If you skim the singles, you might get the wrong impression of RJ. Over the last 18 months, the South Central–raised protégé of DJ Mustard has dropped several of L.A.’s biggest street rap hits.
There’s “Get Rich,” on which RJ and Oakland’s Iamsu! taunt how they’re going to get richer than you. RJ’s breakthrough was “Ride Wit Me,” post-ratchet gangsta rap about the importance of riding low-key and heavily strapped.
Airplay from Power 106 helped buoy RJ into a rare modern L.A. phenomenon: a ’hood-certified star whose initial support came from the people, not blog worship or major-label marketing. Of course, the co-sign of YG and L.A.’s biggest producer since Dre certainly helps.
Even though his most popular songs are party music, RJ’s backstory and intellect reveal a desire to go deeper.
“I can’t go into today’s industry and rap like Public Enemy. The people won’t gravitate to that,” RJ says. “But if you listen closely, I plant seeds and sprinkle little things in there that the kids need.”
The hook of “Get Rich” might be capitalist fan fiction, but the bars start with RJ dreaming about getting his door kicked down by police and remembering when he had to cross state lines to pick up drugs. “I’m all alone in a crowd,” he raps. “Don’t touch me/Smoking, I’m frustrated.”
He balances book and street smarts. RJ shows up to an Eastside café wearing a white tee, baggy jeans and a blinding “10 Summers” chain. He vaguely resembles a young, gangsta Will Smith. Lest you wrongly stereotype him, there’s a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities tucked into his back pocket.
“I’m not down with being categorized. People have different moods and do different things in a regular day, so why judge them in only one light?” RJ asks. “I’m not just a gangsta rapper. I go through different moods, and the music reflects that.”
You might not expect to see a lanky former high school basketball and baseball star stashing a Victorian classic in his jeans. But the themes of poverty, social unrest and incarceration don’t land far from RJ’s own biography.
Raised on 89th and Normandie, RJ has deep family roots in Compton, including patrilineal ties to the Westside Piru set. His dad was a hustler and businessman. His grandfather was a bootlegger.
“It’s all there in my blood. I’m a hard worker, but I’m also a hustler,” RJ says.
After graduating high school, RJ took on odd jobs ranging from dope dealer to firefighter to manager at a Sprint store. He saw close friends die and served six months in county jail as an accomplice to armed robbery. Several years ago, he moved to Atlanta and says he started trafficking narcotics. But when feds kicked in the door of his trap house, he knew it was time to move back and explore more legitimate routes.
Finally taking rap seriously, RJ linked up with Mustard and eventually became the flagship artist in the producer’s 10 Summers crew. Since his official 2013 debut, he’s rapidly ascended into the ranks of the city’s best young rappers, even turning down a six-figure offer from an undisclosed major label.
“I want to be looked at as organic and genuine. I know who I am and I know what I’m saying,” RJ says.
“I can be a gangsta when I want to, or chill, or a businessman. I might get money and talk about that, but it’s detailed. There are more people without cars than with, and I’ve been with no car. I still have that feeling. I’m trying to talk to my people rather than talk at them.”
RJ headlines Club Nokia this Friday, Sept. 18.
An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.