On Aug. 24, rapper Jeezy, born Jay Jenkins, and five associates were arrested on felony gun charges after authorities found an AK-47 on his tour bus. The police were investigating the death of an attendee of Jeezy and Wiz Khalifa’s Under the Influence of Music Tour (Eric Johnson, 38), who was shot backstage at the tour’s Mountain View, Calif., stop. Jeezy wasn’t named as a suspect in the shooting and has proclaimed his innocence since posting the $1 million bail on Aug. 28.
A few days before his arrest, the rapper, 36, sits in a steakhouse in Queens during a break from the tour to talk to Billboard. “You can be up in the streets and down the next,” he says. “You can’t let that make or break you.”
The arrest may not have broken him, but it certainly disrupted both Jeezy’s touring and promotional schedules ahead of his fifth solo LP, Seen It All, released Sept. 2 on Def Jam. And it’s also threatening to overshadow his seeming desire to transition from hard-core rapper to budding hip-hop activist and elder statesman. He recalls a talk with two rap legends that started him on a new path. “Snoop Dogg and E-40 sat me down and told me, ‘You got a responsibility. You need to speak to your people,’ ” he says. “It clicked in my mind. These are two OGs I grew up listening to, telling me to get off my ass.”
But Jeezy doesn’t seem quite ready to make that leap. At the steakhouse the rapper, dressed all in black, introduces himself with slang terminology for drug dealer, “I’m an OT — Original Trapper!” Before it was morphed by DJ-producers like Baauer and DJ Snake into the soundtrack for EDM festivals, “trap” started as a Southern rap subgenre known for big 808s and lyrics about dealing drugs. And Jeezy mastered it, landing five No. 1s on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart through the years. “I had to bring the morals from the street with me,” Jeezy says.
But the lines between his music and life blurred at times. In 2005, rival rapper Gucci Mane shot and killed Pookie Loc, who was signed to Jeezy’s Corporate Thugz Entertainment (Jeezy had previously put a $10,000 bounty on Gucci Mane’s chain). Then, in 2008, his empowering anthem “My President Is Black” revealed an evolving Jeezy, ready to tackle bigger, more positive themes.
However, progress was stop and go. At the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards, a fight involving Jeezy, rapper Rick Ross and their crews spilled into the parking lot, where witnesses reported hearing gunfire. Recently, Jeezy reconciled with Ross, even recruiting him to rhyme on Seen It All standout “Beautiful.” Other songs on the LP, like “Enough,” “Win Is a Win” and “No Tears,” further underscore Jeezy’s growth.
“I’m a true leader, that’s who I am,” Jeezy says. “With my friends, my team, I’m trying to uplift them.”
On Aug. 13, four days after Michael Brown’s death, and one after the Khalifa tour hit St. Louis, Jeezy went to Ferguson, Mo., to lend his support, in part inspired by his own brushes with gun violence. “We couldn’t just come, get money and leave. When you see 13-year-olds holding Molotovs? That’s not supposed to happen on American soil. These are kids.”
But Jeezy’s arrest could put his newfound voice in jeopardy. After posting bail, he appeared on WWPR New York insisting he and his associates would be exonerated. (A pretrial hearing was set for Sept. 5, after press time.) Even in the interview before his arrest, Jeezy spoke of his ability to bounce back: “I’m so used to dealing with problems when shit is all bad — it’s a talent.”