Music by VICE

Young Greatness Survived Hurricane Katrina, Prison, and Loss to Get to "Moolah"

After more than a decade of ups and downs, the New Orleans rapper has scored a legitimate hit with his song "Moolah."

by Kyle Kramer
Mar 15 2016, 1:12pm

Photos by Taji Ameen

No song has kept my attention over the last few months quite like “Moolah,” an ambling, triumphant celebration of (as it suggests) hustling hard to get that moolah by the New Orleans rapper Young Greatness. Produced by Jazze Pha, it seems to imagine a new dominant mode of Southern radio rap—more in line with the upbeat, post-funk melodic bounce of Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex” than Atlanta’s space age ambient trap. It’s an instantly entertaining song, but there are two things in particular that make it truly great, that make me keep coming back to it. There’s the chorus, which slides an excited shout of “stand in the kitchen and whip out the work” into a couple sheaves of melody, and which, once you’ve heard it, becomes impossible to not think about any time you’re in a kitchen, busy tossing together your latest fricassee or what have you. And then there are the precisely tuned falsetto woooooo's that punctuate the whole thing and turn it into a church service of sorts.

“I made 'Moolah' as a rejoiceful song,” Young Greatness, whose full name is Theodore Jones, told me on his recent visit to New York. He added, “After you have worked so hard to get to this point, of course you're gonna want to spend some moolah!” The song’s lyrics are full of celebrations both commonplace and a little more specific: “You were saved by the bell / I was saved by the cocaine.” The spirit is consistent no matter your line of employment, though.

Young Greatness knows more about working a long time to get to where you want to be than most rappers: He’s been pursuing some level of a rap career for over a decade, with a series of setbacks of which any one would have caused many people to give up entirely. He grew up in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, in the St. Bernard Projects, and he was set to play wide receiver for the University of Miami—one of the best football programs in the country—until his father died in the fall of his freshman year, prompting him to return home. It was then, encouraged by his best friend, a rapper named Duece, that he started rapping. Two years later, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced him to relocate to Houston.

When he returned to New Orleans a few years later, he began selling drugs until he was sent to prison. He got out in 2010 and renewed his music career, going back and forth between New Orleans and Atlanta, where he eventually met his manager Rici and signed on with Quality Control, home to acts like Migos and OG Maco, under legendary Atlanta impresario Coach K. More recently, he picked up yet another manager, the singer Akon, and signed to Motown as well. Following a string of mixtapes and collaborations with artists like Juvenile and Meek Mill, he got some attention with last year’s project I Tried to Tell Em, and now, with “Moolah” gaining steam on radio, he’s releasing a new version, Reloaded, out April 15.

Young Greatness broke this story and more down for me when he visited. I’m intrigued by Greatness: On one hand, there’s no certain future in having one hot radio hit; on the other, there’s something about his tenacity (not to mention the heavy hitters in his corner) that suggests he can do a lot more with it than many people in his position. The upcoming music he played me was versatile and pretty uniformly excellent. But most of all, unlike a lot of rising radio hits, “Moolah” has a heart. Talking to Greatness, who speaks as warmly as the hard life reminiscence of his newly minted hit, it's pretty clear he's ready to show it to the world.

Noisey: There's a strong musical tradition coming out of New Orleans. How do you either fit into that tradition or break from it, would you say?
Young Greatness: It’s hard to avoid your roots. If your parents gave you Chinese food, your whole toddler life, well when you become an adult, you're gonna love Chinese food because it was instilled in you at birth. Well, coming up, I was raised going to the second lines in New Orleans, going to watch the brass bands, going to watch the Indian's Mask.

What's the Indian's Mask?
Well, we have a thing called Super Sunday. On Super Sunday, the Indians get together and they mask and whoever has the best costume, that's who wins. Everybody come out and they rejoice. Even if someone dies they have a second line in New Orleans to celebrate their death. It sounds weird, but it's to celebrate the good times when they was living.

If you follow some people from New Orleans on Instagram, every Sunday, you see everybody's happy and everybody's like “We living today on Sunday.” Sunday people get their cars washed, their women get their hair done, guys get their haircuts and they go celebrate. They go ride around the city, take the top down, go to the second lines. It's like a party outside, just walking up the street, just everybody. It's a good thing for the city.

You started making music in 2003, with your friend Duece. What was it like starting out?
Shit, I was like 19. I'd bring him to the studio every day, and one day I was like “I'm going home, I'm gonna write a song.” It was called “We Need We,” and it was a political song, a letter to Congress. Some positive stuff. But it was blended in with how I feel about different things. When I started off rapping, I started off very, very lyrical. That's why it was so easy for me to translate to the current style, because I started off with knowing how to use metaphors and punchlines and stuff like that. So as rap changed, all these elements was already in me. I was already melodic. Once I brung the song to him he was like, “Man, I think you should do it.” I said, “What am I gonna call myself?” He was like, “Man, call yourself Young Greatness.” And it just stuck with me.

Did you stick with that whole political bent of things for a long time?
No. I just was very versatile. I think my name was the perfect name for me because I just always was versatile. I was almost like a chameleon. I could adapt to anything. Then when Hurricane Katrina hit, that's when I really decided that, OK, I'm gonna rap for real and I'm gonna take this shit serious, because our whole city is going through something. I got this place, I'm living in Houston, it's not going how it's supposed to be. I couldn't find my daughter for two months.

Whoa. What happened?
Everybody was displaced. Nobody knew that Katrina was gonna be how it was. When the storm hit, my daughter wasn't with me; she was with her mom. When it hit, nobody had cell phones or anything. So I didn't know what it was for two months. I just didn't know.

So you went straight to Houston?
Yeah. When they rescued us they brung us to Houston. And they brung them to Houston, too, but Houston so big, we didn't know where each other was for two months. There was no way to contact anybody. You just had to run into them in Houston somewhere. They had disaster centers where people was standing at, so that's how I was able to find her.

So were you one of the people that was in the Superdome?
Nah, I was in a disaster center in Houston and then they gave me an apartment. Once I got an apartment, it was cool from there.

How long were you in New Orleans before you got taken out to Houston?
After Katrina passed, a day later we was rescued.

What do you remember about that period?
I remember our family just being frustrated, not having no food, can't shower, sleeping outside. It was too hot in the house, so we slept outside. We was in the projects, where I grew up, so we slept on the balcony. It's like a family of 14 people, all on one balcony. On top of each other, sideways, anywhere we could try to lay our head to sleep. And I seen stuff. I seen people die, all kind of stuff. Drown in the water, people who had diabet es, couldn't get their medicine. It was crazy.

That seems like one of the most harrowing things. So you went to Houston and then you're making music in Houston and that's how you get the record deal?
Yeah. Once they gave me an apartment, one day I was just sitting there, and I was like “I’ve got to change this situation.” One of my friends had studio equipment. It was in New Orleans, but they wasn't letting people in the city, so we drove from Houston back to New Orleans and snuck in the city and got the studio equipment, brung it back to Houston. We started recording in his living room.

And the equipment wasn't damaged or anything in the storm?
No, he had it in a high area. So we just had to get it. It was rough because the city had National Guard, all sorts of army people. So we snuck right around them, got the equipment, drove right back to Houston.

That's tight. So you're sneaking the equipment out in front of the army, essentially. Then you were just recording in the apartment in Houston?
Yep. I was recording in that apartment. Then once I got to record, I took it to the professional studio in Houston, 7303, to get it mixed and mastered and that's when I started running into different people: Bryan-Michael Cox, Bun B. Before you know it, I ran into the right person, gave me a record deal. At that time I had a song I did called “My Prayer,” and it was just about everything I was going through. And everybody loved it.

So then you go back to New Orleans, three years later, and your record deal has gone under at this point?
Yeah. I went back to New Orleans in 2007, and that's when I got on the streets heavy. Because I was just like “Fuck it, I’ma just sell drugs and put the money behind myself.” And it didn't work out that way.

You got locked up instead.

What was that like?
Actually, that was the greatest experience of my life. It changed my life. It changed me and it molded me into what I am right now. It showed me humbleness, patience. I appreciate things different. I appreciate the simple stuff: air, talking to you, freedom, walking outside, seeing people walk on the street. It gets real when you in that prison. Ain't no joke. It just molded me into a different person.

What was the prison that you were in like? What prison was it?
It was real racist. It was in Jena, Louisiana, where the Jena Six was at.

So the guards were racist against the inmates?
Yeah the guards was real racist.

What would they do?
I mean, call you “nigger” and shit. And “boy.” Always make you do a lot of hard work and just stand around and watch you like the old slave days.

Did they have you do stuff where you would go and work on highways and stuff?
Yeah, I used to have to pick up trash, snakes, roadkill, everything. I seen it all. When I used to be walking on them roads and stuff, I used to be thinking about this. “I am never coming back to this bitch!” Just imagine yourself with a shovel picking up an armadillo, busted up on the road that, you walk down a little longer, they got snakes. You gotta scrape that up. Then a deer, his brains all busted. You gotta pick up brains and everything.

That's miserable. How long were you in there?
Almost two years.

So then what happened? You come home in 2010?
From that point I just went to working. I put out a record with Juvenile called “Buku.” I used to drive from New Orleans to Atlanta. I'd spend seven days in New Orleans, seven days in Atlanta. I did that for two, three years in a row. Because I outgrew New Orleans. I was hot. Everybody knew me.

That's a long period, though, six years. “Moolah” really began to hit last summer.
It took a lot of work. I was just focused on having the content to make people understand me, having the content to really put out there. Even when I signed with Quality Control, I spent a year just recording. I didn't miss a day. Even still to this day. Studio, studio, studio.

You’ve also gotten the chance to work with a ton of people.
Yeah, I worked with Juvenile, Pusha T, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Migos, Yo Gotti.

What was the most, like, “Wow, I can't believe I'm here” moment of those?
Rick Ross. Because I worked with him at his house. He walking around in house slippers and shorts and wife-beater. [Doing Rick Ross voice] “Sup Greatness, sup nigga.”

He just actually talks like that.
Yeah. Ross gives you so much game. When you go work with Ross, he just gives you so much knowledge. He's very intelligent. So it was just a great experience working with Ross. He's a funny guy, too. Very talented. And highly, highly intelligent. The average person wouldn't even think it, but he'll run circles around you. He's super smart.

How do you feel that you were able to shift into the sound that you have now?
My best friend Duece who died, who showed me how to rap, he was already melodic. So I patented my style around his. I came in the game on the harmony stuff. That's the New Orleans sound. If you go back and you listen to Juvenile, Juvenile created the melody stuff. If you listen to Future, A$AP Ferg, all the people that have melodic elements, that comes from Juvenile. They’re like offspring of Juvenile. Coming from New Orleans and having bounce music, all the artists are melodic. That's why there's so much dope talent there. Everybody has that gift to just start singing. [Starts singing “Moolah”] We just have that in us, the pulse in the music, the soul, the passion. So when this current style of music changed, I was already doing that!

Tell me about Duece. What was it like working with him? Did you guys make a lot of music together, or it was more like you guys were just friends?
We made a lot of music together. We actually had a group. It was called The Desperados. We had a lot of music together, and that was just my friend. I love him and miss him. Wish he was here to see me do this. We met in junior high school and we was friends from junior high all the way to adults. We was like Batman and Robin.

So what happened to him?
He was murdered. He was visiting with a female friend, and an ex-boyfriend came over there and attempted to murder her and him. She lived, but Duece died.

What was that like for you?
Man, it was one of the most hurtful feelings ever. It hurt. Because right before he passed away, he called me and told me him and his wife was getting a divorce, things weren't working out. He asked me could he come stay with me. And then I hadn't heard from him for two, three weeks and I was like “What the fuck's going on?” So I'm calling people and nobody knows where he’s at. The whole two, three weeks that I didn't hear from him, he was dead. Nobody knew. Because he got killed outside of New Orleans, and the person that killed him took his ID off him, so he was just sitting until they could identify his body.

That is so fucked up.
Yep. And the killer turned himself in.

That must have been really hard.
Too hard.

How do you bounce back from that and keep making music?
Because he lived through me. Ain't no me not making it. I got to make it for him. Got to.

How do you feel you talk about that stuff or talk about anything emotional in your music?
I just express it. I just be as raw as possible. They love you more when you be yourself. So, shit, if I feel like I wanna say “Fuck you,” I'm gonna say “Fuck you.” I ain't about to sugarcoat it. I have only one kind of personality. If I don't like something, I'm gonna tell you.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.