I. Good Goes 'Round
“Life can never give security, it can only promise opportunity." (Chinese Proverb)
Within the last year, it’s likely the Cheerios commercial “Good Goes Round” found its way before your eyes and into your ears. Something you didn’t seek, but it somehow found you. Released on June 5, 2017, the 60-second advertisement has amassed over 800,000 views on YouTube and was syndicated nationally on televisions and throughout streaming services, while momentarily entering the viral vacuum across social media.
The visual is a catalog of clips that display positivity, togetherness, and the adorable combination of children and Cheerios. The same energy is translated through the music, a jingle that borrows the sing-song rhyme scheme found in various modern rap tunes. Due to the melodic style and Disney World-esque positivity, many believed Chance The Rapper was the vocalist. This is a misconception, but a rather frequent error across the web.
No, it wasn’t Chance; the voice that is heard belongs to Latrell James, a 27-year-old Boston, Massachusetts creative who does it all. He raps, produces, engineers, and writes―a man who uses music to build worlds.
Wondering how is common in any creative field, but especially in music. There are countless rappers and singers, so how did an artist like Latrell, who is without a label or any major backing, become the voice of a commercial heard around the world?
DJBooth: How did your music make it to Cheerios?
Latrell James: I had just finished my album, the project I plan on releasing sometime soon. I was working with this company called Gratitude Sound, they’re based in Boston as well. I met up with them three weeks prior, because I was trying to find ways to be financially stable besides depending on rap shows. The goal was to find another way to make money and stabilize me. So we started to look into licensing.
Gratitude Sound has opportunities in licensing and things of that nature, we met, talked, and I thought Bryan Hinkley was a great guy. I promised we would do some business soon.
Literally, the day after I met him, Bryan sends an opportunity. "Hey, Cheerios is looking for this type of record, can you take a stab at it?"
I really didn’t want to do it, after going through the treacherous task of mastering and mixing, and getting all the paperwork for my project. But I said, "Cool, I’ll try it," and I sent in what I did. They liked it, and we kept building from there. That leads to it being on television.
When did they tell you that your record would be the one?
It wasn’t quick. It was a lot of back-and-forth. A lot of things I never really talked about, but it was just a ton of variations. I probably did at least 40, 50 different variations of the commercial and that’s on the low side. Different beats, different melodies, and all of those type of things. It just took time, and I didn’t know for sure… Even when someone tells you that you got it, you really don’t believe until it’s on television. Once I saw it on television, then I could exhale and think about the money [laughs].
Ha. So it was a long process. Did you ever feel like it was too much work? Making 40 different variations of the same record sounds like being back in album mode.
The first email I got about the commercial was in April . From April to June it went from me recording in my basement to June it being on television. It was literally a two-month span, but so much work was condensed in that time. It was a bit overwhelming.
There was this time when I was going to a show, I was getting paid really well for, and they were like, "Latrell, can you turn around and lay this vocal line down?" I’m just like, "What? I sent you everything! All the WAV files, I compressed them and zipped them. I can’t do anymore." But I know at the end of the day that opportunity is everything in this industry, and the opportunity to do something can go away really quickly.
I swung back around, ran into my house, went into the studio, and knocked out the vocals. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if I don’t get it, at least I know I tried.
II. Life After Buzz the Bee
Twelve is the age James began rapping and producing, a time period commemorated by his 2015 debut album, Twelve. Released when he was 24 years old, the 12-track project captures the coming-of-age story of a young man going through life’s motions while in pursuit of an uncertain passion. The music is driven by thoughtful lyricism, transparent contemplation, and candid vignettes―the kind of album intended to be an introduction similar to how Vince Staples’ Shyne Coldchain II or Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo created hi-res portraits of the then-unknown artists.
Twelve was one year old upon the release of “What Goes Around.” The welcome-mat album for James' voice and artistry didn’t have the reach of a global commercial, thus the confusion that followed its release.
“I didn’t expect people would confuse me with Chance. This is my regular voice. People didn’t have any idea what I do musically. That’s the thing to, that’s why I can’t wait to get more music out,” Latrell confessed, but he understood the lack of being established and Chance’s enormous stature gives context to the mistake.
James laughed recalling how Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors asked via Twitter if it was Donald Glover who was in the commercial, a moment that is hilarious as it is absurd.
Those in the dark were accompanied by plenty who recognized the Boston artist, an interesting duality of being both known and unknown. We discussed the notoriety, the positive effects of having visible success, and how perception plays a part in how people will view you when such a feat is accomplished.
Once the commercial began airing, I’m assuming your phone started blowing up?
Absolutely. That’s the drawback, honestly. I go from Latrell James, the hard-working artist to Latrell James, Mr. Cheerios. I don’t want to be Mr. Cheerios [laughs]. Like man, you know my name! Why are you saying that out in public, telling everybody my business? Now I have to explain to everyone why [laughs].
Was it overwhelming? This is Cheerios. People had to start viewing you a little differently.
It was really overwhelming for a really long time for me. Hey, I’m just a rapper. This is what I do all the time—I create. It’s not like I just rap; I do a bunch of melody stuff too, and I shop records to people. For me, it was just something that I normally do. The cool thing about after the commercial, people would hit me up to work. They believed because they see that if I can make something people like around the world, then I could probably help them make something of that effect to. It literally gave people confidence to work with me more so.
That’s beautiful. That’s what everyone wants—to be believed in. What about family, though? How did they handle the news of the commercial placement?
I broke my mother and father off with money, instantly. I made sure all my siblings got something. It wasn’t about money to them, but it is to the other family members [laughs], the ones that aren’t so immediate who are trying to figure out what’s going on. I got tagged in so many Facebook posts. My mom was like, "That’s your cousin," and I’m like, "No it is not! I don’t know this person." It was cool, though.
When you do something abnormal, even if it’s normal in your field, you’re looked at as the biggest thing ever. I’m like, "Guys, I’m still the same person."
I’m still trying to figure this rap shit out. This Cheerios shit is cool, but I don’t know how long they’re going to air this. I can’t live off this at the end of the day. I’m trying to build something that I can live off of and see the world from. They don’t understand that, though.
III. When the Leaves Change
James is aware; when he speaks it’s from the viewpoint of someone who is studying the game. During our conversation, he noted how Instagram TV will lead to a surge of vertical format videos; that Tierra Whack and her team are geniuses for their minute-long approach to music and videos in the streaming era, and how technology is far ahead of rap and that we're adapting to where it takes us, an observation that considers how advancements in music are tied to phones, apps, and computers.
On June 21, James liberated his latest single, “Today.” The record remarks on the world in its present-tense, balancing internal introspection and examining the harsher realities happening outside. “‘Today’ is probably nine months old,” he remembered, “It’s good to have it out. The only thing that I think is crazy: I wrote that record almost two years ago and it still works. A lot of the stuff I’m talking about didn’t change, which is kinda terrifying.”
When asked how he manages to remain inspired in the midst of a chaotic time in human history, James explained how music is his escape, and how it’s possible to insert the change he hopes to see in the world into his music. He hopes to navigate the singles-dominated industry as an artist who thinks in concepts, and the new album he hopes to drop once the leaves begin to change.
"For me, personally, music is my escape. I know people say that, but for me, I can make my own world with music. Music gives hope; you can listen to something and it affects you. When I heard Kendrick’s “Alright” I wanted to really get my shit right. That’s what a record can really do, empower you to change. You can take the ugliest situation and turn it beautiful with music."
How do you mold that escape, and present it to people at a time when attention spans aren’t being held? It’s hard for a new artist to build a fan base.
I create in a concept world, which sucks for me at times. I understand, though. It’s the song that drives people to your catalog, not the catalog that drives people to find out who you are. You have to start with the song and move them from there.
We should really focus on driving records and singles and let them do their own thing. You want to get their time for three minutes, and potentially that turns into them listening to me for 30. The way you do that is not by overwhelming them with full bodies of work.
When you release your next album, do you think people will see you as the guy from the commercial? Or will they see the MC who released Twelve? Or will it be as the producer who did the beats for J.I.D’s “General,” Cousin Stizz’s“I Got It,” and Michael Christmas' “Paranoid”? Who do you think people will recognize you as?
That’s a great point. That’s what this whole album is for, honestly. I’m all of those things. I’m not here trying to ward one off. I’m a creative at the end of the day. I tell people all the time: "I create shit." That’s what I’m good at. This is what the album is for—to lasso in the people who were fans of the J.I.D production, to lasso in the people who discovered me through the commercial and take them from all those worlds into mine.
I think it’s going to explain a lot of things, too. It touches on why I haven’t released music in two years. That’s the most important thing, people just don’t know half of what was happening in my personal life. It was crazy. I think it’s going to be really good, and people will enjoy it.
When do you expect the album to be released?
We’re aiming for the end of August, early September. I always said that I make music for the transition from summer to fall season. I make the kind of music for when the leaves start changing colors. I didn’t want to put it out when people were going to be bumping that Lil Baby, that Gunna all summer. Bang that. I’m going to bang it too [laughs]. I’m a big fan of both those guys.
I’m going to wait until my time comes, and drop my music as the seasons are transitioning.