“No Matter the Outcome, Beautiful Music Will Come from This”: An Interview With Rexx Life Raj

Pranav Trewn talks to Rexx Life Raj about dealing with grief, the multi-generational artists of the Bay Area, leaving room for nuance and more.
By    July 19, 2022

Image by Kevin Allen

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

I first came across Rexx Life Raj as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, where I helped organize free concerts as part of our on-campus entertainment board. Working with a shoestring public school budget, we took particular pride in putting on rising artists before they broke out (and thereafter commanded guarantees we couldn’t afford), as well as making use of our wide pool of local talent. Then riding a wave on the popularity of his regional smash “Handheld GPS”, we tapped Raj to open a show for Domo Genesis, a slot he treated far more like a headlining gig than our actual headliner. Raj brought along his own film crew, live instrumentation, and more than half the crowd.

This was back in 2016, and Raj’s breakout album Father Figure subsequently became a staple of my senior year, from the spotless “Shit n’ Floss” soundtracking a parade of house parties to “OJW3” flooding from my headphones to stave off pre-graduation ennui. I went on to write a profile of the artist born Faraji Omar Wright as one of my earliest writing gigs, and have since watched the Berkeley native follow the path of fellow hyphy-bred contemporaries like Nef The Pharaoh and DaBoii in building up a devoted local following and homegrown credibility.

Yet Raj hasn’t been afraid to simultaneously aspire for something beyond the Bay. Across a breathless release schedule, he’s made his mark on everything from the post-trap pop of Kenny Beats to R&Bass and neo-soul. A fan of sequels, Raj first bookended a period of growth with the Father Figure trilogy – amassing an impressive oeuvre of both syrup-drenched bass crawlers (“Moxie Java”, “Young Wardell”) and anti-gravity “rap caviar” (“Moonwalking”, “Level Up”). With 2018’s California Poppy, Raj put forth his own spin on sun-kissed coastal hip-hop, and then built on that groove for its follow-up, 2020’s sumptuous California Poppy 2.

In the early days of the pandemic, Raj started releasing new music almost weekly that put forth some of his best work yet (I’m particularly partial to the puckish “Kimbo Slice”), all while still keeping his circle close with both local legends (E-40, Terrace Martin) and those next in line (ALLBLACK, 22nd Jim). Although Raj’s grind has been workmanlike, his music has remained anything but perfunctory, seamlessly blending the contemporary sounds of the ever-evolving rap radio with the roots of his upbringing. In the process, Raj has been at the forefront of a new generation of artists opening doors for what Bay Area hip-hop can sound like.

That voluminous release schedule could have reasonably been disrupted by the twin tragedies of the past year, with Raj first losing his mom after a grueling battle with cancer, before his dad then passed away only three months later. Yet guided by a heartfelt push from his mother to draw something beautiful from the harrowing experience, Raj is improbably back with a new LP, this week’s The Blue Hour. Raj humbly lays out the project’s origins on intro “Reappear”: “I wrote this album trying to work through all the shit that happened/ A lot of it was written in the same room my mama passed in.”

The immediacy and intimacy of Raj’s loss shades the record’s sonic wallpaper, muted pastel chords from his brain trust of regular collaborators like Kyle Betty and Blake Straus, as well as prayers from Raj’s mom herself interspersed across the tracklist. Acoustic guitars, filtered pianos, and the negative space between the drums cradle Raj’s therapeutic narration, in which he details everything from the lingering resentments of trauma (“Hands And Knees”) to his ultimate resignation to the loss (“new normal + mom”). Even if he’s not “looking forward to performing if it’s finna come with all these same feelings I had recording”, Raj persits in the knowledge that his words will help “somebody else when they walk through the dark.” It’s an artistic responsibility he doesn’t take lightly, doing his best to “put the candy in the medicine” across twelve songs that are open-hearted but never heavy-handed.

Raj and I met up last month at Cinderella Bakery, a staple of San Francisco’s Inner Richmond neighborhood. Over the course of an hour, Raj shared his perspective on navigating both grief and the game over the last few years. With a gracious vulnerability, he opened up about how his dad informed his hustle, the ways the industry has changed across his career, and what he learned about himself and his art in his mother’s final days.

Before we jump into a whole interview, I want to say on a very human level that I am sorry for your loss.

Rexx Life Raj: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

How have you been holding up?

Rexx Life Raj: Grief is a roller coaster, but for the most part I’ve been cool. I’ve had music as an avenue to let shit out, and it’s just something to do and somewhere to go when I’m going through it. And then I got good people around me.

You’ve managed to keep up a fairly tireless release schedule since you started coming up, even in the midst of everything you went through last year. What drives your work ethic?

Rexx Life Raj: The driving force behind this album was just finding a way to channel everything I went through with my mom into a body of work. Because my music has evolved into something that is not only for me, but in service to other people. Whether it helps them get through depression or heal their trauma in any way. And grief is a subject that a lot of people go through but it’s not really openly discussed like that. It’s heavy and you don’t want to just throw it on people, you know? So a lot of people hold it in and harbor it.

I’ve been pretty open with my experience on Instagram and social media and shit. My DMs are just like…it kind of blew my mind how many people are either in the process of grieving or have been dealing with it for a while and haven’t been able to express it properly. Or they are dealing with a sick parent or something, and they’re mentally preparing themselves for the worst. So the motivation for this album was to try and make something outta all the bullshit that I went through and how wild it was. Like, how could I put this in the music to help someone?

The album’s obviously informed by that loss, but did any work on it begin prior to the events that you went through?

Rexx Life Raj: The majority of it came after, because as soon as my mom got diagnosed and got sick, I stopped doing music. I didn’t really have time anymore, because I was a caregiver for her and my dad and it became like a full time job. But I knew I would want at some point to put the experience into the music. A lot of my music is just what I’m going through in life, and that was my life. I remember talking to my mom when she was sick in the hospital and, I’ll never forget, she said, “No matter what the outcome of the situation is, I know beautiful music will come from this.” That’s literally what she said. So that was my thought process going into it. I would take notes on the situations and emotions, and then after my mom passed I had more time and I just turned those notes into the music.

Your parents have always been prominent characters both in your music and behind the scenes. What have you learned from them that feels most formative to your career?

Rexx Life Raj: The biggest thing that I learned from my mom was just how to have faith no matter what you go through. She was the strongest person I knew just in terms of her faith that no matter what happens, it’s supposed to happen, and everything will be okay and work out like it’s supposed to. There was never a day when she was battling the cancer where she questioned what was going on. She was still thankful about life and her family and prayed every day. If she could have faith going through what she went through, then I can have faith going through whatever I’m going through. Cause nothing is as serious as facing death, and she had so much faith facing death that it’s just like everything in my life now seems so small.

That’s what I got from my mom. From my dad, it’s that hard work and discipline really is what separates people. Cause a lot of people have talent, but aren’t persistent and consistent. They’re not disciplined, and they don’t train their mind to do what you need to do. They get in their own way.

I appreciate you being so vulnerable and open about everything you went through. Let’s dive into The Blue Hour itself. The album feels like the most melodic thing you’ve done, with more empty space to really focus on the lyrics. How did you feel your sound was evolving on the project?

Rexx Life Raj: To be honest, I don’t even think I was too conscious of it. I was just really in the moment, trying to do what felt right in each moment. Chords bring out certain emotions in me, and I feel like with guitar players like Ian Santilliano or Blake Straus, I could express how I’m feeling and they can play something that brings that out of me. I really like “new normal” cause it’s fully acoustic. And the only other acoustic record I have is “Your Way” with Kehlani. That was one of my first real acoustic records, so I feel like I could have come cleaner on it, you know what I’m saying? It’s not my favorite record. But I feel like this one is probably the most polished acoustic record I’ve ever done.

There’s a lot of familiar faces on the album, but how did you link up with new folks like Fireboy DML and Wale on “Beauty In The Madness”?

Rexx Life Raj: So both those guys are on Empire. We had rented an Airbnb in Los Angeles and turned it into a studio. I made a few songs in there, like “Save Yourself”, and I also did my part of “Beauty In The Madness” there. Then like a week later I came back to the Bay and I think my manager Ari told me Fireboy was in the Empire studio, and that I should pull up and meet him. I didn’t really have any intentions of making music, but I was trying to tap in with him. Then he was like, “play some stuff”. I feel like “Beauty In The Madness” was the second one I played, and then he was just like “load it up”. And you know, he’s an alien. He don’t write. He just punches in and freestyles and shit. So he knocks his part out, in no longer than 15-20 minutes. It was insane.

I actually had another record I wanted to get Wale on, like I could hear him on it. I didn’t have a relationship with Wale, so I asked Nima at Empire, “Yo could you tap in with Wale?” He accidentally sent him the Fireboy record, and texted me back like, “He loves ‘Beauty In The Madness.’” And I was like, “That’s not the one I wanted to get him on!” Nima then sent him the other one and Wale was like, “Nah, I want the first one”. And he knocked it out that day or the next day. But it kind of worked like that. Wale’s rapping at the beginning, it’s some nostalgic shit. I feel like it really took it to the next level.

Being from the Bay Area, it’s been awesome seeing you collaborate over the years with all kinds of legends, both old and new. You have records with Nef the Pharaoh and Terrace Martin, Kehlani and E-40. Is there anyone else left on your bucket list?

Rexx Life Raj: I don’t wanna leave nobody out, but Raphael Saadiq for sure is on the top of that list for me. I actually know a few people who know him, so I feel like it’ll eventually happen. But it’ll probably be harder ’cause he’s super rare.

Bay Area hip-hop has almost always been more of a regional scene than a national one. Yet it feels like lately a lot more attention is being paid to sounds from the Bay. Do you think this is a moment where we’ll finally gain some broader recognition?

Rexx Life Raj: Yeah, but I’ve been saying that probably for like the last three or four years [laughs]. I do feel like the Bay Area is kind of in this Renaissance phase where it’s slowly going to the next level. ‘Cause like you said, it’s been super regional, but now you have so many different sounds. I relate it a lot to Chicago. ‘Cause we had the hyphy movement, and Chicago had drill. That was what they were known for at one point. And then you started seeing Chance the Rapper, Noname, Saba, Pivot Gang, Mick Jenkins – you started to see all these alternative artists that got pushed to the forefront. And I feel like that’s happening in the Bay. It may not be happening as fast, but you have so many different styles of music.

Like I’m doing some different shit. You got dudes like Elujay who’s doing different shit. Larry June is from the Bay, but he doesn’t sound of the Bay. Like his music could be from Texas or Memphis. You also got all these younger kids that don’t sound like shit out here – Michael Sned, Tyler Lauren, Ovrkast. And it’s only a matter of time before they get the exposure, ’cause they’re super talented. And I just feel like we’re at that point where sounds that aren’t necessarily what the Bay Area is known for are starting to bleed over and people are getting to see it’s a lot more diverse.

It’s cool to see those linkages being made. I did an interview with Ovrkast. last year. His music sounds like what they’re doing out in Brooklyn. But at the same time he knows folks here, and he knows folks there. I feel like that’s what links people and ultimately bridges these scenes.

Rexx Life Raj: Exactly. P-Lo was working on this project and we were all in the studio with him. [Ovrkast.] was there telling me he was just in the studio with I think, Tyler, the Creator and the Alchemist? So he’s in those types of circles, which is really clean. He’s for sure bridging the gap.

Do you feel like you’re going to let this project sit for a while before you start releasing other music?

Rexx Life Raj: I don’t want to rush into the next project. This one is so special and I want it to marinate and resonate with people as much as possible before I move past it. ‘Cause everything is so fast now. I feel like after this project I’ll probably go back into dropping every week or just dropping EPs or something. ‘Cause I have so much music. But before I do that, I just want to give this project the opportunity to do what it does. The tour is already booked, next year we have more festivals and shows. I’m not in a rush.

That’s definitely a shift from the last few years, where you dropped a ton of singles over the course of the pandemic.

Rexx Life Raj: I was doing that because I knew once I started dropping this album that music would never get out. And I really got the idea from Russ. That’s pure Russ shit. ‘Cause I just got so much music bro. And his thing is like, “I just dropped every week, albums are dying.” And if you have quality music, especially if you have a variety with your sound – it’s not like I’m just doing trap music, I could do an R&B song, an acoustic song, a party song – that’s what builds it up. Talking to him, he convinced me to do that. And it worked out really well. But I wanted to give it a break to really focus on this album, and like you said, give this album space to do what it’s gonna do. After this album, I might do it again. Whatever feels right.

Do you feel that’s been true for you that “albums are dying”? Have the singles been doing the heaviest lifting for your career, or is it the full-length albums that get fans’ attention?

Rexx Life Raj: It’s the random singles. I feel like with an album, especially for artists where I’m at, my fans will listen to it but it’s harder for new fans to pay attention to 15 songs. A song that might be number 12 on your album doesn’t really do well because it’s number 12. But if you would’ve released it by itself, it might’ve done numbers. I feel like a lot of the songs on Father Figure 3 are like that. Like if I would’ve released some by themselves – just gave them a moment – they would’ve done way more numbers than being number 11 or number 13 on that album.

I feel like the longer albums are for artists who are in a space with a big built-in fan base. Like Russ did it his way, but a person who I really admired how he did it was Smino. Before he dropped blkswn, he dropped EPs that were a few songs each. Each of those EPs were fire, every song was hella clean. And it was only three songs, so I was running it back. And he did that like two or three times. So by the time he dropped the long album I was already bought in. I feel like that’s the idea of dropping a lot. Larry June does it too. He’s just consistently putting out so much music and slowly building his fan base that when he does put out the big project, so many people are bought in that it makes sense.

That’s a newer strategy, versus the history of popular music used to be that any single that caught fire was used to move an album. You tried to get that album out as soon as possible.

Rexx Life Raj: It’s peoples’ attention spans. Like there’s no time in my day, unless I’m caught in traffic, where I’ll just slap 15 songs. Maybe if I’m cleaning or something, you know what I’m saying? I just feel like people are busy.

You’ve been doing music for a long time now, and you’re tapped into a lot of circles in the Bay Area. Do you feel like you’re leaning into more of a mentor role in the scene?

Rexx Life Raj: I try to do as much as I can for up and coming artists. All the game that I get, I’ll give it to them and just help out. ‘Cause I feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. When I first started on the scene, with shit starting to move for me in like 2014-15, I didn’t really have that many mentors. It was just me and Ari kind of figuring it out. And then people started tapping in when it turned into something. But it’s certain artists that I see super potential in, and I know it’s easy for younger artists to get lost in the shuffle or get too deep in their head or just not know how to navigate and they fall off. So I try to tap in with ’em and give ’em the game that I have, give ’em the resources that I have.

I’ve been doing a decent amount of production for other people, sending beats around and shit, but I really want to start executive producing and helping A&R certain projects. I think I’d be really good at that. But it would have to be when everything slows down. That’s kind of the goal, like eventually I wanna start a small couture label, with like four or five artists who I can really focus on. And just like I said, I think the game is just giving the game you have and supplying resources. Resources is the whole thing, you know what I’m saying? If you look at a lot of artists who are popping off or doing well, it’s not necessarily that they’re better. They might just have a better team around them. They might have a better label. They might have a dope A&R and their resources carry them super far. It’s not just the talent. So it’s like, at this point I’ve pulled so many resources that I could just give to somebody and it’ll automatically get them further than they are.

You’ve reached a degree of sustainability with your work. Are there new goal posts you’re aspiring to in your career at this point?

Rexx Life Raj: It’s funny ’cause my girlfriend is super into setting goals. That works for some people. But for me, I see how the music industry works and shit could just change so fast. I could have a whole plan, book a tour, and then my album gets pushed back and now everything’s off, you know what I’m saying? I just try to focus on what I’m doing. I feel like if you’re doing good work and you’re getting better and you surround yourself with good people and you’re a good person, good shit will happen to you. It’s just being consistent with it and trusting when it might not come fast.

I’ve been doing music as a profession since like 2013. It’s a grind. But a lot of people see Instagram and TikTok and they see people blow up overnight and they don’t know how fabricated shit is. They don’t know about industry plants or how labels could manipulate social media and pages. They don’t know the game, so they just see this shit and they’re like, “I could do that”. And TikTok makes it where you could kind of do that – build up a fan base or a following on TikTok and drop a sound and now your sound is popping. But to me that’s not sustainable. Sustainable is building a brand. Something that people believe in. And being able to turn that into a business. A lot of artists don’t really have a business mindset. Luckily because of my dad, I have more of a business mind.

I look at your music – you have multiple songs with tens of millions of streams that have come out over the course of multiple records. It’s not just one record that was really hot and then the rest have failed to catch up. You’ve kept this up despite starting in an era that looks vastly different than this current era of music.

Rexx Life Raj: Definitely, and people have to understand that success is different to everybody. What is success? Some people look at the internet and they see followers and they think that that’s success. And in some ways it probably is, but to me success is more tangible. It’s like hard ticket sales. How much merch did you sell? How much are your verses selling for? What are your streaming numbers? And then the streaming numbers get deep, ’cause it’s like, what kind of deal are you in? You could have 10 million streams and not see none of that money.

But there’s nuance, cause I feel like a lot of people talk down on record deals, and I’m not super negative towards record deals. I’m pro favorable deals. I’m against deals that fuck you over. Cause I also have seen situations where artists could have gotten a favorable deal that could have helped them. I know niggas who are trapping, selling drugs, doing illegal shit. Niggas could have got a favorable deal that got them outta that situation where they could live peacefully and legally. But they didn’t take that deal because of the narrative around deals.

The real gem is if you get a deal and have a plan of what you’re gonna do with an advance, you know what I’m saying? If you are gonna get $250,000, there’s a way to leverage that money into other business plays that aren’t necessarily music. And I don’t think people talk about that. Like you could get $200,000 and really start up a t-shirt company on the side, or really invest in your merch. Or you could start a business or invest in your friend’s business. Now that advance is making you money at the same time. I understand the narrative around taking deals cause we come from a time where deals were super shady, but it’s not like that anymore.

There’s a glamorization of being independent when not everyone necessarily has the capacity to make it work. Being independent is hard, and it still requires the right team.

Rexx Life Raj: Like any independent artist that you’ve seen pop off has a crazy team around them. They may not work at the record label, but they’re tapped in. They know everybody at the DSPs, they’re tapped in with the touring agencies. But people only see the frontman.

Before we sign off, is there anything else that you want to make sure is part of the narrative of this album?

Rexx Life Raj: The blessing of music is that it’s so subjective and open that it’s gonna do whatever it’s gonna do for people. I feel like that’s the beauty of it. So whatever you get from it is what you get from it. I hope you get something from it.

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