“I’m Not Into Selling Fast Food”: An Interview With Boldy James

Matthew Ritchie speaks to the Detroit rapper about his albums ‘Mr. Ten08’ and ‘Fair Exchange No Robbery,’ the importance of knowing your own worth, and treating his art like it’s poetry.
By    December 1, 2022
Photo via Boldy James/Instagram

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The streaming age has turned music consumers into petulant children with the temperament of fire ants. There’s incessant begging for a constant supply of songs and projects from their favorite artists, then they turn around and lambaste them when there’s a dip in quality. The fickle nature of fandom combined with the fractured attention spans is enough to cause an artist to become insecure and deviate away from their game plan. However, Boldy James feels uniquely immune to that external pressure. The Detroit rapper’s release schedule is akin to that of an elite sitcom from the Golden Age of Television: always on time and never lacking in quality. The previously oft-overlooked veteran has grasped the music world’s attention since 2020’s collaboration with The Alchemist, The Price of Tea in China. James exhibits a coolness and control that few could dream of possessing, weaving together scenes from his life with a steely calmness. You come to expect a certain thread, no matter if it’s on an album like Bo Jackson or Real Bad Boldy, as if you’ve been gifted a secret diary chronicling one man’s never ending odyssey through the streets and life.

Boldy’s 10,000 hours spent to reach this point of his career could double as the plot of a Greek epic, fueled by a winding prophecy that tests a man’s will. His full-length mixtape in 2011, Trappers Alley: Pros & Cons, and his fruitful collaborations with his cousin Chuck Inglish put him on the scene’s radar, mixing hard-nosed and frantic recollections of his reality with exceptional talent. His initial run allowed him to connect with The Alchemist for the first time in 2013, where the two released the album My 1st Chemistry Set together, setting the wheels in motion for Boldy to take the genre by storm.

But frustrating label dealings and multiple run-ins with the authorities threatened to derail the momentum he built for himself. There were short jail stints for felonies in 2017 that forced him to lay low and more self-inflicted trouble again at the end of 2019. Shortly thereafter, he absconded to California to reconnect with Alchemist, with the pairing locking themselves in a studio while the coast cleared for Boldy. In that sanctuary, Boldy settled in a sound that truly worked for him, working more in concert with a production style that stripped away the frills, settling into a groove that he hasn’t come out of.

Now, this well seems to never run dry for Boldy. So as he closed out the year with Fair Exchange No Robbery and Mr. Ten08, his eighth and ninth projects since the start of 2020, he spends the rest of his airtime flexing his creative muscles. Each project was independently produced by distinct producers: the first was handled by Montreal-based, underground favorite Nicholas Craven, the other with Toronto beatmaker Futurewave. Devoid of the laundry list of high-profile collaborators that hopped onto his previous projects, the two releases act as a joint exhibition for James, utilizing the extra space to creep through the sonic crevices each producer provides, showcasing an uncanny chemistry with both. Whether he’s sliding over a soulful Five Stairsteps sample on “Straight & Tall,” or camouflaging with the murky static of “Disco Fever,” his driving monotone voice sounds right at home. There are moments where it feels as though Boldy’s voice determines the tempo and rhythms, not the other way around.

Much of Boldy’s allure comes from the minutiae of his life (at least the parts that he’s willing to share) packed into his verses. Seemingly random, almost aimless musings about being posted on the block, faux-luxurious dinners at Papadeaux’s, thousand-dollar Chrome Heart hoodies, and selling drugs out of a Chevrolet Corsica build the legend of what James was before the rapping. Fair Exchange No Robbery and Mr. Ten08 are just sections of a 100,000-piece puzzle titled “The Trials and Tribulations of Boldy James.” It’s a grind to sift through, with the painstaking detail delivered in bits and pieces, but the smoothness and clarity of some of the best rapping of Boldy’s career is motivation to sit with these albums for hours.

On Boldy’s end, there is no concern about oversaturation, or an album’s rollout getting in the way of another, even though Fair Exchange and Mr. Ten08 were released about a month apart. In addition to an innate confidence in his ability to deliver a product that’s up to quality, this frantic schedule is purposeful. In his own words, he’s “playing catch-up.” I talked to him about the process behind these last two albums, an unfortunate run-in that he had the day before the interview, and the importance of protecting his soul as his career moves forward. – Matthew Ritchie

Alright, how’re you doing today?

Boldy James: I’m doing good man. I’m shooting and I had a long day, man. But, you know, I got pulled over yesterday, they was trying to put their drug stigma on me. I mean, because of my past and they get to looking at the allegations, shit that I might have been charged with. where I’m from looking at my zip code and shit. He was stereotyping me just because you know the Detroit, ghetto boy image that he might see.

But he don’t know the backstory or the cover story on me. So they pulled me over, took me out of the car, searched the car, cuffed me, you know had my money blowing out the car into the wind and shit. Asked me a bunch of dumb questions like, “what do I do to afford a car like this?” or, “He’s been working his whole life haven’t been able to afford a car like this in 20 years.” And I’m like, sure that sounds like a personal problem. Right?

Sounds broke.

Boldy James: I mean, not even broke. I don’t call people broke. I don’t do it. You know what I’m saying? Status. Just because you got money, I’m supposed to rate you at a certain level? I rate people off the vibes I get from them, I deal with people because of their character. It’s not all about money with me. So he was broke. He just was a broken spirit. Didn’t understand like shit how, you know, I haven’t been working 20 plus years in this shit. I’ve been cracking it to have a breakthrough.

How do you keep your head and your cool in a moment like that?

Boldy James: I’ve just been through it so much that I’m just a seasoned vet when it comes to shit like that. I’ve been arrested. pulled over so many times. I just know the procedure. Because what I was basically telling them like, where I’m from, if I was dirty, I wouldn’t have pulled over. He knows that by just looking at my record, you know what I’m saying? So no, I mean, I was letting them know like shit this free lunch my nigga. Nothing new here. Go ahead and look around, be my guest, tear this muthafucka up. And he just saw a young, black nigga, successful inner city, ghetto boy, riding round in a big body Benz, with a quarter million dollars in jewelry and $8000-$9000 in cash in his pocket. He wasn’t feeling that at all.

It just feels like shit doesn’t ever change, you know?

Boldy James: I mean, you think that when you’re doing the right thing, like giving back to your community, really taking care of your family, really being a pillar to the neighborhood. Just thinking about where you come from, where you at, where you going, and how you want to see others have an easier path than the way that you took, and they still treat you as if you are a hardened criminal. Some type of scoundrel, just because of your skin color, or what your ID says. It’s like it ain’t never gone change.

One day, hopefully. But it’s tough because those stereotypes of what we are to them are learned. That shit is taught and passed down.

Boldy James: That’s how they was raised, about control. They’re control freaks. Anything they don’t understand, they fear. And what’s more misunderstood than the black man? A black man with some self-control, that’s actually aware of the dangers, current events and shit like that. People that can empower their people and then teach them another way besides getting caught up in the system, and that same cycle that repeats. The Blacks that take the underworld route, that’s the stigma they put over all of us in the ghetto. It’s so hard to overcome that when you really from there. So that’s a whole other interview in itself. We can speak to the music.

I appreciate you sharing that with me for real. Alright, so these last two albums, Mr. Ten08 and Fair Exchange No Robbery: what was the timeline like for recording and then dropping these?

Boldy James: It took me maybe four days in total to record Fair Exchange No Robbery with Nick Craven because he had flown here from Canada, from Montreal. And the beats, the beats were right up my alley. And then the recording process was how I like to work. So it was easy, like, it was like a 96-hour process. Now with Mr. Ten08 with Futurewave, that might have been over the course of maybe a month, because I had to go to different studios and work with different engineers. I kind of bounced around to do that one, because we didn’t work on that one personally together. We just walked each other through the steps we take to make albums, they did their part, and I did mine’s. And we just personally, hand to hand, hashed it out and cut a project that I feel was solid enough to close the year out with.

That’s all this is about: me just putting out content to keep the ball rolling. And just flex my muscle on not being signed. When I feel like it’s time to drop off, I’m gonna just drop a project. I’m gonna stop holding on to this music and waiting on certain situations to help me promote it, or whatever. I’m gonna just do more of it myself, just work on being a better independent businessman, making moves. And help me further what I’m trying to do musically, and even the things that come outside of music. Trying to find the artists that can carry the torch to somebody that can hold this ConCreature shit down. Now, when I feel like it’s time for me to put the mic down and just, you know, focus on the business side of things. So, definitely, that’s been my focus lately.

I was going to ask, where does that desire to constantly create come from? But it sounds like you’re saying it comes from being an independent artist and trying to prove that you can do it, just because you can.

Boldy James: Because most people think it’s complicated. And it’s not, all you got to do is know what you’re looking at, set a goal, set a target, know what you aiming at and then know what you shooting at. When you fire at the target, even if you don’t hit a bullseye, if you really got your sights set on what you locked in on, then you won’t be too far off it. And that’s just my concentration through all this I’ve been doing musically.

I made it through a real hard knock street life. This music is a cakewalk if I apply the same methods I use to moving a bag into running up a bag in music. I tell my people all the time, in the streets, there ain’t no rules. The only rule is to win. It’s like the game of 21. Just win. In music, you actually have certain job descriptions and job detail that you’re pointing to know your role. And that’s where shit can fucked up in the streets because a lot of niggas don’t know they role.

You’ve been on this hot streak for the past couple of years, but is there ever a fear of the oversaturation of your own music?

Boldy James: I feel like it’s not a cooler nigga in the rap game than me right now. Like if you know me in real life, I’m really just like one of the coolest kids in the schoolyard. So I don’t feel like I can ever oversaturate the market as long as it’s a quality product. When I get to putting out shit that I don’t feel is up to the bar isn’t where I set it at. And I’m lowering the bar, that’s a different topic of discussion. At the moment, it’s a hot streak because the music is hot. If the music wasn’t hot, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now.

How do you avoid the feelings of burnout if you feel that you’re always creating at the highest level?

Boldy James: That’s the talent of it. Even though I got the mildest, mellow, laid-back delivery, my flow is like water. I get credit for being a dope artist, but I feel like I don’t get enough credit for being as poetic and lyrical as I can be. When you hear it all, it makes sense. I don’t just say a bunch of mumbo jumbo. I kick it how I live it. That’s what makes me different than a lot of the other artists because they focused on what you want to hear, or what you want to hear them say.

I’m more focused on trying to get my point across and just being personal with the music. My favorite artists growing up were the ones that were more personal. I got moments where I want to hear some party music or club tunes. But for the most, part, I don’t really hang out a lot. I’ll always be on the block and in the ghetto, so I want to hear the music I can relate to when it comes to the times of James Jones.

How do you feel yourself getting better as a writer?

Boldy James: I just try to be more personal about what I’m going through at the moment. The way I feel, how I overcame adversity, or whatever was holding me back from getting to the next level: That’s all my music. I don’t like to brag about being an ex-drug dealer or putting my family through real turmoil taking them on a real roller coaster ride. I’m not ever being boastful about that. Just trying to scare the little niggas straight because it’s so many artists that glorify the wrong things to me. My truths, don’t have to necessarily influence the young man to go that route. But if he was to go that route, it’d be better to listen to a nigga that really took that walk of life.

So looking at all your skills and seeing what you come up with because I’m just a truthful realist type of person. I mean like I don’t really candy coat, sugar coat nothing. It is what it is but I’m so mild, so you know mellow with the way I delivered a rap, it’s so calm and so cool that people mistake it for not having that club energy or like me being loud, arrogant type of nigga. I’m more humble, and laid back, just kicking the Gospels. A lot of niggas rap the shit the bitches want to hear. I use that shit to therapy, To kick some shit about what I’m really going through.

Do you use your music as a form of reflection, as a way to meditate on the past?

Boldy James: The shit I’ve been talking about in my lyrics, I can think back about like, the times when I really when I was going through that shit I can look at where I’m at in life. I like looking at my kids, how much they’ve grown, how much they’ve learned since you know certain music I made I just use it as hash marks in my life. I just base it on where I come from, the progress I made my setbacks, how I shoot back, and how my reputation really precedes me in that aspect because if you really know me personally and you know how I had to get through this and grind through this.

It’s more appreciated, but you know not really like a person who let everybody know me, so it’s a mystique to me too. All of that plays a factor in my artistry. Other than that, like I just don’t allow a lot of people to know me personally because I’ve got a lot to hide and a lot to protect. Definitely, I got a lot of secrets I’ve been keeping for myself.

Musically, Mr. Ten08 has a lot of jazz, it makes your raps feel like they’re in the backdrop of some 40s speakeasy. What draws you to that genre to rap over these beats?

Boldy James: Because it’s the road less traveled, but it’s also always the most heartfelt music. A lot of that shit come and go, and burns out quick. You listen to it 1000 times, and there’s like, you don’t even want to hear the shit again. But, you know, you might not listen to my record 200 times, but you want to hear it 200 more times after the fact. Because it just becomes a part of your regimen or, it becomes a part of like your day at some point. Because it’s mood music. But it’s also soulful, that shit stick to your ribs. I ain’t selling fast food.

Did you grow up listening to those genres that your producers will sample?

Boldy James: Nah but my Pops did. So a lot of that shit I was familiar with, just riding in the car with my Pops, on the way to basketball practice, or on family trips and shit. Pops used to listen to all types of shit. And a lot of the shit that I remember him playing end up being the samples people chopping, using to make these records, you know, a lot of us rappers be rhyming over and shit. So they’re just like, nostalgic or it’s like something that I can identify with. Because you know, my Pops was into jazz. My Pops was into like, R&B. Certain rap tunes.

Nowadays, it’d be 20-plus years old, ’til somebody revisited, chop it up. Put it on an LP, loop the shit, and then by the time I get to the track, I can identify with the sample because I just remember grandparents or my mother played certain church songs. So 20 years later, 30 years later, a new kid trips over the track. And I’ll be like “damn, that’s the shit Pops usually ride in his LTD, listening to in his Windstar, or in his Accord.” Like I just remember…the same way I tell you that date my life with the music I make you know, I can look back at the music we were listening to right in the car seat, and I can think of the times the record was made.

You know when Alchemist, takes different routes to find records though. He chops some shit up from another side of the world that none of us heard in America. Like he goes the furthest to be different, you know, that’s why me and his music mesh as it does. He is my favorite producer to work with because me and him got a personal bond. We play tug of war when it comes to making the music, but it always works to our benefit because he pushes me to be better. I’m so used to people just letting me do me because they feel that I’m great. But Al always pushed me to be greater.

How important is that personal relationship to Alchemist?

Boldy James: Yeah, because with him I think he’s so great that I never question any track he gave. But it might be like a hook, or maybe the verse here and there where he’ll be like, “I need you to go back in. That ain’t the Jackson that I’m used to you know, that’s cool. No offense. If that’s just how you feel we can leave but I feel like you can go harder.”

Then I’ll be like, “damn if big bro say I gotta go harder because he’s the hardest,” You know what I mean? I feel like nobody’s better than Alchemist. Except maybe Chuck Inglish and that’s just because he my cousin but if I was to take like him being in my family out of the equation, yeah, Alchemist is the best ever to give me a beat to rap over.

On these past two albums, you’ve only featured two other rappers, what was the purpose of keeping the collaborator list small?

Boldy James: I’m only fucking with real street niggas that are solid, that I admire. I know a lot of cats that rap from Detroit. I mean, I’m not discrediting anybody. The way I know the guys that I work with, find them outside of music. I might be fond of the type of hustle they got, how hard they work, how real the music is. I know that shit actually comes from a real heartfelt place, it just made me able to believe and hang on to every word when I listen to the shit. That’s why he put my little cousin Gue Wop on Fair Exchange No Robbery.

He just came home from the feds and he just had another run-in that he’s standing tall on so I’ll pray hard that all is well with that court matter. You got 2100 Bagz he just got out the joint as well, he got out and went back. He’s back home, focused. I’m just trying to put them on some different shit. Other than like, hustling, in and out of jail because they always feel like I’m one of the smart ones. I feel there’s you know, that they very intelligent themselves you know, I’m saying so if it happened to me, it can happen to them, right? I’ve been taking a different route, trying something different, and I’ve been trying to show them the way as well. It’s just reach one, teach one.

I feel like the idea of structure is very important to your albums. You finish Mr. Ten08 with an extended prayer, “Indivisible.” What made you go down that route and finish off the album in that way?

Boldy James: Because I pray a lot. Right? I pray a lot, I tried to pray five times every day. It’s not necessarily like a religion or religious preference thing. I’m just thankful. So I tried to pray as much as I can every day, some days, I get so caught up in my day. I might forget to pray as many times as I’m supposed to you know, so I made that record. It’s just a documented prayer on my behalf that I just put in the atmosphere to protect me, the things I love, my gang, shit I stand for. I just tried to put some protection on it because I tell my man all the time, this shit was prayed over. All this happened to me, it was somebody praying for me, or I was the one that said the prayer that protected me from going through something. Just having some type of connection with a higher power.

So that’s what that was about because I’m just a very spiritual man. And the older I get, the more serious things get. Like, I try not to like play with anything I do. I try to be serious or I try to mean everything I say and do in a song. It just was me just letting God know: I got more understanding than just the street shit I be talking. I really understand a lot of translation and Muslim prayer or like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism. I just understand that everybody got something that they praying to and a lot of times it’s just lost in translation, but we just praying to the same shit. He’s got to put a shield over us. There’s like a lot of evil myths around that people let into they life, at one point in time, it like was like rooting for the devil. And they were just so evil so many so much evil around. But as you get older you realize like, that’s just not healthy for your soul and just your progression in life. So you try to filter that shit out.

On the flip side, the opener for Fair Exchange No Robbery, “Straight & Tall,” with its sample and all, is strangely powerful. What is the effect of an opening track on a listener?

Boldy James: Because I said it at the end of the song like, “I pray my left-hand spin if they take me off/Make sure that my son know that I always stood up straight and tall.” I just be saying some shit that I personally feel. These niggas gotta know that these are my truths, and they can save somebody’s day. Just putting the music on and listening to it, as opposed to doing something crazy and acting on something that removes you from your family, or actually gets you hurt or killed. You could be listening to this shit, and hopefully, it saves a soul. There’s just niggas out here possessed and demonized and ready to go, and murder. That ain’t my intention.

My intention really be to scare these youngins straight and get them to look at the shit from a different standpoint, from a nigga who really been through this shit. Ain’t trying to steer these little niggas in the wrong direction. I’m trying to actually give them some game. So they can see shit. From my perspective: a man that could have lost his life so many times, but, I’m still here, breathing, in a position to be able to tell you how to save yourself. So I just hope they take it as that.

So, this album full of Dilla beats that you’ve got, can you speak to how that came about?

Boldy James: Well, shout out to Ma Dukes. She was fond of the work I did on this previous J Dilla project, that they had put out in Detroit. I have like a solo record, and one with Chuck Inglish on there. Everybody was feeling some type of way because I didn’t know Dilla personally and they all knew Dilla. But what it was, everybody was being so bratty. Thinking of the Dilla catalog, just to make money off of It. They just wanted to ride off the dead wave of a great producer and the person that was in charge of his estate with Ma Dukes, his name is Jonathan Taylor. And JT, he was a cool cat.

A lot of people have problems with them but he was kind of like a bullheaded, criminal-minded, that type of guy, previous to him shaping up and shipping out doing the music. He got like a political side to him, but he knows where he comes from? He was able to recognize that I was from that same cloth. And maybe it was even kind of a little harder than he came up with, he looked at me differently from all the other artists that worked on the project. As I said, they were just being bratty about, you know, knowing Dilla and feeling entitled to certain shit. You know, I didn’t give a fuck because I didn’t know him. Right? So he wanted to do something with the beats, the last tracks that Dilla had left him. That they had of his and he asked me say, “Boldy, would you do me the pleasure doing the album on these beats, I’m gonna holla at, you know, big RJ Rice,” shout out to RJ Rice, Rice Jr. That’s my guys, my family. I done prayed with Mr. Rice. Just even over this situation like this, all this was really prayed over from my grandma, probably my mom’s, when I was young and running away in the streets and shit that. Nobody thought shit would happen other than me getting smoked in the streets or dying young, and going to jail. Anyway, JT he told me he’s gonna holla at RJ, and get the clearances.

So when I went in there, and RJ knew my soul was taken at the time. So he opened the meeting up with a prayer. And he just let me know how serious he was about inviting demons into his house, he could tell my soul was bothered, he could I was going through a lot at the time. He was telling me, “just give it some time, keep doing what you’re doing. But, you know, just always keep, you know, God In mind.” I was always that type of person. But it’d be times like I was saying earlier where like, I forget, you know, to be as thankful as I know I could be throughout the course of my day. To take a minute to pray, a second to die, you know what I’m saying.

So he would just tell me, “your life gonna change once you put this project out. But before we put this project out, I want you to be ready to receive the blessing that comes with you know, this great responsibility you’re gonna have with me giving you the Dilla Beats.” I ain’t understand the magnitude. But by how many people ask me about this project, and when I’m putting it up, and I know, like, I have learned that when I put it out, it’s gonna be like a black Woodstock every time I do a show. So I’m just trying to prepare it right, have the right layout, have to right rollout. Hopefully, we have some fun with that project.

Because I’m not trying to follow a blueprint necessarily. This shit is going to be compared to a lot of shit others have done that was similar, or people at least mistake it for being similar. But everybody knows that I’m one of the most unique artists doing it because I’m doing this shit my way. And that’s a major key for me. I understand my worth and know I can run a bag up, way past those numbers if I just stick to my guns. Just know that I know what I’m doing. You know. I’m a multi-millionaire without a record deal so. I’ve been hustling for a long time. You mix this with that and start putting this on top of that. Everything get to the click and now your wheels turn. People don’t understand how long you’ve been cracking it, or what you aiming at to have a breakthrough. It don’t feel like I hit a lick. This is something I work for. The first 8-ball I ever sold and put $125 in my pocket. Or if I got $125,000 or, you know, $1.2 million I feel like it’s all the same money, right? Because I work for this shit. I didn’t just trip over this shit, it wasn’t no overnight success.

What do you view as progress or success for yourself, going forward?

Boldy James: I view progress as noticing the level-up. A lot of people don’t notice where they’re at in life, because they work so hard to get there, that it is just another day another dollar. But sometimes you gotta step back and step outside yourself, and actually monitor the progression you’ve been making over the course of time: from when you first start initially swinging at something until where you actually knocking the shit out of the park.

And that goes with small victories — a small victory after small victory. Until you have like major breakthroughs and you’re really cutting through. And that’s just how I monitor progress. It’s not about how much nicer my car is or how much bigger the house is, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s kind of like the context in that people measure success. They measure success about how much money you have, your worth and your value and, you know, material items you possess, that’s actually worth something. So, you’ve got to take all that in a nutshell. Put that on your balance beam, you know, add that divide that by the term you put into cracking that, this equals up to where you at in life. If you surpass where you thought it was gonna be at that point in your life, that’s how you monitor progress.

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