Rule of thumb: if a rap song has James Blake’s fingerprints (or indeed his breathtaking voice) on it, it’s probably fire. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z, André 3000, Chance The Rapper, Jay Rock, Vince Staples, RZA and, most recently, Travis Scott are among the high-profile hip-hop collaborators of the British vocalist/producer, who landed on America’s radar with a soft yet stunning thud earlier this decade.
So, when James Blake tweeted out a new collaboration, “BILLY,” with a virtually unknown rapper by the name of SwaVay (pronounced “Swah-Vay”) late last month, it didn’t exactly take a Don Draper sales pitch to press play.
Over Blake’s subterranean trap production, the 21-year-old Atlanta native narrates—and berates—the story of a young kid from the ‘burbs who crafts a false identity around clout-chasing culture (lean, Instagram, Lil Pump). It’s a bold introduction, an unabashed anti-fuckboy anthem packed with gear-switching flows and stomach-rumbling hunger that almost feels like a challenge to the Billys of the world. “You wanna be good or you wanna be great?” he asks rhetorically.
No prize for guessing how SwaVay would answer that question. Not only has he recorded a collaborative project with James Blake, which he hopes to release later this year, he’s currently the first and only signee to Metro Boomin’s Boominati Worldwide label. While he’s still finding his voice and building an audience, these coveted co-signs reflect SwaVay's lofty ambitions. “My number one goal is to be respected in hip-hop, hopefully as one of the greats,” he says. “Also, I definitely want some GRAMMYs.”
We got on the phone with SwaVay to find out more about his story, his upcoming plans, and how a virtually unknown rapper from Atlanta ended up signing to Metro Boomin and becoming best friends with James Blake.
DJBooth’s full interview with SwaVay, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: So, how did you link up with James Blake?
SwaVay: Me and James, we’re both signed to Republic—I’m signed to Metro [Boomin] and Republic—so we met at the Republic studio working on something for Metro. I get to the studio, I go to the buzzer and I’m like, "This is SwaVay, Boominati." Then James Blake opens the door. I’m like, "N*gga, are you James Blake?!" He had heard of me through Metro and we ended up chopping it up for like an hour or two about anything and everything. I played him my music and he lost his mind. He was like, "Bro, this is nuts." We’ve been talking everyday since then. I was just at this man’s house yesterday.
I saw a picture of you and James Blake in the studio together. What’s it like working with him in person?
We push each other to try new things as much as possible. The project we have together, it’s very forward, it’s not like anything that’s really out right now. The “BILLY” record is probably the closest thing to what’s out right now—you know, it has a trap beat, it’s a fun song. But everything else is different. We challenge each other to be as original as possible and to go as hard as we can. But it’s also very effortless. A lot of the songs on our project, we made in like 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure we made “BILLY” in 20 minutes. It’s so easy to make music with James. We’re very much similar. We have the same tastes and we think the same, especially with music.
Can you talk a little more about the project? Is James singing on it? Or is he just producing?
There’s a few tracks where his vocals are on there, but mostly it’s him producing for me. Like I said, the sound’s very futuristic. But it’s still fun, it’s still an enjoyable listen. Me and James come from different realms but we still made it easy to listen to.
How did you come up with the concept for “BILLY”?
We were at Conway Studios [in Hollywood]. I was just in a great mood. [Laughs] I don’t really know what sparked the idea, but I remember writing the second verse first and then I did a little outro where I’m talking as if I’m Billy. I came back and I did the hook and the first verse. [Me and James] were just in a great mood, we were in a beautiful studio and I was recording on the best mic I’ve ever used. All those things combined just made “BILLY.”
You're signed to Metro Boomin, who is arguably the biggest producer in rap right now. How did that happen?
I have a song called “Quicktrip.” Metro had seen it on Twitter and he followed me. I was like, "This is not really Metro, bruh. This is a fake page or some shit." [Laughs] But I DM’d him anyway. I was like, "Yo man, it really made my day that you followed me." He DM’d me back and we started talking. I asked if I could send him some music and he was like, "Yeah bro, text it to my phone." So I get his number, send him a shit ton of music and he was like, "Bro, we have to link up in the studio as soon as I get back from Vegas."
I think we met two days after that. I’m thinking it’s a set up, like a robbery or some shit. [Laughs] Or I’m gonna go sit in on a session with Metro and somebody else. But I literally pulled up to the studio and it was me and him, and my great friend David who I brought along with me ’cause I couldn’t drive at the time. We talked for about two to three hours—same thing as me and James—and we just had a natural connection.
Right then and there, after talking for a few hours, he was like, "Bro, you have to be the first artist on Boominati." I think he had the label for less than a year at that point. He wasn’t really looking for artists, he was just going to let them come to him organically. But I was on go. It’s Metro! I’m not going to say no.
Wow. That must have been a huge boost of confidence.
Yeah! I’ve been making music for so long, man, and to finally feel like somebody was listening and understood it, it felt like I was finally worth something, you know? To know that somebody else saw all the things that I see in myself, it made me feel great, bro.
Have you and Metro been working on music together?
Yep. Me and Metro have a shit ton of music in the stash. Right now, I have my album coming, he executive produced that. We’re just trying to see where we’re at separately. Maybe down the road we’ll put out all the songs that we have together. Maybe sometime this year.
Has Metro or James given you any advice that’s really stuck with you?
I’ve known Metro for almost a year-and-a-half and he’s told me things that have changed my life. Like how to approach certain songs and how to carry myself in certain ways. James as well—especially James. We’re best friends, I talk to him everyday. He’s given me an endless amount of great advice. He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my life.
A few months ago you tweeted a picture of you and L.A. Reid. What’s your relationship with him?
He’s a really great guy. Metro had a meeting with him and played him something off my album that’s coming out this year. L.A. stopped the meeting and was like, ‘Get this kid in here right now.’ I came up there, we spoke, and I really felt like he understood where I was coming from and where I’m trying to go. Ever since then, he’s been in my corner. I’ve never felt like he’s too big to respond. I saw him yesterday and I was just telling him things that I was maybe uncertain about and he just lifted my spirits. That’s one of the greatest people I feel like I have in my life.
Do you feel any pressure having all these big names singing your praises?
At first, being around Metro, it does hit you in a way where you can get tense. You don’t want to make mistakes. I’m the type of person who hates feeling like I’m fucking up. Sometimes it can put you in a state where it’s like, I’m too afraid to do something because I don’t want this to be the wrong move. But at the same time, you just gotta be confident in yourself and remind yourself, "I’m here for a reason." I try not to let it get to my head. I kinda let it inspire me to be great.
Growing up, who were some of the artists you looked up to?
As a kid, my mom was very religious. Rap music really wasn’t played in the house. My mom wasn’t playing none of that shit! The only rappers she’d let me listen to was like Lil Bow Wow. I don’t give a fuck what nobody says, bro: if you were a young black kid, Lil Bow Wow was everything. You wanted to be this n*gga.
As a young kid, it was early ‘00s, 106 & Park type shit. As I got older, I started digging deeper into rap and falling in love with it. Eminem, Dr. Dre—anything Dr. Dre does is godly to me. I’m young as fuck, I’m only 21 years old, so I very much grew up on Kendrick and J. Cole. I think my favorite rappers of all time are Nas and 2Pac, though.
Speaking of Lil Bow Wow, that explains the Like Mike uniforms in your “Loyal” video.
Yeah! Nobody has peeped this yet, but in every single one of my music videos yet, there’s a Bow Wow reference. Whether I had a Bow Wow shirt on or the Like Mike uniforms.
Where did you get those uniforms? You had a whole starting five wearing them!
[Laughs] I’ll be honest with you, at first, we tried to hit up [20th Century] Fox—they produced the movie—and we tried to get the original uniforms. We looked up everyone who was in that movie—the personnel, everybody. We found them, the warm-ups and all, but we weren’t able to get them in time for the video ‘cause we had rented out a gym for it. So we ended up renting a shit ton of Calvin Cambridge jerseys, taking the names and numbers off—except my jersey, of course—and we went and re-printed our own numbers on them.
Respect the hustle.
[Laughs] I always tell people, even when you’re signed, you’re very much an independent artist. You gotta be creative with shit that you want to get down.
Can you elaborate on that? What sort of challenges do you face as major label artist who still operates independently?
Even though I’ve made a shit ton of music in my career so far, I think the biggest challenge is knowing I have to put even more work in. I’m still very much a new artist. I know being signed to Metro and working with James Blake makes it appear like I’ve made it, but I don’t really feel like I’ve made it at all.
I was looking through your Instagram and found a picture of you lying in a hospital bed looking pretty banged up. What happened?
Two years ago, I was in a terrible, terrible car accident. I got hit with an SUV going like 80 mph. The whole right side of my body was basically broken—ribs, legs, pelvis. I couldn’t walk for like six months. Honestly, that’s how my last album came about, B4EYEDIE. I’m thankful today that I’m still alive. I’m moving better, I’m stronger and I’m able to sit in a room with Metro Boomin and James Blake and meet these artists that I’ve always looked up to. I’m blessed, man. I very much could’ve lost my life.
What’s next, musically? You’ve been teasing a new mixtape called Traplanta 2. Is that still coming?
I don’t know, man. The James Blake thing, it was such a spur-of-the-moment thing. BBC [Radio 1] had played it and people were already leaking the song. So it was like, ‘Fuck it bro, we might as well put it out.’ We dropped it on SoundCloud and people have been fucking with that song so heavy. I was going to put out [Traplanta 2] the same day we put out “BILLY,” so that kinda put everything in a standstill. I was like, "Let’s just see how well ‘BILLY’ does for a second."
My album is definitely done. Me and James Blake’s project is definitely done. I got a project with my friend Danny Wolf. Everything’s done. I’m loading up the bullets; it’s just about knowing when to shoot them.
What can people expect from your album? Are Metro Boomin and James Blake involved?
The album is called Pure Infinity. James and Metro are executive producing it but I developed a sound that’s not like any of theirs. It’s hands down the best music I’ve ever made in my life. It’ll be released through Boominati/Republic.
Finally, what are your goals and ambitions in music?
My number one goal is to be respected in hip-hop, hopefully as one of the greats. That’s what I do it for. For hip-hop. It’s made me the person I am. Also, I definitely want some GRAMMYs. [Laughs] For the album I’m putting out this year, I want a GRAMMY for that shit. I don’t give a fuck for what, if it’s for Best Song, Best Video, Best Album, whatever—I don’t give a fuck. I want one.