Stubborn With My Goals: Impassioned MC J Soulja Stays Focused on Creating Opportunities in Austin Rap
"There ain't no trophies for that kind of shit"
"God has blessed me and I say that just being here because there's been times where I wanted to quit and I done been through so much crazy shit," J Soulja confides in an interview just before Thanksgiving.
"Quit rap, n---a. Quit all this shit. I've dealt with a lot of just mental shit."
Perceived lack of acclaim for his new music, creeping self-doubt, and life's inexplicable hardships caused him to contemplate giving up rap altogether. Negative thoughts sometimes take over his psyche, especially when he reflects on his infant son's tragic passing in 2018 and the loss of several more people close to him. He spent the previous Thanksgiving – and Christmas – locked in with producer Steelo Foreign at Elevate Studios due to COVID-19 limiting his usual familial holiday gatherings. Those studio sessions eventually formed the foundation of latest release More Than Nothin'.
"I'm a human and it's easy to get caught up in this world when you're so passionate about doing what you're doing, making a change, and building an empire," he adds. "Sometimes you get moments like this where you gotta talk to somebody who's making you really just realize how blessed you are."
If you weren't paying attention, you might not grasp the degree of difficulty in J Soulja's sacrificial juggling act, striving to progress his own rap career while also carving out opportunities for his peers in a town still lacking a solid hip-hop infrastructure. The impassioned creative's monthly Pre-Roll open mic showcase at Flamingo Cantina has been running since July. The Smoke Out, his main concert series that's become his signature as a promoter, finally makes its return on March 19 as an official South by Southwest 2022 showcase. His 32-artist, March Madness-style, single elimination contest: the Smoke Out ATX Tournament – culminating in a local hip-hop act getting a SXSW slot – reemerges next month, COVID permitting. And Six Square, an organization working to preserve the Eastside's cultural legacy, made him its director of cultural and artistic liberation last year.
"You don't get any awards for stepping up to the plate and doing shit that n----s would never do," says the 29-year-old, in reference to both his 2018 song "Awards" and lack of recognition for his efforts to cultivate Austin's rap scene. He at times references his own lyrics as answers, which perhaps serves as a great barometer of his music's authenticity.
"There ain't no trophies for that kind of shit."
The interview takes place at Bennu Coffee on Austin Community College's Highland campus, thus unintentionally bringing his career full-circle. A close friend suggested that he apply for an ambassador deal with Swisher Sweets after spectating a less than favorable Nwe Year's Eve 2017 Swisher New Orleans showcase headlined by Cardi B. Then working at various ACC campuses as a janitor, J Soulja sent in an EPK at the start of 2018 and initially didn't get the role. One Monday, he opened his mailbox and suddenly received a multithousand-dollar check and a cordial invitation from the cigar brand to fly to Los Angeles. He quit his job immediately and arrived in California two days later.
J Soulja becomes a little emotional when reflecting on the time period before leaving his janitorial position at ACC. "That shit was some of the most humbling times of my life," he says shakily. "At the time, I got full custody of my son. I'm cleaning up ACC. I'm there from 6pm to 6am. I'll clean my building for about four hours and go to the studio. About two in the morning, knock out a couple verses for my album, finish my building, and go pull up on my granny where my son was for the night. Sleep with him, wake up, and do the same thing every day."
That Swisher Sweets ambassador deal provided a window into how an artist must remain cognizant of their value when negotiating any sort of deal or booking arrangement. A guideline on how to properly run shows that benefit artists also followed. Swisher wanted him and simply cut the check. According to J Soulja, local hip-hop acts don't receive the same courting afforded to musicians from other genres.
"Austin doesn't have leaders in hip-hop who are courting artists like they're valuable," he says. "They court artists like they're people who are taking up space in the club to help them with their dollar. I've been privileged enough to be a universal hip-hop artist and be able to perform on sets with rock & roll artists, jazz artists, and country artists. The way that they court those creatives compared to hip-hop is totally different."
"Way Too Stubborn With My Goals/ Take Me Where the Journey Goes"
Endorsement money from the Swisher Sweets deal allowed someone with no experience to kick-start his Smoke Out series in 2018. When he saw how successfully the first event went with him as the headliner, he decided to use his new platform as an avenue to spotlight his peers while also paying them for their performances. The Teeta headlined the Smoke Out 2 and Quin NFN, then eight days past his 18th birthday, headlined the event's third edition – shows he claims marked the first hometown sold-out headlining performances for two of Austin's most prominent rappers. When you look at the statistical trajectories of those two artists in relation to his own, you may wonder what's the incentive in promoting others in a competitive sport like hip-hop, outside of obvious financial benefits as a promoter? For J Soulja, there's knowledge of an unfavorable ratio between those desiring to rap and those who possess the resources – and willingness – to maneuver those artists toward a chance at success.
"I can humbly put my rap against [anyone] because I, respectfully, know that n----s not going to rap the same way that I'm rapping," he proclaims. "I done put my 10,000 hours in. I don't mind you rap better, get farther, whatever. I don't give a fuck. I want to see you win! Let's open these doors up, that way [people] can walk through them because there's n----s out here who don't rap anywhere close to me but are surpassing things a lot more than what I may have ever been able to touch.
"And I don't hate on them."
He's not directing these words to any artist in particular but rather hurling them at people who may denounce his importance off one glance at a number – such as a Spotify listener count.
"I salute them. And there were times where, as a real n---a, I didn't know how to salute them. I had to humble up and realize where the demand was and how we can exploit these spaces in Austin hip-hop that motherfuckers don't know how to maneuver. I'm selling out shows with local artists. That's something that's taboo here. I'm not trying to put you on so I can take your light. We're developing win-win situations like, 'Let me put you in this position to shine. I'm gonna show you how we're gonna ball and we're going to have transparent communication.'"
For those questioning his merits to rep Austin as a result of his family moving to Pflugerville from the Eastside, the former Andrews Elementary student serves up a bar for that as well.
"If I'm from Pflugerville, you n----sbetter be lucky that it's somebody who down to put on for this shit the same way that I do because nobody does it," the Hendrickson High School alum passionately asserts.
He fittingly spits lyrics penned for "What It Is" off 2020 project From the Soul soon after.
"Straight out of Austin, hoe, that's where I'm from/ That's where I was/ Why I do this shit the way I does/ That's what I did/ Was on this rappin' shit since I was kid/ Raised in the 'ville, but I won't hesitate to bust yo' lip."
"It's in the music – it doesn't offend me to be honest," he continues. "I've broken codes here in Austin that n----s have been trying to do for years and I've had to play these roles for the simple fact that I don't have anybody to help me out. I don't have a team. I run this shit independently.
"I've got to wear these hats. It's mandatory. If I don't do it, who else will do it?"
Before putting 10,000 hours into developing his craft, the resilient emcee first started rapping around the age of 10 after hearing his father sing on an R&B demo. His father began to teach him how to sing, so he later tried out some of those methods with a neighbor named Donnie Pompey. Influenced by the likes of Chamillionaire, who he refers to as his favorite rapper growing up, Houston heavyweight Z-Ro, and Screw tapes, J Soulja aims to bring authenticity and rawness to his music on a level similar to his inspirations.
"I want to reinvent Texas music – I want to be able to make those records like a Mo City Don," he explains. "I want to have those kind of feels to a record where it's just raw, authentic material from the soul, from the South. This [latest] project was just kind of tapping into this character, this new definition of what I want J Soulja to be recognized for in the next five to 10 years."
After releasing solid projects From the Soul and This Ain't Shxt as "throwaways" in 2020, October 2021 release More Than Nothin' sounds noticeably polished in comparison. The featureless 10-song album contains the best production and mixing of his career while he sounds more focused than ever on the mic. "Roof," a track concocted during last February's horrendous winter freeze, features a hook befit for any setting ranging from a large social gathering to cramped quarters devoid of proper heating. "Top Down" contains a slew of quotables touching on his faith, resilience, and flexes about his local status.
His eighth studio album and September 2021 extended play, SouljaSzn EP, recently earned him a place in the final five voting spots for Best Hip-Hop/Rap at the 2022 Austin Music Poll – marking his first time making the final voting cut. He refers to the initial release of the LP as merely a "soft launch" for a more revealing deluxe version set for an unveiling some time this year.
"It's time to really bring people in all the way," he says. "Getting more into the topics with my son, topics with my relationship with my daughter's mom, and getting more into the topics with a lot of shit.
"I feel like for a lot of time in my career, I did everything I [could] to try to create some kind of identity and none of it ever stuck. Now that I have the education that I have as far as how marketing goes, how to tell a story through my marketing, and how to create narratives for myself that I want people to be able to find commonality with, I think now is the time."
The founder of 4Life4Ever Entertainment envisions himself becoming a figure who guides young street artists on how to maneuver themselves before ideally attaining ambassador and sponsorship deals. On a macro scale, he wants to support artists from the bottom of their careers to the middle; the middle to the top is the far easier journey. On a personal level, rather than signing artists to a deal, he offers guidance to artists he sees serious potential in. He's only worked closely with Yung Bryse and mentors Shaunsolo "here and there." Bryse made the Chronicle's June 2021 "21 Austin Rappers to Know in '21" story off the strength of debut LP Trill Livin'.
"My whole goal with 4Life4Ever Entertainment is to reinvigorate the urban entertainment experience," J Soulja says.
His role at Six Square also presents him with the opportunity to put on events and spotlight artists digitally while getting a better understanding of the Eastside.
"Like I said [on 'Top Down'], 'Stubborn with my goals/ Take me where the journey goes.' If that emcompasses me having to wear a hat for another company to learn how to maneuver on the Eastside much better than I may have before, that's what I have to do. Shout-out to [Six Square Executive Director] Pam Owens."
Though he started the interview on a bit of a downside, these two hours of conversation remind him of what he's accomplished via his own independent efforts. "I got here for being me – and that's the main thing that I'm thankful for and that's the main [reason why] I don't mind the pace of my career," he says proudly. "'Cause there'll be a lot of n----s who'll be like, 'J Soulja, so and so got more this.' That's cool, bro.
"I know that my time will come. I've done things that n----s would never, ever fathom to do and they got more followers than me. They got more notoriety than me. I'm blessed, bro. I'm a unique individual."
He shares optimism for Austin's rap scene, too. Permanently shuttered Seventh Street locale Scratchouse hosted previous iterations of both the Smoke Out and his tournament, yet he views the ongoing pandemic period as a chance to stake new ground even as numerous venues have closed for good.
"We got a lot of people here who are seeing the scarcity and the necessities of what's here and [the scene] is also in a space of new territory," he says. "I believe that it's in a space where it's for the taking. I'm blessed to be in the position right now where I'm trying to pioneer the underground, pioneer the streets, and I think the future holds for me providing more outlets and more services.
"And really grooming talent. Stapling myself as that guy for the community that is a true advocate for Austin hip-hop and Austin creatives."
J Soulja performs January 29 at Flamingo Cantina with Shordie Shordie and then hosts the Smoke Out ATX Tournament at Flamingo Cantina on Feburary 1 before hitting Come & Take It Live with Dave East on Feburary 3.