Photo credit: Press
May 18, 2018 9:00am
Rae Sremmurd: Real Crowd Pleasers
The Mississippi hip-hop duo hit the big time in 2016 with their Mannequin Challenge-soundtrack ‘Black Beatles’, but can they level up even further with album number three to fully realise their dreams of becoming rock stars?
Normally it’s hard enough for an artist when it comes to devising novel ideas for album number three, but then Rae Sremmurd don’t tend to do things the easy way.
In approaching their ambitious third studio project ‘SR3MM’, Mississippi brothers Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee opted to break new ground by releasing what they say is the first-ever triple album by a hip-hop act. “It’s just another way of dropping great music,” Swae tells NME as he drapes himself across a lounge chair in the comfort of a swanky central London hotel room. “We don’t even overthink it: when we decide we’re gonna do something, we do it. Some people think about it too deep. We just want to give you all this good-ass music: a triple-disc with three different vibes.”
Their ever-burgeoning fanbase was certainly gifted plenty of vibes when the trio of LPs arrived earlier this month. A bangers-heavy Rae Sremmurd album proper (with guest features from the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott and Future) was always a given, but a strong pair of solo albums from Swae (the cooing, smooth ride of ‘Swaecation’) and Jxmmi (the sturdier, trappier ‘Jxmtro’, which includes a stunning rap from Zoë Kravitz: “She wanted to come into the rapping lane, and it was lit,” Jxmmi notes in approval) proved that the duo’s star quality is there for all to see.
If this set-up sounds like a tale that you’ve heard before, then chances are that you’re probably something of a wistful OutKast fan: the Georgia duo hit their commercial peak in 2003 by splitting off into separate camps to record the masterful double album ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’. But while the methodology of ‘SR3MM’ does feel like an extension of that landmark record, Rae Sremmurd aren’t too sure that we should be readying up their coronation as the heirs to André 3000 and Big Boi’s joint throne any time soon. “Shout-out to OutKast man, they’re some originals in the game so you can never compare us [with them],” Jxmmi declares when NME brings up the comparison. “But I think that Rae Sremmurd are doing our own thing, in our own way, in our era of time and music. But OutKast is a great group and we really like them, you know what I’m saying?”
Swae agrees. “I think the game is trying to turn us to some OutKast [comparisons], and there’s a lot of hate and hating on us going on because we’re doing our own thing and we’re in our own lane. They tried to turn Rae Sremmurd into OutKast and count us out, so we had to come out [with ‘SR3MM’] and remind them that, ‘Look, we’re here to stay.’
“And we don’t even need all of y’all posting, y’all don’t even need to over-hype over our albums, and y’all can act like y’all can’t see us. But we gonna be here to stay, and, sooner or later, the masses are gonna wake up: the people who’ve been sleeping on us, they’re gonna wake up and they’re gonna start giving us our credit ‘cause we gonna stand on their necks.”
Painful premonitions aside, we’re curious: did the opportunity to explore their own preferred sounds on ‘SR3MM’ create any rivalry between the two?
“Nah, it’s family,” Jxmmi counters. “We gang’d out, man. We come to an agreement, period,” Swae adds, revealing an evidently necessary formality to the way Rae Sremmurd conduct business. “No matter what we do, we always come to an agreement. It might take us a couple of days, or a couple of minutes, or a couple of milliseconds. But at the end, we’ll come to an agreement and we’ll drop big, massive, classic classical music.”
That structure is clearly important to maintaining the equilibrium of Rae Sremmurd in 2018, but you get the sense that it would take something seismic to shatter the close bond that Aaquil (Slim Jxmmi, 26 years old) and Khalif Brown (Swae Lee, 22) share. Born in Inglewood, California, the brothers and their mother (who is worth following on Instagram under the handle @ Official_MamaSremm) eventually settled in Tupelo, Mississippi – the birthplace of Elvis Presley, no less – although the harsh reality of living in one of the city’s worst crime-ridden housing projects occasionally forced the brothers to take refuge in nearby abandoned homes.
But the siblings focused instead on some of the good things in life: namely throwing parties, producing music and DJing. Their first musical iteration, Dem Outta St8 Boyz, produced two raw mixtapes between 2011-12, and their upbeat outlook on life – which they’ve since turned into the ‘Sremm Life’ philosophy, which, according to Jxmmi, essentially extends to “living your life to the full potential and to your best ability” – made for an enticing prospect for superstar hip-hop producer Mike WiLL Made-It. He signed the Brown brothers to his label, Ear Drummers – which subsequently lent its name to Swae and Jxmmi’s band name, albeit spelt backwards (and it’s pronounced “Ray-Shrim-er”, FYI) – and Rae Sremmurd was born.
Their debut album ‘SremmLife’ subsequently emerged in 2015 and featured such early hits as ‘No Flex Zone’ and ‘No Type’, but it was a track on their 2016 follow-up ‘SremmLife 2’ which really propelled Rae Sremmurd to global stardom. The Gucci Mane-featuring ‘Black Beatles’ became a verified international superhit largely in part to its affiliation with the viral ‘Mannequin Challenge’: November 2016 saw seemingly everyone, from international football squads to Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign team, film themselves posing lifeless while ‘Black Beatles’ played in the background. The brief phenomenon gained extra validation from the fact that an actual living Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, posted an excellent attempt at the ‘Mannequin Challenge’ as the sound of Rae Sremmurd’s Fab Four-referencing hit rang out all around him.
One of the central lyrical points of ‘Black Beatles’ was Rae Sremmurd’s insistence that rappers can be rock stars too, a viewpoint that the duo still stand by today – so much so that ‘SR3MM’ even features a song called ‘Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’. But is the rock world ready to give two young hip-hop upstarts from Mississippi that kind of recognition? Swae thinks so. “Hell yeah, we gonna be in one of the Hall of Fames: it doesn’t matter if it’s the hip-hop [hall], the opera, or whatever,” he says with total confidence. “We’re going down in history for something. There’s gonna be statues of us. We gonna go hard while we’re here. We’re going to make classic, timeless music and make a mark on these motherfuckers.
“Hell yeah, we gonna be in one of the Hall of Fames. It doesn’t matter if it’s the hip-hop one, the opera or whatever!”
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“They need to put us in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame ‘cause this is our real lifestyle, this is how we’re really living – we’re not faking the fun. We’re really out here, like rock stars. Like, our live shows, our fashion, our music is crazy. We’re not just making one style of music,” he says, before pausing to climb up on the arms of his chair to show off his high-end Gucci shoes.
“This ain’t nothing right now, but we really live that lifestyle, you know what I’m saying? We’re real rock stars. Jxmmi’s energy is crazy and unmatched, my energy is crazy and unmatched – and that’s just how we kick it.”
The attention Rae Sremmurd received off the back of ‘Black Beatles’ wasn’t the first time that their songwriting prowess had opened doors for them, either. The duo were involved in early writing sessions for the Beyonce’s ‘Formation’, with Swae apparently coming up with its key line (“OK ladies, now let’s get in formation”) and Jxmmi inspiring the “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster” quip. Beyoncé was so impressed with their contributions that she ensured that both lines made the final cut.
“Shout-out Beyoncé,” Swae says in recollection. “To be able to work with her, and Katy [Perry, who he wrote a song for in 2016], is an honour. We love being able to do something that we’re passionate about with people who we looked up to growing up. To be like, a couple of years ago just sitting in your fucking living room just waiting to go to school and seeing these people on the TV, and now to be really hands-on and working with them, in reality? That’s just a blessing. That’s like, ‘Did I get a genie?’ or some shit. That’s something that’s pretty big to me, and it keeps me motivated.”
Away from the studio, Rae Sremmurd lead an active touring life: while they may only have the one UK live date in the diary so far (a slot at Wireless Festival in July), the duo have just announced a sizable joint tour across North America with Wiz Khalifa later this summer. And then there’s the small matter of supporting Donald Glover as he takes Childish Gambino on a possible farewell jaunt across the continent in September. Glover is unquestionably the man of the moment right now, with the explosive video for his latest single ‘This Is America’ having already established itself as a hugely important cultural milestone. Well and truly sticking to the form book, you may not be surprised to hear that, yes, Rae Sremmurd had a small part to play in that song’s conception.
“To be watching people on TV and then to be working with them, in reality. That’s like: ‘Did I get a Genie?’ or some shit.”
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“I pulled up to the studio session, and I hopped on [‘This Is America’],’ Jxmmi explains about his role in proceedings. “It was real political, you know what I’m saying, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. But I was ad-libbing – I didn’t know [Glover] was going to keep the ad-libs! “Later on, I got a call being like, ‘Man, did you ad-lib on this Childish Gambino song?’ I only heard [the song] when I saw the video for the first time. I really think it’s one of the best videos I’ve seen this entire year. I knew Donald was a great actor because of Atlanta, but I didn’t know he was a great dancer! That was really impressive.”
A co-sign from Glover is just the latest piece of good fortune to have fallen by the way of Rae Sremmurd in recent times, but they’re also consciously trying to stay humble amidst the flow of success. Jxmmi announced earlier this month that he was putting aside $50,000 to help fund tuition fees for five fans who want to go into higher education.
“I always wanted to go to college, but back then I didn’t have the money to go to college,” he says. “I went to a community college, and I had dreams of going to a university: I knew my family couldn’t afford it, so I dropped out in the end. But I was always like, “Damn, I wish I could’ve gone to college.” But now that I’ve made it successfully in life, I wanted to give other people an opportunity.” “You’re a good dude, man,” Swae tells his brother with a wry smile, and there’s a little nod of respect between the two: that close bond making its way to surface yet again.
Humility is of course key, but with an act as fast-moving and hard-working as Rae Sremmurd, they’re always eyeing up their next move. When NME asks about what might possibly be on the horizon for the duo, Swae doesn’t hold back in voicing the group’s ambition. “World domination. And we’re gonna open up a zoo. But the animals boss us around,” he winks. “Our next album is gonna be the breakthrough… it’s gonna be called ‘The Breakthrough’.”
Jxmmi, brain whirring into gear, offers an alternative title. “‘Aaquil and Khalif’. That’s way lit. That sounds like a book. “ “Aaquil and Khalif… the greats,” Swae ponders, as an epiphanic smile breaks across his face. “’The Breakthrough’, man: we ain’t playing around anymore.”