Initially, Red Bull scheduled Zeltron World Wide: Denzel Curry vs. JID for Saturday, January 18, in the heart of Miami’s Little Haiti. Created by Curry and hosted by Red Bull, this unique live performance competition was billed as the only concert where spectators could watch the Carol City rapper, as his alter-ego Zeltron, faceoff against his hip-hop rivals in a custom-built wrestling ring.
I first laid eyes on the magnificent ring last November in Atlanta, Georgia, during the first-ever Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta. Denzel, the champion, went head-to-head against Brooklyn’s own Joey Bada$$. That was the second Zeltron bout, the first coming in November 2018 against Flatbush Zombies. JID would be the first rap challenger from the South to enter the innovative soundclash.
To the surprise of many, on January 14, the East Atlanta native tweeted at 8:25 AM:
The next day, on Instagram, JID, born Destin Route, posted a video from his otolaryngologist appointment. Although he jokes that the footage of his throat resembles, “an alien’s vagina,” the caption explains why the concert was postponed: The doctor placed JID on a medicated, two-week vocal rest.
Since the November 2018 release of DiCaprio 2, JID’s sophomore mixtape, the 29-year-old has performed on over 160 stages across the globe. That’s not including all the shows he conducted on the road in all the years prior. For JID, touring as a high-level performer has been essential in growing his devoted fanbase, but, at the same time, placed an extreme strain on his voice. When I saw the disheartening post on Instagram, I thought about all the praise JID received over just the past 15 months for his live performances:
- JID turns Pauley Ballroom into perfectly haphazard moshpit, Dailycal (Jan 2019)
- JID puts on an unforgettable performance at the Aggie Theatre, Collegian (Feb 2019)
- JID Concert Causes Cracked Floor at Ithaca College, XXL (Feb 2019)
- JID’s Talent and Potential on Display in Live Performance, StayUp (March 2019)
- JID Is Becoming One Of Hip-Hop’s’s Most Exciting Live Acts, Forbes (June 2019)
- JID Delivers Rousing & Energetic Lollapalooza Aftershow Performance At Concord Music Hall With Dreamville Records Fam, Hip Hop Democrat (Aug 2019)
- Live Report: JID dazzles at the Olympia, Hot Press (December 2019)
JID hasn’t always received this kind of praise. Just ask Plewto Smith, the South Atlanta-raised rapper and entertainer who joined me in 2016 when I arrived at JID’s East Atlanta home to hear an early version of his debut mixtape, The Never Story.
I remember Plewto telling us how, in 2014, he arrived to see the still-emerging “NEVER” rapper perform at a venue in Atlanta called Union. “I was there, and you were there,” Plewto said to JID. “Suli was there; 6LACK was there, too, but nobody else bought one ticket.”
Imagine JID, before GRAMMY nominations and golden plaques, ready to perform in his home city, but there’s no audience. Of course, that’s an old problem—one that will never again exist for him. But now that the venues are full, now that attention has rightfully found the East Atlanta Playboy, what is the cost to keep that attention?
When I touched down in Miami on Friday, February 28, 2020, for the rescheduled bout, Denzel Curry vs. JID, I had just reached Book II in A Farewell To Arms, the best-selling World War I novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. While en route to Hyde Midtown Miami, I had time to revisit one of my favorite pieces of sports journalism, James Baldwin’s “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston.”
“I am not an aficionado of the ring, and haven’t been since Joe Louis lost his crown—he was the last great fighter for me—and so I can’t really make comparisons with previous events of this kind,” Baldwin wrote of the forthcoming world heavyweight boxing match. I understood his sentiment, because, although acclaimed for his inspiring speeches, pointed essays, and critical analysis, James Baldwin wasn’t a sports journalist, and neither was I.
So while in Miami covering Denzel Curry vs. JID, a hip-hop boxing match unlike any I’ve ever known, I felt a kindred spirit between the story he wrote and the one I hoped to write.
Once I reached the hotel, I learned Denzel and JID’s scheduled “weigh-in” had been canceled. The on-going joke between myself, and Jeff and Eric Rosenthal of ItsTheReal, was that I would bring a digital scale and weigh the two rappers before their battle on Saturday. The scale, about the size of a small laptop, was in my bookbag when I arrived to interview them, separately, at The Warehouse a few hours before the show.
Denzel arrived first, around 5 PM, but I forgot about the scale.
A few hours later, when I see JID in his backstage in his greenroom, my first question is, Can I weigh you? “I haven’t been weighed in a minute,” he responds as the whole room roars with laughter. Olu, of EarthGang, pulls back the carpet to place the scale on a flat surface. The scale reads 64.2 kg, which translates to 141 pounds. The icebreaker leads to my next question: How did you prepare for Zeltron?
Almost on cue, Denzel Curry enters the room, saying, “Let me tell you how he prepared for this! I know because we come from the same Dojo.” JID confirms: “We’re Dojo bros.” With Denzel present, I shot my shot. While exiting the room, he swiftly replies, “You can weigh this cocaine, nigga.”
After the room settles down, I ask JID: When did Denzel first reach out? “He hit me last year,” JID says. “We were doing festivals around the same time that summer, that’s when we first started talking about it. We were on tour for the rest of the year, but he was so lit, just happy about the shit. I tell him, yeah, let’s figure it out. Then he hit me while I was in Berlin. He was like, ‘Bruh, let’s do this shit,’ but I got off tour, and my voice was cooked.”
The soft-spoken rapper continues: “I knew something was wrong, [my voice] was like that all year. I just had to go to the doctor. You know how black people are.” I do, all too well.
If you know anything about his story, it’s not surprising that JID decided to endure vocal harm to maintain his intense touring schedule. Pain, in the most literal sense, has been a part of his rather impressive and unorthodox come up.
JID dislocated his hip playing varsity football during his senior year at Stephenson High School. The injury kept the promising football star from receiving a full scholarship to the University of Georgia, which, ultimately, led him to attend Hampton University, where he befriends Olu and WowGr8 of EarthGang.
This chance encounter with brethren from his home city was essential to JID’s future in hip-hop, especially after being expelled from Hampton University in 2012, during his sophomore year. The transition from destroying boys as a cornerback on the football field to destroying beats as a phrase-flipping, flow-bending southern lyricist wasn’t painless. Even music came with physical ramifications.
In 2017, JID told Christina Lee about the wisdom tooth that ailed him during the entire recording process for The Never Story:
“I just got my wisdom tooth taken out. I started recording again last week after I healed up. This is the first time I’ve been able to do the shit and there are no physical problems. I used to have straight migraines after shows or when I record, and I was spitting blood out because I bit my cheek with the fucking wisdom tooth, and it was just sucking for years.” —JID, “Meet the J. Cole-Signed Rapper Against ‘Happy Trappers’”
Despite everything he’s been through, every time I see JID, he’s in good spirits, and there’s plenty for him to be enthusiastic about. His 2019 collaboration with J. Cole, “Off Deez,” was certified Gold by the RIAA on March 5. Still, before then, “Rum 151,” the Christo-produced record released as DiCaprio 2’s debut single, was certified Gold on February 19, the first Dreamville-released single to achieve the certification without an assist from J. Cole. “It was all thanks to Zendaya,” he says with a hearty laugh.
“It’s just that sound,” JID remarks of “151 Rum.” “Christo and I have been working on that sound for years. It’s kind of... Hypnotizing. It draws you in. ‘151 Rum’ going Gold feels good because it’s not your typical song, and there was no radio push. That tells me, ‘Oh yeah, y’all really pressing play on this motherfucker.’”
Our conversation shifts to what JID’s most excited about: being in album mode. “We know what the people want, and we know what we want to do,” he says with absolute certainty. “This next [album] is more conceptual; it’ll have a structure.” According to JID, the album is a different kind of project compared to DiCaprio 2.
What inspired the change? I ask JID. His response comes quickly: “I like doing different stuff. I like to expand and show growth. I’m a grown-ass man; I can’t give you the same, not when I’m growing and evolving daily.”
I bring up the battle, a bout that Denzel Curry called a “respect match” in our earlier interview. I ask JID what he’ll do if he beats Denzel in Miami, and the former football player jokingly gives the obvious Super Bowl-winning answer: “We’re going to Disney World!”
That’s the moment—the moment when JID’s past life and present life crossover. It hits me: I wouldn’t be interviewing JID if he didn’t get kicked out of school. A little finessing put him off the team, out of school, with few options, a story not unlike heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston who found boxing after going to prison for committing a few “juugs” of his own.
Hip-hop understands the man who never had and the pursuit of obtaining more by crafty means, but boxing didn’t grant Liston that same grace. His criminal record not only affected where he could box but people’s perception of him as a potential champion. “I wouldn’t be no bad example if I was up there,” he told James Baldwin in 1963.
“I could tell a lot of those children what they need to know—because—I passed that way,” Liston says, “I could make them listen.”
Baldwin would go on to write about how Liston felt that, despite his negative reputation, he could reach black boys and girls who are trapped in the very circumstances that led him down the path of mugging and armed robbery. “I tell you one thing, though,” he says to Baldwin about becoming champion, “if I was up there, I wouldn’t bite my tongue.”
That’s JID, the kind of champion-in-the-making who wants to tell his story without censoring a word or fabricating a detail. “It’s all for the kids, man,” he says at the beginning of “Despacito Too,” the final song on DiCaprio 2. The message is clear: only the strong survive. So be strong through the pain and become whatever you want to be. JID is a living testament to the power of perseverance.
After our interview, I wish JID good luck. I had a good feeling the crowd would have a hard time picking a winner. Funnily enough, when I first arrived at The Warehouse, a small line was forming outside the venue before the doors opened. It was a young crowd, all kids, and one at the very front was playing a song I didn’t immediately recognize. But I knew it was JID’s voice coming from his phone.
I asked the young man about the song, and his face lit up. “JID and Spillage Village all day!” he says, excitedly. That’s when I knew, no matter if JID won or lost later that evening, he would be the winner, because the kids are listening.