When Young Greatness signed to Quality Control Music early last year, it marked something of a departure for the Atlanta-centric label that has helped make stars out of young, internet-savvy rappers like Migos, OG Maco, or Lil Yachty. The New Orleans native is 31 years-old, and since he got his start in rapping a decade or so ago, he has collaborated with artists including Juvenile, Gucci Mane, and Meek Mill. To be clear, there has been nothing viral about his recent rise to prominence: "Moolah," his biggest single to date, has been a slow burning success.
That was about all we knew about Greatness, whose full name is Theodore Jones, until he stopped by The FADER's New York office last week. During his visit, he played new music that will feature on the three releases he has planned for this year and then he gave us a rundown of how he came to be Young Greatness, a rapper to watch in 2016.
Tell me a little about yourself.
[I was] born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana—a product of the St. Bernard project. Growing up in New Orleans there's so much poverty and so much murder, so you only have two choices if you're a young black man: it's either get killed or go to jail. I didn't want to get killed, I didn't want to go to jail. Unfortunately, I went to jail.
I had just started rapping [when Hurricane Katrina hit]. When I went to Houston, it made me wanna go harder because I didn't have anything after leaving everything behind and it was rock bottom. So that's where my hustle and passion come from, and that's where I made my decision that this is what I'm doing with my life. And from there, I just worked hard and built up my brand.
As I said, I ran into a little trouble, went to prison for a few years [when I first returned to New Orleans]. [But that time in prison] was another turning point in my career, because it gave me the hunger, the passion, and that, "I'm not taking no for an answer you, heard me?" I came out of prison prepared to embark on this dream, to show the other artists in New Orleans there is hope. And I was writing everyday—I came home with a trash bag full of raps.
What was it like growing up in New Orleans when Cash Money and No Limit Records were running the game?
That's what made me want to be a rapper, seeing Lil Wayne, Juvenile, No Limit, Master P, Soulja Slim. Just the buzz we had in the city, and the cars and girls and money. I was like, “I want that shit.”
“Seeing Lil Wayne, Juvenile, No Limit, Master P, Soulja Slim...I was like, ‘I want that shit.’”—Young Greatness
How has New Orleans influenced you musically?
[New Orleans is an] emotionally driven city; we're passionate about everything. If I'm in a meeting and I just want to say, “Aye man, fuck you!” I’ma say it. I'm not gonna hold it back, because growing up in New Orleans we was raised to always be truthful and be honest about your feelings. And if that means showing emotion, don't be scared to hide your emotions. If you feel a certain kind of way, express yourself. I never had stage fright. I never was scared to express myself. I was always ready.
You seem to have a good sense of melody. Did you sing before you rapped?
Being from New Orleans, I was always melodic. We have that in our culture, it's jazz city. [We've got] bounce music. We turn anything into a harmony. Anything. I always had that in me, just from the start.
At what point did you start rapping in earnest?
Probably when I was 18 or 19. I had to leave college because my father passed and my mum had breast cancer. One of my close friends—his name was Deuce, he was murdered two years ago. He was probably one of the dopest [rappers] to come out of New Orleans. His ambition to make it and his talent rubbed off on me in a surprising way. I wasn't even thinking about being a rapper—my dream was football, I love football. But [I was] with him everyday, driving around New Orleans, going to different studios.
When I finally did my first record and let him hear it, he was like, “Man, you should pursue this!” The music I was making at that point had a lot of soul, a whole bunch of emotion, and a whole bunch of pain. [It was] very lyrical, very provocative.
How would you describe your style now?
In rap today, you have to be a chameleon. Basically you have to be able to adapt to stay relevant. One of the people that always does that is Jay Z. No matter what raps change to, Jay Z gon' sneak in there and get one, or two, or three. And that's why he has longevity. And that's one of the things I learned in the early stages of my career. To be a competitor you have to be a chameleon. Period. And that's why I'm Young Greatness. Because I know how to turn this on, turn this off, put this up a little bit, you know what I'm saying.
“Being from New Orleans, I was always melodic. We turn anything into a harmony.”—Young Greatness
You're 31 years old now, so you've been at this for 15 years. Is it hard to keep pushing for all those years?
No, not when you love it. I love this shit, so I'ma work my ass off until I get there. You was gonna see me eventually.
Do you feel like you're the better for all the years you've put in?
Yeah. It made me appreciate this a little bit more. I think if it had come easy, I wouldn't appreciate it, like some of the other artists. You know you have some guys that just pop—they just go in the closet in their room, make a little record, and then it's all over the internet. And then they make all the money and they get arrogant, so they don't appreciate it. I'd die for this shit man. For New Orleans, you know we bleed. We want success bad.
When did first feel like those years have paid off and you've made it?
Last year I was in the grocery store around the holidays and this little boy was with his mama—I seen 'em walking, but I didn't think that they was following me because I had slippers on, gym shorts, t-shirt. Then the boy walked up to me and he was like, "Hey, are you Young Greatness? Can me and my mommy get a picture with you?" And that's when I was like, "Oh, shit—I'm lit."
[But even before then, before I signed to Quality Control,] I had a song with Juvenile, a song with Meek Mill, a song with Pusha T. It felt normal [to me to work with these big names] because they look at me like a seasoned vet. I already had material just floating around, it was just a matter of time and of god before getting my break.
In a way, you are arriving fully formed.
Yeah, all of these years of working hard. Shit, let you be working so hard for all these years, you'd be ready to go, too.
Why do you think now is your time?
Shit, why not now? This is the perfect time the game is wide open for a new face, especially from New Orleans. The last hot thing was Lil Wayne. I'm next to resurrect the city, baby.