We talked with Boldy James about this new phase in his career, joining Griselda, meeting JAY-Z, why the Nas situation didn’t work out, and why Alchemist is a psychopath.
You can call it a comeback, even though he’s been here for years.
Rappers don’t always get second chances. But Detroit rapper Boldy James, 38, is one of the lucky ones. It’s been seven years since he released his debut, My 1st Chemistry Set, which was produced entirely by The Alchemist, who Boldy met through his cousin Chuck Inglish. My 1st Chemistry Set was one of the best albums to drop that year: Boldy’s deadpan delivery, matter-of-fact lyrics partnered with Alchemist’s glitchy production. The underground success of that album led to a life-changing opportunity: After appearing on stage with Nas at SXSW in 2014, he signed to Mass Appeal Records. He was the Queens legend’s first artist.
And then…momentum just stopped. He would put out music sporadically, a mixtape like Trappers Alley 2 in 2015 or an EP like The Art of Rock Climbing in 2017, but he spent most of that time still in the streets, fighting cases and doing skid bids. He never regained the spark he caught with My 1st Chemistry Set and the relationship with Mass Appeal dissolved.
“I didn’t understand it at first because, you know, with the street, it’s money right here, right now on the spot. I don’t got to really wait on it. With the music, things have to materialize, the work has to be put in and it has to be received a certain kind of way before you start reaping the benefits,” Boldy James said, reflecting on the last couple of years of his music career. “A lot of times I was losing focus because I wasn’t making the money fast enough. I was used to living a fast life, so I just want to get back in the street and get to hustling, when really, this is a hustle in itself if you can master it.”
Boldy also felt like the music had changed. He has always been a methodical, careful rapper. And he wanted the production to match that style. Yet Boldy felt like the music that was being created and embraced was “turn-up” songs and shit for the clubs. Only recently have the tides have turned, and a burgeoning scene of underground street rap — led by figures like Griselda, Mach-Hommy, DJ Muggs, and Alchemist — has resurfaced.
In late 2019, Alchemist convinced Boldy that his voice was missing from the scene; they recorded and released a quick five-song EP called Boldface. By February, they had a full-length project and unofficial sequel to My 1st Chemistry Set in the streets: The Price of Tea in China. Upon the album’s release, the praise was profuse: JAY-Z added one of his songs to a playlist, he was getting more feature opportunities, and he became a Rap Twitter Favorite. By March, he signed a deal with Griselda Records, the hottest underground movement happening.
Out today (August 14th) Boldy James released his first album under Griselda, The Versace Tape. The album was produced entirely by ex-Vine star Jay Versace and it shows what a natural fit Boldy is for the crew. He’s not as flashy as Westside Gunn or aggressive as Benny The Butcher or as tortured as Conway the Machine but Boldy is as technically gifted as those rappers. He’s a natural, detailed-oriented storyteller. And though his demeanor rarely changes, he knows how to subtly play with rhyme patterns and flows.
The Versace Tape is Boldy’s third album of the year, following The Price of Tea in China and Manger on McNichols, a project from close friend Sterling Toles, which features old Boldy verses with absolutely bugged jazz instrumentals. Boldy doesn’t seem to be letting up soon. He is planning to go to LA and work with Westside and Alchemist again.
We talked with Boldy about this new phase in his career, joining Griselda, meeting JAY-Z, why the Nas situation didn’t work out, and why Alchemist is a psychopath.
As told to Dimas Sanfiorenzo
On making “bland, boring music.”
I’ve always been at this pace, it’s just coming back around for niggas like me, that’s all. The game was turned up, and now it’s coming back around to some real music and artists like me. I make bland, boring music, but if you listen to the content, it’s actually more interesting than you’re giving it credit for because a lot of niggas don’t talk like me. I’m a street nigga, so my slang, and my cadence, and my approach to the records is a little different than your typical nigga who’s just trying to chase a club record or a hit record.
I don’t make music that you dance to. I make music that you thug to. I make music that’s suitable for hustling, and thinking in split-second decisions and shit. I make that, “Save a nigga from himself” type of music.
On being in the second phase of his career.
I done caught my second wind. We started off all on the track at the same time, kind of took off a little too fast, and then I got winded. I was kind of broke down in the gutter lane for a minute. I caught a case. I was out here back hustling and back in the same bag that I was trying to hop out of when I didn’t realize that the music was actually just an opportunity for me to put myself in better positions. But I’m an artist, first and foremost, so I never cared about positioning, or the money, or the accolades I would receive for music. I just wanted to put out true art. I wanted to put our real art. That hindered me for a while because, like I said, it was the turn-up era. So everybody trying to figure out how they can make a song to make a bitch shake her ass to. When me, I’m just trying to self heal from things that I’m going through that I haven’t ever got to heal from.
Right before I dropped [the] Boldface [EP] me and Alchemist had a talk. He was telling me my specialties that I had that was working for me musically, and the things — if I ignored them — that would be a hindrance to me later, [the stuff] that was going to keep me from reaching the level of success, or that pinnacle of the totem pole that I was trying to get to. Al and [Westside Gunn] are my advisors at the moment. I’m just fortunate to know real niggas that’s in position. God, he just keeps blessing me. I’m just one of those cats where right when a nigga thought I was finished, I had more shit in the stash, or I had another play on the floor that they didn’t see coming.
On meeting JAY-Z.
I met JAY-Z backstage at a Griselda performance, our last show [before COVID-19] in LA. Me and Benny [The Butcher] had did “Scrape the Bowl,” so after we get finished, I fall back because my part of the performance is over with. I had forgot to eat and I was drinking Hennessy that day, so I was a little dizzy. I told my homeboy, “Yo, let’s go back to the dressing room type shit, my head is spinning.” We go back to the dressing room and right when we get to the back I see JAY-Z coming from backstage and he’s approaching me. so I’m thinking, like, “Damn, what do I say? This is Hov.” I’ve been wanting to meet this nigga and tell him how much I admire and fuck with what he’s been doing musically since the time I first got up on it. I didn’t even get to say nothing. He just walked up to me like, “Yo, Mr. Boldy James, you have an incredible pen. Your new shit is all I’ve been riding to. Keep up the good work, kid.” It’s just like, damn. My favorite hustler of all times in the rap game is telling me that I have an incredible pen. It just pushed me and let me know to keep working, and the sky is the limit with this shit if you really focus in on your craft and lock-in.
On his time with Nas and Mass Appeal.
I was actually working with Nas, signed to Mass Appeal and you would think that me and him would have a better rapport than we do, but it was a middle man in between that party that always tried to keep … a meter on our relationship. He just wanted to keep some control over me and his relationship, so it kind of put a dimmer on the way me and him rock. But it ain’t no bad blood or nothing, I just felt like we would be closer. Me and somebody like JAY-Z — who I don’t know personally — it just seems like he’s the type of nigga that’s realer and shows more love. He’s just more so, my type of nigga. I pretty much knew that. But I just was a fan of Nas’ earlier works, and even the works that everybody had doubt that he was like the greatest, I still had faith in everything he was doing because I knew what he was capable of.
Life takes people on different turns and twists, and you don’t know where people are mentally when they’re creating. With The Price of Tea in China, I actually was focused, and I had just been through so much from the time I had fell off the top of my musical journey to falling back on my face, catching a case and having to figure it out all over again, to me being back in this position remembering what my mindset was when I was making Price of Tea in China. Now, I understand why certain albums have the sound and the vibe that they have because people be going through different things in life. Life takes you on different courses and different journeys, and you never know where somebody’s mind was when they actually creating the music. [My time at Mass Appeal] was definitely not a disappointment, just a learning lesson.
Like I said, it’s no bad blood. I did nothing wrong. The only thing that ever happened that was out of place [involved] an old trial that I had. [There] was a judge at a Nas and Erykah Badu show at downtown Detroit, Cheyenne Park. And the judge that I had fought the murder trial and the armed robbery trial with was in the room trying to meet Erykah Badu while Nas was there. And then the matter actually came up in front of Nas and my mother. It kind of made him look at me like, “Damn, you’re still on that type of time? I thought you would be mentally somewhere else, not still on this petty ass street shit.” And we all come from the street, but at some point, you’ve got to mature and grow up. Like, if you really want to make some real money, you’ve got to learn how to mask that and you’ve got to learn how to turn that off and on. Because that’ll scare people away when you’re too street or you’re still on shit that can fuck up real money. People don’t like being around knucklehead shit. It wasn’t that I was on no knucklehead shit, I’m just from Detroit and these guns go off around here. You know how it go.
— WESTSIDEGUNN (@WESTSIDEGUNN) July 29, 2020
On how he hooked up with Griselda.
West was actually trying to book me for a show prior to [hooking up with Griselda], and I couldn’t put the name to the email that was trying to book me the shit. What ended up happening was Al hooked me up with them, because Al was closer to them than me at the time. He’s like, “Yo, you should do a couple of joints with the guys.” He called Benny over. We did “Scrape the Bowl.” I had already met Conway [The Machine.] When I met West, me and Wets hit it off on the brotherhood tip. It was a no-brainer. I just fuck with West. I fuck with Benny. I fuck with ‘Way. And I fuck with Alchemist the long way. That’s how I got down with the guys. I didn’t know that they were also fans of mine before I got to know them personally and became fans of theirs. It’s mutual respect.
On working with The Alchemist vs. working with Jay Versace.
Westside Gunn has a relationship with Jay [Versace], he had some tracks, he thought I would sound good on them, we recorded them and I found out who produced him. I met Jay Versace in California, he was a smooth cat, laid back, quiet, and he’s a good nigga, bro. The music is good. [With Alchemist] it’s a big difference, I’m actually there with Al while he’s creating most of the time. Al cooks them beats up on spot, in front of me, right there. I actually see Al cooking up. His secret weapon is the Flux Capacitor. I can’t tell y’all how he’s always on the Flux Capacitor making the beats and shit. I write the rap on the spot, he cooks the beat up on the spot. That’s how we work.
I don’t know if he does that for everybody. But for his brothers, yes, he will cook up a beat in front of you. One minute he’s rolling some weed up, lighting the weed, next thing you know, you look up, it’s a fucking beat done and you’re like, “That’s what you was doing the whole time over here? What the fuck?” And then you hear the beat and you’re like, “Damn, that’s magic, yo.”
On fighting with Alchemist (kinda).
Me and Alchemist had five fistfights making The Price of Tea in China. And I didn’t win not one of them. I call Al the little tank. He’s a mini-tank. They don’t know how dangerous he is. Al is a very dangerous man.
Y’all think he all smooth and shit. Al is a fucking psychopath. I was trying to listen to one of the songs me and him had just did, and he was backing his hard drive up, and I clicked something that made either the hard drive stop downloading or almost deleted something on the hard drive that was important, if not, all the shit that was on the hard drive. And that motherfucker lost it on me, bro. I never seen the demon come out of anybody like that, bro. I was like, “This is a whole nother person, this is not my brother, I don’t recognize you right now, man.”
He had me in the corner hymned up. And if I wasn’t his brother, he probably would’ve beat my face in. Watch how much traction this interview gets when you found out Alchemist beat Boldy James up during [the making of] The Price of Tea in China. I still got part of the shiner on my eye, bro.
On his Manger on McNichols album.
That was my first album ever recorded. That was some of my first works in its entirety. That’s Boldy James from 17 to maybe 32, 35 years old. I gave Sterling Toles the permission to put it out. That’s my brother. That’s my real bro-bro. One of the closest things I’ve got to a brother besides Alchemist, Westside Gunn. I’ve been putting in work with Sterling since I was 17 years old, musically. He just taught me a lot of shit about life in general. He has a great outlook. I respect his opinion and his perspective of things. He never steered me wrong. He don’t give a fuck about the music. He’s really an artist, he paints and he draws crazy portraits of different things, and he makes money off of teaching.
I haven’t even heard it yet. I haven’t sat down and actually listened to it, finished in its entirety. But I’m pretty sure none is nothing like what I rapped over when I first did the lyrics. The music was built around my vocals.
On doing a project with his cousin Chuck Inglish.
I’ve got so many Chuck songs. Me and Chuck are always just busy at different times. When he has downtime, I’m up and running. When he’s out the country working, I’m probably in Chicago wishing he was there because I’ve got some free time. When he’s available in California, I probably got to go to one of my daughter’s recitals or some shit. We’re really family so we don’t look at it like that, we look at it like we are each other. He is me at some point, you know what I mean?
Chuck is not probably impressed with older records. He likes fresh, new things and then if it makes sense to tie some of that back into the new shit, then he would. But Chuck is a perfectionist, so if it’s not perfect for right now, you will never hear it. We have maybe six, seven projects in the stash, easily.