The Unforgettable Anthem
It has been nearly two decades, and the song still lingers. My mom, a former flowerchild turned art enthusiast, can’t seem to get the tune out of her head. Admittedly, she doesn’t quite know the lyrics, often mixing them up. And although the message of the song may appall her, I still catch her humming it when I visit Portland for the holidays. As she carves the turkey or sips her morning coffee, the gentle melody escapes from her lips—a testament to the lasting impact of “Wanna Be a Baller,” the 1998 hit by Houston rapper and producer Lil’ Troy.
A Musical Memory
This unforgettable track found its way into her head during our morning car rides to my grade school. Back then, in fifth grade, I was already a devoted fan of hip-hop, thanks to my older brother. “Wanna Be a Baller” was my absolute favorite song at that time, playing everywhere I turned. Although it only reached number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it received substantial airplay on pop stations, including Z100—the SoundCloud and Spotify of its era. Every time those booming toms kicked in, composed of a slowed-down sample of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” my adolescent body would tremble with excitement. I’d instinctively reach for the volume knob of our family’s box-shaped caravan. Little did I know, my mom, who had a lenient stance on rap music as long as it wasn’t overtly explicit, enjoyed the song just as much as I did.
Interestingly, my mom wasn’t the only white suburban parent captivated by the song’s charm. A childhood friend, now residing in New York City, recently confided in me that his dad had a soft spot for “Wanna Be a Baller” too. He fondly recalls his father quoting the song’s infectious hook around the house. This demonstrates the power of a catchy and exhilarating track—an ode to Impalas and the high life—that unexpectedly propelled Houston hip-hop into the mainstream. This was a time when Christina Aguilera’s midriff, Ricky Martin’s hips, and the timeless melodies of Lou Bega dominated the music scene.
The Fading Limelight
As years passed, Lil’ Troy, born Troy Birklett, quickly disappeared from the limelight, as often happens with one-hit wonders. Mention his name today, and most people will likely confuse him with another “Lil” rapper from that era. Even with my mom’s occasional “Baller” outbursts, I hadn’t given much thought to him since high school. However, my perception changed when I came across the recently published autobiography of rap legend Scarface, also a Houston native.
In his book, Scarface recounts how Troy and his independent record label, Short Stop Records, gave him his first opportunity. Moreover, Scarface claims that Troy chose to invest in another local rapper’s song instead of supporting his own debut single (which ultimately gave him his stage name), a decision Scarface never forgave him for. These revelations shed light on their tumultuous relationship: Scarface publicly criticized Troy throughout the 2000s and even sued him, winning a settlement of $225,000. This feud undoubtedly hindered Troy’s music career and may have contributed to its demise.
The Man Behind the Music
Or did it? Perhaps Troy simply decided to exit the industry on his own terms. Searching online, there is little information regarding his current endeavors. Scarface’s book sparked my curiosity: Is the man who played a pivotal role in bringing southern hip-hop to the mainstream still making music? Is the original DJ Khaled (as Troy didn’t rap or produce on “Baller”) even alive? Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I managed to track him down and have a conversation with him over the phone.