Z-Ro doesn’t smile much. A serious and contemplative scowl covers his steely, war-torn, caramel complexioned face. The Houston, Texas native’s grimace isn’t affected, either. It’s authentic and intensely seasoned. But what’s the root of this hard exterior?
The 40-year-old ghetto poet grew up in Ridgemont, a low-to-middle income neighborhood in Missouri City, Houston. At only six years old, Ro lost his mother to cancer. In the midst of bouncing from family member to family member, the prolific emcee developed a “me against the world” attitude. Without a solid family footing, the streets welcomed Z-Ro with open arms, and he accepted the invitation.
Can you guess what came next? Drug addiction, homelessness, shootouts, suicidal thoughts and prison, among other discomforts. So you see, the intrepidness and take-no-bullsh*t demeanor that orbits Z-Ro’s circumference is as honest and dangerous as the conscientious ignorance that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about.
“I’m not depressed,” Z-Ro says. “People think that, but I’m just telling you what I’m going through and how I go through things.” The clock is inching past 11 a.m. when Z-Ro, dressed in all black with black shades to match, strolls into VIBE’s tidy office space with his publicist and two burly bodyguards. The former member of Guerilla Maab — a rap group consisting of Trae Tha Truth, Dougie D and Taz — wants to travel Uptown to Harlem to get draped and dripped out, and to dine at one of the local eateries in Black Manhattan.
But before hopping on the uptown-bound D train, an always energetic Datwon Thomas, VIBE’s Editor-in-Chief, tells Z-Ro about the time he caught a flight to Houston to meet with the late DJ Screw. Thomas tells Z-Ro a rare story about the one time he experimented with Screw’s favorite purple drank while riding in the backseat of an old-school whip (in which Datwon doesn’t recall the model of the car) through the streets of Harris County, Texas. He remembers receiving copies of classic Screw tapes from the legendary DJ.
But even with funny and infrequent stories about the DJ largely responsible for giving Ro a platform to share his all-too-familiar story, his seriousness is fixed. Even as he autographs Thomas’ classic DJ Screw tape, which the 5 Deuce Hoover Crip refused to sign with a red marker.
The concrete vibe that Z-Ro gives off carries an important message — despite the traumatizing and mind altering conditions of his childhood in the ghetto, scholars have found evidence that urban areas are similar to war zones. ProPublica highlighted a study of hospital patients showing that inner-city kids showed PTSD symptoms similar to war veterans.
If one pays close attention to Z-Ro’s soul-tugging reality raps, vestiges of the late Tupac and fellow Houstonian, Scarface, spill out through the speakers. Like Pac and Face, Ro doesn’t shy away from being vulnerable on wax. He is also just as spiritual regardless of his piercing stares, yet he talks of death as if it is consciously on his mind.
“I go to church to everyday Sunday,” Z-Ro says. “Every Sunday, I’m in church. That’s something I picked up from my grandmomma. I feel favored by the Most High. We all blessed to here. So, you have to give thanks.”
While the rapper born Joseph W. McVey may be a child of God, the Mo City native has also been a slave to his demons.
Back in 2003, the self-proclaimed King of the Ghetto was sentenced to a bid at Texas’ Pam Lyncher State Jail after being in violation of probation for possession of codeine, the glamorized drink that had a serious effect on his Houston comrades Screw, Pimp C and Big Moe. It’s no secret that Z-Ro has had to lean (no pun intended) heavily on drugs. Three of his albums are fittingly titled Cocaine, Angel Dust and Heroin. The first step in overcoming drug addiction is admitting that there’s a problem, and on the former’s intro of his album, Cocaine, he does that.
“Yeah, you know about me/And the weed and the liquor and the codeine/And the truth is it makes me feel swell/Drugs are the are main reason I keep ending up in jail,” he spits.
But today, Z-Ro is sober. While walking up Manhattan’s bustling Fifth Ave, where a mix of young and middle-aged and ethnic groups hustle to and from work, the man nicknamed Rother Vandross opens up about the origins of his relationship with Rap-A-Lot founder J. Prince, Scarface and lessons picked up from his forefathers.
“I learned from J. Prince with his formula with Scarface,” he says. “When you meet ‘Face, he’s a happy and funny character. But you don’t know that from his early ‘90s music, because he gave you his soul, his life. No matter how ugly it was, he laid it all there for you to hear. That’s what I do, ya feel me?”
“The first time I met ‘Face, we were at Scores [a once popular strip club on Westpark Rd, on the Southwest side of Houston]. He told me that he’d known about me and he was f**king with me. Then some cats started shooting outside, and I pulled out a sawed-off [short barreled shotgun] out of my jeans. He looked at me and was like: ‘This n***a crazy.’ He hopped in his sh*t and pulled off.”
Ro’s encounter with J. Prince was just as interesting, if not more, as his first encounter with ‘Face. “I had a meeting at [J. Prince’s] office,” Z-Ro remembers. “He asked me my name and I said Z-Ro. He said, ‘Why I would I want to work with a n***a that calls himself zero?’ and walked out.”
When asked if he reminded J. Prince of their un-auspicious encounter years later when Ro inked a record deal with Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records, Z-Ro said no. “Nah, he probably don’t even remember that sh*t. But sh*t like that doesn’t make or break me,” Z-Ro says.
The point I’m making is it’s no justice, no peace. How long do you think you’re going to hit somebody before they hit back? It’s a reflex. —Z-Ro
We’re now at the 34th Street Herald Square train station, at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Ave. As Z-Ro’s team purchases Metro Cards before walking through the turnstile, the 1 Deep Entertainment boss’ eyes roam the train station, looking in every direction. A group of black guys eye us suspiciously yet excitedly, but they hesitate to approach. They seem to think it’s Z-Ro but they’re not sure, so they whisper amongst themselves and nod their heads in our direction. After realizing that it is in fact Z-Ro, it was too late—we had already hopped on the D-Train as the train conductor yelled over the loudspeaker: Please step away from the closing doors.
We’ve been together over an hour now, and he’s a bit more relaxed. He elaborates when answering questions as opposed to replying in brief sentences — as he did when we first met. This version of Z-Ro is far from the dark, vivid images that cloud his music and reputation as a bully.
Veteran hip-hop journalist Sway Calloway even admitted that he was once warned that interviewing Z-Ro may be difficult because of the latter’s “hard exterior.”
“I got a bad reputation over me,” Ro says. “I might have beat somebody up and people may not know why I beat them up. If you did something to me, I’m like: ‘Hey man, that was f**ked up.’ I’m not going to be like: ‘Hey man, let me holler at you over here.’ F**k that. If you do something to me where everybody can see, I’m going to tell you about it in front of everybody.”
Before Gucci Mane made it popular to release inhumane amounts of music and mixtapes, Z-Ro’s copious output of music went unmatched. The rapper’s first project dropped back in 1998 with Look What You Did To Me. Since then, Ro has consistently put out solid projects. His most recent being Legendary and Drankin’ N Drivin,’ both 2016 projects. In a 1997 New York Times article titled, “A Hip-Hop Hurricane and Other Phenomena,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote: “This bluesy Houston hip-hop star must be one of America’s most underrated rappers. Since the late 1990s, Z-Ro has been releasing brilliant albums and mixtapes at an impossible pace, often more than one a year.”
“I don’t feel that I’m overrated,” Z-Ro says in response. “My fans are faithful. My fans will tell you exactly what they think about my music and me.”
On his musical journey which spans over 20 albums, he has become admired by the streets as well as hip-hop’s current superstar, Drake. The 6 God has been known to perform Z-Ro’s classic “Mo City Don (Freestyle),” and Drizzy has made many references to Houston’s culture in his music. He even puts on annual concerts—Houston Appreciation Weekend—in Houston as a token of appreciation for the city of Screw.
Cory Mo, a producer and protégé of the late Pimp C, praised Z-Ro’s diligent work ethic.
“As far as Z-Ro goes, I’ve been working with him since 2000 and something. About 15-years I’ve been working with Z-Ro,” Mo says over the phone from his Atlanta home. “Out of everybody in Texas—my personal opinion as far as who’s the most talented—it would definitely have to be Devin The Dude and Z-Ro, being that they both can sing. That boy definitely the truth. He’s our Jadakiss. He’s respected in the streets, he can do no wrong and he can rap his a** off.”
“I mean, that’s what you do when you a perfectionist,” Z-Ro says. “Every day stuff happens; that’s content for me. I’ve been blessed with enough talent to give you the same lessons over and over, but still give it to you in different ways.”
It’s 1:00 p.m when we finally get to Harlem. As we exit the 125th Street train station, a short stocky white police officer gets flustered at our appearance and rushes in our direction in a semi- aggressive manner, hoping we run or say something slick (racial profiling at it’s finest). However, the NYPD officer takes an epic L at the hands of us “inner-city” black men. We simply ignore him. Pretend he doesn’t exist. Once the police officer sees that we deem him to be insignificant, and he looks rather foolish, he pardons our backs while watching us walking up the stairs.
Z-Ro’s bodyguard brushes off the incident with the wave of a hand and a headshake. It seems seems to happen often, and he’s used to it. “Who is this black man walking with bodyguards and being interviewed?” he asks, rhetorically.
Walking down Harlem’s infamous main artery, the incident with the police brings up the killings of Philando Castille, LaQuan McDonald, Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police officers. Z-Ro linked with long-time producer Mike Dean for the track, “No Justice No Peace,” a politically charged anthem that calls out crooked officers for murdering unarmed black men.
“I went over to Mike Dean’s to do a record. We were watching that sh*t as it was going on. It’s like, oh sh*t, let me say something right here.”
“People they think I’m saying I’m glad officers are getting shot in Dallas,” he continues. “I’m not glad nobody got shot. The point I’m making is it’s no justice, no peace. How long do you think you’re going to hit somebody before they hit back? It’s a reflex. They out there to try to keep the protest peaceful. Somebody lost brothers, husbands, sons, uncles. Those are lives. I don’t want nobody life to get taken.”
After posing for pictures under the famous Apollo Theatre and later on Seventh Ave in front of Hotel Theresa, where the late revolutionary and Cuban figurehead Che Guevara stayed during his visit to Harlem, we end up on Lenox Ave at a local eatery. Over a seared shrimp salad and water—a burger and fries for me—Z-Ro opens up about his childhood and how he linked with DJ Screw.
“[From] being in the trap and rapping in the neighborhood, n***as was like, you need to hook up with DJ Screw,” he recalls. “I did a talent show one night and Screw’s brother, Al-D, was there. I’m doing the show and everybody in the crowd was tight faced and just standing there. After I performed, I was about to go home—or go to the bench that I was living on—Al-D walked up to me said, ‘My brother want to f**k with you.’ I’m like, who’s your brother? He was like, ‘DJ Screw.’ And the rest is history.”
Before linking with Screw, football stardom flooded Ro’s thoughts, but thanks to blowing loud on a regular basis, he couldn’t pass the high school’s football team required drug test. Not able to play football, he dropped out of high school. Not long after giving up on his formal education, Z-Ro got kicked out of his house.
“My guy’s brother used to live with us,” Ro says. “My guy went to jail, and he was paying all the bills. His brother wasn’t in the streets. He was a manager at Wendy’s and their mom was about to lose their house. I talked to my grandmama, ‘Let the man move in. He works, and he’ll pay something on rent.’ She let him move in. One day, the n***ga came in and said he lost his job. I was on my way to the beach. I went home to get some shorts and towel and some weed. He opened up the door like, ‘What, I ain’t in the mood for this sh*t. I lost my job.’ I’m like, ‘You about to lose some other sh*t talking to me like that.’”
“My grandmother sided with this n***a because he wake up with the ‘Good morning’ and all that sh*t,” he continues. “I wasn’t having no good mornings, good evenings, no good middays. My grandmother was looking at me. I walked up on her like, ‘You gon’ side with him?’ She backed up in the door like I was going to hit her or something. I’m like, really? She called my dad. My dad came over like, ‘Get the f**k out of my house.’”
With so much adversity clouding the rapper’s life, which comes out in his harsh reality-driven music, there’s not much room for the clown face. Life for Z-Ro has been too urgent. Sleeping on park benches, as he has, produces a get-rich-or-die-trying attitude.
In addition to the urgency, life for Z-Ro has been uncertain. Street fights, shootings and drug addiction are potential annihilators of life. But whether right or wrong, all of the former sorrows form Z-Ro’s—a.k.a Mo City Don—unapologetic and solid character. And a young, rich black man who is an excellent father to his children.
“But throughout all of this,” he says, “I learned that as a black man living in America, you have to be able to take them punches. You have to.”