“I’m going to go out there and pop those balloons, man,” says Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown. “I love breaking shit.”
It’s 10 a.m. on a frigid December morning and Jxmmi (pronounced Jimmy) and his younger brother Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown, together known as the rap group Rae Sremmurd, are sitting in a dressing room backstage at New York’s BET Studios. The pair, slated to tape a performance for the 106 & Party New Year’s Eve show, arrived earlier on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, where they held a listening party for their debut LP, Sremm Life, released Jan. 6 on producer Mike Will Made It‘s EarDrummer Records through Interscope. But before these two stomp over the festive decorations, some much needed rest is in order — at least for Jxmmi, who lies down on the floor and closes his eyes. “Do the interview with him just like that — asleep,” Lee, 21, jokes.
Jxmmi, 23, hops to his feet and shakes off his rare moment of fatigue, but his brother is already onto the next distraction. “Who is that?” Lee asks, eyeing a shapely woman in the hallway. “I’m going to start carrying around a ring in my pocket. Like, ‘Will you marry me?’ “
The hyper-charged group, buoyed by its spacey top 20 Hot 100 hit “No Type,” has had a transformative year thanks to the success of its rambunctious debut single, “No Flex Zone,” which peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 after it was remixed by Nicki Minaj, Pusha T and other rap luminaries. With catchy beats and the backing of Mike Will, Rae Sremmurd’s playful, childlike vibe and unmistakable vocals — cracking, pubescent yelps mixed with raspy singsong melodies — have helped the group avoid rap’s traditional tough-guy posturing and become one of the genre’s most refreshing new acts. “We young, and we make young music,” says Jxmmi. “It’s always nice to make friends; friends is good. ‘Let’s get drunk, let’s get high, let’s party …’ “
“‘Come over here and have fun,’ ” Lee adds. “All our songs is like that.”
But while the pair’s back-to-back hits and youthful appearance may make the act seem like an overnight success, or a Kris Kross for the post-millennial set, it has been a steady climb. Born to a mother in the Army and a father they never knew, the brothers lived in Texas, California and Maryland before settling in Tupelo, Miss. There, their stepfather sold drugs and their mother struggled to support them and their two other brothers, so they moved out as teens, living in abandoned buildings and working dead-end jobs — Jxmmi at a bed factory, Lee at a “ratchet” McDonald’s — to fuel their -burgeoning rap dreams. (The irony isn’t lost on Lee: He’s asked to film a promotional spot for event sponsor McDonald’s at BET.)
They formed the group Dem Outta St8 Boyz and released low-budget dance tracks and videos that earned them local buzz and even a 106 & Park appearance in 2011. Real income, however, was hard to come by. “We were getting booked for shows, and we wouldn’t see none of the money,” Jxmmi says. “Our first manager was a snake.”
But then a family connection — their DJ Jay Sremm is a cousin of P-Nasty, a member of Mike Will’s production crew EarDrummers (Rae Sremmurd spelled backward) — led them to rap’s hitmaker du jour. The two relocated to Atlanta and quit their day jobs soon after.
“The first time I saw them, they had crazy energy,” says Will, 25, who rose to fame with hits for 2 Chainz, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. “We were looking for an artist to create a next-level sound. That’s what these guys are. When you only drop two records and they both go top 40, you can’t really front on that.”
At BET, the pair’s appeal is readily apparent. Other stars are performing too — French Montana, Remy Ma, Lil Boosie — but while they’re merely content to pace back and forth onstage, Rae Sremmurd hits synchronized moves, slides belly-first across the floor and jumps around with wide-eyed exuberance.
“We love that high energy,” says Lee after the BET show. “That’s, like, our lifestyle. Because we want you to be our friends. We know you love our music, but we want you to know who the f— we are, too.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of Billboard.