The OG Bobby Johnson star talks
In a 26th floor Midtown conference room, the team at Atlantic Records is trying to figure out how to market Que, the buzzing Atlanta rapper who's visiting for the first time since signing a deal in December. His song “O.G Bobby Johnson” is the biggest viral and club hip-hop hit in the country: Jay Z has been playing it before his concerts, and LeBron James posted a video of himself dancing to it on Instagram in December. It's the current go-to song for rappers to freestyle over (in case you're wondering, Que's favorite is Rico Love's), and it's climbing the charts.
But there's also a problem as the song explodes, which is what the Atlantic team is worried about: People don't really know who Que is. At recent shows, he's had the promoters address him as “Mr. Bobby Johnson.” A theme in interviews over the past few weeks is whether Que can avoid being a one-hit wonder, and the whole angle around his persona—even before the deal—has centered on the question “Who is Que?” It's both his Twitter handle and the title of his upcoming mixtape, which is due out in March. As Que puffs on an e-cigarette and shares his biography (only child, former basketball player, simple fashion preference, fan of “weird” music), the team throws out suggestions for building recognition: Make sure Que's name is on those “O.G. Bobby Johnson” hoodies they've been handing out? Book some shows at SXSW?
Maybe it's an effect of the hard-to-Google, one-syllable name (it's pronounced like the letter Q, by the way), maybe it's simply a lesson learned from the challenges of any number of Atlanta artists who have scored minor hits in the last few years and not done much since, but it seems odd that Que is having this problem. In person, he's friendly, enthusiastic, easy to relate to and seemingly eager to meet new people. Although his recorded output is still limited to a joint mixtape with longtime friend Sonny Digital, Forbes Atlanta, and a few loose tracks, it's uniformly solid. Que already has a few other minor successes, including the Ludacris song “Nine Times Outta Ten,” “Same Bitch” featuring Tracy T and, most notably, “Young Nigga,” the Migos collaboration that served as a breakout moment for both acts. Future was trying to sign him, and Juicy J is a big supporter.
Que's style is in line with much of the straightforward, excited music that's come out of his city in the last few years, but he stands out due to a distinct, raspy voice and a deceptively complex lyrical approach (his favorite rapper is Eminem). Due to his friendship with producers Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin, he also has an enviable team of collaborators at his disposal, many of whom rotate around, party and record at Sonny's house, which they call Club 516. Que is more or less positioned for success, and he's the kind of smart, humble guy you can't help but root for. We sat down with him after his label meeting to talk about the magic of Club 516, convincing his mom that music was an acceptable career choice and the finer points of shipbuilding. Yes, like Navy ships.
Noisey:Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin. How did you guys meet?
Que: They're both like my brothers, man. We've been knowing each other before the music. Me and Metro actually really got close and started popping off around the same time. As far as me and Sonny, like, blood couldn't make us any closer. You take the music out the picture, way out the picture, I'm always going to be there for him, and he's always going to be there for me. We grew up together, from like sixth grade, eleven, twelve years old. And we've been cool ever since. It just happened that he blew up, and I'm doing what I'm doing now. When I say blood can't make us any closer, literally, when I'm at home, you see Sonny you're going to see me. If you see me, you're going to see Sonny. That's it. Way before the music. We damn near live together.
But you had to kind of convince him to do music together?
Yeah, I had to prove myself. It's kind of like playing basketball. If you're playing basketball, [and] you want to be on my team, you shoot a three first. Make a layup first. You could be sorry. I'm not just going to pick you up. And then when I started proving myself, then he started believing in me more and seeing the progress. He's like “okay, it's time.” So working with me now – hell, I've got his hard drive. I can go through his hard drive. I know all the passwords to his computer. He knows all my passwords. Matter of fact, we share a hard drive. So, yeah, brothers. Literally that close.
What else do you guys do when you hang out?
Tell mama jokes. Shit, that's how close we are. Watch. I should FaceTime him, but I won't do it. I just got off FaceTime. I was in there telling mama jokes, messing with him. He's got a key to my house, I've got a key to his. I might stay at his mama's house, he might stay at mine.
Where did you go to college?
A school called The Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia. It was like a package thing. I had to work, go to school and play basketball. If I didn't do one I couldn't do anything. I was a welder. Are you familiar with Northrop Grumman, the company? I worked for them building ships for the Navy. My field was a welder, though.
That's crazy. How long were you doing that?
Man, for like three months. I didn't like it. I wanted to go to school for engineering, but they put me in for that. I had to deal with it because I wanted to play basketball, but it wasn't anything I wanted to do. So I was like “Fuck this, I can't do it. This is not me. I know this isn't me.” You know how there's some shit you can just feel? Like, regardless of what your mom tells you. Like, “ma, you're going to be mad at me now. Three, four, five years down the line you'll be like 'okay.' You'll get over it.” I've been dealing with that up until, hell, a couple months ago.
So did you drop out?
Kind of. I fell asleep on the job. (Laughs) That wasn't me. I'm not going to lie. I kind of did it for [my mom]. And shit, man, [it'd] be like one day, I'd have a game, I'd have to go work from 7 to 3:30, then I'd have school, then practice from like fucking 8 to like 10:30, then we'd fly all the way to like fucking Rhode Island or some shit. And come back, first thing in the morning I'd have to do all that shit over again.
You know when you're a welder, the tint [on the mask] is so dark because it's like ultraviolet light. Even when you get close up to it, you cannot see through the tint because it'll blind you. So I put the thing over my face, the mask, and I kind of tried to position myself to make it look like I was trying to figure out how I was going to do this shit. But the whole time I was like this (leans head on hands). I even had my knee right here, like the gun was sitting up, trying to make it look I was just watching, like trying to figure out how I was going to do it, but I was just knocked the fuck out. The captain came, and he was tapping me on my shoulder. And I didn't move I guess. I don't know. He said he went and got three supervisors, and they'd been tapping me. And then when they finally woke me up they were like “were you asleep?!” I'm like “nah, nah, nah, I'm trying to figure out –“ They're like, “yo, we've been here for 30 fucking minutes tapping you.” I'm like “fuck, I'm busted.” So it was like, “fuck it.” It's all experience. It's cool, though. I had fun while I was doing it. I don't regret any of it.
That's definitely a unique experience. Not many rappers have a background in welding.
Yeah, and I know how to weld shit, too. With the proper equipment. I've got the technique.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever welded?
I don't know. Just plates. It would be like – there's so many fields in building ships. It's like positions. You weld a fucking plate together. Then they put it together, and then they put it together with a bigger piece. And then you put this bigger piece together, and then that's when they go attach it to the boat. I had just started off, so I was just welding fucking plates all day. Literally from 7 to 3:30. All fucking day. And then it'd be like, I'd have these clothes on, like three pairs of socks, some steel-toed boots, plus a jumpsuit over it. I'd be so fucking hot in the warehouse with the gun. I was like “I can't do this shit. This shit's for the birds.”
Did you know you wanted to rap when you came back?
Yeah, I did. I said I was going to take it seriously. I didn't have anything else to do. I would go play basketball, of course. Lift weights. But as far as me being productive and doing something that was going to help me financially, I wasn't really doing shit. Except doing dumb shit in the streets, and I knew that wasn't going to lead anywhere.
Actually, I'm lying. I went to Georgia Perimeter. I enrolled in Georgia Perimeter, but that didn't work out because I would end up staying in the studio all night. In the studio, just sleeping there and lying to my mama: “I did go to school today.” And she's like, “you're fucking lying! They called me today!” So after a while she was just like, “look, if you're going to do it, you better do it. Because you've got to get the hell up out of my house.”
Is she more supportive now?
Yeah, it's just show and prove. I don't fault her. You just want the best for your child, just like any parent would. And you know how this goes. There's a million people who want to be artists. There's a million people who want to play basketball. And the good thing with the basketball thing, I was already doing it. I had letters coming in, so it was like already a thing she believed. Because she supported me my whole life.
So I just moved to this whole different field—and she's been in the industry—she's like, “What the fuck differentiates you from the rest?” She just didn't want me to end up putting time in this and then that's it, you fucked up, and you'll be working at fucking Kroger or some shit. I was scared, too, but it's just something in you. II feel like personally I'm too talented. The only thing that stops people from making it, in my opinion, is networking and hard work. Hard work beats talent any day. You make a hundred fucking songs, one of them is going to create some type of buzz, if not a hit.
So when was this?
Like 2010. You know the song “Racks on Racks?” Literally then. That was Sonny's first song, and that was like “Oh shit, this shit's real.” And I saw all the love he was getting. I saw the success he was getting from it. And all he did was stay out of the streets and just work. On the fucking computer, bro. Like, he's doing all this, he's making all this noise, this successful just from a fucking computer. All he's doing is in there studying and shit. What makes me different from that? Just my dedication, my work ethic.
And he believed in me and took the time out and still takes the time out to work with me. Even right now I could call him up and be like “bro, come over to the house tomorrow, we've got to work.” Because it's all in the family now. He knows if I [go] off and get paid it's going to go right back to him. It's like a circular thing. And that was his whole thing, too. I won't say he used me, but it was kind of like an investment. If you're going to invest your time, invest it the right way. He knows I've been there from day one. I'm never going to turn my back on him. There's no reason why – it just so happened I caught “Bobby Johnson” – my next hit shouldn't be by damn Sonny Digital. You have the best beats in damn near the country. It makes sense.
You have the right people in your corner.
Yeah. Metro's my brother. Shit, we've all lived with Sonny at one point or another. Me, Metro, Sonny, we all stayed under one roof at one point. And that's when everybody started breaking off and doing their own thing and was able to go do their own thing. I went over here, Metro went over here, Sonny went over there, but at the end of the day we all come back. Not even on any music. Like “where you going for Thanksgiving?” “I dunno, shit, my mama ain't cooking. I'm coming to your house.”
What about Tracy T and Migos? Are they all part of that same house there too?
Yeah, they've all recorded there, too. Tracy T and them my brother too. Bruh, that house is like fucking gold. Literally. It's like everybody that touches the house, literally everybody that touches the house, something happens. I don't know if it's the fucking house. I don't know if it's Sonny's presence that he has on people. I don't know. I can't call it. All I know is everybody that comes through that house and works, it's just like they end up doing something.
You've all had a huge year.
It's fucking crazy. Even fucking K. Camp. I'm not saying that's why he's successful, but there's been times he's recorded over there. I don't know man, it's crazy. It's like “Bro, you can't get rid of this house. If you do decide to move, let's go half on the rent and use it as a studio.”
Do people spend the night there? Are there a lot of bedrooms?
Yeah. Man, I get chewed out from my old lady all the time: “You ain't come home! Who you with?” And I fell asleep on the floor. I've been recording all fucking day. Sonny's at the desk like this (puts head on table), asleep. I'm on the floor. Tracy T may be on the couch downstairs asleep. Metro may be on the floor downstairs asleep, too.
You mentioned your girlfriend inspiring that song, “Time,” earlier, too. How has getting more famous affected your relationship?
The last trip I came here definitely inspired [“Time”]. The same day I came back was the same day my girlfriend came over and was like “you ain't ever got no time! All you ever do is sleep!” The only time we get into it is when I'm asleep. It's not 'cause I'm out messing with other girls. It's 'cause I'm snapping at her like “leave me alone! I'm trying to sleep!”
She pissed me off, and I'm like “I'm about to go record.” And I don't know. “I ain't got time for that shit”: It just came up. And then—I don't know if you know Sweet Georgia Brown, “Ain't nobody got time for that!”—that, too. I just came up with a little line. That line, “My bitch mad, I ain't got time for her.” I played it for her the next day. She said “Ah, you're talking about me, ain't you?” I was like, “Uh, no!”
Is your career hard on your relationship, though?
I mean, it is, but I knew what it was, and she knew what it was when I first came into it. So it's something you deal with.
You said your mom was involved in the music industry. What did she do?
Yeah, she was. You know the group Rehab? Are you familiar with them? They were pretty big back in like 2000, 2001. They were two males, by the name of Danny and Brooks. They were kind of like a hip-hop/country/pop kind of? You have to hear it, but it was dope as fuck, bro. I swear. If you listen to them now, I almost guarantee you'll like them. One is still on tour now.
But basically it was their group. They had gotten signed to Epic. It was my mom and my uncle's group. They had a label by the name of Destiny Music, which was named after my first cousin. She was a baby at the time, so they named it that. It was actually pretty successful. I guess they just got tired of the industry or whatever? I don't know what the fuck happened. I was young, so I didn't question it. I still don't. But yeah, they've been around. My aunt worked for LaFace Records too, so I've been around it my whole life. Usher, Bobby Brown, Whitney [Houston] used to always be around. All these people, all the time. TLC.
But you never looked at that and said “I want to make music?”
I was around it so much. Not that I wasn't interested, but, like, you see somebody doing something so much you just don't pay attention to it. Like if your little brother draws all the time. If you walk in the house and he's drawing, at a point in time you're just going to walk by. You already know what he's doing. So it was like, I started playing basketball, and I would play around with it, like rapping for my mom and my aunt and my uncle. I would just play around with it, make jokes rapping and shit. But I started taking it seriously about four or five years ago.
Would you ever write raps out in school or whatever?
I would try to, but then I wasn't really that good with it. Because I'd just be very impatient. That's another thing. Sonny definitely taught me how to be patient. Because you definitely have to be patient in this industry. I would come up with a line, two lines, and I would sit there: “man, fuck this shit!” or whatever and throw it away.
What's your process now?
Basically I just freestyle. I'll write sometimes, like when I have ideas. A lot of my ideas come when I'm out, when I'm in the club. I come up with an idea or a line or whatever, and I just jot it down in my phone. I've got a million ideas in my phone. Not so much songs and lyrics, but just ideas and shit.
Is that what happened with “O.G. Bobby Johnson?” You were just going through your email and you found the beat, right?
Yup. I recorded “Bobby Johnson” – I found the beat at like 8 AM. I did the hook, did a verse, stopped and waited like another week. Came back and did like half a verse. And then waited a couple days, came back, did half of the verse. And then waited like another week. I would come up with dope ideas, and I'd just go say one line, save it, come back, say another line, save it.
Do you do that a lot?
Yeah, I do. Depending on how much I like the track. Because I know I'm going to come up with dope ideas when I'm not trying to rap, when I'm not thinking about it. When I'm just at home thinking of some random shit. So I've got a lot of songs that are unfinished just off the strength of I don't like forcing anything. Personally, I like quality over quantity. I can go record a million songs, but what's the point in doing that? You've got 20 songs and they're okay as opposed to just one fucking crazy ass song. I prefer this one crazy ass song over 15 okay songs.
That one, it's also the producer's name.
Bobby Johnson. Oh yeah, the idea came to me right there.
Had you ever heard of him before?
Uh-uh. He lives in Germany, so I've never even met him. He reached out to me on Twitter after I put the track out because it started going crazy. I had to tell him to give me his number, and he gave me like a 15-digit number. I was like “Bro, I said your number. What the fuck is this?” He's like “I live in Germany!” I was like “Oh shit, my bad.” So I FaceTimed him. He's like “Bro, thank you so much. I appreciate it.” I'm like “Bro, thank you. I appreciate you.” So ever since then, we just keep in contact. He sends me beats all the time. Like I'm the first person to get all the beats now. Matter of fact, I talked to him yesterday.
Do you do that often, where you pull beats out of your email?
Oh yeah. Personally I think there's more dope producers that don't get recognition than producers that do. I find a beat I like, I like it regardless of who did it. Hell, regardless if fucking she did it (gestures to another person in room). If it's dope, it's dope.
As far as all the remixes and the freestyles, have there been any where you've been really surprised or flattered that someone's gotten on the track?
I mean everybody, really. Everybody. It's like 50/50 because it's like my first track to really set the tone and to really put me out there. So it's like, when they do their own remix, half of me is like “damn, that's my song.” The other half of me is like “okay, it's only because they fuck with the song.” It's kind of like they're cosigning it. It means you're a dope artist.
Kyle Kramer never really FaceTimes. He's also not good at welding. But he is on Twitter - @KyleKramer