If You Build It, They Will Come
Bobby J From Rockaway
“Hometown” is a very special song to me as it’s the culmination of my journey in the rap game. After growing jaded with the music industry, I had to step away for a bit, but came back with a fresh perspective of how to connect with people and share my music with those who really believe in me.
This song reflects the process of learning to be proud of my career as a rapper and where I come from, Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. There definitely wasn’t anybody making hip-hop music specifically where I grew up. When I was a kid and I was writing, I was almost like a closet rapper. I was in my room, I was writing rhymes, I was making songs, but I wasn’t out about it until I got to high school where I finally started meeting like-minded people that were also doing music. That was the first time I had a forum to showcase what I was doing. That’s when I really started getting affirmation from people that I was good and I should keep going. My neighborhood wasn’t a place where hip-hop was happening all around me. It was something that I had to seek out myself. There’s a little bit of a music scene starting to pop in Rockaway, but for the most part, it’s kind of conditioned me to do everything myself. I’m writing my songs, I’m engineering them, I’m making my own videos, I’m editing them. My older brother, Eric, is also an integral part of my music today as he shoots and directs the videos for my Breakfast Bars series, which I have created to take ownership of my music. But we both had to go through our own obstacles before coming together stronger than ever.
While I was nurturing my love for music, our family went through some really tough times. Right before I went off to college in 2005, my mother came out as gay. Obviously, attitudes about the LGBTQ community have changed dramatically since then, especially in hip-hop — and that's a great thing — but at the time I was young, ignorant, and confused by it. Then, two years later, my father committed suicide. This was most definitely the most traumatic thing me and my family ever experienced. We were incredibly shocked and to this day, there are a ton of unanswered questions. It's one of those things you'll never get over as it's always in the back of your mind no matter how much time passes.
A couple months later, in September 2007, my older brother Eric was shot three times one night while living in San Diego. It was one of those "wrong place at the wrong time" scenarios and he almost lost his life because the bullets missed his femoral artery by just a few millimeters. He was confined to a wheelchair for months and there was initial concern that he would have to go through life wearing a colostomy bag because one of the bullets grazed his intestines. This greatly impacted me because it was the first time I truly realized just how fragile human life is. He could’ve easily not survived that encounter and I would’ve had to deal with losing two immediate family members within six months of each other. Also, it could’ve just as easily been me given the randomness of the situation. After that, I learned not to take things for granted because it could all be taken away in an instant.
Eric and Me
In the midst of all this, one person who kept encouraging me in music is Kwamé. He was a very popular rapper toward the end of the ‘80s. He was signed to Hurby Luv Bug who had Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ‘N Play. He was part of the whole ecosystem of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and then he made the transition into being a producer. So I’ve been working with him pretty much since I really got started out. I met him when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I kinda came to him inexperienced and he was really like my mentor in just helping me with artist development, learning how to write songs and stuff like that. He’s been the one that’s really showed me how to transition from being a rapper to making songs. So everything that I’ve done or put out has kind of been with him or under his direction.
I remember when everything went down with my father and brother, Kwamé would always be one of the first people I’d reach out to to just talk and try to make sense of things. When my dad died, I remember calling him immediately in a state of shock and disbelief — before the grief kicked in — and him just talking me through it, calming me down, and letting me know what happened wasn’t my fault. He offered to put me on a plane home immediately (I was going to college in Miami at the time) no questions asked. He’s also been like a family member in that respect — it’s deeper than just an artist/producer relationship. When I was finally able to record again, he encouraged me to talk about these situations in my music and I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that without having that personal friendship foundation first.
We had a single called “Don’t Touch” that we put out around 2008. I used some of the money I inherited from my father to fund this, my first video/project. In a way, and it sounds weird to say this, my father's passing gave me one final gift that helped jump start my career. It’s crazy, but makes sense because my dad was always the one buying me recording equipment and supporting my music career early on. It saddens me that he never got the opportunity to see that video because he started his career in television and even worked on very early music videos in the early ‘80s. I think he would’ve loved to see that I was taking the initiative to create something on my own while following a similar career path that he did. If “Don’t Touch” was his final gift to me, it was also my final gift to him.
Kwamé and I put “Don’t Touch” out on YouTube, but we still did a traditional radio run with it. We did a TV run, we hired a publicist. We did everything to put this video in front of as many eyes as possible that we had access to at the time. We were pretty successful, HBO Go had it on, Music Choice OnDemand had it on, we were added into rotation on a couple radio stations around the country. But we pretty much had champagne dreams and beer money.
The music industry is definitely a game of, especially when you’re going the more traditional route, it’s a game of how much money do you have to invest in your project? And us being an independent act, that was definitely finite. In retrospect, we couldn’t really compete with artists that were on major labels, which can essentially act as the bank for the most part. When that’s your competition, it’s very hard to match up and be able to even like consider going for Rhythm or Top 40 radio.
Kwamé and Me
I look at that time like it was a great learning experience and I don’t regret any of it because the video did get me a lot of exposure. “Don’t Touch” is my most-viewed video to date. It has more than 250,000 views, it was definitely a local hit for me. But it was just really like a learning experience. We learned a lot of how things worked behind the scenes, but it was almost like we were five minutes early to the party because had we waited a couple of years, we probably would have been able to do the video for a fraction of the cost that we shot it for, there was definitely a lot more avenues to promote virally as opposed to when we put the video out, if we would have waited. It was kind of like we were doing something that was just ahead of our time. We kind of exhausted a lot of resources in the process. Needless to say, we put the video out, we put an album out, it had some moderate success and I kept putting music out after that. I put out a couple mixtapes and I was building a following, but I just really got tired of dealing with the politics of just trying to get my music out there, certain gatekeepers being the deciding factor on if some of my music’s going to get posted here, if it’s not going to get posted here.
I got really tired of just the game in general. I feel like around maybe around 2011, 2012, I got very jaded and frustrated with the industry. I kind of forgot why I was doing music in the first place. I lost a lot of the passion for it.
I definitely went through a couple years of a hiatus where I just wasn’t even putting anything out. I was uninspired. I was recording music, but I wasn’t liking anything I was making. I was in a perpetual state of recording an album and it didn’t feel like anything was sounding cohesive and I was trying to search for the right sound.
Around this time, Eric moved back east to New York. He had seemingly made a full recovery, but the doctors had prescribed him opioids to deal with the pain of his injuries from the shooting. As a result, he developed an addiction to prescription drugs. When he lived across the country, he was able to hide it pretty well from my family. However, when he moved back, he could no longer keep it a secret. He was headed down a very destructive path that would've no doubt resulted in his death. Thankfully, in 2016, he went to rehab and has been clean and sober for two years. He now has a new job, new home, a completely new outlook on life, and recently revealed to me that he has a baby on the way. He's done a complete 180 and is truly an entirely different person.
For me musically, the past year and a half was a time when I feel like I really discovered myself as an artist and found my voice. Slowly but surely, me and Kwamé started recording again. We started making records that really sounded like the way I wanted to sound. It started to come together in a cohesive project. As we were probably 75-80 percent through the making of the album, I pretty much got in the zone where I was like look, I haven’t put something out for a while, it’s been a couple years. People are always asking me if I’m still doing music, if I’m still going to put stuff out. I always tell them yeah and I feel like in order for me to put this project out the way I want to, I’m really gonna have to do something to get people’s attention. It can’t just be me putting a song out every couple months or putting a video out every couple months. I have to adapt to the current climate and that’s kind of how I came up with the Breakfast Bars concept.
The Breakfast Bars idea came about very organically with Eric as a key component. I was toying around with doing some kind of freestyle video series for a while but didn’t know how I was going to shoot it. One day I recorded a freestyle to the “Nappy Heads Remix” beat by the Fugees and just asked Eric if he could help me film a quick video for it in my home studio. We did a couple takes that we’re just standard performance shots. Then, Eric started directing me and telling me how I should switch up my performance for each take. I realized he had a natural eye for good shots and was the perfect person to shoot/direct my videos moving forward. From there, we started putting out videos every single week on Instagram and he’s helped me shoot just about every single one. Most of the time, I’ll send him something and he’ll have a concept mapped out in his head within a few minutes. It’s something that not only keeps us busy and productive, it’s made our relationship stronger. Without him, Breakfast Bars wouldn’t be possible.
In general, I wanted to get myself accustomed to a system, where it’s like every single Monday, come hell or high water, I’m putting out a song with an accompanying video. I wanted to be able to prove to myself that this is something that I can do. It’s been something that I stuck to and it’s been working. People have really been responding. My following’s been growing pretty exponentially just in the past couple months.
I get constant words of encouragement from people, people are always reaching out randomly telling me how much they enjoy it. I’ve decided that that’s going to be my motivated factor. The beauty of Instagram as opposed to when I was putting out music before is it allows me to cut out the middleman, right? I could just service the music directly to the people and I don’t have to worry about specific influencers or gatekeepers giving me the thumbs up or thumbs down. I could build my fanbase organically and I could focus on the people that like it as opposed to getting frustrated about why person A,B and C doesn’t like it. It’s just really helped put me in a more positive frame of mind. That’s kind of how I look at everything going forward. If you build it, they will come.