Rockie Fresh Shares How Pastor T.D. Jakes Inspired His Rap Career

MMG’s spaced-out spitter is serving up a softer side of the Chi

In New Orleans’ packed Mercedes-Benz Superdome stadium, some 900 miles away from his native Chicago stomping grounds, a pubescent Rockie Fresh is finding his calling. There are no colliding football players or shouting artists on stage, yet here sits the wide-eyed rapper (born Donald Pullen) aside his parents, one of thousands attending a 2005 gospel conference, captivated by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes’ stirring sermon.

“This is crazy that one person can take information [from] before any of us were even born and make sense to [people] of all different ages,” reflects the now 22-year-old rhymer, speaking into a dying iPhone 5. “I felt like if that was possible then it’s easy to take current events—things I’m going through—and put them into the same form.” Rockie Fresh is no gospel rapper, but he recognizes the power of the tongue. The trippy Electric Highway mixtape—his first project since signing to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in July—merges brag bars, Chronic leaves and distorted vocals, cut from a Chi-Town fabric void of hometown cohorts King L’s or Chief Keef’s babbled aggression. “I was always in the house,” admits the movie buff, who moved to his city’s South Side suburbs when he got to high school. “I really never lived that street lifestyle… People in the city give me respect for creating my own lane.”

Rockie traces his eclectic sonics back to his days as a rebellious member of Homewood-Flossmoor High School’s student body, in which privileged brats and young ratchets intermingled. Already sneaking listens of Nelly, Kanye and Lupe under Mom and Dad’s devout ceiling, the baseball and basketball fiend penned his first raps at 16, keeping his ears attuned to the diverse genres blasting from classmates’ iPods. “I knew I wanted to add those influences to give my sound something different, give people a different musical experience,” says Fresh, who’s recorded with rock band Good Charlotte. Peddling his own mixtapes on the Internet built a local buzz and snagged the attention of Fall Out Boy lead singer Patrick Stump, who pulled Rockie aboard as an opening act on his 2011 solo tour. “He killed it every night,” says Stump. “I’m pretty sure he sold the second most merchandise of the whole tour. That’s the kind of hunger winners have.” Rockie’s 2012 mixtape Driving 88 sparked a bidding war between Diddy and Rick Ross. As with all major decisions, Rockie prayed on it before (curiously) inking with the boss behind God Forgives, I Don’t.

Now waving the MMG flag, Rockie isn’t in a rush for overnight celebrity. He’s been recording to Boi-1da beats with his usual pencil-free approach (“I’ve never been a big fan of writing raps because I think too hard on trying to be cool,” he says), yet he’s simmering his upcoming major label debut LP. “I’m young, and I feel like to make a really dope album you have to experience a lot,” Rockie says. “There’s still more stuff I wanna experience. I’m just taking it slow.” —Bené Viera

This story appears in the April/May 2013 issue of VIBE Magazine, featuring cover stars Miguel and Kendrick Lamar.