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The Evolution of Offset Jim, and a Friendship

These days, the Oakland rapper is one of the hottest commodities in a bubbling Bay Area scene. But for one writer, Jim will always be the kid he used to share sandwiches and trade stories with.

For the better part of my adolescent life, I would walk up Kittredge Street in Berkeley, bust a right on Shattuck Avenue, and trek half a mile down the road with my friend James to a five-star eatery named Sandwich Zone. Usually, I’d be without funds, making James the financier of these expensive $5 BLTs. After ordering our food, we’d walk through a slew of fellow high-schoolers and up the stairs into the shop’s balcony seating to talk about life. He’d tell me about the street life and how great Webbie is, and I’d complain about school before letting him know that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the greatest record of all time. But in the years following graduation, he’s become a low-key poppin’ rapper now known as Offset Jim, meaning our meet-ups have been limited to occasional small talk at events, brief catch-ups on social media, or hospital visits after a shootout. But no matter the occasion, each interaction would end with me asking semi-jokingly, “Sandwich Zone on you?” Which was always followed by an “I got you” from Jim.

So now, on this muggy October day in Hollywood, I’m walking up Argyle Avenue toward Jim’s hotel with two agendas: to celebrate the release of Rich off the Pack, his sophomore studio effort, and inquire when I’m going to get my free sammich. For the past few years, Jim has been busy, earning acclaim and an OVO cosign after releasing his debut project, No Pressure, in 2019, and he seems to be on the brink of mainstream stardom. To celebrate his latest release, our evening’s agenda includes an expensive meal at Tao, an upscale restaurant chain, and a shot of alcohol once the album officially drops on streaming services. But first, it’s time to catch up. No matter where we are, our conversations lead back to the halls of Berkeley High. We met there during our junior year in third-period biology. He was an out-of-district transfer from an area called the “Murder Dubs,” and I was an insecure square bear from Oakland’s softer Lake Merritt district, yearning for friendship. He arrived with the reputation of a hustler who was not to be played with, and someone who may or may not have gotten into some trouble with the law. What I didn’t know was that his childhood was essentially a double life: one being a structured existence in the Highland Terrace section of the Town with his parents, and another at his grandma’s house farther east near the Hegenberger district.

“In the Dubs, the kids my age was still kids doing kid stuff,” he says. “But the kids that was my age in the Deep, they was doing street stuff … smoking weed, selling weed, and I thought that that was cool. I thought, ‘OK, that’s what it is.’”

In Jim’s case, being “cool” meant acting older, and acting older meant doing whatever to be like his older homies in the Deep East. “I just wanted to grow up too fast,” he says. His parents dabbled in the street life, selling anything to inch their way out of poverty, but they warned their boy of the perils of their environment, some of which Jim saw first-hand as a child. But Jim’s mind was on getting money, so he hustled, even if that meant brushes with the law. By his early high school years, his homies were getting killed and catching cases, making Jim uneasy. He bounced around a few schools in the Bay but never stayed longer than a few months, before getting arrested for participating in a home invasion. Jim needed a North Star, and Berkeley High seemed like a utopian fantasy. “I heard so much about it,” he says. “Anything I was going to do on the streets, I could do here. I could come here, talk to girls, do my work.”

He’d heard about the school when he was in juvenile hall for the home invasion charge. The aunt of his now-manager, Rolla, worked at the hall and would grant him unlimited calls home, most of which would be placed to Rolla, who attended BHS and was aware of Jim’s need for community. “You got to come to Berkeley High,” he recalls Rolla saying. “We’re going to look after you.” Throughout its existence, B-High has long been known for its eclectic student body. “Berkeley High was where the square dudes and the street dudes came together,” Jim says. “That’s where the square dudes, the basketball players, the niggas who sell weed, the niggas who had guns, everybody came together and got to be kids together.”

Before Jim’s arrival, I was dealing with teenage growing pains of my own. Two years prior, I’d enrolled in the school strictly to play football, a sport I enjoyed watching, but not playing. As a result, my grades started to plummet, and I became a recluse. But in the weeks after Jim’s arrival, we got to know each other, and our interactions quickly evolved from small talk to conversations that ended with, “I got your back if anyone fucks with you.” He wanted to escape his world, and I wanted to show him mine, even if it led to tense moments. There was the time some homies and I drove to the Dubs to pick him up for a party in the Oakland Hills. Not necessarily familiar with the terrain, we slammed our brakes very hard at the address he provided, looking like the opps in front of 20 dudes. Guns clicked, brows furrowed, and an awkward silence was cast over this Western-like stand-off. Until Jim came to the rescue.

“Nah! They’re my friends,” he shouted. “They with me.” After the guns went down, we drove up to the hills and had the time of our lives.

“That’s what made it so cool to be friends,” Jim says. “Y’all showed me a lot of shit that I wasn’t seeing at that time. I wasn’t exposed to the shit that y’all was exposing me to.”

But as his high school tenure drew to a close, Jim’s life began to change. By 19, he was a father, adding to his stress. He sipped lean to cope, and he went back to selling drugs.

“My mind was all over the place,” he says. “Sometimes you got to learn shit on your own. It doesn’t matter who tells it to you, sometimes you won’t get it until it’s too late.”

Everything could’ve ended on October 15, 2015, when Jim and a group of friends were driving on a freeway through Vallejo, headed back to the East Bay. As they drove, an assailant shot into the car, hitting Jim nine times, “I got hit in my legs, my arms, my face. I got one in my back,” he says. “I got one in my chest, and I got one in my shoulder still.” On the way to the hospital, Jim’s mind began to drift. “I was stiff. I couldn’t move,” he says. “I couldn’t do nothing. I don’t know. I just had thought about my kids. I don’t know. It just gave me some type of strength. Because it popped me back up.”

Around this time, D’Andre Sams, known as ALLBLACK, was recording his breakout mixtape, No Shame 2. He had been pushing Jim to get in the studio. They had been friends since elementary school, and Sams knew of Jim’s musical talent. He’d remembered all the songs Jim and his friends would upload on YouTube back in the day, dissing their enemies.

“That was just the culture at that time,” Jim says. “Dudes making songs and talking shit about whoever that they’re not cool with.”

Above all, Sams was sensitive to Jim’s need for a way out of his circumstances, and now a professional artist himself, he had a road map to finding a legal means of making money. “I was just telling him, ‘When I get better, I’m a come pull up and just check the sessions out,’” Jim says. “I ain’t even want to rap. I just wanted to be around it.”

A short time after the incident, Jim fulfilled his promise and showed up at the Richmond studio Sams was recording in. When Sams told Jim he wanted him to write a verse for the project’s title track, it took Jim hours to come up with something.

“I was scared to do that shit. It was so many people in the studio, and I hadn’t done the shit in so long,” he says. “I didn’t know how it was going to come out.”

Today, the song is a local hit, in large part because of Jim. His slow, assertive cadence made him stand out, but his sheer audacity made the song his. “Ten in my pocket and that’s only on a light day,” he rapped. “Ya boyfriend doing bad, he can’t run the right play.” More importantly, it was good enough to earn Jim studio time to work on his album. It was a gamble because that meant giving up his other revenue streams. “When I was making that tape, I had to really sacrifice because I had to stop hustling as much,” he says. “That was so hard for me because I wasn’t getting no money, and I was just getting broker and broker by the day. But I was just listening to my team, telling me that it’d work out. I didn’t know it would take me this far. But I’m glad I listened.”

The result of those sessions was No Pressure, an eight-track coming-out party, and while not necessarily a commercial success, the right eyes were opened. “I like his confidence,” E-40 told me recently. “He spit where he from, from the streets. And you can relate to it. … I am a fan and everything he touches is all right with me.” One evening in 2020, Jim was perusing his Instagram when he got a notification that Oliver El-Khatib, Drake’s manager, had posted the lyrics to “Tap In,” a local hit single off the album, on his Instagram Story. “I was like, “What the fuck?” Jim says. El-Khatib caught wind of Jim’s music while listening to ALLBLACK and Shoreline Mafia and became a fan, later inviting Jim to Los Angeles for a photo shoot to promote October’s Very Own’s fall 2020 line, prompting rumors that Jim may sign with the Toronto-based label. When I asked about a potential partnership, Jim says no deal has formalized. “That ain’t nothing that we’ve talked about,” he says. “As of now, they just fuck with me, and I just fuck with them.”

OVO isn’t the only collective grooving to his hits.

“I like his music a lot,” Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson told me last month. “He’s just really the voice of Oakland. His storytelling, his ability with flow and talking about where he came from. The struggles, the obstacles he had to overcome to be the artist he is today. That’s why I like him a lot. Because he’s raw and he’s authentic to who he is.”

Back in Hollywood, it’s time to eat, so we bundle into a couple of cars and prepare to make the mile drive to Tao. Jim’s latest effort, Rich off the Pack, which features guest spots from ALLBLACK, Babyface Ray, and EST Gee, shows Jim at his very best. He stunts on the Kenny Beats–produced “Face Card,” and displays a remarkable level of vulnerability in “Thugs Cry,” which chronicles Jim’s survivor’s remorse. But tonight is a celebration, and he’s joined by some homies from back home, who are basking in the Hollywood nightlife. About an hour into our meal, we take a tequila shot when the clock hits 9 p.m., signaling the release of his latest project. The moment takes on a special meaning considering Jim is no longer a West Coast resident, making this trip to L.A. something of a homecoming. In recent years, he’s moved to New York, away from the spotlight he yearned for as a teenager. “Out there, I can be a civilian,” he says. “I could just be nobody.”

Following the toast, Jim seems free. Our whole day together has been surrounded by homies he’s known since childhood, all who’ve survived long enough to see one of their own make it. “I feel good. I feel good,” Jim says. “I feel relieved.”

And with that, it’s time to go. There’s an offer to hit a club after, but I decline. The eager kid who’d risk getting popped to take his friend to a party is now a washed man with an early bedtime. But I couldn’t leave without asking Jim a question that’s been on my mind all evening: How did we end up friends?

“You wasn’t trying to be nobody else,” he says. “You ain’t have no problems telling me, ‘I’m broke as fuck. I ain’t got no money to eat.’ We talked about everything. We sat next to each other for hella long, so we had time to really get to know each other. It was crazy because you got two kids from two different walks of life, but still alike.”

Which prompts a second pressing question: “You’re a famous rapper now. When the hell are you gonna get my Sandwich Zone?”

“Ha!” he responds. “I got you.”