Salih Williams — producer of Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall’s “Still Tippin’,” — is a criminally underrated musician. For the latest Behind the Beat, Thomas Hobbs tempted Williams away from fishing to discuss his most legendary production.
“I’m out here watering my garden and making sure these plants get fed,” Salih Williams tells me, as wind chimes echo in the background. “I was hoping to do some fishing later today, but we got a little rain. I’ve got a nice little lake behind the house. I’m raising some salmon, you know?”
Williams is the vision of domesticated bliss — an internet-averse cowboy who unwinds by drinking shots of Jack Daniels out on the water. I tell him his laidback energy reminds me of the loose, Americana folk song “The Weight” by The Band. “That’s it, exactly,” he said while laughing. “Just an old timer living off the land, chilling.”
You might not have expected a salmon farmer from the remote town of Luling, Texas — which has less than 6,000 residents — to be responsible for one of the greatest rap beats of all time, but this modest 48-year-old producer rarely chases the limelight, which means his contributions to hip-hop culture are easily downplayed.
Sounding like ballet being broadcast live from the gutter, the masterful beat Williams crafted for 2004’s “Still Tippin’” utilized a moaning violin to truly hypnotize the listener. Grandiose strings, tutting kick drums cushioned by eerie, skeletal keys, and trunk-rattling bass that rippled through water like a lurking T-Rex in Jurassic Park combine for an anthem that still – nearly 18 years later – makes my mind feel elevated. In truth, the song’s rappers — Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall — could have read out the names in the phone book and Williams’ hazy beat still would have made them sound compelling.
“Those fucking strings, man!” the producer answered when I asked why the beat remains so addictive. “I must have sprinkled some crack on the strings for ‘Still Tippin’’. I think that’s why the beat still commands your attention all these years later.”
In the opening months of 2004, Williams became obsessed with the sinuous string arrangement present at the start of the South German Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Rossini’s four-part “William Tell Overture.” This passage is achieved through balancing five cellos with two double basses; the resulting sound both elegant and full of tension. Although it was supposed to symbolize a looming thunderstorm, it sounds more like an 18th century aristocrat having an existential crisis.
For weeks the producer unsuccessfully tried to re-create the opening E-minor cello solo with his own hands, ultimately settling on experiments with the original. “I couldn’t play it better than the Germans did, so I flipped the original strings so the strings had more of a scary, dream-like feel,” he said. “I made the kick sound weirder by playing a bit of piano underneath it. When you deal with clashing frequencies and instruments, that’s when you discover the magic.”
To work out how this producer ended up implementing Rossini into a seminal 2000s rap song that eulogized Houston pimps curb crawling at 2AM in candy-painted Cadillacs, you must dig into his musical genealogy. The youngest of seven children, Williams and his siblings were part of a family band that toured across America. His motivational father played saxophone in the military, which meant jazz and classical records were constantly played around the house. This was his dad’s idea of education.
Vinyls by gravelly-voiced blues musicians like Lightin’ Hopkins, Jonny “Guitar” Watson, and John Lee Hooker also tended to hog the family’s stereo system. “We were from a rough little town in Phoenix, Arizona. There were gangs, and it was real bad,” Williams said. “My parents got us out of there and over to Luling. It was a sudden change going from the city life to the country life, but it honestly saved us. When we were in Texas music just became our salvation. After school, I would drive down to Sixth Street in Austin and play late-night shows. We were falling asleep in our classes the next morning.”
This multi-instrumentalist cared more about Mozart, John Coltrane, and singing the blues than academia, with his early 20s spent moonlighting in various bands. Even though he was touring Africa as a piano player, Williams remained drawn to the hustling mentality of DJ Screw, who would sell thousands of cassettes out his garage, and the sedate vocals of hometown heroes like Lil Keke, Slim Thug, and Fat Pat. He kept up to date with all the rap coming out of Houston and now wanted a slice of the action.
When he finally got back from the continent, Williams linked up with the city’s Wreckshop Records, where his colorful approach to crafting rap beats with live instrumentation was appreciated by the artists. One of the first songs he produced was 2002’s “Purple Stuff” by portly and eccentric MC Big Moe. Williams wanted to create synths that whizzed like helicopter propellers and something less serious than the rough and rugged rap that had been dominating the airwaves.
“DMX was real popular when I worked with Wreckshop. The beats were rough and the rapping was hard. With a beat like ‘Purple Stuff’, I wanted to create more of a carnival rap sound and just get people smiling, waving their hands around,” Williams said. “Big Moe had a charisma that would have your ass dying of laughter, bro. Our job is what every little kid wants to do, so there’s a responsibility to have some fun in rap. If I was going to create rap music, I knew I wanted it to be hood but also have a happy feel.”
The feel-good chemistry with Big Moe on the accompanying album, Purple World, was obvious (Williams produced nine tracks) and when the independent release hit no. 29 on the Billboard 200, the rest of Houston took notice. It didn’t matter that Williams didn’t drink lean, his woozy production was intoxicating enough.
Then came Mike Jones. Williams knew Jones from the city’s strip clubs, where the chubby hustler would spit X-rated freestyles while scantily-clad women danced provocatively on the stage. “Mike always said his name and phone number a lot in the raps; that was his gimmick,” Williams said. “It was genius and an online marketing campaign before that was really a thing. He had this high, twangy voice. I’m not saying Mike was the most technical rapper, but you never forget his voice or his character. He was like Houston’s Eazy-E.”
Jones had signed to Swishahouse, an ambitious label from the North side of town that wanted to disrupt the dominance of the trippy Chopped and Screwed beats coming out of Houston’s South. He had a song called “Still Tippin'” featuring Chamillionaire and Slim Thug, but when its producer Big Tyme fell out with Swishahouse founder Michael “5000” Watts, the label wanted to pair up the song’s vocals with a different beatmaker. Jones also started beefing with the “ Ridin’” rapper, meaning there was a plan in motion to replace Chamillionaire with Paul Wall. (At the time, Chamillionaire and Wall had released multiple albums together.)
Step in Salih Williams. Although he admired the original beat’s faster, funkier tempo, Williams felt Slim Thug’s vocals were buried in the mix, particularly the hook — (“Still tippin’ on 44s / wrapped in four vogues”) — which was a sample from a freestyle the rapper put out in 1998. These lyrics celebrated riding around in a Cadillac with shiny 30 spoke wire rims and, given Houston’s inherent car culture, Williams knew he had to dial the message up.
“The car you ride in means everything in Houston. It inspires others to hustle harder. We had a lot of people out here with songs about cars, but never that one anthem that jumped out and made the whole world think: “’Shit, that is how they ride down there in Houston!’ I knew Slim Thug’s vocals could achieve that if I changed them up.”
Williams also wanted his “Still Tippin'” beat to serve as a tribute to DJ Screw — who died in 2000 — ensuring the North and South could be united. “I wanted the bass to be slowed down just like Screw, so we had to do that with the low end. Anytime you want a track to sound warmer, you add in more low end. It’s like putting a blanket around the song,” Williams said. “Screw was just a real quiet dude. Everyone could be laughing in the room, but he would be in his own world with some headphones on. He didn’t chase praise. I always knew how important it was to pay tribute.”
Aside from these alterations, most of the “Still Tippin'” beat had actually been completed in early 2004. It had served as the opening music for Williams’ artist Swift during his live shows. “We never recorded anything proper to it. Swift tells me: ‘Damn, I was the first to rap on that!,’ Williams said. “But Swishahouse had the muscle. We might have put out the Swift song, sure, but we didn’t have the juice like Swishahouse to get the beat out to the TV and the labels.”
Released in late 2004, “Still Tippin’” took over the airwaves almost instantly, peaking at no. 60 on the Billboard 100 and seeing its music video invade MTV and BET. Slim Thug set the scene, hilariously comparing his swag to the Boss Hogg character from The Dukes of Hazzard. Jones then rapped an endearing verse about how women used to turn their noses up “but now I’m hot, they’re all on me”, pretty much personifying the underdog who made it good. Finally, Paul Wall had “the internet going nuts” with references to wood grain car interiors and Princess Cut diamonds. (A couple of months later he would have another knockout appearance on Kanye West’s “Drive Slow.”)
In the wake of “Still Tippin’,” all three featured artists ended up with major label deals. A&Rs were suddenly flooding into Houston. “I was just lucky, man.” Williams said, again, diverting attention away from his own contribution. “It was the right timing. They were all ready. Remember, Mike, Paul, and Slim had been pushing on the underground for so long. When the opportunity came, they were hungry, and that’s why the song took off like it did.”
Yet luck alone can’t fully explain the fact Williams also produced grill-heavy, nostalgic rap classics like Paul Wall’s “Sittin Sideways” and Mike Jones’ “Back Then”— all in the same year as “Still Tippin’.” These were ubiquitous hits that dozens of rapper felt compelled to drop a freestyle to. As a result of the success, Williams and his brother Tomar were signed as in-house producers, via a publishing deal with Universal. “That’s when I realized how technical the business was,” Williams said sighing. “They just kept asking me for another “Still Tippin’” and I fell out of love with making rap beats. We’re hit makers, we don’t chase old hits.”
Rather than continue to ride the zeitgeist rap producer wave, Williams made the bold decision to focus on passion projects (he did the production on a lot of ex-wife, and underrated R&B singer, Latasha Lee’s music) moving away from major label politics. Under the solo moniker Dirty Water, Williams also proved himself to be an excellent blues singer, with sweaty, irreverent campfire songs that talk up the healing qualities of goin’ fishing and driving around with a shotgun in your pick-up truck. He’s a cowboy with a rap sensibility, Howlin Wolf if he drove lowriders and cussed out his enemies.
Perhaps the best Dirty Water song is “Lil Woman Off My Mind”, which features late cousin and rapper Joel Spencer (aka Bear). Backed by badass riffs, Williams sings about a broken heart and a doctor’s pleas to “stop drinking and get more exercise.” Of this soul-baring song, which somehow has less than 20k views YouTube, Williams said: “Me and my wife broke up in 2017 and I knew I needed to write something down. Feeling is healing, man. You can’t sugarcoat it. You gotta let out those tears in the music. It keeps you from going crazy.”
Whether Dirty Water continues to be a cult act ignored by the mainstream remains to be seen, but Williams doesn’t mind too much. When I told him “Still Tippin’” lit a fuse for a whole generation of trap producers and Soundcloud rappers, even recently freestyled over by NLE Choppa and J.Cole, the musician revealed he rarely checks the internet. “I don’t know anything about my musical impact to be honest, because I don’t really use the internet like that. I get the royalty reports from Universal in the mail. I’m like: ‘OK, that’s good, ‘Still Tippin” is going to be on the Queen and Slim’ score.’ Then I forget about it and go back to my boat.”
Yet now, in 2022, the producer is finally “ready to come out of this damn hole” and work with a new generation of MCs. Williams recently spoke to Mike Jones and Paul Wall about reuniting. Ensured these three men (and Slim Thug) will forever be linked, Williams concluded: “Texas had DJ Screw, UGK and Scarface, but I always felt like a true crossover hit needed to mix the rawness of Houston with classical music. Any time you put strings over something, it commercializes it and creates artistic validation because the violin is such a prestigious instrument,” Williams said.
“Look: when James Brown put those strings on “It’s A Man’s Man’s World”, it created a big drama and took things to a new level. That’s what I wanted to do for Houston rap. Maybe some producers fall through the gaps, but I’m just thankful for the little bit of recognition that I do get. ‘Still Tippin”’ means I’m going to be hood famous forever and that’s more than enough for me.
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno