The journey of Detroit rapper Boldy James

Because Bold don’t fold

May 4, 2022 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge Boldy James in the studio. - Kahn Santori Davison
Kahn Santori Davison
Boldy James in the studio.

Boldy James is knee-deep in industry shoptalk inside his manager Cedric Louie’s studio on Detroit’s west side. Words like, “features,” “splits,” “merch,” “catalogs,” and “comps,” bounce on and off the beige walls like a verbal game of racquetball.

Boldy, 39, is an emcee’s emcee. He has thousands of fans that want to see him behind the mic, and probably another thousand peers that want to share the mic with him.

Louie is Boldy’s guy, their friendship more akin to Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne. Louie filters out the bullshit, makes sure Boldy knows where he has to be, and that he gets paid for things he’s supposed to get paid for.

“He’s genuinely one of my favorite artists,” says Louie. “The first time I heard his music it made feel the same way when I heard Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album or Streetlord Juan’s record So Far Gone. Boldy takes his time and really cares about the music that he creates. On top of all that, he’s really a brother to me and we keep each other on point in real life.”

Born James Clay Jones III, Boldy was raised by his mother on Detroit’s east side until he was 8, when he then moved to Detroit’s west side to live with his father (a police officer). He discovered his gift of sewing metaphors to rhymes early on and started rapping in elementary school. “I’m from the area where we used to get in trouble for rapping,” he says. “I’m talking about a teacher snatching the paper off ya’ desk in the middle of class because you were supposed to be doing school work.”

Boldy’s connection to music was enhanced by his cousin Evan Ingersoll, known to the world as rapper and producer Chuck Inglish. Both Boldy and Inglish fed off each other. “I’ve always been Chuck’s motivation to the streets because he didn’t grow up in the ghetto like I did,” Boldy says. “He grew up in Mount Clemens. He had ideas to make these beats for these raps that I would rap in acapella.”

Boldy’s relationship with school never improved, and by ninth grade he decided it was time to move on. “I felt like the teachers weren’t going to get through to me, they weren’t teaching me nothing that was conducive to my future,” he says, adding, “I knew I had enough hustle in me to survive without putting a burden on top of my situation. I felt like I could take care of myself.”

When Boldy says, “I know I had enough hustle in me,” he’s not necessarily referring to music but to the plethora of street knowledge that he was rapidly obtaining. Boldy had enough genuine confidence in himself that he could maintain a marriage to the streets, while making music his mistress without getting caught or caught up.

“I was a real self-sufficient child,” he says. “My father raised me to be real headstrong, so I knew I had it in me to survive these hardships. It was my mindset like, if my father can’t catch me doing anything red-handed [when I] live in the house with him, and he knows me better than anybody, then how the fuck can a muthafucka that don’t know me catch me doing anything?”

In the early 2000s Inglish was recovering from a foot injury while at college in Illinois. During his downtime, he began to make a profusion of beats. This set the foundation for not only Boldy but also Inglish’s group with Mikey Rocks, the Cool Kids. “Him and Mikey started doing local shows and he would send me beats,” Boldy says. “He came home one holiday and invited me back to Illinois with him. When I went back, we made 18 songs. That was my first complete body of work that I was confident enough to let people hear.”

Boldy and Inglish stayed frequent collaborators and constantly supported each other. In the spring of 2011 Boldy released Trapper’s Alley: Pros And Cons (The Quikcrete Ready Mixtape). The project’s featured single “I Sold Dope All My Life” led to the mixtape being considered one of 2011’s best by critics, and Boldy considers the album his most important release. “I think I put too many songs on it, but that was just because I wanted people to know that I got the music all day for ya’ll,’’ he says.

A year or two later, Boldy attended the SXSW festival in Texas with Inglish, where he met the Alchemist, the producer who would change his musical trajectory. Sonically, Alchemist was from the same musical lineage as producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, and had already cemented his musical fingerprint with his work with Mobb Deep and The Lox. He invited Boldy to California, where the duo recorded a couple of songs that eventually turned into a full project. In 2013, My 1st Chemistry Set was released by Decon Records. In 2014 Decon Records spun off into Mass Appeal Records, a company partially funded by hip-hop legend Nas, and Boldy was the label’s first official signed artist.

“It's easy to see the talent right there,” Nas told Detroit’s Big Greg in a 2015 radio interview with 107.5. “I just wanted to be associated with that.”

While Boldy was grateful for the opportunity, he wasn’t doing backflips either.

“I had just had my son, I had a daughter, and I had some stepchildren. I’m not gonna say I jumped for joy,” Boldy says. “In my head I was a little ecstatic, but we from here, bro. You wake up every day and the sky is still the same color as the ground.”

Boldy released the EP The Art of Rock Climbing in 2017, but admits he still had too much of his attention directed toward street life. “I wasn’t focused on music as much as I thought I was,” he says, adding, “Hustling to feed your family is cool, but I was trying to cut corners with something that can change your life and it’s legal.”

Boldy spent a year laying low on the run from authorities, but eventually found himself sitting in a maximum-security cell serving a four-month sentence for four felonies. “It was like, you just like royally fucked up now,” he says.

He decided to dissolve his deal with Mass Appeal, and although his situation looked dim, Boldy is quick to remind this writer that he also bet on himself when he dropped out of school. He’s always kept that same mentality. “I was talking to the CEO of Mass Appeal and he wasn't talking how I wanted to hear,” he says, adding, “I’m sitting in that thing knowing I’m going to get another shot at the title, this time I know I just gotta make a half-court shot.”

However, almost immediately after Boldy walked out of jail on Dec. 12, 2019, he started flirting with street life again — and almost ended up back in jail. “I got into my old bag of tricks,” he says. “Something went horribly wrong, Nipsey died, like all within the same 48 hours. I called Chuck, and told him I need to get the fuck out of here, he sent me a plane ticket.”

Boldy went back to Cali, reconnected with Alchemist, and recorded music while the smoke cleared on another legal situation. They released the BOLDFACE EP in 2019, and Alchemist knew the next project, The Price of Tea in China, was going to be special. “He looked at me and was just like, ‘I hope you ready for this next ride, because this is a bad muthafucka we about to put together,’” Boldy says. “Once we put it out, I saw the response and it was everything Al told me it would be.”

Since 2020, Boldy has been on a historic run. With his appetite for street life behind him, Boldy signed to New York's Griselda Records and has released two more projects with Alchemist, Bo Jackson and Super Tecmo Bo. Boldy says fashion icon Virgil Abloh was such a fan that he had plans to do a remake of Nike’s Bo Jackson cross trainer shoe for Boldy before his untimely passing in 2021. “He had texted me,” Boldy says. “I didn’t know he was as big of a fan of my music as he was.”

Alchemist and Boldy’s dynamic duo relationship works because it's the perfect alignment of musical symmetry. Alchemist uses a “less is more” approach with his production style that perfectly vibes with Boldy’s slightly raspy methodical flow. There is no competition between beats and bars, just pure chemistry.

“I always had a lot of respect for my father. Now I’m a father. That’s my new cheat code. Fatherhood. Just looking at things from a different perspective.”

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Part of what separates Boldy from the pack and makes him so critically acclaimed is his storytelling. Yes, he’s rapping about the same subject matter as your favorite trap artist, but in a Pusha T kind of way. In this musical trap world where everybody wants to be Michal Bay, Boldy is Francis Ford Coppola.

“I rap the same shit as all the trap niggas rap,” he says. “I’m just conscious of how I word it. Probably more thought-provoking, and I probably just take my time with more so how I doctor the flow. I just try to make good music, I tell my story and my truths.”

Jay-Z publicly added Boldy’s “Speed Demon Freestyle” to his playlist in 2020, and Boldy says he even personally told him how much he loved his music after a show at the L.A. club, The Novo. “I saw big homie coming around the corner with a big smile on his face, he walked up on me, held out his hand to shake my hand, and his other hand on my shoulder,” Boldy recalls. “And he was like, ‘Mr. Boldy James, you have an incredible pen. Your new shit is all I’ve been listening to. Keep up the great work.’”

Boldy says he was floored by the compliment and took it as a sign from the universe to double down and go harder. He promises more music from him and Alchemist, but he’s also making sure he’s going to be the kind of father to his children that his dad was to him.

“I always had a lot of respect for my father,” he says. “Now I’m a father. That’s my new cheat code. Fatherhood. Just looking at things from a different perspective. Learning what approach to take toward certain beats. Voice control is better. I’m just learning different formulas to create music.”

Boldy James and the Alchemist perform on a bill with Action Bronson and Earl Sweatshirt on Sunday, May 8 at the Fillmore; 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5451; Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $35.

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