“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.” –Boldy James
Detroit rapper Boldy James’ spit the above bar on his 2020 breakout album, The Price of Tea in China. It sums up the ethos of his entire career.
“I grew up on the radio,” Boldy James, born James Clay Jones III, explains over the phone. “The music kept me out of trouble and gave me a different focus. Because you can’t see the music, you gotta feel it.”
Boldy’s music is nothing if not overflowing with feeling: kitchen pots filled with drugs resembling oatmeal; care packages sent to loved ones in prison unsure whether they’d see daylight again; the cool relief of having enough money to pay a phone bill this month. Boldy’s rhymes are plainspoken and lived-in, the kind no one should ever have to find clever ways to rap about.
And yet, Boldy, 37, isn’t afraid to share with me just how much joy creating music brings to him every day. “Releasing your truths can save you,” he says, “and 20 years later, I still use the same method for anger management and just minding my business and staying outta everybody way. It’s my little bit of happiness and sunshine.”
After almost a decade of working in the shadows—from his 2011 debut mixtape Trapper’s Alley: Pros and Cons to now—Boldy’s personal sunshine is yielding massive results. The Price of Tea in China, released this past February and produced entirely by California beat maestro The Alchemist, gained a rabid fanbase after its release in February.
Tea’s quality also caught the attention of Buffalo roughnecks Griselda, who offered Boldy a recording contract in March. Shortly thereafter, he showcased his versatility further, releasing the Sterling Toles-produced album Manger on McNichols, a jazzy experimentation project that was 13 years in the making.
Now, on the verge of releasing The Versace Tape—10 songs worth of steely reflection over beautiful loops produced entirely by New Jersey comedian-turned-beatmaker Jay Versace, out Friday, August 14—Boldy James is reaping the spoils. Three projects and a new record deal have him excited to embrace all the new fans to come.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: 2020 has been a breakout year for you after nearly a decade of grinding. What inspired you to keep pressing on and creating music through the years?
Boldy: I’ve been making music all my life. It’s just something I do, regardless of whether I’d be getting paid for it. I just love music.
What about music spoke to you when you first started listening?
I grew up on the radio. I wasn’t raised by the television or the video games or all that shit. I was either outside playing sports, cops and robbers—and I was never the cop—or listening to the radio. The music kept me out of trouble and gave me a different focus. Because you can’t see the music, you gotta feel it.
How did listening to the radio when you were younger affect you?
It was my favorite thing to do. I always had to have a radio, preferably a dual-cassette player, so I could record music from other tapes or record music off the radio onto a tape. Then I got skilled enough where I could take two radios and record myself. I just always been fascinated with the boombox.
When did you first meet producer/musician Sterling Toles?
When I was 17, so 20 years ago, it started off music-related and then took a brotherhood turn. He’s always been one of the realest people I know. He always gave me positive advice and reinforcement and pushed me through hard times when I was damn near ready to give up on myself. He let me know this my calling, even if it’s just for therapy purposes. Releasing your truths can save you, and 20 years later, I still use the same method for anger management and just minding my business and staying outta everybody way. I just get in my music bag, and it keeps me sane; it’s my little bit of happiness and sunshine.
I read that you recorded your vocals for the collaborative project Manger on McNichols between 2007 and 2010. How does it feel to release an album 13 years in the making?
I’ve been working on it so long I almost forgot it was gonna have to come out someday. I thought it was just gonna be a lifetime achievement award or some shit. It shocked me that it was complete in its entirety and that people got the chance to hear it, and they liked it. That’s all I was worried about. Sterling is more than just a musician; he’s an artist in every shape, form, and fashion of the word. I wasn’t doubting whether it was going to be good. I was doubting whether my fans was gonna be able to keep up with all that was going on with the project.
You have a great gift to be able to ground yourself in any beat you rap over. You’re distinct and versatile that way.
That’s because I let the beat tell me what to do. I got enough game and life experiences to fill in the blanks. That’s what writes the music. I’m a street nigga, so the slang and lingo just come with the territory. I’m a fuckin weed head and just mind my business and be to myself and my people in my world. I’m not as outgoing, or as much of a people person as people think I am. I just have a job description that requires me to deal with motherfuckers even when I don’t want to be bothered with them.
Out of all the producers you’ve worked with, your relationship with The Alchemist feels the most special.
Man, let me tell you something about Alchemist, man. We had five fistfights while we were making The Price of Tea in China. And I only won one of ‘em. He’s a beast. I call him Tank; he’s like a mini-tank. He’s the one who be schooling me on the game and how to do certain shit that he views as being chatty or goofy. He be putting me up on game and how to keep my composure while moving through this goofy-ass industry.
When you two first met, what was it about Alchemist and his beats that drew you to him?
I had always been listening to Alchemist beats before I knew who was producing them. I was one of the biggest Mobb Deep and Nas fans ever. I love Twin Gambino and niggas like Rapper Noid. Even before I knew them niggas and we was cliqued up how we is now, I always admired their music. Then I found out Al was the one twinkling his motherfucking hands and toes behind the board. I got introduced to him by my cousin Chuck Inglish from The Cool Kids.
Al’s a genuine person; if he fucks with you, he fucks with you. If he’s not fuckin with your music, you might not be his type of people. It’s always good to have niggas like Al in your corner to work with him at his leisure. He could be doing so much other shit than working with you. He works with Eminem and JAY-Z and Nas. They don’t give him enough credit, man. I’ma always wave the Alchemist flag wherever the fuck I go.
You’re known for doing a lot of one producer/one rapper collabs. What do you find most attractive about working with one producer for an entire project?
I didn’t do that on purpose. The Alchemist project was intentional, but the others I didn’t realize that’s what was going on. I be cranking out a bunch of tunes, and then when the opportunity presents itself, you sit back at the drawing board and come up with whatever’s suitable at that point in time musically. Other than that, this shit freestyle, run-and-gun, man-on-man. I’m just playing ball until it’s time to drop a project that I think makes sense for the culture and move forward with my musical journey and shit.
The Price of Tea in China caused quite a splash when it dropped earlier this year. Did you expect it to have as much of an impact as it did?
Yeah, because Al told me it would. He told me to get ready. This project was gonna wake everybody up. He said BOLDFACE was the taste tester and that Price of Tea in China would be the wake-up. The way it played out was exactly how he told me it was gonna play out. Me and Al did our thing to the point where we even got JAY-Z’s attention with it.
Talk to me about signing your deal with Griselda.
Shoutout my brothers Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, man. Out of the relationships I have with the guys, me and [Westside Gunn] have the best relationship. Those are his real family members, so family’s gonna go through what they go through on their own terms. It’s never your place to come in between family business. I just been around long enough to even be considered family. Me and West, we got a great relationship. It doesn’t help that we’re both Leo’s. His birthday’s July 27 and mine’s August 9.
How did they approach you about signing with them?
Alchemist made mention to me about hooking up with the guys and going on tour and making music together. I’m just listening to big bro. Then I’m on tour, and I met the guys, and we all hit it off. It wasn’t no bad blood. Them my type of niggas for real. It was mutual respect. The rest is history.
The Versace Tape is a smooth listen. You and producer Jay Versace settle into a distinct groove quickly.
What’s crazy is that Versace Tape is about to take my stardom to a whole other level. Despite what everybody might feel about Jay Versace, who doesn’t understand him, I rock with the kid. He makes fire music. This about to open up a whole new fanbase for me. It’s all about the culture and the music and the art form of it. A lotta producers need to get up to where he is. Even The Alchemist loves the project. He can appreciate things from afar as a fan, but when he’s in work mode, it’s a lot of shit that’s garbage to him because he’s so intricate with what he’s doing. He notices when people don’t have their own originality to what they’re doing.
What was your favorite part of crafting The Versace Tape?
I just like how all the beats complemented my style. Everything was the right piece to the puzzle as we were putting the music together. West foresaw it before we even began working on this. He knew exactly how it was supposed to sound and the direction he wanted it to go in. He had a vision for it, and whenever I was working on one of those songs, he would know if it was a nice fit. He’d give me that look like, “Yea, that’s it, Block,” and then we’d move onto the next one. When it was done, it was something special.
Gunn executive-produced the project. What was it like seeing his beat selection process in-person?
Bloody don’t fuck with niggas, dawg. That let me know that we’re in a different bag in itself. [The Versace Tape] was worked on from Atlanta to Alabama to Mississippi to Houston to California to Detroit and back to Atlanta and Mississippi. We was moving around making that project, and it was all done in like a week, maybe?
All of that in a week? That’s wild.
West live a wild life, man.
Amidst all of your accomplishments this year, what’s the one thing you’re the proudest of?
Just my eight-year-old son being able to follow all of this with me and appreciate and enjoy it. That’s the big lesson of it all.