Ronny J Knows What He Wants
We caught up with the producer behind Soundcloud's new wave of rappers.
Photo: Justin Staple
The most electrifying movement in rap right now usually gets lumped into a genre based on its go-to streaming platform, Soundcloud. But there's more uniting the artists involved than their website of choice or even the fact that many come out of a South Florida scene pioneered by artists like Spaceghostpurpp and Denzel Curry. There's a sound: blown-out and lo-fi, with enormous, thumping bass and explosive, percussive rap flows. And pretty much all of it can be traced to the producer Ronald J Spence Jr, better known as Ronny J.
Despite not listening to much rap music while growing up in a small town in New Jersey, Ronny J discovered his calling after moving to Miami, where he became part of Denzel Curry's hip-hop collective, C9. He's still one of Curry's closest collaborators, but he's also gone on to become a go-to producer for Smokepurrp and Lil Pump, as well as Soundcloud favorites like Keith Ape, XXXTentacion, and Ski Mask the Slump God. He's watched his friends evolve quickly from working with him in his bedroom to signing deals with major record labels in the blink of an eye.
Now he's joined them, recently signing a deal with Atlantic Records and proving that the future of Soundcloud rap isn't so dim after all. "I want people to know that you can do it too," he told Noisey on a recent stop by the VICE LA offices to record an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1. "I'm pretty successful in what I do. I'm not where I want to be, but you could be successful too, as long as you work hard, and you just stay consistent, like it's going to happen."
Noisey: Were you a creative kid growing up?
Ronny J: Yeah. I had my phases. I was into like a lot of adventurous type shit, and then at one point I was super artsy, just like drawing all the time. I wanted to become an architect. Music was never even like my main thing, growing up. This wasn't my dream. I was really trying to be an architect.
When did you start listening to and falling in love with music?
It just kind of happened. I remember being like a baby and always going in the kitchen, taking out the pots and pans, just banging on them. It got to the point to where my mom and dad noticed, and they bought me my first drum set. I was, like, five. After that, I just kept up with it. And then I grew up in church as well, like, playing drums for the choir and stuff like that.
When did you start making beats?
I started making beats my second semester of my freshman year in college, so I want to say it was late 2011 or 2012.
Where did you go to college?
I went to an HBCU called Florida Memorial University in South Florida, Miami. And then I went to a community college back in New Jersey, called Camden County. And then after that, I went to the Art Institute in Miami. And then after, Barry University, which is a private D2 school. And then I just quit school.
Why were you bouncing around so much?
Once I got my first taste of Miami, I just wanted to go back. I wasn't even really doing music like that yet. I just wanted to go back because I'd always been in love with South Florida. It's so beautiful there. It sucks in Jersey, you know what I mean? And then I started making music, and basically it got to the point where I was doing anything just to stay in Miami. I had no family in Florida. I just figured as long as I enroll in school, I have shelter. On top of that I had my dad always on me, like "oh son, you gotta be in school." 'Cause my dad honestly didn't really think that this was possible.
What kind of stuff were you listening to growing up?
Church music. Honestly, I didn't grow up listening to Biggie and Tupac, how the majority of people that listen to hip-hop do. I came up just like listening to a bunch of different church music, and then once I was in middle school, I started branching out and listening to The Clipse, listening to a lot of Lil Wayne shit. Rick Ross, too. Watching a bunch of music videos, that's really how I came up on rap and shit. My family didn't really put me on it.
Let's talk about some of the first music you ever made. Were you making instrumentals and shopping around, or did you collab with someone early on?
Well basically, one of my really good friends is Charlie Heat; he's now signed to Kanye West. That kid was my best friend growing up. He's actually the reason why I started producing. We used to be in a marching band together and just always shredding, just fucking around. He kinda put me onto producing. At the time he was working with an artist named Young Savage, out of Philly, and he introduced me. I started fucking with him, we made a couple songs, and that was really the first music ever. But it never really went anywhere.
He didn't really show me how to do anything. I never would ask. I always wanted to learn on my own so I could have my own way of doing things. That's why right now I have my own sound. So basically it was just his grind that kinda motivated me. He showed me a couple little things, but not like "Yo Ronny, this is how you make a beat." I honestly learned by just fucking with the program every single day. I started on Reason, on a Windows computer. And then I moved to Mac, and then I moved to Logic. I'm still working on Logic. But yeah, I just kept fucking with it every day, watching Youtube tutorials, and that's how I learned.
For those that don't know the Ronny J sound, how would you describe it?
Unorthodox. Out of this world. Just going against the grain, no rules. I never use music theory. I do collab with people that do—I have nothing against it—but that's not what got me to where I am. So yeah, really just hard as fuck, really gritty and dirty. But I also do make music that's not like that at all, super soft or whatever. I can make any vibe I want, honestly. I can make EDM shit. I can make pop shit. I have my own sound, though. When you hear it, you'll know it's me.
Let's go to Raider Klan days. Was Denzel Curry really the first big artist you were working with, or was there someone before that?
At the time, Young Savage was kind of popular for the tri-state area, but once I met Denzel and them—Denzel had like 5,000 followers on Twitter. To me back then I was like, "damn, you're someone!" So they were for sure the first ones that I started fucking with that did have a buzz, or a presence on the internet.
With "Ultimate" and stuff, Denzel really went through this phase after he left Raider Klan where he reemerged with this new sound. Is that something that you two worked on together?
It is, but it's never anything that we really talked about. That's what I really want people to understand about the process of me getting to where I am. It's never really been conversations. It's not really strategic. Even though now I definitely try to move with a plan. But all of these songs, I never asked him to hop on the beats. It just kind of happens. We'll just be vibing. At that time, when me and Denzel made Imperial and "Ultimate," we were living together. So it was just literally just us being boys and just waking up and just doing what we do. Like a regular day.
Were you in that big-ass house they had?
The ULT house? Yeah. It was cool, bro. Honestly it was just a hangout spot. At least like five new people there every single day. It was a very creative space.
In making those beats, were you referencing any sort of grime or dancehall type stuff?
I feel like naturally, I am really inspired by EDM music. I love going to raves. I love that type of shit. But when I'm actually making a beat, I don't really ever try to recreate anything I already heard. I might hear like a rhythm or an 808 pattern and be like damn, OK, let me try to incorporate it, but I'm not going to actually recreate it. I never try to recreate anything I already made. A lot of times people are like, "yo Ronny, let me get something like 'Ultimate' or 'Sippin' Tea,'" and I don't do that. I probably did it one time for money. But I'm not really into that.
Why do you think you and Denzel connected so strongly?
Denzel is a really aggressive person, too. Especially when it comes to him recording. But what a lot of people don't know is Denzel is actually a really nice kid. Him being so genuine, me being so genuine, we just kinda clicked. Like I said, there's never really conversations like, "All right bro, so, y'know, I think you're cool, you're cool, let's fuck with each other." It was never like that. It just kind of happened.
So after Denzel, it's kind of an acceptance of your sound. What did you do after that?
I don't really feel like there was just a time when I was like, "I'm done with Denzel, now I'm moving on to the next thing." There was just a time when Denzel signed and he had more resources, so he wanted to venture off and work with other producers. Which I'm totally for. And then I guess at the same time I started really working with Smokepurpp and Lil Pump heavy. 'Cause we all lived in Miami, so it was just there. We started dropping shit, and we just started getting millions of plays in like three days. Now we all have deals. Everyone's getting signed. Denzel was the first one to get a deal out of all of us, but now basically all of us have deals. It's just a beautiful thing.
Talk about meeting Pump and Purpp. You guys were in Miami together. Who introduced you?
I just always had seen them on the internet. I was like, "who are these guys? I've never even seen them." And Purpp really started blowing up crazy, so one day I hit him up, I'm like "Yo, let's link up." And then we made that song called "Kilo." It's a banger. So yeah, that was how I met them. I just hit them up through Twitter, and then we just linked up.
And Pump was hanging out with Purpp at that time?
Yeah, they were just at the crib, bro. Literally just at the crib. I brought over my shit—my mic, my computer—and we just went to work.
For those that don't know Lil Pump, how would you describe him?
Lil Pump's cool as fuck. Like all these niggas is really my bros, you know? He's just fun. X is fun too, but X is more laid back. He's not really into going out and doing crazy shit like that. Pump and Purpp, they're all about just going hard with the drugs, the fast lifestyle. They're really just fun honestly.
We've got to talk about XXX, too. How did you first meet him?
I met XXX through a mutual friend me and Denzel have. He came over, and he was like "Yo, I got these two kids, X and Ski, they're from Broward, you guys gotta link up." Literally the same day, X and Ski came over. Denzel was, like, trying to talk to them about what to do, but they was already kinda doing their shit. They wasn't really trying to hear it. And then later on that day, me, X, and Yoshi Thompkins, which is under C9, we ended up making a song. X was cool, he just wasn't really talkative. That's just kinda like his vibe. If he doesn't know you, he's kind of chilling. But I already knew that he was solid, just because of how he was acting. That's why I can relate to him, 'cause he doesn't just give himself to just anybody. It has to be special. It has to be right.
It got to the point to where he kept coming over—him and Ski—and we just kept doing shit. That was around the time when Denzel Curry made "ULT." Everything was just bubbling right there. We just had hella plans, throwing parties, doing a bunch of different shit. And then it got to the point where X was living with us. So we just started working on a bunch of stuff. And that's was kinda like how we built our relationship. X has always been one of my favorites. Just because he's so diverse. He's super passionate. I love the way he works. Straight to it, no bullshit. He doesn't waste no time. He knows exactly what he wants, which, I can relate. I always know what I want. For sure. He's my bro. Forever.
What's it like for you now that every artist wants to work with you and you've got the major label deal?
My money's on a whole different level. My confidence has been on a whole different level, but now it's on a whole 'nother level. Only because now I know that people are really fucking with what I do. Just like, without even trying.
I have a lot of crazy opportunities on the table. I'm working on movie soundtracks. I'm working with the biggest EDM producers. I'm working with Skrillex. We're doing crazy, next-level collabs, too. It's not even just Ronny J making an EDM beat. We're doing crazy shit that's never been done before.
Another thing I'm working on is a South Florida project called Oh My God, Ronny, and it's going to be featuring all of the most relevant top artists from Florida that I already work with. It's going to be a bunch of bangers on one tape. The only outside production I'm going to have is a beat with Travis Barker, so that's going to be legendary as well.
Do you have any goals for this year specifically?
Take over. I will no longer have to introduce myself, ever. My goal is to be a millionaire by 25.
You already are on the charts, it looks like!
I mean the numbers don't lie, bro. We not over here buying followers, buying plays. This shit is real life.
Is there a dream artist that you might want to work with?
I wish I was able to work with Michael Jackson, that would've been legendary. But I really want to fuck with Justin Bieber. Uzi, but Uzi's going to happen. The Weeknd. Really, bro, I love melodies. And respect to all like the legends and stuff, but I'm really all about just the future. I don't really sit around listening to a bunch of old music. That's just not what I'm on. Respect to people that do, and it's cool, but I'm always onto the next.
I want to make new sounds. I always want more. I always want new. So really, to answer your question, I just want to focus on working with a lot of new people: Playboi Carti, like the younger dudes that are really killing shit. I mean, if I ever had a chance to work with JAY-Z or whatever, that's cool. That's legendary. But, if it doesn't happen, that's cool, too.
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