Growing up, rapper Rittz listened to ghetto philosophers who contributed to Southern hip-hop’s rise: Geto Boys, Goodie Mob, OutKast. Despite those influences, what emerges from his unrelenting verses are frank confessions of how a high-school dropout became a screw-up in his native northeast Atlanta suburbs. On his 2013 debut, The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant, Rittz gently reminds his girlfriend in “Always Gon’ Be” that by being on tour, he’s getting closer to purchasing the car they need. He and Big K.R.I.T. also commiserate with each other in “Wastin’ Time” on how unmotivated, miserable and broke they were while pursuing a career in rap.
The latter recalls a slightly distant past. At the hands of Alabama rapper Yelawolf, Rittz was given a number of opportunities to get in front of an audience. In 2010, he provided a standout, unapologetic verse (“Fuck a limousine, I’d rather ride Caprices”) on Yela’s otherwise sentimental “Box Chevy.” He was also instrumental in putting Rittz in front of Tech N9ne, after recommending a live show. In 2012, Rittz signed to Tech’s Strange Music. “Honestly, I think a lot of fans of mine look at my story and think, ‘Well, he never quit,’” the White Jesus rapper says, in between dates of his headlining tour promoting his sophomore album Next to Nothing. Still, he insists that he’s yet to figure everything out — except for, perhaps, the music: older-fashioned Southern hip-hop, matched with a mean self-deprecating streak.
Rittz and I chatted about the “badass” music of his middle-class upbringing, the woes of making a relationship work while on tour and the little things that keep him sane.
What was the first rap record that you liked?
The first rapper who I really got into was Kilo — he goes by Kilo Ali now. He got a song called “America Has a Problem (Cocaine)” that was really popular in Atlanta. It was raw and dirty, like 2 Live Crew. 2 Live Crew was badass music. It probably [had a] much deeper [impact on me] because I ended up being a rapper, but as a kid I just loved rebellious music.
Was it because of teen angst?
I wasn’t even a teenager, I was maybe 10. When I got into middle school, I got introduced to a group called Too Much Trouble from Rap-A-Lot Records. That first album [Bringing Hell on Earth] was crazy. There was a white midget in the group. Around the same time, there was [Civil Rights activist] C. Delores Tucker preaching against the bad lyrics, [so] you wanted to see what the big deal was. Shit, things that would happen at school would coincide with what was going on in rap, too.
People getting beat down, bringing drugs, smoking weed and just starting shit. I hadn’t been exposed to that before. When I went to middle school, I remember getting [beat up] in the locker room. There weren’t any gangsters at school — I’m not trying to paint that picture — but I did get beat up a lot. At the same time, though, I got to live a regular, suburban, middle-class life.
What were you like as a teenager?
Now we’ve got computers, and everybody can make beats and record themselves. [But] I was that kid who had that studio at my house, because my dad was a guitar player. Back then, nobody had that except for one other person, in a 20-mile radius. For years I would be hanging out at my basement, with people in and out. Of course I did get involved with drugs, but I was really just a kid making a lot of records for myself and a lot of people — just being the studio kid.
Eventually you had a song, “770,” on the radio [in 2008].
Yeah, but that was years later. We were really putting out records in the suburbs of Atlanta, from ’95 to 2005. I was in a group [Ralo and Rittz], and I don’t want to hold my partner to blame, but we were getting older and our focus wasn’t the same. So once I went solo, I started making records like “770.” Instead of just being known in Gwinnett County, I was becoming known as a rapper, period. That was after a bunch of tribulations, struggles and mismanagement — a bunch of bullshit.
What was the biggest setback?
Maybe I should have went solo earlier. And to be honest, I was wasting a lot of time smoking weed — what the song “Wastin Time” is about. I wasted a lot of fucking years sitting around and being really unmotivated.
The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant looks back at that time. What about Next to Nothing?
Now that I’ve gotten a record deal, everybody assumes that you’re rich or your life has changed so much. With this album, I feel like I owe the people a little honesty: Don’t waste your time trying to be like me. Maybe if you choose differently, you can grow up to be rich and have a great life. A lot of the album is me being frustrated about where I’m at in the music industry.
What’s your biggest frustration?
You’re giving so much into building a fanbase. It’s so hard, and it’s so stupid [laughs]. I’m selling out shows, but then I look on Twitter and I’m like, “Why does this guy have more followers than me? I’m not even verified.” Some of that internet shit is really frustrating, and I wish I was bigger than I was.
What are the plus sides to making music now?
I’m making art — not a fucking painting, but real people come to see me perform just because of the music. Sometimes they’re shaking or saying that my music has touched them — “My brother died, and we played this song at his funeral.” I always listen to really sad music, because I like getting touched by music. So the fact that that’s what I do for a living, that’s the most amazing thing in the world.
What are some of your favorite sad songs?
There’s so many of them. I love Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell.” Metallica’s “One.” My favorite sad song is Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Sade, “King of Sorrow.” They can even be love songs: Rascal Flatts, “Here Comes Goodbye.” Carrie Underwood, “Just a Dream.” I like goosebumps songs. If I can make a song that gives someone goosebumps, my job is done.
What’s your favorite song off Next to Nothing?
I have a song with Twista called “Bounce.” It’s got the perfect vibe — mellow riding shit that sounds like beautiful music. The song “Crown Royal” is another laid-back record, but probably my favorite song is called “Turning Up the Bottle.” It’s about my real life at home, with me and my girlfriend pushing past certain issues.
How are you and your girlfriend now? Making a long-distance relationship work is tough, but dealing with touring is something else.
I had a wholesome family life, and I wanted that for her — a life where she didn’t feel like a piece of shit [laughs]. Now we have a house with a kitchen and TV. We do regular shit that adults are supposed to do — but, we haven’t figured out touring. When I leave for six months, it’s just sadness. She drinks too much. I drink too much. Then when I get off stage, wanting to talk to her more than anything, it’s 4 a.m. in Atlanta. By the time I have a couple of drinks, it’s 7 and she’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Then she gets on the internet, and that’s terrible. A lot of trust has to be there. It’s hard, but we are the best place we’ve ever been. I have a pretty regular lifestyle when I’m not doing the rapper thing.
What TV shows are you into now?
Shameless, Nurse Jackie. True Detective. Then my shit stays on Food Network and Cooking Channel. I’m a food nerd. I’m not big on competition shows, though. I just want to see people cook and show me how to cook. When I’m on the road and get into a hotel, I put that on. It feels like home.