Since completing his contractual obligations to Columbia Records in 2020 with the release of Shake the Snow Globe, his third album with the label, Russ has been on an independent tear. That same year, the crossover star rediscovered the hunger of an indie artist with CHOMP, an album on which he volleyed bars with the likes of Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, and Benny the Butcher. Receiving rave reviews for its displays of lyricism, CHOMP was hailed as a creative milestone for Russ, as it proved his ability to combine the dense rhyme spills of a die-hard rapper with the signature melodicism of his more radio-friendly fare.
A proud multi-hyphenate artist, Russ has proven his ambitions extend beyond the booth. The rapper recently penned his first book, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD, a self-help text that finds him recalling lessons learned from his winding road to stardom. Landing on multiple bestsellers lists, the book is an example of Russ thrusting himself into uncharted territory, which has become a trend for hit-maker as of late. Outspoken when it comes to celebrating his accolades and accomplishments, this past year the agitator lent his voice to a meaningful cause through his involvement in The Weldon Project, an initiative dedicated to raising awareness of injustice in the cannabis industry and freeing nonviolent marijuana offenders.
Yet, Russ’ side endeavors haven’t left him sidetracked. He recently returned to the music scene with CHOMP 2, a record that stacks up as his most explosive to date. Picking up where he left off on the first installment, he ups the ante with a murderer’s row of costars including The Game, Ransom, Papoose, Big KRIT, Westside Gunn, Styles P, Jadakiss, Lloyd Banks, Cyhi Tha Prince, Jay Electronica, Ghostface Killah, Conway The Machine, Mozzy, Snoop Dogg, Big Sean, Wale, and Royce Da 5’9. A stickler for dope beats, the rapper also employs a star-studded slate of boardsmen on CHOMP 2, as names like 9th Wonder, Statik Selektah, Hi-Tek, The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Jake One, Hitboy, Bink!, Boi-1DA, Harry Fraud, and Mr. Porter appear alongside his within the album’s production credits.
Near the arrival of his latest album, which was released last month under the indie imprint Russ My Way, VIBE spoke with Russ about working with lyrical titans on CHOMP 2, becoming a best-selling author, joining the frontlines in the fight for cannabis reform, and more.
VIBE: Last year, you released your CHOMP EP, which was your first project since parting ways with Columbia and going independent. How was that experience of putting out a project on your own and going back to your roots?
Russ: It felt good, man. It felt good to just be kind of out here doing what I want, when I want again. And the Columbia situation was great. There wasn’t any restrictions, but it’s just nice to be completely holding the reins again.
The first CHOMP project had appearances from Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and Benny The Butcher, all of whom are renowned for their lyricism. What was it like working with those artists? Did you use those collaborations as an opportunity to showcase your skills as a lyricist yourself?
The CHOMP brand and the series is about collaborating with the illest rappers over the most classic production. It’s just about pushing your pen. And, for me, I kind of look at it like basketball. I always liked playing with the older kids, the ones that were better than me and it just made me get better, you feel me? So, that’s kind of what CHOMP is about, like, “Let me go rap with all the people who I think are the nicest rappers out.”
Would you say CHOMP 2 is your most ambitious body of work to date?
Yeah, because it was a process really A&Ring this myself and having to hit people up. I really wrangled everyone solo, through DMs. There was no label or manager or A&R reaching out and connecting the collab. So, when I was going in to make the project I was like, “Man this is gonna be a lot to pull off, but if I can pull this off, it’s gonna be special.” I’m proud that I was able to really get every collab that I wanted.
How were you able to make those phone calls and reach out to those people?
Man, really, a lot of them, I was just sending cold calls. Like, DMing and just sending a shot in the wind and hoping that they hit me back, but a lot of them I never talked to before. Big KRIT, Papoose, Lloyd Banks… Mozzy. There were a couple ones that I had never talked to before, but I reached out because I respected them and their pen and I was like, “Man, if I can pull this off, it’d be crazy.” And it was cool to just find out that a lot of these people that I’m fans of, that I respect, also shared a mutual respect for me and what I do.
CHOMP 2 includes features from Westside Gunn and Conway, and you’ve previously worked with Benny The Butcher. How would you describe your relationship with the Griselda camp and the synergy y’all have built?
I’ve been a fan of Griselda for a minute. I first got put onto Benny a couple years ago and I was just instantly a fan. [I] hit him up and we’ve been locked in ever since. And then I started listening to the other guys and I was like… I did stuff with Benny on CHOMP 1. [So], on CHOMP 2, I gotta to work with the other ones.
Were there any special memories doing this project, whether it was getting a particular song together or maybe something that you learned from somebody that you worked with?
Me getting the Jay Electronica verse back was pretty surreal just because I had been listening to him forever. And I knew that was gonna be a really difficult verse to get just because I know he’s selective. And people had told me like, “Yo, good luck, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to get that one,” and I got it and I was like, “Man this is bucket list stuff.”
Lloyd Bank was my favorite rapper when I was nine years old, you know what I mean? Like, I grew up loving Lloyd Banks, I always listened to all these guys. So, the making of the project, in general, is the illest memory.
You’re releasing the project on your website a day before its official release to give your diehard fans an exclusive listen. How important is fan engagement to you and how have moves like that impacted your career?
Man, fan engagement is everything. My fans really ride for me because I feel like I ride for them. We talk, I go on IG live a lot, I respond to a lot of their DMs. I want them to feel like they know me and it’s someone they’re close to that they know because they root for you more, you know what I mean? Like, I don’t want them to only just like the music, I want them to f**k with me and f**k with how I think. That was what was so important about putting the book out and things like that. I got the best fan base in the world, and I think it’s from the fact that I’ve tried really hard to engage with them across the board, on numerous levels. So, there’s just a deeper connection than music there.
You came into the game recording, producing, and engineering all your music by yourself, but over the years, you’ve let the reigns go and allowed other people to contribute to your projects. What spurred that decision and evolution in your artistry?
Yeah, for the CHOMP series, I wanted to go to the source, you feel me? Like, I know I wanted to make classic rap projects and I was like, “Well, I know I could make it as far as just myself and do all the beats,” but I wanted to go to the source of who’s been behind some of the classic rap projects. And that’s Premiere; that’s 9th Wonder; that’s Hi-Tek; that’s B!nk, Jake One, and Harry Fraud. It’s a certain sound I was going for, you know what I mean? And then, on the rap side, too, it’s like I wanted to involve people who I think are classic or timeless. It was just about doing classic, timeless Hip-Hop.
You celebrated the sixth anniversary of your breakout single “Losin Control” with a sequel that was well-received by your longtime fans. How would you describe the impact that song had on your career and its significance in introducing you to the world?
I love that song. I love “Losin Control.” I love that I was able to just be vulnerable and that’s kind of what worked for me. It allowed me in my career to be an open book, confidently, you know? That’s just a great song, man. Come on, we’re talking about one of the illest R&B songs in the last decade, easily.
You were recently awarded a BMI R&B/Hip-Hop award for your single “Best on Earth” feat. Bia. How did that collaboration come about and how does it feel to see it receive the accolades it’s earned?
The collaboration with her came about [because] we were just in L.A. and I had this beat that I thought she would sound crazy on. It wasn’t the “Best On Earth” beat. And she’s one of those ones that like her tone and talent was just super obvious, but I feel like people were sleeping on her. And one of my homies put me onto her and I was like, “Her tone is crazy.” And I’m all about tone, so, I was like, “Man, I could hear her voice on this beat.”
So, [I] book a session, she pulls up. I’m playing her the beat that I have in mind and I could tell, “Okay, it wasn’t the one,” and we just keep playing beats. And then I’m just going through beats, random packs that I’ve been sent, and I play the “Best on Earth” beat from Boi-1da and she’s like, “Oh, this is crazy.” And we just wrote it right there in the session and that s**t went f**king nuts, even though I sat on it for like nine months and just put it out randomly. And Rihanna posted [that] it was her favorite song and rest is history.
You also have a lot going on outside of music, including the release of your book, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD, which was on various bestsellers lists. Describe the inspiration behind writing that book.
Yeah, man, that book was something I had been kind of thinking about for a minute. I wanted to write a book just because I read a lot of self-help books when I was like 17-18 that changed my life and I attribute a lot of my success to reading those types of books. So, I was like, “Man, I feel like I got something to say,” and I kind of noticed that my fans look to me for advice… So, I was like, “Why don’t I just put out a book,” because I know how much they helped me.
When it came out and the reception that I got and that it still gets, I was like, “Yeah, this is maybe more important than the music because it’s my belief system.” And the fact that I recorded the audiobook myself, like it’s my voice saying it man… that lives forever. Like, I can only imagine if there was an audiobook of Nipsey just giving his belief system, you know what I mean? I would love that. So, I’m glad that I was able to contribute that back into the world.
You’ve been among the artists leading the charge to free nonviolent marijuana offenders through your involvement with The Weldon Project. What’s the backstory on you becoming involved in that initiative and would you say that progress is being made?
I think at the end of the day, just to put it simply, being a white guy legally selling weed while there’s minorities locked up for selling weed. Like, come on, you can’t just f**king act like there’s not a problem there. So, I feel like the least I could do is try to help make a change and make progress in that space. It was just a no-brainer to link up with Weldon [Angelos] because what he’s doing is incredible.
Did they reach out to you or is it something that you heard about?
Yeah, it was kind of like my team connected me with them. It was an opportunity like, “Yo, do you want to get involved with this? They’re interested if you are.” And I was like “Hell, yeah, why would I not be?”
I feel the same way about Hip-Hop. You know, being a white person in a Black culture, I don’t think it’s right to just take from it and not give anything back. So, I’m just trying to play my part.
We hear you have a few big things brewing for 2022, can you give us the scoop on what’s next for Russ moving forward?
Yeah, I’m just about to go on a run, bro. I’m like, “Man, you know what, I got people’s attention, I got a fan base that gives a f**k about me and that can’t be something that I’m jaded to. I can’t take that for granted. There’s a lot of artists that would kill to have the audience I have, so while I got them, while they’re tuned in, I’m gonna go crazy. I’m going on a run. I’m on my little Wayne s**t [in 2022]. Just a ton of music… My foot’s on the gas.