For rappers, “authenticity,” and whether the persona in question actually lived his adventures, seems an afterthought in the Rick Ross era. Now, most of what’s important is that we believe the rapper, however he comes across. Rockie Fresh, blessed with a Maybach Music Group record deal and all the trappings of stardom (list-only shows in the heart of hip Williamsburg; surprise birthday parties thrown by his record label; a wardrobe designed for ergonomic cool; a co-sign from Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump which legally guarantees him an automatic mid-day spot at Lollapalooza) at the scant age of 22, is figuring it out. Undeniably dextrous on the microphone and gifted with a visible network including Ross himself, Rockie’s still incubating as he prepares to release his full-length debut some time next year. (Several mixtapes and high profile collaborations have been well-received, though they’ve yet to herald him a rap game savior.)
Curiously, what he describes as his “chill” perspective—a low-key authorial voice responding reasonably to his life’s various adventures—will end up inseparable from his rapidly advancing career, now that he’s been plucked from obscurity and groomed by mainstream stardom by the more experienced Ross. If Rockie’s self-avowed strength is sounding relatable, how will he interpret his own increased profile for fans? When we speak at the Atlantic Records office in Midtown, his answer is predictable: He’ll just keep doing what he’s doing, growing and reflecting in real time and seeing if the audience responds favorably. There’s little braggadocio when he talks about progressing as a rapper, showing a patience for waiting as his persona narrows into focus. (You can download his newest mixtape, The Birthday Tape, right here.)
Tell me about growing up in Chicago.
I grew up all around the city but I rep for the suburbs. One because it’s kind of different, and two because that’s where I went to high school, that’s where I really gained a lot of my knowledge. That’s really when I broke out of my shell a lot more. I just started exploring the things that I really wanted to do as a person, and that’s when I got into music.
What are you trying to express with your music?
Well for me, I feel like I’m a real chill dude. I really don’t get into anywhere near the amount of trouble that I used to get into. But even, the trouble that I was getting into as a youngin, it was more so with me just being curious, you know what I’m saying, and really wanting to know how to be successful out here in ways that weren’t by the books. I feel like a lot of kids, just seeing so many young people make it, and especially from Chicago, seeing someone like Chief Keef and myself and people like King Louie getting these deals and things like that. We didn’t necessarily take the standard route. I feel like there’s a lot to be learned and with those guys they represent a different aspect of it.
For me, you know what I’m saying, I represent the more artsy type of feel. The more chill type of vibe. And I want to show young people that you can really be calm out here and still reach your goal without being so, you know. With being yourself, really. I feel like people look at me and the video styles that I do and the type of songs that I make and they really see somebody that is going to try and achieve something different, whether they get it right now or not. Also, I feel like they understand that I’m comfortable with who I am and with my voice. You never really hear me yell on tracks. And that’s really what I want to promote through my music, just being comfortable with you and letting that work for you, whatever that means.
There’s a line you have about the duality of being called the future of rap but also wondering if there’s a tomorrow. That struck me as sort of a very millennial sentiment; is it something that’s on your mind always?
That doesn’t plague me so much, but a lot of my friends and a lot of people that I’m around I understand that that’s a reality for them. And I think that my music is really speaking on the behalf of my people that don’t rap. I’m one of the few rappers that doesn’t hang around a crew full of other rappers, but a lot of kids that are still in college and trying to graduate and some that are trying to succeed in the working world. I just know the struggles they bear and I just want to motivate them through my music.
When you were coming up, were you just rapping by yourself?
Yeah. I had my group of friends, we tried to make a little mix tape at one point. But really when I started taking it seriously I knew that it was something that if I wasn’t going to be successful at it I only wanted to be able to blame myself for it. I ain’t want to look back and feel like if I wasn’t with so and so then this would have went better. So when I really knew that I wanted to do rap I just made it sound really personal, and I ended up meeting my managers via Facebook.
There’s definitely a group mentality to a label like Maybach. When you signed to them, did you have to change your mindset?
Signing with MMG, I fully understood what I was getting into. I understood that I was the youngest person on the team and that the guys ahead of me have done so much that I could learn from. When I see guys like Wale, who I’ve been on tour with and done shows with before MMG and after MMG, and seeing his progression and seeing the fact that he’s on his third album. And people like Meek, who started off as a battle rapper and now he’s working on his second project. And even Ross’s progression throughout the years. There’s just so much to be learned from that team in a real way, just off a straight grind and a straight hustle. So being a part of that team is real easy for me because it represents everything that I’m trying to do
Is battle rapping how you started out?
Definitely. There was this one dude who I thought was just super cool. I was playing around with my friends one day and they was like, “man, you should battle the dude. You really ain’t got nothing to lose,” and I did it. And I lost. My first round was like really good. Then he had a couple more verses. But then I actually went back and battled him shortly after that, and I won. I had another big battle in my high school parking lot. That was my first real battle. The other ones, they were for my close friends. But this time it was a bunch of girls and a bunch of people that I was in class with that never knew I could rap.
Is your music autobiographical?
In a way, yeah. But it’s also just a lot about other people. My friends and my family, their struggles are real to me as well. And I’m sure that anybody in a position of… how do I put it? I don’t even want to say in a position of fame. Anybody that’s starting to reach a certain form of financial success, there are certain times when you’re looked to as the go to individual in your family and things like that. A lot of their problems become yours, and so a lot of my music is based off of that too. Just what my friends and family are going through.
What’s it like working with Rick Ross?
It’s awesome, man. Very experimental. I feel like I could make dope records with any artist, but being with somebody who’s so confident in their sound and also just so willing to try different things is just super fun. With him being much older than me too, it’s a maturity thing that he brings to the table. Also he’s just real easy to work with. It’s not like a crazy process or nothing like that. We chill in the studio, we play beats, when we hit something we like we just throw out ideas and build.
Where do you get your name from?
I always was a fan of characters named Rocky. The three ninjas, me and my friends used to play around. My favorite character was Rocky. They used to call me that. But then also in the first series of the Power Rangers, the Red Ranger his name was Rocky. So that kind of stuck with me as a kid. It was just a little joking thing. And then in high school… well actually before high school, I was pretty good at sports. I was real good at basketball, real good at baseball. But the high school that I went to, man, they were beyond exceptional in those sports specifically. I tried out for those teams and I didn’t make them. With that I knew that it was something different that I had to be successful at and I just really started honing in on dressing a certain way and people just started labeling me the fresh kid at school, so I just connected that with the name. I never thought I would be where I’m at now with it, but, you know, it worked out.
What position do you play in basketball?
In basketball I play point guard and in baseball I play first base. It’s actually pretty funny, because I’m left handed and I’m short as hell so it’s like, people were real surprised. But I actually got a real good run in baseball, I made some all-star teams. I actually never got to play in the all-star games because I was always going to church on Sundays and my parents thought that was more important. But yeah, man, I was real good at baseball.
When’s your record coming out?
I want to say sometime next year. Me and MMG, we got a lot of surprises and a lot of music coming out for the people this year. And also I’m putting together another mix tape too. I really just want to get people more music and just give myself some time to mature and continue to get certain experiences. There have been some artists such as Nas and guys like Lil Wayne who have been able to have successful albums at a really young age. But also, they’ve experienced lives that, at that age, a lot of people just wouldn’t be able to experience. They were way ahead of their time.
And although I do feel like I’m ahead of my time I also understand that people like Jay-Z and Kanye they were much older than me when they dropped their first albums, and that made for a maturity that just comes with you growing as a man. So with that I always wanted to give myself that time before I really hone in on fixing all the content for my album. So right now I’m really just working on the instrumentation. I really want to get down a lot of the production first and then come up with the ideas and the people that I see on records and then build from there.
Do you think your mentality has changed at all? You’ve been with Maybach for a little while as you’re continuing to build those experiences. What type of experience do you think you’d be having if you hadn’t been plucked out of Chicago?
Yeah, I mean I feel like it gives me… how do I put it? Like my lifestyle got a lot more respect in the eyes of the people. A lot of the time, you know, you hear somebody young rapping about a bunch of stuff and you may question their knowledge on it, whether they have X, Y and Z or not or what place this is coming from. I think people understand how real my lifestyle is now that it is being documented on such a broad scale being around people like Rick Ross, but at the same time I love being in Chicago and that’s where I record all of my stuff. Even if I’m out of town I’ll always take the records back to the city and really touch them up and listen to them there. And I feel like that keeps me in the same spot as far as being humble and being focused, but at the same time I’m still maturing because I am growing with these experiences.
One track that stands out a lot is “Superman O.G,” which you did with Lunice, in part because the production is really memorable. Do you have an idea of what type of sound you’re going to be going for? Coming from Chicago right now, the whole drill sound is really predominant.
Yeah, and I love that sound of music. But I think those guys have that on lock. With me, I’m more of a moody, emotional like vibey sound of music. It still has hard elements like “Superman O.G.” Also the new track I just dropped today, featuring Ross, produced by the same producer, it’s called “Panera Bread.” Just, you know, I’m going to always have my heart signing records, but I really want to be able to take people to a different place. With me being such a fan of movies and just, you know, the visuals that they create and the background music and certain scenes that really make you feel the emotion of what’s going on in the movie, that’s the type of vibes that I want to give people when I drop my album. So that’s really going to be the mindset. I want people to listen to it as if you’re watching a movie but you really can’t visualize, so the sounds just have to bring that about. That’s more my take on things.