...and hard work, and strong collaborators...but also the burrito bowls at Berkeley Bowl.
Rexx Life Raj is committed to repping Berkeley. It’s one of the first things you come to notice listening to Father Figure, the rapper’s most recent studio effort released earlier this year. The record is littered with passing allusions to his hometown, a city he’s spent his entire life in minus an undergraduate education in Boise, where he played D1 football on scholarship. He sings the praises of burrito bowls from Berkeley Bowl, likens Telegraph Avenue to the fast life, and shouts out local heroes Green Day as the scale of his own ambitions for a legacy. You get the sense leaving a Rexx Life Raj tape that Berkeley is his defining influence, and that he's himself one of the definitive voices currently rising from the Bay.
Raj has been rapping since the sixth grade, and even while attending school in Idaho he never managed to escape hip-hop’s gravitational pull. “I would always be thinking, ‘Damn, what if instead of going to college I just did music?’” he told me during a conversation at his Berkeley studio, a refashioned office space from his parents’ delivery business where Raj works during the daytime before descending like a superhero into rap at night. Even when his life as a student and athlete was the primary focus, he still managed the time to commit his words to record: “I was the dude at the dorm room with the mic at his door. I was the dude, when I got a house, I had a mic in the closet.”
Upon graduation, Raj immediately returned to where his heart was always waiting. “It was never a thing of ‘if’ I wanted to come back, it was like I knew whenever I was done I would be back,” said Raj. Since resettling in the Bay he hasn’t wasted a minute of momentum, and right now Raj is riding a stride that’s seeing him start to break through the edges of the region's insulating bubble.
Last year Raj released “Moxie Java,” a syrupy bar crawl with fellow Bay Area local Nef The Pharoah. “Moxie Java,” with its immediately striking bass burbles and smacking snares, was a career-shifting moment for the rapper. “I could kinda see the numbers on the computer, people were tweeting me or whatever, tagging me on Instagram,” recalled Raj. “But then I went to the show...and I remember that was the first time I heard a crowd of people singing the words. It was like ‘Oh fuck, this one is kind of sticking.'”
For all it’s effervescent swagger, “Moxie Java” still isn’t the best song on Father Figure. It probably isn’t even in the top five. That’s no slight against “Moxie Java,” that’s a qualifier for how high the standards are on the album. Father Figure is Raj’s best work yet, a soothing, soulful meditation on earned perspective and regional pride. Equally capable of boasting big game (“Shit n’ Floss”) as he is reflecting on what’s allowed him to reach the heights he currently occupies (“Ojw3”), Raj swerves calmly and conscientiously across 13 tracks of melodiously gripping instrumentals.
The most immediately arresting single is “Handheld GPS,” a slippery party-chiller where Raj flexes his capacity for imparting philosophical musings in snappy quotables. “Fuck a suggestion, use intuition/ When your heart speaks to you, you should listen,” Raj spits with clarity-fueled confidence. The song best captures the conversational ambition that he naturally demonstrates when speaking in person, in all of Raj's romanticized optimism: “I don’t even know what I’m shooting for/ But I’m shooting anyway.”
“Handheld GPS” also touches on the isolating effects of technologically-crafted self-identities. In Raj’s words: “I look at social media like a gift and a curse. The gift is your able to touch so many people, and everybody is kind of at your fingertips. You can be direct-to-consumer. You can really touch people. But the downfall is it’s really easy to compare yourself to someone’s idealized life. Everybody looks like they’re doing good on social media, and that’s the trick. You fall into that, and you think ‘Damn, look at him doing this, doing that,' and you’re sitting here feeling bad about yourself. That’s why I saw social media is disingenuous. It’s like you’re getting glimpses of the best aspects of peoples’ lives and you’re comparing your normal life to that.”
Another prominent theme Raj wrestles with on Father Figure is that implied by the album title. “To me, a father figure is someone who gives you the game and shows you how things are supposed to be done and someone you can look up to,” said Raj. In speaking about the importance of his own father: “One of the biggest lessons he taught me is that it’s better to always have your own. I got my own studio, my own business, my LLC, that’s why I built my own team. Everything is in-house, because when you have your own, people can’t take that from you.”
Not that they won’t try. For all of Raj’s impressions of the world, he’s well aware of the world’s impression of him, both as a person and as a physical entity. “[My father] made me very aware of my blackness and my skin and what comes with that, and how to be observant and be aware of that,” said Raj. “That’s why it trips me out when people act like all this racist shit is new, or are shocked by it — this shit has been here forever.”
While Raj is proud of everything he already is, he’s not quite content leaving his legacy simply in the lanes he's already started in. He looks at idiosyncratic icons like Childish Gambino and Tyler, The Creator as role models for his own career — as he too aspires to branch out beyond music in constructing his own umbrella empire. To Raj, that means also breaking into television, merchandising, and of most pressing priority, sketch comedy.
But it still all revolves around the music for Raj, who is currently sitting on a seemingly endless abundance of unreleased riches. He played me about a dozen or so tracks from his private vault during our interview, and what struck me most was how well defined the sound he’s assembled for himself is. Raj is a versatile technician, adjusting the tone of his voice and the flow of his vocals from track to track. He can adopt a drudging Kid Cudi croon on one of his absolute best unheard tracks (one that I sure hope soon sees the light of day), and then immediately slide into a crisp up-tempo shuffle later on the same song.
"[My father] made me very aware of my blackness and my skin and what comes with that, and how to be observant and be aware of that...that’s why it trips me out when people act like all this racist shit is new, or are shocked by it — this shit has been here forever.”
Raj had more of a hand in crafting the distinct sonic landscape of Father Figure than for any of his previous releases. “Godspeed was more of ‘Here’s a beat, rap on the beat,'” Raj recalled. “Father Figure was more like, ‘Here’s an idea, let’s bring it to life.’” His most consistent collaborator for the process was Ian McKee, who produced a majority of the record and did all the mixing and mastering. The two met after McKee hit up Raj on Facebook to collaborate based on the strength of a YouTube freestyle, and have since formed something of a mutually rewarding partnership.
“We just clicked. Working with him was just like...the workflow was crazy,” said Raj. “I started going to [his studio in] Pacifica like two or three times a week, and a couple months in we had seven to eight tracks and decided we might as well start working on the album.” Together the duo have crafted an aesthetic that’s blown open the possibilities of what Bay Area hip-hop is capable of: “I feel like the Bay is known for its hyphy music or go dumb music or real street music, but now it’s like, bruh, you can do anything. You don’t have to put yourself in a box."
Yet despite crossing musical borders, Raj’s mind is never too far from his hometown. “I’ve been a lot of places but Berkeley is the most open, where you can truly be yourself,” said Raj. Ultimately, beyond the local landmarks like CREAM and Zachary’s, that’s why Berkeley is essential to his identity. It’s helped him be himself, and it’s that self that’s proven to be one of the most exciting, impressive artists on the come up.
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