But I do have to say that everybody at the Sheriff's Office was really helpful and accommodating in making this interview happen, and overall it was a far more relaxed and pleasant experience than I had expected — if they were normal music publicists I would always try to get interviews with their artists. That said, I wouldn't interview just any rapper in lock-up. Struggle has one of the most interesting stories in all of Music City. From getting thrown in jail the same day that he released his last single — the Shooter-produced, Waylon-sampling “Outlaw Shit” — to spending his summers on tour with his grandfather to his happenstance meeting with a then-unknown Yelawolf and their subsequent bonding over the movie Gummo, Struggle has had a pretty wild life. And that life isn't on hold just because he's incarcerated — there are enough projects in the pipeline to keep him in the public eye for years to come.
So join us deep in the heart of the Davidson County Correctional Center for the Nashville Cream's first-ever prison interview.
Nashville Cream: When did you record the new single, and who did you record it with?
Struggle: Me and Zilla and Yelawolf actually after one of Yela's shows. Just one of those nights — late night, we were out at the bar and we were like, "Let's go to the studio!” We went to the studio and ended up cutting the track at the Phoenix Room, and then ended up giving it to Sam from Sam & Tre, and he put his own little twist on it, turned it into something different. I'm excited about it, most of my music has been different than this. This is more to give my fans something to party to, to dance to.
NC: What came first: the new indictment or the new direction?
S: Definitely the new direction. I was already facing federal time from a case that I had caught like three years ago. When that happened it was a real eye opener. I went down to Atlanta for about six months and stayed down there with Wolf, cut an album at Tree Sound. Came back up here and I was just completely, just fully focused and moving forward. Cut a great album at Tree Sound, came here and recorded a full album at Compass, which used to Hillbilly Central. It's where my grandpa, Waylon Jennings, cut the first-ever platinum-selling country record, Wanted: The Outlaws. So when I came in, man, they set me right where Waylon stood, right where his microphone was. And we got a killer album out of it. That's hopefully going to be released in the next few months. It's a collection of old Waylon, Johnny, old country outlaw music. Just good old country, remixed my way.
NC: Hip-hop and country have a long, not very beautiful history together. What made you think that now was the time to do it?
S: Here's the thing: Everybody that's done it has not been authentic. It's either been corny rap or corny country, none of it's been real. Nobody else has really done it authentically, they use real corny country. I don't want to knock anybody else. They've got their own thing, but I don't really like any of the the country-rap that's come out before. But I grew up in the South. I grew up on Waylon and Willie and Johnny, Lynyrd Skynyrd, all sorts of old country, Southern rock, but I've lived in the hood my whole life. My generation, of course, I was drawn to rap. That's what I grew up on — hip-hop. But I also have those dirty Southern roots — I'm bipolar when it comes to music. I listen to the rap station, I listen to the country station, stay versatile in what I listened to.
The [country] influence was definitely there with especially my grandfather, it just kind of happened. It wasn't like I was like, “Let's make a country-rap record.” I just started saying, “I would love to sample this song.” It started about 10 years ago — we sampled the first one, and it end up being everyone's favorite. So then I got to doing it, I got with a producer that I like and just started killing it. It's real authentic rap with real authentic country — old country, not that new, watered-down, shiny-boot stuff. I know a lot of people have tried it, but they've failed miserably. It wasn't embedded in them, it was just something they were trying to do, trying to make "something." When I make music I don't make it to make "something." I don't go in there and say, "I'm going to make a club song tonight." We just go in there, turn the boards on and write and write and write, and whatever happens happens. And that's where the magic comes in.
NC: What would you say to people who will say you're just trying to cash in, that you're using your situation as marketing spin?
S: It would probably be a good thing if I wasn't actually facing this, if I wasn't really involved in this. This is real. Everything these other rappers rap about, I'm really living that. I can see them being like, "Eh, you're trying to cash in on the situation." But I promise you that I would much rather be out there, so I'm just going to sit back and watch, man. This is my story and this is my journey and I'm here to share it with everybody.
NC: When you're writing songs, say the latest batch versus [previous album] Soundtrack to an Indictment, what was —
S: [Interrupts] Soundtrack to an Indictment was a weird phase in my life. There was a point in my life where I gave up on music and I was, allegedly, doing things I wasn't supposed to have been doing. I was just living life, I wasn't in the studio that much, I was in the studio about once a month. At the end of the year we had a collection of these songs. Soundtrack to an Indictment, from the first song to the last song [they're] on there in the order they were recorded. I ended up getting indicted at the end of the year — it's not a gimmick, that is really the soundtrack to an indictment. There's different phases: You hear me go from being boisterous about what I'm doing or allegedly doing, but you also hear the pain of the repercussions that come along with it.
I was in a different phase musically. Massbaum, the label that I'm with, was like, "Just do you." They were like 'I need a club single out of you, I need a radio hit out of you but I see where you're at. Just tell your story.' So I just went in there and that's what we did. So this new music turned out totally different. We got the best producers we could — we had Drummaboy on Soundtrack — but we were just trying to make club record. But on this we just made some music. That's what we did. We had the hard drives to Waylon's recordings, so we actually could go in and pull out his voice. I had Robbie Turner come in — he was Waylon's steel player — and play real live steel behind it. [Hammond] B3. We got to really go in and build the songs how we wanted to, but we were able to pull any element out of it. We've got old guitar sounds from the '70s; you can hear Waylon's thumb hitting the guitar. It was amazing, him being being gone 10 years this year, it was like having him back. It was cool, the vibe was there.
NC: When you were coming up, did you feel a pressure to live up to your family's musical history? Did that lead you in to some crazy directions?
S: Yeah, of course. Definitely. My whole life was real crazy like that. My mom was real hard-headed — she wouldn't take handouts from Waylon, she didn't want to live under his name or under his umbrella. So she broke free. She was singing back-up for him, and she ended up breaking free, and we moved into lower-class neighborhoods. Whatever we could afford, she was working two jobs and trying to work on her music career. On the weekends I'd be at Waylon's house in Brentwood, or on tour in summer staying in five-star hotels with all this really nice stuff — the Mercedes, the Jaguars, the Cadillacs. But then when I went back to my neighborhood [The Nations], everything was totally different, life was different.
I've been straddling the tracks my whole life. It's kind of the same way with music — I never wanted to ride his coattails. I've got people that were dealing with me musically for seven or eight years before they knew that Waylon was my grandfather. I didn't use that, I didn't tell anybody, until I had built my own buzz. People were like, "What the fuck, why didn't you tell me that, man? You've been holding out that you're Waylon Jennings grandson. Why ain't you told me?" That's not what I want to be known as. I wanted to stand on my own ground and do my own thing. It wasn't until I started digging into these records that it became common knowledge. Now I'm like, "Yeah, I got country music royalty in my family. Music Row is mine." [Laughs]
NC: It seems like, maybe over the last few years, [country music] has sort of gotten used to the idea of hip-hop-ish influences — from Jason Aldean's “Dirt Road Anthem,” “Hip-Hop in the Honky-Tonk,” even that Luke Bryan single [“Country Girl Shake It for Me”].
S: A lot of it is. Rascal Flatts, they have a lot of 808s and hip-hop-sounding beats behind the lyrics. A lot of people have been doing it for years, incorporating it, but I decided to go deeper with it.
NC: Do you find that industry folks in town are more receptive than five or 10 years ago?
S: Oh yeah. They used to have a saying on Music Row that if you mix country with rap you get crap, and they used to give me hell about it all the time. But, you know, I'm here, I'm not going anywhere. I've set up my base, I've got a strong team behind me, this [jail] is only a minor setback for a major comeback. Mountains like this breed champions. This is part of the journey, man. We're full speed ahead. My whole team is out there working.
NC: How did you hook up with Yelawolf?
S: That's kinda crazy. We're working on a movie of my life and the production company was looking for a white rapper with long hair — I used to have braids down to my waist. So they were looking for a white rapper with long hair to play me in this movie. We had Billy Bob Thorton, Drea de Matteo lined up to do this movie, all sorts of people lined up to do this movie. So we're going through all the motions, getting the letters of intent, when the guy from the production company calls me and is like, "Struggle, I think I found the guy.' He was a little rapper from Alabama named Yelawolf. I'm like, "Yelawolf?" So I looked him up on MySpace [laughs], and I'm like, "All right, he's different."
He was doing crazy banjos and stuff, it wasn't normal rap. I was like, "Man, that's kinda the same thing I'm doing," and we called him. He was like, "I used to live in Nashville, I know about the culture. Nashville's different from any other place, I really want to tell that story." So the producers flew him out and he came and stayed with me, we hung out, I showed him around my neighborhood. He was a big Gummo fan and Gummo was shot in my neighborhood — he was like, "I want to see where Gummo was shot." So I took him to all the little spots — the catwalk before they tore it down, the junkyard. We just built a bond, you know? He was in between situations and we just built a friendship. That's my brother, man, that's one of my best friends for sure.
We just kept on and then eventually he called me and was like, "Looks like I'm fittin' ta get a situation with Interscope." I was like, "Hell yeah!" and he was like, "Come to Atlanta." So I went down to Atlanta and started rockin' out.
NC: Is Slumerican your label, or is it just your crew?
S: It's a crew, but it's a lot bigger than that. It started as just a crew, and now we have a major office in New York. Slumerican has definitely taken off. I can't say it's a label enough to say that I'm signed to 'em, but that's my guy, that's my team, that's my crew. And it'll be a lot more soon.
NC: Did you drop your last video [“Outlaw Shit”] on the day you went into jail?
S: The day I went in. I wasn't supposed to go in until February. I had a federal sentencing hearing, and they were pretty much lined up to give me probation and we were gonna do, um, I was gonna have to go through a lot of different things, but I was gonna be free still. Then out of nowhere I just went into the [probation] office to give them my travel passes because I was fixing to go out of town, we had just dropped the video. And they told me that the state had indicted me on charges, and it was like some crazy charges from, like, three years ago with some cartel from California, some huge case I have nothing to do with. We're just riding it out. It's not anything valid.
NC: What are the charges?
S: Conspiracy to distribute to 200 kilos of cocaine and 300 pounds of marijuana. It's a pretty big charge. There are 17 people, but I'm the only one that speaks English, and I don't even know these guys. They say they've got me on this phone conversation a couple years ago, so they pulled me into the case. But they've been gunning for me for a while. Well, not that they're just gunning for me, but my name is in the public a lot, you know how it goes. Hearsay, rumors get passed around, especially with the music.
NC: Because you've said these things on record, so you think it's easier to pinpoint you as ...
S: That guy. It is, and hopefully I won't be held accountable for everything I've said on the records.
NC: Do you regret that sometimes?
S: I do, but ... the only reason I don't is because it's my story. It's a testimony. I don't brag about anything I've ever done on any of my records — I tell 'em, "Look, I'm doing this. I've had this and done that, might have done this, might have done that." But in the end none of it is worth it. Music is where my heart is and all the other stuff? My path is paved with good intentions. But definitely, my saying stuff in records has bitten me in the ass. My interview with [local street-culture magazine] Concrete popped up in my federal sentencing hearing. They were like, "We read in Concrete Magazine that you said you had beat the feds before and would beat them again." I was like, "I don't remember saying that, but ..." [laughs].
NC: Has it been tough to rectify your previous public persona with where you are going as a human being now?
S: Definitely. In life we grow — without mistakes mistakes you can't really grow, so it's just been part of my process. It's part of my story, man. When I put the movie out, when I release the records, people will understand a lot more. Right now, people are like, "Waylon Jennings, rapper, in jail — what? Hold on ... " But they'll understand. When they see the full story they'll get a bigger picture.
But yeah, we released “Outlaw Shit” the day that I got arrested. I was calling people like, "How many views today? 2,000? Damn!" An in four-and-a-half months we're at almost a half a million [640,076 as of press time]. That record, I'm not promoting it, I'm not out there — it's just off word of mouth. That record we actually cut three-and-a-half years ago and I've just been sitting on it. I've been waiting to get my ammo up and now I've got a full clip of, actually, better songs.
I love “Outlaw Shit” — it's one of my favorite songs — but on the new music we really got to dig and pull and grind out. There's a picture of me sleeping on foam boards off a studio wall. We were crashing in the studio every night and the cleaning ladies were getting mad at us. [Laughs] We're all passed out on the studio floor. [Laughs] We had a good time, and hopefully we'll have the record out in the next couple of months. It's called I Am Struggle, and it's collection of my life, it's me 100 percent. It digs deep into my story, digs deep into the story of a lot of people — you know a lot of people are going through the same things right now, man.
NC: I'd agree that there's a good portion of the hip-hop community that wants “the next chapter.” We all grew up on the gangsta shit — for the past 15 years, hip-hop has been sorta stuck in this loop, and it's time for some new stories. “Outlaw Shit,” it seems to me, is part of that next chapter — where do you go after the party?
S: It's like Waylon said: “It's the same old tune, fiddle and guitar, where do we take it from here? / Rhinestone suits and big shiny cars, it's been the same way for years / We need a change.” That's “I Don't Think Hank Done It This Way” — it talks about all that stuff. That's where it's been, man. Hip-hop has been in a crazy place, and they brag about the glitz and the glamor about "this life," but they don't talk about the other side of it. That's what my whole story is about: about the struggle, about the journey, about overcoming the struggle. And this phoenix will rise out of the ashes.