Conducted January 4, 2012.
Boldy James’ 2011 release Trapper’s Alley: Pros and Con’s was my favorite full-length from last year. Thanks to a gift for evocative writing, and a subtle, low-key poetic sensibility, Boldy released one of the year’s most powerful records. I’ve spoken about it in detail on Pitchfork, but if you missed it last year, you may want to #GetInTune.
Tell me a little bit about your background, when you were born, and where specifically you grew up.
I’m one of them ’82 boys, you know, I was born in 1982, in Atlanta, Georgia. Both of my parents were born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. My father, he used to work down south in Atlanta, and he got shot on duty, working this job, and we ended up moving back home when I was like one. So I’ve been here all my life, all my people from here. He just went down there to seek work. I grew up Detroit, Michigan raised. Through my wonder years. As a kid, I grew up on the East side, Belvedere, between Forest and Graves. Off of East Warren. When stuff started mattering, like my pre-teenage years, all my teenage years, chasing money and girls, you know, all that hanging out stuff, I was on the West side of Detroit Michigan, 6 Mile, 7 Mile, Evergreen, Southfield. We call that the drug zone. That’s my neighborhood. Curtis Curb served.
What kind of music were you into as a kid, before you were thinking about doing music yourself?
I’ve always been a big fan of the music, but as a kid — I always wanted to rap — but I was kind of shy as a kid. What I used to do is, I used to listen to Heavy D and the Boys, MC Hammer was popping back then. N.W.A. and all them were the only ones on some gangster shit so I used to listen to all that. My father, he let me listen to pretty much whatever I wanted to, as long as I was respectful and didn’t let the shit reflect on my actions, and I wasn’t running around the house acting like an asshole. He used to let me have some freedom with the shit. So I used to loop the beats. Back in the day, when I was like 5 years old, my man Brian and Fiddy from the East Side, I used to be their DJ. I used to take the beats and loop them on my cassette player. If somebody had a song and any of the beat played without any vocals on it – even if it was only three seconds or four seconds of it – I’d just loop it up and cut it and take it down the street and let them rap on it. It used to have spaces in it, and it wasn’t on-time, it was off-beat, but it’s all we had back in the day. And classwork, my spelling words, reading comprehension and all that…that’s how I started writing raps. I used to write raps off of my spelling words, so I could learn the meaning of them and how to spell them. Because if you use in a word in a sentence, and don’t know the meaning, you can use the words around it to get the definition of the word you were looking for.
On those beat tapes, what were a couple examples of the tracks you were using?
DJ Quik, “Born and Raised in Compton.” Old EPMD beats. I’ve always been a big hip-hop fan, music is what always kept me grounded, no matter what I’m going through temporarily. The music will get me out of that little spell that I’m in, whether I’m in a bad mood or what not. The music always cheer me up, give me a state of peacefulness. I’ll be serene when I listen to the music, know what I mean?
How were you coming across tracks like Quik and EPMD, was it through the radio?
I had a big cousin, a cousin named Huey, we was best friends. He used to get drug money, he was part of one of the biggest Detroit criminal enterprises. They were some gangsters, and my cousin used to get money selling cocaine and shit. So he would have all the tapes, nice cars, always giving me money, buying me shit. I’d just go in his tape box and go through his stuff and be looping the beats off of the tapes he was buying with drug money.
Back on when you were talking about spelling words, and starting to rap – how old were you when you first started thinking, like, I want to be a rapper, that’s what I want to do?
I was in the sixth grade. I had a homeboy named Michael Officer. He was from Six Mile too, but he was from the other side of Evergreen, he was from Stout and 6 Mile. We went to the same middle school. We had a talent show, and his name was … [pauses to remember] Glory. The Glorious One. And I was the Golden Child back in the day. Me and him, we did a talent show, and we won the talent show. Everybody was digging what we was on. I was about 11 or 12, Jay-Z had an instrumental, the “Dead Presidents” instrumental. And that’s what we rocked the show to. The crowd just went nuts. Ever since then, everybody always told me I had an ill voice and I should keep rapping, I should pursue it, because I was actually good at it. I used to play ball, to play basketball, that’s what I thought I was going to do growing up, I thought I was going to go to the league. Like anybody else from the ghetto who got skills. Big fan of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. Of course you going to think you going to the league, if can’t nobody in the neighborhood beat you at nothing you do when you get on the hoop court. I’m always putting dudes off the court and making them sit down and get next. I thought I was going to [the NBA], I didn’t know I was going to grow up and be in the streets selling drugs, getting caught up catching cases and going through all the bullshit that the streets will present to you. To making the transition and trying to do the music.
To this day, I don’t have both my feet out the street yet. I’m trying to really get on my music, so this will be what took me out the street and fed my kids, but right now, it’s a tight fight, and it’s a thin line between me being a rapper and me getting caught up and being made an example of, like the rest of the people that you hear about, all the tragedy and the bullshit. I guess my family is my biggest blessing right now. Because they keep me grounded, they keep me out of trouble and they keep me out of harms way. Because I’m so worried about disappointing them. I don’t want to let them down. I’m just trying to be the best father I can be. Because that’s more important than any money to me. That’s more important than any cameras flashing, bright lights and red carpet and all that shit. I don’t give a fuck about that shit over my family. I gotta do what I gotta do for them first and foremost, before this rap shit, my family is more important. I’m a god-fearing man, and there’s my family, and then the family — the family is my friends who never turned their back on me, and always been in my corner. I consider them as family, because at a certain point in every man’s life you learn about foes and friends, and most of your friends become your foes in the long run. You only get a couple few that’s real friends so you might as well treat em and cherish em like family.
A lot of what you’re saying comes through in your music. Which reminds me, I wanted to know who has the verse at the end of “Make It Work”?
That’s my ten-year old daughter. Her name is Gabrielle.
I thought that was one of the best child-rap verses I’ve heard on a rap album.
My daughter, she really wants to do that. She admires what I do so much, and she’s so gorgeous. She looks at the kids on TV and that’s what she talks about, she wants to be on TV and she really wants to rap. She’s not even talking about modeling and girly stuff, she just wants to be rapping. I guess she likes what I do, like it interests her, really grabs her interest. She’s all-in. That’s why I got to be careful what I do around her, know what I mean.
When you first started rapping, where there any rappers that you saw yourself identifying with, or that you saw yourself following in their footsteps?
There’s the three greats, Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. Because that’s my era, I’m from that golden era, Nas’s, the Jay-Z’s, the Tupac’s, the Big L’s, the Big Pun’s, The Snoop Dogg’s, the C-Bo’s, the Mack 10’s, the Scarface’s. Those kind of cats is who I grew up listening to. I’m not going to say they had a whole lot of influence on my lifestyle, but they definitely had a lot of influence on the music that I make, for sure. Because I’ve always been a person that knows the truth. It’s not hard for me to decipher the truth and reality and fiction. So another man’s life, that’s what he’s going through. A lot of the times, they don’t even be keeping it real in their raps, they just make good music. But I know there’s a couple real niggas that really live that shit that they’re writing about, so I gravitate more towards that because that’s the shit that I be out here on. Words can never pinpoint real life 110% exactly. But when you really live the type of lifestyle I do, it’s not hard to write a rap about what you go through. Like Jay said, I’m just trying to write my way out the hood. I’m really in the ghetto, I really see all the bullshit going on every day. I’ve really gotta pray for these little kids growing up nowadays, because they don’t have a clue. They’re flying off the handle, loose cannon boys. They’re not going to think twice, all the crack babies growing up, and they’re dopes now. They’re doing stronger drugs, they kind of out their mind, insane and blind to the facts of life in general, so I just try to stay out their way.
Somebody try to box me in and put me in a jam, shiiit, that’s gonna be their ass, because I’ve got to make it home. I’m not naturally the aggressor, I’m just always the addressor. I address the matter. People bring shit my way, and I just deal with it accordingly. I’m really a fun, silly, type of guy man. I’m all about having a good time for the most part. But everybody’s not, and a lot of people can’t stomach when you’re living your life and they can’t do what you’re doing, or they’re jealous or envious of shit that you got going on because you work twice as hard to get what you got. Because like my pops told me, you can’t ever expect something for nothing, and that’s what everybody out here on. They’re trying to get something for nothing. I really put work in out here, so before I let someone take something off my plate or remove me from the situation that I got going on, that I’m needed in – being a parent to my kids – I’d do life a hundred times or die another hundred times, because I’m a real nigga man, I can’t leave my kids empty handed, leave them stranded, I can’t be not around to give them the guidance and shit they need so they can grow up and have a million excuses to why they’re not doing something they should be doing. Why they’re doing something they have no business doing. My kids are not about to be talking about my daddy dead, or my daddy did a hundred years. I can’t avoid the way I live a lot of the time, but I try my hardest, and I stay prayed up, that’s my armor, that’s my shield out here. I really believe in God, man, that’s the only reason I’m here. I’ve been in a lot of life-threatening situations, and I’ve been through a lot of the bullshit that comes along with being out here in these streets. I don’t glorify none of that shit, I don’t try to make it cool to the youth. I try to scare the kids straight when I rap. You don’t want to go through this. This is not something that you want to do with your life. You should be trying to do something so that you’re not going through no shit like I go through. I had a fair shot too. Nobody told me not to not fuck up in school, not drop out, ain’t nobody tell me that I had to just be out here like this. But fact of the matter is, I’m out here right now and I’m dealing with it, bottom line. I’m a man about mine. Whatever decision I make is mine and I’m going to live with it.
This seems like something that comes across in your music. I was wondering if you could tell me what the process of recording that album last year was like. It’s a long record.
I was 28 when I dropped that CD. 28 grams is an ounce. Trapper’s Alley, everybody talks about trapping. I guess that’s country slang for hustling, grinding, selling drugs, just being in the trap, the game in general is a trap. So that’s why they say they’re trapping. Trapper’s alley is somewhere where, if you’re a Detroiter, downtown. By Greektown Casino, Trapper’s Alley. Everyone used to go down there and hang out with their families, do all type of little festivities. Those are the festival grounds down town. [Chuck] Inglish gave me the title, and I took it and ran with it because I really be trapping in the alley! I was one of them alley boys growing up. We used to flip on pissy mattresses and throw glass bottles at each other for fun, and shit. And now those same alleys I used to have fun in as a kid, that shit ain’t fun no more. ‘Cause they’re’s bodies dropping in those alleys and we’re serving junkies in those alleys. That’s how I feed my kids. When I’m in the booth, it’s like relief. It’s like my therapy. I’m freeing my evil demons, or something. I’ve got to get that shit off my mind, get it off my chest, before it builds up and all I’m thinking about is some negative-ass shit. I just try to get it off in my music. The process of recording the album was me and my man Brains. Brains, he did a lot of the tracks on Trapper’s Alley. He did a lot of the recording and the mixing on the project for me. That’s my dude. That’s my ace boon coon, that’s my ace in the hole. He’s originally from Jersey but he stays in Chicago. Me and him, we just make crazy music. We sit in the studio for weeks at a time, smoking weed, just vibing out to the music in the studio.
One thing I noticed about your rap style is its very uncluttered, your style is very straightforward. It seems like you imply a lot more than you say outright.
Yeah, I mean, I gotta shave points on it because I ain’t trying to go to jail. I gotta draw back on it. I can’t give it to you how I really want to give it to you sometimes, because I put myself in harms way.
Whats your writing process like? Do you just write in the studio?
Most of the songs that you hear, I write them on the spot in the studio when I hear the beat. Because when I’m not in the studio, I’m a full-time parent. I’ve got six kids and I’m married. I’m a married man with six kids. That’s what I’m doing, a majority of my day. Like right now, my big-head little son is trying to give me a hard time while I’m doing this interview, with his fat ass! Did you see the J. Dilla rebirth of Detroit video with me and Chuck?
Yeah, I did.
Did you see the little baby Chuck was holding?
Yeah, that’s him?
Yeah, that’s my son, that Bo J. That’s little Boldy James right there.
So how did you start recording with Chuck? You guys are related, right?
Yeah, Chuck is my cousin. Chuck is my real cousin. Me and Chuck, we had dreams of this since we’ve been little. I got deterred a little bit, by being the one to really be in the streets. Because Chuck did a good job staying out of the way—my Auntie and my Uncle did a hell of a job raising that young man. And what I mean by that is, they’re from Detroit and they know how Detroit can swallow you whole, and take you under. But they didn’t let Chuckie go under, they kept him busy. They never lied to him, let him know what it was. And Chuck decided on his own that he didn’t want to be out on the streets and shit. But he always had me. To be the one to lead that example and let him know, this ain’t what’s up. “I’m only out here because I only need a couple dollars, I’m not trying to be out here my whole life though– but I end up stuck out here, cuz,” I’m a prisoner of circumstance, you know what I’m saying. And Chuck, he always made beats. He would give me all of his beats. He’d go to school or when he was living out in Mount Clemens he’d get to me in the CD, “I got a new beat CD for you cuz, check this out!” All my dudes used to be on some hating shit, like, “man that shit alright, that shit ain’t dope like that,” and I’m thinking, “man, that shit dope as hell, and that’s my little cousin.”
So I ain’t pay that shit no attention. Everybody was always hating on Chuck, hating on Chuck. And I’d be sitting there defending him, like y’all are not going to keep talking about my cousin, you know, fuck the music, this still my little cousin at the end of the day. And then he end up blowing, and everybody start sucking his dick out the blue, because he had came up! I’m like, I been knew the shit was gonna happen! I was supposed to be right there with him, but he and Mikey Rocks, they put together the dynamic duo and they did their thing and burnt this motherfucker down. So my job is easier than what people think it really is, because I got Mike and Chuck in my back pocket. They’ve been on damn near three world tours already, and they only put out one album. And they just put it out this summer. If I wouldn’t have been out here like this, I probably would have been had shit done. But who knows, everything happens for a reason, you feel me. I’m just glad that I’m getting the recognition that I deserve, because I’ve been doing this shit forever man. I’ve been writing rhymes and recording for so long, I’ve got like over four hundred songs recorded, solid. That’s why I put out so many songs on my first mixtape. Because 28 songs ain’t nothing to do. Chuck will tell you. I recorded a twenty song EP in three days.
How long have you been recording stuff for?
Shit, since I’ve been fifteen years old, so maybe the past 14 years.
Why didn’t you release anything before that? You just didn’t have access?
Nah I always had access to putting material out, I didn’t want to put nothing out and not feel like it was a solid enough project. I’m picky with the music, I’m not just going to put out anything. And the reason it took me so long is because I really just got serious. I used to go to the studio, I’m telling you, just for the sole purpose of peace of mind. Just to get out the neighborhood for a minute. Because I don’t go out, I don’t club. The only time I go to clubs is when I’m actually performing. I used to go out when I was a kid, and bullshit used to happen all the time. Motherfuckers getting shot and pistol-whipped and everybody always want to fight and get to pulling out knives and shit. I’m not a big fan of that shit, like I say. This hood shit, it look cute and fun to everybody that don’t really go through this shit. If you really going through this shit, real talk, you don’t want nothing but out of this shit. When you’ve gone through this like I do.
How do you think about what kind of beats you choose?
It’s just got to feel right. You would know a record that’s right up your alley, that’s suitable to you, because you feel it in your bones. It complements your style. When you hear it in your head, you’re like oh, that’s me. By the time you get into the song pretty good, you’ll be able to tell whether or not it’s the one, or it’s just some bullshit you need to ball up and shoot in the trash. You can feel it in your bones, you can feel it in your soul. That’s why I don’t particularly try to chase hits and write shit that’s friendly to everybody else’s ears. If you don’t fuck with the shit that I be on, then that’s your motherfuckin’ problem. I gotta be happy with this shit first and foremost before I put the material out. So at the end of the day, fuck you! You don’t like it, fuck you. Know what I’m saying?
Do you have a favorite track off of Trapper’s Alley, or one that had a personal importance to you?
Of course “I Sold Dope All My Life” is one of my favorite joints off of Trapper’s Alley. It’s the song that really stands out the most on the CD. And then of course I like “Concrete Connie” because there’s a real message in that song, it’s the truth, I go through all kinds of shit with my wife because I be in the streets and gone so much trying to get money. She don’t understand that shit, they don’t work, we don’t eat, shit, you feel me? I gotta do what I gotta do, with or without her. You’re my wife for a reason, I ain’t trying to go nowhere, I ain’t trying to leave you. But if you can’t deal with what’s going on, just let me know. Because the streets, she always open arms to me. Every time I walk out this door she welcomes me. You, you’re the one giving me the hard time. And this bitch don’t love nobody, she’s the coldest bitch you’ll ever meet in your life, so at the end of the day I got two bitches. If you can’t deal with me having two bitches, you can get the fuck on and I’ll just deal with my main bitch, which is the streets, which is the concrete, that’s why I called her Connie. Because it’s concreatures, know what I’m saying?
It seems like work ethic is a a big theme in your record, that’s really important to you. Was that something from your family…
My father gave me there rules. One was never lie to me. Two, always look a man in his eyes when you talking to him. And three, you always got to work twice as hard. For real. My father busted his ass to at least make sure I was in the right state of mind for worldly shit. He let me know what really goes on in the world and what’s important. He let me know all those gym shoes and all that jewelry, all that shit really don’t matter. It don’t matter to somebody that knows the truth and is a family oriented guy, that’s all that matters. As long as your kids eat every day, got clothes on their back, a roof on their head, water they can clean themselves up in and have morals and values, all that other shit don’t matter. It just come with the territory.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
Trapper’s Alley was a solid project. I can bet the house that more people felt that than didn’t. There’s more people that was rocking with Trapper’s Alley than was knocking Trapper’s Alley. And this – see it was Trapper’s Alley, Pro’s and Cons, the Quikcrete Ready Mixtape. This one is Consignment: Favor for a Favor, the Redi-Rock Mixtape. I’m ready to get more personal on this one, and let people know more of who I am, and have a little bit more fun with the music. Because Trapper’s Alley was really for me. That really wasn’t for y’all. It had to hit a certain spot with me. That shit came from my heart, bro. From the intro to “Long Run” to “Dice Game” to “Ground Beneath My Feet” to the crazy skits from The Wire that was on there – because you know, Bodie was on The Wire and I was Boldy before the Wire came out, I got my name from my homie who got killed on my block, his name was Boldy James. His name was James Osley III and my name is James Jones III. And he was the first one to ever throw me some work and fuck with me on the coke, but he didn’t rap, and I rapped, and I used to hustle. So I took his name and ran with it. He ended up getting killed, so now the name’s got sentimental meaning and value to it. Because he really was one of my favorite big homies from the neighborhood that was getting money. He was getting money, living life and showing up and proving. He wasn’t just talking me to death, he was standing behind his word. When he told me something, he meant it. To make a long story short, I know these cats was jealous of him and they set him up and killed him, and god bless his soul, he live through me now. Now I’m Boldy James and I took it from where he left off, and I’m trying to do big things from it and make him proud of me.
When is your next project coming out?
Sometime in February. It’s pretty much done, I have to call one or two people for a couple more features, to lay their verses, and we all be busy so it’s hard to catch up with these boys. It’s pretty much done. We’re going through the mixing process right now. Hopefully when you get that Consignment you’ll be fucking with it as much as you did Trapper’s Alley.
Before you go, I wanted to ask you about “There Goes the Neighborhood.”
Yeah, see, because “There Goes The Neighborhood,” that was really for me. Y’all can really give a fuck about all those names and those people, but those people really exist. All those names from “Lifetime” and “There Goes the Neighborhood,” those are real people. They’re real people. They’re not names I made up because it rhymed, I’ve just always been good at putting shit together, wording things. I’m a real intricate type of guy, I’m real detail-[oriented]. I guess I made that song good, but that’s some real shit. That hurt when I hear that song. Because a lot of them boys are never coming home. When I say “There goes the neighborhood,” that’s what I meant. It used to be twenty of us, thirty of us standing out on the block. Now I’m lucky if even six of us can get together to stand out on no block because it’s so many of them dead and locked up. All the people I knew growing up, ain’t none of them around right now, bro. I’m talking about whole high school, middle school classes of people that are dead or incarcerated. Detroit went from being the richest city in America to the bottom of the rankings.
Now we’re like two states from being the poorest in America. Because Detroit damn near bottomed out. The crack and the crime took over the city of Detroit, so that’s what Detroit runs on. If you see somebody around here doing their thing and living pretty good and it’s looking like they’re doing good for themselves, it’s because they’re involved in this underworld. It’s not no jobs in the city. And if you’re not educated enough to get a job on the outskirts or in the suburbs, nine times out of ten you sell crack like the rest of us. And you’re out here grinding trying to get it how you live, because there’s not no opportunity around here.