Collins to work toward increasing visitation to Arkansas by groups and promoting the state's appeal
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in February, Errol Westbrook stepped out of the state penitentiary unit in Benton, smiled and hugged his wife, who'd come to take him back to Little Rock. For two and half years, he's filled his days with television and exercise, manual labor and reading — novels mostly, by James Patterson and John Grisham. He's been shuffled around the state, from Cummins to Calico Rock and Wrightsville, and has finally been granted a work release. As his wife drove them home, she asked what he wanted to do now, and he didn't hesitate: "I need a haircut," he said.
Word first spread that Westbrook was going to prison (for drug and firearm possession) in the summer of 2011, and the city took notice. Westbrook, the rapper better known as E-Dubb, is in his own way an eminent local presence, a universally respected figure in the Little Rock rap scene, having been performing and recording now for two decades. A clip uploaded to YouTube in late September of that year, a music video for his song "I'm Still Breathing," was billed as "the last video E-Dubb shot before his incarceration."
Midway through the song, an introspective ode to persistence and survival, the music fades out and Westbrook addresses his fans directly. "I'm fixing to have to go away and do a little time, hopefully it won't be too long," he says smiling. His voice, on record and in conversation, is gravelly, low and somehow paternal, and here he seems unworried, even comfortable with the idea. "I will be back, and it's not a problem," he stresses. "I will be back."
The Times reached Westbrook by phone on a recent morning at 10:30 and like pressing a snooze button on an alarm clock, he politely but firmly mumbled a request that we call back later that day. Sleeping late is a new luxury for a guy who, as he explained later, has been for so long consistently woken up at "three or four" in the morning for breakfast.
"They tell you when to eat, sleep and shit," he says of his time served. "It ain't nothing nice. Once you get used to it, adapt to what's going on, you get your own routine." In prison, he worked on the hoe squad, in which inmates line up in rows and hoe weeds or just dig holes in unison. "If you ain't built for it," he says, "you don't really want to go there."
Lately, Westbrook has been spending much of his time listening to the radio. "I got to try to get used to the new way they're doing music and the new music feel out here," he says. "I ain't been really recording for a while, so I gotta see what's fresh and what ain't fresh. It's weird what music they're liking now. When I got locked up it was Jeezy and T.I. and those type of guys. This new music sounds crazy to me. My son will put in a disc and say 'This is Migos,' and I can't even understand what they're saying."
"They screamed Free E-Dubb for two and a half years," he says. "Well now I'm fixing to Free Little Rock, 'cause I don't know what they got going on."
Westbrook grew up on the south side of town, on Battery Street. "My father was around, but he wasn't around," he says. "It wasn't his fault, just circumstances." Born in 1980, he was just the right age to be swept up in the height of Little Rock's gang era, and he fell for the lifestyle hard. He rapped and sold drugs all through high school — or really high schools, plural. "I been kicked out of every high school in Little Rock," he says, before rattling off an impressive list of institutions. "I'm not proud of that, don't get me wrong. It's just my past is kinda rocky," he says laughing.
Along with a number of other gang members, Westbrook was expelled from Central High School for fighting on the school's campus. Desperate and ready to try something new, then-mayor Jim Dailey invited him, as the head of his gang, the 8-Ball Pirus, to have lunch at the DoubleTree Hotel to negotiate a ceasefire. By the end of the meal, Westbrook had successfully gotten all of his classmates reinstated.
If high school wasn't a priority, Westbrook took his rap career seriously from the beginning, idolizing such '90s local legends as Durdy Jack Lex Ball, Suited-N-Booted and Major League. He played open mics, talent shows, the Fairgrounds and, eventually, bigger venues like the Barton Coliseum. "I've been on stations you can't even get on now, like [Hot] 96.5," he says. "There's clubs in Little Rock that people will never get to perform in that I have performed in. Like the White Diamond, people probably don't even know what the White Diamond is. The Palace, it's burnt down now. I've been doing this rap thing for a minute."
In the early aughts, Westbrook joined the rap group A-State Hustlers, who made manic, glossy country rap in the No Limit tradition, and had a string of local hits like "Robbery" and "Everyday Allday" (both from their 2004 album "Think It's a Game"). He released a self-titled solo album in 2008, and made a handful of free mixtapes in the interim, all the while shooting videos for singles like "Turn It Down," famous in the streets of Arkansas, if hardly known at all anywhere else.
"Back then, I figured I already had local fame so I wasn't even going to worry about it," he says. "I was hustling and I had the money, so I really wasn't as focused on the music as I should've been. Plus, a lot of decisions I was making back then, I was high all the time. Now I'm sober. I'm a different person. I was arrogant before, now I'm humble."
He worries that picking up his career where he left off might not be as easy as he'd hoped. "To be honest, I think it's going to be kind of tough," he says. "Because the bar is set so high for me right now. I'm feeling like Andre 3000, scared to do another album. You ain't got no beats in the penitentiary, and your imagination only goes so far. The expectations are so high, I just don't want to fail the town."
In a move that helped build Westbrook's confidence considerably, 607 invited him to contribute a verse to a remix of the latter's song "Block Monster," one of last year's biggest local hits. "I wanted him to have something to come home to," says 607, who visited Westbrook regularly in prison. "Everybody in the penitentiary was singing 'Block Monster,'" Westbrook says proudly. "So now they're probably singing the remix."
Westbrook's "Block Monster" verse is the first thing he's written since coming home, and right away you get the sense that readjusting won't be as difficult as he thinks. He lunges onto the track, his voice as compelling and as iconic as it ever was. And he's already planning upcoming releases, with two albums of unreleased material and a handful of new collaborations on the way. He's gotten so many requests for guest verses, he says he's already had to raise his price. It's an encouraging sign for the artist who still calls himself the "King of Little Rock."
"They just let me out of jail," as he raps on the "Block Monster" remix. "So you know I ain't free."