Rexx Life Raj and Mani Draper sit in Raj’s Berkeley studio, which he recently outfitted with broadcast mics for a podcast the two of them are working on. An episode of Pharrell’s Beats 1 talk show plays on Raj’s desktop as they brainstorm ideas.
Tucked away among warehouses in an industrial part of Berkeley, this modest studio is where Raj spends most of his time. The Berkeley-raised rapper now lives in Vallejo, where he helps out with his family’s package delivery business by day. “But the studio is here and I pretty much live here. I’m in here all the time,” he clarifies, gesturing to the room around him. The walls are wallpapered with a vision board-like collage of magazine cut-outs. A whiteboard reads, “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit!”
Raj first came onto the local scene with his mixtapes The Escape and Telegraph Ave, but last year’s album Father Figure introduced Raj to a national fanbase. Shortly after, opportunities began to flow: He performed at the San Francisco stop of the 40oz Bounce Tour and opened for Hieroglyphics at Berkeley’s UC Theatre. Industry heads and fans alike are starting to look at Raj as one of the East Bay’s most promising up-and-coming artists, and he hasn’t slowed down since the project’s release. Last week, he dropped Emoji Goats, a collaborative EP with singer YMTK. And his recent solo singles, “Running Man,” “Scraper with the Rims,” and “Waiting for You” featuring Russ, have already amassed hundreds of thousands of plays on SoundCloud.
Raj’s sound is simultaneously electronic and soulful, with a trap backbone, heartfelt lyrics, and a melodic cadence with an organic feel. On Emoji Goats, he showcases the smooth qualities of his voice as he trades hooks and verses with YMTK over danceable, tropical house-influenced production.
It’s audible from the way Raj raps that he can sing, so it’s no surprise that his mother is a gospel singer who encouraged his musical gifts from an early age. But oddly enough, Raj usually downplays his impressive vocal chops. “It’s weird when people ask me about my singing,” he said. “My family can fuckin’ sing, like, soul sing. From the heart. And I don’t think I could do that.”
Modesty aside, that church influence is audible in Raj’s sound. He also attributes his soulful sensibilities to his dad, who introduced him to Bob Marley and the Wailers and Jimi Hendrix while they were on delivery trips for the family business when he was a kid. “I’d be in the back of the truck or van and they were listening to KBLX, 98.1, Kiss [FM],” he recalled. “So I was always around some type of music.”
Raj isn’t shy about the fact that his dad is one of his heroes. He pays homage to him on “OJW3” (which stands for Odis James Wright III), a track on Father Figure about the wisdom his dad instilled in him as a young man. The rapper said that his dad always encouraged him to think critically about society and politics — something that often shows up in the commentary he weaves into his lyrics.
“My dad at a young age made me really aware of what it was to be a black man in America, the things that come along with it, and how you’re perceived,” he said. “But he was also big on knowing where we came from before America, knowing about ancestry.”
Football was Raj’s main focus as a Berkeley High School student, but while away at Boise State University for college, he continued making music and put out a couple mixtapes — though he cracked up when he brought them up. “They were wild! They were so wild I had to delete ’em,” he exclaimed.
But when he returned to the Bay Area after graduation, Raj decided to give music his all. He also started teaming up with other local creatives to establish Rexx Life as an interdisciplinary collective.
What does Rexx Life mean, exactly?
“Rexx Life comes from when we were in high school. If you were a Rexx, it just meant you was a kinky ass nigga, you were a freak,” he explained. “But then it turned into — people ask me what a Rexx is right now and I couldn’t even tell you. It just turned into something bigger, like where I started finding that the more I put myself out there as an artist, it grew into people who fucked with me just because I was pushing myself and stepping outside the box… [it] turned into all these people who are doing artistry and they’re creatives in their own right.”