On That Level
How a talented rap duo from Tupelo, Miss. with a funny name has taken over hip-hop. It's Rae Sremmurd's life.
Words kris ex
Images Ahmed Klink
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of XXL Magazine featuring our 2015 XXL Freshman Class. Check out everything from our Freshman issue right here.

“Oooooh!” squeals Khalif Brown, full of delight. “We know how old you are now!” “Damn,” his older brother Aaquil says sheepishly. He mutters something inaudible and then confesses: “He got the real age.” Aaquil, who records as Slim Jxmmi and forms one half of Rae Sremmurd, looks a bit stunned. In a rare moment of transparency—one of the handful of times during this afternoon’s conversation where he spoke clearly and from his heart—Slim’s betrayed one of the long-running jokes he and his brother have been playing on the press for about a year.

He had been speaking about his brother—not Khalif, who raps as Swae Lee and serves as the other half of Rae Sremmurd; not his half-brother, from his mother’s second relationship; but his stepfather’s son. “We was born on the same day,” he said. “So, we like, not brothers by blood, but we got the same—” he trailed off , before being ran over by Swae.

“They the same person,” Swae said definitively and dismissively with a laugh.

“We kind of do act the same,” Jxmmi laughed back. “We both...” Then he trailed off again. This was pretty much the flow of conversation: Jxmmi saying something, then trailing off into a half-thought; Swae coming in and talking over him, mostly to correct or argue a point, but sometimes interjecting with an attention-grabbing non-sequitur, like little brothers are prone to do in front of an audience.

There’s been hardly a lull with the two—just about every silent space has been filled with some sort of joke or accent or impersonation, courtesy of Swae. But for a moment, Swae was there, on a warm spring day, stretched out underneath a canopied lounge hammock near the swimming pool of the spacious Studio City mansion they recently acquired with their label boss, Mike WiLL Made It. Jxmmi, sitting on a chair a few feet away, was discarding the joint he had been smoking and was drifting away on a memory. And it was real easy to set him up by asking what day he and his brother were born.

“December 29th,” he said, plainly and seriously. “And I was born December 29th, 1991.” He repeated: “1991. We even got the same parents and our parents didn’t...”

And that’s when Swae popped his head up, telling his brother that he’d just snitched on himself. (For his part, Swae maintains that he was born on June 7 in “Swae New Year. The best year ever.”) “I’m just lucky that I look so young, so they not going to believe it,” Jxmmi says now with a laugh. “Any age you put, it’s not going to be believed.”

“They got you on tape recorder, Slim,” counters Swae. “What if I told you we got you on tape recorder?”

“Well, I’d say another magazine got me on tape saying a different age and a different date,” Jxmmi offers, all legal-like.

Swae asks, “How long do you think you can go without saying?” “Thirty years,” Jxmmi says. And again, with emphasis. “Thir-tee years.”

“I want to sit right there, bro,” says Swae. He’s no longer talking about his brother’s age, or his. He’s already imperceptibly switched lanes and is looking at a large white modern house, way up on a hill. “Imagine that view,” he muses. “That’s where Dexter and The Powerpuff Girls live.”

rae sremmurd wild ahmed
Photo Credit: Ahmed Klink

To say Rae Sremmurd have had a breakout year would be an understatement. The first two singles from their debut album, SremmLife—“No Flex Zone” and “No Type”—were both certified platinum. A third single, “Throw Sum Mo,” cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs charts. They recently released a sixth video from the album for the meme-tastic “This Could be Us.” The clip for “This Could Be Us,” filmed in South Africa, is not Kendrick Lamar’s transformational visit to Nelson Mandela’s jail cell. Featuring nods to Twitter, Instagram, FaceTime, Apple products and safaris while exploring the small joys of new travel; the fragility of relationships meeting life transitions; and the cosmopolitan corridors of Johannesburg with nubile extras who may have well been shipped in from L.A., it’s more a remake of Ludacris’ “Pimpin’ All Over the World” than anything else.

“This Could Be Us” doesn’t strive to make any grand statements, but that’s SremmLife—a state of mind that leans as much on basedness as much as it turns up. The power and fun and escapism of SremmLife is its singular dedication to the act of partying, occupying the sweet spot between juvenile glee and adult hedonism. In Rae Sremmurd, Mike WiLL’s EarDrummers (both a label and production troupe) have found the perfect vehicle for their momentous, future-tinged festive bounce.

And the duo—who had been making their own music for years in Tupelo, Miss. as Dem Outta St8 Boyz—have been gifted with musicians that can bring out the best of their vocal antics. It’s song after song of unassailable hooks and cracking deliveries that’s more readily digestible than Migos, more melodic than Rich Homie Quan and not as eccentric as Young Thug. It’s an organic formulation that’s incredibly pop without even trying to be so.

As an album, SremmLife is packed with numbers that are perfect for under-the-influence nights of mindless objectification of women and conspicuous spending in the club, but would be cringe-worthy if read by a Fox News anchor.

From “Come Get Her”: “It seem like we fuckin’ in this club, baby girl, what they think that we doin’?/You getting on my nerves with them questions girl, you know I’m tryna start a little movement/Ain’t got no business fuckin’ with you/Out the blue, you actin’ brand new/Washingtons mean nothing to you/Same thing with us.” But a dry reading of their lyrics misses the ways the brothers’ voices stretch and creak and dive into irresistible tune; and out-of-context readings bypass the head-first immersion into the allure of new fame and quick riches.

For instance, “YNO” puts forth a dead serious but slapstick version of balling: “But, what you riding in, a spaceship?/And where your diamonds from, Saudi Arabia?/Oh, you done came up and put your niggas on?/Now you got a crown and a chinchilla on?” Swae asks in a comically exaggerated squawk before switching to a slightly deeper octaved growl: “A-1 since day one/We stayed down so we came up/Some of them niggas won’t make it with ya/They’ll lose hope and they’ll change up.” It’s a pointed message that’s reinforced by shifts in tone and approach.

On the same song, Jxmmi raps, “Used to be a nigga want 20-inch rims/Now we got accountants out here for Rae Sremm/All up in the mall, Neiman Marcus shoppin’/Came a long way from them Ida Street Apartments/Everybody got a dream that they chasin’...I used to tell them I was gonna be something; they used to look at me and laugh.” He half-speaks that last line as if he’s angry, as if he’s recalling the days when the brothers got kicked out of their home and lived in an abandoned apartment in the name of following their dreams.

rae sremmurd swae lee
Photo Credit: Ahmed Klink

“People say ‘bando,’ ‘bando,’ but they ain’t never—,” Jxmmi drifts off again, before restarting. “Like, we really lived in an abandoned house, where there’s no heat, there’s not good—what’s it called when it keeps the air out, from coming in your house?—insulation; when your house don’t have any good insulation and the wind can blow straight through your house. That, in the winter time, with cold water and then we had [to take] cold baths. I remember one time I ain’t want to take no cold bath. We had an electric stove, so I kept boiling pots of water. I just kept boiling water. I kept dumping it in the bathtub and then I turned on the cold water in the fuckin’ bath and I made it warm and then I got in there, laid in that bitch and smoked a blunt right there. After all that hard work to take a goddamn bath. I just ain’t want to take no cold shower.”

Still, their time in the abandoned house is something that’s recounted mostly with endearment. They speak of making music, throwing parties, having girls cooking for them. “We had the best reputation, too, in our city,” opines Swae. “Like, everybody knew us for just going hard at music and just being cool with dudes.”

“Not like going and starting fights, not going to parties and starting trouble, none of that shit,” adds Jxmmi. “Even though all the niggas on Ida St. was kicking doors, we was partying and all our friends would come over. We ain’t worry about cleaning. Ain’t nobody tell you to come, Hey, clean up! [We’d just] sweep up that muthafucka and knock all the dirt outside.”

There’s a specialness to Rae Sremmurd in this moment that may not last; a certain lack of polish and wide-eyed amazement, a lack of fucks being given. Today, spending time in their new home, they’re dressed incredibly casual—Jxmmi in a plain white tank top, shredded jeans and ashy feet in Gucci sliders and matching belt; Swae in a Tupac/Gandhi t-shirt, Adidas track pants and smudged tube socks—and their dialogue is more of a series of dueling monologues that often go everywhere and nowhere. They’re not jaded, they have no canned answers, they struggle to recall what their mother’s duty was when she served in the military.

rae sremmurd slim jxmmi
Photo Credit: Ahmed Klink

If the freshness eventually wears off , they’ll become mechanical and calculating, but for now, they’re living a rockstar life full of dreams and rewards. And, at a time where going independent is in vogue, Rae Sremmurd is happily signed to a major label deal (via EarDrummers/Interscope).

“We always thought it was the greatest thing ever, to get signed to a label,” Swae confesses. “It’s pretty much cooked up the way it’s supposed to be. It’s hard, but then it’s a good look. It sets you out from the millions of other artists. We already did [the independent route] and it was terrible. That was the stage tryna come up. Starting from zero and trying to enjoy your empire, that’s the hardest thing.”

“We was in Mississippi and the shit is not popping,” recalls Jxmmi. “[Mississippi’s] not the same kind of circle as it is in Atlanta, so we went to Atlanta. That was where we always saw we’d make it at. The first time, we was down there for like a year and then we went back to Mississippi and came back and we was down there for like another year.”

“We were trying to do everything,” says Swae. “You have a show with 60 people? Put us on it!”

“We even waited outside the club a whole night, just to meet Mike WiLL, to meet EarDrummers,” says Jxmmi. “They wouldn’t let us in. We sat at the back door the whole time. Then somebody said, ‘Mike WiLL coming.’ We ran all the way to the front and when they let him out, we was like, ‘Can I get your e-mail?’” “But they already knew us. Them the dudes that seen us right there,” says Swae, motioning to members of the crew who are walking in and out of the house. “They said, ‘Ain’t you Dem Outta St8 Boyz?’ and then they passed us to Mike and said, ‘These little niggas right here go hard.’ And then we just started building a relationship.”

rae sremmurd hip-hop duo
Photo Credit: Ahmed Klink

“What the world doesn’t know is we’ve been doing shows every day for about 600 days,” Swae continues before correcting himself. “Not 600 days...” “Like eight months, nine months, ten months,” says Jxmmi. “Different city every day, two or three planes every day...”

“Two shows a night,” Swae adlibs. “We might leave a show, take a four-hour flight to California, be in the studio for like six hours,” Jxmmi continues. “Then take a flight to another state, wake up—and you might not really get to go to sleep, just sleep on the plane. And when you get off the plane, you gotta go to a interview. Leave the interview, change and then go to a soundcheck, after the soundcheck get three hours of sleep—three to five, maybe—and then go do the next show. And then get out that show, then go do the after party, then go to the next city. That’s what we been doing like every day. Like they having crazy videos of me, super drunk, messing ’round at the airport—”

“Sremmlife,” Swae says, self-explanitorily. “It’s definitely work. It’s hard work, man, every day. The world is watching you, so what are you gonna do now is the question. I’m showing these kids you gotta work. You want to be in a house like this? You can get [it]. Just ’cause you from the trap don’t mean you can’t get into a house like this. Just ’cause you homeless and everything seems like you not gon’ make it, just ’cause it seems like a dream, you can get in a house like this. Look at me: I got in this house like this.”