The rapper born Jeffrey Atkins was raised by his mother in Hollis, Queens. For the boy who would become Ja Rule, the neighborhood represented a duality: crime, drugs and violence were common, but so were the intoxicating sound and culture of hip-hop. It didn’t hurt that he would sometimes spot fellow Hollis residents Run-DMC strolling the streets.
In a new memoir called Unruly: The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man, the rapper offers his take on what came next: breakout success, bitter rivalries, Hollywood and fatherhood. Ja Rule spoke with NPR’s Arun Rath about coming up alongside Jay Z and DMX, his “real-world” philosophy of parenting and how he believes the high-profile feuds in the hip-hop world grow out of systemic racism. Hear the radio version of the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
ARUN RATH: I think a lot of people might be surprised to know you were raised, at least in your early years, as a Jehovah’s Witness. How did that affect things for you growing up?
JA RULE: You know, it’s not like it’s like any other religion — but, for a kid, it is. A lot of kids grew up Catholic or Christian or whatever, and I don’t think kids are really that fond of going to church on Sundays. For me, it was the same thing, just that the religion was a lot stricter than most religions. But it was like any other kid having to get up and go to church on Sunday, and their mother and father, or grandparents or whoever, dragging them to church and they really didn’t want to go. For me, it was the same type of situation, it’s just that Jehovah’s Witness is a very strict religion.
Well, you had Sundays and Tuesdays.
It felt like five days a week. [Laughs]
A lot of your early music is about about, well, doing shady stuff. Hustling, casual sex, a kind of gangster life. Reading your book, it sounds like you were just writing about what you knew.
I mean, that’s how I grew up. Coming from Hollis, Queens, it’s not the darkest place you could grow up, but it’s definitely not the brightest place either. We got some suburban life there, some houses there, and it kind of feels like it’s a better neighborhood — but then two blocks away it’s Hollis Avenue, where there’s crack and drug dealers and, you know, burnt-down buildings and stuff like that.
And you were listening to some of the great early ’90s rap music — N.W.A and other groups who were also describing that stuff.
Absolutely. I was engulfed by the culture, I think, from day one. I used to break dance, too — my break dance name was Kid Fresh. And I used to DJ a little bit, and I used to graffiti on trains and stuff like that. So, I was really, really, really captured by the culture from an early age. A lot of these new artists, they kind of just know the rap side of hip-hop. They don’t really know that hip-hop is a culture, from the graffiti to the break dance to the DJing. All of that stuff is really what makes up hip-hop, and I really lived, breathed that whole lifestyle.
One of the things I found exciting on your early records — and I’m not going to be able to explain this very well — but there was this way that rappers were starting to do this thing where they were like a little behind the beat, a little bit off the beat. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Kind of, yeah. I used to always say to [producer Irv] Gotti, “I like to come in on the two” — you know, instead of the one. But as far as artistry, I always try to do things a little different, do it a little bit off the beaten path. Even though I got ridiculed for doing it, trying to be this, trying to be that, I always kind of try to do things my own way.
I’m wondering where that came from, because I know you’re a student of the music, and you did things like incorporating some R&B sounds and arrangements into your songs.
I basically wrote a lot of my first album to Mary J. Blige, What’s The 411? That’s a straight R&B, hip-hop infused album. She’s singing over all of those tracks, but those tracks were done by Diddy and they were very hip-hop orientated tracks. Gotti used to come in and say, “How you writing all this gangster music, all this street stuff, to What’s The 411? It’s an R&B album!” And I’d just be like, “Yo, the beats on this album, they move me, they drive me. It’s a different groove, it’s melodic; it has feeling on it, it has heartbeat.” Versus just a rapper rapping over breakbeats.
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