As Thomas, 21, begins spring practice this week with the Hurricanes, Major Nine made a significant career breakthrough. He produced the opening track, “Apple of My Eye,” on hip-hop artist Rick Ross’s new album, “Rather You Than Me,” establishing a relaxing, yet rugged, tone to Ross’s ninth solo album in the biggest moment to date for the young producer.
Thomas exists at the intersection of South Florida’s subcultures, with football and hip-hop among its biggest influences. It’s often overlooked by those who accociate the city with the South Beach lifestyle mostly enjoyed by tourists, but it can be spotted across Biscayne Bay in Liberty City, a predominately African American community where Thomas grew up. The neighborhood is known for its poverty and crime, but rarely for the beauty produced through its perseverance.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, Trick Daddy, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Trina all call Liberty City home. These neighborhood idols instilled hope in Thomas, who finished second on the Hurricanes with 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season as one of Miami’s top defensive playmakers. He’s currently majoring in sociology with a minor in music business.
Listed at 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds, Thomas aspires to play in the NFL after his senior season, while continuing to make beats with his friends and help them stay off the streets (he’s currently in the process of building his own studio). In a 30-minute conversation with Thomas, we discussed his relationship with Ross, his passion for music and football and how he manages to find time for both in college.
How did this process come together?
I guess it took years. I met Ross in high school, and we kinda connected. He treated me like his little brother. He knew I was into music, and he knew I was into rapping. I don’t think he really knew I made beats and all that. I like doing that more than rapping. We did a song with Lil Dred called “Hurt Nobody” probably a year back. That was the first time he was on my beat, but it wasn’t his song. Sam Sneak, his DJ, kept hitting me up saying, “Send me some beats.” He never told me what it was for. I’d send him everything I made. Out of nowhere, he called me and said, “I got him on your beat.”
When did you first meet Ross?
It was either 2013 or 2014. I think it was 2014. Someone set up a meeting with the top high school players on our high school team to meet him at Dave & Busters. A woman that worked for Ross that had a son on the team set it up. I wasn’t going to go at first, but my position coach [Pierre Senatus] just kept calling my phone like, “Where you at?” I’m like, “I’m home.” He said, “I’m coming to get you. We’re going to meet Rick Ross.” I just hopped up, threw on some clothes and went to Dave & Busters.
Is it crazy thinking what would’ve happened if you didn’t go to that event?
If I ain’t go, I would’ve missed out on a lot. That opportunity probably would’ve never came back to me again. I’m happy that I did it.
What did you think about the end result of “Apple of My Eye,” which featured Raphael Saadiq?
I was too happy. It dropped a week after my mama’s birthday, and I wanted to surprise her with it. I couldn’t even wait until the day of the album. I just told my mom I made a beat for Ross, and it’s going to be on his intro. I told my daddy, and he said we’ve gotta print the check stubs and frame that. We’ve gotta go buy the hard copy.
It made me drop a tear. The song really touched me. It spoke my life. Then to think that I made the beat, just to come from where I’m from in Miami in Liberty City, a lot of people don’t get opportunities like this. When they do, they either mess it up or somebody messes it up for them. I felt blessed for that opportunity.
Listen to the track here (warning: contains offensive language):
What role has football and hip-hop played in Miami’s subculture?
Football definitely means the world to Liberty City, really Miami. Down here, we produce the best football players. That’s not just a saying, you can look up the facts. I guess it’s our environment. We’re a product of our environment. When you grow up and go outside, the first thing you’re going to play is football. You don’t see us with a basketball goal on the side of the street or tied to a pole. We don’t really do that down here.
We feel like that’s our only way out. And with rapping, we’ve had so many idols down here — JT Money, Luke, We’ve got Plies and all that to represent Florida. If these people can do it, we know we can do it, because there’s so much talent in Miami when it comes to rapping and football.
What sparked your passion for music?
My first time hearing music, I liked it. My first song I ever heard was Mystikal, “Here I Go”. Those were really my first words as a child. So it was just listening to music and then coming up in the church, watching the musicians. Children would be bored in the church, but they recognize the musicians and the music. I just said I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to play just one instrument though. I wanted to play all the instruments. [Thomas plays nine instruments — piano, organ, drums, guitar, bass guitar, trombone, clarytone, tuba and trumpet – and he’s learning the saxophone.]
There seems to be more athletes pursuing other careers on top of sports these days. What do you think about this changing climate?
I think that’s important because, back then, the athletes only had football. Us just watching them growing up, “Oh, he was nice at football.” Then once he retired, where he went at? You’ll never see that person again. They were making a lot of money, but football money don’t last that long. You’re just sitting there spending it and wasting time. I feel like my generation, like when I played at the Under Armour All-America game, I met players from all over the world.
We were on the bus one day, and I heard people from other states talking me like, “Bro, I listen to your music.” That blew my mind. Then, I’m watching what other people can do. I know football players that can build guns. I know other football players that can rap and make music that sounds good. A lot of people don’t know Jabrill Peppers knows how to rap. He just declared for the NFL, but he’s nice. There’s so many that take on other talents because football is “not for long.” Our bodies are going to give out on football one day, and I know we can’t just sit around.
You want to use all of your talents. Football, as a sport, it really teaches you life. You learn how to work with people, you learn how to get stuff done fast with time management. It’s all types of stuff football teaches you that I guess my generation, we heard it from other generations, is using it for other stuff — not just football.
How difficult is it to explain that concept to people that just want you to #StickToSports?
A lot of people just see the image, and they don’t want to pay attention to the process. I can’t really explain the process to people, you know? Everybody probably thinks I’m just sitting there, going to the studio all the time and being there late at night. Really, I’ve got my own studio in my room, so I ain’t got to go nowhere. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got to spend these hours on my music.” I really make music when I feel like it. I could be laying in bed and wanna just get up for 30 minutes and make some music.
I can’t really explain my process to everybody because everybody will say, “You’re doing too much of this. You need to stick to football.” But I never listen to outsiders because they don’t understand. They couldn’t live my life. I can’t just have a Plan A. My Plan A is school, and my Plan B is football, really. And I gotta have a Plan C and D. I try to learn as much as possible.