We’ve Got A File On You: Ja Rule
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
From around 1999-2003, Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins was among the biggest names in rap. Alongside Jay-Z and DMX, Ja was, for at least a brief moment, the bellwether of a post-Biggie New York scene. When Irv Gotti discovered him in the mid-’90s, the Def Jam-affiliated producer saw in Ja an immediate superstar. Rumor soon spread that Ja was the East Coast’s second-coming of 2Pac. His 1999 debut Venni Vetti Vecci, on which he rapped, “My flow is bananas/ Bitches can’t stand us,” may have dispelled those rumors. But what Ja lacked in lyrical dexterity, he made up for with a blazing half-gruff, half-fervid delivery that seemed to emerge from a depth that only he could bring to the surface. The limitless self-belief he displayed on his debut was genuinely compelling, almost spiritually so. He was the middle-ground between Jay-Z’s polish and DMX’s rawness, before he shucked those comparisons entirely and forged his own lane.
Ja Rule certainly wasn’t the stuff of paperboy hat-touting “serious” rap, so for his second album, Rule 3:36, he hard-pivoted. It was “a very calculated move,” he says. Rule 3:36 was an experiment in melodicism and unity between masculinity and femininity. With it, he established a new M.O.: Every thug needs a lady. It was a formula that still inspires hip-hop practitioners today, whether we think to link it back to Ja or not.
In most cases, Ja’s impact on the genre and culture has been overlooked. He hasn’t really been written into the rap canon, his glory days obscured by a series of ridiculous events, including a sample of Toto’s “Africa,” a role in a Christian propaganda movie, a disastrous halftime performance at a Milwaukee Bucks game, and of course, the big whopper, which instigated one of the all-time funniest days on the internet: Fyre Festival. (Spoiler: Neither Ja, nor his publicist who was also on the call, appreciated being asked about Fyre Festival).
A career like Ja’s, full of hits, side hustles, and meme fodder, seemed ideal for the We’ve Got A File On You format. The timing seemed perfect, too. This year, as Ja Rule celebrates a rare birthday (he was born on Feb. 29, in a leap year) and prepares to release his “$100 million album,” there’s a lot to talk about. When Ja hopped onto the Zoom meeting, blunt in hand, a copy of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die behind him, he seemed more than happy to review all his years in the spotlight. As if mirroring his rap career, things were going well until we reached 2003. I asked him about 50 Cent, hoping to start a line of questioning about the nature of beef, to what extent it shapes the career of a rapper, and how that’s shifted in the age of social media. His response was both understandably reactive, and, I felt, of value. He left the Zoom shortly afterwards, but not before getting into some of his current activities.
So, here it is: Perhaps one of the first cases of a We’ve Got A File On You gone askew.
Growing Up In A Jehovah’s Witness Household
Happy birthday for next month, Ja. How many birthdays have you gotten to celebrate in your life?
JA RULE: This is going to be the big 1-2. I finally turn 12.
Not only does your birthday fall on a leap year, you were also brought up by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
JA RULE: Oh, that’s funny because I just realized that I didn’t celebrate my actual real birthday till I was 12. So this is a full circle moment.
What happened when you turned 12 the first time?
JA RULE: That’s just when I kind of left my grandparents and went to live with my mom permanently. My mom lived differently, it was all good.
You’re a grown 12 year-old man now, I imagine you’ve lived enough years to be able to reflect on how that Jehovah’s Witness upbringing shaped who you are today?
JA RULE: You know, the religion gets a lot of flak. I look at it as any other religion, but with more limited restrictions. For me, it was like anything else. Kids didn’t want to go to church on Sunday. I didn’t want to go. But it gave me structure in a way. It taught me how to carry myself as a respectful man and human being in society. It also prepared me for being in front of crowds. You know, they make you go up and speak in front of an audience and in front of the congregation. If you’re doing that at eight or nine or ten years old, it really prepares you for this type of business.
Cash Money Click (1994-95)
You first entered this business as part of your trio Cash Money Click. What kind of mindset were you in back then?
JA RULE: My thought process at the time was being successful, getting out of the hood, making some money to feed my family.
Was it your intention to grow with the group or to eventually separate yourself from it?
JA RULE: No. I was devastated when everyone in the group went their separate ways. It was a bittersweet moment for me. I had never been a solo artist, and being a solo artist is very different from being in a group. I was used to doing one verse on a song. So then I had to do three verses on a song. It was definitely a culture shock for me in many ways. When we finally got our opportunity to meet with Lyor Cohen and Def Jam Records, Lyor was very honest and blunt about what he wanted, and he wanted to sign me only. Like, yeah, we finally made it, but he only wanted me. It was difficult, but adult decisions had to be made. We move on.
Coming Up Alongside Jay-Z And DMX (Late ’90s)
How did you transition from rapping alongside Jody Mack and O-1 in Cash Money Click to the likes of Jay-Z and DMX in Murder Inc.?
JA RULE: It’s funny, people don’t really realize that Jay and X were on my Cash Money Click album. They did songs with me in the group back then and I’d done songs with them for Mic Geronimo’s project Time To Build. But I got a record deal before Jay, so I always felt like I belonged. We were just all regular guys. We had the same goals in mind. We were three great emcees that wanted to be the best at what they did. I was the youngest of the bunch, they were a little more seasoned than me. But like I said, I was the one with the record deal at that time, you know?
And then you collabed again with Jay-Z on “Can I Get A….” Do you consider that your first big hit?
JA RULE: Yeah, that was my real introduction to the world as a solo artist. Everything opened up from there, and the rest was history. The doors just swung wide open, and I came with “Holla Holla” next.
How did you find coming into your own at that time, especially when you were being constantly compared to Jay-Z and DMX?
JA RULE: We all had our own thing. X was the ultimate street emcee, just grimy and raw. X was so loved in the hood and Jay had the hood love as well, but it came from a different perspective. Jay was very put together, very calculated, very glossy, very about the money. X was more for the people in the trenches. And me, I was from Hollis, Queens, I was somewhere in the middle of all that. We like to get fly on that side of Queens but we also got that grime to us. And then, you know, all of us loved women, but I catered to the ladies in a different way. So then all these lanes were created and no one was in anyone else’s lane.
Hard Knock Life Tour (2000)
In 2000, you, Jay, X, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, Beanie Sigel, and a bunch of other legends, performed across the States for the Hard Knock Life Tour, one of hip-hop’s most important and historic tours. I’d love to hear about some of the memories from it that stand out to you now.
JA RULE: My biggest memory from the Hard Knock Life Tour would just have to be the fact that this was the first hip-hop tour since the Fresh Fest. So we’re talking 20 years prior to the Hard Knock Life Tour. Before that, hip-hop acts would go out, but they’d have to go out with like, R&B acts, because it was very hard for hip-hop artists to get insured and then get the bond companies to take a risk on hip-hop. So it was a big moment for us. Before we all went on tour, Jay made a speech. He said a lot was riding on this, that the future of touring in hip-hop was on our shoulders, and if we got through this 50-city tour without a hitch, then [the insurance companies] would bond us. Then they’d understand forever that hip-hop is not dangerous. From that moment on, we all knew that it was bigger than just us going out and performing and, you know, having some fun on tour. On the last day, we celebrated the fact that we’d had no hiccups, no incidents, no issues. At the end of the tour, we celebrated the moment that we knew that we had just accomplished what we set out to accomplish. We changed hip-hop. So it was a special, special moment. It made these great sets from Travis Scott, Kanye, Drake, whoever else, possible.
Rule 3:36 And Pop Crossover (2000)
Your identity as a rapper changed drastically from your first album Venni Vetti Vecci to your second, much more melodic and female-centric album Rule 3:36. Why?
JA RULE: The transition was very calculated. I was being compared to ‘Pac and being compared to DMX and I didn’t love those comparisons, even though I love both those artists. Don’t get me wrong, being compared to those two men in any capacity is amazing, those are my brothers. But I wanted to be my own guy. So I grew my hair out, got braids, so no one could say I looked like them. And then the music was just very different. It was melodic. It was just a very new wave. Nobody was really doing it the way I was doing it. I took a risk. My label didn’t even like the album when I brought it back. Def Jam didn’t love it, they wanted me to go make a new album. But sometimes in life, the higher the risk, the higher the reward. People were saying, damn, Ja did a whole 180 on us, but I looked at it as growth as an artist. If you don’t take that shot on your second album, sometimes you get put in a box and get expected to do the same thing for every album. I think me making that transition, my second album, took me outside that box, and then people realized that I was an artist who could do different things.
When did you meet Ashanti?
JA RULE: That was during the making of my third album. She was brought to the label by a lawyer friend. She was young, hungry, wanting to get in the studio and work. So she was in every night soaking it in, learning, writing. At that time, she didn’t have any visuals, no looks, she was just like a voice. When it came time to do “Always On Time,” it felt like a big record, a hit, so my label was telling me to reach out to Alicia Keys or Beyonce. And I was like, we got Ashanti right here, let’s put her on this record and see what she sounds like. And we did, and she sounded great.
“I’m Real” And Calling In To MTV On 9/11
Your collaboration with Jennifer Lopez was the #1 single on Sept. 11, 2001. I’m curious to know what that must have felt like?
JA RULE: Wow. I didn’t realize that. On 9/11, I actually wrote “Rainy Dayz,” so I had the #1 single, then wrote another one on the same day.
While you were writing another hit, MTV called you up on 9/11 to ask, “What does Ja Rule think of all this?” which later became the subject of a Dave Chappelle joke.
JA RULE: “Oh, we got Ja rule on the phone.” Yeah, yeah. Big shout out to my brother, Dave Chappelle. Um, you know, they do that shit all the time. They call up a celebrity to get their thoughts on tragic events, that was the gist of Dave’s joke.
How do you look back on your beef with 50 Cent, and to what extent do you think it affected your career?
JA RULE: Who cares? That’s my answer to that.
[Ja’s publicist says time is running out and suggests moving on to questions about his new album.]
JA RULE: Yeah, you guys have really got to stop. You gotta stop perpetuating Black-on-Black crime. Like, you know, that situation is so old, 20 years old, and yet we still want to drum it up, as if me and this man don’t have different things going on. We have successful careers outside of that. There’s that mentality that we just have to go one at a time. No, there’s room for everybody to eat. And I think as we grow, as artists, as we grow as media, all of us, you know, collectively, we all have to take accountability in these situations. You know, you look at Big and Pac and what happened with that situation. Media is a big reason why that happened. So we got to take accountability. And you guys got to start taking accountability for what you think is just shits and giggles, entertainment fodder for the casual listener or whatever. Because sometimes these issues really do spill over into the streets and get serious.
I hear you, and I really appreciate everything you just said. I brought it up because we’re doing a career retrospective here, and unfortunately, this played a not insignificant part in your career. Let us move on…
JA RULE: That it definitely has.
Fyre Festival (2017)
Can I ask you about Fyre Festival?
JA RULE: Look, I was cleared of all wrongdoing. That’s all I need to say.
New Album Can We Watch the Sunrise Together (2024)
So, you’re in album mode, right?
JA RULE: Yep, I am. I’m hoping this will be incredible. You know, I’m still very good at what I do. We’ll see. June 1.
You said this was a $100 million record deal. That’s a pretty big number…
JA RULE: As a potential. I assured myself on the potential of the deal, the way the deal is structured. You know, it’s a lot. It could be a lot bigger than that, easily. People are going to talk, say whatever they like. I’m not I’m not here to please people. I’m here to put in the work. But the deal is an amazing situation, a gamble. Yeah, we’re rolling right now. And this is a big year for me. I got my new project, and I’m signing new artists right now as we speak.
It’s been over 10 years since the last record. What made you want to take time out and then come back and return to music?
JA RULE: I’ve got to feel inspired. Right now I’m feeling so inspired. I’m happy. Everything in life is going in a great direction for me. And also, why not release a new project on my 25 year anniversary? I might make, you know, two or three albums after this. I might keep going, I might stop again. I don’t know.
At the end of the day, how would you like to be remembered?
JA RULE: The greatest that ever did it. Honestly, I just hope that I was able to inspire, through song, through my strength, through my resilience. How I adapted and pivoted through adversity. The reality is that you learn more at rock bottom than you do at the mountaintops.