Rae Sremmurd: Top of the Pops
Rae Sremmurd are living out their wildest dreams. Both born in the 90s, the brothers embarked on a musical mission during their humble upbringing in Mississippi, and now their hyperactive style of party rap is a definitive soundtrack for the constantly-fluctuating landscape of online youth culture. Having gate-crashed the US charts with the astounding success of their hit Black Beatles, the duo are on a high that’s not going to wear off anytime soon.
“Is that a parachute?!” asks Slim Jxmmi, wide-eyed as he bursts into the London photography studio and snatches a brown Nasir Mazhar vest off the rail. “I want this one!” It’s a relief. While Rae Sremmurd’s Twitter feeds suggested they were groggy after getting little-to-no sleep in Paris last night, for the duration of our shoot they’re going to give us their best performance.
The Mississippi brothers are born entertainers. Both short in stature, there’s a comic charm to their restless movement. They speak quickly, peppering their sentences with impulsive ad-libs – namely ‘swag’, ‘SremmLife’ and screeching rubber tire impressions: ‘skrt-skrt’. As if fighting off sleep deprivation with the energy of Southern rap bangers, Jxmmi constantly interrupts the shoot to select tracks on my iPhone and crank up the stereo, choosing the likes of Gucci Mane, Blac Youngsta and Yo Gotti, and both of them loosely freestyle over iLoveMakonnen’s Where Your Girl At? At one point, Swae Lee is holding a Timberland boot to his face like a phone, and singing into it.
But as soon as the shoot is wrapped up, Rae Sremmurd flop like hyperactive kids crashing after a sugar rush. Swae Lee leaves the room, and we’re informed he won’t be returning for the interview. Jxmmi, who’s been slumped on the couch, learns of his brother’s exit. He drops his bags of gifted clothes, and storms out after him. We take their publicists’ advice to catch up with them once they’ve “refuelled”.
Right now, Rae Sremmurd are at the peak of their stardom. After the duo broke through in 2014 with their track No Flex Zone, they achieved moderate chart success with the following singles from their debut album SremmLife – an album which also earned them critical credibility, proving there to be skill and originality in their party rap formula, and disproving early suspicions that they were some kind of frat boy-friendly version of Kriss Kross. But, of course, it’s with Black Beatles that Rae Sremmurd made history.
Black Beatles is a great song. It’s an end-of-night club anthem which maintains a gorgeous sense of stoned tranquility, and it helped to galavanise the feel-good comeback of the recently freed Atlanta trap legend Gucci Mane, who is featured on the track. After being released as the third promotional single from the group’s sophomore album SremmLife2, Black Beatles entered the US top 20 – a promising boost after the disappointing commercial performances of the album’s previous two promo singles. Then, in what’s considered a remarkable feat in recent chart history, Black Beatles went on to spend a total of seven weeks at the number one spot on the US Billboard charts after becoming the unofficial theme song to last year’s biggest viral craze, the Mannequin Challenge.
“Man, we made the whole world freeze,” Slim Jxmmi says, beaming with pride. “That’s tight.” He’s sat facing me in his hotel room, with a blue haircutting gown draped round him as he smokes a blunt and his barber gives him a fresh buzz cut. Swae Lee – who, at 23, is two years younger than Jxmmi – is sat in the corner facing a mirror while a hairstylist re-twists his bleached dreads.
“I’m a rockstar, Paul McCartney is a rock star. We’re related. Skin tone don’t matter” – Slim Jxmmi
Like all successful internet memes, the Mannequin Challenge – a charming, goofy joke for which were filmed while posing motionless – was easy, fun and accompanied by a definitive hashtag. And while Black Beatles wasn’t initially associated with the meme, the fluttering synths of the track’s intro began to soundtrack thousands of Mannequin Challenges from people across the globe, including various major sports teams, celebrities such as Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian (who did it with hospital staff at the delivery room before the birth of their child) and supermodel Gigi Hadid, who got the entire audience at 2016’s British Fashion Awards – including Kate Moss, Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell – to participate as she accepted her ‘International Model of the Year’ award.
So, according to Rae Sremmurd, whose Mannequin Challenge was the best? “Probably Paul McCartney,” Jxmmi argues. “Cause he’s the real Beatles. He put the part [of the song] in where I said we was related. Cause I’m a rockstar, he a rock star. We’re related. Skin tone don’t matter, you know what I’m saying? Skrt-skrt-skrt!”
The Black Beatles story is remarkable (“we had the number one for seven weeks… seven weeks,” Swae Lee mumbles to himself, as if still in disbelief), and the fact that the song’s successor followed a similar pattern is another important part of the story. Last October, Atlanta trap trio Migos (who’ve played a significant role in contemporary rap music but had only enjoyed moderate chart success) released their single Bad and Boujee, which features ascending artist Lil Uzi Vert. Having debuted at No.76, the track began to gradually climb the US charts after memes related to the song began to generate, and footage of Migos performing the song to a high-energy crowd in Lagos, Nigeria went viral. In January, Bad and Boujee knocked Black Beatles off the No.1 spot, meaning that the power of fan-generated memes had given two Southern rap artists number one hits in a row.
Seemingly content with their seven weeks, Rae Sremmurd are happy to applaud Migos’ achievement. “The reason why I’m really happy for the Migos’ success,” Jxmmi explains, “is because now two groups – two hip-hop groups – had the number one song in 2017, you know what I’m saying? SremmLife! Skrt skrt!
“It’s a crazy time for hip-hop from the South,” he continues. “There’s only two rap groups goin’ crazy like that, and they on the charts, and they both had a number one song. We kicked in the door,” he karate kicks the air, “blah-blah-blah-blah!”
Far from a story of overnight success, Rae Sremmurd put in years of hard work to get through that door. Born in California, their mother’s job with the US army took the family to Mississippi, Maryland, Texas and then back to Mississippi, where they’d grow up in the Ida Street housing projects in Tupelo (other music exports from the town include Elvis Presley and Diplo) which are reportedly among the most troubled in the state. As their parents got divorced, they embraced music while enduring poverty, low-income jobs and squatting in an abandoned house. Always determined party-starters, however, Jxmmi fondly remembers the DIY gigs they’d host at the squat. “We had all types of ethnic groups,” he tells me. “We was cool with so many people because we were just, like, nice people to be round, fun people to be around. It would be everybody, black people, white people, people from the good neighbourhood, people from the bad neighbourhood. But everybody would be having a good time, just like our concerts now.”
Although the group’s momentum was stifled by unsuccessful label meetings and the coming and going of various third members, eventually their DJ (who still plays with them as D-JaySremm) managed to hook them up with a cousin of his, who makes beats under the name P-Nazty and is affiliated with Atlanta-based super-producer Mike WiLL Made-It. While working on Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz album, Mike WiLL – who’s since established himself as one of contemporary rap’s most adventurous hitmakers – eventually signed them up to work almost exclusively with him and his camp of producers, the EarDrummers. Jxmmi nods to my suggestion that Mike WiLL is like a third member of Rae Sremmurd. And if you hadn’t already noticed, their name spells the words “ear” and “drummers” backwards.
In 2007, the teenage rapper Soulja Boy achieved a meteoric rise to success with his single Crank Dat, which launched the craze of his ‘Soulja Boy Dance’. Around that time, the Brown brothers were making music as Dem Outta St8 Boys (a reference to their cross-state upbringing) alongside third member Lil Pantz. The self-made video for their song Put It In Rotation features the trio performing a tightly-rehearsed, synchronised dance routine while dressed identically in oversized basketball jerseys.
In recent years, various rappers have had their profile boosted by memes and dance crazes – see Vine users inventing Bobby Shmurda’s ‘Shmoney Dance’ with a snippet from his Hot Nigga video and subsequently sending the song up the charts, Silento going viral by combining popular moves the Whip and the Nae Nae, iLoveMemphis racking up millions of YouTube hits with Hit The Quan, and so on. Looking back at Outta St8’s Put It In Rotation, I wonder if Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi always aspired to go viral in some way?
“Nah that wasn’t the dream,” Jxmmi insists. “But the dream was to have that type of success – to have that success where everybody knows your music, everybody likes your music and everyone is dancing to your music. Not necessarily to have a viral challenge or something, that was never the aim.”
Contemporary hip-hop culture has proved that – if the youth are excited about it – a dance routine, catchphrase or meme can catapult a track toward the type of success that Rae Sremmurd dreamed of, and it’s worth noting that Black Beatles is an example of the major label industry adjusting to capitalise on quickly shifting internet trends. In an interview with the Pigeons & Planes website, Interscope Record’s Gunner Safron and the blog-turned-digital brand consultant Pizzaslime discussed working on “non-traditional forms of marketing”, explaining they paired Black Beatles with the Mannequin Challenge by filming Rae Sremmurd freezing onstage to the song’s intro, suggesting that they distributed the video “strategically to specific influencer accounts.”
But even if you’re tempted to take the cynical point of view, it would be incorrect to brand Rae Sremmurd as a fluke, or one-hit-wonders. Over the course of two albums, they’ve penned numerous anthems, partly due to Swae Lee’s gift for writing unforgettable hooks – a talent which has led to him being credited as the writer of Beyoncé’s Formation chorus, and scored him work with Katy Perry. This, paired with their raw and elastic rapping style (“we’re from the South mane,” Jxmmi emphasises, “we used to do these rap battles and we had to be real aggressive”) sees Rae Sremmurd exercise a vocal range that can be sweetly melodic, intense, and even experimental. “When we’re in the studio, we’re trying to make original songs,” Swae tells me. “We don’t model ourselves off anybody else.”
“We’re trying to be original, we don’t model ourselves off anybody else” – Swae Lee
Rae Sremmurd’s lyrical content is like a giddy adolescent take on hedonistic hip-hop tropes, mostly covering the thrill of female attention, getting high and the joy of sudden wealth after years of being broke. It’s far from ground-breaking, and lyrics aren’t the primary appeal of Rae Sremmurd’s music. But after all these years, they’ve well and truly mastered the art of the turn-up. “Some songs, I see myself performing after we’ve recorded it,” says Swae Lee. “Just play it back and be like, damn, I can imagine performing, it’s like I can see the crowd rocking to this.” He references SremmLife2’s raucous opener Start a Party as an example. “When it drops, it’s like a bomb dropping. Soon as that first bass drop, it’s like an explosion, you know what I’m saying? And just the way we came in – beaucoup bitches in the lobby! – screaming it. That’s ready for a concert.” Later in the week, Drake cosigns Rae Sremmurd’s showmanship during his surprise appearance at their Amsterdam concert. “I came here to join this Sremm party because I heard there’s no party like a SremmLife party,” the Canadian superstar told the crowd, before launching into a rendition of Jumpman.
On the night of our interview, Rae Sremmurd are performing the first of their two gigs at West London’s 2000 capacity venue Shepherds Bush Empire. Admittedly, the show gets off to a sloppy start. When it’s around half an hour past their 9.30pm stage time, D-JaySremm announces that Rae Sremmurd “need 10 more minutes” to loud booing from a restless audience, before slipping backstage himself. When the duo arrive, they seem relatively unconcerned about performing their entire verses and hooks, instead relying on the vocal backing track and often taking selfies with iPhones passed to them from the front rows. Nevertheless, they know how to make the crowd go wild. Garish, old school computer game graphics are displayed as Slim Jxmmi stagedives repeatedly, Swae Lee tosses pineapples into the audience and London grime group Section Boyz make a rowdy surprise appearance. Then, of course, there’s the Mannequin Challenge.
And just as Slim Jxmmi has promised back at the hotel, it’s a noticeably diverse crowd up in the balconies of Shepherds Bush Empire. “We don’t ever know what to expect, but all I know is the people who are coming to the Rae Sremmurd show are there to have a good time,” he’d explained. “And no matter where they come from, man, that’s understood. Having fun is universal, smiling is universal, laughing is universal, you know what I’m saying? Everybody turning up at our shows, they’re having a great time. They jumping, they hugging, you got the mosh pit, they doing all that. It’s great.”
“Our music is positive,” he continues. “No album where you ever hear about a choppa, nobody get killed. It’s very fun music. Very positive, to get the party going. You know what I’m saying? Yeah, that’s us. That’s Rae Sremmurd.”
Words: Davy Reed
Photography: Leonn Ward
Styling: Luci Ellis
SremmLife 2 is out now via EarDrummers / Interscope