“If you’re 75% in your rap, and 25% in the streets – if you still got any percentage in the streets, you’re not at 100%,” says Memphis rapper Blocboy JB. “So even if you get some exposure [as a rapper], nobody’s gonna listen to you. The first time somebody hears you, you better give it all you got.”
He’s testing this theory right now thanks to “Look Alive,” a collaboration with Drake that has introduced him to millions of new listeners and spent two weeks at Number One on the rap airwaves. Drake and Blocboy JB play opposites on the single. The star is laconic and vaguely threatening, while his younger counterpart is brimming with exultant, uncontainable energy – and in the video, plenty of dance moves. The whole thing is succinct and emphatic, the musical equivalent of an uncontested dunk.
Capitalizing on the success of the single, Blocboy JB put out a new mixtape, Simi, last month. It’s full of sharp, bludgeoning tracks, some of which are so succinct they make “Look Alive” seem long-winded. Simi plays with the blown-out, turbulent sounds common in Soundcloud rap but Blocboy JB is a slippery MC with multiple modes. At one moment, he’s repetitive and hammering, but then he’ll veer suddenly into stately southern pacing, drawing out his vowels and re-shaping words on the fly.
Simi is named in honor of a friend who helped steer the aspiring rapper towards a fully committed hip-hop career before he was killed. “Shooting guns and shit, I was doing that at 14,” Blocboy JB says. “I was Crip at 14. But I ain’t on that shit no more. Simi’s the reason why I made that transition. He was already guiding me through it – don’t do this, don’t do that.”
“When he was gone, it made me mad, but also [made me feel like], I gotta keep rapping, keep doing this shit, and stay out the way,” Blocboy JB continues. “Otherwise somebody else gonna die.”
The rapper is sitting in his hotel’s café in midtown wearing a pricey Dolce & Gabbana sweatshirt and swigging from a can of Sprite. He likes New York as long as it’s warm – it’s about the same temperature as Memphis at the moment – and he doesn’t have to buy Swishers: “It was ten dollars for two swishas!” he exclaims, still incredulous. “I said, ‘Hold on! That’s a dollar in Memphis!'”
Memphis may be affordable – “too cheap for me to leave,” Blocboy JB says – but it’s also complicated. “It’s better when you’re young,” the rapper explains. “People hold grudges for life. You can have an enemy from when you were six, seven years old, and he’ll be your enemy for life. He’ll hate you. As you get older, it gets worse.”
But when Blocboy JB was younger, music and dancing were always an important part of the equation. “Family reunions and shit, they’d play music, we’d have rap-offs, dance-offs, be singing and shit, karaoke,” he says. He started using the music software Mixcraft, creating a new fake profile every time the free trial ran out, to record his own rhymes. “If I wasn’t in school, I wasn’t shooting dice, I was at home rapping,” Blocboy JB says. “That was the only thing I liked to do.” He met the producer Tay Keith, who lived one block away, and Keith showed him how to “how to finesse Mixcraft” – i.e., obtain his own copy of the program.
Blocboy JB quickly developed an affection for Keith’s beats. “I like the jump in ’em, the bass,” the rapper says. “It brings me back to the old block.”
“Everything I do got that bounce to it, that addictive, repetitive sound,” the producer adds during a separate phone call. “I took that old Memphis style – Triple Six [Mafia], DJ Squeaky – and twisted it up my way.”
Blocboy JB would record his tracks and push them out through Facebook, but his self-promotion was derailed by a gun charge. “I coulda got a lawyer and beat it – they charged about five of us with one gun,” he says. “I turned myself in thinking I was gonna have a bond; I didn’t even have no bond. Then I had to stay in there.” Despite his absence, unruly records like “No Chorus Pt. 6” were still gaining a following in Memphis.
When Blocboy JB left prison, he continued his work with Keith. Their fruitful partnership led to “Shoot,” which spawned a viral dance, and “Rover,” which caught the attention of 21 Savage and Lil Uzi Vert. 21 Savage subsequently appeared on the “Rover” remix, while Lil Uzi Vert and Blocboy JB have engaged in a friendly dance-off.
Drake was paying attention as well. This is in-character – Drake has repeatedly collaborated with rising rappers like Migos and iLoveMakonnen, and the star’s father is from Memphis, which also served as the site of the “Worst Behavior” video. Drake connected with both Keith and Blocboy JB, recorded his verse over Keith’s “Rover”-like beat, and sent the track to Blocboy JB. “When I first heard [starts rapping], ‘901, Chevy Drive,’ I said, ‘shit!'” Blocboy JB recounts. “This is the Memphis anthem right here.”
“Look Alive” debuted in the Top Ten on the Hot 100 and drew distant eyes to Memphis rap, which is enjoying a moment of commercial resurgence. The veteran Yo Gotti has scored the five biggest singles of his career in the last two years, including a pair of ubiquitous hits (“Down in the DM” and “Rack It Up”). The next generation of Memphis talent includes the rapper Moneybagg Yo, who scored an Interscope deal, Blac Youngsta, who had a hit with “Booty” and is signed to Epic Records, and Key Glock, whose mesmerizing single “Russian Cream” was buzzing earlier this year. “They’re bringing the Memphis sauce!” Keith says. “We need more Memphis culture in the industry.”
But the Memphis scene is also split down the middle at the moment, because Yo Gotti is feuding with Young Dolph, another local rapper who has also reached new commercial heights in the last two years. “I don’t know Dolph; I just know Gotti,” Blocboy JB says when asked about the dispute. “Certain shit you can’t change,” he adds. “Motherfuckas beefin’ at point A, they gonna be beefin’ at point Z. Niggas just hold grudges [in Memphis].”
He maintains a simple rule for navigating life in his hometown. “You just gottta know who to stay away from,” Blocboy JB says. “If you feel like you ain’t comfortable, you need to leave the area, now. Whatchya doin’ there if you feel like you don’t know this guy and he’s looking over his shoulder? If you thinkin’ he finna do something, he might be finna do something. You can’t underestimate nobody out there.”