CLAY JAMES is one sharp dresser.
Fluorescent-hued, perfectly-tied bowties top off plaid button-ups and Oxford cloth shirts. Sometimes, the ensemble is topped off with a four-button vest and matching cap; other times, a snappy pair of suspenders meets crisp khakis or broken-in denim.
Often, the pants are cuffed, with a pair of showy socks peering from a fine pair of leather oxfords. And there’s always those signature frameless glasses to top off the whole mixed-pattern, color-laden look.
“I’ve got a different look and a different outlook,” says James, a Savannah-raised, Atlanta-born hip-hop artist on the rise. Currently based in ATL, James is looking forward to returning to Savannah for a homecoming show.
Aphelion Records, a venture from the folks at multipurpose studio space The Garage Savannah, has booked a diverse evening. DJ Aktive, who’s DJ’d for the likes of Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Puff Daddy, John Legend, and more, will team up with drummer Lil Jon Roberts, percussionist for Stevie Wonder, Prince, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Mos Def, and more, for a special set. Aphelion Records’ own house musicians will back artists Isaac Smith and Jameson The 3rd for their set. For James’ set, the band will play a set of music written exclusively for him.
James has certainly earned a big bash in his honor: the hardworking artist recently signed with Snoop Dogg’s independent record label, Doggy Style Records. He’s already a household name in Atlanta, but now, the whole world is within his reach.
James didn’t start rapping until college.
“Where I come from in Savannah, I wouldn’t say it’s geared to becoming a college student,” he says. “Life where you become a college student, graduate, get a career—that’s not really nothing that’s too prominent from my side of town. Back home, I’m probably the only one who went to college and did stuff outside the norm of what an inner city Savannah kid would do.”
After graduating high school, James attended Georgia State University in Atlanta. He was an ambitious and involved student—president of the Black Student Alliance, Vice President of the NAACP, and a Kappa Alpha Psi pledge. He didn’t consider rapping until one of his fraternity brothers made the suggestion.
“My frat brother was like, ‘Yo, you got a dope story to tell, a dope look, a lot of girls like you. You should rap!’” James recalls. “It was a joke at first, but we got in the studio and I made my first song. It got a lot of recognition...I felt like I was going to be somebody that’s known. I realized, being in this city, I gotta be good. A lot of people are going to be critical of me.”
He took a month to write and practice.
“I went back and recorded my first solo track,” James says. “That song was getting played on all the college campuses—Georgia Tech, UGA, all the area schools started picking it up.”
The track landed in the hands of the folks behind Atlanta hip-hop station HOT 107.9’s show Battleground.
“Battleground is a show geared toward independent artists,” James explains. “They’ll play two recordings from independent artists, just a minute and thirty seconds of each. The city of Atlanta and surrounding areas will call in and say who had the best song. Long story short, my song won so many times they had to retire it off the air!”
It was only the second song James had ever recorded. The Battleground champion began to realize that a career as a professional musician could be worth the dedication and time. Shortly after, James dropped his first mixtape and was interviewed by local blogs and radio shows.
From there, it took off, with James acting as his own boss, touring and playing noteworthy festivals throughout the country.
“I never really had any management, any financial backing,” he says. “Everything came out of my pocket, and my close friends helped me out.”
His hard work paid off at South by Southwest. A packed schedule had James performing at numerous showcases throughout the week, most of them teeming in festivalgoers and industry folks.
“I did this show called ‘Black Auerbach and Friends,’” James says. “It’s a day show, the least-populated show. Every other show was packed out. Basically, I performed, and these guys came up on the side of the stage. Affiliates of Snoop Dogg.”
James immediately hit it off with Yung Zeke, JU, and Young Hunnid of the Dawg Crew Ent. collective.
“They started coming to all my shows for the rest of the week—we clicked like that,” James says. “Once I got back to Atlanta, I kept the relationship going.”
One day James got an email that would change his life: Snoop Dogg was bringing back his label, Doggy Style, and his A&R guys liked what they heard from James.
Founded in 1995 after Snoop left Death Row Records, Doggy Style was a home for up-and-comers and artists with ties to Snoop.
To give them a taste of his flavor, James sent Doggy Style “Southern Playa Shit,” a Georgia-fried party anthem featuring Greenville, South Carolina’s Messiah.
Snoop and his crew loved it. When the single and the video hit the Internet on May 26, it went viral. As of print, the Soundcloud track, found under Snoop Dogg’s account, has an astounding 60.2K plays, The corresponding music video has logged 5,751 views. Across all available listening platforms, it’s about to hit 100K listens.
“The following Monday, Snoop called me and was like, ‘Yo, I want to keep you. I feel like we got something here. I like you, I think I would make you a superstar,’” says James. “That’s when we set up the album deal.”
Currently, James is gathering songs to record; he doesn’t have a firm release date for the album yet, but advises fans follow him on social media (@WhoIsClayJames) for updates.
As he works on a solo EP, projects with Southern Playas (his collaboration with Messiah), videos and singles, James has a star mentor just one phone call away: fellow Savannah native, Atlanta resident, and Outkast member Big Boi.
A lifelong fan, James wished Big Boi a happy birthday via Twitter on February 1. To his surprise, he received a retweet and a response: his hero had been looking for him. An industry guru saw a young Big Boi in James and recommended that the two connect.
“He called me to his studio in Atlanta,” says James. “He’s one of my idols! Any time I need any advice or need to make a major decision, or anything, I call him. He’s been mentoring me, and he’s one of my best friends now.”
Big Boi is going in with Snoop to help release James’ first album. James is still reeling from the news that two of his musical idols—hip-hop royalty, no less—will be working on an album of his original work.
James is the only Georgia artist on Doggy Style Records and only one of two Southern artists. He’s proud to represent his home.
“I say, ‘The South still has something to say,’” he shares. “At the 1995 Source awards, when Outkast won ‘Best New [Rap Group],’ they got booed. Andre 3000 said, ‘The South got something to say.’ When I say ‘...still have something to say,’ it signifies that we’re still here. Everything Outkast, we grew up with.
“The platform and the type of music that would come out of the South has completely changed since then....which is cool, because it’s like 24 hours in a day. I feel like you need music for every type of time during the day. You need it when you first wake up, when you’re riding home from the club, when you’re going on a date. I want people to understand there are people out here who still want to be creative, still have integrity behind the music, and a respect for hip-hop and craft.”