“I Want to Show Another Path”: An Interview With Rufus Sims

Chicago street rapper, Rufus Sims, tells Thomas Hobbs what it’s like growing up with a dad with a legendary reputation, battling PTSD from gun violence, house arrest and finding salvation.
By    November 1, 2023

Image via Rufus Sims/Instagram

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Thomas Hobbs believes in bald solidarity; he can’t be angry at another bald man. If a bald person cuts him off in traffic, he’ll still smile at them.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Rufus “Weasel” Sims was one of the Windy City’s most recognizable drug kingpins. The Chicago Tribune once wrote he was “beyond rehabilitation” and that “his tastes included large diamond rings, diamond-encrusted sunglasses, a champagne-colored Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible and gold faucet taps in the bathroom.”

This lavish lifestyle ultimately caught up with him in 1995, leading to a 27-year sentence. It damaged his empire and left a boy with a father he could only talk to through glass. Weasel was a living legend in the city. He dressed like a fur coat-wearing pimp fresh from a Blaxploitation movie and hit nightclubs more like a visiting Hollywood A-lister than the leader of a narcotics operation.

Nearly 30 years later, Rufus Sims Sr. is now free. And in a fitting twist, his son and namesake is one of the most impressive street rappers from the West Side of Chicago. Living up to the semi-mythic expectations, he’s building a place for himself as one of the great storytellers in the Chicago tradition that includes Common, Kanye West, and Saba. He’s similarly an artist who makes you feel directly invested in his life story and as if you have a personal stake in all his family dynamics.

“I was an honor roll student playing sports, but when I came out of school all the gangsters shook my hand [because of my dad’s reputation]; I guess there was an allure to that,” Sims admits during our candid phone interview. “In my mind rolling with the gangsters made me feel closer to my father and would make him prouder of me. Out of my love for my dad, I started spending more and more time in the hood.”

With or without a dad considered a legend in the streets, you sense Rufus Sims’ visceral rapping ability was destined to make waves and establish him as his own man. He spits every intense bar like he’s sharing his last testament, with wisdom escaping through gritted teeth. Your attention is demanded.

Sims, who briefly pauses our chat to help his daughter locate a lost toy, continues: “School went out of the window. Every time I would get locked up, the cops would give me shit cuz’ I had the same name as my daddy. It didn’t matter that my family lost everything, they might find me with a pound of weed and one of them would still be like: ‘This n*** is a millionaire! He’s trying to keep the family business alive!’”

Amid ghostly howls and palpitating drums, he spends the chilling “No Thumbs” (easily the highlight of potent 2022 album, Who Sent You) caught between trying to talk himself out of hustling (“Lead you off the cliff, if you let them / bossed up, that’s why I got my own endeavors”) and embracing a violent last stand. The song’s passionate hook – which sees the words “I’m a Four Corner Hustler for the rest of my life” eerily repeated over and over – immortalizes the Chicago set that played such a pivotal role in Sims’ journey from boy to man.

Even further back, on 2016’s “Champaign and Black Roses,” a crying violin arrangement mimics the ghosts of various loved ones reaching out from the other side, as Sims spits about “funerals of close ones, heart all over my sleeve / seeing my bro again feels like such a hopeless dream.” And with the gutter screwface anthem “Nextels” (a Clipse-esque ode to moving china white heroin and recorded for the duo The Little People, alongside emcee Jae Haze), Sims immortalized the pre-iPhone era, where drug dealers would use Motorola flip phones to carefully conduct their business.

On these aforementioned songs Sims’ vocal cadence reminds me of a golden-era Beanie Sigel. Similarly, this is music that can’t decide whether it wants to inspire a rampage or an emotional breakthrough – music where gruff yet enlightened vocals consider the perspectives of both the angel on your left shoulder and the devil on your right.

“I feel weird trauma dumping on one person, so music’s always been like therapy to me,” Sims says of his naturally raw approach to rapping. “With my raps I try to tell my story, but without telling my business.”

For whatever reason, this talented emcee’s rise to the top has been continuously stunted and his Spotify numbers don’t reflect the quality of his sound. Sims freely admits to having to battle against naysayers within his own circle, who’ve doubted whether rapping is really the best way to pay the bills for someone in their early 30s and with kids to feed. But having recently hooked up with the R. Baron Group (who helped launch the careers of the likes of 03 Greedo and Shoreline Mafia), and with contemporary underground rap pioneer Roc Marciano also acting as a mentor, it feels like Rufus Sims’ perseverance is getting closer and closer to finally paying off.

This month marks the release of his best project yet, House Arrest, a concept album immersed in the mental strain that accompanies being confined to your house with an ankle tag. There’s less trap and much more of a soulful core (courtesy of producer H.N.I.C Logic) to this new music. The consistent samples of a woman cooing carry the nostalgic intimacy of listening to your grandma hum along to a gospel song while doing the dishes in the family kitchen. The fact it was recorded while moving back home to live with his mother on house arrest isn’t a surprise; this is a project all about battling family demons and re-examining the depths of your roots so you can understand just how high you can grow in the future.

The overarching theme is that of restraint and growth beyond street activity, with Sims using the triumphant highlight “I Ain’t Going Nowhere” to reveal: “I had a long fling with the streets but chose not to marry it.” There’s even a song (“New Day”) that begins with a voice note Sims sent to himself from a prison pay phone, warning his future self never to make the same mistakes or ever dare return to a 6×8 foot cell. This record more than deserves to be Sims’ breakthrough project, but even if it gets overlooked somehow, he says he can sleep well knowing it’s finally out in the world. “This project is for any Black man on house arrest, forced to reassess their life,” he explains. “It’s a manual for rebuilding. It’s about becoming your own man.”

To celebrate the release of House Arrest, we spoke about learning from his mistakes, the unique smells of prison, being akin to a ghetto reporter, and his concerns around street rappers leading Black people “off the plank.” The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

What was the biggest thing you learned about being on house arrest? It’s a scenario you don’t often hear openly discussed on rap songs, so why did you feel the need to put it at the epicenter of a whole project?

Rufus Sims: I was on house arrest from October 2019 to October 2021. Looking at the time I was facing, I almost counted myself out from continuing to rap, period. It was a real low point. I was depressed. Before the arrest I had moved out of the neighborhood, got a good job, and was living in the suburbs trying to find a better life for my family. But then I caught this stupid case and it forced me to move home with my moms, as I had to do house arrest in the same county as the crime! It was like moving backwards.

It felt like everything was going wrong, but I realized being on house arrest was actually saving me from getting in trouble and this was really a comeback story. It made me closer with my mom. Sometimes we move so fast, we don’t pay attention to the company we keep or the mistakes we make, right? So I wanted to show Black men from the hood that house arrest is really an opportunity to slow down and make positive changes. House arrest really saved me, bro! With these songs I made, I turned house arrest from being a negative into a positive.

On the piano-driven “Interrogating Baby Boys” you have this line about how rap fans are often being “led off the plank” by fake rappers, and ultimately pushed into making bad decisions. What inspired you to go there?

Rufus Sims: It’s this stuff with Young Thug, and all the paperwork coming out with these rappers who snitched. Shit, for me it feels like the streets are a f*cking joke nowadays! People will rap about being hard, but then the paperwork comes out and you realize they gave up the whole gang just to avoid doing a few years in prison. With my raps I’m trying to write a new code on how to survive all this bullsh*t. I can never mislead no one with this rapping shit. Back when [I was active], there were certain rules we lived by; I guess you could call it honor among thieves. There really isn’t any honor left anymore, so I am trying to bring it back with these songs, especially on House Arrest.

It feels like House Arrest is primarily a record about restraint. It’s about someone realizing that if they kept moving at the same pace, things would fall apart. You can’t be married to the streets and expect a happy ending, right?

Rufus Sims: 100%. This is the way I am raising my son. My son just turned 16. He had his first job at 15. He is into sport. He is just focused on getting money and staying out of trouble. That’s what I’ve taught him! I am trying to keep him away from making a lot of the same mistakes that I made. I need to keep him away from prison. It’s like bro, the streets keep you in a box!

I remember my first cousin said: ‘Damn, how much did you make off of rap last year?’ When I said it was only 10k, he said that was nothing. He told me I made more back when I was hustling. A month later the feds came and got him. I talked to him on the prison phone, he said: ‘Send me some money!’ Things went full circle! Sometimes we put ourselves in this box [of being hard] and it is inescapable.

On your new song “Court Cases” there’s this line about the winter times being too cold and the summertime baking you to death. That’s Chicago in a nutshell, right? It’s a place of blunt juxtapositions.

Rufus Sims: That line was a double entendre: comparing Chicago and what it’s like being in a prison cell. You know, the jails are cold as f*ck in the Winter! You got the air coming through and need to sleep with triple socks just to make it through the night. It feels like they’re trying to freeze us to death in there! But then, in the Summertime, it’s unbearably hot. You lay on the bed and can’t move.

I’m trying to awake the senses, that’s why I rap about how prison smells too. I don’t know how to describe Cook County perfectly, but it has this musty ass, pungent smell. It smells of old things. Soon as you smell it when you get off the bus, it’s like: ‘here we go again… I’m back in this b*tch!’ These raps are to remind myself: you can never go back there! I believe you really have to embrace your worst moments so you can grow and become a better man. I am going to be representing the people who are Four Corner Hustlers, forever. This shit is for life. But I want to show there’s also another path, too, you know?

I’d love to take you back a little and ask who were the rappers that inspired you as a kid.

Rufus Sims: Nas for sure. Jay-Z and Kanye West too, because Ye’ was the first one really doing something on that level from Chicago. Roc Marciano is definitely an inspiration in terms of the wordplay. He is the realest artist I ever met and he gives me advice. I’d love him to produce a whole Rufus Sims project. I guess I just like people who think outside the box and don’t change their personality, ever.

Maybe I am wrong about this, but your music always felt haunted by something. There’s something very melancholic about the atmosphere of a lot of the beats you choose. What would you say you are haunted by?

Rufus Sims: A lot of PTSD and the kinds of mental problems we’re too scared to address as Black men. I want to be real vulnerable with these raps; they’re not just therapy for me, but therapy for other people too. I’ve lost a lot of people [to gun violence] and it definitely leaves its mark on you. A few years back it was July 4th and someone set off firecrackers in the street. It made me jump! The Fourth of July fireworks f*ck me up, period, because they remind me of all the times I got shot at. That’s what haunts me. There’s always that feeling you need eyes in the back of your head, you know?

On “Goofy” with The Lil People – which was so catchy I’m mad it wasn’t a hit – you’ve got this spoken monologue where you say being great is knowing your role and sticking to it. What is your role in this rap game, do you think? And why should people, who’ve maybe been sleeping on your music so far, go and dig into the Rufus Sims’ discography?

Rufus Sims: My music is all based on real experiences. It is real vulnerable. I built my skill set up for a long time! I am grown and someone who shares wisdom, so you’re always going to get high quality music. I guess my role is to take the road far less traveled. To say the things no one else will say. To have the experience I had in the streets, but use it to inform a more positive perspective. I am not glorifying this street shit; I am more like a reporter.

It’s crazy, because you got basketball players right now getting caught up with guns! Is having 100 million dollars not enough, n****? Think how fucked up that psyche is; that even when Black people are successful, we still have to keep it real! In my songs I tell people how to stay out of jail and avoid making the same mistakes I made in the streets; to change up their psyche. I am just trying to be successful and avoid going back to jail; that’s the main two things. If I can do that, then life is going to be good. Right now, there’s plenty of rappers who will show you how to die, but I am more about showing you how to live.

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