It’s easy to forget that in his early 2000s heyday, Ja Rule had a case to be considered the biggest hip-hop artist in the world.
Following back-to-back chart-topping albums with Rule 3:36 in 2000 and the massive Pain Is Love in 2001, Ja was on constant rotation on the radio and on MTV and in constant demand for featured guest spots. The 46-year-old isn’t troubling the charts with as much frequency today, but the rapper and entrepreneur has maintained a level of cultural relevance through recent television projects, his sprawling business empire and his growing presence in the music streaming space.
Nostalgia for the hip-hop of Ja’s golden era has kept him touring but also informed the rapper’s Vibes Concert Series, where legendary MCs perform their most classic albums in an intimate setting. On Nov. 21, New York rapper Rakim will be the latest artist to perform as part of the Vibes series presented by Ja’s ICONN Live, a music live-streaming and networking app. Performing at New York’s Sony Hall, Rakim will run through the classic Eric B & Rakim 1987 album Paid In Full. “The God MC” joins the likes of Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Big Daddy Kane and Ja himself who have performed their most highly regarded album live.
As well as the successes, there have been some setbacks, not least Ja’s association with the Fyre Festival controversy that erupted in 2017 and has come back into the news due to convicted fraudster Billy McFarland’s recent moves to make yet another documentary related to the ill-fated event.
Speaking to over Zoom ahead of Rakim’s Vibes gig, Ja spoke about the impetus behind the concert series, the last time he saw DMX and gave his considered response to the increasing violence in hip-hop that has seen a number of young rappers die in recent years. He also talked about why he never really leaned into acting despite some early success and revealed his thoughts on the Fyre Festival documentaries and whether he’s been in touch with McFarland.
What pushed you to create ICONN?
I created ICONN during the pandemic. I went on Instagram and everything was virtual at the time. Seeing D-Nice DJing virtually, artists were doing virtual concerts and stuff. It just felt like a time for a new platform that catered to all of these needs for a pandemic type of situation. And so I built that, what you get with ICONN, [unlike with] a lot of these other apps, Instagram and Twitter, they didn’t have certain features. They didn’t have tips, you couldn’t tip in real-time. I put that on my platform because I seen D-Nice djing, doing his Club Quarantine and everybody was on there, I mean all the stars, everybody. And they were trying to find ways to tip them, and they couldn’t. He put his CashApp up there and I was like, man, if he could do that in real time, man, that would be a really cool thing. So I kind of put the tips on there. I created a way for artists to do virtual meet and greets, you know, can book an artist on ICONN to do virtual meet and greet type things with them. Pay-per-view, virtual performances, the whole thing, you know, can have six people at one time on the platform so you can do live chat.
And so I pivoted a little bit into original content and I did that because that’s the thing that I can create and build where nobody can re-create and build. If I create something really dope, like Vibes concerts series, that’s my original content that lives on ICONN and people can go see that there exclusively.
Could you explain what Vibes is?
Vibes is dope, man. I take an iconic artist and they perform their classic albums. Usually when you go to a concert, artists perform all the hits, they go, you see them perform the hit records. Well this is more about that classic body of work, those amazing albums that we love from front to back and those album cuts, those deep album cuts that are special to a lot of people that artists never get to perform if any time. So this concert is special in that way. And I do it a live band playing with the artists. They wear suits. So it’s a real grown-up night of hip-hop, a different vibe. It’s kind of like my version of the Cotton Club. (Laughs.)
And they tell the stories behind the music. That’s another key component to this. They tell the stories behind the album, what they were going through when they made the album, some cool stuff that you want to know about some of your favorite records off that classic album. So it’s a real cool vibe.
Who has done Vibes so far? You’ve done one, obviously, with Pain Is Love…
I did the first one Raekwon and Ghost. I did Pain Is Love, my album. Raekwon and Ghost did Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Top fucking hip-hop albums of all time. Big Daddy Kane, he just did Long Live The Kane and fucking destroyed it. Killed it. And then in another two weeks I got Rakim, “The God MC,” he’s doing this classic Paid In Full, another hip-hop album that’s revered as one of the best hip-hop albums ever. I’m so glad I got two of the best albums, kind of early.
Who else have you lined up to do one?
So many artists that I’ve reached out to and honestly have been reaching out to me. I don’t wanna give away too much of who’s gonna be coming down the pipe, but I will say this, we’re going to start going with artists that are more recent and with some of those classic albums that are more my era and after. So we’re getting the whole gamut of hip-hop.
Are you still recording?
I’m always recording, man. It’s funny. Me and Ghostface, we just started working on a joint album coming out really, really cool. So I’m always creating, that’s part of me that’s always gonna be in my DNA. But being able to do these other business ventures, it really, it’s like for me the growth, it’s the inevitable next thing, the next step to Ja Rule and my creativity. I realized through these years that what I’m really, really great at is creating, whether it be music or platforms like ICONN or original content like Vibes concert series, my Laughing It Up comedy series, these, me being creative is where I’m at my best.
There’s been a lot of, I guess, Ja Rule related things happened recently like The Murder Inc Story documentary on BET. How much involvement did you have with that? Is that more of an Irv Gotti thing or how involved were you with that production?
I had a EP credit. (Laughs.) But no, the doc was amazing. It was more of Gotti’s production and Gotti put it together, so it came out amazing, I must say, I thought it was done very well. Big shout to [Michael J. Payton] who also was a big part of that and helped Gotti put that together. Dope doc
Are you involved in the proposed scripted TV series about Murder Inc? Is it definitely happening?
Oh, the Murder Inc. series. Yeah, that’s another one of Gotti’s productions. A [Visionary Ideas] production. We got two different things going on. He’s got Visionary where he creates shows like [BET series Tales] and obviously the doc. And we work together on some of those things. And then I have ICONN, which is my thing. And I’m also doing original content, but I’m more of the network. I created a network that if I create the content I have somewhere I can put it and place it and people can go and watch it exclusively on ICONN.
But do you wanna do scripted and unscripted stuff for ICONN?
Absolutely. You’ve scripted, unscripted, all that stuff is coming to ICONN, like 15 projects, shows that I’m working on right now. Original content shows that I’m working on. One of them happens to be my daughter’s. She’s a screenwriter and an actress. She’s really, really talented. So keeping it in the family too.
Is there anything you can talk about or is it still development stuff?
I mean some of it’s still in development, but of course we can start talking about some of it. My next original content offering will be a comedy series called Laughing It Up and it’s gonna be really, really fun, man, a vibe if you’ve ever seen one at a comedy show.
So is that stand-up?
Absolutely. New stand-up comedians. Up-and-coming guys and guys that been in the business a long time. Kind of like what Def Comedy Jam was, but a little bit with my own spin on it, a little bit different. Instead of a set host and different comedians every week I’ll gonna have a different host and his set of comedians every week. So it’ll be its own thing and a lot of fun for the comedians and everybody involved.
Nice. So can we talk a little bit about your career? I’m a year late as the 20 year anniversary of Pain Is Love was last year and that record still holds up so well.
I mean, it does, man. Yeah. I’m so thankful for that. I’m so grateful for that. For sure. For sure. Man. Geez.
Twenty-one years on, how do you see the record? Has it held you back or has it moved you forward? How do you feel about it now?
I mean, it’s the gift that keeps on giving man. That album is probably one of my best albums. I have my favorites, but…
What are your favorites?
I would say [Venni Vetti Vecci] because it’s my whole life story. My whole life up [to that point] was put into that album. It’s definitely up there as one of my top albums and 20 years later to still be out and sell sold out shows. I’m still doing arenas. What I’m saying, we’re still selling out arenas. You don’t get that in hip-hop, that was reserved for rock and roll. Classic artists and rock and roll legends, they can go out and tour. I think that moment is starting to happen for hip-hop because hip-hop is growing up a lot.
I grew up the same era and I feel like there were albums before where you sat down and listened to the whole album. It gave you an idea of where that artist was or what they’re trying to get across an idea across a number of songs. Whereas now, for me, it’s all singles. I don’t know about you, but I feel like it’s all about singles. Do you think there’s something lost in that or is it just different?
It’s just different. Everything has to evolve and I think artists would love to bring back that feeling of putting together a whole album so you can have those classic album moments, you know what I mean? But the way people consume music is very different now with all the streaming platforms, I can go there and listen to a thousand songs a day. That was almost impossible. It was impossible back in our day, you know, you had to have booklets with CDs in it! But it is just the way we consume music and television and everything, it’s just a lot different and it calls for a lot of less attention span from consumers. And so the singles, it just feeds them a lot faster.
You became a crossover star because of the singles…
But I didn’t, it’s so crazy because I didn’t have that concept in my head at the time. I just made music. We weren’t, in my era, so aware of No. 1 records, No. 1 albums… I didn’t really understand the magnitude of having a No. 1 album in the whole country — over all the albums in the country. We weren’t that aware or at least wasn’t at the time.
I was really just, ignorance is bliss. A young kid from the hood just making music and that melodic flow and no styles that came from the music I was making. And the music, the beats that I was rapping over weren’t your typical hardcore hip-hop beats. They were more melodic. They had a R&B vibe and feel to ’em. And so that melodic flow came naturally. And then the conscious effort of making these records came because I was in between my brothers, which was two juggernauts. Jay-Z is the ultimate fly, flossy money dude. He had that whole thing sewed up, and then DMX was the ultimate grimy street dude. And so he had that whole audience sewed up. And so for me, I fit somewhere in the middle of those guys and came in my own lane and [aimed] the women with my records and that was my thing. So it was like what started out to be just something that felt good and also became a consciousness effort to stand out in the middle of X and Jay.
What do you feel like your legacy is in terms of the hip-hop world? You just mentioned DMX and Jay…
That’s where we sit. What I’m saying, I’m a monster too. When people look at what I did in this industry, my impact is still felt to this day and in music and what we are doing and the melodic flows and singing and the rapping and all of that. So I had my time, I did what I did and I’m still here. Being able to be a part of the culture, push the culture forward with platforms like ICONN and things like that.
Actually on DMX, I’m sorry for your loss. How did his death impact you? I mean, it impacted everyone, but especially because you were quite close.
It hit me really hard because me, we were close. It’s always crazy when you have a friend and then y’all go through things that also shows how strong a friendship is. We come back from those things too and able to laugh about those moments too. Last time I seen X was in Miami, we did a show together during COVID and there was a bunch of those COVID parties going on and we were all there — me, X and a bunch of other artists like Tory Lanez and Busta Rhymes. It was a great moment, great night. And that was the last time I got to vibe with X and it hits home because it’s like that could be any one of us, man. We’re all getting up in age.
I preach to artists now, it’s about taking care of yourself now, get in that gym, stay healthy. We had our time to fuck around and have a lot of fun and be young and you have that time where now it comes to a time when you start looking at the other side of it and it’s like, I want to be here to see my grandkids and play with my grandkids. So that hit me kind of hard and it just made me think about: What is my legacy? What will be my legacy? What am I leaving my kids? What am I leaving behind? It makes you think about all those things. Yeah. It’s probably why I’m going so hard in my second run right now.
When you and DMX came up, there was violence and unfortunately some people died. But it feels like right now it, it’s jumped up a real notch and it seems to be way more random violence death in hip-hop.
It feels like it’s getting away from us. It’s like hip-hop is getting a little out there. I don’t wanna blame it so much on hip-hop. As much as I would say, it’s our culture, as dope as we are as a people, as Black people [we are] fun and beautiful and loving and all of those great things that we can be. This too is our culture, this dark black eye that we’re seeing right now with artists being murdered and killed, that is also our culture too. And it’s unfortunate but it is. And that’s the truth. And we gotta really start to take accountability for these things… Look in the mirror and know that we all have a part to play in what we’re seeing right now.
I work for THR, so I have to ask you about your acting career a little bit. I feel like you started off really strong with the acting, 2 Fast 2 Furious and a few other things. I feel like you could have had a great acting career.
I really do love acting. I love acting. I love the art of theater. The problem is there’s not a lot of good material for Black actors. It started to feel like for me in Hollywood it was “fill in rapper here.” It didn’t matter who the rapper was, they weren’t really looking at who. It was just like, we need one of these guys to fill some seats. And I never want to be that in anything that I do, I want to be good at it. I want to be great at it. I want to take it seriously and I want to be taken seriously. And I just didn’t feel like that was the case for me in Hollywood. So yeah, I definitely took a step back because the offers and the material and things I was doing, it just didn’t fulfill me like that.
But I’ve been saying this for years, I’ve been saying this for years. I gotta Mark Wahlberg this thing. I’m gonna have to create my own vehicles and my own film projects and things to be a part of that fit me. And I can also shine and show people that actually can act and do other things and just be this character, that character. I would love to stretch myself and play other characters and do things that people probably didn’t think Ja could do as an actor. I would love to show that side, but I have to create those things.
Okay, I have to ask about Fyre Festival. Have you spoken to Billy McFarland since he was released?
That relationship didn’t end on his best. I don’t have anything against him. I wish him all the best of luck. I don’t wish prison on nobody. It was unfortunate that what we did, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. Obviously there was a lot of mistakes made in that situation. But listen, man, we live and we learn and we move on and I wish him all the luck in the world with his new ventures and whatever he’s doing. And I hope he’s got his thing together and he’s learned from his mistakes and he move on.
Do you feel like the two documentaries — Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened — were fair?
I’ve actually never seen them, purposely obviously. But I don’t think I was portrayed fair. And of course they used me cause they needed the celebrity name on it as well. But I too was a victim in that. Yeah, of course. Nobody tells the story that way. What I’m saying, they tell it like we were in cahoots and shit and that’s so far from the truth and Billy [would] sit down and say it himself: “Ja. He didn’t have anything to do with the things that I did, the criminal aspect and the things that I did.” And so it’s just, it hurts when you see it. It be your own people not standing up for you, giving you the benefit of the doubt but rather throwing stones and shit… It is what it is. But I do say that when things don’t go according to plan when you “fail,” there’s a lot of growth that comes out of that. So I’ve grown a lot from it. I learned so much from it. That lesson was very, very valuable in a lot of ways.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.