Photos by Jennica Mae Abrams
The 7-11 parking lot in Pasadena is dark and desolate in an empty, suburban way. It's the type of place where you could piss in the middle of the parking lot and no one would notice, or if they noticed, they wouldn't care. Most people in the area are comfortably home for the night at this hour, watching Netflix or washing the dishes. I’m preoccupied with my own domestic concern: I’m headed to North Carolina in a couple days, and I’m stressed because I don’t have a carrier to take my dog on the plane. As I dwell on what to do, Jackie Chain, the rapper, rolls up with three white dudes in a Nissan. He hops out and asks what’s up. I explain my dilemma. Jackie Chain has a solution.
“Mane,” Jackie says in his relaxed Alabama drawl, “I got a little cat carrier but I ain’t got a cat no more, you wanna use that?” Jackie Chain is kind, he is resourceful, and he does not think it’s stupid that a person would want to take a dog on an airplane. He is a great guy. Problem solved.
But this isn’t isn’t about my dog, it’s about Jackie Chain, who at this point is my dog in a different sense. “Anyways,” he says, “Y’all wanna turn the location off on your phones? I gotta go in and take a piss.” He flashes a crooked smile and ambles on in, his legs swimming in a pair of True Religion jeans, a grey zip-up hoodie enveloping his lanky frame, long hair running down his back. He’s in his 30s, but he still dresses like the teenage skate rat he once was, when he was rolling around Huntsville, slinging pills and ducking the cops. His appearance does not exactly suggest part-time rap stardom, but it doesn’t necessarily dispel that impression either.
For every regional rap favorite who transcends their hometown to achieve national fame, there are five who didn’t quite make it. Maybe they’re still the hottest thing smokin’ in their town, maybe they got signed to a major and never released an album, maybe they released an album and it never took off, maybe their single took off and their album bricked, maybe their album took off but they couldn’t sustain their momentum.
Jackie Chain, the greatest half-Asian MC ever to come out of Huntsville, Alabama, is one of those guys: somebody with the talent, the drive, and that unplaceable moxie to make it to the top of the rap game, but whose career ending up feeling the long dick of fate more times than is possibly fair. He’s weathered more storms than Ferdinand Magellan, having fallen victim to label shake-ups, legal drama, the music industry’s lapsing into disarray at the hands of the internet, and the ineffable conscience of Kid Cudi. Still, to those in the know, Jackie Chain remains ridiculously influential. He was one of the first artists to fuse southern rap and club music in a way that found common ground between the two genres, and for that his legacy will live forever. He’s done songs with Bun B, Big Sean, Sonny Digital, Freddie Gibbs, Diplo, Mike Posner, and Riff Raff. Hell, seeing as Diplo tried to sign the guy, he almost was Riff Raff.
“Jackie was ahead of his time,” explains Nick Catchdubs, who co-founded the Fool’s Gold label and hosted Jackie’s 2012 mixtape After Hours. “He was a social media-friendly guy who peaked before those tools were as powerful as they are now. He was the perfect artist for weed-themed tours and dance festivals with rap stages before those things existed.” If Jackie had started popping in 2014 instead of 2008, he might be on the bill of a HARD Summer near you. Then again, if Jackie Chain hadn’t dropped when he did, there might not be any rappers on HARD Summer.
I’d first caught wind of Jackie when I was in college, around the time that he first rose to prominence as part of Huntsville’s ridiculously fruitful rap scene. His big song was called “Rollin’”—anchored around a sample of Gucci Mane’s “Pillz,” the hook went “rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ / we ain’t slept in weeks”—and the slow beat and drug-happy subject matter made it the perfect soundtrack to getting fucked the fuck up when that sort of thing was a huge priority in my life. Similarly After Hours, with its single-minded dedication to making hedonism seem as both dramatic and fun as humanly possible, became one of my few respites during an otherwise miserable spring when I was living in a cramped, windowless room in Brooklyn, floundering at an internship and questioning exactly what the fuck I was doing with my life. But in the intervening years, Jackie seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth, and I’d become focused on other things until a recent sweep through LiveMixtapes alerted me to the existence his excellent new mixtape, On the Run.
“Rappin’s just a hobby, lemme tell you what I’m really on,” Jackie spits on “Cali Leanin’,” one of the standout tracks off On the Run. And, well, what he’s really on at this point in his life is weed. He tried his hand at opening a dispensary when he first got out to LA a couple years ago, only to get shut down six months later for staying open too late. For the past few months he and his crew have been cultivating top-shelf marijuana in growhouses scattered around the area that they then sell (or “donate,” as is the parlance of the hazily legal California cannabis industry) to local dispensaries. If you have enough startup capital and the know-how, the endeavor is like printing money. “I’ve sold drugs all my life man,” he says, “and weed’s one of the few drugs where you can become your own plug.”
Tonight we’re heading to one of those growhouses, and the reason we have to turn the location off on our phones is—
Wait, hold on. Somebody’s tapping me on the shoulder, turns out it’s the guy who was driving the car, which is still running, with the driver’s side door still open. “Your phones,” he says in some accent that might be vaguely Eastern European or might just be the way he talks. He’s wearing a sports coat with a T-shirt underneath, and he’s got one of those haircuts where it’s all slicked back on top and the sides are shaved. “You gotta turn the location off on ‘em.”
“OK word,” I say, fishing my phone out of my pocket to pretend to turn my location off again. The reason everybody’s being so paranoid about the phones is because if you’re at a growhouse and post a picture to Instagram or even send a tweet about the growhouse and your location’s still on, then everybody can see where you are and somebody might roll straight up to your spot and run all the drugs. Or the feds can come, and because marijuana is still federally illegal even if it’s legal in the state of California, they can destroy the whole crop and you can’t do shit.
Jackie’s growhouse is nearby, inside a nondescript neighborhood lined with houses you might see in The Brady Bunch. When we go inside there’s a dude passed out on an air mattress in his boxers, bathed in the dim light of the still-on flat-screen TV. Jackie explains that this guy’s in charge of minding the buds as they grow and that he’s asleep because his schedule requires him to be up all night making sure nothing fucks up in the grow room. Although the windows are blacked out with taped-up trash bags, they only turn the grow lamps on once the sun sets, for reasons I never quite fully understand but are probably exceedingly obvious to professional weed people.
The house’s mismatched furniture, spartan bathroom—which has the very specific dinge that you can only find in domiciles populated exclusively by dudes—and reserves of cheap beer both in the fridge and on the dining room table give it the air of a frat house. Except through the bedroom, next to the wall with the Scarface poster on it, there is a door to a sunroom that happens to hold thousands of dollars worth of marijuana plants.
As far as the actual grow rooms, they’re a goddamn trip. This one’s got buckets containing marijuana plants just days away from cultivation neatly arranged in a precise rectangle that takes up all but the perimeter of the space. Everything’s lit by lamps so freakout-inducingly bright that they emit an audible hum. “I got a $4,000 utility bill, man,” Jackie says, laughing. “And it sure ain’t from playin’ Xbox.” Before he starts inspecting the plants, he does his ass-length hair up in a bun. “It’s getting so long I even gotta put it up when I’m wipin’ my ass,” he quips. He then casually gobbles a tablet he refers to as “lean in a pill,” washing it down with a swig of Coors Light, the kind that comes in those weird, stubby aluminum bottles.
He starts combing through the crop, carefully picking off shriveling leaves so the healthy buds can get more light. Though Jackie and his crew are planning on releasing their own strain of weed called Jackie Chain OG, this isn’t it. Instead, it’s one in a line that will eventually lead to the strain he’s hoping for. Creating a strain of weed with all of the properties you’re looking for is a process of trial and error, one that Jackie likens to dog breeding. “You breed a shih tzu and a pitbull, and you might get bullshit. Or you might get something tight,” he says.
The son of a white Army drill sergeant and a Korean mother, Jackie Chain was born in Huntsville, Alabama, spending parts of his childhood in Korea, Texas, and Germany. By the time he’d hit his teens, his father had retired back to Huntsville, where Jackie would spend the remainder of his adolescence. Growing up, he never really embraced his Asian heritage, simply because there weren’t very many other people who looked like him in his town. “There were three other Asians at my school,” he says. To this day, when he’s with another Asian in Huntsville, he says that people assume they must be related.
Early on, Jackie found twin passions in skating hip-hop, and by the time he was in high school, he was rapping in his school talent shows. It was also in his teens that he started running afoul of the law. His specialty was scamming prescription medications, he says. “I had a doctor who’d give me scripts, and we’d go to all the pharmacies and bust the scripts.” Eventually he found himself the focus of a sting operation. “They had me face-down on the floor of the pharmacy,” he says.
From there, he was headed to prison at the age of 19. “Prison can be a bad experience for a lot of people,” he says, “but for me it was like summer camp—I just kicked it with the homies for like two years.” In the pen, his fellow inmates gave him the nickname Jackie Chain, and after being forced to maintain a shaved head made a vow to keep his hair long until the day he died.
“I could sell this shit right now as a weave for $2,000,” he jokes. It’s a few days before the grow house trip, and we’re sitting in his studio in Hollywood. He’s breaking down the medical-grade marijuana he’d picked up at the dispensary next door and rolling it into blunts, alternating between tokes and sips from a succession of Coors Lights he pulls out of a mini-cooler next to him on his couch. “I’m a country boy,” he explains. “I like country boy beers.”
The studio’s not quite on par with the ones Jackie was recording in back when he was prepping I Ain’t Slept in Weeks, what was supposed to be his major-label debut, but he makes do. It’s a single room, with some trippy-looking blankets on the wall, a couple couches, and a big MacBook where his engineer John has ProTools at the ready. There’s a shared deck down the hall, where Jackie can look over the city and smoke his Newports, but there’s no air conditioning, a fact that is underscored by the heat of LA’s spring, which never really ends but really gets crackin’ once April sets in. Alabama boy that he is, Jackie’s nonplussed, keeping his hoodie on despite the oven-like environs.
Jackie moved to LA a couple years ago to duck Alabama’s draconian drug laws, which had caught up with him once again. As he tells it, he was in Huntsville, chilling at the house of a buddy named White Boy Roy when they heard a knock at the door. “It was the police,” he says. “White Boy Roy was at the door with a white six week-old pitbull puppy when they knocked it down, talking about they thought the puppy was a gun. A six week-old puppy as big as a beer can!” A search ensued, and the cops found some weed.
“It wasn’t even my weed! But they were trying to fuck me up for just being in the house, you know what I’m saying? That’s just how Alabama is.” White Boy Roy took the bulk of the charge and ended up doing some time in the subsequent fallout from the case. He’s out now, and is actually with Jackie in LA celebrating his release. I can confirm that he is indeed white and is in fact quite boyish-looking.
As he was fighting the charge, Jackie went out on tour with his bondsman’s blessing. The last stop was in LA, so he ended up renting a spot on Airbnb, hoping to clear his head. The plan was to just stick around for a month, but then fate intervened. “I met some girls in the elevator of my building and I was like, ‘Come up to the room and smoke some blunts.’ So I put on some music and roll a blunt and someone knocks on the door. I think it’s the girls and well, it’s two uniformed cops and I’m holding a blunt in my hand.” It was a chilling call-back to the situation that got him in trouble in the first place. “But they’re there like ‘Hey sir, can you turn your music down?’ I said ‘Yes sir,’ they said, Have a nice night,’ I shut the door and look at my manager and say, ‘I’m staying here.’ Like, I answered the door smoking a blunt and didn’t go to prison!”
He compares the move to “Andre the Giant being on my shoulders for fucking years. Then when I moved to LA he jumped off.” In conversation Jackie’s a genial, animated ball of energy, with a deep knowledge of hip-hop history and an innate sense of southern manners, prone to colloquialisms and couching deep thoughts in simple language. That outsized personality and down-home Southern charm have helped him keep his foot in the rap game. “A lot of people in the rap industry that get big and act like assholes, but now they’re not big no more and they’re nice as shit again,” he says. “I was never like that. And that’s why I got all the same relationships and why the industry still fucks with me so much. Everybody loves Jackie Chain, man!”
Indeed, pretty much every person I reached out to for this story had nothing but great things to say about Jackie. “He’s a super genuine dude,” says Sebastian Urrea of the Atlanta-based production company Motion Family, who have made multiple videos with Jackie. “He treats people like family.”
“He’s a lovely guy,” says A-Trak of Fool’s Gold. “He’s an everyman, but at the same time he’s a character. You listen to his music and you wanna kick it with him.”
And, honestly, that’s how I ended up talking to Jackie in the first place. Listening to On the Run, Jackie’s music resonated with me as it had many years before, this time on a much more direct level. It’s essentially a record about moving from the deep south to Los Angeles and both missing home and feeling comfortably aimless in one’s new home. The tape is full of these little juxtapositions of Jackie’s native Alabama and his new city. The woozy beat and chopped-and-screwed vocals of “Melrose” is vintage Huntsville, but the hook (“Ridin’ down Melrose, backseat full of hoes”) is all LA. There’s a hook from Ty Dolla $ign, LA’s reigning R&B polymath, on the sun-drenched “Never Been Scared,” but it follows “Plenty Cake,” which features Jackie’s fellow Alabama ambassador Rich Boy.
The “Throw Some D’s” rapper also shows up on the stunning “Praying for Some Change,” a country rap tune built around a hook from noted Tennessean Waffle House enthusiast Jelly Roll. By the time I heard Jackie rap, “Love the West Coast, but every night I miss the South / Ridin’ downtown, wishin’ they had a Waffle House,” on “Cali Leanin’,” I knew I needed to talk to the guy. I found his email address on his Facebook fan page, and hit him up. A couple days later, he hit me back with his phone number, and that’s how I found myself sitting on the couch in his studio, listening as he told me how his music career had first begun to unravel.
“In LA, you can be anybody,” says Jackie, cracking yet another Coors in the studio. “In Huntsville I’m Jackie Chain everywhere I go—I’m like P. Diddy in my city.” By now there are a few people here—White Boy Roy and Jackie’s engineer John, plus a couple girls—all of whom have begun some light daytime partying. Jackie asks them to quiet down so he can talk, rattling off Alabama’s numerous virtues like he’s the head of the state tourism board.
“Mardi Gras started in Alabama,” he says. “It’s one of the only states with pure, white-sand beaches. People think we’re country, and we are, but we ain’t dumb. I remember there was a time when if you had shitty weed they called it ‘Bammer weed.’ That shit used to piss me off so bad.” During the mid-2000s, Alabama music was beginning to gain momentum on the national scene. In 2006, Huntsville’s Block Beattaz, of the Slow Motion Soundz collective, produced “Lacs & Prices,” featuring T.I., who shortly thereafter would enter hip-hop’s upper echelon with the album King. That next year, Mobile’s Rich Boy scored a smash with “Throw Some D’s,” becoming the state’s first full-blown national rap star. “He was the first one you’d see on TV reppin’ Alabama hard,” Jackie says.
Around that time, Jackie won a major label deal with Universal Motown, partially off the strength of his 2006 tape Who Am I, which shared its title with a 1998 Jackie Chan kung fu flick. “Ask Slow Motion, ‘Lacs & Prices’ was the shit, mane,” Jackie rapped on “Ala Freestyle,” in which he spent a verse shouting out damn near every town in Alabama. That tape was hosted by DJ Burn One, the Atlanta producer and mixtape DJ who was fresh off hosting Gucci Mane’s breakout project Chicken Talk.
“I remember one of the first times I saw Jackie live, it was him and this 450-pound white dude for a hype man. It was the crunkest shit ever. He was flowin’ his ass off—he was like the Asian Pimp C,” Burn One recalls. Along with acts such as G-Side and Paper Route Gangstaz, Jackie helped establish Huntsville as an outpost for slightly weirder, off-kilter southern rap, less commercial than the nearby cities of Atlanta and Memphis, which were classically looked at as the Southeast’s hip-hop hubs. The Block Beattaz production crew had created a distinct sound for the city, combining the slowed-down sounds of Houston with a sense of blissed-out, full-bodied drama that made every track feel like it could rattle a stadium to its core. Though Block Beattaz were the sonic architects and G-Side were the critical darlings, Jackie Chain was the star.
“He was one of those artists you just wanted to tell your friends about,” says A-Trak. Catchdubs adds, “‘Flow’ can be such an intangible trait, but Jackie knew his pocket, and his best records just nailed that groove.”
“Rollin’,” an ode to the virtues of getting high on MDMA featuring Jhi Ali of PRGz, was the closest thing the Huntsville scene produced to a hit. The trance-inflected track—produced by Mali Boy of Block Beattaz—encapsulated everything compelling about Jackie Chain and his city. In a strange twist of fate, Diplo ended up remixing the song and was so taken with Jackie’s style that he reached out to his A&R about further collaborations. “He was looking for a rapper to rap over his beats,” Jackie says, and he wanted it to be Jackie. “I was like ‘nah,’ because I didn’t wanna go in that direction.” Shortly thereafter, he ended up linking with a rapper named RiFF RAFF. The rest of that story, as they say, is history.
“By the time ‘Rollin’’ took off it was kind of a whirlwind for Huntsville,” Jackie says. “A lot of shit was popping.” Yelawolf, from the nearby Gasdsen, Alabama, had just released his star-making mixtape Trunk Muzik. NPR and SPIN both wrote long features about Huntsville. When “Rollin’” was remixed by an ascendent Kid Cudi, the track found a second set of legs. As he prepped his Universal Motown debut I Ain’t Slept in Weeks, it seemed as if nothing could stop Jackie Chain from blowing up.
“The feeling was if they shot a video for ‘Rollin’’ and put it out, it’d be pushed to radio,” Burn One says. But when it came time for Jackie and Cudi to shoot the thing, disaster struck.
“We flew out to New York for the video,” Jackie says, “and Cudi was like, ‘I quit drugs, I can’t promote drugs anymore. Like, literally the day of the shoot.”
“I very vividly remember that,” says Burn One. “That really sucked.”
Because of Cudi’s refusal to participate in the “Rollin’” video, it never got made, and Jackie was never serviced to radio. Not going through with the shoot even without Cudi, he says, “was one of my biggest mistakes.”
Adding insult to injury, in 2011 Universal Motown dissolved, leaving Jackie stuck in major label limbo. By the time he was picked up by Universal Republic as part of their nascent urban division, he’d lost his buzz. Now slotted alongside the likes of Young Money and, ironically, Kid Cudi, he was treated as something of an unwanted stepchild. “Between Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Cudi, there was no money left for me.” Jackie was forced to self-fund his videos and tours, and eventually he got out of his deal.
Meanwhile, Huntsville’s buzz began to peter out. “A lot of the times when people get the ball they don’t know what to do with it,” Jackie says, positing that the city’s hyper-local sensibility, which had initially helped fuel its scrappy solidarity, had begun to feel less like a united front and more like myopia. “Nobody’s gonna go to Iowa looking for the next Eminem,” he says. “You gotta put yourself out there. People in Huntsville wouldn’t go to LA for seven days to connect with other artists. They’d be thinking, ‘Damn, I’m fixing to miss all this money in Huntsville, I hope my babymama don’t cheat on me.’”
“It’s just frustrating,” he says, “because I feel like a lot of them dudes, if they’d left, they would have had a lot better chance to pop.” Still, Jackie Chain would not go quietly into the night, even as his deal fell through and his scene receded from the national spotlight. He secured a slot opening for the rising Mac Miller on a college tour, helping expose him to new wave of fans. In 2012, he released After Hours with Nick Catchdubs through Catchdubs’ and A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold label. Fresh off the release of Danny Brown’s XXX, Fool’s Gold was being looked to as a serious tastemaker in the hip-hop world. The tape melded Jackie’s down-south style with a playful, club-centric sensibility via Catchdubs, and won widespread acclaim on the rap blog circuit.
But then the drug bust happened, and after moving to LA Jackie put all his chips into the weed business. “When I had my clinic,” he says, “I assumed it was just gonna be stoners, but I noticed a lot of cancer patients, people with glaucoma, sleep disorders, and eating disorders. This plant really helps them.” After he got shut down, he shifted to the growhouse side of things, using the connections he’d made to find a steady stream of customers in the dispensary world.
“I got so engulfed in this weed culture,” Jackie says, “that I wasn’t putting nothing out.” But after he finally beat his felony charge back in Alabama, he felt a renewed zest for both life and music. On the Run is a celebration of Jackie fully regaining his freedom, both in the eyes of the law and the music industry. “I took two years off,” he says, “but I’m back in the booth and back at it, man.”
Now, he’s in the midst of a full-on comeback. He’s planning on following up On the Run with a record called Croptober, which he says will be “like southern rock and rap together.” This March he paid a visit to South by Southwest, where he played a couple shows and reconnected with the music scene. “It felt good to go to South By and get that recognition and love,” he says. “I miss it sometimes.”
As for the album that never came out on Universal, he says, “I’ve got it on a hard drive in the vault. I got some crazy songs on there, songs with huge producers like Diplo and Sonny Digital.” He’s hesitant to leak it himself in fear of the fallout that might occur if a record that was recorded on a major label’s dime were to get out. “I don’t wanna burn no bridges with nobody, you know? But,” he says, flashing a grin, “Them motherfuckers will get leaked sooner or later, you can believe that.”
Another one of his gigs these days is Nite Ryders Radio, a show on DJ Skee’s internet radio service DASH Radio that he co-hosts along with Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia. He’s an insightful interviewer, using his hard-earned knowledge and experience in the rap game to pry the sorts of frank answers out of people that you rarely find in the hip-hop world’s PR-mandated interview scene—think The Breakfast Club, but for indie rap. He ends up having me on his show one night (unfortunately, Gangsta Boo was out of town), engaging a writer friend and me in a discussion about the relationship between musicians and the journalists that cover them. Jackie is as interested by this talk as he might be with any other guest, but the charismatic host is the center of attention whether he aims to be or not.
Before I go on the show, Jackie interviews a young crew of streetwear-clad producers called The Beat Brigade, who live in a house together in LA. They’ve done work with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert and Starlito, and they’re still cutting their teeth in the industry. Their beats skew towards the fusion of club music and Dirty South shit that Jackie Chain helped pioneer back in the day, and it’s clear they’re geeked about the opportunity to meet him. By the time the night’s over, they’ve agreed to go into the studio together and record a project. Jackie Chain might never be the star he could have been and may very well spend the rest of his days caking off weed and rapping on the side, but that hardly matters. He’s become the kind of guy who can inspire a generation of up-and-comers on one side, hold court with the OGs on another, and keep everyone feeling good in the process. And he’s done it with integrity. “I’ve always kept it 100,” he’d told me in the studio. “I’ve always been the same dude.”
Jennica Mae Abrams is a photographer based in LA. Follow her on Instagram.
Drew Millard is a writer based in LA. Follow him on Twitter.