[Scene: Manhattan's Hudson Hotel; time and date: 6 pm, Wednesday, April 16]
Rittz is tired. Or he was tired. He’s slouched in a chair in the hotel's lobby, a Bulleit bourbon in hand, his frizzy red hair tumbling out a black stocking hat after getting up from a nap. Here’s why: since getting into New York to promote the release of his Strange Music debut album, The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant, he’s been everywhere. Listening parties for N.O.R.E. and himself, interviews with Vibe, B.E.T. and “Sway In The Morning,” and tons of other appearances.
Not to mention that his arrival in New York concluded a cross-country trek that began when his tour bus broke down in Wyoming in the middle of a snowstorm--using the faint light of his cell phone to gather his stuff--before catching a plane in Billings, Montana, then Minneapolis, before arriving at JFK just before the sun was rising over Jamaica Bay.
So here he is now, unfurling and waking up with each sip of his drink, explaining to The Smoking Section this entire whirlwind, not to mention finally getting to hit the studio with his dad, working with Yelawolf, DJ Burn One and Mike Posner, plus describing how his Strange situation's expanding his reach. And the new album, of course. So Rittz was tired, but, like he'll mention, being tired is a luxury he can't afford anymore as his presence continues to grow.
TSS: So give me the complete rundown since you guys touched down Monday morning.
Rittz: Shit. I’m trying to think of what we did. We did Green Lantern on Monday night. Um... Hip-Hop Nation. Yesterday we did Vibe, XXL, The Source, um... shit, man, the listening party, the after-party, N.O.R.E.’s party. Um, today we did Sway, BET, shit, man, I know I’m leaving out stuff, but we’ve just been running, man.
TSS: I’m assuming the reaction to the album at this point has been really great so far.
Rittz: The reaction to the album has been great. It actually leaked 20 days early, which is upsetting but at the same time I’m constantly growing a fan base--you know, I’m on tour right now. With me constantly growing the fanbase, the album leaking, people reacting the way I think they’ll react--talking about it--and it’ll cause more awareness to my shit. We’re, like, #18 on the iTunes right now and it’s not even out yet. That’s just off pre-sales.
TSS: It seems just like when A$AP’s album leaked back in December: he just shook it off and essentially said it is what it is but the best part is it gets the people talking.
Rittz: The big thing between him and me, though, is he’s got, like, 400,000 fans [LAUGHS]. I don’t know, it’s even better with me, I guess. I need even more people to hear it, talk about it, and keep spreading it word of mouth. I need people to start becoming fans. The anticipation for this album to come out has been just so stressful and me waiting all my life to get to this point. So I really can’t wait until it’s really out.
TSS: And I’ve heard that you were on a tight deadline to deliver this album. How did that change how you approached recording all these songs compared to how you’ve recorded them in the past?
Rittz: I mean, it was pretty much the same way I approached songs, but what I had to do was get over my insecurities. Be like, 'Hey, man, you don’t have the luxury to sit here and think if this song is dope or not.' Just sit down and write them and you can’t end today and be like, 'Oh, I didn’t think of something or I didn’t write nothing.'
Normally, I’ll do that and be on some lazy shit. And the laziness is brought on by the insecurities of being like 'I don’t want to do this shit.' But I didn’t have that choice this time. I got up everyday, early in the morning, drinking coffee and writing. I treated that like a job: today I had some beats, so I had a Dry-Erase board, which was just marking them off.
But with me doing that, man, it really came out great. I was telling Yelawolf on the bus like, "Yo, I’m stacking these" and he looks at me and says, "you work good under pressure, man." And I ain’t really think about it, but every verse I wrote for him I wrote under pressure because I don’t like writing on the spot. But it worked out. Maybe I do work good under pressure.
TSS: So the “Box Chevy” verse was written under pressure then?
Rittz: Yeah, yeah. When you do a verse with Yelawolf, he wants it in. Like, “Hey, can you come up here tonight?” And, like, you already have plans for that fucking night and he’s like, “Hey, man, can you come up to the studio?” That wasn’t exactly how “Box Chevy” was done, but it was like, “hey, do you want to go to the studio” everyday.
That was with KP in the Ghet-O-Vision basement. And we were trying to come up with the “Box Chevy” verse. So yeah, that, “Gutter,” “Under Pressure." The “Out My Face” song he was like, “Hey, I’m in town at a hotel. Can you come here?” And I was like, "Yeah" and I went and he said “Can you write this verse here?” And I was like, "I guess" [LAUGHS]. Always under pressure.
TSS: So what song do you think actually benefited from that quick-turnaround approach? Were there any that really surprised you?
Rittz: There weren’t really any that stuck out to me, but I will say that when the album was close to being done I got some more tracks from [producer] Lifted. So the song “For Real” that I put out, it was done like, “I know the album’s almost done, but check this shit out.”
The way I work is I stack up the beats in my email and then I put a photo next to the ones that I really like. I’ll have potential ideas for them already, you know, some kind of melody or topic or this is a “girl” song or that song. You know, and then I stack them all up and get them together and then I go right to that stack when I feel it’s time to write. So with the Lifted track, “For Real,” I actually got the beat and just wrote it as soon as I got it, which I never do.
TSS: Well it just seemed like you just went in and killed it.
Rittz: Yeah, yeah. And that’s what I did. That’s what I did with a lot of these, man. It’s weird, I totally don’t write like that. I mean, I definitely racked my brain a bit during a lot of the songs. But for a while--and it sounds stupid because I’m a rapper and I’m supposed to be able to rap--I was like really proud of myself. Thinking 'Man, you’re really knocking songs out on this album.' So yeah. I’m happy with it.
TSS:How do you balance your writing and work now that you’ve found that you can turn songs quickly? Are you going to stay with the same sort of timetable for making tracks and albums in the future?
Rittz: Not really, man, but what I do know is that the next time around I’ll always remind myself it’s like getting a tattoo: it hurts like shit when the needle starts hitting you, but then after you get a tattoo you can work like that. You remember the pain, but I remember to remind myself that I can do it, that I do work well under pressure, just do what you did last time, bro.
But I don’t think it’ll ever change how I stack beats up. I like to get beats and chill with them for a long time. Most people don’t understand that when you tell them. They’re like, “really, man?” Everybody just works and is like, “but it’s so organic,” and that’s cool, but, you know, that’s just not how I get down.
TSS: Has there been a producer in the past where you’ve changed how they work to fit how you work?
Rittz: Um, no. But I had a few records on this album that had some samples on them that we had to go back and re-do the entire beat and not just copy the sample--re-do the shit. Luckily my dad is a guitar player and he plays the keys, so, you know, I put him to work and that was super cool getting to work with my dad and say that he was part of the album.
TSS: Was that the first time you’ve ever worked with your dad then?
Rittz: I’ve worked with him on my music all my life when I would make my beats, like stuff that I couldn’t physically play. When I used to make beats I’d come out with melodic stuff and I’m just not smooth enough to physically play it, so I’d get him in there to play what I’d want. But since I’ve become more serious as an artist and professional with it, I’ve always wanted to get him in there. And he likes when I ask for his help. I even put that he co-produced the track. You know, so that was a great feeling.
TSS: But like any father-son relationship, were there any times you were in the studio and you guys got into an argument about how a particular song was progressing?
Rittz: No, not really, not anything like that. But when I was younger, I remember him being around--and there weren’t too many times--where I’m in there and hanging out and, you know, he’s like, “this is the way he fucking talks, this fucking music,” being kind of upset about what I was doing. Not hating on it, but just having little smartass shit to say.
But now this is my job and career. And I come from a family of musicians who were all trying to make it in music and all of them were talented musicians who practiced all their lives and gambled and worked so hard. Even my brother. My brother was a singer in band--a really talented singer--and a guitar player and it’s just funny how everyone in the family who tried to do it is seeing me do it now--and I’m a fucking rapper.
But they respect it and just having my dad in there...I can see the smile on his face, seeing how much he enjoyed it.
TSS: And is Burn One back on the production credits? I haven’t got the chance to look.
Rittz: Of course. Burn One set the tone. When I was on the road, I called Burn One. I had a vision. And I told him I wanted West Coast synths--West Coast basslines--like, old school, Cali basslines over Down South drums. That’s the vibe I wanted for the album. And so Burn One set the backbone. Once I had that backbone, I could work. Burn One did eight records, but three of them are actually bonus records, so we ended up with five on the album.
TSS: And with Burn One being back, we’ve noticed that like you Burn One has also put on a lot of other guys like Yela and A$AP Rocky, but those guys didn’t really bring him back in for their second projects.
Rittz: As far as I’m concerned at this point I would never stop working with Burn One because it’s like a match made in heaven. There aren’t too many people in the music industry who make those kinds of tracks anymore. There are going to be people now who are going to try and copy what Burn One made popular, but that relationship will never change.
TSS: You two match up so well. Your double-time flow works so well against Burn's smoothness.
Rittz: Yeah. Smooth, mellow. Country rap tunes, laid-back, pimp shit. I mean, Burn One and all the guys who work with him like Ricky Fontaine, Walt Live, all those dudes who just make dope-ass music. I fuck with them until the end. I don’t want to say that my sound relies on them, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
TSS: So how’d you meet Burn One in the first place?
Rittz: Through Yelawolf. He was DJ’ing for Yelawolf when he first came out with Trunk Muzik. Yelawolf told me he was a fan and he told me, “I think Burn One makes the exact type of beats that you were talking about.” And he played me some beats and I was like, 'Oh my god, that’s it!' And that’s how it turned out.
TSS: And I know the people who read TSS are going to want to know about Yelawolf, but how did he factor into this album?
Rittz: We interacted. I was on the bus when I did six records, when I really had to think about this album. A lot of those records that I wrote on the bus I was really under the influence of some things, so when I got back home I was really shot out and I couldn’t read my handwriting and it was la-la land. But a lot of good ideas were established there, a good backbone of six to seven songs with Yelawolf.
But it wasn’t really like an influential thing. I was just there on his bus. Up late night, in the morning time, fucked up out of my mind. But Yelawolf, man, our relationship is just we’re really busy. A lot of people think we talk everyday--we really don’t--but I love him to death. I’m forever in debt for what he’s done. He was so busy working on Trunk Muzik Returns, so I initially wanted to go up there and let him hear the album and have him write some hooks, but it really didn’t work out that way.
TSS: Well like Burn One, whenever I think of Yela I think of you and vice-versa.
Rittz: Yeah, and that’s good, man. Initially, that’s how he wanted it. He was like, “Man, I want you and me to be like Cypress Hill and House of Pain.” You know? But as time goes on and careers start happening, things just ended up being what they are. But as long as the fans see it that way, then I’m happy. Because it does go hand-in-hand. I’ve got his back no matter what. I’m just happy that I’m finally finding my own lane and fans are finally finding me in my own lane. I’m finally getting the credit that I deserve.
TSS: And I know Richie [Rittz's manager] and I were talking about this the other day, but how’d the Mike Posner thing come about? That opens a huge door to people who aren’t familiar with the rap blogosphere.
Rittz: Dude, it was crazy because my buddy Bootleg Kev was in Las Vegas and he introduced me to Lifted and then he said, “dude, I’m cool with Mike Posner and Mike Posner’s a fan of yours.” I looked him up and I was like, 'Shit, Mike’s a fan?' So Mike hit me up on my Twitter and was like, “Man, let’s work.” I knew I had to react on that fast. So I went out to LA to do a show at the Famous store for Travis Barker and I told Mike that I was out there. I went to his house... Have you ever met him?
TSS: I met him very briefly when he came to the college I went to.
Rittz: Yeah, he was a crazy-nice guy. And he just went into the studio and he’s like, “I just love your shit, man.” I was like, 'Dude, I’ve got this chorus. Would you mind singing this?' And I sung it for him, and it was for a song called “Always Gon Be,” it’s like a personal song about my girlfriend while I’m on tour. So he’s like, “dude, I loved it!” And then he fucking hopped on and started recording right in his house.
And then when he finished recording, he was like, “check this out.” So he played me the song “Switch Lanes,” which he already had the beat for and the hook for and he was like, “dude, you can have this if you want this.” Everything was laid out for me, so I took it home and went for it. We just shot the video for “Switch Lanes” and it’s still so surreal to me. You know, he’s a cool motherfucker.
TSS: When I looked at the tracklisting, his two tracks just popped out. I mean, you have Yelawolf and K.R.I.T. and Tech N9ne on there, but Mike’s contributions just stood out.
Rittz: Yeah, I got really lucky, man, it was features out of love: Yelawolf, K.R.I.T., Tech, Krizz Kaliko, Mike Posner. Even getting tracks from Lifted, he’s had some hit songs. Theses dudes just showing me love. I appreciated that shit so much.
But with Mike I didn’t aim to do a pop crossover song. It just happened. I was expecting some backlash when “Switch Lanes” dropped like, “Ok, Rittz, I see what you’re trying to do.” But it wasn’t like that at all because I put out a record that was such a smooth laid-back riding record. It just worked, man.
TSS: And I can assume that the response from Atlanta about the leak has been phenomenal, right?
Rittz: I mean, like I said, it just kind of leaked out. Now I’m just starting to see it trickle in. And just being on tour right now, I’m gaining fans from the Strange. Strange has such a core, solid audience and fanbase that they’re like, “Welcome to the family.” So they’re slowly starting to pick up on me everyday after the show.
I’m constantly bringing in the Strange fans and bringing in my own fanbase in the south and everywhere else, coming up with Yelawolf and everybody else. But I’m ready for it to come out so I can really see, you know, what the actual reaction is. Right now, I’m seeing great reactions, but I really want everyone to hear and see it.
TSS: I thought it was really poignant where you mentioned that there are two Atlantas in terms of Hip-Hop: you have the Gucci-Future Atlanta and then the underground Atlanta. Have you found a way--or do you think you’ve found a way--to bridge both camps?
Rittz: You know what’s crazy? I don’t know if I even fit into either one of them. So you know what I do? I live in Gwinnett County, which we call the northside of Atlanta, and there are a lot of rappers who have been rapping for years who have been trying to get on. So if I don’t get accepted into the hood Atlanta or the indie Atlanta, then the northside’s going to go down--we’re just going to rep for ourselves.
It’s all judged by who the radio shouts out. They’re finally saying the northside, and it’s not because of me. A rapper named Cheeto Gambine really made it popular to call it the northside. We came up together, but I’ve just happened to get a lot of shine right now and it’s deserved because I’ve been rapping out in Gwinnett County for years. So hopefully I can be the ringleader to really pop it off.
TSS: So you’ve always been Gwinnett County since you moved from Pennsylvania?
Rittz: Yeah, man, always. I moved from Pennsylvania in ’88.
TSS: So you’re more Atlanta than anything.
Rittz: Oh yeah. But you know what? The funny thing is, no matter how much you grow up somewhere, when your parents are from somewhere else, you’re like that, too. I’ve been to Pennsylvania once per year every year since we moved because that’s embedded in my blood. There’s no place else I’d rather be but there because that’s where my family’s from. But I’m from Atlanta, that’s my whole shit.
TSS: Which part of Pennsylvania was it?
Rittz: I’m from southwestern Pennsylvania, about a hour outside of Pittsburgh. I’m right in the country on the border with West Virginia--right where [West Virginia University] WVU’s at. So it’s like once you cross over into Pennsylvania, my town is the first town that you cross into. It’s just a little Mayberry-type shit that times never change. But it’s wholesome, man. It’s crazy I go from that to here. It’s a whole different place, so I’m hoping they show me some love up there. I’m not a country singer, though, so I don’t know.
TSS: I don’t know if you’ve ever explained this before, but what’s with Jonny Valiant? Is it like an alter ego?
Rittz: Oh, no. Well my real name’s Jonny, so back in the day when Tupac was Mackaveli and everyone had aliases I just came up with the “Jonny Valiant” alias. Jonny Valiant: that’s just the smooth side. So now it’s more of a personal thing. Everyone thinks that my name is Jonny Valiant, so it’s more let me show you the life of Jonny Valiant, on some real shit. The album’s real deep and personal, so that’s kind of where that comes from.
TSS: In the past you’ve mentioned your love of story-telling raps. Do you have a set structure with your album to tell a particular story?
Rittz: Not a story that I want to tell, but there are a lot of story-telling records. I always think, like, 'What if you never get the chance again, what would you want to say?' I've got a chance to reach people across the world and America: what do I want to say? And my manager calls me an “emo” rapper--and I’m not an emo rapper, he’s a fucking idiot [LAUGHS]. But I like making records that are deep and people can feel.
But I let real people in because no matter what ethnic background, I like talking about common problems we go through: relationships, jobs, insecurities--shit we can all relate to--common things that a guy at the hotel can hear and relate to it because when he gets off work he doesn’t have money to go home to. You know, regular shit. I think after “Box Chevy” people were sending me tracks about cars and weed and drugs and that’s cool, but I really like when people send me stuff where I can really talk about some shit. I don’t want to be pushy or teach lessons or be boring, but I want to talk about some real shit.
TSS: But “emo” is a stupid title in the first place because isn’t all music supposed to be emotional? If music isn’t emotional, then it’s not music.
Rittz: I mean, it can not be emo and it can still be music. I don’t know. The type of music I listen to and I personally like are deep, sad songs. Not necessarily in a bad mood. I just like things that enlighten me. My favorite songs of all time--of all music, period--is Alice In Chains “Nutshell” and Metallica’s “One.” If music can give you cold chills, that’s dope. What else does that? Movies?
And it doesn’t have to be sad, either, like Tupac. And Jay-Z that might not make you think that, but there are certain things that give you goosebumps. I feel them. When music can do that to people, man, I love it.
TSS: “Keep Your Head Up” by ‘Pac, that’s some positive shit.
Rittz: Yeah. “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” yeah, even before the words come in you can hear that woman singing and you’re just like, "Man! I love this song." Metallica’s “One” when you hear that guitar come in and, like, you know it’s just like a breakdown.
TSS: That video for “One,” too.
Rittz: That video’s amazing! So when that shit comes on, it’s like, "This is the best shit ever! Fuck all other songs!" I love that, man, I love it. I want to be one of those guys who makes one of those songs. The song “Wishin’” I got is my favorite song. When people come up to me and say, “Dawg, that song changed my life. You were talking to me,” I love that. All I’m doing is talking about relationships and they're crying because their girl broke up with them and I’m the guy they’re listening to? That’s an awesome feeling, man. There’s nothing that beats that.
TSS: So you have people who come up to you and tell you that they’ve cried listening to “Wishin’”?
Rittz: Yeah, every show.
TSS: Any story in particular that really stood out to you?
Rittz: There has been but I can’t remember the exact details of the story, so I don’t want to make shit up. But there has been a guy--actually, I know the exact guy--whose girl left him and like for real fucked him over so bad and he told me that he would just cry to that song. And I can feel him. I’ve broken up with my girlfriend before and, like, really gotten down and been through it and put on certain records and those records save your fucking life. And even after you get back together and you get your happiness back you can still go back to those records and the emotions creep back in. That’s a great feeling, man. But music can do that. That’s my goal.
TSS: Ending up here, anything else you want to say?
Rittz: Well what I want to say is the album comes out April 30, you can pre-order the album on iTunes right now and get a free record, and, really, just thanks to all of the fans. Like, you say it and it’s cliche, but without them, you ain’t shit. So shouts out to Strange Music. And The Smoking Section. Oh, and to Gotty. Make sure this in there: Gotty, let me get a Newport.