Shot Caller: An Interview with “Wanna Be A Baller’s” Lil Troy

Now working in safety at oil refineries in H-Town, Lil' Troy talks making "Baller," his beef with Scarface, and the time Prince told him his shit was dope.
By    June 24, 2015


Reed Jackson’s making money the FLYYY WAY

It’s been nearly two decades, and she still hums it.

My mom, a loving former flowerchild now of the art world, still can’t get the song out of her head. Of course, she still doesn’t really know the lyrics; in fact, she usually butchers them. And, like with many songs of its era, she’d probably be a little appalled by its message. But I still hear it sometimes when I fly back home to Portland for the holidays. A gentle hum protruding from her lips as she carves the turkey; a series of taps of her fingers as she drinks her morning coffee. At this point, it’s safe to say it’ll be entrenched in the cavities of her brain for the rest of her life.

“Wanna Be a Baller,” the 1998 hit from Houston rapper and producer Lil’ Troy, is with her for the long-haul.

It’s been stuck in her head since the morning car rides to my grade school,when we would listen to the radio together. By that time, I was in fifth grade and, thanks to my older brother, was already a huge hip-hop fan. “Wanna Be a Baller” was my favorite song of the moment and seemingly everywhere. Although it only somehow peaked at number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was getting major radio play on the pop stations, including Z100, my SoundCloud and Spotify of the time. Whenever those big booming toms would come in, which I would later learn were made up of a slowed-down sample of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” my scrawny adolescent body would bubble up with excitement, and I’d immediately reach for the volume knob of our family’s box-shaped caravan. Little did I know that my mom, who would let us listen to rap as long as it wasn’t too blatantly vulgar, was jamming with it just as much as I was.

She wasn’t the only white suburban parent to be infatuated with it. A close childhood friend of mine, who also now lives in New York City, confided in me the other day that he remembers his dad had a big thing for the song, too, and would constantly quote its hook around the house. Thus is the result of crafting something as catchy and exciting as “Baller,” an ode to Impalas and the OG high life that improbably brought trunk-rattling Houston hip-hop to the mainstream in a time dominated by Christina Aguilera’s midriff, Ricky Martin’s hips, and the timeless musical stylings of Lou Bega.

But 16 years is a long time. Like with many one-hit wonders, Lil’ Troy, real name Troy Birklett, faded pretty quickly from the spotlight. Ask somebody about him today and chances are they’ll get him confused with another “Lil” rapper of the time. Admittedly, even with my mom’s “Baller” paroxysms, I hadn’t thought about him much since high school. That changed while reading the recently released autobiography of rap legend Scarface, who, like Troy, is from Houston.

In the book, ’Face talks about Troy and his independent label Short Stop Records giving him his first break. He also claims Troy chose to invest in another local H-Town rapper’s song more than his first single (which is where his namesake comes from) and that he’s never forgiven him for it. It’s a pretty eye-opening statement considering ‘Face publicly dissed Troy throughout the 2000s—and even sued him for $225,000 at one point and won. The beef certainly didn’t help Troy’s music career and may have helped end it.

Or maybe not. Maybe Troy just decided to leave the game on his own accord. Looking online, no one really seems to know. The book’s reference got me wondering. Is the man who helped usher in southern hip-hop to the mainstream even still making music? Is the original DJ Khaled (Troy didn’t rap or produce on “Baller”) even still alive?? Through the magic of Twitter, I was able to track him down and get him on the phone.

You started an independent hip-hop label back in the 1980s when no one in Houston was really doing that. What made you want to do it?

Lil’ Troy: I wanted to get in the music industry cause my mom and dad. They played in a band, and I played in a band all through school. I come from a musical background family already. [Also] my life since a child has been out there hustling, making a bunch of money in the streets. [Music] was another way out. We figured if we made music, we could make enough money to move from selling drugs and stuff, ya know? So we made a song with Scarface called “Small Time, Dope Game, Cocaine,” which was a song about me and my younger brother, and what we were doing growing up. We put it out, and next thing you know it became an anthem everywhere.

What made you decide to do an album yourself?

Troy: I was just trying to do records and trying to get guys to come in, but everyone I [was working with] was going to jail or would quit rapping, and I’d waste all my money. Every time I’d put out a group I’d spend like $600 or $700 and then [there was] studio time, T-shirts and flyers. At the time I had this group called Mass 187, and we had gotten a deal with Payday Records and did a real video and stuff, but it didn’t amount to much. I laid back for a while, and my producer Bruce “Grim” Rhodes was doing music for all the rappers around town, and he started saying,

“Troy, why don’t you do your own album, man? Get some guys to rap with you and put your own album out.”

So that’s what I done. I got everybody in the neighborhood and everybody I knew and made the tracks, and next thing you know “Wanna Be a Baller” came out and it hit worldwide.

Can you talk about the making of “Wanna Be a Baller”?

Troy: When I first heard it, we were playing it with just the hook and no verses for about a month. We knew the hook and music was jammin’ and we were playing that five [ways] till [Sunday]. And then I went and got all the features. Everybody was jumping on it. For the Kappa Beach Party ’99, I went to the radio station and bought a whole lot of commercial time. And I played “Wanna Be a Baller,” but just the first verse on the commercial for the whole minute.

And right after it [it would say], “Brand new Lil’ Troy, in stores now!” So you heard “Wanna Be a Baller” playing thinking you’re gonna hear the end of the song, [but] that was the commercial playing. You’re thinking it’s a song on the radio; you’re not thinking it’s a commercial. And it just took off.

That was a Prince sample, right?

Troy: Ah, y’all know that’s Prince now. Nobody knew that was Prince. Universal [Records] didn’t even know that was Prince. They [eventually] called him, Prince heard it and said, “You know what? I liked the way they did it. I don’t want nothing for it.” Prince let us make it. He wanted nothing from me. He said, “Ay, I like the way you did it. I don’t want nothing.”

What was it like having people all around the world, regardless of their background, singing the hook to “Baller”?

Troy: Man it was a beautiful thing to know that everywhere you go that every genre of people were liking the song—whites, Mexicans, everybody. It made me feel real good that after all these years of putting out music and trying to do it and going back and forth to jail in the midst of it. I finally had success. Even right now today when I go to places, guys that are 26, 27 years old are telling me, “Man, Troy your album jumped off when I was a little kid.” People that are 65 years old telling me how they used to jam my songs. So it’s still captivating people right now. When they play it on the radio, it still sounds like it just came out. It’s a beautiful thing to make a classic.

Did you think it was going to be that big?

Troy: I didn’t think it was gonna be this big. I was just doing it to stay in the business because I love the music business. [Right before then], I had caught a case. And when I got out of jail, I said I need to make some money. I finished the album, put it out, and it blew up. I sold so many records so fast, Universal Records come calling me. [They said], “Hey, we wanna sign you.” So they came down to Houston and checked me out. They came to my concert one night. They saw all the people loving me and singing the song. Matter of fact, Tony Draper from Suave House Records, he was signing me and they didn’t know about that. And he called me and was like,

“Ay man, these people and Monte Lipman want to talk to you.” I talked to [former president of Universal] Monte Lipman on the phone, and he say, “Troy we’ve been hearing things about you man, and we know you’ve been doing it for a while. We want to sign you.” I said, “Well, let’s talk some numbers.”

And they showed up the next day, offered me a couple numbers with a bunch of zeros, and I flew back to New York with them and signed with them. And right after then, I had to go back to jail.

Sittin’ Fat Down South, the album that spawned “Baller,” went platinum and you were on the cover, but I was always confused what you actually did on the record because you only rapped on two songs and didn’t make any of its beats. Were you the original DJ Khaled?

Troy: DJ Khaled came after me. The very first person that done that was Quincy Jones. I got it from him. He put an album out that he didn’t sing or do anything on the whole album—he just produced it. And he put himself on the cover. I did the same thing, but I rapped on a couple songs. After that, you saw other guys come around and start doing it and were like, “Lil’ Troy was on to something. He didn’t even rap on ‘Wanna Be a Baller,’ but he’s the most well known person for that album.” Khaled came later on and did it, which I commend. If you find something that works for somebody, pay yourself and make it happen for yourself.

What happened with Universal Records after Sittin’ Fat Down South?

Troy: They wanted to have an A&R sit with me and go over my music. I straight up told them, “Nope.” I didn’t need an A&R before y’all picked me up, I don’t need no damn A&R now.” When they took me off the label, they had forgotten I put a clause in my contract that said, “Either we gonna play or we gonna pay.” So when they didn’t want to do the second album, I had a clause in there that said they had to pay me $150,000, plus my royalties.

So when I got off the label, the next week I asked ‘em, “Where my check at?” And the next week they cut me a $150,000 check.

[I then] went to Koch Records and got a 60/40 deal and so I was gonna make way more money now. I put the album together and got my partner Lil’ Flip—at the time he was getting hot in Houston—and put him on my new single “We Gon’ Lean.” I put it out, and it got a little BET play, but the album came out on September 11, 2001. We all know that the world shook up, the World Trade center got hit.

Matter of fact, I was on the phone with [a friend], talking about all my interviews and stuff for my album release, and the first plane hit the World Trade Center. So he’s telling me about it: “Man some fool, must be drunk or high, ran into the World Trade Center!”

I turn the TV on and watch the second plane hit, and that’s when we knew the world was under a terrorist attack. And so my album went down because the world shut down. We didn’t sell no records. We didn’t do anything. Koch Records was in Manhattan where the trade center was, so I didn’t expect anything to go on with my album after that.

What’s daily life like for you now?

Troy: My daily life now is sitting back and letting them checks come in. And actually I work safety up at the oil refinery. I left a one billion-dollar industry and went to another billion-dollar industry. I work in oil and gas now. I go to safety meetings and talk to people and they sometimes they find out I’m Lil’ Troy, who they look up to. I figured it was time to make a career change. I [was] having fun, taking planes, doing shows, smoking weed. It was time for me to figure out what else I want to do in life. I sold drugs and did shows. I got tired. I had run a long way and gone to jail a couple times and I was like, “Man I’m tired of this. I’m done. Let me find another career to work in, make a life change for my family and lay back.” And that’s what I’ve done. Safety makes a bunch of money, and I’m in demand at all times.

What’s the status of your beef with Scarface?

Troy: I don’t know, I’ve been over the Scarface thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that Paperwork DVD I put out, but he made two or three songs about me and sued me and got $225,000 out of me. When I put the Paperwork DVD out, I was done with it. He continued to make songs about me, but to me, it’s been over with.

You got a problem with a person and see ‘em in the streets, you get it on. You get it poppin’. But we ain’t never got it on and poppin’. I just took it as a hip-hop beef. I come to find out after all these years why he really mad: He has a book out right now, and in his book, he talk about how I liked one of the other rapper’s songs more than his song, and that always left a foul taste in his mouth.

I never knew that until I saw it in his book. It didn’t say nothing about me and his beef. He didn’t talk about that. He only talked about when he first got started in the game, doing music with me and I liked one of the other rapper’s songs better than his and that left a foul taste in his mouth for all these years. That’s what it all boiled down to. It wasn’t no beef to me. I tried to hook up with him and [have] me and him produce my son’s song, but he didn’t wanna do it. So right now, I could give a rat’s ass. I don’t care no more.

What do you think your legacy in hip-hop is?

Troy: Well right now my legacy is going to continue on. I got my son, T2, he doing real well right now. Universal wanted to pick him up, but he went to jail for eight years for aggravated robbery. But I’ve been pushing him; he got a video out called “I Been,” [which] is on WorldStar Hip-Hop and YouTube. So my legacy will be through him and to continue Short Stop Records. Everybody know that Lil’ Troy start the rap game in Houston. I’m a triple OG pioneer of the rap game.

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