When 56 year-old Darrell Veal succumbed to lung cancer in Houston, Texas on Monday, the city that has lost so many of its rap legends (DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Hawk, Big Moe and Pimp C among them) lost one of its godfathers. The tremendous outpouring amongst his community of friends and admirers was huge as he fought his illness over the last few months, with benefits and tributes being held in his name and a lot of traffic in his hospital room. He had touched a lot of lives.
MC Wickett Crickett, as Veal was known, was an MC and promoter as well as a brother and father figure to generations of Houstonians. His contributions are at the core of early Houston rap music, along with the mixtape legacy of Darryl Scott, the record company blueprint of Rap-A-Lot Records founder James Prince or the nightlife of club magnates Ray Barnett and Captain Jack. He brought New York into Fifth Ward, cutting his own path long before there was ever such thing as a Geto Boy. A lot of artists got their start through him. He had a patience for younger artists that was never shown to him in his own life.
At MC Wickett Crickett’s club nights, he got people behind the mic, got them heard, got them talking, got them listening. Got them hearing.
Veal was born in Houston in 1959, and was given away as a baby by his parents along with nine of his siblings. He ended up living with friends and relatives in New York City, running the streets as a young teenager when hip hop was still in its infancy. That was how he got the name Wickett Crickett. His New York crew named him that. When he got to Houston in his late teens, he brought the streets of New York with him into Wheatley High School, which future Geto Boy Willie Dennis would attend in the years following.
He pursued rap in Houston as if it were a normal thing to pursue there. But that wasn’t yet the flavor in The Bayou City. In the clubs, there were funky bands and boogie bands. They were playing R&B, blues and zydeco, but no rap. Wickett adapted to that, and started hosting open-mic nights in the clubs, freestyling over the bands while they played. It started at a club on Kelly Street in Fifth Ward called The Fresh Connection, and he eventually started hosting nights all around town.
Then he expanded to the Southside, and eventually anywhere in town he wanted. Northside. Southside. Third Ward. Southwest. Captain Jack. Big Steve. Mean Green. Steve Fournier. DJ Chill. He worked with everybody, but Wickett Crickett also built his own network, with his own people and places, and his own vibe as a host. At MC Wickett Crickett’s club nights, he got people behind the mic, got them heard, got them talking, got them listening. Got them hearing.
He quickly became my most important interview subject.
He passed people’s CDs on to those he thought should hear them. He got them on the radio as part of Houston’s first hip hop radio show, Kidz Jamm. He appeared at concerts, sporting events, on television and featured on other rappers’ records. “Where U From,” a 12-inch from 1996 and the only record he ever released, was an anthem around town that he would perform in concert sometimes multiple times a night.
I met Wickett in 2005 at one of the massive Sunday nights at Club Konnections. I had just started working on a book with photographer Peter Beste about Houston’s rap history, and he was one of the first people we met. Peter and I saw him at Max’s Candy Shop, and Club Matrix, and Da Spot, and at The Perfect Rack with the pool tables pushed back so everybody could watch each other freestyle. MC Wickett Crickett was everywhere.
Once we got to talking on the phone, he opened up and helped establish the backbone of our book with his commentary on the drug war and the prison-industrial complex. He talked about how the effects of that trickle down into the ghettoes of a city like Houston, and to its residents, and its music. He quickly became my most important interview subject. His memory was incredible, and everything had a deep context. It seemed like MC Wickett Crickett was always out, every night, but on the nights when he was home, he took my calls, and we went long every time. Usually around two hours. He talked about what affected his community, and the world, and he knew things on a level that no one else could touch.
On April 20, 2013, several months before the first of our two books was to be released, Peter Beste and I were in Houston to host a panel discussion on Houston rap history at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. The occasion was the opening of an exhibit of Peter's photos for which I had written the accompanying text, and we arranged for a talk with a few of the subjects we’d profiled in the books. K-Rino of The South Park Coalition was going to be there, as was E.S.G. of the Screwed Up Click and a former old school Houston DJ named Rashad Al-Amin. We had also asked Willie D of Geto Boys to join us. Peter called him that morning and he still couldn’t commit, and then I got a text from E.S.G. asking if he could send somebody in his place because his voice was raspy from a show the night before. (His voice is always raspy.)
So I called MC Wickett Crickett, and he said, “I’ll be there.”
We got to the museum early and so did Willie D, who had a chance to walk through the exhibit and see his face on the wall, but not Bushwick Bill’s.
“I don’t see Bushwick Bill’s face on the wall. This exhibit needs to have Bushwick Bill, that’s what it needs to have.”
He had a point, so I encouraged him to join the panel and give us a hard time about it. Bushwick Bill should have been in the exhibit, but so should a lot of people. There were only 40 photos selected, a cross section of not just rappers, but their neighborhoods, their cars and their culture. There were bound to be people missing.
Willie was mad, but then Wickett Crickett showed up. Peter came over to me and said, “Wickett’s gonna talk to Willie.”
K-Rino arrived, and took his seat at the tables in the front of the room, as did Rashad Al-Amin. And then, Willie left. MC Wickett Crickett walked into the room where the audience had gathered and slowly took his seat.
We went through the introductions, and a couple of folks from the museum spoke, but the panel hadn’t started until I asked a question, the first of which I directed towards Wickett, because he had been involved in the culture longer than anyone else.
He stared at the table for a minute, and then looked up and said: “Turn the camera off.”
MC Wickett Crickett’s voice was thick. He may have spent his formative years up north, but his dialect was purely Southern, with a guttural drawl that tied together the ends of his words. His voice rattled through a room. As an MC, that was how he worked a room with his voice, and he cut right through this one.
“Turn the camera off.”
Wickett’s speech was a foul, beautiful storm that took up the first 15 minutes of the panel, a tirade full of the most amazing, inspiring, damning things one could imagine.
He was waiting for the record light to go off. The whole audience was staring at him. What I didn’t know was that his conversation with Willie D had left him with the realization that his face also wasn’t in the exhibit.
I wish I could tell you exactly what he said, but it never did get recorded. Wickett’s speech was a foul, beautiful storm that took up the first 15 minutes of the panel, a tirade full of the most amazing, inspiring, damning things one could imagine. There was talk of who was real, and who was fake, and who had his back. He didn’t call us out by name, but it couldn’t help feel like an indictment, an admonishment. MC Wickett Crickett was known for putting other people first, but he wanted his face on that wall. He didn’t yet know how important he’d been to the project. All he knew was that he’d given years of access to two white boys who were from Texas but lived in New York, and they had produced no book.
The books were still at the printer. Only months later, he would see himself on six pages of the first book and 11 pages of the second. But that isn’t something you can point out in the middle of a panel discussion, especially when there was nowhere to cut in. I was looking desperately for some way to shoehorn my way into something he was saying to break up the tension in the room, and found an opening when he started talking about securing early gigs for Houston superstars. Beyoncé’s name even came up. I jumped in before he got to mention DJ Screw.
“And don’t forget you got DJ Screw his first DJ gig, too.”
At which point he cut his eyes in my direction. “Oh we’ll get to DJ Screw.”
And with that, the whole museum erupted in laughter. It was the first moment for them. It brought the room together. They needed something – anything – to break up the vibe that Wickett had created.
I finally slipped in a question to K-Rino, who took his first opportunity at the mic to get behind Wickett. Then he lit into us, talking about measures of respect and trust, and that it was something to be earned. It was direct, it was torturous, and it was free of bullshit. Trust wasn’t a given. It was something to be earned. And we got that. Everybody should be so lucky as to take that kind of heat. We eventually steered control of the microphones into a conversation, our panelists got around to answering questions, and we got the panel back on track. But it was a battle all the way through the Q&A session at the end. MC Wickett Crickett was a beast on the mic. Make him mad, and you’d have to fight him for it all night.
“It was fantastic theater,” HMAAC Director John Guess told me afterwards.
He was coaching a basketball game. We stayed on the phone, doing an interview, for the entire game, and his team won.
Later that year, when I was working on a mixtape for the books, I called Wickett Crickett up to ask him some questions about the proto-rap of Houston. Wickett’s knowledge sliced through new school and old school rap, R&B, blues, soul… you name it. He had a brilliant memory.
“Wickett, it’s Lance Walker.”
“I know who it is.”
He yelled at somebody on the other end of the line, and then blew a whistle. He was coaching a basketball game, and he kept doing that while we talked, calling plays while he told me stories about the Houston R&B legend Mikki Bleu, answering all of my questions. We stayed on the phone for the entire game, and his team won. The incident at the museum never came up. We left that conversation with better hearts.
His teeth were full of diamonds and were sparkling in the club lights. So were his eyes.
In early March of the next year, I was on tour in Houston for the second book, and I sent him a text. I had mailed him a copy of the first book, but I wanted to hand him a copy of the second one. I had been trying to catch up with him all week. On my last night in town, I got a text from him as I was leaving Bobby Phats’s radio show at KPFT.
He was hosting at a club on the Northside, in Kashmere Gardens. It was almost two o’clock in the morning on a Monday night. There was rain hitting my windshield that was practically ice. My eyes were red, my flight was leaving in six hours and I was only blocks away from where I was staying. But this was a book with an interview of MC Wickett Crickett in it, and I wanted him to have it. So I got up on the freeway and drove to Kashmere Gardens, where I found my way down Cavalcade to a threadbare wooden zydeco hall under a sign that read Mr A’s the Club. The parking lot took up a quarter of a city block, and was crammed full of cars parked in deep puddles. The rain had gotten heavy and I was soaked by the time I got to the door.
Two cops waved me in, and there were two more just inside. The club was packed. People were dancing, rap music was blasting, and it was dark.
I stood in the middle of the room, dripping in a New York winter coat, heavy bag full of books over my shoulder, trying to dart through the crowd every time I spotted him, missing him every time. A cop started following me around the room, just to be near ground zero in case anything went down. I was impossibly conspicuous. But I had to see him. I told him I would get him a book. I wasn’t going to let him down.
I made my way through the crowd to the back, and there standing against a mirrored wall was MC Wickett Crickett. He looked up at me, and he wasn’t smiling. He was beaming. He walked over slowly and put out his hand, then pulled me in for a hug. He looked me in the eyes for the first time since before the museum. His teeth were full of diamonds and were sparkling in the club lights. So were his eyes.
I pulled a book out of my bag and put it in his hand, but he barely glanced at it. “You came,” he said. “You really came. You really came out here.”
Someone danced into us, and when I moved out of the way, Wickett had disappeared. Next thing I heard was the music dropping out, and then that unmistakable voice cut through the din of the club.
“Yo, I wanna give a big shoutout to the author of the Houston Rap Tapes book here in the house tonight Lance Walker wassup! Y’all make some noise.” He was standing at the microphone behind the DJ booth, holding the book open, and the white boy with the backpack finally made sense to everyone. He had turned the music back up, then he turned it back down again. “Check out the interview with ya boy on page 29!”
Houston was his town. Those were his books.