“One of my friends called me one day and was like, ‘We’re gonna call you Chachi,’” Compton rapper Problem tells me. He’s talking about Chachi Arcola, Scott Baio’s character in Happy Days, the younger cousin and sidekick of Henry Winkler's Fonzie. Toward the end of Happy Days’ 11-season run, Baio co-starred in the show’s spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi, then got his first chance to be sole lead on the ’80s sitcom Charles in Charge.

“So that’s kind of how my career went,” continues the 31-year-old, who’s using the nickname in the title of his next record, Chachiville. “First I was writing for people, then I started being a featured artist on stuff, and then I had my own thing.”

It’s Sunday morning and we’re in San Bruno, a sleepy suburb south of San Francisco, having breakfast next door to a taekwondo studio and a Weight Watchers. The goatee’d emcee, whose most famous track is the 2013 single “Like Whaaat,” has brought along his manager, Melissa Keklak, and nephew-turned-DJ Kyle aka DJ Kai, who, though only 15 years old, has already joined the rapper for one national tour.

Problem grew up in Compton in the ’90s and considers himself lucky, because his musical awakening came around the same time many of the West Coast’s second generation of rappers were coming up. He says he used to run into Nipsey Hussle while pasting promotional posters around South Central and recalls meeting Ty Dolla $ign back when he “looked like D’Angelo, sitting in his mama's house, just playing the fucking piano and shit.” Problem credits Inglewood rapper Skeme for helping him get on the radio the first time, and says that Schoolboy Q was once his roommate for six months.

In fact, making connections with the right people at the right time has been a trend throughout Problem’s career, ever since he started as a writer on Snoop Dogg’s 2008 album, Ego Trippin’. Through his work with the Doggfather, Problem met a slew of artists and industry figures who, charmed by his enthusiasm and knack for coining catchy hooks, would end up working with him or referring him to others.

E-40 was one of those people, and in 2012, after a 3:30 a.m. studio session, Problem decided to send him a hook for a song he’d just penned.

“By 3:45 a.m., E-40 texted me back, saying, ‘Don’t play this for nobody else,’” he says.

That hook ended up becoming the chorus to E-40’s gold-certified single “Function,” which features Problem, Iamsu! and YG as guest artists. The song became a Bay Area anthem and helped expose all three rappers to a national audience. And after becoming known as a rapper who mixes Bay Area and SoCal sounds, Problem continued that trend by teaming up with Iamsu! for the joint mixtape Million Dollar Afro less than a year later.

“That’s what [Iamsu! and I] were talking about last night, just riding around,” Problem says, while pouring copious amounts of cream into his coffee. “He was saying how I’m embraced up here because of those moves. I grew up listening to Mac Mall, Richie Rich and Too $hort and E-40. So as a fan of music, of course I’m going to pull from those influences. I feel like I represent California, not just Los Angeles, and I’m so glad my music comes off that way.”

In the years since, Problem has released a handful of EPs and mixtapes and been a featured artist on a slew of tracks for such acts as The Game, Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa, Omarion, Talib Kweli and Tech 9ine. Last year was especially fruitful for the emcee, who not only collaborated on and co-produced an EP with DJ Quik but whose song “My Squad” was chosen as the official anthem for the L.A. Rams.

Chachiville, which comes out on Friday, Jan. 20, marks Problem’s first release in eight months and, he says, will serve as a precursor to his long-awaited debut album (which doesn’t yet have a release date). Featuring a handful of lesser-known artists, the 13-track project — which Problem produced, mixed and mastered himself — marks a shift in his sound, shying away from the upbeat ratchet vibe popularized by DJ Mustard and YG, and packing more of a gritty, gangster toughness.

“I’ve been in the business getting money for eight years, so if I sounded the same as my last project, we’re not doing something right,” he says. “So there’s definitely been a growth in the sound, and you can hear a new edge to me on it.”

In addition to regular channels such as iTunes and Spotify, Chachiville will be available for streaming and purchasing on Problem’s newly created website, Chachiville.com. Serving as both an interactive and a comprehensive website for the project, Chachiville.com will include everything from song lyrics and short documentaries to merch and pages where fans can post videos and share content. In fact, one song on the album, the slinky, synth-heavy “Ain’t Fuh Me,” was written explicitly for fans, with a full 30 seconds bereft of lyrics so that listeners can rap their own verses over the beat.

“I was just thinking, well, how can we put this album out differently than I’ve ever seen?” Problem says. “I always want to think as a fan when I’m putting my music together, plus I always want to think outside of the box.”

Thinking outside of the box can backfire, and there’s no guarantee that fans will utilize Chachiville.com in the ways that Problem hopes they will. But the rapper is unfazed by these risks, and accepts taking chances as a necessary step to fame.

“At the end of the day, I’m not scared to miss or do it wrong,” Problem says. “So I’m not looking at it like I’m walking on eggshells. Nah, I was meant to do this, and I’m going to do this shit forever.”

LA Weekly