(AllHipHop Features) Atlanta is currently regarded by some as the “Capital of the South.” Before the locale became a major American hub for business and culture, Savannah was once the seat of power for the state of Georgia.
Both Atlanta and Savannah have a history closely tied to music and art. It is from that dual creative tradition that Clay James emerges. The rising rapper was born in ATL, raised in the coastal town, and later returned to his birthplace where he attended Georgia State University.
James’ time at GSU was spent studying business management and marketing, pledging Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and promoting parties. It was during one of Clay’s “Blissful Thursday” events that he became acquainted with Clark Atlanta University student Hamilton “Messiah Da Rapper” Freeman.
As a popular student in his own right, Freeman’s personality meshed well with the Kappa from across town. Clay’s’ frat brothers convinced him to try his hand at crafting lyrics and he eventually joined forces with Messiah Da Rapper under the banner of Southern Playas.
Clay’s talent would later catch the attention of fellow Savannah-to-Atlanta transplant Big Boi of OutKast. Yet another Hip Hop legend, Snoop Dogg, got wind of his work after DoggyStyle Records affiliates such as Yung Zeke and Ju Da Truth were impressed with a performance at the 2016 SXSW Festival.
A few exchanges with the label’s A&R executive Pocket Norwood and the success of his “Southern Playa Sh-t” single led to James signing an album deal with Snoop’s DoggysStyle. There is also talk of a possible joint venture with Big Boi’s record company.
With the full-hearted backing of two veteran industry insiders, Clay James is on track to make a major mark in the Atlanta Hip Hop scene and beyond. Get to know the up-and-coming entertainer and devoted fashion head in this exclusive AllHipHop.com interview.
How did growing up in Savannah and also living in Atlanta influence the music that you make?
It gave me the best of both worlds. Now that I’ve lived in the country and the city, I’m able to tell the tale of two cities. I’m able to give you that story of a rural kid and that story of a city kid.
At this point, I’ve spent just as much time in Atlanta that I have in Savannah. It just gave me more things to touch on that more people can relate to. I’m not just one-sided.
You have an Atlanta/Savannah background. That’s very similar to Big Boi’s background. He’s embraced you as a protégé. What have you learned from working with him?
He always tells me that all this other stuff - the fame, money, and BS that comes with being in the game - all that stuff is secondary to the music. Nobody would be f-cking with you if the music wasn’t good.
He always makes me keep that in perspective and not fall into a lane of being content making the “commercial sound” coming out of the city. [He tells me to] just be myself and always put the music before everything.
The thing I learned from him is to be a hustler, get your money, and get it as many ways as possible. Just because you rap doesn’t mean you just have to be a rapper. Diversify your market.
Being part of an Atlanta-based Hip Hop duo is going to draw comparisons to OutKast. Especially since you are named Southern Playas which is connected to OutKast’s debut album [Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik]. Do you and Messiah embrace that comparison?Yeah, we embrace it. We went back to a Savannah studio and we made the song “Southern Playa Sh-t.” When we came back up to Atlanta and started performing it, fans and bloggers started calling us Southern Playas. When people started calling us that, we were like, “Okay, yeah. That is cool. Southern Playas, that’s dope.” Once people started calling us that and it clicked, we said, “Okay, we’re doing our solo thing, but let’s do the group thing too.” This is something that came about organically and people liked it. Big Boi and them love that sh-t because they know it’s not forced. It was just something that happened.Some people may think, “This guy just signed to Snoop, and that’s how he blew up.” But you’ve actually been building a buzz before that. You have features from Big Gipp and Young Dro on your Henny & Apple Juice mixtape. How did that come together? Because you didn’t really have any backing at that point.I didn’t have nothing. They didn’t charge me for that. They did it because they liked what I got going on. Stroud - who was the executive producer of the tape - produced Gipp’s [“I Ain’t Trippin”] single last summer. He went to Gipp with the idea. For people in Atlanta, I’m reminiscent of the Dungeon Family, so all the Dungeon Family members took a liking to me. So when Gipp saw that I needed him on the song, he came and did the verse just to show me love.Dro was approached by Stroud. He was like, “I got a kid on the come up. It would be a good look for both of y’all to work. He's got a dope song for you to jump on.” And Dro did it just off the strength. I used to record a Defiant Studios where Dro recorded. He used to come in the room and listen to my stuff, and he always thought I was dope. I know he kind of remembered that. Have you begun working on an official album?Not yet. I’m just going through beats. Big Boi expressed to me that he’s going to co-executive produce the album. Snoop wanted me to build a buzz by putting out music and visuals. I’m just setting my beats aside and writing for it. When Big Boi’s schedule calms down a little bit, I’m gonna jump in the studio and start working on that thing. I expect it to drop sometime early 2017.It’s interesting to hear that both Big Boi and Snoop are hands on.I don’t call them all the time. They’re probably surprised that they barely hear from me. I’m working, ya’ll are working, and for this thing to work I got to stay afloat by myself. So when y’all come and put your hands on it, it makes more sense.That’s why they f-ck with me. They like my grind. I’m not about to wait on them. I got my train moving, y’all hop on, and we're gonna ride this thing together. I’m not stopping and waiting on them like most artists probably would in my situation.A lot of people don’t understand when you do a [record deal] situation with people. They assume that’s when you stop doing as much work and leave the work to the team. I don’t agree with that. I think that’s when you’re supposed to work your hardest yourself. Then you’ll maximize whatever else the entities that you’re working with have for you.
I noticed you posted a picture with DJ Drama. Is there any talk about doing a Gangsta Grillz mixtape?
We went to Drama’s album listening party at his studio. Snoop was the special guest, and he introduced me to Drama. Snoop said, “This is Clay James, my new youngin. I’m about to send him through the roof. I need you to f-ck with him.”
Being in Atlanta, you meet everybody. I met Drama like three or four times. But he meets people all the time, so I’m sure it didn’t register who I was. But the fact Snoop brought me to him and said “This is one of my artists that I’m pushing. I’m about to do some big things for him,” I think in the near future you’ll see Drama working with us on something.
The fact that DJ Iceberg is my deejay and Iceberg is in Drama’s Academy, it all ties us together. He loves the fact that Iceberg is my deejay. He also loves the fact that Iceberg wasn’t the one that brought me to him. Iceberg wanted somebody else to do it so it would mean a little bit more. And who better than Snoop?
You wear a lot of bow ties. Is that connected to you being a Kappa?
It’s a little bit of my Kappa connection. Kappas in the south have a different style than our fraternity bruhs in other parts of the world. We keep it real funky. At least back when I was on the yard.
It was bow ties and a lot of Polo. Kind of like how folks were dressing in The Great Gatsby. We keep it real country and real classic, and that was something I wanted to bring into the rap game.
I initially took a liking to the bow tie because of the history behind it. A lot of people don’t know that you see a lot of people with bow ties because they don’t agree with the necktie. The necktie is the same knot they used to tie the noose around black folks' neck when they used to hang them back in the day.
So why even keep that in our culture when you could be spreading a way more dope idea? I love when people ask me about the bow tie, because I’m able to express that I don’t wear neckties because that’s the same knot on the noose from when people used to get lynched. I just keep it classy with a bow tie.
You and Messiah have a different approach to fashion. Again, it kind of reminded me of OutKast. Big Boi and Andre 3000 come together to make this great music, but individually their styles are so different. Do you feel like that’s the same dynamic with you and Messiah?
Yeah, definitely. We are the same, but we’re different. Messiah’s fashion is more geared to hypebeast and popular fashion. I know when something’s about to jump off when I see Messiah wear it. Like when I saw everybody go to dashikis, I saw Messiah doing that first.
I knew people wearing Adidas pants with Huaraches and other types of Nike was about to blow because I saw Messiah doing it. He's ahead of the curve. Stuff Messiah wears won’t get real popular in A-town for three to four months. He follows the blogs and people in urban fashion.
That’s his thing. As far as me, I just like dressing up and tailor-fitted sh-t. I like Polo. I like Brooks Brothers. I just like fly sh-t. I don’t care whether it’s in or out. I wear whatever I want. I like dressing up.
This is our job - this rap thing. I feel like if I would have ended up being that businessman using my business management or marketing degree, I would have had a "suit job." This rap thing is my job, so I want to be dressed up while I’m doing it, like you would see somebody working for a Fortune 500 company.
Two years ago, you declared yourself the “prince of the south.” How long do you think it will take before you’ll be able to declare yourself a “king of the south”?
I feel like we are descendants of kings as far as us being black men. My thing was about bringing something different out of the south that hasn’t been brought in a long time. My influences are Scarface, Dungeon Family, OutKast, Goodie Mob, UGK, and T.I. These men are all kings of the south.
It’s me saying, “These are my influences. I’m the prince, and I’m bringing that same type of flavor but with a modern feel.” That’s how I came up with the whole "Prince of the South" moniker. I never really thought about when I would be king because my idols are still around.
Time will tell. Once I have more accomplishments and accolades, I believe the people will say that sh-t. It’s going to take the people to say it. It’s not going to be nothing I can say.
Stream/download Clay James’ Henny & Apple Juice below.