Before he toured with Yelawolf and signed to Tech N9ne's Strange Music in 2012, Rittz (now 32) was a high school dropout who still lived with his parents in suburbs north of Atlanta. So on his debut album The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant (out now), he raps of how his peers have kids, cars and credit cards, and his failed attempts to distract himself from his own shortcomings. ("All I Do Is Win"? Hardly.) On "Wastin' Time," Rittz lights up and sucks in his breath, before words tumble out and pick up speed: "Me, I want to rap and shit/ Which means I don't got a job/ I just got a couple of hundred dollars in a sack and a pack of cigs." When he caught up with Hive he mentioned that he's yet to purchase a house for him and his girlfriend, but he has reason to be optimistic about his future: On May 9, Life and Times debuted at No. 8 on Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. A week prior, and with just a little time to spare, Rittz talked with Hive about his new album, biggest influences and the fascination surrounding his hair.
In the album you say you're scared of how your career's gonna pan out. How do you feel now?
I'm pretty much the exact same; I really didn't write it that long ago. Nothing's guaranteed in music, and the album just dropped a couple of days ago. The tour's been going great. I'm definitely optimistic about the whole situation, but until I feel I can take care of my finances and actually have a house, I won't feel any different.
What's been the bigger setback, the industry or something personal?
I can't completely blame it on the industry, but I do think a lot of it had to do with the industry. On my part, back in the day I thought I was good enough to be the next thing, but I go back and listen to those old songs and realize that I wasn't ready then. Once I really started hearing, "Okay, I'm pretty good," I was trying to find that medium ground -- being a white guy from the South, finding somewhere to still maintain integrity, and also making music for the clubs, the strip clubs, the radio. ... Once the internet kind of took over, people were given a lot more control and able to be creative and find fans without having a strip club song, club song, whatever.
You say that Big Boi and Scarface were your biggest influences -- why?
When I first started getting into rap, on the school bus in middle school, like seventh grade, everybody was playing the new Geto Boys album. I picked up Scarface's solo album, and there was just something about it I really loved. Of course I also came up on Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, but there was something about Scarface. Like in the J. Prince intro, just the background sound, I think, was a little more soulful in Emeritis. And, it was like, for a young middle-of-America teenager, this super rebellious music that gets to your parents. It was some really hard gangsta shit, you know? ...
Once I did get into Geto Boys and the whole hip hop culture, OutKast was just the dopest thing I'd ever heard, and not only was it the dopest shit I've ever heard, I've been down the highway, I've seen East Point and College Park, and I knew what they were talking about. This is Atlanta, there's Cadillacs, I know this. It just connected. ... I always credit Big Boi because of how I say shit.
"I’ve been in bed before, where I closed my eyes and I was scared to wake up in the morning. I thought my fucking heart might explode."
In your music ["My Interview," "Misery Loves Company"] you're pretty self-deprecating, especially in regard to your race and hair. Has all that really been an issue?
The black-and-white issue, period, I think that's always been an issue with rappers. Nowadays it's not as bad. There's so many nationalities of rappers right now, and I'm more accepted than I was.
Back in the day I was growing my hair out. There was Eminem. There was Bubba Sparxx. There was Paul Wall, Haystack. I had to make myself look different from anyone else, and I knew I could grow a 'fro if I let it out. Now that I've grown it out ... I come to these shows and I'll wear a hat, and people will rush up to me and be like, "Please say you didn't cut it off." It's just long hair. I guess when Metallica cut their hair it was like. "Aw man, they're soft now," but this is rap music. It's just weird to me that hair means that much. ... When Eminem didn't have his hair blond anymore, I didn't cry about it. It really makes me wonder if people will like my music if I cut my hair sometime, you know?
A song from Life and Times that stuck out was "Amen." Can you tell me about the inspiration?
It starts off about me. I've been in that situation where my parents are stressed and scared that I was doing dope too much, or trying to get on the phone or do whatever it takes to calm down. Like I'm saying, I feel like I'm dying, and the trick about the drug is just feeling, "Okay, I'll just do this some more." ... What I didn't want to do was another cocaine song. On my last couple of mixtapes I write about cocaine because we grew up with it, and lot of people said it's not cool to rap about cocaine. It's like, I don't get it like I don't get everything else. ...
I've been in bed before, where I closed my eyes and I was scared to wake up in the morning. I thought my fucking heart might explode. I wanted to bring that into different stories of how other people might be in that situation; that's why I rapped about the homeless guy in the freezing cold. When you're in your 50s and 60s, how many more nights do you have to go before you don't wake up anymore?
The last story about the girl was a combination of things I've seen happen to peers and stories from other peers, people you hear about all the time. ... I really just wanted to tell stories of how people pray to God right before they go or just pray that they wake up, grateful that you're living and shit.
Rittz's album The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant is out now via Strange Music.