Rae of Light
Kicking it poolside with Rae Sremmurd, the Mississippi-raised brothers behind the year’s most infectious party rap.
They used to party at the Motel 6 in Tupelo, Mississippi—rent out a room, invite every girl they could think of, and stay all weekend. The idea was that Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi would be the only guys, but of course other dudes always showed up. Among them was a kid named Jay who went to a different high school, who would grab the room next door whenever he heard Swae and Jxmmi were having a party. Jay recalls wandering over, seeing the two brothers, and thinking, Y’all are so cool.
Swae and Jxmmi, whose real names are Khalif Brown and Aaquil Brown, were cool. They were members of what was essentially a boy band, and one of their songs, “Party Animal,” had become a local hit. That was how Jay became aware of them: He heard “Party Animal” playing at the neighborhood skating rink and thought, Oh, my God. Whoever made this song is going to be so famous one day.
Jay is remembering this while standing next to a pool, looking out over the hills of Studio City, California, on what feels like one of the first summer days of the year. Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi are here, too. This house—this mansion—is where they live now, along with Mike WiLL Made-It, the producer and label owner who gave them their big break, and Jay, their official DJ.
Swae is 21 and Jxmmi is 23. As a duo, they call themselves Rae Sremmurd. It is not a great name, and most people, when they see it for the first time, have no idea that it’s pronounced “Ray Shrimmert” or that it’s an anagram of Mike WiLL’s record label, Ear Drummer Records.
It hasn’t mattered. Despite the handicap, Rae Sremmurd has put out three of the most memorable and creative singles of the past year, including the party anthem “No Flex Zone” and the plaintive “No Type.” When they released their all-killer-no-filler debut album, SremmLife, in January, it went straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop chart.
As the band fought off comparisons to Kriss Kross that implied they’d be a one-hit wonder, SremmLife cemented their reputation as reliable purveyors of viral-ready catchphrases, surprising melodies, and an exuberant, occasionally squeaky style of rapping that makes them sound much younger than they are. In just under a year, they have become one of the most universally beloved young acts in pop.
And today, on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, about two weeks after moving to this mansion outside L.A. from Atlanta, they are doing pretty much exactly what you’d want them to do: throwing a massive pool party.
“Tonight is gonna be, like—man,” Swae says, shaking his head with preemptive disbelief. He is around five and a half feet tall, skinny, and dressed in a white fitted tee and Adidas track pants. His mop of nail-thin dreads is tied up in a Dr. Seuss–ish man-bun above his head.
It will be the “break-in party,” he says—the beginning not only of summer but of a new era in the lives of Rae Sremmurd. In some ways, it will be similar to the Motel 6 parties. But in other ways, it will be different.
Mike WiLL, 26, is playing NBA2K against a friend in the TV room, talking about all the festivals his boys are performing at this summer. Last year, he marvels, they were at Coachella, walking around playing “No Flex Zone” on a portable Bluetooth boom box and giving out sampler CDs. This year, they’ve got real hits.
Mari Davies, Rae Sremmurd’s agent, notices a couple of $20 bills on the floor by Mike WiLL’s feet. “So, what, instead of playing dice, guys play video games now?” she says. “OK.”
Out in the kitchen, Swae and Jxmmi have joined their first 15 or so guests around a countertop, which is covered with trays of raw chicken wings, bags of hamburger and hot dog buns, and a variety of family-size condiments. When a guest pours out Patrón shots in little plastic shot glasses, there’s an awkward silence as we wait for someone to volunteer a toast. Finally, Slim Jxmmi comes through. “To condoms!” he proclaims. “To paychecks! To the radios playing all across this great nation!”
After a moment Jxmmi and Swae go outside, where someone has rolled a preposterously large blunt and “No Flex Zone” is blasting as part of a mix that also includes the new Drake mixtape, a lot of Young Thug, and most of SremmLife.
Jxmmi’s talking to Swae about maybe jumping into the pool. It’s 5:30 p.m. and enough people are starting to show up that there’s a bouncer at the gate down below. You can see a line of guys already starting to form while girls walk in two by two up the winding and deceptively steep driveway. Some of them are wearing bikinis; most sport cutoff jean shorts and long hair, and a good number of them have the air of hot babysitters. Swae and Jxmmi don’t know where to look first.
What’s the most surprising thing about living in L.A. so far? I ask, and Jxmmi has an answer right away. “All the bitches love us.” But wait, I say. Weren’t you kind of expecting that? “Nah. Nah,” he says. “I thought they would like us. They love us.”
With that, he runs off to talk to some girls, while Swae sticks around and answers questions. “This is actually cool: I’m doing an interview in front of all these girls!” he says. “They’re like, ‘Damn, he’s important.’”
Swae tells me he and his brother just got back from South Africa, where they headlined a Johannesburg hip-hop festival. Being on the plane for more than 14 hours was tough, he says; he got through it by reading a book about how to control an audience. He declined to fly first-class because the tickets cost $15,000, “and I didn’t want to spend that on a seat. We wanted to be smart: save our money and sit in the back.” Did he learn anything from the book? “I mean, it’s stuff we already knew,” he says. “I always just like to see the words, ’cause…I feel like I’ve been out of high school forever. So I just read to keep my mind going.”
He graduated only about three years ago, but it makes sense that it feels a lot longer to him, given that three years ago he was living his old life, working at a factory where he made pillows and beds. That life included a stretch of homelessness, after Swae and Jxmmi’s mom kicked them out and they had to crash in an abandoned house with no heat or gas. They made the best of it and threw a lot of parties. But they were still homeless. Escaping to Atlanta, where they got to devote themselves 100 percent to recording music for the first time in their lives, was phase one of their master plan. Setting up shop in L.A. is phase two.
“My last night in Atlanta, I was with some girls,” Swae says, when I ask him what he did to mark the occasion of leaving the South. “I just told them, ‘I’m about to take this journey. I’m about to go hard. I’m about to live my life.’ And then I just dipped.”
Moments later Jxmmi dives from the balcony into the pool and everyone cheers; back on the deck, he starts dancing—soaking wet—as if he’s onstage. The official Rae Sremmurd Twitter account, meanwhile, has announced that there’s a party on, and strange women are direct-messaging Jay for the address while the crowd outside the gate grows larger. There’s a rumor that Miley Cyrus might be coming through later. The party has started, and the state of mind that Swae and Jxmmi call Sremm life—be who you are, live how you want, don’t let anyone judge you—is taking hold.
The kitchen counter has been converted into a beer-pong table, except instead of beer, people are playing with shots of Jack Daniels. There are girls here that Swae Lee and Jxmmi have never seen before, and others, like the one they met at a wings spot near the beach, with whom they have only a glancing acquaintance. “There’s beautiful girls everywhere,” Swae Lee says, his eyes shining. “I’m loving these girls.”
No one’s dancing, really, but I’m told that’s just L.A., a place where people prefer to have fun by standing around and looking at each other. There are girls on their phones, dangling their feet in the pool, but no one’s full-on swimming, and the two free spirits who asked Mike WiLL if they could skinny-dip opted against it, despite his encouragement. “Everybody’s still acting scared,” Swae says. “They don’t understand. They can do whatever they want.”
Mike WiLL says he’s looking for his security guard so that he can “order a rerack,” meaning kick some of the guys out to improve the male-to-female ratio. Swae Lee wants to get rid of one dude in particular, who is being aggressive and “cuffing his girlfriend”—watching her like a hawk and not letting her out of his sight even though, in Swae’s estimation, she clearly wants to be with someone else. Swae looks sincerely disgusted when he points the guy out to me, and seeing the expression on his normally smiling face makes me think of his verse on “This Could Be Us,” the fizzy centerpiece of SremmLife, which ends with him declaring that “killin’ someone’s vibe should be a fuckin’ crime.”
Mike WiLL, in his role as CEO of Ear Drummer Records, seems to see his job as protecting and nurturing Rae Sremmurd’s vibe. When he met Swae and Jxmmi in Atlanta, he had recently gone from working with street rappers like Future and Gucci Mane to being a brand-name producer for the likes of Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. (He is credited with giving Cyrus the sound she wanted for her album Bangerz.) But when he met Rae Sremmurd, he realized what he really wanted to do was build something from the ground up.
After “No Flex Zone” started getting played on the radio last spring, Mike WiLL thought the move for Rae Sremmurd was to put out an EP. “I just wanted that to be the hottest CD of the summertime—the thing everyone was talking about,” he tells me.
But then “No Flex Zone” kept getting bigger and bigger, outperforming all reasonable expectations. “Our radio department was like, ‘Hold on, wait, don’t put out nothing else. Let’s just work this record,’ ” he says.
They waited till the end of August. Then, just as people were starting to wonder whether the “No Flex” boys had been a mere flash in the pan, Mike WiLL pressed the button on single number two. The dreamy “No Type” became even bigger than its predecessor. A few days after it was released, Mike WiLL was at the after-party for the Drake and Lil Wayne show in Atlanta, and Wayne demanded that the DJ play “No Type” three times back-to-back.
It’s hard to process the fact that Mike, who has a deep voice and weighs maybe 200 pounds, is basically around the same age as the two young boys whom he has staked his career on. “They’re like my Kobe and Shaq,” he says. “They’re like Kobe and Shaq, and I’m Phil Jackson.”
Mike looks up at the sky and sees a police helicopter floating there with its spotlights on. “Ghetto bird,” he says, knowingly.
It doesn’t take long for everyone at the party to find out there are cops circling the mansion in a chopper. But while the atmosphere definitely shifts when the music is turned off, there’s no panic or exodus, at least not right away. Instead, a bunch of people on the balcony raise their middle fingers as high as they can and yell “Sremm life!” Swae Lee, meanwhile, laughs every time the spotlight hits him; he seems to think the situation is hilarious, and he’s Snapchatting videos of it to people so they can see what they’re missing. “We’re having a crazy party!” he says, giddily. “The cops came to our party! In a helicopter!”
The helicopter circles for what feels like half an hour, and the longer it stays up there, the more it commits the ultimate Rae Sremmurd crime of killing everyone’s vibe. A sense of dismay settles in—it’s only nine o’clock, after all. “It’s not like this is ISIS,” someone says bitterly.
Just then word rings out that the cops have arrived at the front gate, and Swae and Jxmmi’s little brother, who was, until recently, enlisted in the Marines, thunders through the living room with an announcement: “If you ain’t 21, you gotta leave!”
Still, it’s not till Rae Sremmurd’s manager, Migo, cups his hands around his mouth and alerts the room that cars are being towed that things really screech to a halt. “Come on,” one girl says as she grabs her friend’s wrist. “We’re leaving. Now.”
Soon it’s just the inner circle, and the video game is back on.
I ask Jxmmi if he misses anything about Tupelo.
“No. Not shit,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t miss anything.”
The plan for later is to go to club 1 OAK in West Hollywood, but that won’t be till midnight. For now, as the house quiets down, Mike WiLL is ordering Indian food while Jay leads a cleaning mission that will require picking up paper plates piled high with chicken bones and the remains of patties, empty packs of cigarillos, and half-finished cans of Lime-a-Ritas. Swae Lee and Jxmmi are in the kitchen making themselves peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. When he finishes his, Swae puts tin foil on the jar of peanut butter, and after making sure that Jxmmi doesn’t want any more, places it in a cupboard. He then pours himself a Solo cup of milk.
Mike WiLL tells me that having a party like that is not just a distraction from or a reward for Rae Sremmurd’s hard work. It’s work, too, in the sense that the memories they create as they begin their new L.A. lives are going to be source material for whatever music they make next. “They might have had a conversation with a girl in there that they’ll never forget,” he says. “And when the helicopters were going over the house, sparking light on the house and shit? That’s a moment, bro. You can put that in a song.”
Leon Neyfakh is a staff writer at Slate. His book The Next Next Level will be published in July.
Photos by Gary Copeland