Back in 2013, when a solid two dozen Chicago rappers were alleged to be “up next,” ZMoney was really, really up next. Born Zernardo Tate, an appropriately glamorous name for a guy who oozes charisma, ZMoney represented the city’s West side at a time when the spotlight was mostly fixed on the South. And though he’d only started making music in 2012, he rapped with an effortless charm that quickly caught on; tracks like “Regular” and “Want My Money” were near-immediate local hits. (My personal favorite from back then: “Dope Boy Magic,” on which Z finds every pocket of JNeal’s insanely bass-boosted beat.) Hearing his own voice on a track, he tells me, surprised himself. He didn’t sound much like any other rapper in Chicago — if anything, he rapped a bit like Gucci Mane.
But after a probation violation sent him to prison for nearly all of 2014, Z had to start from square one again. In a weird way, he admits, that prison sentence was when his new life began; he’d been mixed up in street stuff for his entire adult life, but seeing the volume of fan mail he was receiving daily, he realized it was time to put his all into this rap thing. He wrote with a consuming passion — over 300 songs, making beats by banging on his chest. Finally released in early 2015, Z picked up and moved to Atlanta, somewhere his past wouldn’t get in the way of his craft. It’s paying off; on last year’s ZTM — a 7-track tape with rising producer ChaseTheMoney that includes the ridiculously swagged-out Valee collab “Two 16s” — his delivery is loose but laser-focused. And in January, Z announced he’d signed to Gucci’s 1017 Eskimo label, a partnership that felt like fate.
I caught up with Z at a wood-panelled studio in Chicago, where he blasted a handful of carefully-selected Gucci songs off YouTube (“I Heard,” “6 Hours”), while finishing a take-out plate of chicken and mac and cheese. Despite having come down with a pretty hardcore cold from traveling, his energy was boundless. He regularly prefaces his sentences by giddily teasing (“And guess what?!”) and is an open book about even his life’s darkest details — but would also like you to know that he is really, really rich.
I heard that you were not expecting the call from Gucci when it came.
It was a random ass call. I had just moved into my new condo in Atlanta. The cable man was coming to hook up my cable, and he told me he needed to be there at 8 o’clock in the morning. Gucci called me at like 8 in the morning, 7:30 maybe.
I’m surprised Gucci’s awake that early!
I know, Gucci up early! Gucci up early every day. So he hit me like, “ZMoney? This ZMoney?” I’m like, “Who’s this?” “It’s Gucci!” I’m like, “Who?” “Gucci Mane, nigga!” I’m like, Ohhh shit! This is the first time we talked ever. Remind you: Gucci is my favorite rapper. Been my favorite. I’m gonna keep it real with you: if it weren’t for Gucci, I probably wouldn’t even be fucking rapping. All my homies used to love listening to, like, Tha Carter, all that shit, but my ear always been different. Only reason I got put on Gucci was because my brother was in Tennessee like, “Listen to this shit.” And for me, I already was a Project Pan fan, so when I heard Gucci, I’m rocking with it. When he called me, it was “I can’t believe this shit” type shit. I was talking to my dream! This the big bro, this who I’ve been riding round listening to. And, honestly, after I got off the phone with him, I ain’t give a fuck about the cable guy! Then he texted me like, “Send me some more music.” So I flood him with so much music, I swear to god, he had to tell me, “Stop! That’s enough!”
I respect that man, though; I felt like his struggle was my struggle. I came in the rap game my own way — I came in hustling and grinding. But I ain’t come in organized, you know what I’m saying? I came in hustling more than I was rapping. Music was cool, but I liked the simple fact that… I liked hearing myself. Remind you: I’m a young trap nigga. I was playing basketball and selling drugs; I ain’t never think I’d be rapping 10 years from now. But hearing myself on a track just surprised the fuck out of me. So every night, I’m in the studio. When I first started rapping, I paid the engineer $700 and said, “I’m gonna be here every day.” And I came every day, I swear to god, until the engineer told me, “Ay bro, I can’t record you today.” I’d go to the studio all night, but guess what: 5, 6 in the morning, I’m up. Gotta go back to selling drugs. And when I’m done selling drugs, I’m back in the studio! So it was like, I’m literally rapping about my fucking life that I’m living every day! On the same day.
So what was the moment that changed — when you became dedicated to really being a rapper?
First, JNeal. I was recording all this music and wasn’t putting it out. JNeal was the first dude ever who made me take rapping serious. JNeal sat me down and was like, “Bro, I’m finna start releasing some of your music.” I’m like, “Go ‘head.” So while JNeal releasing music, I’m in the streets. Fake Shore Drive, Andrew Barber, posted one of my first songs, “Turn On.” I’m not even knowing what the fuck Fake Shore Drive is! I’m from Chicago, so I’m thinking that shit got something to do with Lake Shore Drive, you feel me? So now everybody seeing me and knowing my songs… but I’m still out doing my thing. So I recorded a song called “Everything,” and I had a long talk in the basement with JNeal. He like, “Bro, I think you gotta start taking shit serious. You got a style. You don’t know what you got, but I think you can go far.” But you know, him telling me that ain’t gonna break it right then — I gotta maintain my living. Like, Yeah, you can tell me this, bro — but when we leave this motherfucker, this ain’t finna pay me right now.
But then I got locked up. This was 2013. I came home. Boom: it’s like, “Free ZMoney.” I’m like, Oh shit, I’m picking up! I’m getting the momentum, I’m going crazy, I’m liking what I’m getting. Then I got locked up again. And when I got locked up that time: “Oh shit, take this shit serious, bro.” The reason I got out of jail was my rapping. That’s how I knew — alright, this my job now. I got sent to the prison, and I got letters from all these people that wanted to sign me. I’m talking about stacks of mail every day. I’m like, Damn, I really got a fan base!
“Where I’m from, anybody can kill somebody. But everybody can’t get rich.”
And you didn’t really know it was like that before you went in?
I never knew. I knew I had it, but I never knew it was like this. Fans sending me naked pictures, fans sending me money. The shit was crazy. So I came home and just stuck with it. I ain’t let up. I ain’t have no help in Chicago; I had to push myself, use my own money. I ain’t never give up, even though I went to jail four, five, six times. I did a whole year — I had to get my whole buzz back. But me and Gucci’s stories similar; that’s why I say that it feels like the perfect sign.
What did you take away from that time, being locked up?
I ain’t gonna lie to you, being locked up brought me everything. I read over 180 books in jail. I wrote notes every day.
What kind of books?
I read everything. History, urban novels, educational... I was making my own beats in jail. I wrote over 300 songs, swear to god. And guess what? I wrote “Stove On” in jail. Beating on my chest [to make the beat]. I wrote it on the yellow paper in my cell, the whole song; I got the paper in my house right now. “I drop two ounces with my stove on! Whip it up and then came back…” In Stateville. And guess what? I wrote so many songs, but that was the only song I ever rapped when I got outta jail.
I wanted to talk about ZTM. How did you link up with ChaseTheMoney?
Me and ChaseTheMoney was always bumping into each other at studios. We weren’t really rocking like that; I knew who he was, he knew who I was. But he came to me one day like, “Bro, I’m fucking with you. Let’s do a tape.” Like that. We locked in so hard; we did our whole tape in one week, right here in this studio. ChaseTheMoney is like my main producer right now. So I bug him; I’m like, “I need beats! I need beats!” But me and Chase’s best way to record is when me and him together.
Yeah, I was talking to Valee recently, and he said Chase doesn’t like to email beats.
ChaseTheMoney do not like to email beats. That’s a fuckin’ fact. That’s why I say I be bugging his ass. I could show you a message I just sent him: “Motherfucker would you send me some beats??” He like to make the beats in here. That’s how we did the whole ZTM in six days, I swear. We started off with two songs, then me and Valee knocked out “Two 16s.”
“Two 16s” went crazy!
We made that shit in 30 minutes. I started it off, then he finished it. “Ate a box of PopTarts…” It wasn’t one take, but damn near. Valee’s so hype when I started rapping — when he heard “PopTarts,” I see him over there going crazy. We got a stupid swag. We got a whole tape coming out. That’s my boy.
Did you really eat a box of PopTarts before you recorded that song?
Maybe a day before. That’s why it reminded me. I really was drunk off Wockhardt. I was drunk off Wockhardt, I ate a box of PopTarts — I was really freestyling, just high. Me and Valee was in this bitch high as hell. We was on another planet. I don’t try too hard. I just let it flow.
I saw you just put up a song called “Bitcoin.” You into Bitcoins?
Hell yeah. I was into Bitcoin before everybody got into Bitcoin, I swear to god. And I’ma keep it real with you, you know how I got into Bitcoin? I was on some finessing shit. I was doing some shit and posting money in my account, you feel me? One day I’m like, Fuck all this fraud shit, I’m a drug dealer, you know what I’m saying? So I left all the money on my Bitcoin account. And then I didn’t really think about it, cause I only put like $500 in there. I look up one day, it’s like $1700 in my account, like a month later. I’m like what the fuck! So I’m thinking I finessed it, and I’m trying my best to get this money out my Bitcoin wallet. I’m trying my best, but I don’t know how to get it out. I’m thinking I finessed people, but then people were telling me, "Nah bro." So I ended up putting the money back in my bitcoin; I was using Blockchain at first. Then I started using Coinbase. Yeah, I was fucking with it, but I don’t fuck with it like that no more.
When did you move out of Chicago?
I moved out when I came home from jail in 2015. When I came out of jail, I was making promises to myself like, Man, I gotta get the fuck up out the city. I can say that I’m rapping and leaving the shit alone but like, niggas know me, junkies know me, people know me off doing what I used to do. I got too much of my old… too much. For me to become a better artist, I had to get outta Chicago. That’s what I feel was smart.
I feel like people that aren’t from here don’t know too much about what the West side of Chicago is like.
I don’t think the world [was] introduced to the West side. I’m a hundred percent the definition of the West side. Don’t get me wrong, it’s killing on the West side — but it’s more about organization. Example: I was making $10,000 a day on the block. I was young, making ten thousand dollars a day, plus. I started when I was 16, 17 years old. That’s what the West side’s going on. Everybody got the wrong impression of Chicago — “Oh, it’s Chiraq” — all the killing. Where I’m from, anybody can kill somebody. But everybody can’t get rich. That’s a talent — the gift of gab, a way to move. That’s what ain’t been brought, and that’s what I’m here to bring.
And you can ask anybody: I been doing this since I was a kid. I had a restaurant when I was 18 years old. I had a building I owned when I was 18. I had a $100,000 car on $10,000 rims when I was 18 years old. I’m not one of them rappers who be like, “Oh yeah, I was selling drugs before I was rapping!” I was really rich. I really had a lot of fucking money. I wasn’t playing none of them rap games. That’s why I take my music so seriously, because I came here as an entrepreneur. When I came in, I didn’t really have no manager; I was writing down what I gotta do. But man, if you don’t do it, who else gonna do it for you?