Rae Sremmurd have been in the room for less than five minutes, and already they’ve thrust the energy levels far beyond anything a full crate of Red Bull could’ve managed. It was all neo soul and tea-sipping just a moment ago; Clash team members and creative personnel just lounging around the studio’s plush couches scrolling their phones. But now, two hours after the Tupelo, Mississippi, brothers were originally scheduled to arrive, we’re all full steam ahead.
Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown, the gold-dreadlocked younger brother, is firmly focused on filling his empty stomach. As tour DJ, Jon Wells, highjacks the aux cord and begins to rattle the whole building with a soundtrack of the latest southern rap, Swae sinks in amongst the rest of Rae Sremmurd’s team - managers, assistants and label people - to dig into the food that was ordered ahead of his arrival.
In the meantime, Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown has skipped lunch and is already pulling clothes from the racks. Oblivious to our stylist’s plans, he drags a huge fur coat over his boyish frame, kicking off his sneakers and pulling on a pair of elaborate cowboy boots, before tap dancing around on their Cuban heels. “I’m a really good dresser,” he promises - Team Sremmurd express their surprise at his choices, which they thought would be better suited to his brother. Nonetheless, Jxmmi continues to navigate the selection, reserving items for later in the shoot. Swae polishes off his food and strolls over to see what he’s been left with, triple-checking that the coats are faux-fur, before agreeing to drape one over his own shoulders.
The pair are enjoying a huge wave of success right now, thanks to ‘Black Beatles’, a Gucci Mane-assisted single from last year’s ‘SremmLife 2’. The early fan-favourite gained notoriety on a whole new level when it became the soundtrack to the mannequin challenge; a short-lived craze that saw participants frozen in position as an iPhone toting cameraman surveyed the scene, Swae’s falsetto soaring over them: “That girl is a real crowd pleaser…” Even Sir Paul McCartney caught wind of the song and participated with his own mannequin challenge video
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Rae Sremmurd’s music has always had pop appeal, but the mannequin challenge provided a catalyst to speed things along. Their young infectious energy is laced throughout their tales of party-heavy lifestyles filled with money and girls; verging on naive optimism as they offer escapism during troublesome times. Swae delivers irresistibly catchy hooks, like hip-hop’s answer to early-2000’s pop-punk front men, which Jxmmi punctuates with energetic raps regarding beautiful women, his bank account and the finest designer brands. They were the first act to be signed by super producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s Ear Drummers imprint (after which they’re named; each word in reverse), and during an RBMA lecture in Montreal last year he recalled his ambition for the duo: “I used to tell Interscope like, do you understand what we’ve got here? This is the hood N*Sync. This is the hood Backstreet Boys. This is the most ratchet that pop is going to get.”
‘Black Beatles’ aside, the most ratchet pop song of last year was forged from a car journey in 2014. En route to Coachella with Mike WiLL playing new beats, Swae freestyled the now immortal: “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation.” The line sparked what would later become Beyoncé’s 2016 empowerment anthem ‘Formation’, after she fell in love with a demo, adding her own verses and redrafting bars to fit her agenda - Slim Jxmmi’s “If you fuck me good I’ll take your ass to Margiela,” became the harsher “When he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster.” Released on what would have been Travyon Martin’s 21st birthday and performed a day later at the 50th Super Bowl half-time show, the song quickly reached legendary status, becoming the most Googled of the year and being nominated for three Grammys, including ‘Song of the Year’.
Swae and Jxmmi are well known for their explosive energy, and all public evidence suggests that they run non-stop like a pair of Duracell bunnies, whether they’re reporting the weather on French television, throwing a party with an alien in a music video or smashing up pineapples at a live show. However, after an hour or so of playing dress-up and posing effortlessly for our photographer, the last of the natural light drains from the studio windows and the energy instantly flashes from them as if by the flick of a switch. As clothes are arranged back onto racks, and furniture replaced back into original positions, Jxmmi slumps down onto a bench, transfixed on his iPhone. Swae chooses to remain standing, feeding himself a course of fruit as we’re allowed 10 minutes to talk before they rush on to their next appointment - tonight’s sold-out show at Manchester’s O2 Ritz.
No strangers to the US Billboard Top 40 - which they cracked three times with ‘No Flex Zone’, ‘No Type’ and ‘Throw Sum Mo’ from their debut album in 2015 - ‘Black Beatles’ snagged them their first number one, and the rocket of popularity since has been noticeable. “Everything has just been times 10,” says Jxmmi, glancing over his screen. “People waiting outside…”
“Crazy after parties,” his brother adds with a grin.
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So far they’ve sold out every night on their European tour, a clear upgrade from their excursion across the UK with Section Boyz last year, where turnout was good but not necessarily packed to the rafters. Their team has particularly noticed an increase in the amount of younger fans that have been coming out, but Swae is most impressed by their level of engagement. “The crowd been going crazy,” he enthuses. “They know all the lyrics now!”
Although he admits that his preferred habitat is the studio, and puts recording and making beats at the top of his list of things he loves doing, Swae takes a lot of inspiration from observing fan reactions. “I think you have to be in touch with what’s going on, and remember to put the human side into your music,” he explains. “If you use easily relatable language, and universal [concepts], I feel like people are going to gravitate towards it and they’ll automatically learn the words. If you have a good melody that sticks in people’s heads, it’s going to catch on.”
It’s no secret that hip-hop’s relationship with social media and meme culture has grown to the point where it infiltrates the creative processes. On Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’, Chance The Rapper advises: “Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.” And Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ video was undoubtedly crafted with gif lovers in mind. Rae Sremmurd never created the mannequin challenge, but they had the right song at the right time. Swae believes the reason that it struck was quite simply because it’s “the hottest shit out.” Whereas Jxmmi suggests it has something to do with the way that Swae’s melodies build before the beat drops.
But it’s also likely to do with their careful balance of accessibility and credibility. While suburban kids are freezing to ‘Black Beatles’, Travi$ Scott is remixing ‘Swang’ to premiere on his über-cool .WAV Radio show on Beats 1. The language in the song doesn’t overtly reference anything associated with online trends - there are no hashtags, no dance instructions. And now, in the aftermath of the craze, it remains unsoiled and as listenable as ever. “It’s just a big win for the home team,” says Swae. “[There are] so many undeniable elements. Gucci Mane added the trap element to it. You got the pop elements, you got melodies, you got everything. That song is the total package.”
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When the duo hit the O2 Ritz stage they’ve recouped the energy that we originally met them with, tenfold. Slim Jxmmi can barely contain his excitement, taking the stage early to host a brief DJ set before the show begins, and Swae Lee loses the meek sensibility of an artist who would rather be locked up in the studio, transformed into the rock star who delights in sharing his creations with legions of followers.
Every song feels like an anthem to a generation of kids who want to forget about their problems for just a moment, and take some time to celebrate their youth. ‘No Type’s “I’m just livin’ life / And let my momma tell it nigga / I ain’t livin’ right,” rings truer than ever, as Rae Sremmurd continue to smash down doors for themselves and the whole operation gets bigger. They love life on the road - the shows and the girls, of course - but Jxmmi admits to fulfilling a travelling bug too: “I like to see all these places I’ve never been, and I like too meet new people.”
Swae is living his childhood dreams: “We doing the music now. It’s all I ever wanted to do. We’ve been working our whole lives to reach success and be financially stable. Now we’re finally here.”
Not quite as fulfilled just yet, Jxmmi reels off a checklist he’s working on. “I’m about to go skydiving,” he declares. “I got to go race cars in Vegas. Then I got to shoot an all-the-way automatic gun - I think you gotta do that in Arizona. I’m trying to do the thing where you in the forest and you swing, zip lining. I went surfing already… I want to do the thing where you’re on the back of the boat and you got a little thing under your feet - you know what I’m talking about? I want to do that type of shit.”
Rae Sremmurd have already delivered two masterclasses in the art of the rap album: a pair of LPs that are dynamic and addictive, carefully focused but a lot of fun, glued together by Mike WiLL Made-It’s productions and only inviting a few cherry-picked collaborators to hop on board. But ‘Black Beatles’ feels like it’s only the beginning of their potential as global pop-stars. Their contributions to ‘Formation’ will surely see them tapped to pen more pop songs in the near future.
“You never know what to expect from us,” says Swae Lee, with a hint of secrecy, as he gets ushered off into their splitter van ready to hit the road again. “You can’t just expect a trap song from us or you can't just expect a slow song from us. If we’re making a sad song you going to feel it. If it’s a pop song you going to feel the energy. You going to feel the vibes we’re putting out!”
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For the latest Rae Sremmurd tickets click HERE.
Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Michael Mayren