Don’t let the boisterous gun talk, drug deals, and Blocboy JB‘s lively dancing fool you. The “Look Alive” rapper is what trained scholars like Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson would label an organic intellectual.
BlocBoy understands that life in the ghetto is cheap. Whether bloodshed occurs over senseless gang violence or a botched robbery, one can easily lose their life over a few thousand dollars in the ghetto. It was this type of understanding combined with the birth of his son that inspired the rising rapper to draft up a plan: release a mixtape every three months that would enable him to escape spaces where his life is deemed as valueless.
“N***as don’t want to fight now. They want to shoot, shoot, shoot,” BlocBoy says during an interview with VIBE. “Where I’m from, what’s a little to you is a lot to them. A thousand dollars, a n***a will kill for that. N***as just don’t care. Before you know it, you caught up in that way of thinking also—if that’s all you know.”
It’s 1 p.m. in New York City on a clear and crisp Spring day. The Memphis, Tenn., native is in the City of Dreams to promote his current mixtape, Simi, named after a hometown friend who was murdered in 2015. Despite Bloc’s semi-snail paced movement out of his SUV’s backseat, he musters up a smile. “He doesn’t sleep. He stays in the studio. That’s it. And gets money,” says Rex, Bloc’s manager.
Even though he’s lacking sufficient hours of sleep, the 21-year-old is respectful. He speaks to everyone present, shakes hands, and holds direct eye contact. But that’s to be expected; Blocboy is from a city where elders and children alike do not bend on exercising manners. Memphis is also the place that birthed the famed Stax Records. During the 1960s, sitting snug on the city’s once-bustling McLemore Ave., Stax was home to artists like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Isacc Hayes, Wilson Pickett, amongst others. The Southern metropolis, which has not faltered in churning out relevant music, is also home to highly successful hip-hop labels like CMG (Yo Gotti) and PRE (Young Dolph), both succeeding Three 6 Mafia’s Hypnotized Minds imprint.
“Memphis taught me to go with your gut,” BlocBoy says. “If something tells you to sit, then you sit. If something tells you to go, then go.” It was this type of intuition that led to BlocBoy’s explosion in hip-hop. After the birth of his son and several failed gigs at a local warehouse and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Popeyes, the Egyptian gods of Memphis as well as his late friend, Simi, told Bloc to get serious about his music.
The “Range Rover 2.0” rapper decided to release a mixtape every three months as a nod to his Grape Street Crip set (the number 3—or Tray—consist of several Crip sets that fall under the Gangster Crips, and, or loosely, associated with Eight Tray Gangster Crips). While he locked himself in the studio in 2017, the Feds handed down 22 indictments to members of Memphis’ Grape Street Crips.
The aftermath of BlocBoy’s flood of music last year—Juice, Loco, and Purple M&M—equated to songs like “No Chorus 6” and “Shoot” garnering over a million YouTube views. His popular “Shoot” dance also garnered major attention outside of his hometown.
Like a story lifted from a hip-hop fairytale, Drake inboxed the young upstart to see if he could record a verse on the Tay Keith-produced record, “Look Alive.” It quickly rose to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Born James Baker Jr, JB is the middle child of his mom’s seven children. After getting caught in the snares of Memphis’ streets, JB’s dad, James Baker Sr., was handed a 25-year prison sentence. Baker Sr. still has a few summers and winters to serve behind the G-Wall, but Bloc isn’t bitter about his father’s absence from his life. In fact, he looks forward to building a relationship with him upon his release. Bloc doesn’t believe that absent fathers are a definite answer to many of the problems plaguing young black men living in crime-ridden areas like Raleigh, an area in North Memphis where JB learned how to survive, rap, fight and shoot guns.
“You’re a man before anything. You don’t need a father,” Bloc says. “I know people that don’t have a father who are nice as hell, and very successful. Some people have fathers, and they end up in prison or on drugs or in and out of jail, doing everything they see their father do in the streets. It depends on what type of father you have in your life. Sometimes your own father can be the reason you’re fu**ed up.”
Despite not finishing high school, BlocBoy was wise enough to think for himself and not subscribe to cliché theories passed down through schools and media. Bloc’s encounter with Tay Keith was instrumental in changing his life for the better and enabling him to remove himself from places where life has no value.
“That’s my boy,” Bloc says of his go-to producer. “He knows what I like to hear. Been doing the sh** so much, I hear a Tay Keith beat, I just go in. I hear the basic sh*t, so when I hear it, it’s like I’m going off the subtitles.”
When Bloc was 14 years old, his family moved to Raleigh. Getting familiar with his new neighborhood, Bloc went sightseeing. One block over, he saw Tay in the shed with his studio equipment. After an inquiry, positive energy was exchanged between the two, and Bloc left with a few of Keith’s instrumentals to rap over.
“He’s always had that same style,” Bloc says about Tay’s fun, brooding style of production. “But I was telling him he should try more sh*t. Experiment.”
After explaining the first time he won a street fight at age 14 (he later knocked out a 22-year old when he was 15 years old), BlocBoy suddenly has a burst of energy. He jokes about the women and men who litter his DMs. He relishes in the fact that he already bought his mom and siblings a home. And he proudly discusses his baby sister, a high school basketball star with a bevy of scholarship offers.
Everything has happened so fast for the young father. One year, he’s releasing local mixtapes, then 2018 arrives, and he’s a nationally known rapper. He admits that he was unprepared for non-stop work, interviews, flying across the country and the exhaustion that comes with being a recognizable artist. “I did not know how much rappers work,” Bloc said. “I didn’t know this much went into rapping.”
But if Bloc has the mental capacity to understand that it’s not about having a father in the home in order to inspire a better life, and he can propose a plan to remove himself from a violent atmosphere, then he’ll successfully divulge a plan to handle rap stardom.
Stream Simi below.