J. Prince (center) / Photo by MrLee713, via Wikimedia Commons
James Prince is a man of few words. Yet when the Houston OG speaks, things move. There’s an interview on YouTube from 2012 in which Prince, CEO of Rap-A-Lot Records and boxing promoter, is discussing a potential bet with 50 Cent over a fight between Andre Ward & Andre Dirrell. “I’m not about that lip wrasslin’,” he says in a thick drawl. “If I say it, I mean it.”
Those sentiments were echoed last week when Prince extended what he called a “courtesy call” to Lil Wayne, Birdman, Diddy, and Suge Knight over improprieties issued towards his family and in particular, Drake. “Drake is family. And the weak shit from Puffy & Suge is on my radar,” Prince says on the call. “First of all, Puffy, feelin’ like he can put his hands on my family … opened the doors for his family to be touched. You reap what you sow.” The entire 1:49 message can be heard below.
Diddy is most likely in J. Prince’s crosshairs because of that incident when Puffy punched Drake in December at Club Liv in Miami, allegedly from a dispute over the rights to the song “0-100.” Why is Suge mentioned given the fact that he, Irv Gotti, and Prince were pretty much the “big bad wolves” of rap figureheads in the 90s? Suge’s aligned himself with Lil Wayne, who forever has earned the scorn of the Prince family due to Wayne’s and Cortez Bryant’s (Wayne’s manager) alleged mishandling of Drake’s royalties and money owed to Prince’s son, Jas.
“Lil Wayne is a [faggot], his manager is a drunk, and his lawyer is a thief,” Prince says on “Courtesy Call.” “So fuck all of them together, disrespectful lil’ punks.”
Whenever J. Prince checks someone, these “courtesy messages” are issued before things get out of hand. He issued one toward Charlamange Tha God over disparaging Drake constantly on The Breakfast Club on New York’s Power 105.1. He’s done so repeatedly on records throughout the history of Rap-A-Lot Records—named after his older brother Sir Rap-A-Lot—going back as far as tapes in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s the original manager of Floyd “Money” Mayweather, whom he met while trying to get Mike Tyson to join his clientele. Floyd himself has an interesting story of leaving Prince’s management in 2003, one that alleges Prince had goons rough up Mayweather’s right hand man Leonard Ellerbe at a gym.
There are stories about Prince that sound like hip-hop fables. Tall tales, like the rumor that Scarface was able to set foot in dangerous Chicago hoods because of Prince’s relationship with Gangster Disciples’ founder Larry Hoover. Or the story of Prince sending a goon to knock out a bootlegger but refuse to do so because cameras were around. It’s hard to believe that a man who may not stand any taller than 5’9” is arguably the most feared figure in the history of Southern hip-hop. It might also be hard to believe that this guy is one of Drake’s most ardent supporters. But J. Prince has plenty of credibility in the music world to back up whatever he’s saying. The blueprint he forged with Rap-A-Lot helped set the foundation for other labels built on the Southern rap aesthetic such as No Limit, Cash Money, and Suave House. Prince still soldiers on, almost in a rather unique position as the most beloved boogeyman to ever come out of Houston, Texas.
Rap-A-Lot And Success
Prince formed Rap-A-Lot Records in 1987 as a way to keep his brother off the streets. A used car salesman with a hell of a sales pitch, Prince had a connection not only with street guys but athletes as well. The itch to make a dollar, however, consumed him. “I grew up where poverty was a serious burden on my family and that had a major part in my mind developing,” he told Andrew Noz in a 2012 profile for NPR. “I wanted to break that poverty curse that existed.”
The original lineup for the Geto Boys didn’t even feature Scarface but rather a lineup of Raheem, Sir Rap-A-Lot, and DJ Ready Red, along with Prince Johnny C. Any record from the group’s 1988 debut Making Trouble sounds like Peewee’s Playhouse in comparison to their more refined, darker material. From the moment Scarface and Willie D joined the group in 1989 and subsequently released Grip It! On That Other Level, things swung in Rap-A-Lot’s favor. Soon they became Houston’s version of Def Jam, housing acts such as the forever introverted Z-Ro (in the early 2000s following his stint with Screwed Up Click), Devin the Dude, Do or Die (one of the few non-Houston acts to crack big on the label), Big Mike, and both members of UGK, who each released highly acclaimed solo albums on the label.
Rap-A-Lot’s core, however, was gangsta rap and the earliest stages of horrorcore. Ganksta N-I-P’s South Park Psycho, which was released in 1992, followed the Geto Boys’ dark and brooding movement with small tinges in traditional G-funk. South Park Psycho was followed in that vein by Big Mike’s Havin’ Thangs and Big Mello’s Funkwitchamind in 1994.
Prince has admitted that the Rap-A-Lot formula—an indie releasing constant albums and crafting enough of a force that major label distributors such as Priority—may never be repeated again, or at least not to the success he and labels soon after had. At the moment, Rap-A-Lot isn’t releasing the full swath of albums it did in its heyday, and Prince has let it be known publicly that he’s fallen a bit out of love with the music industry.
“This whole game right now is a game that I'm not that excited about anymore because of the new structure and all these different ways of being able to get music without paying,” he told NPR in 2012. “It kind of kills my spirit from an entrepreneurial perspective.”
Becoming The Boogeyman
Controversy and J. Prince have damn near been bedfellows ever since the Geto Boys originally faced conflict over getting distribution from David Geffen when they were signed to Def America. Geffen pulled the Geto Boys’ self-titled major label debut LP in 1990 over its explicit content. Prince alleged racism on Geffen’s behalf, and Geffen responded, issuing a statement that, according to the New York Times, said, “While it is not imperative that lyrical expressions of even our own Geffen artists reflect the personal values of Geffen Records, the extent to which 'The Geto Boys' album glamorizes and possibly endorses violence, racism and misogyny compels us to encourage Def American to select a distributor with a greater affinity for this musical expression.'”
According to rap urban legend, J. Prince allegedly stepped in to defend Pimp C after he and Master P got into a disagreement over whether Pimp was properly compensated for his work on P’s “Break Em Off Something” track from The Ice Cream Man in 1996. Master P allegedly kidnapped and pistol-whipped the UGK rapper over some of the latter’s remarks. But, allegedly, when he called J. Prince for a green light to kill Pimp C over the disrespect, Prince furiously told P not to harm Pimp C and to let him go. Although nobody ever admitted the story on record, the lyrics on Pimp C’s 2005 song “I Know U Strapped” seem to back it up.
Perhaps the most famous J. Prince move of all occurred in 2000 after Scarface released his Last Of A Dying Breed LP, which features taunts at Drug Enforcement Agency officer Jack Schumacher and other agents. A 12-year investigation conducted by DEA agent Ernest Howard, which began in 1988, targeted Prince and Rap-A-Lot Records for involvement in drug distribution concluded suspiciously when then Attorney General Janet Reno canned the probe into the label. A rumor spread that the case had been withdrawn due to political pressure after Prince supposedly donated $200,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign, although government officials and Rap-A-Lot spokespeople denied the claim, according to MTV.
Democratic California representative Maxine Waters intervened on Prince’s behalf, writing Reno a letter detailing how Prince and associates feared for their lives due to “police harassment and excessive force,” while Howard, on behalf of the DEA, testified in a congressional hearing that he ended the investigation for fear of agents’ lives and safety.
Drake and Rap-A-Lot
For many, J. Prince is the man who lets his voice drag and punch people in the throat on the intro tracks of Rap-A-Lot albums. He dragged former associates of his, the prosecutor Paula Goodheart, and Lil Troy on Scarface’s Emeritus album. He was the voice who led Bun B’s classic Trill album in 2005 and who celebrated the return of The Geto Boys with The Foundation in 2005. Even if his hand is strongly in the boxing arena, he still has a presence in rap through his son, Jas.
Jas Prince discovered Drake from the days of the Toronto rapper releasing tracks on MySpace, right before Comeback Season truly took hold, when Drizzy’s style was heavily influenced by Phonte of The Foreign Exchange and Little Brother. Jas brought Drake not only to Lil Wayne but also to his father. That’s why J. Prince’s name is included as executive producer for Thank Me Later & Nothing Was The Same. Prince joked during an appearance on The Breakfast Club in January 2014 that he knew nothing of a rumor that he stopped a tour bus with Drake and Wayne on it in order to see it right that his son got his fair payment for album points. J. Prince, in other words, has had his eye on Drake’s business arrangements for a long time.
And, just in time for the sixth anniversary of So Far Gone, the mixtape that really brought Drake (and, in a smaller way, Jas) to the forefront, the issues between the Princes & YMCMB surfaced once more. Legal documents have been served over album points for Drake and unpaid royalties, which could be in the millions. Personal issues have also spilled into public after Jas’s former fiancée Christina Milian left him in the summer of 2014—allegedly for Lil Wayne. Rap-A-Lot openly protested any of support of Lil Wayne during Drake’s Houston Appreciation Weekend concert last June.
Prince himself is usually soft spoken but when you provoke him, things change quickly. You in a sense need to get a pass from J. Prince to do anything in Houston. Since his extended Canadian family was messed with, the boogeyman of Southern rap is around again—just in time, it should also be noted, for Drake’s new album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Some people are interpreting that project’s title as a shot at Birdman, and, with its shit-talking, old school attitude throughout, it’s a release that undoubtedly benefited from the promotion of J. Prince doing some shit talking on Drake’s behalf. J. Prince is going to stand up for the artists he supports, and he’s still not here for any lip wrasslin’.
UPDATE 2/18/15: Adding to the Prince family drama with YMCMB (and possibly further explaining J. Prince's actions), Jas Prince is suing Cash Money for $2 million, according to TMZ.
Brandon Caldwell is a writer living in Houston. Follow him on Twitter.