As the first rapper to blow-up and cross state lines, Rich Boy brings a whole lot of baggage.
By Maclean Jackson
The first American Mardi Gras was celebrated here in Mobile, Alabama, back in 1703. This Monday morning, we’re on a corner north of downtown at a historic Elks Lodge where Mobile’s affluent blacks used to throw soirees. Mobile’s population now hovers around 200,000, but it’s only other native son famous for music is the original passive party monster, Jimmy Buffet. But Buffet’s busy selling out stadiums to baby boomers and Rich Boy is here in his hometown getting ready to ride in the Mardi Gras parade and shoot a music video for his second single “Boy Looka Here.” Today’s the day before Fat Tuesday and traditionally dedicated to family festivities. Of the dozens of parades around the city, the MLK Business and Civic Organization Parade travels exclusively through a black area of Mobile. In the streets around the Lodge are parked floats with women, children and teenagers preparing for the parade, which starts in a few hours. Most are wearing Mardi Gras’ official colors of purple, gold and green on striped shirts, satiny surgeon-scrubs and cloaks. The floats are all rented by families, churches and youth groups for the parade, which is something Rich Boy’s mother did when he was a kid. Everyone’s loading up the floats with bags of stuffed animals, candy, toys, beads and delicious moon pies.
As Rich Boy lays on an over-stuffed leather L-couch in the corner of his living room, there are five flat screen televisions in his field of vision. A few childhood friends are also over, relaxing in the nicely decorated, single-story duplex on a slow southern Mobile road. This early afternoon’s extra quiet because everybody’s either already downtown for Fat Tuesday celebrations or sleeping off their hangovers from the day before. Twenty-three-year-old Marece “Rich Boy” Richards spent the day out in Mobile, but he’s going to New Orleans tonight for a concert. On the main television across from him “Throw Some D’s” comes on and Rich Boy turns up the volume. “It don’t feel real…It’s like, Damn, I’m on TV,” he says in a drawn out Alabama accent. In person, he seems almost surprised when the video comes on, but not in a way where it dulls the cocky image that introduced Rich Boy to national audiences. And while some smugly dismissed him at the first sight of candy cars swerving through the hood—Rich Boy’s self-titled album uses some skilled fine tuners to cram as much distinctive personality and raw honesty up under your wheel well that’s humanly possible for a debut these days.
Rich Boy is the first truly national rapper from Alabama, a state where progress has been an extra-steep uphill battle. This is the place where the Civil Rights Movement was fought and Klu Klux Klan bombed a church, killing four young girls. Decades later, he grew up in it’s aftermath and after a few false starts on his career, Rich Boy sure as hell has compassion for the struggle. Towards the end of the Interscope release, Rich Boy, is the hypnotic “Let’s Get This Paper.” The Polow Da Don-produced epilogue bluntly explores money addiction’s dangerous effects. Rich Boy’s tone walks the line between frustration and everything-figured-out confidence, building momentum that slaps so hard, any doubt of his depth is shattered. “That was a song where I’m mad at the world for a lot of stupid shit that’s going on, and so I just got my point across,” he explains. “That’s the one that’s gon’ surprise ’em. I wasn’t supposed to be be able to do a song like that.” Hidden after “Paper,” there’s the incredible feel-good “Balla Life,” which Rich Boy produced himself. This type of fun song is what got everybody’s attention in the first place and why we’re here in Mobile for these few days in mid-February. It’s Black History Month, Mardi Gras and time to celebrate Rich Boy’s success, live a little and get these beads!
Since New Orleans’ Mardi Gras has become famous and crazy, people all over the South now come to Mobile for a more laid-back celebration. Crowds fill the intersection and circle the floats, which range in quality from something that would fly at Walt Disney World to the psychedelic creation of a bunch of hippies that broke into a college craft studio. It’s like we’re on the set of H.R. Pufnstuf, where all ages can enjoy themselves. After the camera’s loaded up onto a flatbed truck, Irvin Richards climbs into the driver’s seat of his son’s ’74 baby blue 88 Delta, while Rich Boy steps on to his bumper. The motorcade joins the parade, filled with all kinds of other bands and floats at a bend and we’re off.
The video truck, Rich’s car, a police cruiser, a college step team and the Tuskegee Crimson Piper Band are all in a line, slowly chugging through Mobile. The crowd gets excited when they hear the enormous speakers blast and see Rich Boy toss beads to spectators in between lip-synching and waving. Everyone’s taking cell phone pictures, calling Rich’s name and girls tug each other’s arms at his sight. The crowd is a constant line of people shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning on the barricade that’s at the curb of the street. Then there’s people milling around behind them, and in more residential areas, barbeques on porches and house parties. The streets are lined by Water Oak trees, which tower over single story homes that are all raised up a foot or two to prevent flood damage. After about three hours, five miles and more than 80,000 people, we’ve finished our loop and end up back at the Elks Lodge.
It’s dusk now as Irvin Richards stands on the deck of the Lodge watching the crowd disperse and video crew head off to a club to set-up. Growing up right outside of town, he would come into Mobile every year for Mardi Gras as a kid. “All my sons were sent to school to play an instrument. They all were sent to swimming class, they all were sent to karate class, they all played an instrument, but he just took off like, Whooo,” he remembers of Rich Boy’s early talents. “It just comes to him.” Mr. Richards moved to Mobile about 30 years ago and owns two convenience stores in town where his sons spent a lot of time hanging out. In high school Rich Boy bought the Delta 88 he rode on today, but an early hobby was building gas powered remote controlled cars. He ended up enrolling as a mechanical engineering major at Tuskegee University in Northern Alabama. “It’s just like one little strip that you ride on. You have to go to Auburn or Montgomery to party,” remembers Rich Boy. “That’s a good thing because you’re actually learning something, you know? They put it so far in the woods, you couldn’t do nothin’ but learn.” In the dorms, Rich Boy found a friend’s sequencer and keyboard, and started tinkering with beats for fun. By his sophomore year, he was making music everyday, lost interest in classes and eventually went back to Mobile.
“I feel like it’s really a retirement community,” Rich Boy says of Mobile. “It’s not a community for young people to come up out of really.” To support his new career, Rich Boy began selling crack, which proved to be a lot quicker money then selling beats. “I don’t feel like [drug dealing] was necessary for me to do music, but I feel like it was necessary to survive, though,” he says in retrospect. “It made me take it more seriously. When you take chances in your life, you take everything more seriously.” Superstar boxer Roy Jones Jr. ended up buying a few of Rich’s beats in 2003, which were never published, but Rich Boy could easily hear the spoiled results he sold to local rappers. “They sounded terrible over the beat. I would get mad,” he remembers. “I was like, Man, I’ll rap over this shit myself and then people will respect it.” He resurrected “Sittin’ on Buck,” the first rap he ever wrote, removed the chorus (“Rich Boy sellin’ crack…”), put it to a new beat and brought the song “Cold as Ice” to the local DJ, Nick @ Nite. Nick gave it radio play and the two built a relationship through which Rich met Polow Da Don, then a Jim Crow member who was visiting the station from Atlanta. “He was like, ‘Man, you gotta rap,’” says Rich Boy of Polow’s initial reaction. “So he actually talked me into trying to rap. So I just tried it. We did a demo together, and I got a deal. Then shit just started moving faster.”
The sun just went down over at Club Mango in southwest Mobile, where the video crew prepares to film another performance. Alabama’s finest women emerge from the bathroom in gravity-manipulating costumes, hoping for their first shot at some airtime. Independent rappers and promoters from all the over the state take cards and hand out demo CDs. Rich Boy certainly isn’t the first and only Alabama rapper to rendezvous with a mainstream label. Mobile’s triple O.G. rapper Mr. Bigg’s (AKA Diamond Eye) caught some attention from a cameo in Three 6 Mafia’s “Poppin’ My Collar” video, that quickly faded. Montgomery’s Dirty showed a glint of promise on the national scene a few years ago, but lost momentum after a falling out with Universal. More recently, Birmingham’s rapper and writer Attitude, broke into the mainstream with writing credits for Nelly Furtado’s Loose and just signed with Warner, while Montgomery’s young duo of 334 Mobb got a deal with Def Jam.
While working on his album in the last few years, Rich Boy was featured on DJ Ideal’s Interscope South mix tape and released two singles that didn’t really take off. In the meantime, he traveled and recorded songs with Polow on his Zone 4 label. Even DJ Drama’s 2006 Gangsta Grillz Bring It To The Block wasn’t the push Rich needed. “It was actually rushed and very terrible to me,” he says. The album contains another reincarnation of “Sittin’ on Buck” in Rich Boy’s verse on a remix to Bubba Sparxxx’s “They Don’t Wanna Get Dirty.” But then in late ’06, Polow’s rendition of Rich’s distinctive boast, “just bought a Cadillac,” finally hit streets across the country in “Throw Some D’s.”
Released in March, Rich Boy’s album debuted third on the Billboard 200, with 112,000 copies sold after the first week. That’s pretty strong these days for a dude so young and unestablished, but it’s more of a forecast to his career. He has a great gauge for what people want to hear and in what temperament. “I feel like the game is going so one way, to a point where, ‘I’m a dope dealer and I’ll kill you,’” he explains. “I felt like it’s a chance to bring it back to where everybody can relate, you know what I’m saying? Everybody can’t relate to selling drugs. Everybody can’t relate to the same things, so you got to talk about all kind of things.” There’s songs for every man, woman and child. And you can hear that he came up on UGK in his straightforward flow. “People can feel you when you just be direct. They ain’t gotta go behind and study what you just said,” he says. The production team anchored by Polow, with additions from Timbaland’s protégé Brian Kidd, Mannie Fresh, Needlz and Lil Jon, among others, did an incredible job preserving his unpolished personality.
Rich Boy also returned to producing with the “The Madness,” which doesn’t really hold up to the other songs, innovation-wise. But he plays to his strengths and comes with a nice new verse for the Lil Jon-produced “Throw Some D’s” remix, which also features André 3000, Jim Jones, Nelly, the Game and Murphy Lee. “See, André got it where you gotta study what he’s sayin’. But he deserve this, he been in the game so long that they respect if he say somethin’. If I came out all difficult, it wouldn’t work,” he explains. “Do what’s acceptable first and then you can go to the left. If Outkast came out to the left, it wouldn’ve worked either. You gotta get people to pay attention before you can lead ’em…You can’t just lead ’em off the top.” Rich wants to grow as a rapper and feels like he’s got a whole gang of peers coming with him to take over in the next few years. Dudes like Tre, Lil’ Boosie, Lil’ Webbie and Yo Gotti represent what he calls New Money, the next generation of the South. But at the same time, like Polow has done, Rich Boy looks to work with all types of collaborators. “I feel like we both feel the same about the game. We could touch in any area and do great at it,” he says. “I feel like I’ma stay myself and do a lot of different things that people usually don’t try to do.