Murder, drugs and cough mixture: hip-hop roots of ZZ Top’s new single revealed
Last month ZZ Top unveiled a taster of their first new album in 9 years in the shape of the Texicali EP, co-produced by Rick Rubin. Lead track I Gotsta Get Paid has particularly attracted attention. It was voted Track of The week by visitors to this website and it features on the soundtrack to movie Battleships – but more than that, it seems to signify the first time since Eliminator that ZZ Top have created music that sounds both like classic ZZ and finger-on-the-sphincter-of-now modern.
What’s just as remarkable is the song’s history. What many listeners haven’t realised is that I Gotsta Get Paid is a cover version of a Houston hip-hop song from the 90s and an ode to the career opportunities afford by crack-dealing.
DJ DMD Feat Lil Keke & Fat Pat – 25 Lighters
So how did ZZ Top end up basing their comeback single on an underground hip-hop track?
In an exclusive interview with the band in our next issue on sale July 18, the band reveal to Peter Makowski that the seeds of I Gotsta Get Paid were planted in 1996 by Gibbons’ longtime engineers Joe Hardy and GL “Mane” Moon. In 1983 Gibbons had bought into Houston’s legendary studios, Gold Star Sound Services/Foam Box Recordings, the home of psychedelic Texas rockers like the Sir Douglas Quintet, Red Krayolas, and Roky Erickson.
In the 90s, Gold Star Services/Foam Box became the home of the local Houston rap scene. One time when visiting the studio, Moon played Gibbons a track by Houston rappers DJ DMD Feat Lil Keke & Fat Pat called 25 Lighters. “I got 25 lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid” was the line that stuck with Gibbons – a reference to the street drug dealer’s practice of using the empty shells of Bic lighters to stash their cocaine.
The song was later ‘chopped and screwed’ by local hip-hop pioneer DJ Screw. His famed ‘chopped and screwed’ technique was the name given to a new style of down-tempo rap music – the music and lyrics slowed down to mournful, world-weary chant – inspired by his appetite for a drink called Purple Drank (aka ‘Texas Tea’): codeine-laced cough syrup mixed with Sprite or Mountain Dew. Screw died – most likely due to his love of Purple Drank – aged 29.
DJ Screw’s “chopped and screwed” version
“I became fixated with this ‘hypnotic chronicle of the toil of a ghetto hustler’,” says Gibbons, “and I was determined to use it as the basis for something ZZ Top could record.” 14 years later, Gibbons, Hardy and Moon, inspired by DJ Screw’s ‘chopped and screwed’ technique for deconstructing hip-hop, worked out how to adapt 25 Lighters into a new song. “It’s a combination of hip-hop and the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, a homage to these heroes of the Houston ghetto.”
Billy told The Hollywood Reporter recently: “Since the very beginning, we have been inspired and influenced by the musical and cultural eccentricities that have emanated from Houston’s ghetto. If you look back, you’ll find [fellow ZZ Top members] Dusty [Hill] and Frank [Beard] had served as Lightnin’ Hopkins’ rhythm section before we all joined forces in ZZ. We often ask ourselves, ‘WWLD?’ – meaning ‘What Would Lightnin’ Do?’ That circumstance came from exactly the same place – both geographically and spiritually – that this new one does. We fully acknowledge this as we continue to pay tribute to those known as ‘the heroes of the Houston ghetto.’”
One of the original contributors to 25 Lighters, Patrick “Fat Pat” Lamont Hawkins, was fatally shot in February 1998 – ironically, after he tried to get paid: shot by assailants unknown after trying to collect payment from a promoter. (Fat Pat’s rapper brother, Big Hawk, was also shot and killed in 2006.) Gibbons is making sure that everyone is credited and paid for contributions.
At the time of writing, the song’s credits are still unconfirmed on the MCPS/PRS database. The original “25 Lighters” is credited to Dorie Dorsey (aka DJ DMD), Kyle West (composer, producer) and Albert Brown III (aka Al B Sure! – singer, performer and cousin of West) – these last two are best known as proponents of New Jack Swing in the 80s and probably credited for a sample used in the track. Dorie Dorsey/DJ DMD now makes ‘Christian Hip-Hop’, including a reworking of 25 Lighters titled 25 Bibles On My Dresser.
DJ DMD – 25 Bibles On My Dresser
A perfect blend of hip-hop rhythms and rock crunch, I Gotsta Get Paid is the kind of thing that Rubin used to be famous for – a rock-rap crossover to remind you of Anthrax and Public Enemy’s Bring The Noise and the era in which Rubin’s Def Jam label was home to Slayer, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.
But if you thought he was responsible for introducing the song to ZZ Top think again. “I’d never heard of the song,” admits Rubin in the Classic Rock story. “I thought Billy had written the lyrics.”
ZZ Top have always looked beyond their most obvious influences. In his 2005 book Rock + Roll Gearhead, Gibbons lists influences from the expected (Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, Allmans, Santana) to the, er, less obvious (Sum 41, Pearl Jam, Kid Rock, Metallica, Crystal Method, Depeche Mode etc) – ”a crazy collision of elements” that “propelled ZZ Top’s blues rock to a high, high mesa”. Will the new album – scheduled for Autumn – feature more genre-hopping? No-one’s saying.
Read the full story of the return of ZZ Top in the next issue of Classic Rock, on sale July 18th. Subscribe to Classic Rock’s print or digital edition here.