Step onto the tour bus of hip-hop’s top hedonist and the calm is surreal. “Anything to drink?” Juicy J asks, eyes smiling behind a pair of black aviators. “Water? Hennessy?”
As his bus idles in front of the Howard Theatre in mid-May, our gracious host flops onto the couch in his post-show vestments: sweatpants, athletic socks, sandals.
Contours of marijuana buds are silk-screened onto his shirt, but the bus smells like new upholstery. The word “DRUNK” is stitched onto his hat, but he’s rehydrating with spring water. That customized stripper pole he bragged about to a rowdy audience 45 minutes earlier? It’s nowhere to be seen. Just a laptop and a microphone so he can record more escapist anthems about illicit substances and exotic dancers, should inspiration strike.
Juicy’s vices course through every moment of “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” one of the biggest hits of his 20-odd-year career and definitely the biggest hit with the Howard Theatre crowd. Released last summer, the single went gold in January and will anchor the rapper’s pummeling new solo album, “Stay Trippy,” finally out on Tuesday.
The rapper says he actually recorded “Bandz A Make Her Dance” in a two-bedroom apartment here in the District. The backing beat — its hallucinogenic thunder conjured by Atlanta producer Mike Will Made It — cosmically landed in Juicy’s e-mail inbox just as he was ironing out a rhyme about strip club transactions.
Wait. What was he doing writing raps in a D.C. apartment?
“Oh, I was out here fishing,” Juicy says.
“You know, man. Fishing.”
The air conditioner sighs.
“Fishing!” he says. Then he smiles. “Fishing for love.”
The one track on “Stay Trippy” that might qualify as a love song is called “The Woods.” Its refrain is about congress in the wilderness, and it’s sung by the finest wingman in American pop music, Mr. Justin Timberlake. The album also features Juicy’s older brother Project Pat, a posthumous verse from the late Pimp C and appearances from a handful of young rap stars who grew up memorizing his music — Wale, A$AP Rocky, Yelawolf and Wiz Khalifa among them.
Juicy’s career started in the early 1990s as a member of Three 6 Mafia. Across the late ’90s and early ’00s, the Memphis rap greats helped define the musculature of Southern rap music and most famously won an Oscar in 2006 for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” a song from the film “Hustle & Flow.” “This is the first Academy Award and nomination for Jordan Houston. . . ” the announcer declared as Juicy bounced across the stage to accept his statuette.
Back when his family still called him Jordan, Juicy spent his childhood playing drums on empty cartons of oatmeal. He remembers his grandfather yelling at him for getting too close to the piano and then finally scoring his own Casio keyboard. “It was real, real super-cheap,” he says. “Almost like a preschool toy.” And he remembers eventually buying a four-track recording machine from one of his high school teachers, marking the official start of his career as a rapper and a producer.
The dates are fuzzy. Today, Juicy says he’s in his early 30s, but other reports say he’s 36, 38, 39. “Gettin’ high like I’m 18, but I been rich since the late ’80s,” he raps in the first 20 seconds of “Stay Trippy,” blurring time with stomping syllables. He won’t land on anyone’s list of top lyricists, but there’s a distinct percussive weight to each word that plunks out of his mouth. He raps with the clarity and force of a man hammering nails.
But the chatter around Juicy J is rarely about the musicality of his rhymes and more about the bold declarations he has made leading up to the release of “Stay Trippy.” In addition to announcing that he’s producing an entire posthumous Pimp C album, he recently tweeted plans to award a $50,000 scholarship to “the best chick that can twerk” — then deleted the offer. (Somewhere, Miley Cyrus sighed.)
He might be his own best publicist, but he would also like to be his own boss. “I like L.A. Reid, Steve Barnett, Clive Davis, Barry Weiss, Lyor Cohen, Rick Rubin,” he says, rattling off a laundry list of record-biz barons over the phone a few months after the Howard show. “I want to follow in the footsteps of those guys. . . . I’ve always wanted to run a major label.”
But for now, more touring, more music.
“I’m a producer first, and that’s what I love,” Juicy says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m still relevant today. I know music. I keep my ear to the street, and I’m always in the studio, always working. I know what it takes to make good song.”
Drinks? Drugs? Debauchery? Discipline.
Juicy J performs at the Rock the Bells festival at RFK Stadium on Sept. 29.