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To hear passionate words from the man who first believed in the cultural phenom that we now have experienced as Ermias "Nipsey Hussle" Asghedom is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Eugene “Big U” Henley, the respected former gang leader, now community activist, speaks of the late artist like a brother, a son and a warrior in arms to better the area they both hold and held dear to their hearts...the Crenshaw and Slauson blocks of their neighborhood in Los Angeles.
A few days after Nipsey's murder, Big U helped organize one of the biggest gatherings of rival gangs from all over L.A. to show unity and oneness with a peaceful, non-violent march through the streets, ending at the famed The Marathon Store.
With a year of reflection on the untimely and senseless death of Nipsey, Big U linked up with noted interviewer, Jacky Jasper, and let VIBE in on his thoughts and feelings around the talent, heart and spirit of his former artist, as well as the social impact they both have had for the Crenshaw community.
This intimate conversation proves to be rare and revealing in the remembrance of Nipsey's life and a full-spectrum look at a Big U that we don't get to witness often. This is where the imprint of peace and power meets the driving force in "The Marathon Continues" movement.
VIBE: What is your ultimate goal for these kids through the Developing Options program?
Big U: The ultimate goal is to be for young African-American kids what the YMCA and these other places could’ve and should’ve been. They probably were a lot of good things to other people, they just weren’t to us because I never had one of them out here. The only thing we had was the park so I don’t really know what the experience was. I always hear them talk about the YMCA and the Boys’ Club. In the Crenshaw area we don’t have one.
So you decided to make one? Yeah, definitely. I wanted to be the pioneer, the first to do it. Growing up, because most neighborhoods in California are infested with gangs, so for us being at the area we were at, Crenshaw and Slauson, for us to play football—tackle football—we had to go to another area to play. We couldn’t play in our neighborhood. That was a thing I grew up with, that was a motivating factor as far as tackle football. We had Van Ness park so we could play baseball, basketball, but if you wanted to play tackle football you had to travel.
How long have you had the program going on for these inner-city kids? I started it in 2003, I came home in 2004. The name of it back then, and still is, is Ex-Offender’s Fellowship Network, which is our parent company, but we also do business as Developing Options. When I created it, I was actually still in prison. I knew I wanted to come home and do things that would move me in the right direction of helping my community and the kids in my community.
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@developingoptions toy drive recap
Now from this program you’ve had going on for over 15 years, how many kids have gone on to achieve excellence in something like the NFL, because you’ve allowed them a safe place to play football? Through Robert Garret and our program at Crenshaw High School, we’ve had about eight or nine kids that have made it to the NFL that we’ve touched or influenced in some kind of way. I always want to give credit to Robert Garret and Crenshaw High School, because he took a chance on bringing Big U to the school. It's people like that who take chances on me or cared to. He was a coach and a teacher at Crenshaw High and he was the first one to allow me and Mark "Bear Claw" Martin to come on the school campus and to be mentors to the kids. A lot of kids grow up and they look up to us. Just things like paying for the banquets, being there to administrate the kids, helping kids get home, buying them clothes, whatever they need to succeed.
Any popular names that made it through that we might know of? Yes. DeAnthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs and he just went to the Baltimore Ravens. Greg DuCree, Marcus Martin, all of Crenshaw. Any kids that came out of California that have made it, they all came out of Crenshaw.
How do others get involved in the program that are outside of your unit? Is there any way of doing that? Or do you not allow that? No! Everyone’s involved. We get help and assistance from the likes of Chris Brown, Sean Kingston, Kurupt. My biggest supporter is Wiz Khalifa. Always want to shoutout Josh Smith...DeShawn Jackson is one of our strongest supporters. Anyone can reach out. But my next step is getting a building that can be a source to help kids educationally. We’ve always been strong reaching kids through our athletic programs, but I really want to reach kids educationally. Right now I’m looking for a school.
You want to get them strong on their academics. I do that already, right? But it’s more than just me. For about the last 10 years I’ve had about 30 kids that I’ve coached and mentored personally. I’m happy to say about 12 of them are in college right now. All Division 1 colleges right now. My son is at Reno; Darius is at Dixie State; David is in the U.S. Airforce; Nigel’s at UCLA. So I have kids all over the PAC-12.
That’s amazing. Where did you get this vision from? Was it from the lack of access to those types of healthy outlets, so you wanted to give to the next generation? I got the vision for it while in incarceration.
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Wow How Old was I ?? What Prison ?? I was on my Student Shit ?? I prepared for this Freedom Walk while i was incarcerated. Now i MANAGE over millions in state/GOVERNMENT accounts, have over 21 full time employees OVER 15 years doing what i studied for ( helping our people ) None of it dealing with ENTERTAINMENT OR MUSIC !! And yes im Not Finished. About to start this Youth Mentoring program !! 2 days a week two hours after school ..... we going to Keep UNEEKING THE WORLD #THEUNEEKWAY ALWAYS THANKFUL TO @snoopdogg for taking a chance on a HOODSTA... @syfl_snoopspecialstars #syfl #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1 ##developingoptions 👨🏿💻 📘📚 @pieces_0f_lee is RUNNING point on this Program Reach out to her our @dynastydoe
Got you. Now, were you Nipsey Hussle’s manager? No, Nipsey was actually signed to me. He was signed to me for production, but I was also doing a little management too, me and Steve Lobel. I brought Steve in to be our frontman because, you know how hard it was to be Big U, my reputation precedes me. I had to put a white face in front of a black situation. And because we were moving at that time, I was half and Steve was half. But no, he was signed to me at Uneek Music, my production company.
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Our hearts are broken 💔 there’s so much to say but for now my condolences to all his family , friends and fans around the world whoever knew when the 3 of us started this marathon 12 years ago it would end like this fuck fuck fuck ! We love u #nipseyhussle #ripnipseyhussle #bigu @bigu1 #ripthundercat #weworking 🙏❤️🏁🥃👑🎤
Since Nipsey’s death, how is the community taking it and what have you done for the community since then? How is the community supposed to take it now that the Marathon store is closing down? I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I do the community work. I’ve always done the community work. I did the community work and Nip did the entertainment.
I came home in 2004. I didn’t pick Nipsey up until 2006-2007. At that time, Me, Suge [Knight] and brother-in-law [Rick] were running together. Suge was giving me studio time. A lot of that early studio recording time with Nipsey was because of Suge. It was me coming home and trying to teach my whole community to love the community. To help them get an understanding of us and what Crenshaw was. People from the outside who didn’t understand us were coming in and filming in the ‘hood and writing books about the ‘hood and I said, “Y'all can’t come in here anymore.” Know what I mean? The homies didn’t understand that, but Nip did.
If you look at the last speech Nip gave, at my banquet, he said, “I remember when Draws [Big U] first came home, he was hard on everybody. But now I understand. You gotta have your own. You gotta be your own.” See! He got it. He was one of the very few people who truly understood that the message was, “We need to do this ourselves. We need to put our own value on our self.” People couldn’t understand that we were selling Crenshaw shirts for $100. Or $40 or $50. They didn’t understand where that came from.
Like I said, when I first came home, I made it my mission to put a value on “us.” To make the people appreciate Crenshaw and all it has to offer. So as soon as I came home I started pushing Crenshaw. Like my young guy, he never went to Crenshaw High School.
Understood. Nipsey didn’t go to Crenshaw, Sam [Nipsey's older brother] didn’t go to Crenshaw High School. I understood how big Crenshaw was. Crenshaw is a community that’s bigger than all of us. The success of Crenshaw is so far past what me and Nip was doing. I had to explain that to him and the rest of the young homies...how we got something, we need to brand this. And all of us need to get behind it. It doesn’t just belong to one person.
Is that where the first instance of trademarking came in? Actually, trademarking Crenshaw is almost impossible. You can’t trademark Crenshaw because it’s a city. It was a white guy who was the first one to use the Crenshaw logo on his shirt, if that’s what you’re referring to. He was a Mike Tyson fan. He paid me and Nip to wear the Crenshaw crewneck in the video. He was out of New York. He was a Mike Tyson and [former MLB super star] Darryl Strawberry fan. Darryl Strawberry is where the original motivation came from. Darryl Strawberry wore that Crenshaw Coca-Cola font for the Crenshaw High School baseball team. It was a baseball coach from back then that came up with the Crenshaw Coca-Cola logo. Then some 32 years later, we took it and took it to the next level, but I’ve never trademarked anything but "Uneek."
[You know what’s funny? Let me give you this good-hear tidbit that you can give to your people. You know when they were talking about somebody trademarking Marathon? Man, I don’t know anything about no Crips. I don’t deal with Crips like that, you know what I’m saying? If it doesn't say “Hoodstas” or “Sixties” I’m not doing sh*t with it.
And what’s funny to me is, how people listen to all this rhetoric on Instagram, on YouTube, all these bum ass lanes, everyone is running around “Like, subscribe and follow! Like, subscribe and follow!” and they take this bullsh*t and spin it to be something. People tell me all the time, “You should say something." Man, I shouldn't say nothing! I just look at these “journalists” like they’re asinine. They just don’t even make sense. Here goes another one: Nipsey was my brother! And my son! And my nephew! If I had any intentions of trademarking from him, who the f**k could say anything about it anyways?]
So, from you saying that he’s your son, that he’s your brother, the conspiracy theories of these people saying things about his death must’ve really pained you some? Not really. It didn’t bother me, but it only bothered me because of the people that are supposed to know me even entertaining the idea. It would bother me if you claim you’re someone who's supposed to know me and you’re even entertaining the bullsh*t. And the sh*t don’t make no sense, you know what I mean? It doesn't make any sense that they're trying to make me and him be enemies when clearly motherfu**er, I just was with him.
Got you. He came and got me and flew me out of town! But, you know, it’s the same way I tell people all the time, it’s the same sh*t. They say Suge set up Tupac, so who am I? I’m not no different than Suge. Ain’t no ni**a be fittin’ to be sitting in the car when motherfu**ers are shooting at him. For them to say that about Suge, you don’t think those same motherfu**ers aren’t going to say the same about me?
Yeah, but that must hurt though? I hear what you’re saying. It hurts when people close to you to even think— To entertain the idea. That’s the point. It ain’t even the fact that the lames do it, what hurts the most? My daughter. My daughter and my kids. You know me, it doesn't bother me, I’ve been disliked around this world for years. But to them, it bothers them. Then they have to deal with the bullsh*t of the world. That’s the only thing that makes me want to go knock one of these dudes heads off because it’s all lies. And my thing is, if you really love Nipsey, why are you going to sit around and let people say false sh*t about him?
Word. You know what I’m saying? What does that lead to? What happens after the case is over? And Big U may not know when the case is over, but guess now what happens? Now I see them right now. I did the Kev Mac interview and showed them the text messages of me and Nip texting, the day before he died, and we were texting about some business. I showed that on the Kev Mac interview right? Right after I did that, and that sh*t came out, everybody started changing their tune. Now you’ve got a lot of these lames talking about, “Nobody ever accused you of killing him, you came out and said you didn’t.” Well, that’s because you lames were putting out a fake ass post saying the police was looking for me.
It was then that I learned fast, don’t address anything ever said on the Internet. That’s why I never address it.
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Eugene BigU Henley Sits down with Kev Mac and Discuss Nipsey HUSSLE passing Days leading up To it and After.
Here’s the question I have to ask: there's people at home on their laptops that have the audacity to come up with conspiracy theories. Don’t they have the fear of writing this and then coming back into your town not knowing if there’ll be repercussions or not? Well let me just say this to you, I’m going to handle every one of them I catch. I don’t give a damn what nobody said. If you think I did something, you're going to know I did something. That’s not even a question, that’s an obligation. Because you hurt my family, your malicious attacks is an attack on my kids and on my family. So yes, I promise you that. You can write that down too. I don’t care. I’m not letting none of them go. I ain’t did nothing to nobody, I shouldn’t have been accused of doing nothing to nobody. It’s just click bait. Somebody’s making money lying on me or putting me into some bullsh*t I had nothing to do with, you know what I mean? I'm not the type to forgive and forget. I’m not Martin Luther King. I’m not going to let you slap me and turn the other cheek.
Switching gears to new and developing projects...
I did a deal for this documentary with FX before Nip died. I did a deal that I wrote, me and Jim-Bob wrote it, and FX picked it up right before—
Who’s Jim-Bob? That’s my guy, that’s one of my partners. He’s a Piru from Compton. He came up with the idea and we pitched it to FX. We pitched it to a couple of people and ran with it for about three-and-a-half years, then FX picked it up. It was crazy, Nip and I were excited. We were going over how we wanted to make it look. Nip was supposed to do a song. It’s a struggle with my group and then four months after we signed the deal he died. But Nip is the whole reason I got back into music.
It’s crazy, man. He called me and told me “look...” I already had talked to him while he was making the album. Now let me tell you something, Nip has about 100 songs, bangers that didn’t go on that album.
You’ve got unreleased material from Nip is what you’re saying? I don’t have it. I don’t know who has it. I’m assuming his brother has it.
Understood. I’m telling you, the music we were doing...the music he was playing before he died, when he was in the studio...he has some sh*t that’s going to come out if they ever put it out. I don’t know who’s running it, but he has some sh*t. I’m talking about the songs that didn't make the project that just came out.
I don’t know if this is the rumor mill or not but do you and LeBron James have the same connections with inner-city kid programs? I don’t have any connections at all. I have nothing going on with him, no.
What about T.I.? Because I see T.I. talking about you a lot. No, me and Tip...remember I did Tip’s show a long time ago when he had that Redemption show.
Yes. I did Tip’s show with him where I’d talk to the kids. I did some administering to the kids for him.
Because he really looks up to you, you know? Whenever he speaks about you, it’s always in a positive light. Right. Me and Tip do community work together, always. We have to.
You’ve got a long hand in Atlanta helping people out as well? Yes, we’re trying to take Developing Options, my gang intervention program nationwide. With Developing Options, we got the gang violence down 70 to 80% in L.A. from where it used to be. There used to be murders every day. I would love to work with LeBron [James]. I’d love to work with anybody who's got the right mind. I like what LeBron is doing. We definitely need LeBron and a lot of brothers who have the money that I don’t, to be able to reach these kids. I know if I had access to the financing, I could put more kids in and graduate from college than I am right now.
How do you feel waking up and walking around as one of the most powerful men in L.A.? Does that take its toll on you? No, it’s not a toll on me because it isn’t true! I don’t know who the most powerful man in L.A. is, but it’s definitely not me because I’m one of the brokest ni**as in L.A. [Laughs]
I think you need money to be powerful or why else would they try to strut? Let me tell you something, I don’t know if you know who Poo Bear is? But this is what you’ve got to put in the article. Poo Bear gave me a very sizeable donation to help us with the organization and push. If you don’t acknowledge nobody in the world, you better acknowledge Poo Bear.
I have to raise just for my football program almost $21,000 a year so I don’t have to charge these kids out the roof. What people don’t understand is that now, here in L.A., they charge people to play and practice on the football fields, on the grass. You have to pay to rent that field.
Until this year I used to get a classroom for free. I have a mentoring program for young black men where two times a week, we get together and talk about whatever is bothering them. Now get this, I’ve had my store on Crenshaw for about 12 years. Every night, for 12 years, I’ve got kids walking the streets with nowhere to go. If they’ve got nowhere to go, that’s how they end up doing robberies, they’ll go to the liquor store...
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CRENSHAW RAMS/ DEVELOPING OPTIONS TEACHING STUDENTS 💪🏿S.T.E.M ⌨🎬📽💻🔌 #developingoptions #DevelopingOptionsAtl #TheUneekWay #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1
Any plans for honoring Nipsey in the future?
We’ve got a couple of things planned that we're going to do. My organization is going to do something. I’m going to always honor Nip. We put a trophy together with our banquet in honor of Nip. I know the city wants to do something, the city is sitting down with me to do some stuff too. So, we're trying to make it big man. Nip was our Young Prince.
I see him as legendary before anybody did. I saw him as legendary before the world did. I’m the one that invested in him first. When nobody else invested in him, Big U invested in him. I saw the legend in him first. I saw the legend when none of y'all saw it. And, let me tell you this: I brought the legend to VIBE in New York. I brought the legend, took him all over the country, I paid for all of them flights for us to go everywhere in the beginning because I believed in the legend.
Many rap artists claim to be closely associated with the plug, but Blacc Zacc's hometown reputation makes those ties wholly believable. Hailing from South Carolina, the former street entrepreneur has spent the last few years on a mission to transcend the trap while legitimizing himself within the music industry and becoming one of the most buzz-worthy artists to ever emerge from his state. Building his audience with projects like High Class Trapper (2017), New Blacc City (2018), and Blacc Frost (2018), Zacc elevated his stock to unprecedented levels with his 2019 mixtape, Trappin Like Zacc, which saw the South Coast Music signee coming into his own. The project, which boasted the Key Glock-assisted heater "Hahaha," was strong enough to help garner the support of Interscope Records, with whom he inked a record deal with last year, a move he hopes will further increase his profile.
“It wasn't more so about the money," Zacc says of his decision to make the transition from an independent artist to one signed to a major label. "Of course everybody's dream is to get a deal when you're a rapper and you really wanna be for real with it, but it wasn't more so about the money with me, it was more so about having the connects. I feel like with me being independent and having to move on my own, I don't really have industry connects like Randy [Interscope publicist] to be able to have me in this office with you right now, it's only so much you can do to get where you wanna be when you're independent. Like you can't buy everything, [but] certain stuff you gotta have connections to."
With a machine like Interscope behind him, Blacc Zacc finds himself asserting his boss status with his 2020 debut. Carolina Narco is inspired by incarcerated drug kingpin El Chapo, who garnered headlines worldwide with his epic escape from prison in 2015. Accompanied by a short film that finds Blacc Zacc tapping into his skills as a thespian, Carolina Narco is the newcomer's biggest release to date and builds on the momentum of his previous offerings. Boasting guest appearances from DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, Yo Gotti, and Stunna 4 Vegas, Carolina Narco captures Zacc displaying the breadth of his artistry across the project's eleven tracks, resulting in an LP that positions him as not only one of the more promising prospects out of the south, but a trailblazer within his home state.
VIBE sat down with Zacc to get the scoop on the making of Carolina Narco, expanding his business portfolio, his plans to put South Carolina on the national radar and much more.
VIBE: 2019 was a breakout year for your career, as you expanded your fan base while reaching multiple milestones. What's a moment from that year that made you realize that your hard work was paying off?
Blacc Zacc: When I started going to shows outside of my city and I started realizing people knowing who I am and recognizing the song and stuff like that. And of course, when I got my deal with Interscope, that's when I knew it was real. Like I really got a chance and an opportunity at this.
Musically, you've garnered comparisons to Gucci Mane, who you've also listed among your biggest influences. What are some things you picked up from watching and listening to Gucci and how has that benefited you as an artist?
Gucci Mane was just like one of my favorite personal rappers just from what he stands for. His delivery, the type of songs he made and I feel like he'll always be a trap legend. So it ain't necessarily that I'm trying to be like him, but I'm so influenced by him that it probably rubs off, like people will probably just get that vibe from me.
For those who may be unfamiliar with your backstory, how would you describe the man you are behind the music and your outlook on life?
My outlook on life, I'm a thinker. I know in my music it may seem like, “Oh, he's one of those dudes that just talk about the trap or the hood,” or the bad that comes with the trap, but I got sense, too. I'm a deep thinker, I think a lot and I got kids so I gotta think for them and me. I'm the first from my family to really be on this type of level I'm on so I got a lot on my plate, but I don't really complain about it because this is what I signed up for.
You recently released your latest project, Carolina Narco, your most high-profile project to date. How did it feel to take this next leap in your career and what's the reception from the fans been like?
It's been a good one. This project might be one of my biggest I ever have done because I been getting so much feedback from it. Like from Twitter to everybody just calling and just having all positive stuff to say, and the feedback I was getting from everybody just really rocking with it. But this is what I set this out to. Because when I was planning it and I knew this was gonna be my first project from being with Interscope and having my situation, what I got going on, I wanted this to be one of my biggest projects to show people I really can rap. I'm an artist for real. 'Cause like I tell people all the time, a lot of people was respecting me from other stuff, so it never was from music. They wasn't respecting me for music, but now I'm transitioning over and making them respect me for being a rapper and an artist.
Speaking of that transition, was there a moment that really spurred you to use your musical talent?
Like I said, just being a thinker. You got to know, like, if you really in the streets and you're really doing your thing, you got to know that don't last forever. So you got to have your turning point, whether it's rapping or whether you're gonna hustle to start a legitimate business, but you gotta have some kinda way out of it. And I know I wasn't gonna get no job with nobody and I was getting good feedback from rapping. And then, I always knew I could rap, but I learned the hard part about rapping is not making a song, it's getting it out there and marketing. Once I realized that's what really matters, that's when it became like a real job to me, when it came to that, but I always knew you can't do that other stuff forever. So I knew it was gonna have to be a turning point someday, anyway.
How do you feel about rappers speaking about the trap life, but not living it?
I feel like... like if it's working for them, but it's gonna catch up 'cause when you come around somebody that really comes from that and they may ask you something and you don't know about it, or it might even be an interviewer, but some way it's gonna come out. Whether you're acting like a drug dealer, whether you're acting like a gangster or a shooter or whatever, and you walk outside on these New York streets or anywhere and somebody come snatch your chain or do something to you and you don't do nothing about it, it's gonna come out so it's not gonna last long. Either way, it don't matter how good it's lasting right now, it's not gonna last long because the universe is gonna make you stand on everything you're trying to be.
Last year, you released the song "Carolina Narco," which inspired you to build on that theme throughout an entire project. Tell me how that song came together and why you decided to run with that concept?
That song came together when I got in the studio with Youngkio, me and him locked in. I wouldn't even expect Kio to make that kind of beat because he made the "Old Town Road" beat, which is a banger, of course, but I didn't expect him to be on no trap shit like that and his vibe and he's such a cool person outside of the music. But once he came in there with that beat, it had like a Narcos feel and I just started freestyling and that's when I made that song and I was like, 'You know what, I like the song so much, my next album is gonna be like a Narcos feel.' I wanna do a movie with it; I want the front cover to look like when El Chapo got arrested; I wanted the actual song, "Carolina Narco," to be like how when he was getting out the plane and he escaped. Everybody knows El Chapo escaped, so I wanted it to be like him escaping and stuff like that. I just wanted everything to be on some Narco sh*t but in a Carolina way.
Other than El Chapo, who are some other gangsters or hustlers who you got inspiration from or just have a level of respect for?
Of course, like all of the popular people that everybody may know of, like Pablo [Escobar], El Chapo, Griselda Blanco, those types of people, but I mostly was influenced by a lot of people that I seen with my own eyes coming up in my neighborhood. Like Hot Boy, this guy named Boss G, those type of people was getting a lot of money on my side of town that I seen and I was kind of in tune with them, too, but I most definitely know all of the popular people. Pablo, Frank Matthews, Frank Lucas, all of those people. I knew all of them, but I was influenced by a lot of people that were from my neck of the woods, too.
Another song from the album that's been gaining traction is "Make A Sale," featuring Moneybagg Yo. What led you to reach out to him to hop on that song and what was it like recording the music video with him?
For that particular song, how it came about, we was on the Baby On Baby Tour or the Kirk Tour, one of 'em and he was backstage. And we was introduced and I was like, “I wanna do a song with you,” and he was like, “Send it to me.” So I sent him the song, I'm thinking like, 'He gonna take forever to get it done,' you know how these rappers be sometimes, but he sent it right back to me. And as far as the music video, we was both in Miami and I was like, 'Shit, let's shoot the video,' and he was with it. Moneybagg Yo, he been solid, anything I done ever asked of him to do, he's done it.
Over the years, you've collaborated with a number of artists from Memphis, Tennessee, including Yo Gotti, who appears on the Carolina Narco cut "Fucc Up A Check.” Is that a coincidence, and if not, what's the backstory behind your connection to the city?
I ain't never been to Memphis, crazy part about it, but I most definitely done worked with a lot of artists from Memphis, but they just be like my personal favorite artists at the time that I really can rock with and vibe with. When I got a feature from Dolph, I paid for that 'cause I was really rocking with that. I was rocking with that, and with Gotti and stuff like that, that just came later on down the line from just working. They just shot me the feature, that was on the love, that was on the house. Sh*t, it's just a coincidence, I guess, that I work with people [from Memphis]. I even worked with Key Glock from down there.
What are three songs from Carolina Narco that you're excited for the fans to hear and why?
"Cocky" stands out because I like the instruments in it. It got that Narco feel like I wanted and, of course, I put my brother on it because of some other stuff. Stunna, I put him on it 'cause of course, I know he's dope, but that cocky means something else different for him so I was like, “I'ma put him on that one.” And "Bang" came across like... with DaBaby, I put a snippet up and he wanted to jump on it. I didn't even hear Baby on that song, to be honest, but I wasn't gonna tell him no. But he snapped on that and then it got that aggressive feel on that. And the "Murder For Hire," I feel I started the album off right with that one. I like how the sample in the background gives you that feel like, “This sh*t bout to be hard.”
North Carolina has produced stars like J.Cole, DaBaby, Little Brother, Rapsody, Petey Pablo and many others, but artists from South Carolina haven't been able to attain that same level of success. What would you attribute that to?
It's probably the opportunities, cause South Carolina is not as lit as North Carolina. North Carolina got the Panthers, they got baseball teams, they got all kinds of little stuff up there. Like their city's way more lit than South Carolina but you can't use that as no excuse, it's just that nobody from South Carolina hasn't made it yet because I guess they ain't working how they're supposed to be working. But that's why I'm here to open that door and break that curse.
Being one of the more popular artists to come out of South Carolina in recent years, how does it feel to have the opportunity to put your state on the map?
It feels real good because if you're that person that do that, you're forever a legend you're gonna forever be known for being that one that did that. And just being able to show people from South Carolina that it's possible to do 'cause at this point you ain't gotta act like you're from nowhere else but South Carolina. You can go somewhere and be like, 'I'm from South Carolina, I'm a rapper,' or North Carolina or Carolina, period. Back then, you couldn't really do it.
You launched your own record label, D.M.E., a few years ago, and have been vocal about your focus on being an entrepreneur. Where did that business sense stem from and are there any CEOs in particular that you've modeled your approach after?
To be all the way honest with you, I didn't even know what a CEO was when I was calling myself that, I just knew it was a high position [laughs]. But once I got knowledge of what was going on, people like JAY-Z, Diddy, and even Rick Ross, those type of people motivated me because I got more of a CEO lifestyle than a rapper, people. I had to mold myself into wanting to talk and stuff like that, you can't be anti-social, people will take it the wrong way and take it like you're being cocky. So you really got to be a certain way when you're a rapper versus being a CEO, you ain't gotta be in everybody face all the time, you can kinda play the background.
You signed with a deal with South Coast Music, home to Da Baby and Stunna 4 Vegas. What's the backstory behind that partnership?
I think I signed with South Coast in the end of 2018. I been knew them, like (Daud “King”) Carter and all of them, but just being part of that, it's good 'cause being in the same loop as the winning squad. It's a lot of people that probably just hate that, just not being in the mix of all that's going on, but that just came from everybody working
In what areas would you say you've grown as an artist over the years?
I got more confident on the track. I got more confident performing, I got more confident talking in interviews. It's just a growth, it was a learning experience. I learned the business more. The main thing I learned about it is my audience, I learning who I'm catering my music to. you gotta learn who you're rapping to. You gotta really realize what's your message and who you're trying to deliver your message to.
In 2017, you teamed up with Hoodrich Pablo Juan to release the collaborative mixtape, Dirty Money, Power, Respect. How did that project come about?
Really, I always knew Hoodrich Pablo, but I wasn't really no big fan of his music, my brother felt like it was a good move. So we was in L.A. and my brother brought him to the studio and we knocked out three or four songs. And they wanted to drop it like a little slick collab, so we just put it out there like that.
If you could paint a picture of what your life and career will look like in five years, what would the portrait look like?
One of the biggest in the game and South Carolina being known as a music capital. I want a lot more artists to come behind me, at least five to ten artists to come behind me within these five years and be like megastars including myself.
You've mentioned making a short film to accompany the album, what inspired you to do that and how did it feel to tap into your talents as an actor?
It was really good to see how I can really transform from rapping to acting. I feel like I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it, though, not on no cocky sh*t, but I feel like I can do anything. But it was some real good experience just from testing myself and putting myself in that lane where you have to get in character mode and be serious on the camera all the time and really get into that mode, but then I wanted to do something different. There's nobody I can think of or nobody that's done it in a while where they dropping a short-films with their project. Because a lot of people listen to music, but it's a lot of people that will go look at a movie, too.
Love isn’t an afterthought in our current time of self-isolation. The mélange of it all is felt in the spirit of singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Resting with her family in Toronto in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, her tribe of fans waits patiently for her to jump on Instagram Live. The intimate meetups were provided in the past but with her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us in the ethos, fans are eager for Jessie’s magnetic energy.
One of her Lives, in particular, was life-changing as aspiring artists had the opportunity to sing for her. Diligently listening to every nayhoo, chord, and harmony from Israel, Florida, and Brazil, Jessie gives strong advice to her young fans. From taking advantage of studio time to the perks of platforms like Soundcloud, the gems are passed from one growing artist to another through the telephone screen.
The transfer of loving energy is something that comes easy for Jessie. At 28, the Colombiana embodies the wisdom of her ancestors and wit of a whiskey-toting millennial. The world’s current apocalyptic omens would shake some, but Jessie is focused on the brighter elements of life. “Love can help with actual survival tactics; survival not for the individual but for the community,” she says on her current mindstate around the outbreak. “The only way I think it could hurt us is if we don't think about the community and approach this selfishly. Anyone that’s scared of losing people to this is hard. Every day I’m calling every single one of my elderly family members to make sure they’re good. There are so many celebrities and politicians talking about it so I feel silly reiterating the same information but it’s literally about the curve.”
Our conversation comes days before the release of her debut, a concept album ripened with the everlasting relationship between love and mortality. We have her fans to thank for its release. After an online poll pushed for the album, Jessie committed to the March 27 release date. “I had a hard time too because the title is literally Before Love Came To Kill Us, like, the whole premise of the album was to trigger people into thinking about mortality and now it almost seems like it's a theme song to what everyone is going through. Everybody is thinking about how to survive right now so I’m embracing it because I made the decision to go with it. I've been connecting with fans online, which has been a nice silver lining. I'm not mad at this. It can be worse for me right now.”
The project arrives four years after her breakthrough hit “Figures” lodged a dagger into our musical hearts. With just a guitar and her signature messy up-down hairstyle, Jessie highlights her worst fears—giving love but never receiving it. It made her stand out in 2016 and soon become a notable rising act and fan-favorite alongside fellow newbies like Khalid and SZA.
”I’ve been chasing this sh*t my whole life man, don’t ever think I take this sh*t for granted,” she said during a VEVO Halloween show in 2017. Her debut EP Kiddo proved this with diary-entry songs about her journey in the industry. The harrowing “Gatekeepers” dropped in the middle of the #MeToo movement and pointed out a producer who attempted to pressure the young singer into sleeping with him. The single showcased Jessie’s lethal songwriting skills and her bravery in a competitive, and at times, misogynistic industry.
Jessie’s resilience paired with her unparalleled voice has kept her shining in R&B. With the release of her EP Being Human In Public in late 2018, Reyez began to align herself with other fearless women in the game like Kehlani and Normani. The project, featuring sobering tracks like “F**k Being Friends” and “Sola,” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Despite losing to Lizzo, Jessie’s voice in R&B had finally been heard.
Women of Latinx descent have always been entwined in soul music. Lisa Velez, known for her groundbreaking group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam in the 1980s, released songs like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985) and “From Head to Toe” (1987) in a time where Latinas were expected to sing in Spanish or constantly keep the party going with 120 bpm tunes. The release of their tender, 1986 ballad “All Cried Out” would go on to be sampled by R&B quartet Allure in 1997. Sheila E.’s vital percussions not only inspired Prince but are also infused into the tracks by Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie.
These steps would also go on to enlighten artists like Amy Winehouse and Ms. Lauryn Hill–two pivotal artists who Jessie Reyez looks to for inspiration. With fearless grit, Reyez takes risks like her sheroes. For one, she’s not afraid to tap into her latinidad by singing in Spanish (hear the touching “La Memoria”) and incorporating the Mexican traditions of Día De Los Muertos in her new video for “I Do.” As R&B turns a new corner with acts like H.E.R., Ella Mai, and Tory Lanez topping the charts, Jessie's abilities make her a new leader Latinx R&B heads can stan and the music industry execs can take note of.
The combination of mindfulness and rustic songwriting taps into a new kind of pop star for people of color today. With love taking a new shape through apps, FaceTime dates and social media, the love songs have become more brutal with Reyez hitting every wrapped high note.
Speaking with VIBE VIVA, Jessie shares the tragedy of soulmates, creating Before Love Came To Kill Us, her consistent chemistry with Eminem and the perks of being yourself.
Before Love Came To Kill Us seems to be here at the right time. How are you feeling about the release?
Jessie Reyez: I'm definitely nervous and I hope it's the best it can be, I hope it is. I tweaked the sh*t out of it. I kept loving it Monday and hating it on Tuesday. Then I would love it on Wednesday and hate it on Thursday. It was very tumultuous. I wasn't feeling pressure when I started. I was free. The more you fu**ing talk to people, the more you risk their perspective affecting your core. Like when people say, “Oh, it's your first album, did you feel pressure?” “Uh, Nah.” And then the second person asks I say, “Nah.” But then the tenth person is asking if you let that sh*t seep in. You're getting closer to the zone where you might be second-guessing your intuition and that never ends right.
On top of that, we had certain people being like, “We have to make sure the album is cohesive.” I remember dealing with song selections and having this word in my head. As a human being, my innate nature and soul are sporadic. I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am a loving woman and a violent woman. I am all these things and for me to comprise and make this album cohesive, as opposed to making the first album me? I had a window of clarity where I was like, f**k that. People are gonna cry and people are gonna bop. The same way they did on Kiddo and the same way they did on Being Human In Public. I didn't want to make everybody cry for the sake of having everybody cry. F**k that. If I'm a rainbow, I'm the worst ends of the rainbow. If it's a bloody rainbow then it's gonna be a bloody rainbow, you know?
I enjoyed the highs and lows of the album because that’s what love is. I enjoyed the collaboration with Eminem. How was it hearing his verse for the first time on "Coffin"?
He's actually one of the last features of the album. To be honest, Eminem could've sent me the verse saying “Quack, quack, quack,” and it still would've been dope. He's a legend and to welcome a legend on my project, someone I listened to as a kid, it's an honor. When I got it, and it wasn't “Quack, quack, quack,” I was like, “Ahh this is dope.” It could've been nothing and I still would've been honored. The fact that's it dope it's a double W.
There’s a quote about soulmates I heard on The Good Place. It goes, “If soulmates do exist, they're not found, they're made.” Do you believe in soulmates?
I'm one of those people who are reluctant to love because I know that the moment I do, I'm f**ked. When I say I'm f**ked I mean it's an uphill to get me to fall in love. Once I get there, it's like I'm crawling out of hell. Like a vertical crawl. It's the worst because now I'm at the point where...everybody's great because everybody starts great. I'm trying not to let my past experiences harden my heart. Sometimes it feels like the hell always wins for me. I think it's a beautiful sentiment.
I'm not sure if I believe this anymore but there was a point in my life where I really thought that you choose to love. You choose who you love because it's not always going to be easy. But you fight through it when it's hard because it's not always gonna be there. Some days I'm an optimist and some days I'm a pessimist. It just depends. Today, I guess I'm just indecisive.
Does it ever get annoying being the "deep girl?"
Well, I did when people were telling me to make the album cohesive. But sometimes I just wanna go nuts and it's not that serious, it's just who I am. I definitely feel that sometimes people have that expectation but I think I have that discernment to not let that affect how I'm gonna move. So when Monday and Tuesday show up and I feel like I want to be an intellectual, then on Wednesday I wanna post some ridiculous f**king meme or like Sunday I wanna just mess around with my nieces and put it online, I'm gonna do that. I feel like people expect it but I don't really care (Laughs).
What do you think of people still looking for love via FaceTime dates during the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t understand how dating can be a priority right now.
It's funny how situations like this can pull people in different ways. I was having a conversation with someone about this too and they were like, “How the f**k can you be thinking about this right now?" They had the same reaction as you. I don't know but that's just people are different. If you push someone towards death, some are going to figure out ways to get out and some people are just going to accept that it's the end and they're going to see what else they can do before the end. Go find a King or Queen.
The pandemic put a hold on the music industry and like many other events, your tour with Billie Eilish has been postponed. How were the first two dates you got to do together?
We got to do Orlando and Miami together and that was nice. It was great man, she's got puppies on her rider which has gotta be the smartest most potent way to happiness. To see a little baby puppy everywhere you go while you work, that's been my highlight.
If you had to pick the “Best Part” and “Worst Part” of your life, what gets put on the table?
The best part is (pauses) not dealing with slimy dudes anymore, like when I was a bottle service girl/bartender. There were a lot of times where I had to bite my tongue and just thug it out. Especially when I was a bottle service girl, that job is f**king hard. At least when you're a bartender, you have the bar standing in the way, so there's a little bit of protection against you. But the bottle service girl, you're in the trenches. You have to slide through there and cover your ass because guys will slap your ass and be matter-o-facto, it's a f**king jungle and I'm happy I went through it because it made me thicker skinned and it made me hustle more.
The worst part would be (pauses) I read this often in books, the f**ked up part is that when you get everything you want and you're still not happy. There are a lot of things I have been blessed with; a career right now that's blossoming right now and I've been blessed to help out people in my family financially, but I still battle a lot of demons internally that I haven't been able to grab a hold of yet. There are just times on the road where I'm like, “I gotta figure it out.” I gotta figure out how to make my psychological health a priority because as good as my brain and my heart are, I wonder, "Am I doing life right?"
It’s so amazing to watch you grow. How do you keep yourself so centered?
When I started, I made it a point to be as authentic as possible. From the jump, it's been that and I owe a lot of that to my parents. My family was very strict in regard to me not being able to go to sleepovers, not having boyfriends, being raised in a Colombian household in Canada because kids are allowed to do whatever they want but you're not.
Your a** is still getting beat, your ass is still in the house. So that's the case with a lot of minorities, the culture is just different in regards to what we're allowed and not allowed to do as kids. I wasn't allowed to do a lot of sh*t but the stuff I was allowed to do was through self-expression. Even if I wasn't allowed to go to sleepovers, have a boyfriend or leave the block, I was still allowed to wear all my brother's clothes. If I didn't wanna wear any girl clothes, it was fine. I was still allowed to bleach my bangs if I wanted to bleach my bangs.
My dad was prepared for me to cut my hair off and dye it pink, I used to take the old curtains my mom was going to give away and chop them up and make dresses and make hairpieces and all this sh*t and if I wanted to go to school like that I was allowed. My parents were very liberal in that regard, allowing me to spend time writing and doing poetry all day.
I remember once when we moved, they were taking down the (switch border light). The place we moved into had a ton of those that were metal and embellished and my mom hated them so then she took them all down. They all had them downstairs in a box and I took the whole box and brought them to my room. I thought it would be so dope if I took them and hammered them all over my room. So my mom came in and saw and was like, “What the hell did she do? This looks ridiculous but okay.”
Now, I'm grown. If I feel like someone is telling me what to wear, or if I feel like someone is strongly suggesting I need to be in this, the first thing I think of is, “My parents don't tell me what to wear. You think you're gonna tell me what to wear?” I've had that feeling of self-expression since I was a kid. That's not something I'm willing to give up cause I know that it was a gift from my parents. A lot of kids have that repression. You have to make sure your hair looks like this, your shoes are f**king this, all that sh*t and I didn't have that. So I honor it by being true to myself now.