Last Wednesday, a song called “Rascal” went viral after it was uploaded to YouTube. In its video, a mysterious man in a ski mask named RMR — pronounced Rumor — wears an Yves Saint Laurent bulletproof vest over an Off-White long-sleeve camouflage T-shirt, showing off gold grills and an impressive variety of firearms wielded by a similarly masked crew. It’s stylish, but similar to countless other music videos that become popular every single day. Unlike most other rap videos, though, RMR begins the song by breaking into an impressive a cappella rendition of Rascal Flatts’ “These Days.” After that, he launches into an interpolation of “Bless the Broken Road” — a 1994 country classic written by Marcus Hummon, Bobby Boyd, and Jeff Hanna, first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and subsequently popularized by Rascal Flatts. In RMR’s rendition, it isn’t a song about how divorce and God can eventually lead to true love, but how the women who’ve broken his heart turn into the “hoes I scam.” Eventually, his falsetto settles into a simple declaration: “Fuck 12,” a slang term for the police.
From its juxtaposition of country music with hip-hop aesthetics (Lil Nas X, Post Malone) to the anonymous artist arriving seemingly out of nowhere (The Weeknd, H.E.R.), “Rascal” seemed engineered for viral success. Its jagged, quick rise felt the same way: Originally a sponsored post on Elevator Mag, the video quickly disseminated to social media. Ryan Hemsworth remixed the song immediately, while artists, as varied as Timbaland to Lil Aaron, have commented about their love for “Rascal” on Instagram.
“It’s been life-changing. You sit and pray for things to happen and then when it’s finally happening you just got to grab your nuts and run with it,” RMR tells Rolling Stone over the phone on Thursday. “‘Rascal’ came from a pure place. I wasn’t forcing nothing. When I dropped it, I expected some people to gravitate towards it, but the meteorite-type of effect that it had, like ‘boom,’ it just hit. It’s like a viral sensation.”
— RMR (@whatrmr) February 26, 2020
RMR declines to give his real name. At one point, he says he is 24 years old before backtracking to state that he’s actually 23, mentioning that he sometimes gets “confused” since he’s so close to being 24. According to RMR, he grew up between the Buckhead district of Atlanta and Inglewood, Los Angeles. He credits traveling between the two locales for inspiring his love of country.
“I’ve been listening to Toby Keith. I been listening to Jason Aldean. All of them, like I been listening to them since ‘06,” he says. “Also, shout out to Rascal Flatts, one of my favorite things ever is Gary LeVox, because he just got that voice. I’ve been listening to him for so long.” Blink-182, the 1975, John Mayer, Kanye West, Drake, and Jay-Z are also among RMR’s influences, but he’s wary of classifying what type of genre he belongs to. “I’m a new-age artist,” he says. “I’m the future. I’m what people are going to be in the next two to five years. This is how people are going to go about things. I take the Mamba Mentality to [the] thing. I’m Kobe Bryant with it.”
Before the ski mask and the moniker, RMR says he was a behind-the-scenes figure in the studio, producing or engineering for his friends until he decided to write and perform for himself. By his estimation, “Rascal” was made three months ago, but he’s wary of sharing many details behind the song’s creation. According to him, the song was produced by his “homeboy” and the video was directed by RMR’s “team,” although the video is credited to someone named Gabe on YouTube.
“You sit and pray for things to happen and then when it’s finally happening you just got to grab your nuts and run with it”
Just as confusingly, the first version of “Rascal” to be released on Spotify came with a writer’s credit attributed to someone named Sage Clark. When asked about this name on Thursday, RMR simply stated, “It shouldn’t say that. I don’t know who that is.” Not long after, a second version of the song, exactly the same except stylized entirely in capital letters, was uploaded to Spotify, crediting RMR as the sole writer.
“RMR posted everything, right,” said Malik Rasheed, the president of CMNTY RCRDS — pronounced “Community Records” — which has a partnership with RMR. “When this was happening, I don’t know what happened, but he said, ‘Look, I got distracted.’ I don’t know if he was talking to whoever or someone, I don’t even know who that guy is to be very honest with you. He just put that on there, but he’s written the song 100 percent by himself. That’s why there’s no one claiming copyright infringement or anything. There’s no issue.”
So RMR is not Sage Clark?
“Absolutely not,” Rasheed replies. “Absolutely 200 and 500 percent no.”
Despite the attention surrounding RMR’s debut, he’s yet to talk to or meet his hero, Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox, or the original writers of “Bless This Broken Road.” He’s excited at the possibility of one day collaborating with the band that inspired “Rascal,” and was clear that he had not even talked to those involved in the song about the rights before uploading “Rascal.” “No, nah,” RMR said when asked directly about clearing the sample. “That’s non-disclosure.”
Not long after the release of “Rascal,” the seams began to unravel. By Friday, the song was no longer available on Apple Music. By Saturday, the song’s official YouTube video was replaced with a message stating, “This video contains content from UMPG Publishing, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”
BMG, which partially owns the publishing rights to “Bless This Broken Road,” declined to comment. Jeff Hanna, one of the song’s credited writers and member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, declined to comment. Rascal Flatts also declined to comment, but they do not technically own the rights to “Bless This Broken Road” and are therefore unlikely to weigh in publicly, despite their ties to the song. Universal Music Publishing Group did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
Despite the continued takedowns, CMNTY’s Rasheed remained upbeat throughout the weekend. Rasheed is a former VP of A&R at Epic Records and Senior VP of A&R at Scooter Braun Projects, and partnered with Bruno Mars producer and collaborator Philip Lawrence to launch CMNTY, which he describes as a label for “protectors of culture.” “We can’t take any credit for the vision that you’ve seen and that everybody’s seen in the last 72 to 96 hours,” Rasheed says. “That all came from [RMR]. We’re here to advocate for him and to protect him, and to make sure that he gets to the next space and everything that he wants to accomplish, he gets there.”
— Adrian Swish (@IAmAdrianSwish) February 27, 2020
Rasheed explains that he learned of RMR through one of the rapper’s managers, Adrian Swish, reaching out after seeing the video for “Rascal” circulate on social media. He is reticent to give an exact date when RMR was signed to the company. “We have recently become partners with him,” Rasheed says. “And from here on out anything — again, these are young kids, man. We’re helping him. We’re cleaning up things.”
According to Rasheed, the reasons for the song’s removal on Apple Music and its double appearance on Spotify are unrelated. “It was an unauthorized flip. It’s like a mixtape, right?” Rasheed says. “He rocked the record. He shot a visual for it. He went totally guerilla. And whoever, UMG, they initially asked for it to be taken down and we’re dealing with it, but it’s all good. Everything is on the move. The song will be able to continue to grow.”
“It was asked to be taken down, and obviously in a reactionary moment one of the guys on his team, not him, took the record down,” Rasheed continues. “When I say his team, not CMNTY, but his immediate guys. It was like, ‘Oh, shit, they said take it down. So we took it down.’ We’re like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Put it back up.’ So they sent a cease and desist. That’s why you see it up twice.”
When “Rascal” initially dropped, RMR was adamant that its trajectory was completely natural. “It just got released, and everybody just ran with it. They seen it. They copied it on their page. I was like, ‘Shit, this shit organic. This is organic growth.'” A day later, a screenshot allegedly requesting support from social media influencers to support “Rascal” on their accounts was leaked. It, along with the song’s rapid rise, led to critics tagging RMR as an artist with industry connections simply feigning anonymity. Rasheed’s response to this is short. “RMR did not solicit anyone,” he says. “He is not an industry plant.”
For now, RMR and CMNTY RCRDS are still searching for a joint venture — likely a major label — to partner with for their new signee’s career. And if RMR has it his way, he plans to stay anonymous “for life.” “If Marshmello can do it, I can do it,” he says. “I’m the hip-hop Marshmello.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Bernstein and Elias Leight