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Jeezy Is Now a Self-Help Guru

Photo: Myeisha Walker

The southern rap renaissance has several architects, but the story can’t be told without mentioning Jeezy, a dealer turned rapper who, along with producer Shawty Redd, innovated trap music and the second wave of coke rap in the early 2000s. Over chilling, Carpenter-esque dirges, and in his unique ghostly rasp, Jeezy would go into drug-trade specifics. Much of what preceded in drug rap was either a moralistic cautionary tale or lavishly materialistic. Jeezy gave you the impression his verses weren’t gleaned from movies or TV but real-life experiences.

Earlier this month, the rapper and newly minted author released Adversity for Sale: Ya Gotta Believe, co-written with the journalist Benjamin Meadows-Ingram. A potent blend of capitalist instruction manual and aphorism-packed motivational text, it charts Jeezy’s rise from rural petty thief, to kingpin, to struggling rapper, to generational paradigm shifter with an uncommon focus on his slow, labored process. It’s a patient narrative and serves as a tutorial in how he mastered his art and the business of his art.

“I was busy trying to make a living and take care of my sister and my mom,” says Jeezy of his pre-rap days, “and then I stumbled on this. I had to start from the back of the back of the back of the line to get to the front of the line. I couldn’t take no shortcuts.”

When you decided to write a new book, were there any other books that helped shape your approach?
I was reading Think and Grow Rich repeatedly, before I started writing. I’m really into self-help books, and there were so many life lessons in it. What I appreciated was that Napoleon Hill is not from my walk of life, but a lot of his rules and lessons applied to me. It causes you to think deeper and understand that you can change your narrative.

Early on in Adversity for Sale, you lay out how your family was left out of building generational wealth. You write, “Crack set the hood on fire, and it ain’t been the same since.” Do you have any reflections on your role in that epidemic?
Well, I think we were all caught up in it. I was living for survival. So it’s no different than being in a country where people kill their own to survive. I think as an adult, you see all these things that people are going through, and you go, “Wow, okay, I understand now,” because there’s so many other ways to be productive when you’re out of poverty. But when you’re in poverty, there’s not. You would see your own addicted to this substance, but it’s a matter of whether you’re going to eat or not, whether you’re going to have clothes for your kids to go to school, whether you’re going to have somewhere to stay. So you’re either selling somebody a substance, or you’re robbing people, or you’re working for somebody for the bare minimum, and you’re going to go buy a substance, whether it’s alcohol, weed, or crack when you get off. It’s a cycle, because all these people are using this as a coping mechanism. So the way I look at it is, who’s really addicted? They’re addicted to the substance, I’m addicted to the money. So that makes both of us addicted to something.

In the book, you spent a lot of time writing about your evolution as a rapper. You’re trying and failing on several tapes. You find Shawty Redd after throwing money at Jazze and Lil Jon. Why was it important to include that?
I think people have to fall in love with the process, right? And you got to know that you’re not going to be the best player on the field your first day. But you can get better. You’re starting in a game where people have all this talent, and my thing was, I want to be so solid that I’m going to be there forever. Now I’m so musically inclined that I just performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with a 62-piece band. I think a lot of people take the elevator instead of the stairs, because if it’s a hustle, if it’s money, you want to take the quickest route. I’d rather take the long route. I failed for ten years. So that’s the message. It might not happen today, tomorrow, next year, but you got to continue to believe this is something that you want to do and you will not stop until it’s done. That’s what the book is really about. I wanted people to see that I was actually going through things. If I was this backpacker who woke up every day when I was in middle school and rhymed in the lunch line, that would be one thing, but I’m not that guy. When you see me here and I’m still standing after all this time, you got to know why.

How do you feel about the very early stuff you did with Lil Jon or Jazze, the music that didn’t work as well for you?
I love it. I think it was all part of the process. I don’t have any regrets musically. I learned a lot being around Jazze and Lil Jon and what they were doing. Of course, I gave him a lot of money.

Yeah, I was going to say, you wrote that Lil Jon overcharged for production.
And if you spend your money and it doesn’t work, what do you do? You think about the next time, how you’re going to spend your money better and then how you’re going to be more effective. So I was investing in myself, and I learned that everything you pay for is not going to be a hit. It’s hard, but it’s fair because if it was easy, everyone would do it. So having some time with each of these guys taught me different things. Jazze Pha is talented as hell, but it’s like, okay, I want to take it to a different type of vibration. I want something slow. Something sinister. I want the 808s. Now I’m starting to learn what I like rather than what somebody’s going to give me.

I really love the book’s details of how you used to write in the bathroom at Shawty’s studio, or how you’d take your shoes off to get comfortable.
Guess what? I’m in the studio right now with my artist Haiti Babii and I got my shoes off. I’m sitting right here in the old room where it all happened, “Trap or Die,” all that shit.

One of my favorite songs of yours is “Get Ya Mind Right,” which you did with Shawty. I’ve always been curious, what’s the story behind that one? 
I was at Shawty’s house. I was in my cat car. We call them cat cars, like my low cars, they’re not my shiny flashy stuff. Shawty stayed in Clayton County. So when I used to go out there, it’s always a lot of police. It’s always, get pulled over when you go out there. I went over to his house and he broke out the drum machine. I kept saying, “Change this sound, change that sound.” He said, “Well, you do the drums.” I did the snare. And then we was doing the beat together.

I could tell you when I did “Get Ya Mind Right,” I literally caught the Holy Ghost. I sat there and I felt every word. I probably recorded it in 30 minutes. When I got done with it, I was hyped. And I called my guy West Side Blue, he had to come meet me at the Big Oomp record store because Big Oomp is one of the OGs. And Blue was a music connoisseur, but he’s also one of my best friends. And I played it for him. He looked at me, he said, “This is it, cuz.” I remember the first time I went to Magic City after Trap or Die came out. When they played “Get Ya Mind Right,” I just watched everybody singing. You’re talking like 300 people in the club, strippers and all, everybody singing, and it was so slow, right? It was like we was in church. No disrespect, but it was like a choir. And I knew then that was who I was and that was my sound.

In the book, you discuss stacking your vocals, how you’ll record over your verses several times to amplify your voice. How did that start, and what do you like about that effect?
Well, it started because I didn’t know how to record. Nobody taught me. But I did what felt right. My thought process was, “I’m going to make my voice the last instrument on this track.” And so what I would do is make sure that my tone matched what I was doing and I would stack it. So when you hear it and your headphones are on, or you’re in your car, it sounds like I’m 20 feet tall. It’s so massive you can’t help but to move to it. Because now it’s not just one vocal. I want people to feel me.

Your ad-libs also became a signature, which speaks to what you’re saying about your voice as an instrument. Where did that come from?Well, I wrote in cadences, right? And there would be blank spaces and I’m like, I got to put something here that ties it together. I could do the whole verse, then the ad-libs would be the icing on the cake. Because a lot of my verses back then, without the ad-libs, it would sound like it was undone. So instead of runs — like in R&B — I’m spitting phrases that go with what I just said. I’m almost a hype man in the booth, with me in my ear, hyping me up while I’m doing this. “Yeah! Yeah! Let’s get it!” Who ain’t going to turn up if they hear that? But what really sold me on it is when I started to see people in the club singing the ad-libs. And I’m like, “Oh, okay, this is my thing.”

You mentioned “Get Ya Mind Right” being played at Magic City. Why are strip clubs so essential to Atlanta culture?
Well, Atlanta is a hub because of the highways. You got I-75 going to Florida, you got I-85 to I-10, which is going to Houston. It’s cartel land. So everybody congregates in that city because it’s the nucleus. And where do people like that go? They go to where the other people like that go, so they can find out what’s going on in the streets. Because the girls know where all the guys who are really getting money go, no matter what state they’re from. When you’re spending this money there, you get respect. And for me, at a young age, I understood that it was a melting pot of everything and everyone, and I knew that if I can get my records big in there, you got guys coming from Alabama, Detroit, Chicago, Texas, Tennessee, D.C., Baltimore, New York, all at one time. You got the guys who have influence because they have money, or because they’re super gangster. So if they go back and they be like, “Yo, I was in Atlanta just playing this new song,” and now he turns it onto his guys in his city, now you got a whole other city because they saw you get respect in your city. That’s how that works. It doesn’t work anywhere else. If you go in a restaurant and you start throwing ones and popping bottles, they might kick your ass up out of there.

The book has a very evolved perspective on mental health. There’s an awareness and openness that there were struggles throughout your career with anxiety and depression, as well as how music served as therapy for you. How would you describe your mental-health journey? 
It’s been an evolution. I didn’t always have the wording or the tools to understand what I was going through. So as mental health became a topic of conversation, I started to learn and dive into how that could affect me. Because I felt like if I can do that, then I can take what I’ve learned and pass it to my culture. As a Black man, we don’t really lean into that, because we’re taught that’s weak. I was depressed, my mental health was off, and I went on the journey, and I’m still on the journey. Today, I can say that I’m honestly in a better place. It ain’t about just conquering your goals and living your dreams, because you can have all the money in the world, but if your mental health ain’t right, you’re not going to be able to enjoy it the way you want to enjoy it, and you’re going to spiral out of control. I just want to put that in the book in a way that people can look at it and see the trauma in it, and then they wouldn’t look at it as weakness. They would look at it as, I need to take a page out of Jeezy’s book because I’m going through these same issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The best-selling author behind Think and Grow Rich was raised in rural Virginia.
Jeezy Is Now a Self-Help Guru