Jay Rock had a fun, but tough, childhood. He grew up in Watts, Calif. with dreams of basketball stardom. Eventually, he traded those dreams for a mic and became a leader in Top Dawg Entertainment, home to a star studded roster that includes Kendrick Lamar.
This month, Jay dropped 90059, an album and ode to his zip code. He celebrated the release on Sunday, Sept. 14 as fans lined up for hours to meet him at RIF, a Los Angeles clothing store about half-an-hour from where he was raised. Minutes after the last die-hard left the shop, Rock reflected on the love he received.
"I just want to thank them for waiting and taking time out of their Sunday," Rock told MTV News, stressing his appreciation. "They’re more than fans. They’re fam."
Many of his supporters likely admire Rock's rise from Watts' Nickerson Gardens public housing projects. A fan named Marshall Spellmeyer, for instance, said Jay's come-up inspired his art. Another fan, Miracle McKinney, told us she's moved by how Rock embodies the streets. As you'll see in our Q&A with Rock below, that growth and influence is all part of his mission.
MTV News: One thing I noticed from Follow Me Home and 90059 is an underlying theme of childhood. What was your childhood like?
Jay Rock: It was fun, man. When you’re a kid, you live carefree. You notice things that go on around you, but you live like a kid with no worries until you get to that certain age where trials and tribulations come and you gotta fight and stay on your toes. That’s when survival instincts kick in. I had good days and bad days, but I’m still here, blessed.
MTV News: That’s something you discuss in your rhymes. You've talked about having to sell drugs at 13 [on 2011's "Hood Gone Love it"]. At what point did you realize that things around you weren’t all good?
Jay Rock: When I started losing a lot of n----s close to me. One minute you grow up with a n----a since the sandbox. The next minute, they’re gone. A lot of sh-t just started happening. At around 18 or 19, I started looking at myself like, “What do I really want to do with myself?”
MTV News: On "Gumbo," you say, "Keeping my chin down, nose clean, with my guard up/ Charged up/ ‘cause this ghetto got me scarred up/ I’m the child with the crookedest smile." When you look back on those years and that childhood, what do you think of?
Jay Rock: I hear victory, champ. I’m blessed to still be standing on my two feet. From where I come from, it’s gutter, dog. I look back on that and I think, “That’s strong.” Without growing up where I came from, I wouldn’t be the man I am today, a strong minded individual.
MTV News: You also provide advice in your raps like, "You can't swim if you don't paddle." Why do you like to plant those seeds?
Jay Rock: People planted seeds into me. Older cats gave me the game. My family, especially my mother, gave me the game and I pass it on. That’s what it’s about. If somebody gives you mental jewelry and you wear it for so long, you want to give it to somebody else for them pass it on. I got big homies that’s doing time in the pen who always call me and tell me what’s real like, “Keep doing what you’re doing on a positive note.” That’s the motivation I push everywhere I go.
MTV News: You talked about your mom sharing insight with you. What was your relationship like growing up?
Jay Rock: My mother is home. Your mother is your home. Everybody is a momma’s boy or a momma’s girl. That’s where we came from, from a woman’s womb. She always gave me good advice because mothers know best at times. She gives me advice and I take it, run with it and share that with somebody else. She basically tells me to stay positive to keep pushing.
MTV News: On “90059," you talk about fiends, killers, "snotty nosed rascals, big ratchet toters.” You’re talking about kids who carry big gats. Why was that important to highlight?
Jay Rock: Because I was one of them. Growing up in the hood, young n——s is out here starving, trying to get it. I was one of them, trying to do what I had do to make a dollar. I feel these young n——s out here that be trying to grind. I respect it. That’s why I touched on that. Everything is a repeated cycle, but I still try to be that big brother that might come through like, “You could do the right thing.”
MTV News: Let's talk about the sound on this album. There are a lot of beat changes where one track could sound like two or three songs. Why did you decide to go that route on this LP?
Jay Rock: I just wanted to be different. It’s just me evolving and growing. I didn’t want just one sound to be the same straight through the album. I wanted to play with it. Shout outs to the producers who worked on this album. I was just trying to go different places with it.
MTV News: What about the lyrics? On “Necessary,” you say, “I feel like this is my moment. Feel like it’s time for change.” It felt like you were announcing that this is a different Jay Rock. How do you feel you changed for this album?
Jay Rock: I changed a lot. That’s something I always address. It’s just about evolving in the rap game, being a student of the game lyrically and stepping my sh-t up.
MTV News: You have an interesting back and forth with Kendrick on “Easy Bake.” He’s called you an older brother. What do you think you’ve taught him and what has he taught you?
Jay Rock: What little bro taught a n---a is staying dedicated. That’s one dude that works hard as a mother—ker. It’s times where he’ll be up at 3 or 4 in the morning. I’ll text him, like, “What you think about this?” That dude don’t sleep with this sh-t. That’s what gives me inspiration to keep going. We all learn off each other and feed off each other’s energy. He might do something that’s hard as a motherf—ker and that’ll inspire me to do something hard. It’s just friendly competition within us. It’s no ego sh-t. It ain’t about thinking you’re better than the next n---a. It’s all about bigging each other up and making each other better.
MTV News: What’s a time where you remember that happening?
Jay Rock: The first time we ever did a song together. [Kendrick] came in the studio and didn’t write sh-t down. I was struggling on a piece of paper. He just came in, gave me a shout out on the record with no pen and no pad. I was like, “Damn, this n----a crazy.” Yeah, inspiration.
MTV News: “Fly On The Wall” describes the hood like “90059,” but from a fly on the wall’s perspective. How did that concept come about?
Jay Rock: Me and my relatives were just talking about doing ghetto stories. Scarface is one of the best dudes with storytelling in rap to me. So, I wanted to express what I saw growing up, a young kid watching the older n----s doing their thing. They probably never noticed me because you never notice the fly on the wall watching your every movement.
MTV News: And then you had Busta on the song saying great things about you and I don’t think you knew he was watching you.
Jay Rock: It was an honor for him to address my career and the way I evolved. When he first heard me, he thought I was dope and he acknowledged that. I respect him for that. It’s crazy how he did that musically.
MTV News: There's a theme of shoes on the wire for “The Message.” It's such an iconic L.A. image. We walk out and see Chucks on the wires. But a lot of people don’t know what that means. What do the shoes on the wire mean to you?
Jay Rock: It means the hood. Imagine somebody who grows up in the hood and sees this all the time. Every time he walks out on his porch, he sees the same tennis shoes over the wire. But at the same time, he says, “I want to see something change, something different.” It’s the same rerun. People get tired of that. That’s what the whole album is about. It’s me growing up inside this box, a box that a lot of people want to make it out.
MTV News: Why do you think you think you were able to make it out?
Jay Rock: It's a lot of people that go through sh-t and just get to a point where they're like, "F--k this. I'm not trying to do this no more." But I'm like, "Nah, don't give up." I know how hard it might get. I done been though the bullsh-t with this industry sh-t, but I'm still here and still going. F--k what people gotta say. At the end of the day, you living for you.
MTV News: What helped you keep pushing?
Jay Rock: Friends and family. At the end of the day, that's all you got on your side. The ones who want to see you win and prosper, them the dudes you gotta be around. I heard Tyrese say, "Be around folks that celebrate you not just tolerate you." That's some real sh-t.
MTV News: On "Gumbo," you talk about giving people the truth and light with your music. What's the overall message that you want these fans to take away from your music?
Jay Rock: The overall message is that no matter what you want to do in life, don’t give up. I always try to push motivation. I know how it is. I was one of those kids who didn’t really know what he wanted to do. I said "I want to play ball" but I was always f--kin' up. But then, it came to the point where I said, "Whatever you're good at, stick with it." I know how it gets sometimes where people feel like things aren't working out. But f--k it, follow your intuition and don’t stop. If you really got a dream, chase that motherf--ker.