Photo by Max Hliva
“No Flex Zone,” 2014’s go-to anthem for standing on couches and waving bottles of expensive vodka around, is a weird song. It’s not weird in the way that contemporary rap signifies weird—murky, Auto-Tuned, sing-song vocals over beats that sound like they’re being broadcast from the bottom of a well, made by a guy who dresses like a necromancer. And Rae Sremmurd, the duo who made the song, aren’t particularly weird either. They wear primary colors, and when they stopped by the VICE studio to talk on a recent New York trip, one of them, Slim Jimmy, was carrying a skateboard like an accessory. The pair are brothers, and in person they’re friendly, funny, and thoughtful, projecting a down-to-earth demeanor at odds with their wildly unhinged musical output.
Yet there’s something totally foreign about “No Flex Zone” that throws everyone off the first time they hear it: Rae Sremmurd sound like children. They rap and sing in raspy but high-pitched voices, and “No Flex Zone” is just chaotic enough, bouncing between its sung refrain of “they knoooooow better” and its clipped verses, to suggest that maybe it was, in fact, pieced together by amateurs.
With a name that sounded like a single, quirkily named child and a discography that, when “No Flex Zone” premiered on Noisey earlier this year, was exactly one song deep, Rae Sremmurd initially seemed like they might be a gimmick. And even though “No Flex Zone” has since reached 20 million views on YouTube and its follow-up, “No Type,” has attracted nearly 10 million YouTube views, there’s still a risk that the group could end up as a rap history footnote. Rae Sremmurd look younger than their 19 and 20 years; the act they get compared to—and bristle at being compared to—the most is Kriss Kross, the duo who made “Jump” at ages 12 and 13. When I first heard them, on the song “We” on Mike WiLL Made It’s #MikeWiLLBeenTrill compilation earlier this year, the schtick was almost off-putting: Why were these guys who seemingly were not old enough to even convincingly sneak into a club shouting lyrics like “you, grab the Ciroc!”?
Rae Sremmurd know what they’re doing, though. When we met, they had none of the sullenness of musicians dealing with a sudden rush of fame, instead describing their lives with a goofy and unforced charm. In addition to his skateboard, Slim Jimmy was also rocking a pair of Gucci ski goggles. His younger brother, who goes by Swae Lee, animatedly acted out the process of moving mattresses at the mattress factory where they used to work. Whenever he had to describe boilerplate trap rap, freestyled parodies seemed to spring into his head. The two are natural entertainers, and the more context that emerges about them, the clearer it is that they are savvy innovators rather than simply a couple kids Mike WiLL was forcing bottles of Hennessy on in the name of art before their voices even dropped.
“We don’t want to just come out and be like ‘I go to the club, and I have the drugs,’” Swae Lee, the more outspoken of the two, explained in a voice that has, in fact, dropped. “How can we make this shit weird, you know what I’m saying? So we did it like that, screaming, loud, singing high pitch. Weird voice. Weird and acceptable. We wanted it to be sonically pleasing for your ears but just be weird as fuck, sounding like nothing else.”
Unless you’re actually a child, though, landing on that high-pitched sound isn’t exactly intuitive, and it took Rae Sremmurd a while to get to it. They joined Mike WiLL’s Ear Drummers collective early last year, after one of the collective’s producers, P-Nasty, heard about them through a cousin in their hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. After moving to Atlanta, they took on the name Rae Sremmurd, from the words Ear Drummers backwards (a fact that continues to be a steady source of fascination among people on Twitter and in interviews with the group). But they had already been developing a musical identity for years under the name Dem Outta St8 Boyz, playing local parties and even traveling to New York to appear on BET and meet with record labels.
“We were just in school, like, we were rapping and just in school and just working,” Swae Lee remembers. “Just always grinding and doing different shows like ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’ We were some hungry young dudes.”
Photo via ourstage.com
Aaquil (Slim Jimmy) and Khalif (Swae Lee) Brown formed Dem Outta St8 Boyz when they were 13 and 14, after moving to Mississippi from Fort Hood, Texas. They had started making beats a few years earlier, when a friend installed a copy of Fruity Loops on their mom’s computer, and they looked up to rappers like Lil Wayne, Eazy-E, and Soulja Boy. Swae Lee was known as Kid Krunk, and Slim Jimmy was CaliBoy. They performed as a trio, first with a third member who went by Lil Pantz and then with a third member who went by Dre Boy. Bankrolling their music with money from places like Swae Lee’s job at McDonald’s, they took a trip in 2010 to Memphis, where they auditioned in a contest and landed a slot on the “Wild Out Wednesdays” segment of BET’s “106 and Park.” In 2011, they appeared on the show again, and, according to a Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal article from the time, they took meetings with Def Jam and Sony while they were in New York.
“Nothing happened, so were just like ‘let’s go back to the drawing board. It didn’t work, so what. It’s gonna work. Watch,’” Swae Lee said. “It wasn’t time,” Jimmy agreed, adding “Everybody’s got their time.”
The group’s music from the time, which is still searchable online on Reverbnation and YouTube, shows them as a fun, party-oriented swag rap act with a heavy debt to Soulja Boy. One clip, for a song called “Put It In Rotation,” shows them doing a coordinated dance in basketball jerseys. Their first hit, “Party Animal,” is an absurdly fun, cartoonish song that wouldn’t be totally out of place in today’s musical world, with a high-pitched falsetto in the outro that sounds like something that might pop up on a cult favorite Young Thug or Future song. According to the group’s old bio page, the song got radio spins, and crowds who are familiar with the group’s first incarnation supposedly still go nuts when they hear the song.
Despite not landing a record deal, Dem Outta St8 Boyz built up a fan base in school and around the region. Swae Lee described being “friends with the nerds, some of the cool kids—everybody just rocked with us.”
“All the older people messed with us, because when we first started we didn’t cuss in our music,” Slim Jimmy added, explaining that this quality is still part of their appeal today. “We would talk about anything but it would be like, we wouldn’t use one cuss word. So like, it just made it spread faster. Because everybody could listen to it.” The guys toured some out of state, playing shows as far away as North Carolina, and also developed a reputation locally as a go-to opening act for turning up a crowd.
“A lot of the club owners, they would know who we were,” Swae Lee said. “They would make ways for us, even if we were too young, we would just get in somehow, just to perform. Even if it was just to perform and leave.”
Still, the brothers were living in Tupelo and working 12-hour shifts at the mattress factory. Right before they got the in with Ear Drummers, they had an opportunity lined up to go work at a nearby Toyota factory. But instead of going on to build Priuses, they went on to be Rae Sremmurd.
“P-Nasty—he had called us—he was like ‘yo, drop what y’all doing, we’re about to start doing this music real heavy. Drop what y’all doing and come to Atlanta,’” Swae Lee recalled. “And we were like, ‘OK, fuck it.’ Because we knew them, they were like our favorite producers, so it was like a dream come true.”
As Rae Sremmurd, the brothers have only improved their reputation as party starters and made their sound more experimental. It’s clear from talking to them that they have a pretty firm grasp on how to keep giving the music industry curveballs, starting with those pitched-up voices and possibly heading into more of a rock and rap genre fusion, along the lines of fellow current Atlanta hitmaker iLoveMakonnen or perhaps channeling bands they like such as The Flaming Lips. They talk appreciatively of pop songwriting, pointing out the ways that pop songs tell stories or describe the type of scenes that aren’t common to Atlanta’s rap scene right now.
“It’s not just like ‘fuckin’ run up in your crib knock your bitch out / I’m busting with the chopper, put two choppers in your mouth!’ Swae Lee joked, freestyling. “I could rap like that all day, make a million mixtapes, but, what can you do that’s like ‘what the fuck made them think of that?’” They have plans to release an EP in the months ahead and satisfy some of the demand they’ve created by only releasing three songs so far, but they also have long-term plans that involve “50 years of Sremm Life” (Sremm Life being Rae Sremmurd’s philosophy based around “the good life, the family, safe sex and paychecks, riding in the front seat, good vibes”). Any concerns that the makers of “No Flex Zone” could end up being one-hit wonders are quickly dismissed, and given the rapid rise of the completely alien-sounding “No Type,” it's hard to argue. Their half-decade of experience seems to have taught them not only the technical side of making music and the realities of navigating the underexplored corners of the industry, but also the value of tinkering with an idea until it is fully unique.
Rae Sremmurd aren’t children; they’re Dem Outta St8 Boyz turned to Dem Outta St8 Men, and they’re only going to grow up more. As they talked about their process, Slim Jimmy finished his brother’s sentence, chiming in with the key question that they have to consider: “What can you do that’s going to make them listen to it again?”
Kyle Kramer knoooows better. Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.