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Trinidad Jame$' Golden Touch

The viral rap sensation talks scumbag style and the joys of givin' no fucks

Taken from the July issue of Dazed & Confused:

Trinidad Jame$ came out of nowhere, riding through Atlanta on a push bike, wearing an open leopard shirt and Versace slippers, with a red bandanna tied in front of his unruly fro, crooked gold grills on his teeth and piles of gold chains and jewels. Fourteen million views later, “All Gold Everything” still has the world wondering: is Trinidad Jame$ for real? 

For the Hood

“I put ‘All Gold Everything’ out first because that was for the hood, the atmosphere and background that I come from,” Jame$ says, arriving a casual three hours late for our interview. He was caught up playing a game of b-ball with friends in midtown ATL. “It’s about my life, always. I only listen to music when I believe it, feel it or relate to it. That’s why I don’t rap about guns and killing people – it ain’t that type of story.”

Trinidad Jame$’ own story has gone into hyperdrive over the last year. In the two months between October (when the “All Gold” vid dropped) and December 2012, the 25-year-old went from managing a menswear boutique in downtown Atlanta to signing a rumoured $2 million deal with Def Jam, seeing his debut mixtape light up “best of 2012” lists, hopping onstage with Trey Songz at Madison Square Garden and performing at Art Basel. Justin Timberlake even parodied his anthem on Saturday Night Live.

Haters Gonna Hate

Naturally, the haters rose to the occasion: Jame$’s skyrocket to fame has been matched with a wave of naysayers. Other rappers flipped when he admitted he’d only been “rapping seriously for ten months” before he blew up, and many hip hop devotees condemn Jame$ as an epitome of the genre’s lyrical decline. Martin Lawrence supposedly accused his wild look to be a knockoff of Martin’s satirical "Jerome" character. There are “All Gold’” parodies all over YouTube, one of which (“All Rolls Everything”) has over 5 million hits itself. 

“Everybody’s looking for what’s next from me,” he says, coolly. “They wanna see an album – a lot of people want me to fail. I live every experience one step at a time. I just try to do me the best I can, and go from there.”

‘All Gold Everything’ was for the hood, the atmosphere and background that I come from. I only listen to music when I believe it, feel it or relate to it. That’s why I don’t rap about guns and killing people – it ain’t that type of story

A True Trinidadian

Sat with Jame$ in his rented Dodge carrier (“I don’t have a car”), it quickly becomes clear that time moves differently in his universe. Born Nicholas Williams, his presence is almost like a human Xanax: warm and calming, his conversation and body moving at a languidly relaxed pace. It’s an interesting contrast to the brash, ride-or-die character from his videos and stage performances.

As we drive over to the east side of ATL, the rapper born Nicholas Williams offers up some humble insight into his upbringing: growing up in Port of Spain, Trinidad, until the age of nine, moving with his mom around America and Canada as a youth, settling in Atlanta and shedding his Trinidadian accent, learning to freestyle rap as a teenager. 

“Going back to Trinidad recently for my video reminded me that I’m a Trinidadian at heart,” he says. “A Trinidadian will start a conversation with anyone; they’re just friendly people. I don’t really have any enemies. When someone has a problem with me, it makes me think about it a lot. Like, ‘Did I say something the wrong way?’ A lot of times it’s not what you say that gets a person upset, it’s how you say it. A lot of people are sensitive as fuck!” He laughs as he refers to Don’t Be S.A.F.E. (Sensitive As Fuck Everyday), the title of both his mixtape and his forthcoming debut album, which will feature 2 Chainz, T.I., Young Jeezy and ForteBowie.

Throughout the ten tracks of the mixtape (which first surfaced online in July 2012 but has never been officially released in the UK), Jame$ flips through different moods with as much uniqueness as its stark cover image. Many moments are slurred by drug escapades and tall claims about women, as in party anthems “One More Molly” and “Team Vacation”. But his vulnerability is near blinding on other tracks, such as “Givin’ No Fuck$’ (which samples Nosaj Thing’s “Voices”): “My life is perfectly terrible / The word perfect is like my favorite word / Let me tell you / About my journey for perfection and why I should've got off the train along time ago / But for some reason the doors, they just won't open for me, man.”

Past to Present

A true southern gent, Jame$ opens doors for us when we arrive at Zesto, a fast-food diner he calls an “ATL classic.” (He will also insist on paying for dinner.) He describes his first performances at talent shows around the city in 2011: “My friends and I were winning showcases with this song we wrote – it was a solo artist and two groups on one song. But I was getting frustrated with it because it wasn’t getting us anywhere. We weren’t making any money off it, and I was working more at the store, hustling more.” 

His past as a stylist is on show – he’s looking fresh in a Black Apple New York jacket, a red Pyrex hoodie, a red Supreme snapback and Jerome Oliver Jones camo trousers that turn to black leather from the kneepads down. Every detail taken care of. “I realised in order for me to really do it,” he continues, “I had to do it on my own. So I found another studio.” Gold rings, one on each of his fingers, sparkle around his double-stack burger. “But the day I was supposed to go, I got locked up.”

Scared straight from his brief time in prison (he was bailed out after one day), his focus realigned. “That experience really made me think about what accomplishments I had going on in my life at that point. I’d never consider myself a bad person, but I didn’t really have shit going on! I was just working to buy shoes and take care of my mom. I have lines (on my mixtape) talking about my life, back when I was doing my thing. I was making legal money and illegal money – but even the legal money ain’t legal, because the government is still taking it from you either way.” 

Fame and Fortune

“Bye Trinidad!” two girls say nonchalantly as they leave the restaurant. “…JAME$!” they shout, louder, before running out the door giggling. It’s the second time he’s been stopped by fans. How has it felt to be in his Air Jordan Fire Red 5’s over the past eight months, moving from chasing paper to paparazzi chases?

“Fame has come my way,” he explains, “but I’m still the same person that I was when I worked at the boutique, when I worked at Waffle House, when I worked at JC Penney. I just got a new job now, with music. Money brings out the true person that’s inside you – whatever you have in you, it brings it out more. I’m genuinely a real chill guy. Honestly, if the same thing had happened to most people, they’d be thinking they’re bigger than life. They’d be trying be seen here, with this person or that person, boom boom boom. I turn down more celebrity shit than I attend. And this is at the beginning of my career; it might not be a smart move. But end of the day, the people who rock with me now will rock with me forever, because I’m just always being me. That’s all it is.” He repeats, enunciating each word: “That’s all. It. Is. And if I feel like it’s time for me to stop doing music, I’ma leave it alone and do something else."

A lot of people want me to fail. I live every experience one step at a time. I just try to do me the best I can, and go from there

Keep Your Friends Close

As we walk out into the ATL night air, Jame$’s sharp focus can be seen even through his sunglasses. “Out here in life, what you live for is just as important as living. If you’re just living to be living, that’s living without a purpose. Music wasn’t what I was doing, originally. My goal used to be to open my own store and my own styling agency. Things have shifted dramatically.” 

We drive round to 882 Studios, the notorious Old Fourth Ward home studio of Justin Padron, the engineer of Jame$’s mixtape. Padron emerges, and as the two close homies talk, a couple up-and-coming rappers come out and take their pictures with Jame$. One of them lights up when Jame$ asks how his cast is healing. “Damn, you remembered?” he asks excitedly.

Though he’s “friends with just about everyone,” Jame$ admits that he keeps his close circle very close. “A lot of people may think, ‘He don’t fuck with nobody.’ But you gotta understand that I did everything myself. I paid for every studio session, paid for all of the mixtape CDs I pressed. My tape has no big features; my features are my cousins, the same dudes who put me on music to begin with. When I recorded it, it was just me and J Padron. It was the true definition of an independent project.”

Say My Name

“He’s a lot more thoughtful a rapper, and person or artist, than I expected,” Padron reveals later. “There’s a lot more layers. At first it was so drastic from what my expectations were that I couldn’t quite grasp what he was going for. I started to catch on more the second or third times we had sessions. By the fifth or sixth time he came over, we were done with the mixtape. And once it was all mixed, it started to make sense to both of us that, ‘Wow, we really have a project here.’ It took me that long to even be able to fully wrap my head around it.”

Every aspect of the Trinidad Jame$ project has been a wrap, down to the $ sign. “It was Nick James at first,” Jame$ explains, “From Rick James, because my style was so different. But there was already a rapper named Nick James, so Trinidad Jame$ came to be. It’s like – who the fuck is Trinidad Jame$? You’ll never forget it. And then nobody will ever come behind it. What are you gonna call yourself, Trinidad Johnson?” He laughs. “I just feel like everything played the right part when I did it, as far as the name, the cover.”

Padron agrees when Jame$ is out of earshot. “Everything was just... just so,” he says. “To a random onlooker, it might look like it was a culmination of things that happened to work in the right way, with the right timing. But I think he’s a secret genius that’s been planning everything, knowing what’s going to happen without letting anyone else in on the equation.”

 I’m like a good boyfriend but I look like a scumbag. I’m an entertainer. I like to have a good time

A Day in the Life

Perhaps a typical day in the life, Jame$ is suddenly on 882 Studios’ porch, filming his portion for a music video for Gucci Mane. The video production crew showed up requesting a raw “street location” for Jame$’ verse, to match the segment they’d filmed with Gucci earlier. Jame$ lip-syncs his lyrics with his trademark intensity and rambunctiousness, teeth glaring in his signature grills.

Afterwards, he turns the volume back down a few notches and returns to his amicable, laidback self. Sitting in front of the studio computer, he quietly studies a few music videos with a close eye, occasionally calling out things he catches. “This Macklemore video’s got 176 million views," he informs us. "And they shot the video themselves! Have you ever seen that Jordans video they made? You gotta watch it. As a sneaker head, this blew my mind.”

With so many sides of Trinidad Jame$, it's hard to pin just one down. There’s certainly a divide between the quiet, humble gentleman researching Macklemore and the turn-up king popping molly. “I’m like a good boyfriend but I look like a scumbag, if that makes any sense,” he explains, with a chuckle. “I’m an entertainer. I like to have a good time, and as an artist you gotta figure out a way to have a good time but also allow other people to have a good time along with you. It’s just another personality being brought to the forefront.”

“If you know him as a person,” Padron says, “you get a different perspective on his music. But it’s not any kind of embellishment; everything that he’s rapping about is just him. He’s authentic.”

Real Deal

At 2am, Jame$ politely offers to drive us halfway across the city back to the hotel. We skip through songs on his car stereo until his speakers start to fill with Kendrick Lamar’s sublime “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” with Jay-Z. Lamar raps coolly: “Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich, hold up / Trinidad Jame$ in four weeks.”

Upon hearing the lyric, Jame$ seems genuinely floored for the first time that night. Indeed, he’s living proof that anything can happen in four weeks.

“For me, to have been the person who just listened to everybody’s music – Jay, Kendrick, everybody. And now to be doing music myself – to then have chances to do music with these artists, to then have my name on their songs? It’s like, damn, man.” He looks ahead, his eyes widening. “And it happened so fast. But I guess it just goes to show that I had to have done something right. I’m just being real, man. Real deal Holyfield.”