It’s just after noon on a Tuesday in March, and CJ Fly is going “coronavirus shopping.” The 26-year-old Brooklyn rapper and founding member of Pro Era may have released his long-awaited debut album Rudebwoy, but he’s more concerned with making sure he and his girlfriend have enough fresh fruit for the coming weeks. “Of all times for me to be dropping an album, it had to be during the end of the world,” he tells me over the phone, live and direct from Whole Foods.
Even amidst these dire circumstances, CJ has grown accustomed to this kind of hustle. Born Chaine St. Aubin Downer Jr. to a Bajan mother and a Jamaican father, CJ has been surrounded by music his entire life. While his father would turn the radio dial to Hot 97 and reggae radio stations in his dollar van, his mother played calypso and soca throughout the house; music from the islands became his “first love.”
It wasn’t long before rap music nudged its way into CJ’s ears. He was inspired by fellow West Indian artists, like Busta Rhymes and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who didn’t shy away from using patois in their lyrics. Rudebwoy was conceived as an opportunity for CJ to celebrate his West Indian heritage properly. “I feel like it’s not celebrated enough,” he explains. “A lot of people not from the culture capitalize off it, so why can’t I show love to my roots?”
CJ and Statik Selektah, the album’s sole producer, mix the swing of calypso and the bounce of reggae with live-band boom bap. On “BARRELL,” CJ recalls a time in Jamaica when he and his father were held up at gunpoint while flitting between patois and the bludgeoning jazz production. “SHOW YOU” energetically embraces calypso shuffle while CJ details the highs and lows of his beloved Brooklyn.
Rudebwoy’s base in CJ’s West Indian roots stems from a self-confidence he felt was missing from his 2016 project Flytrap. “I was easily influenced and was asking a bunch of people for their opinions instead of trusting my own at the time,” he reveals. “When I told people the name, they just assumed it would be all trap beats, and I just went along with it.” In his eyes, Rudebwoy stands on the opposite side of the spectrum; CJ Fly is no longer second-guessing himself.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You bookended Rudebwoy with the sound of a CD being fed into a CD player. What inspired you to start and end the album this way?
CJ Fly: Thank you for noticing that, bro. I keep trying to make sure that people notice that very important detail. Every other classic album I’ve heard has a dope way to start and end; if it’s not the vinyl crackle, it’s the tape player. My generation was the CD. I used to buy bootlegs, I won’t lie, but I wanted to represent our generation the best way I knew how. I tried to capture the same energy of opening the plastic jewel casing, close it, and put the CD into the player where it makes that nasty noise.
The album has a distinctly Jamaican flavor, from its title to the cadences of songs like “BARRELL.” Why was it important for you to embrace your West Indian roots across the album?
I feel like it’s not celebrated enough. Hip-hop exists because of Jamaicans. People might not like to read that, but it’s a fact. Kool Herc is a Jamaican man who brought the DJ system that was being used at parties out there, which eventually transitioned into hip-hop culture. Knowing that made me mindful of being sure to bring this [music] full circle and represent the culture properly. A lot of people not from the culture capitalize off it, so why can’t I show love to my roots? My first love was reggae music and soca and calypso.
It reminded me of how Busta Rhymes and Phife Dawg used to flex their West Indian roots in their songs.
You just named my two biggest influences. Phife Dawg was the first person I ever heard put patois in the vocals, and I was like, “What, you can do this?” Hearing Phife do it in English and tell his story was so special to me, man. For me to be able to meet him years later and work on my first mixtape with him made me realize I needed to rap like myself and put on for people like me. Shout out to Tribe and Phife, rest in peace.
You’ve never shied away from the personal in your music. Aside from embracing your heritage, what did you feel was missing from Flytrap that you wanted to address on Rudebwoy?
Honestly, the beat selection was limited on Flytrap. I was easily influenced and was asking a bunch of people for their opinions instead of trusting my own at the time. I was still growing as an artist and as a human being, so the things around me easily influenced me. When I told people the name, they just assumed it would be all trap beats, and I just went along with it. Originally I had so many boom bap beats on there, bro. It was gonna be a crossover CJ Fly version of trap, ya know? It wasn’t the best representation of me or my culture, and it didn’t get the response I wanted. I was kinda depressed on Flytrap, but I had so much fun making Rudebwoy, bro. And I got to tell my story.
Longtime Pro Era affiliate Statik Selektah entirely produces the album. Walk me through the process of creating the album with him.
Statik and I have been homies for years. I think he was a fan of mine from “Hardknock.” After “Hardknock,” we did a couple more joints, and he became like a big brother to me. He was one of the first people who wanted to sign me. One day, we were kickin’ it, and I said, “Yo, we should do a joint project. Let’s make this real special.” Everything came together within the last two years or so. I didn’t know a whole bunch first coming into the game, but Statik treated me like a family member and took care of me. Working with Statik was an amazing experience. I might come in the booth and sing, and Statik would say, “Stop singing so much, go back in there and rap.” [laughs]
You’re rapping like crazy here, but I’ve never heard Statik beats with this many live instruments before.
This is his first fully live album, no samples. That wasn’t by choice, though; the album was originally full of samples, like 80 percent. When sample clearances came up, we had to go live with it and it just wound up making everything bigger and better. Dreamlife and his team played all the instruments over at Vintage Vandals, who recreate samples with a live band. Shout out to them because they saved me almost $100k on sample clearances.
On intro track “GOING THRU,” you say, “I’m living check-to-check and yes, some people claim they want this life.” As an artist who’s been in the game for almost a decade, what are some aspects of the music industry you weren’t prepared for when you first came in?
If you know your value, it allows you to move a certain way. Like, if I know I’m worth $2 million, I’m gonna find a $2 million deal. I have a lot of work to do to get where I wanna be, but you need to know your value coming into the game. A lotta kids take a $5k deal when they’re worth $10 million on their own. That’s something I wish I knew coming into this. When Master P was talking on Solange’s album [A Seat At The Table] about knowing your worth, it made me rethink my perspective. A lot of times, when you’re a starving artist, tryna make it out of the hood, you don’t think that far ahead; you’re not always wondering what you’ll be worth in five years. You gotta consider those things as factors.
Nostalgia is another big theme explored throughout Rudebwoy, from the good (“Rudebwoy,” “Block Party”) to the bad (“Barrel,” “Jooks”). How do you feel reflecting on your past has helped you grow as an artist?
I look back and think I’m glad I survived. I’m happy I’m in a position where I can tell and share these stories with the world. A lot of these moments I talk about could’ve gone left, and I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if they did. You’re blessed to be where you are because you could either be dead or in jail. I’m just thankful.
While this is very much your album, every member of Pro Era makes a guest appearance, most notably on the aptly titled closing track “THE PROS.” How has being a member of Pro Era informed or inspired your movement as a solo artist?
Having the crew makes you go harder. It’s a bunch of like-minded individuals chasing this one thing. Me putting The Pros on the project was very necessary because it’s been a while since people have heard us together in the wild. A lot of people want to hear those posse cuts, those six or seven-minute songs. Nobody’s doing that no more. If you notice on Flytrap, I only had two features on there. I wanted Flytrap to be my experimental vibe; I didn’t necessarily want it to be titled as a Pro Era project. With Rudebwoy, I wanted to make sure I gave the fans what they were owed and what they deserved. This was long overdue.
If you could meet your younger self before you joined Pro Era, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to believe in yourself and not to look for validation in other people all the time. I was an only child, so Pro Era was and is like a brotherhood to me. I would look for validation in places where I didn’t always need it coming up. I was rapping before I met The Pros, and I should’ve kept the same confidence I had before I met them. When it’s your art, you must protect your vision and your plan for it.