing it 80-90 times a week, it made me feel like I went pop. It was my first experience at mainstream success.
DE: It’s funny because, at the height of the pandemic, “Back Back” came on shuffle one day. And I thought to myself, “You know what? This is a great social distancing anthem!”
LO: It’s crazy because when COVID hit, it went viral! I didn’t understand it and I was like, “Why am I getting all these goddamn notifications about “Back Back?” So people are making social distancing memes and thought it was crazy! At this point in my career, you appreciate knowing that you made stuff that has lasted the test of time. It’s not just “Back Back” by the way. It’s crazy to me that I can go to the club tonight and if they put on “Playas Get Chose,” they’re going to know it word for word like it came out last week and make the crowd erupt. So many people still send me clips on social media about “Can’t Stop” and it’ll be some kid that looks like Lil Uzi Vert saying he just discovered this. It just means that the art you made has lasted the test of time and that means a lot to me. I painted a lot of Picasso’s so I take a lot of pride in that because many artists and their music don’t last long. They’ll pop in January and you won’t hear from them ever again by November.
DE: Going back to you talking about growing up as a Nigerian, do you have some favorite dishes that you like to eat?
LO: Eba! I don’t eat it as much now because it puts so much weight on you so I gotta watch myself. It’ll put you right to sleep. Of course, I eat jollof rice with dodo and pepper soup so those are my favorites as well. I eat suya also.
DE: Man, I can eat suya all day without even opening my water bottle. It tested my spice level as a kid.
LO: I’m a suya fanatic and I’m talking about authentic suya in Nigeria wrapped in newspaper. It’s so spicy it makes your forehead start sweating, but it’s easy work for us.
DE: Do you listen to afrobeats? If so, who is your favorite artist currently?
LO: Absolutely. My favorite afrobeats artist has always been Wizkid which is crazy because he’s on a run right now. I’ve been listening to Wizkid since “Pakurumo” so it’s been a long time. I’m so proud of that dude and to see the world finally catch on to him. I listen to it a lot especially now more than ever because I’m so proud of our homies back home making big waves all over the world. From Burna [Boy] to Wiz to Mr. Eazi to Davido and everyone else. They’re global phenomenons and it’s a beautiful thing.
DE: It’s gotten to the point where you can hear afrobeats in American clubs and radio stations and it’s completely normal.
LO: It’s mainstream. You can go to any club anywhere in the country now, an afrobeat song will come on, and it won’t skip a beat. People just expect it and love it.
DE: What is one thing you’ve learned throughout your career that you stick with to this day?
LO: It’s been a lot of jewels I’ve learned from my career, but I believe it all depends on where you’re coming from. I think it’s important especially for young Black men to know that it’s okay to grow. For some reason, we feel like if you grow, then people will think we’ve changed or that we’re too good for certain things anymore. It’s okay to grow. You gon’ have to cut people off, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. Everybody can’t come with you to the top and they’re not built to go with you. Old places won’t open new doors. It’s okay to not want to be around certain things and people. Those things won’t make you feel like you’ve changed or to be more secure of yourself because that’s a real thing.
I’ve seen it kill so many careers not only in music or sports but just anything. I think we get guilted a lot for doing better. If you don’t understand that it’s okay to want more and be better, it’s going to end up haunting you. You’re not supposed to still be on the corner and hanging in the hood. It’s okay to say that. You’d be an idiot if you were still doing that because you have too much to lose. It’s okay to want better because that is called growth. For you to get to where you want to be, you’re going to have to do that with no shame and apology for it. If you lose everything you got, it’s all on you and we’ve seen too many brothers’ lives get cut short too many times.
Our brothers have lost their lives because we’re always holding on to thinking that we had to do certain things to be considered real. And the same people that talk down on you and shame you are the same people that will call you stupid. If you end up locked up or shot dead in the streets, they’re not going to help your family. So you have to understand that success comes with growth and it’s going to be a lot of peer pressure. And it’s going to be a lot of attacks coming from people that you love. However, you have to be okay with that because this is what you have to do to get to where you want to be. If they don’t like it, oh well.
DE: This even applies to what you went through in your career and life too. Are you a person that believes in second chances?
LO: I believe in God and that none of my sufferings was in vain. The fact that I’m still here breathing and doing what I do for a living lets me know that God’s not done with me. It ain’t always been easy though. One of the greatest things that can happen to you is when you can look back at a dark point in your life and you can realize why it happened. Because when you’re at this point in your life, you understand how to move and act. So I have to believe in second chances because no man deserves to pay for his crimes his whole life. As an older guy, some of the homies I grew up with who was in and out of jail, want to change their life at their old age because we got felonies. What if I had to get out in the corporate world? Would I still be denied opportunities for stuff I did in my teens and 20s? Everybody deserves a right to be better. I take it seriously because I know how it feels to be denied because of your past. So yeah, I have to believe in chances.
Check out Lil’ O’s latest album, The Greatest of All Players, available on all streaming platforms.