There’s no mention of designer sneakers or foreign cars outside of Jaay telling us his “Mexican bitch drives a Beamer” in the original, full-length version. Once he finishes the necessary disapproval, even the restaurant’s owner throws on a hat and grabs a couple styrofoam cups because of the drums’ weightless pull. It’s the kind of rhythm that necessitates movement even if that’s not really your thing. Like the rest of his catalogue, Ambjaay is light and festive here, bouncing between ass-shaking instructions and lines about assault rifles that feel more humorous than lethal (“big chop knock a n---a out zapatos”).
Jaay’s first song to do serious numbers was called “$hit Talker,” and it two-steps between cautious and careless (“high school dance still had glocks in they backpack”). His EP It Cost to Live Like This, released in February, continued that momentum with tracks like “Knock Knock (Who There)” that stay relevant into the summer, when a small drop in temperature is enough reason to throw a block party.
A kid from the Nickerson Garden Projects of Watts, California, Ambjaay has already accomplished more than people twice his age. For Jaay, age is key to understanding how he fits into L.A. rap. “Uno,” and Ambjaay’s rap career so far, highlights a transition in Los Angeles rap, how it’s understood and criticized now that traffic music -- a uniquely Southern California cocktail of high b.p.m, stuffy production and highway claustrophobia -- has become the dominant style.
He was in late middle school in 2015 when traffic music first appeared on the SoundCloud pages of artists like Almighty Suspect, FrostydaSnowmann, OneTakeBoyz and the flu-flamming tag team of brothers Drakeo the Ruler and Ralfy the Plug. Traffic music is really a super-category used to group the individual genres -- nervous music, creep music, shit-talking music, etc. -- these artists created, respectively. While these tracks saw millions of plays and their critical reception was positive, they didn’t gain much traction outside of Los Angeles. It would take the degenerate superheroes Shoreline Mafia and the abrasive entrance of Blueface in late 2018 for traffic music to enter the national consciousness and, even then, it didn’t come with a label.
Ambjaay was aware of all these originals and recognizes the debt he owes them. “I gotta give all those guys credit for helping put L.A. on the map, Drakeo, Ralfy, Frosty, Almighty, OneTake, AzCult,” he says. While all of the rappers mentioned share the city’s common lexicon, Ambjaay agrees that OneTakeBoyz and their shit-talking music are probably the closest regional link to his own. This doesn’t mean his style is derivative, more that all these artists are drawing from similar sets of geographic experience, and have been for the last five years.
“I really hate when people tell me I sound like other people,” he says. “At the end of the day though, I appreciate everything that comes with people talking about you. To be honest, I wouldn’t say a rapper influenced me more than my family inspired me. When your family can ball together, it’s a great thing... It would make me feel good to let my brother hold a couple racks. I’m gonna make my brother and sister my managers cause people do a lot of crooked stuff. If you’re doing something positive, people don’t wanna see you win. Homies get upset, people from your hood get upset. That’s how it goes.” As Jaay says at the beginning of most tracks, “it cost to live like this.”
Billboard sat down with Ambjaay to speak on his come-up, going hard for his family and more.
How are you feeling?
Really I’m feeling great, it’s unbelievable. I’ve got a chance to feed my family off this music. I’m leaving tomorrow to go to New York for music business, so I’m about as good as you can be.
What have you been up to this last year?
From then until now, I really had to develop my sound to stand out from other people. All the times I was at the studio, I found my sound and the wave I wanted to go. I had to progress how I wanted to rap. Just taking it seriously, you know, practicing my material and my delivery. I like writing because I try to come up with metaphors more. I freestyle off my head, but I like to write things down. I’ve started reading more now cause you need to use new words in rap. Metaphors is everything -- look at Lil Wayne.
Did you write as a kid? Were you good at English?
Yeah, I was good at English. I was just being a class clown in school, though, to be honest. I did my work and graduated and all that, but I couldn’t do any more school.
How does it feel doing things that most 19 year olds aren’t or can’t?
Where I come from, the Nickerson Gardens, it’s unbelievable. Not too many people make it where I come from. I wanted to do something though, something where I didn’t have to work for nobody. High school-wise, a lot of homies are proud of me. They remember me clowning and acting a fool still.
It’s amazing I’m sitting right here to be honest. There was pressure, as far as getting involved in stuff that’ll make you lose your life. No one makes it at my age. People are 19 going to prison, getting killed. I wanna do positive stuff. We’ve had enough negativity since I was young. I wanna get my moms out the projects and feed my family to be honest. The only people I know from my area are Jay Rock, Desto Dubb and 03 Greedo. The blogs post everybody else but don’t care about Watts. I at least wanted to get some money.
Where did you record when you first started making music?
My brother had a studio at the back of my grandma’s place. We couldn’t have it that long ‘cause he had to take care of his kids. I would get money from whoever I could: sister, my girl, friends -- whoever -- and put all that into paying for studio time. $20, $40, $60 at my homie studio.
You seem to be close with your family.
I talk with my family a lot. I do it all for my family. I love music, that’s the second thing. Family first, music second, money third. Money gonna come. We come from the struggle and a strong family.
What will you splurge on with that first big check?
Family, family, family. After that jewelry, clothes, car, house, typical young n---a shit. My first pick would be a Cuban with my name on it though.
What you remember hearing growing up?
Al Green, James Brown, Rick James, Michael Jackson. I wouldn’t say a rapper influenced me more than my family inspired me. When your family can ball together, it’s a great thing. You don’t have to do with people you don’t know. I’d rather do it with my blood.
Who were you listening to in high school?
1Take[Jay] was popping here, but I was listening to Chicago rap: Famous Dex, Lil Jay, Durk, Keef, all that. To be honest Kendrick used to come to our hood and rap with homies. Jay Rock -- shit, you could maybe pull up on him right now around the corner in the projects.
Where does your name come from?
AMB is the street I come from, 111th and Antwerp. It stand for “Antwerp Money Boys.” I was gonna go with another name but my homie Loco passed. So I wanted to honor our little clique. Just combined Amb with my name Jay and added the extra ‘a’ cause it looks nice.
Was there a moment you thought, “Oh shit, I got something here”?
Probably a couple months ago. Now big artists are catching on but probably when I first heard it getting played out of someone’s car or at the gas station. It’s on the radio, but I haven’t actually heard it there yet. I just strive for greatness, I’m not acting Hollywood. Everybody that hit me up, I respond. Rosecrans hit me up, I’m bugging him about the interview. I just want a lot so people can see where I’m coming from.
How do you wanna grow?
I got stuff that will surprise people. I wanna invest so I don’t have to depend on my musical skills to make money. Kids forget that Will Smith was a rapper. I wanna get into acting too, I was a class clown. I like doing skits and playing around with videos and all that. I joked too much to get the teacher mad. I know when it’s time to do work though. My brothers and sisters set a good example so I graduated high school. I couldn’t do anymore though. I don’t have love for weed and alcohol like that.
I’m just trying to reach where I wanna be first. I gotta treat this like a 9-to-5. I used to get high everyday but priorities gotta kick in. God put this in my hands, I knew this was gonna work for me. He knew I ain’t want no job.
What would you like to have done in five years?
I want “Uno” to be looked at as a historical part in Los Angeles. I really bought my mom a house, stuff like that is all.