Figg Panamera knows the key to longevity in the rap game is reinvention. After nearly twenty years as JT the Bigga Figga, Figg had outgrown his home, so in 2010 he moved to Atlanta and shed his old name in favor of a new one. Discarding an established name for a new one might seem like a waste of hard work, but Figg isn’t afraid of work—in fact, it was his willingness to grind that flew him to the top of the Bay Area’s rap game under his old moniker.
As JT the Bigga Figga, Figg inspired generations of rappers, including Master P, who built his No Limit empire on the tutelage of JT’s hustle. Figg molded the early sound of Bay Area gangster rap, and helped introduce scores of budding rap nerds (myself included) to new voices like Killa Tay and Andre Nickatina through the compilations he put out himself. These compilations proved the impeccable ear Figg has for new talent. Figg worked with Zaytoven before he became king of the trap house sound, and he collaborated with Migos before they were culture. Hell, he worked with Kevin Gates before Gates had two phones.
JT pioneered DIY rap in an era when DIY belonged to punks and noodling college rock bands, and he did this simply because he was sick of hearing “No” from major labels. Since they wouldn’t give him the numbers he wanted, he took to the streets and got them himself.
With Figg Panamera’s new album, Cali Boy Down South, produced by Zaytoven and Cassius Jay, Figg shows his ability to adapt to a new town and a new sound. He’s cashed in his G-funk synth licks for 808s and cold hooks. This album has the ambition and swag of a hungry up-and-comer, and the refinement of a veteran who’s seen his share of hardships in the game, and has the hustle to overcome them.
In addition to the interview, we’re premiering Figg’s new video for the latest single “Hand In Da Pot.”
You’ve been in the game a long time, my friend.
Figg Panamera:Yeah, man. I’m forty-three. There aren’t many OGs that stay in the game this long, not unless you’re a Jay-Z or a Too Short.
I remember those compilations you used to put out in the nineties. They introduced a lot of Bay Area kids to their favorite rappers.
Figg Panamera:I learned the importance of working with young artists from those [compilations]. That work back in the nineties taught me how to stay relevant. People want things to stay the same, how it used to be, but you know, music is a time capsule. If you listen to a Andre Nickatina record from back then like The New Jim Jones, and goddamit it’ll make you feel like you’re back in that time. I feel the same way when I listen to my music from back then. We were young, and we weren’t about to be ripped off by major labels.
You’ve always been committed to independence and making music your own way. Cali Boy Down South is very different from your older sound—Something Crucial, for instance—which features the old West Coast G-funk sound. This new record is truly a trap record.
Figg Panamera:Yes, Cali Boy Down South is a trap record. September marks seven years since I came out here. I became a fan of the South when Master P came back to the South. Zaytoven, who actually produced Something Crucial in the Bay, he moved [to Atlanta] in 2000. Seventeen years ago. His sound was California, but he had to adjust. They want more 808. They don’t want no bass lines. They want some strings and synths operating in the background. They want triplet drum patterns. It’s a swag—you know?
With T.I. and Gucci and Jeezy trailblazin’ the trap sound, Zaytoven, pushin’ with Gucci, created their own sound. A lot of people started to follow their lead. Shawty Redd, for example. It comes from what we did in the nineties, but with different flavor. Cali Boy Down South, produced by Zaytoven and Cassius Jay, I like the swag of those beats.
What was your writing style for this record? How do you approach writing and producing in general?
Figg Panamera:I don’t write nothing down on paper. Freestyle works just as good with Pro Tools. You can do two bars at a time, you know? It’s like, “Punch me in.” We didn’t have no shit like that back then. You’d have to go back and start from the beginning of the song and go again. If you want to do the hook, you’ve gotta do it four times straight through. Nobody was doing adlibs, not really. It was all single track. Now you got eight, twelve.
Me as a producer, I didn’t do samples—they’re going to get you in trouble. Biz Markie got all his royalties taken. Rob Base or Scott La Rock—what’s his name? [Figg starts singing] “Joy and pain!” The biggest song in high school, goddamnit. Anyway, they took all the money. I got educated by a show on a local station when they announced that all those guys lost their royalties to the artists they sampled. So I learned that if I like an old song, I don’t want to sample it, I’ve gotta replay it and change some of the notes so it can be my song, too.
When it comes to creating your own music, you’re also very good at the business aspect. You’ve got this entrepreneurial genius in you that not a lot of artists have. That hustle is always associated with Bay Area rap music. Guys like E-40 and you are seen as the forefathers of that. Clyde Carson recently told me that you two instilled that hustle into Bay Area culture. You’re a very accomplished musician, but your accomplishments in business are just as impressive. What do you attribute that entrepreneurial spirit to?
Figg Panamera:I would attribute it to the rejection by labels. I wasn’t getting the proper response. After I got rejected, I realized I could press the albums and sell them myself. And then after making sales and getting resales and getting my name out there, by the time [the labels] start calling with the numbers I originally wanted, I’m like, “Shit, I made that on my own!” A hundred thousand used to seem like a lot, it still is, but in terms of a contract, a new artist might have to take that on terms and conditions that’s gonna cost you later.
As someone who’s business-minded, what’s the importance of being independent until you get the right deal? There are countless horror stories about young artists signing 360 deals, yet people still sign them. Why should someone be independent instead of signing with devil, so to speak?
Figg Panamera:Well, the game has become digital. Your music can be put out through digital distribution through Tunecore.com. I like them because they give independent artists a platform to compete with Tupac and Mariah Carey or whoever. It’s important to learn the meaning of the word monetization as an independent artist. That’s the way the money’s gonna get made. When you get clicks on YouTube, that’s money. Anywhere the stream goes through, that’s money.
So, it’s important for an independent artist to know that they need to get digital distribution before they sign a deal or anything like that. Let’s see how hot you really are; put your music out yourself first. At least be signed to yourself before you sign with someone else. Even if you don’t want to be a record label, you’re gonna damn near need to be one or else you’ll get robbed by someone else.
I was just listening to Master P’s No Jumper podcast, and he was talking about how living in Richmond, CA exposed him to a different type of hustle, and he attributed that hustle to what made him so massively successful. Did you know P?
Figg Panamera:Yeah, I produced on his first album. If you listen to some of his interviews, he always says, “I got it from JT and E-40” But E-40 was already more established because he was older. We were the new generation back then.
The way that No Limit Records marketed music and merchandise changed the way rap fans bought big records. They were putting out new records and compilations at a relentless rate. They made movies, clothes, dolls. Is that the JT the Bigga Figga business model?
Figg Panamera:Yeah, man. Multiple products. ’94 was my year, ’96 was his. He was using what we did. Even E-40 didn’t drop that many records—they dropped hits, but not as many. Me, San Quinn, and a bunch of others. But, you know, we tip our hat to P. He showed us how to do it on a big level.
Why were you so into releasing those compilations back in the day? What was it about that specific kind of record that you found so appealing?
Figg Panamera:It was about grabbing unknown talent and joining forces, man. It was about finding that talent in the slums where we at, in the hood. They’re living those underground tales. There’s no faking—we’re living it. It’s like your environment plays the biggest part in a lot of your goals and aspirations, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, survival was the theme across the board. Even if you was robbin’ a bank in your song, or if you was kicking in the door to grab some kilos and you was fittin’ to murder everyone in the house—people was doing what they had to.
If I was blessed to make music, I wanted to give the opportunity to others. I wanted to spread the word. I wanted to show them how to press their CDs and where to get their posters printed, you know? I began to see myself as someone that God is blessing. I couldn’t take the credit for my own successes—I had to give it away. Compilations were an easy way to accomplish that goal.
In the dark ages before the internet, it was really one of the best ways to be introduced to up-and-coming artists.
Figg Panamera:Yeah, man. I liked it when other people started putting out compilations as well.
You are now Figg Panamera; everyone from the Bay Area will remember you as JT the Bigga Figga. What was the hardest part about rebranding yourself as Figg?
Figg Panamera:When I arrived in Atlanta with the sole purpose of taking what I learned [in the Bay] as my training and testing that in the South region (where they’re killing us in the game right now; they’re playing the music from down here in all of the Bay’s clubs), I wanted to come and kill it where the ground is fertile. In 2010, I could’ve been considered one of the OG rappers, and that was seven years ago. But I knew if I came down here, I knew it was going to be bigger. There’s a new rapper coming out of here every two weeks. People booking independently are make thirty or forty thousand dollars a show.
Atlanta has been such a holy land for rap, but in the past ten years, it’s just ridiculous how good the music’s been. Everywhere you go, every radio station is playing Atlanta rapper after Atlanta rapper. Why do you think there’s such a wealth of rap coming out of your adopted home? Why isn’t this volume of popular rap coming out of the Bay Area?
Figg Panamera:The culture. There’s a culture down here that supports it. There’s a culture in the Bay, but it comes with drive-bys and murder in the club, gang fights, all that type of stuff. They cracked down; there ain’t ten clubs you can go to in San Francisco. In Atlanta, you can go to ten clubs a night. More than that, but let’s just say ten for sure. You got urban radio. The DJs are black, the program directors black, and they’re from the hood. They call the shots. This is an underground, independent place—whatever we were trying to build [in the Bay] they’ve got it down here.
You’ve discovered a lot of fresh voices in the Bay; that habit didn’t stop when you moved. Your single “Pocket Watchin’” from a few years ago featured Migos, who’ve since taken over the entire world. Cali Boy Down South features 21 Savage and Kevin Gates. What do you look for when you’re looking for new talent?
Figg Panamera:Swag and flavor, and sometimes it’s just them being in the right place at the right time. I don’t always know who’s going to be what. I look at the trends, I look at what’s happenin’, then I make my moves according to the play. Some people, they on their way up. When I started working with Kevin Gates, I got him his first digital distribution deal and showed him how to get that thing going. When we done that deal, Warner Bros. came and got him immediately.
Who are some of the fresh new voices in Atlanta that you’re really liking right now?
Figg Panamera:Man, there’s a lot of talent out here. To be honest, my biggest goal right now is Figg Panamera. JT found a new artist, and his name is Figg Panamera. His swag don’t sound like JT, but JT is in him, though. The swag’s been updated. The song format’s been updated. Figg Panamera—that’s my biggest goal in the music industry. To blow Figg Panamera out the water, get my movie streaming service Trapflix out the water. We independent. We got movies on deck. We not no fly by night thing.
Up until now, your creativity was focused solely on music. How did you come to transfer your creative drive to movies? Did you write the movies as well?
Figg Panamera:I made my first movie in ’98. When Master P was making I’m ’Bout It, I was doing Beware of Those with Mac Mall. That was the first film I directed. [The screenwriting] was pretty much freestyle, too. From 2006-2010, I did the series The Hidden Hand. In December 2013, I shot my first movie [in Atlanta] called The Independent Game featuring Migos, Young Thug, Future, Snoop Dogg, Rich the Kidd, and Zaytoven.
That’s a star-studded cast.
Figg Panamera:Seeing who they all are today, it’s fucking dope, man. Phenomenal.
You said earlier that your entrepreneurial spirit was born out of the rejection you were getting from traditional record labels. In an interview you recently said that you were having some trouble getting your movies on Netflix. So is it safe to say that Trapflix was born from that same feeling of rejection?
Figg Panamera:That’s correct. Hearing that rejection, it just made me go harder. I’m from the Bay, goddamnit. Steve Jobs used to come to Fillmore and smoke his weed up on Haight Street, you feel me? We done smoked on the same blocks; if he can do it, I can do it, too, goddamnit. I made my own Trapflix tablets. I’m real proud of that.
Are those out in the world right now?
Figg Panamera:They’re out in the world, man. They limited editions. I printed 3,000 phones, then I got to the streets and started selling them things.
I really love the idea, somewhere in Mountain View, between Apple and Google, of there being a Trapflix headquarters.