Before you meet superstar rappers Rae Sremmurd at the sibling duo’s spacious rented house in Los Angeles’ suburban San Fernando Valley, you’ll be vetted by the pair’s entourage. First comes Poncho, a pit mix still growing into his paws. Next is BoomBadda, a hyper French bulldog built like a tiny battering ram. Then Nya, a capuchin monkey who’ll frisk you for snacks. If you see Lil G, the baby spider monkey wearing a diaper, he’ll probably just scream until you look away. I arrive one afternoon in late March, and when the dander clears I realize I’m staring not at Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown, 24, and Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown, 26, but large, 3-D-collaged portraits of the two, complete with real jackets and jewels, lording like royals over the living room.
“We’re the kings of Woodland Hills!” shouts Swae as he enters cackling at his own joke. This is an upscale, mall-oriented part of town -- a sleepy place for a habitually shirtless, tattoo-covered Mississippian with Rick James dreads, a bejeweled gold fishbone-shaped choker and flower-embroidered pants slung halfway down his Tommy briefs. “Ask all the 60-year-old ladies who terrorizes the neighborhood! We run this shit!”
The brothers have carved out an oasis -- with framed platinum plaques and old photos, a PlayStation 4 with six controllers, a cozy studio guarded by Dragon Ball Z figurines and a life-sized E.T. doll -- that they aren't likely to see much as they get closer to dropping their upcoming triple album, SR3MM. Their manager, Migo, tells me that in 2015 they spent all of 45 days in a previous L.A. home. But the brothers were made for this life. They grew up Army brats and used to go by Dem Outta St8 Boyz. “When you go from city to city, you subconsciously bring what you learned,” says Swae in his skater-y drawl. “You’re like this swagged-up out-of-towner.” That’s sort of their whole deal -- they’re artsy party boys who collect comics and tear up every club they enter.
Jxmmi comes down the stairs in Calvin Klein rain boots, walking on his heels, dressed in black except for a pink Gucci scarf he’s using as a do-rag. He shakes my hand warmly. “You coming with us tonight? Oh, you about to have a ball!” he declares, sounding more Southern than Swae, then murmurs, “I need to figure out how to turn my hundreds into ones before we hit the club.”
We’re about to take a private jet to Las Vegas for Rae Sremmurd’s monthly Friday-night residency at Drai’s Nightclub, where Jxmmi plans to shower the crowd with cash. Which is one way to keep fans engaged as you attempt to follow up a meme-fueled Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, “Black Beatles,” the 2016 hit so joyfully viral that Paul McCartney himself was filmed doing the Mannequin Challenge to it. (“The song made the challenge,” and not the other way around, Swae is careful to note.) And then there’s the old-fashioned way, with the SR3MM single “Powerglide,” which somehow makes a Three 6 Mafia sample (and Juicy J cameo) sound like a transmission from a neo-noir future and is still climbing the charts, including the Hot 100, where it’s No. 34. Earlier that week, I previewed songs featuring Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd, Young Thug, Travis Scott and -- yes -- a rapping Zoë Kravitz.
Rae Sremmurd’s third album will be split into three sets. There’s the group’s third disc together, SremmLife 3 (“People are dying for it, pulling out their hair for that one,” brags Swae) and two solo sides: Swae Lee’s Swaecation, which so far sounds more psychedelic, tropical and lovelorn; and Jxmtro, which is heavy on bass and boasting, Jxmmi’s hard-rhyme counterpoint to his brother’s Auto-Tuned helium trill.
Swae has a head start on the solo thing. He got a Grammy nomination for co-writing Beyoncé’s “Formation,” belted the hook on French Montana’s 2017 smash “Unforgettable” and appears on the Black Panther soundtrack, an acclaimed No. 1 album. He’s also a born rock star -- lanky, fidgety, exuberant, with loud style. Then there’s Jxmmi, who’s got kind eyes that occasionally go broody. “It’s not that I’m shy, but in certain situations I’m introverted,” he says. “To do a solo project for me is like... people don’t really know me.”
This all, of course, calls to mind OutKast, even down to the MCs’ complementary creative roles. And Swae doesn't mind if you compare SR3MM to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the double album of solo discs from André 3000 and Big Boi that, in retrospect, foreshadowed their eventual split. “It’s stirring up the waters,” he says. But in truth, Swae and Jxmmi haven’t been apart for longer than two months in their lives, and it’s hard to imagine them ever going separate ways for good. Swae points out that on SR3MM, “We going three-sided. [OutKast] didn't come together. We got to come together -- we’re brothers.”
Suddenly there’s a rumble as a big, cracked plastic suitcase slides downstairs and across the French oak floors. Jay Sremm, the duo’s exceedingly chill DJ and pal since high school in Mississippi, follows his luggage toward the front door. Then so do we, piling into SUVs that will take us to the airfield.
The endless twilight and painted-ceiling skies of Caesar’s Palace’s indoor mall are only slightly more alien than the desert sunset we watched on the flight over, and only a little more unsettling than Swae removing his gold incisor fronts so he could eat a granola bar en route. In the Ferragamo store, Jxmmi browses belts alongside a female “homie” of his who wears transparent white pants with a gold thong and tiny bikini top, an outfit that reveals an AK-47 tattooed on her ribs. The nearest employee has been staring stiffly, and she whispers something to one of two Sremm security hulks, who calls Jxmmi over. “Can we take a picture for my daughter?” she suddenly gushes, melting as he poses gamely. “I got one with your brother a few months ago. I’ll be cool mom for the year now.”
We pinball between boutiques but only make purchases at Gucci: Swae gets two $700 belts, and Jxmmi picks up a matching baseball cap and sneakers for $1,250. He saw some khaki dad-pants he liked, but the smallest waist size on offer was 32. He’s a 29. “I’m little,” he says, shrugging. When he rests the hat high and cockeyed on his slightly puffed-out hair, his homie teases him: “You look like somebody’s uncle.” He peers into the mirror: “Shit, I’m in Tupelo with this Afro right now.”
When Jxmmi and Swae’s mother, Bernadette Walker, left the Army, where she worked on tanks as a mechanic, she took her sons to Tupelo, Miss., to live with her beau. They had been all over the map -- Mississippi once before, California, Maryland, Texas -- and their birth father had gone his own way. Tupelo wasn't perfect. They lived in the projects and saw their mom reduced to doing odd jobs. “It was real hard for her to find work,” says Jxmmi. “My mom being a woman was a type of struggle I ain’t understand when I was a kid.” Their stepdad sold drugs so the boys, in middle school, could focus on studying.
But they had already been experimenting with FruityLoops and Pro Tools, making dance videos and rapping. They just needed an audience. “We could do the dances the kids were seeing on the internet,” recalls Jxmmi. “We’d be the only ones not afraid to walk into a club where everybody’s standing around and just...” He demonstrates a Dougie-reminiscent move. But clubbing got them in trouble at home, and eventually kicked out. As teens, they moved into an abandoned house in the city where they made music and promoted it by throwing parties.
“That shit was so fun,” says Jxmmi. “We lived how we live now, just with way worse conditions.”
“When I meet new artists that are super popular, they often have an arrogance about them,” says Jhené Aiko, who featured the duo on her song “Sativa.” “Swae and Jxmmi don’t have that. They’re humble, they’re fun, they’re genuine and happy. They remind me of two kittens.”
“Having strong morals and being good people,” points out John Janick, chairman/CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M, the brothers find that other artists “always want to work with them. That you put them in the studio with anybody and they write something amazing is really helpful, also.”
Today, Jxmmi’s prized possession is nothing you’ll find in a faux-Roman forum spangled with famous Italian names. It’s the 32-year-old GMC Jimmy proto-SUV he drove, and often slept in, back when he was working at a mattress factory trying to earn enough to rent himself and his brother a place. He still has it. Or, rather, he will once it comes back from the shop, where it’s getting a Black Panther-themed makeover. “Underneath all of the sauce and upgrades, it’s shitty old,” says Swae. But Jxmmi, who named himself after the vehicle, dreamily muses, “I’m going to have that truck the rest of my life now.” He’s also proud to have bought houses for himself and their mother in Atlanta, where the guys launched their career after linking with hitmaker Mike WiLL Made-It and his label and production team, Ear Drummers (the inversion of which is Rae Sremmurd).
Swae’s favorite things are his monkeys (Nya cost “15 bands,” Lil G was $20,000) and yellow Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen ($180,000). He wants to take the G-Wagen camping, though he has never been. “I’m finna start going into the wild,” he says excitedly. “Stay in the woods for three days with a generator and a rifle. Hunt, catch food, skin the fish and cook it. Everything off-road. I would take, like, two girls.”
On the way back to their separate, two-level suites, Jxmmi tries to get $5,000 in singles from the casino cashier and fails. I follow Swae to his room (on the 69th floor, he notes gleefully), where nothing much happens. His half-brother Floyd plays iPhone DJ (Young Thug, Migos, Kendrick Lamar) while a few friends and team members share blunts or sip blue Hypnotiq mixed with brown Hennessy. Swae calls Mike WiLL to wish him a happy birthday. He grazes on a room-service spread: oatmeal (“That shit’s good as fuck!”), scrambled eggs, exotic fruit, fried chicken with mashed potatoes. He selfies among the chandeliers and marble staircases.
It’s Vegas-early, barely midnight, when Jxmmi finally finds a place that will convert his bills into singles. It is, of course, a strip club, and before long he’s bathed in pink light, throwing wads of bills into the air as two women crowd his lap. “This is my extrovert moment!” he shouts. Jxmmi tosses out nearly $2,000 in 20 minutes and buys a $1,200 bottle of Hennessy that no one in the small entourage (his assistant G-Lo and trainer Shane) wants to drink. But he insists, as Rae Sremmurd’s “Come Get Her” (“...she’s dancing like a stripper...”) plays overhead.
Neither brother touched drugs or alcohol until he was 18. Even while hosting lawless ragers in Tupelo, says Swae, “We were swagged up, drinking water.” They also didn’t swear in their early music, or rap about the negativity they witnessed, because “we wanted to make music someone could play for their little kids but still be bumping if they was our age,” explains Jxmmi.
When Mike WiLL approached Rae Sremmurd about signing with him, he says, “Everything I was saying they were like, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir.’ I was like, ‘Bro, quit calling me fucking “sir.”’ I appreciate the respect but we eye-to-eye. Y’all about to be the biggest thing in the culture.” Says Migo: “They were always hungry. Whenever I was like, ‘Let’s pass out CDs, put stickers up, meet this DJ, perform at that open-mic,’ they were with it.”
Even when they were squatting, Jxmmi enrolled in community college, and Swae kept going to high school, aiming for perfect attendance and on-time graduation.
“Oh, I had to get that certification,” says Swae emphatically. “I couldn't let all those years of my life be for nothing. And I wanted to get that knowledge anyway, picking up all them skills and just having the experience of going through school. Plus, you don’t know if you’re going to blow up, so you want to be prepared for every situation. I was just making sure I had all my shit right.”
Remarkably, they’re still planning for college. Swae jokes that he’s going to specialize in “female biochemistry” but stresses a sincere desire for an on-campus general studies program. Jxmmi wants a business degree, but that could be complicated by the fact that “within the next month ... I’m welcoming my first child into the world.” He won’t reveal the gender or name, but he and the mother are on good terms. (“We cool.”)
It’s not hard to imagine Jxmmi as a father. When he tells me on the plane that between he and Swae, “It’s not no big brother, little brother shit -- we both men,” Swae quickly, sweetly, corrects him: “Oh, no, you’re my big brother.” It was Jxmmi who convinced him he had what it took to rap when they were tweens -- “I came in just wanting to make beats,” admits Swae -- and later that he could sing, which is no small part of Rae Sremmurd’s commercial appeal.
After the strip club visit, Jxmmi lets me carry the remaining $3,000 as we walk through the Caesar’s casino once again. The cash is lighter than I expect, and when I toss it back to him on the elevator, he grins and says, “Now when Swae takes his shirt off at the club and shows all those tattoos I don’t have, I can flex, too.”
So, given Swae’s success and the solo albums, is there any sibling rivalry?
“I’m so glad you asked that,” says Jxmmi. “If people see me out and I have a stank face on, they think I’m mad because of that, but I’m mad at them because they want me to be mad. I’m always singing ‘Unforgettable’ when it come on in the club, but people look at me like, ‘Is it OK if I dance to this?’ It’s no competition. We’re brothers. At the end of the day, we’re getting a bag.”
An hour later, at 1:20 a.m., I’m with the younger Sremmurd, sitting in a Hulk-green stretch Hummer limo, waiting for the elder to join us so we can leave for Drai’s. Wondrously, or perhaps just thanks to Bluetooth, Mike WiLL’s “Aries (YuGo)” comes on, and Pharrell sings, “That’s the n---a with the bag” exactly as Jxmmi steps into the ride gripping his Ziploc bulging with cash. Once we arrive at the club and settle into the bustling side-stage VIP area, the night becomes a blur of endless bottle service and buzzing neon lights -- a microcosm of the Rae Sremmurd whirlwind. In a few hours they’ll leave for Japan and China, but before that, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi take the stage in a flurry of bouncing and rhyming and cooing and hyping each other up within a tumult of money and adulation, and for those few minutes, they seem very much at home.
SIBLING CHEAT SHEET
HOW THEY GOT THEIR NAMES
Swae Lee: Friends called him “Bruce Lee” in high school (his eyes were “tight” as he grew into his face), and he tacked on “swae,” his version of “swag.”
Slim Jxmmi: From his 1986 Jimmy truck, which he’s “tricking out now” with Black Panther-inspired details: “I’ve slept in it, crashed it, been arrested in it, drove to work in it.”
Swae: Dragon Ball Z and Inuyasha manga, plus “some books from my childhood,” ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to Captain Underpants -- “That joint hard.”
Jxmmi: “I love my comic books,” namely Venomverse. He also just finished spiritual novel The Fifth Mountain and is on to Ready Player One.
FEATURED ON THEIR SOLO DISCS
Swae: On “Off Shore,” Young Thug flexes his improvisatory genius over pillowy synths and a disorienting beat. Swae plays his ghostly shadow.
Jxmmi: He trades surprisingly fierce bars with Zoë Kravitz on “Over Wit” -- “She can act, so I would tell her, ‘You got to be tough,’ and she’d do it,” he says. “She was a natural.”
BEYOND RAE SREMMURD
Swae: Co-writer credit on Beyoncé’s “Formation,” earning a Grammy nomination; featured on French Montana’s No. 3 Hot 100 hit, “Unforgettable”; appears on the Black Panther soundtrack.
Jxmmi: He has teamed up with rappers from Trill Sammy and Riff Raff to his biggest influence, Juicy J.