Interview: Trinidad Jame$

Photographer Geordie Wood
April 24, 2013

Last year, Trinidad Jame$, the previously unknown boutique clerk-turned-rapper with a spectacularly attention-grabbing video, signed a reportedly massive major label deal. As Jame$ works toward an eventual LP release, his Def Jam groomers and spectators alike now wonder: Will the 10 million people who've watched "All Gold Everything" become loyal fans, or were they onetime curious witnesses? At the moment, it's impossible to say. This is not lost on Jame$ himself, who stopped by FADER offices on a trip to New York last week. He talked about being rap's best-known beginner, fickle consumers and riding the hype cycle with a level head.

Def Jam’s had you out on the road, touring colleges, since you signed your deal. What have you learned? Breathing, remembering lyrics, the right time to jump in the crowd, song order, all the aspects that make it a good show. I’m figuring out my strong points, what’s not my strong points. I’m a crowd person. I’m really big on crowd interaction. Every song feels like a party, like we’re having a big party, with somebody directing the party. And I directed the party.

And what parts of your act need improvement? Probably like more consistency of my breath. I get winded. Remembering lyrics. Things can always get tighter and tighter and tighter, and that comes with repetition. Think about everybody you have on the cover of FADER. You knew them close to their beginning so you put them on the cover, but they’ve been rapping, they’ve been going through all the ups and downs. For me it took off fast. People heard me get a deal, came to my show and saw I forgot lyrics to a couple songs or whatever, like, Oh man! What’d you give him a deal for? He’s terrible! No, I’m a human. I just started doing this. Artists who’ve been in the game still make mistakes that I would make now.

I'd guess you can jump higher than pretty much any artist, though. Do you get to play a lot of basketball these days? I play basketball a lot, but I didn’t get to play much on this tour because the first 11 cities we did were all cold. I don’t get to play as much as I would like to, but it’s always a great pastime for me. In high school, I didn’t get a chance to really focus in or get really serious. It would have been cool to play college basketball, feel that experience of trying to win a national championship.

Is getting a Def Jam deal kind of like winning a national championship? It’s definitely a blessing. But the real championship is being able to keep longevity in music, and getting the deal is just the beginning. Getting the deal is like going to college, but to play and then win the national championship, that’s like the ultimate glory. Because you can get a full ride to go to Duke or North Carolina and then not be shit. Like I can get a deal to go to Def Jam and it’s cool, but if you never even put out a record? You want to be on a label where the artist works to keep going and the label works to keep pushing. So if I do what I feel is my best and I give to the the label, they’re going to do their best to put it out to as many people as can hear it. On my first project, I didn’t work with anybody: no label, just me and one person. Me and my engineer. So you can make hit records without a label, but it’s not all about the hit record. It’s about the record getting out. A hit record with only you and me hearing it ain’t shit. That’s just a song that me and you like together.

In the past couple years, we’ve seen people like Kreayshawn have big YouTube success then struggle with longevity. How are you building staying power? Honestly in life, especially when it comes to music, you can’t really control that plan. It depends if people want to keep buying into your story. “All Gold Everything” hit everybody in the face. Then I came back after that and put out another video, for “Southside,” but nobody ever even talks about it. Does that mean I made a bad song? Hell no. But there’s things people pay attention to and other things that people don’t.

Is it disappointing when people don’t pay attention? I mean, you’re not going to feel like happy like, Ay man, we failed. But if it didn’t hit the way you wanted it to, what can you really do? You can't do another “All Gold Everything.” It’s not like a T-shirt where you make a hard template and then you just keep making colors. I guess we didn’t go hard enough on “Southside,” maybe. The numbers don’t lie.

Growing up, you moved from Trinidad to Atlanta to South Carolina and back. Is there a place you feel most shaped by? I’ve lived a few different places. I went to school on the west side. I lived on the south side, my mom still lives on the south side—she’s my best friend. Now she works for me, taking care of paperwork and all the technical stuff. At one point, we also lived in Forest Park. I never really ventured out on the east side, but I got people over there. I worked at a Waffle House close to downtown, and the boutique that I worked at was in the heart of downtown, on top of Underground Atlanta. I took pride in dressing. I made sure that I wouldn’t tell you about how to dress or what to wear if I wasn’t put together. So people over there, same customers I’ve known for years and years, they’ve become like family. But when so many people know you, you become like a float-around guy. I just like people. I’m never really focused on one thing. I gotta be a person that has different characters. Like with music: Yeah I would get on an EDM beat, yeah I’d get on a trap beat, yeah I’d get on an R&B beat. My mixtape had all different sounds. I’m one person, and it’s me in all those sounds.

Are any of those old friends frustrated that you’ve got a lot more people to ‘float around’ between now? You don’t realize how important time is until you can’t give it to somebody. All of a sudden you’re here, there and everywhere, just working, but your friends and family, people who have stationary jobs with normal hours, experience it differently. If you’re looking at my life through Instagram, you gotta remember that’s just a picture, one second at a time. It may look nice, but that’s my job, and you’re never really off. People have a term called “acting Hollywood.” I’m not acting Hollywood, I just don’t have the time to hang out like I used to. To make this money, I can’t do the same things. If you don’t understand that, your whole perspective is wack. So you hope and pray that you have more friends that are understanding and will remember who you are. I haven’t changed not one bit. I just do a different job now. And I got great hair.

Is it more important to be a technically proficient rapper or an engaging personality? Being a really good rapper is cool until you get into the entertainment business. You can be a really good rapper on the corner, but if you’re a really good rapper at the Grammys or the MTV awards, then you’re a good entertainer too. Drake puts on a good show, but he’s not really running around. He’s a one spot, one mic type of guy, but you don’t feel like, Man, this is boring. Wiz has a nice show too. I’ve seen Wiz when he was at the point where I’m at right now. I’m doing venues that are like 1,000 or under. He’s doing 17,000 in the amphitheater with a live band, compared to just a DJ when he first came out.

Where do you see yourself performing in a year? It’s really based on how people respond to the next music. I kind of surprised everybody at first. Nobody knew me, and there was nothing to go back and find on me, cause I hadn’t done anything. You were catching me at the beginning. So we’re just going to see how I do. The next project might come out, and nobody gravitates to any song. Does that make me have to regret “All Gold Everything?” Nah. What can I do about that? I can get Jesus to write a song for me, but it’s about how people reply to it. “All Gold Everything” is not a Big L verse, or a Big Pun verse, or a Jay-Z verse. It’s just a song with one verse, the #1 song on hip-hop radio at one point in time, a great visual. And now it’s a part of music. You just have to do the best you can and believe in what you’re saying. What’s meant to happen will.

Interview: Trinidad Jame$