There are rappers who popped out of the womb wearing shell toes, a mic in their hand instead of a rattle, they knew how to navigate ProTools before they could crawl. "Born to rap" is largely a myth, a short cut of a story that leaves out all the speed bumps and detours along the way, but I've interviewed enough artists to know it does occasionally happen. There really are artists who spent their toddler years parked next to a speaker, who vowed to become a rapper in second grade and never did anything else.
Innanet James is not one of those rappers. Innanet James is the rest of us. Innanet James is real.
James grew up moving around the DMV with a father who played congo in local go-go bands, naturally his house was flooded with music. From Aretha Franklin to Amy Winehouse to Nas, music was always in the air with his father's favorite, Wu-Tang Clan, always in rotation. "I knew the words to 'CREAM' before I could even speak," James laughed. "I think Raekwon taught me my first words."
In the movie version this is the part where the baby surrounded by Wu-Tang becomes a child rap prodigy, but this isn't the movie version, this is reality. Short of some cafeteria lunch table sessions James never took music seriously until high school when fate connected him with GoldLink, he became a part of Goldlink's squash club, and suddenly James found himself very seriously envisioning a future in rap. "When you're 17 or 18 and going to a real studio - I knew other people who rapped and they recorded at people's houses, it feels like something that could really happen."
A chance encounter, an open door, surely this is the part in the story where our hero takes flight, but reality had different plans. James and GoldLink simply grew apart and then right as James graduated high school, life threw him a series of curveballs. "This girl leaves me, I lost my job at the same time, I stopped being cool with GoldLink. Everything was falling apart, everything went wrong," James remembers. "At that point I was like fuck it. I was completely cool with working, going to school, just living."
And so he tried to leave music in the past, think of it as a high school phase, but he simply couldn't. A friend kept nagging him to get back in the studio and once he started writing again he found a form of therapy he realized he needed. "I loved it. I just couldn't stop rapping," he said. "Rap was the only thing that made me happy, the only thing keeping me together, because I was going through some things mentally."
And so he decided to hit the reset button, went back and erased all his old music and adopted a new name, Innanet James (replacing his old name, Sails). The day he quit his day job to focus on music was the day he recorded "Black," and the initial response has been so positive he knows he's on the right path, but you don't come through a journey like his with your naivete intact.
There are no plans for global superstardom, he's keeping the circle of people around him very small, taking his time to put together a project that's truly built to last. "I want to build this organically, so it really is being built. I haven't been paying for anything," he explained. "I want this to be something I do for a long time, not something that comes and goes in two years."
Out of all the TopProspects we've had so far, James is in the earliest stages of his career, or at least that's the way it looks on the surface. The truth is he's been on this path for years, and if I've learned anything in being around music for so long, it's to bet on the person who simply can't live without making music, the person who's walked away but keeps coming back because they just can't live any other way. That's the person who's the most likely to make great things, and while that story may not make for a great movie, it makes for some damn good reality rap.
"My music is realistic, that's the only way I could possibly describe it. These are real things I've seen, things I've been through, things in my surroundings. All I know is reality."
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.