From 1999-2003 Ja Rule was among the biggest rappers on Earth, alongside his Murder Inc. (supergroup that never was) cohort of Jay-Z and DMX. The Hollis kid’s trajectory was fairly stunning, introducing himself with a stellar but very safe late ’90s traditional New York Def Jam rap album in Venni Vetti Vecci before hitting on the Murder Inc. Records sound Ja broke with his second album, Rule 3:36 and the pop classics “Put It on Me” and “Between Me and You.” Ja was uniquely situated, with a melodic, pop-friendly approach to rap at the very moment rap went pop, and became mainstream and commercial in a way it never had been before, and changed rap as we know it.
The Murder Inc. moment is back in the public consciousness thanks to a brilliant, brutally honest five-part documentary that aired this summer on BET and very well may become the new standard for unsparing transparency in self-produced content. Ja Rule is capitalizing with his ICONN app and Vibes concert series featuring historically great rappers performing their classic albums. The first of the series was with Rakim on Nov. 21.
Below, Complex checked in with Dave Chappelle’s favorite celebrity to discuss his latest business endeavor and the era of rap in which Ja and his crew were shutting down every middle school dance in the US.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
Ja, it’s been 21 years since the tragic attack on the World Trade Center. Do you have any reflections on that day and its legacy in American history?
You know, I wrote “Rainy Days” on that day, because of that. I saw planes going into the towers, went right down to my studio, and I wrote “Rainy Days” because I felt like that’s what the world was going through at that moment. It was going through a rainy day, but the sun would come out and shine again, and we would all smile. So that record will always be special to me in knowing that that was the thought process of me going into my studio and creating that beautiful record that Mary J. Blige just completely killed. That will always be my memory of 9-11.
Were there any big picture calculus on your part in terms of the more commercial sound you developed after Venni Vetti Vecci? It was a pretty risky approach at the time… Did that style happen organically, or was it a calculated career move?
A little of both. Organically in the way that the melody and the flows and the music came about. I see the voice is just another instrument, and mine is no different. I like that feel of what I was doing melodically, and so the music started to feel like that.
But there was a very conscious thought process too, because I was in the middle of two juggernauts in Jay-Z and DMX. Those are my brothers, but they had specific areas of hip-hop on lock. X was the ultimate grimy n***a. You don’t get no more grimy and street than X. And Jay, he was the fly, flossy type persona, and they didn’t get no bigger than that with Jay. And so I was somewhere in the middle of that. I’m a n***a from Queens. And it was risky. It wasn’t accepted like that at the time. You had your records in the industry. You had LL’s “I Need Love,” you had Meth with “All I Need.” You had your one-offs, but nobody made it their own.
Were there any other records that inspired you? Or was it generally Puff’s blending of rap and R&B that was already underway?
Of course we all loved the Bad Boy era. That brought a different type of R&B sound. It was more hip-hop orientated with Mary J. Blige. I wrote a lot of Venni Vetti Vecci to What’s the 411? A lot of people don’t know that.
Something that is suggested in the documentary is that ecstasy, which was like the house drug of choice at Murder Inc., was something that helped shape your aesthetic. Do you buy into that idea?
I think sometimes as artists, when you do drugs, you start to believe that the drug has a heavy impact on the music that you’re making. I had to learn through the years that it’s me, it’s who I am as an artist. And that artistry lives inside of me, whether I do the drugs or not. So it’s easy for a person to see something and to marry the two things, sure, because they see it so often. But for me, I just feel like my creativity came out that way and that energy came out that way for a reason.
In rap, other than weed, alcohol, and maybe lean, you don’t really hear that. Ecstasy is for house music, or whatever.
It wasn’t always ecstasy. Making my first album, I only smoked weed. I was on X the second album, the third album, not so much.
When you look around the modern rap landscape, there’s obviously a big Murder Inc. influence with Drake, but are there any people that you fuck with that you hear your sound in, that maybe isn’t obvious to everybody else that’s making music today?
I know one thing I am very happy about. I wouldn’t say shocked, but because of the way that my career went, a lot of my female oriented records are the ones that got videos and attention. So a lot of those dope album cuts, a lot of those dope lyrical records didn’t get heard the way they should have.
But the thing that really makes me happy is lyrical. MCs love me. Like Lupe. I’ve seen him recently and he was just like, “Yo, Rule, you that n****a.” You know what I’m saying? On the mic. I felt that in my heart and my soul. Symba—another lyrical artist—he always lets me know I’m one of his favorites. For them to say that to me means a lot because they’re not such commercial artists, you know what I mean? They are looked at as lyricists. So that makes me feel more happy than any of the kudos that I get for making my big hit records.
”I wrote a lot of Venni Vetti Vecci to What’s the 411? A lot of people don’t know that.”
Early in your career you had those experiences in the studio with Jay and X. Can you isolate maybe one thing from each that you learn through the process of being around them? Crazy thing is me, Jay, and X really didn’t do too many studio sessions together. There was a time where you couldn’t get Jay and X in the studio together.
Why is that?
They had their epic, now infamous battle that they had back in the day. So they really didn’t have a relationship from that. And then the relationship grew over time, and then, of course, we went on tour and all that shit together, but there was a time where you couldn’t get Jay and X in the same room, let alone on a record.
I was a young lion coming into the game. I was just happy to be a part of it all and be looked upon with my peers on these records as being dope too. That meant a lot back then, to be on a record with X and Jay, and for people to look at you and say, “Yo, he held his own, the young boy did his thing, he’s dope too?” That meant a lot. And a lot of artists think they want that platform. But a lot of times, artists get swallowed up by that platform, and they don’t shine on those records with these big artists.
The Murder Inc. fed case is still really fascinating, because in a lot of ways it was a precursor to what we’re seeing now with how the prosecutors and Feds are still going after rap groups. What did you learn from the experience that maybe could be pertinent to what we’re seeing now?
If I’m being honest, I think the real precedent that was set in that case was, how do we do this better? How do we go after these a little bit better? Because these guys were able to fight their case and beat it because the charges were fucking bullshit. How do we get around that? So the RICO was put into play. If I can attach these rappers to something that they really don’t have anything to do with, but it’s just affiliation, we can get them on a technicality.
I don’t like the way that is playing out for artists and rappers. I think they are very smart, the government, and knowing that rappers are thrown into their situations overnight. One day I’m in the hood with all the homies and we’re making our little rap records, and six months later, I’m the biggest artist in the world, but I still have this affiliation, and I made records about the homies, and us being together and crew, and now I’m being targeted by the Feds for this situation that I really don’t have anything to do with.
Now, don’t get me wrong, every case is different. I’m not saying everybody’s case is the same. I don’t know if people are guilty of these crimes. I don’t fucking know. That’s not me. For me to know or not to know, it’s not my business. I’m just saying if I’m giving you an observation on what I think, the Murder Inc. trial is where they learned how to go after these situations, to create cases where it’s almost impossible to fight and escape.
On Drink Champs, when Irv Gotti was breaking down the Ashanti situation, you seemed a little uncomfortable with the drama. How do you feel like that situation should be resolved? In a perfect world, I would get them in a room together. Let’s not do all of this internet back and forth bullshit. I’m not a messy person. I ain’t into that shit. If I got an issue with somebody, I don’t need to talk about it on the internet, I’ll see you eventually. It’s a small industry, and we can talk about it when I see you. If there’s really a problem, we can solve it or escalate it. However that goes, is how it goes. But nine times out of ten, those issues get resolved. You know what I mean? And it wasn’t as big as you thought.
“It’s a small industry, and we can talk about it when I see you.”
But the internet escalates everything, because now all of these people get to have an opinion on your personal business. So I wouldn’t handle it in the media. I would get them in a room and have them just talk about their differences. They’ve worked together in the past. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I would like to think they probably have more good times than bad together, you know what I mean? So I just wish it could be different. The whole situation just made me a little uncomfortable because that’s not who I am as a person, you know what I mean?
Do you get the sense that it’s more of a paperwork dispute or an emotional dispute? I don’t know. From what I gathered from Drink Champs, I think there’s some emotional ties there. But like I said, I just wish it could be done amicably behind closed doors, and then we can move on. It’s so much harder to move on when words are being slung out in the public and everybody gets to have their perception of what this is and have their opinion on it. It becomes something else.
Can you think of a time in your very long, obviously still very close working professional history with Irv Gotti that led to some sort of dispute? Is there any one story in particular of a career decision that you clashed over that could be instructive or educational as to how your relationship worked?
We disagree all the time on things. We’re our own people. Two very vibrant thinkers, you know, freethinkers. We can agree to disagree. We’re grown, and so we have that relationship. We’ve definitely disagreed on things, and we’ve had great fucking success together where we’ve agreed on things and made great music and great business together. So it’s called a relationship. That’s my brother and you’re going to have your disagreements, it just is what it is.
A good story is my first album. I remember we had a big argument and I was telling them that people that he was deeming really close to him at the time were not his friends like you think he thought they were. I’m your fucking homie. You know what I’m saying? He was just like, Ja, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. And he stormed out the studio and it was, fuck you. I will fuck you up. He rolled up out of the studio, and we weren’t really mad at each other, but it was a disagreement of the minds, and at that moment, I came up with the record, “Count on Your N***a.” And so those types of things sometimes directly relate to the creative process.
If Kanye wanted to work tomorrow, would you collab? Would you work with him? Do music?
Yeah, sure. Like, if he wants you to get on a track.
That’s a very touchy, tricky situation. Here’s the thing. I don’t agree with everything Kanye says, everything Kanye does. I don’t. But I think people are missing the bigger picture, which is that he does have a mental illness. And we all know that. I have to look at some of these outlets and say, shame on you for propping him up and putting the camera in front of his face when you know what he’s going to say. You know the rhetoric he’s spewing at this moment. So you go on Piers Morgan, you know what they’re all after, they want clicks. They want to have Kanye have these episodes. Where’s the support base? Where are his friends? Where are the people who benefited from Kanye’s greatness the most? Where are the people in his corner, keeping him from doing interviews and those sorts of things?
So I don’t know. There’s many ways to look at this. I also happen to think that Kanye is a smart person. He’s not as crazy as everyone likes to think. When I look at the whole situation, I see different things going on. All of these companies that are dropping him. He said he wanted out of these companies. I don’t know why he would go anti-Semitic. I don’t know why he would say these types of things.
But I do also know that in America, people love to give people second chances. People love to fucking hear the apology. People love to talk about is Kanye finished? I don’t think so. I think he knows what he’s doing, and people are playing right into it. He’s going to make this all one big example of how he did this for a specific reason, to show how Black people, how easily they can be thrown away, or how easy the power can be taken away. And he’s the martyr for this. And there’s a lot of angles. He’s free now from all of those companies. Now he’s free to go and create and own all his everything. His music, everything.
With the Adidas thing, it was interesting to discover that he didn’t actually own any of what he made for them.
Exactly. And let me tell you, as much as the Black community is mad at him right now, as much as we’re mad at Ye right now, guess what else we’re not going to allow? We’re not going to allow Adidas to steal his designs and sell them to us. We’re not going to allow that either. He knows these things. He’s very smart. We’ll see how it all plays out.
Going back to one of the earlier things that you said about providing Ye with a platform, when he had done the Drink Champs thing, did you text N.O.R.E.?
We spoke about it. That’s our personal conversation [Laughs.]
Is there a difference between how it was making money strictly as an artist and now when you’re doing these more entrepreneurial ventures?
It’s different. I don’t have to work as hard for everything. And now I own everything, which is great. Being able to know that all of the hard work that I’m putting in, and all of these things that I’m doing, I own everything that I’m doing it for. And my kids will be able to have that. I’m working extremely hard. Tunnel vision… I want this company to be the biggest company in American history.
Tell us about ICONN.
ICONN is basically my live streaming platform. It’s my network… There’s a paywall, but you’re getting all my original content, kind of like you would on Netflix or one of these other networks. So, yeah, I’m in my infant stages of growing something very big. Like VIBES, this mobile concert series. That’s one of my original content ideas.
“I want this company to be the biggest company in American history.”
I did the first one, and then it was Raekwon and Ghost doing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. The idea is to film iconic artists performing classic albums. This is about the classic body work. And they do it with a live band. It’s a real Cotton Club vibe. There’s drinks. They’re in their suits. And it’s an amazing night of hip-hop. It’s an elegant grownup night of hip-hop that’s really, really been dope. It’s making quite an impact and giving us some dope hip-hop memories and moments right now.
Are you specifically gravitating towards artists that were fundamental in shaping your taste and your career?
Absolutely. I love fucking Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and Wu-Tang—those guys were superheroes to me growing up, but there’s so many more. I listened to a lot of different hip-hop when I was young, like, when dudes wasn’t listening to N.W.A, I was listening to N.W.A. When dudes wasn’t listening to UGK, I was listening to UGK. That was my shit. So I was a different hip-hop head. I like to explore and listen to so many different artists from different areas. It made me who I am as an artist.