Label Head Lil' Troy Turns Rapper

Debut album, with guests Scarface and Willie D of hardcore group Geto Boys, examines life in poor Houston neighborhoods.

Lil' Troy started Short Stop Records in 1988 hoping to find success for himself by creating a stable of successful artists.

That didn't quite work out. He had modest hip-hop radio success in 1995 with a group called Mass 187 and their song "Gangsta Strut." But fame eluded most of Lil' Troy's other performers, who rap about growing up in Houston's poor neighborhoods. So, he figured, why not put his energy into promoting another Houston rapper — himself.

"[Other rappers I worked with were] rapping about my life anyway," Lil' Troy said from his Houston office last week. "We figured we'll just say the same things."

The result is Lil' Troy's debut album, Sittin' Fat Down South. Distributed by Universal Records, the disc debuted on the Billboard 200 albums chart at #193 in April, according to sales tracker SoundScan. It reached #20 late last month and stands at #31 this week.

The record has sold nearly 1 million copies on the strength of its laid-back soul beats and the catchy single "Wanna Be a Baller."

Together with longtime friend and producer Bruce "Grim" Rhodes, Lil' Troy (born Troy Birklett) put together an LP of 13 slow-burning, provocative and, in some cases, mournful songs. He invited 17 other rappers to help him on the vocals, including Scarface and Willie D of hardcore group the Geto Boys. For the album, Lil' Troy said he acted as "the Quincy Jones of rap," coaching everyone through the making of the CD, similar to the role Jones has played as producer for such artists as Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra.

Lil' Troy had produced Scarface's influential 1988 single "Scarface." So Rhodes, who, with Troy, wrote and arranged the album's music, said he figured Troy had the talent to become a rapper.

"At first he was real nervous because it was new to him," Rhodes said. "He's pretty good, though. People have to understand this was the first time he had ever done this."

One of the LP's guest artists, Fat Pat, contributed posthumously. The 27-year-old rapper, born Patrick Hawkins, was shot and killed in February 1998 following a dispute in Houston. Lil' Troy said he took a vocal track from an unreleased song Fat Pat recorded and placed it over the beat to "Wanna Be a Baller" (RealAudio excerpt).

The single is a poignant evocation of the 5-foot-4-inch Lil' Troy's life growing up poor in Houston, where his father played saxophone, his mother sang in local clubs and he dreamed of a life free from drug dealing and gunplay.

On the song's chorus, a deep-voiced gospel singer recites the words "Wanna be a baller/ Shot caller/ Twenty inch blades on the Impala/ A caller getting' laid tonight/ Swisher rolled tight, gotta spray my ice/ I hit the highway/ Making money the fly way/ But there's got to be a better way."

"It's about where we were living," he said. "There had to be a better way. The better way was music."

The single has become a staple on hip-hop radio in Houston; Memphis, Tenn.; and markets in the Deep South, according to radio programmers.

"We're very much a Southern rap station, so we've been playing that single a lot," said Cagle, the program director for Memphis station KXHT-FM, who would not give his full name.

But Eileen Nathaniel, the music director at WHRK-FM, another Memphis hip-hop station, didn't factor geography into her response to "Wanna Be a Baller."

"It really doesn't matter where they're from, as long as there's a good driving beat," she said.

Other tracks on the disc include the bouncy "Thugs Niggas" (RealAudio excerpt), which includes cheery keyboard work and an electronic drum clap, and "Chop, Chop, Chop" (RealAudio excerpt), an uptempo dance track.

Sittin' Fat Down South begins with a dedication to Lil' Troy's brother, Michael Jermaine Birklett, who is serving two life sentences for murder convictions. Lil' Troy, who worked as a medical research assistant briefly in the late 1980s, said what happened with his brother inspired him to enter the music business.

"[Mike's fate] made me stay on top of what I need to do," Lil' Troy said. "I'm making sure he can live through me."

Lil' Troy said he and Rhodes are working on Realism, a follow-up to Sittin' Fat Down South. The upcoming album, due next year, would offer much of the same soul flavor, he said.

(SonicNet's Will Comerford contributed to this report.)