By Kenny Keil
Right now Trinidad James is standing in tree sounds studios. He’s listening to the playback with one ear, taking notes from Dallas Austin in the other, while a turnt-up Lenny Kravitz bounces around the booth rapping his lyrics right back at him. The scene is surreal to say the least, especially under the purple haze of recording equipment that’s causing James’ fluorescent tropical shirt to go supernova. But his demeanor couldn’t be cooler. You’d think he’d been doing this his whole damn life.
Flashback to earlier that same day: Trinidad James is standing in a small wood-paneled bedroom in the southside, pointing out the closet where he recorded his first song less than 2 years ago. The computer and microphone are gone, but there’s still a bedside table which James describes as “infamous” on account of all the weed and card games that once graced its surface. “I came here after work,” he recalls. “And everybody was over here working on a song. It wasn’t no group thing, but everybody was writing a verse. So when I came in I was like, ‘I’mma do a verse.’”
Trinidad James might have still just been Nick to his homies, but they knew potential when they heard it. “I did my verse, and they liked it so much they turned a part of that verse into another song. Then I did a verse on that song...” A few months later, Trinidad James was performing regularly in a talent show at Cream Ultra Lounge off Buford Highway. “We kept winning the talent show, but it was to no avail. I didn’t get a dime. We didn’t even talk to a record label. I was like, ‘This is stupid.’” And so, Trinidad James quit rap music.
You see, James didn’t need rap to get paid. The fine art of hustling was a craft he’d been honing since his teens. “My mentality was to get money,” he explains. “Robbing wasn’t my thing, but I was always good at hustling. My whole life has been a hustle.”
At age 15, determined not to be a financial burden on his mother, James got his first job working for a landscaping company. He can still remember the amount on his first pay- check (“Five hundred dollars and fifty cents”), but money wasn’t the only thing he got out of the job. “I was working with 24 year olds with 4 kids and no diploma,” he says. For an adolescent boy still finding his way in this world, the experience was a real eye opener that encouraged him to stay in school and instilled in him a work ethic that he carries to this day. If James seems wise beyond his years, it’s for good reason. His life, as it’s laid out for me throughout the day, reads almost like a resumé: a string of odd jobs, life lessons and lucky breaks long enough to belong to a man twice his age.
Born Nicholas Williams, Trinidad James spent most of his childhood growing up in Fulton County, and then bouncing back and forth be- tween Georgia and South Carolina after his parents split up. “I’m a people person. Me being a people person stems from me being a Trinidadian. It’s just something that comes with our nature. So I can adapt anywhere because I’m not a bad dude. People always looked at me as cool because I was into the fashion. So I took my ATL swag to South Carolina, and I took my South Carolina hustles back to Atlanta... Then I took my new hustle and new swag back to South Carolina... That was educational.”
But despite all the bouncing around, it’s Atlanta that Trinidad James considers home. “Straight up, man. This place, this is stomping grounds right here.”
As he bends the corner in a borrowed Dodge Charger (he claims he doesn’t own a car, citing the fact that he’s never home to drive it), he points out various landmarks: Apartments he used to live at, schools he once attended, even the first place he ever got robbed while walking home from a basketball game. “Somebody pulled a gun on me. Everybody’s leaving the basketball game, and you gonna rob me in front of everybody? I was in high school, broke. I ain’t have nothing. They were just stupid.”
He pulls up to South Atlanta High, surprising a group of kids chilling outside. “It’s a lot different now,” he says, making his way to the gymnasium through a flurry of daps and high-fives. “But when I was here, it was 13 different projects in 1 high school. Being cool and being about your neighborhood was the most important thing, period. The most important thing to me was to not be a lame, and to make sure my shoes were clean.”
It was here in these yellow cinderblock halls where young James first discovered the swag. “When LRG was popping, we were on it so early that people weren’t sure what was going on. Everyone was still on Coogi and polo, because we in the south. I was on screen-printed shirts to match my Jordans, people wasn’t doing that. I’ve always just been different.”
And while Trinidad James enjoyed a reputation as a strong ball player with a mythical shoe game, sometimes he could be a little too fashion forward.
“I remember when I got my ears pierced... I got the top cartilage done. Man. Everybody said I was gay for a whole school day. Even my partners were like, ‘man, this is...,’ It was just so different. But looking back at it now, it ain’t nothing. My partners got nose rings and stuff now.”
Trinidad James quietly enters the office of his high school basketball coach where he’s greeted by a wide smile and firm handshake. “Boy, what’s happening with you man! I saw you on TV the other day. Didn’t recognize you for the first 30 seconds of the video.”
For those that knew James in high school, his ascent to music stardom is a total surprise. “We didn’t know you rapped!,” his coach tells him, moments before sharing an anecdote about the varsity team coming out to one of his songs at a recent tournament.
High school was a pivotal time for James, even if academics weren’t his forte. He finished out his time at South Atlanta focusing on basketball and tonk, the latter of which led to a brief gambling addiction that he’d later touch on in “Don’t Be S.A.F.E.’s” “Tonk for the Money.” After graduation, James started working full time for a moving company making “great money.” “I was in the club every fucking weekend with a new outfit” he says. But when the company relocated, James faced a familiar problem. “I didn’t have a car... because my priorities were backwards,” he jokes.
Thus began a brief dry spell that left James financially housebound, no longer a fixture in the club scene and forced to buy his attire at secondhand thrift shops. “Luckily the retro look was poppin’, so it worked to my advantage.” Even in brokeness, Williams managed to stay fashion-conscious. Hard up for cash, young James – like so many young men in the south – turned to slinging. Waffles, that is. It was at the Waffle House on Cheshire Bridge where he routinely served “them bad hoes at Onyx” once their shifts had ended. Think about that the next time you’re playing “All Gold Everything” or ordering up some Bert’s Chili.
Gainfully employed and back to shopping at actual malls again, James became a regular at the Ginza boutique in Underground Atlanta. One fateful day, he found himself shopping there as the store was being robbed. “The thieves grabbed the clothes and ran, and the manager went after them.”
Suddenly, James found himself alone in his favorite clothing store with the keys to the register. So what does he do? “I locked up and waited outside for [the manager] to come back.” That gesture built a trust and rapport that led to him being offered a job.
“I keep that in my mental,” says Trinidad James “You don’t have to be the smartest dude... A degree don’t mean shit compared to your word.” And it’s there, working a day job at Ginza,that Trinidad James was truly born. When work got slow, he’d surf the net for free beats while jot- ting down lyrics. Lyrics that would later become “Givin’ No Fucks” or “All Gold Everything” depending on how his day was going.
You wouldn’t think sitting behind the counter of a fashion boutique would be the best place to launch a rap career, but Ginza would serve as a hub of sorts for Trinidad James to network with like-minded people and even gain a few allies. He found one such ally in Mr. Ross, who was working a couple stores down at the time. They hit it off over a mutual interest in fashion, wound up playing ball together and pretty soon Ross was taking him to studio sessions to record.
“When I look back at it now,” Trinidad James reminisces over his closet recording days, “What didn’t make no sense was recording at a house. Because the sound didn’t sound good.”
So when James took another shot at rapping, he put a premium on sound quality. And as a result, he finally created a finished product that was ready for primetime. DJ Dirrty got ahold of “All Gold Everything” and played it on his Baller’s Eve program, and suddenly Trinidad James found himself with an audience outside of Atlanta, and all across the nation. The video took things to a whole new stratosphere and next thing he knew, Trinidad James was being courted by the majors.
Now, there may not be such a thing as an overnight success, but to hear James’ cousin Coop tell it, a lot can happen in a month. “Before everything popped off, there was a nice little buzz going. But me being the muthafucka I am, I stopped paying probation and I wind up getting arrested. I’m in jail for like 30 days, and inside of my body, I know when I get out of jail it’s gonna be some crazy shit going on. My old lady come picks me up and says, ‘You want me to show you something?’ I was like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ She shows me a picture. THIS muthafucka (meaning James) is posing with Puffy! Next picture she shows me, he’s posing with fucking LA Reid! I’m like...'Oh my God!', I just start running circles at the fucking jail house.'” These days Coop is hopping on stage to help James perform for crowds of 20,000.
But Nicholas Williams still looks at that wood-paneled southside closet with fondness and respect. “Without this right here, it wouldn’t have even brought me to perform, period. This place holds a part of everything I learned to date. There’s steps and levels to you getting where you need to be. And this was an integral step. Without this foundation, that first step wouldn’t have been stepped on.”