Backstage at The Tonight Show, Slim Jimmy of the hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd raves about the bright orange faux-fur trench coat he’s about to debut on national television: “Man, Obama’s gonna make me the first son when he see this!” says the 21-year-old MC. Not to be outdone, his 19-year-old brother Swae Lee decides he wants to hit the stage like a rock star. To illustrate, he drops to his knees, riffs on an air guitar and executes a surprisingly graceful slide across the dressing room’s hardwood floor.
This kind of energy is what attracted Mike Will, the producer behind Miley Cyrus’ turnt-up reinvention and Lil Wayne’s biggest record of the last few years, to the brothers even when they were still a pair of teenagers known as Dem Outta St8 Boyz. In these days, they performed at house parties and talent competitions, choreographing dance videos to their Soulja Boy-influenced tracks. They made their music as fun as possible and never cussed in the lyrics. “There was always stuff around us – crazy stuff like shooting,” says Lee. “We always tried to stay on the positive, so that everyone could accept what we were talking about.”
After developing a friendship with P-Nasty, an affiliated producer, the duo entered Will’s radar. The first time they visited him in Atlanta, they literally bounced off the walls. “The beat would come on and they’d be super turnt,” says Will, also backstage. “There was a ceiling fan and everything – I’m like, these dudes are going to cut their fucking heads off.”
When the sound dropped out, Lee and Jimmy listened carefully to every word he spoke. “They were calling me sir!” he says in disbelief. “The beat would go off and they’d be super quiet. At first I was just watching, but I had to step back and lean on the wall and look like, these dudes are really stars.”
The brothers became the first artist signed to Will’s new Ear Drummer Records. They changed their name to Rae Sremmurd (read each word backwards) and dropped “No Flex Zone,” the playful banger that became one of the biggest rap hits of 2014. Nicki Minaj and Pusha T would both add verses to a remix, but neither could match the original’s joyful tone or, as Lee describes it, “creative lingo.” “Imagine you’re doing your thing and somebody comes up to you and just kills your mojo,” says Lee, attempting to explain the origin of song’s title. “Just tell them, ‘No flex zone!'”
The brothers’ debut, SremmLife, features tough, forward-thinking production and guest spots from Nicki Minaj, Young Thug and Big Sean. “We kept everything raw with them,” says Will. “Their energy is so good and their character is so tight that they can crossover into popular culture easily. I look at them like a hood ‘NSync. It’s like pop, but it’s pop in its ratchet-est form.”
Will has had his eye on this sort of crossover ever since a 2012 meeting with Interscope founder Jimmy Iovine. “At this point, pop music was straight fist-pump shit,” he says, thumping the wall for emphasis. “Jimmy was telling me, ‘Man, you gotta make urban music pop again.'”
Almost three years later, the producer summarizes his influence: “At Ear Drummers, we worked on that. The Miley Cyrus shit, it still had a hip-hop twist to it. That allowed Katy Perry to come in with ‘Dark Horse.’ We’ve got Madonna throwing in grills. ‘Pour It Up’ [another of his beats] was Rihanna’s first time doing a strip-club record or a turn-up record.”
Will credits this breakthrough to his ear for melody, and he credits his ear for melody to his catholic listening habits: “If you go on my iPhone, you’re gonna see music from anybody – music from Imogen Heap, Queen, the Smiths, Young Scooter, Gucci Mane, Future, fucking Marvin Gaye, fucking Pharrell.” The Smiths? Will walks down the hall, searching for his phone, and when he returns he plays “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” one of Morrissey’s most dramatic displays of self-pity. “We listen to this shit all the time, bro,” he says. “I don’t know all their names, but the lead singer’s voices are crazy to me. He just paints the picture.”
Although the brothers Sremmurd have equally broad taste – they claim that their current favorites are Future, Juicy J and “old Bon Jovi” – they attribute their irresistible hooks to a lifetime of partying. “We grew up in the club, so we know what’s going to make the club move,” says Jimmy.
The boys began living on their own when they were 15 and 16 and were initially known not just for their music but the ragers they’d throw at their Tupelo duplex. “We’d get different people – white, black, Mexican – and just party together,” says Lee. “We would mix our songs that we made on our laptop in there with undiscovered music. We’d break all the new music in our city.”
Now, the parties are wilder than ever, and a recent club appearance even ended with a near-riot. As the brothers tell the story, they jump onto Jimmy Fallon’s green-room couch, throwing punches and banging everything within reach. “People throwing chairs, fighting, girls in it,” recalls Lee. “It was like a movie brawl.”
Would they consider this a successful gig? “Yeah, that was, like, the most successful one,” he says, smiling proudly. “That was a real no flex zone.”