A self-made music mogul with strong ties to his community, J. Prince has left an indelible mark on the hip hop canon. Now, his children are continuing his legacy, and photographer Rodney Pinz captures it
“Blood makes us kin and loyalty makes us family,” says J. Prince, the godfather of Southern hip hop. Hailing from Houston’s Fifth Ward, Prince built his empire one brick at a time, rising to become one of the most influential figures in the culture. As DJs and MCs moved from park jams into recording studios in the 1980s, New York-based labels like Def Jam, Tommy Boy, and Sleeping Bag dominated the national scene.
“New Yorkers’ hustle game was so strong back in the beginning,” Prince says. “They spread it out throughout the South and monopolised our radio stations and our clubs. I had to change that narrative.” In 1987, he founded Rap-A-Lot Records, introducing a new style and sound with iconic artists including Geto Boys, Pimp C, Bun B, Do or Die, and Devin the Dude, which planted the seeds for a massive independent movement across the South that continues to this day. “I inspired the homies Master P, Cash Money, Tony Draper, everybody near Texas, to follow the blueprint,” Prince says.
A visionary whose legacy begins – but does not end – with hip hop, Prince has become a mogul whose interests also include a 1200-acre Angus cattle ranch, the aptly-named Loyalty Wines, and the Prince Boxing Complex, a multi-million dollar recreation centre located in the heart of the Fifth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood settled in Houston by newly freed slaves after the American Civil War.
Before desegregation, the Fifth Ward thrived, with the Houston Free Press describing the Fifth Ward as “one of the proudest Black neighbourhoods,” home to more than 40 Black-owned businesses on Lyons Avenue in the 1930s. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the middle class moved to the suburbs and the Fifth Ward spiraled into a period of economic decline. By 1987, the year Prince launched Rap-A-Lot, the Houston Chronicle reported that the people of the Fifth Ward had “no resources at all. There’s one clinic, one library, no YMCA, very few activities, and the community is very fragmented. It's not the kind of environment that helps a child excel.”
“I risked my life because I wanted my mother to have a house. I used to hear her saying she wanted a home over and over again because we stayed in the projects all our lives... What strong thing can you do to put your whole life on the line? That’s how deep family goes with me” – J. Prince
Prince faced these struggles as a youth. Born James Smith in 1965 to 16-year-old Sharon Johnson, Prince and his older sister Zenia grew up in the infamous Coke Apartments, known as the “Bloody Nickel.” Determined to end the cycle of poverty into which he had been born, Prince mapped a path to make it out of the hood while putting his people on. “From a kid I was doing things. I diversified my portfolio. I didn’t understand what that term meant but in retrospect, I was exercising my hustles in the hood in a variety of ways,” Prince says of his early years, when he learned to make money cutting grass, worked on a welding truck, and hunted rabbits and birds in Shady Acres.
After graduating high school and trying to make a go of the 9-to-5 life, Prince decided to go into business for himself. He purchased an abandoned building and transformed it into Smith Auto Sales, where he sold exotic cars to athletes. Aged 23, he purchased a house for his mother and a 30-acre ranch for himself. “Family is real important to me. I risked my life because I wanted my mother to have a house. I used to hear her saying she wanted a home over and over again because we stayed in the projects all our lives,” Prince says. “What strong thing can you do to put your whole life on the line? That’s how deep family goes with me.”
Unlike many who come from the hood, Prince never severed ties with the community. “A lot of people from my community are my family,” he says. “There was a time where just about every three-letter police department was trying to get me to abandon my hood and leave a lot of my loved ones behind. My answer to them was I would rather be dead. I refused to disconnect myself. It’s an interesting thing when you share that love properly and you demand respect. The good will love you in return. That’s not to say that there won’t be some bad apples in the bunch; that’s going to exist because we don’t live in a perfect world but they can be picked out and handled because the power is in the mass.”
Today Prince is even more purpose-driven than ever before. With the publication of The Art & Science of Respect: A Memoir, Prince shares the wisdom he has accrued on his journey to inspire and uplift those walking the same path. The practice of these principles is evident in the true fruits of his labor: the lives of his sons J. Prince Jr., Jas Prince, and “Baby Jay”. Covering the gamut of music, fashion, sports, cowboy culture and social justice, each member of the family embodies the noble ethos of the Prince name.
“It’s been mind-blowing to see all the doors hip hop has opened,” Prince says. “I didn’t see this in the beginning but what I saw was the opportunity to become a millionaire. I knew if I applied my talents on that playing field I could break the poverty curse.” In doing so, Prince built a world where his progeny would never have to face the struggles he overcame to reach this point.
20 years after launching Rap-A-Lot, his son Jas would pick up the mantle at the tender age of 19 after discovering a Canadian actor-turned-rapper who went by the name Drake on MySpace. Jas hit up longtime friend Lil Wayne, who was underwhelmed, but the young Prince would not be denied. After careful planning, Jas got Weezy and Drake together in an Atlanta studio to record “Stunt Hard” and “Forever” – and the rest was history.
“My story from Degrassi until now has been pretty well documented…. But not much has been said about the things I witnessed from the Prince family during those early years in that city,” Drake wrote in the foreword to The Art & Science of Respect. “There’s a common thread throughout the careers of mine and many others. And that is that no one becomes great on our own. Not even me or Pops. You know me, Jas, Jr., Baby Jay, those are my brothers, so I call him Pops. He’s a complicated man, and it takes time to learn how to read him, even for me. Through our ears, he reinforced the importance of being self-contained, how to build a team, and how to respect and value their unconditional support to the movement that you’re creating.”
Each of Prince’s sons brings this shared understanding to their respective careers. As the President of Mob Ties streetwear, J. Prince Jr. does so quite literally. “Mob Ties stands for ‘Movement of Bosses Together In Elevated Structure,’” Jr. explains, detailing their collectivist approach that recalls the spirit of legendary Black American art collectives like Kamoinge. “We’re trying to unite the brothers and sisters, city to city, and state to state who have major goals that we can build together. I understand that I can be great by myself but I know I can be greater once I utilise other people because I know their strengths might be my weakness and my strengths might be their weaknesses.”
Most recently, Mob Ties recently teamed up with Compton-raised fashion designer Andrew Evans, founder of Homme + Femme, to launch a new capsule collection, a partnership that embodies their shared love of street culture. “Hip hop revolved around street culture, and you have to be in tune to that,” Jr. says, who notes the importance of respect, a word emblazoned on black and baby blue trucker hats that underscores every element of their work.
When it came time to shoot the look book for the collection, rather than do a traditional fashion shoot, they decided to collaborate with in-house photographer Rodney Pinz to create a series of documentary photographs showing the Prince family at work, at home, on the ranch, and most touchingly of all, helping provide food and supplies to residents of the Fifth Ward in February following the deadly winter storm that left millions without water or power in subfreezing temperatures.
“Every year for my birthday, we bring major artists back to my hood for my block party for free so everybody gets to come out. I’ve had Drake, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Moneybagg Yo, so many major artists” – Prince Jr
“One thing I was always taught by my father is: ‘Never forget where you come from,’” Jr. says. “There’s nothing better than being able to come back to your community and give them drive, give them inspiration, and be able to influence the ones that come from your environment. Every year for my birthday, we bring major artists back to my hood for my block party for free so everybody gets to come out. I’ve had Drake, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Moneybagg Yo, so many major artists, give my hood to inspire them and let them know if we are capable of it, you are too. We do food drives, toy drives, and giveaways on the regular throughout the year. It’s a blessing to take your blessings and give them to others.”
The events are held at the Prince Boxing Complex where Jay Prince aka “Baby Jay” works alongside his father at Prince Boxing, which counts Floyd Mayweather as its first client and currently manages fighters including Shakur Stevenson, Jared Anderson, Duke Ragan, and Efe Ajagba. “A true champion is someone who fights to put their family in a better position or fights for a cause. Some people fight for money, fame or glory, but you have to fight for something other than yourself in my eyes,” says “Baby Jay,” who stays connected to the community through his work in the Fifth Ward.
“The Prince Boxing Complex is a place anybody can go and see our champions and future champions work and train. It helps teach the community a work ethic and what it takes to make it. Shakur Stevenson has his whole family in town and they all play basketball and communicate with the people. He’s motivating kids not only to be good at what they do but to look out for their community,” he says.
“This is where my dad is from and it’s a place he goes often. Not many people, when they become successful in the music industry, can go and hang out at the same place they used to a long time ago. That means the world to our family. It’s our history.”
For Jas Prince, that history extends from the recording studio to the ranch, where his love of Black cowboy culture has shaped his life. “I started riding horses when I was a youngin’,” Jas says. “I always had a passion for horsemanship. It teaches a lot. It’s not just riding. You have to feed them and clean their stalls so as a youngster it was like a job. I started hanging out with a lot of calf ropers and getting into that, and that’s where I’m at right now.”
It’s a passion he shares with his father. “It’s interesting to see Jas exercise some of my same passions that he really knows nothing about,” Prince says. “I practiced roping when I was in high school. I used to love to hunt, fish, and ride horses; that came from my childhood upbringing. The genetics are so powerful. When I sit back and observe each of my kids I can see a piece of me in some capacity and it always makes me smile.”
Like his father, Jas understands that music brings people together. “Most cowboys and ropers jam our music – they are young 18, 19, 20 year-old kids,” he says. “I want to bring the spotlight to it because it would make it bigger. There are so many Black cowboys that people don’t really realise. You think it’s a white sport but there are so many Black cowboys that are really good.”
“There are so many Black cowboys that people don’t really realise. You think it’s a white sport but there are so many Black cowboys that are really good” – Jas Prince
In addition to love of the sport, Jas uses his position in the community for social justice. In June 2020, he organised a memorial ride in honour of Houston native George Floyd, and also brought Black cowboys to the Black Lives Matter protests. “I knew they were doing the march,” he says. “I linked up with some of my guys and we rode out. The people loved it. It was a stand for the Black cowboys too because people never really see that on a global level. It’s all about the movement.”
That movement embodies all aspects of Black American life, the rich tapestry of music, art, style, culture, economic, social, and political justice that honours tradition and innovation at the same time. “I love what I am seeing because I’ve been watching it for a long time,” says Prince. “What I would like to see more of is the players come together and unite their power to work against those forces in high places that have all of these slave master laws in place that has embondaged all our people for centuries. I would love to see more of us unite to help change a lot of these dinosaur laws that exist.”
When asked if he ever considered going into politics, Prince politely rejects the idea. “I would rather be a quiet storm.”