DopeBoy Ra - “I Am What I Am”
In 2014, RaRa stood in an ornate church in downtown Atlanta, arguing his case with one of his managers. The team had just wrapped the shoot for his song “Pray For Me,” with Ra, born Rodriguez Smith, passionately acting as a preacher on the pulpit between the hooks. He had taken out a handkerchief to authentically dab at his face while the cameras rolled, now he had come up with the zaniest of ideas for the project’s #HighEndLowLife cover art.
“I could be naked, here in the pulpit, with the parental advisory [graphic] covering what I need covered. Can’t y’all see it?” He motioned to the stained windows behind him. “Aight,” one manager conceded, shaking his head. “You gon’ have to be quick about it though ‘cause this is crazy.”
This is RaRa: inspired, headstrong, raised in the church while being of the world. But these days, the rapper/producer is also one of the newest signees to T.I.’s Grand Hustle empire, traveling with the trap rap pioneer from stage to Apollo stage. He’s kicking it with Khaled during Grammy weekend and finally receiving widespread recognition for his production skills after adding his touch to Meek Mill’s “Regular.” But he’s still his grandmother’s RaRa of East Atlanta, perched beside her in videos where street cats shoot dice for food stamp cards. Rapping about the hardships of being a Black man in America with Killer Mike (“Frustrated Young Man”) and T.I. (“Black Man”).
On his latest EP, the recently-released I Am What I Am, RaRa dabbles in the club feel, with songs like “Notice It,” nestled against others like the prayer-filled “Lawd” and “Dear Summer,” a tribute of sorts to desire and ambition. To be an artist is to be a number of things and though it’s taken a while, RaRa seems to have found his tribe without sacrificing a single piece of himself.
Who is RaRa?
Man, being real, I’m a father. I’m a survivor because I been through so much shit but I’m still here. When it comes to the music, man, I’m a lot of things in one. Some might say that I’m a person like Fab[olous] when it comes to my dressing. With production, I’m like Kanye West. When it comes to flows and what I bring to the table, kinda like a Tip. Beat selection, kinda like a [Rick] Ross… Just all the greats that I always study. I like the things that these individuals specialize in and are great at. I’m just a student of the game, applying what I learn to what I do and it makes me who I am. Dopeboy Ra.
Up North, to be on “that ra-ra” means something. But your grandma gave you the nickname, right?
Yeah. From my real name. It fits me though because I am always on some ra-ra shit for real, but it’s just a name my grandma gave me. I really look at it as the Eye of Ra, the Sun God. Even being on some ra-ra shit still refers to the Eye of Ra. At the end of the day, it’s the Sun God, you make it shine.
Speak on the importance of the EP’s title.
The title is I Am What I Am and it’s really “what you see is what you get.” I am what I am, what it is at that time, is what it is… Whatever mood or mode I’m in, it’s that, nothing more, nothing less. I just wanna be honest and transparent with everything I do. The EP is just a reflection on everything I bring to the table as a whole. Songs like “Lawd” show my train of thought, definitely that I’m a Christian and that I’m into the music deep, the insight of the game, that I care about people and just want everybody to win. And then “Ball,” that shows that I’m a fighter, a survivor, I came to play and to compete. Then “Notice It,” that would go in the club or on the radio or whatever, that I can have fun with records but still with lyrical content. Then “For the Money” with Tip shows that I can stand next to the greats in the game. And Tip being one of the greatest to ever do it… I just feel like in those seven songs [on the EP] I showed and showcased that I have whatever it takes to be one of the greats.
RaRa, you have been in the music industry for a few years, at a young age. Over time, your fans have seen you go grow through the highs and lows. How do you feel about your career right now?
I am working with all new people right now and I appreciate everyone I have worked with previously as well everything I went through. When I first started music, I was really young and didn’t really care too much, not as much as I do now anyway. Now, I have better people behind me and that has made it a better situation for me. It feels like it is better timing this time around and everything makes sense.
Your new project has a lot of product work from B-More, you have been putting in work behind the boards for your new project also?
I haven’t been doing too much rapping lately. The main thing I have been working on is beats and that has been helping my situation. My production work started with Meek Mill’s “Regular.” I didn’t really think about or care too much about making beats back then, I just made my own because I didn’t want to pay someone else to do it. I would make beats for myself and be done with it. Later on, when I got serious with music, I started thinking maybe I could make something off these beat. At one point, I started thinking maybe music isn’t for me and I realized I have done everything in music except sell beats, maybe I should try it. I learned everything from shooting videos, photography, and graphic designing. I’m not putting too much pressure on it. I am just trying to have fun with it.
Do you, or did you feel pressure for your music career?
I mean, I’m a young nigga from the hood, of course I felt pressure. When you come from the hood and you’re coming up, you got everyone around you because you on the shit that they not used to having. They want to be a part of that. I came from nothing and I never really had shit. When I started to have shit, that’s when everything started changing, in a bad way. It caused more trouble and every day I had to do something about and I guess being so young, I felt I always had to react to fix my issues. A lot of stuff was stupid and I paid for my actions. I learned from it all and now, I’m on some new shit. Growing up, no one ever took me to concerts, so how was I to know how to be a rapper. I just knew how to look good. The first concert I ever went to was birthday bash and I performed. When I first started, I wasn’t shown how to act, or how to interview. I presented myself how I thought I was supposed to and followed actions of whoever was a dope artist, at the time. I am 12 years in the making of music and it is all a learning process, I am still learning. I had to learn how to network and build relationships with people through experience, and when you are learning like that, you learn a little slower because no one is guiding you in the right direction. Even when you go back to where you’re from, people from home don’t like or want to see you doing well, so they don’t help either. It took me 12 years to get to where I am at now, so I am glad that I started when I was 17, but I’m moving forward, building a better team, and turned bad relationships into good ones.
Tell us about your single, “Fuck with Me.”
To be honest, it’s my own thing and it doesn’t sound like anything that is out right now. I think that’s why I have a hard time because I always go against the grain. When I was young, I did it without noticing and it always became an issue. Now, I understand. The project is titled, “I am what I am,” it’s a 7 song EP, and it revolves around my 12 years in music. It’s about what I’ve seen, what I’ve been through, and what I’ve felt. I have 4 songs like “Fuck with Me,” and the other 3 songs are more upbeat. I have a song with TI called, “For the Money,” and another one called, “Notice It.” I’m starting slow because we are still building this brand and I want to test the waters to see what people will like. I am learning from one of the best rappers, Tip. I am learning new things every day.
You are always evolving with something new when you release a new project. There are a lot of artists who do not evolve their entire career. Why do you choose to do something different each time you present a project?
A lot of artists do what they are told because they get paid to, and they are in it for the money. I was never in it for the money. I have done a lot of bullshit but I always came back to the music. If music was about money, for me, I would have quit a long time ago. I haven’t made any rap money until last year. Everything I did in the streets was so I could do music.
What is the most personal song from your current project?
I would say “Ball.” In that song, I’m really speaking for myself and how I feel on everything I experienced with how people treated me and how I dealt with it. I’ve become immune to people loving you one minute, coming and going because you one minute and broke the next, all that shit is just regular to me. Being around people who fuck with me, I have to get used to that shit. I’m not used to that, it makes me feel weird. I expect someone to do me wrong, if they haven’t yet, they will eventually.
How many songs did you produce on your project?
For this project, I produced 2 songs. I produced, “For the Money,” and “Notice Me.” This time around, everything is running a trial period. I was never down with producing a whole project. I’ve dropped 2 CDs, since I have been going by RaRa. First project, I got producers off of the internet since no one was really messing with me then and I didn’t want to produce. It ended up working out really well and got a really good reaction. The second one, I produced myself and it was all right, so I thought maybe I’m not ready to produce a whole album yet. This project, I decided to mix it up. For my next project, I plan on doing the whole thing. I will bring people in but still co-produce.
Can you give details on how the Grand Hustle deal came about?
That happened through a bunch of people. One of my great, great friends is K.P. (Kawan Prather) who kinda started Tip. One of my big homies in the game who’s really my patna-patna and an OG and a mentor to me, Killer Mike, played a big part in putting it together. And my other patna I know from the streets named Doc, he put it together. It took a lot of people. Actually, being in the game, Grand Hustle was one of the first labels that ever tried to sign me, period. When I first started from day one. I just always felt like, in the beginning, since I’ve been around so long and people don’t really know, I started around the time Tip started. But I was younger [than him]. He was just getting to the point where he was getting his stuff really going, so I just figured, ‘Let me find something else to do…’ But I always felt like me and him being together would make a big impact. We got a lot of similarities when it comes to down to it. A lot of people think that I remind them of the same feel that he brought.
How is it to rap alongside one another? It sounds really natural for you both.
It is! And we just going back and forth. For him, he do it and everybody know he do it, but for me, being the underdog, coming in and people not really knowing but a lot of times when people look at Atlanta they aren’t thinking ‘lyrics.’ But I just wanted to let that be known that we doing that, fo’ sho. And picking up where the others left off at, like, let me pick the story up from here.
Do you already have ideas and concept for your new project?
Yes, I have 2 concepts that I am thinking about. I might go with, “Dope Selling-Self,” or “All the Time, Every Time, for A Lifetime.” They both have different meanings behind them. Being dope, you don’t have to sell yourself and that’s my story. Everyone knows I’m street and that I’ve been through hell in the rap game. It wouldn’t make sense for me to put anything out that doesn’t reflect me, so I stick to the facts, so they can vouch for that.
You’ve always been on point with fashion, where does your style come from?
I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I think it came from being around my cousins and brothers. I used to steal my cousin’s shit, I guess I just liked to be fresh and felt that I had to be. We always had money from selling drugs and I noticed people would treat me different. I would get treated like shit, they didn’t. I love clothes, cars, and jewelry. That shit comes with respect, and I like respect, too. I’m on a whole new level with fashion now because I started designing my own shit. I’m figuring out fabrics and designs, trying to find out what people like. The brand I’ve been working on is called, “Dry Clean Only.” I’m the designer and it’s going to be dope. You can’t put my shit in the washing machine, it’s different.
Is there anything else that you are working on that we should look out for, maybe TV?
I did a little scene in Tip’s new movie, but I am not too pressed to be in acting. I love the fashion and producing. Those are the 2 things that are my main focus. I am actually trying to find an artist right now, someone who is young. I want to teach them everything I know and give them everything that I never had. Right now, I’m just branding and working with different clothing lines such as Pink Dolphin, 4th of November, Young and Reckless, and Adidas. I actually did some work with my CD at Adidas but I’ve always had a relationship with them.
At your listening, you said that you want to “go down in the books.” Can you add to that?
Definitely. Since this shit started… With the Kilo [Ali]’s and the Dallas Austin’s, the Dungeon Family, the Attic Crew, the Grand Hustle’s, and the BME, for sure Luda’s team, and I just want my company to go down as adding to that. Like, Atlanta gotta keep the history going. I ain’t come through to make a few records and shine. Or make some money and get out this shit. I came to really put my stamp on the game and let people know where we come from and what we represent. To tell the Atlanta story as we see it.
Do you have any parting words?
“I Am What I Am,” is out now. Hustle Gang project comes out this summer and we are currently on tour. The whole squad coming, be on the lookout, we hungry and ready to put in work.
“I Am What I Am”
RockLan One Magazine