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How Alchemist and Boldy James Found the Cheat Code on Their New Album, ‘Bo Jackson’

The rapper and producer also talk about ‘The Price of Tea in China,’ friendly competition in hip-hop, and the legendary two-sport superhero they named their latest project after

Getty Images/Griselda Records/Ringer illustration

Boldy James and the Alchemist have both been on such a hot streak that feels almost cliché to say so. The former, the ultra-vivid Detroit stylist, put out four full-length projects in 2020, reaching a new level of notoriety, accumulating the widespread praise he should’ve been receiving for years, and even landing in the orbit of the ascendant Griselda Records clique. Meanwhile, Alchemist, the legendary Southern California beatsmith who made his bones in the late ’90s and early 2000s producing for Mobb Deep and Jadakiss, hasn’t gone anywhere in the past few decades, but he did cement his status as an all-time great with his recent work with Freddie Gibbs and Armand Hammer. (The Grammy nomination for Rap Album of the Year for the Gibbs team-up didn’t hurt his CV, either.)

But if you’re looking for a moment when both began their respective recent tears, it’s The Price of Tea in China, their collaboration released in February 2020 that showed what a lethal combination they could be. The third collaboration between Boldy James and Alchemist following 2013’s My 1st Chemistry Set and the 2019 EP Boldface, Price of Tea was their most accomplished work to date, alternately gritty and ruminative, and true to the aesthetics both men had carved out for themselves. It may have not earned them a Grammy nod like Alfredo, but it did land them on year-end best-of lists by Complex, Stereogum, and Spin. People began taking notice like they never had before.

With that increased attention, the duo returned last week with Bo Jackson—a 14-track, intricately woven album named after the two-sport superhero—and it’s perhaps even better than Price of Tea. Alchemist is in rare form, turning his crates inside out to craft a psychedelic soul pastiche for Boldy to work with, transitioning through hard-hitting beats with ease on “Double Hockey Sticks” and chopping and filtering a loop into something addictive on “Turpentine.” The album is tied together by layers of sonics and interludes (including an appearance by Boldy’s son), and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more cohesive rap project in 2021. Boldy is a revelation too, as he tells tales of heartbreak and street work while unspooling hypnotic rhyme schemes that pull the listener in closer to his low Midwestern drawl. Take his free-associative, three-minute verse on “First 48 Freestyle,” in which Boldy cycles through a half-dozen stories and drops twice as many life lessons while never falling out of his pocket:

Cappin’ like you pressin’, big steppin’, out here touchin’ pape
Really out here Jeffin’, Etch-a-Sketchin’, wouldn’t bust a grape
Shorty hit him broad day, ain’t even cover up his face
In Detroit, we known to take a town, known to flood the state
Can make the same monies breakin’ down as n----s touchin’ weight
Seen what’s-his-name with what’s-her-face, he caught a lucky break
Out Kentucky State, but shit, I heard the feds picked up his case
Snatched him up, plugged his ace, bad enough we upped the stakes
Parabellum in my Nudies, I know n----s love to hate
Pulled up on the well with Julio, told my youngin’ shut the drapes
Ferris wheel on the suey, broski tryna stuff the Drac’
Thuggin’ in the concrete jungle, planet of the apes
Every step I take, I take a risk, I can’t make one mistake
So I brought these two nines with me out on a double date

If Bo Jackson is a step up from Price of Tea, that’s no accident. Both men say that their last project was something of a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon—they went into the studio, laid down what they had, and put it out. They say they knew they had something special, but they weren’t sure who would take notice. But after the praise Price of Tea received, they knew they’d have to come even harder with its follow-up, so they took extra care with Bo Jackson, sifting through dozens of tracks and piecing them together (not unlike how Alchemist hand-made the cover out of cut-up Bo Jackson cards). “Last one, we pretty much made what we made and that was the album,” Alchemist says. “This one, I wanted to chisel it.”

Boldy and Alchemist sat down for a Zoom conversation with The Ringer last week to discuss Bo Jackson, their bond, and what comes next for them. In short: Don’t expect their hot streak to end anytime soon.

Do you guys think younger generations understand just how dope Bo Jackson was?

Alchemist: I hope they do. I hope that this project might get a kid to wonder who he was, and then go on YouTube and be like, “Wait a minute. This guy played both sports? This is mind-blowing.” I just remember as a kid, him being like a superhero. I don’t think they do know, but that’s the cool thing about art and music. When I was young, I used to go listen to the references in the Beastie Boys’ songs and be like, “What is this? What is Vaughn Bode Cheech Wizard?” And then I’d find out about the cartoon that was around before me. I think that’s a cool part about music.

When I was really young, Bo Jackson felt even bigger to me than Michael Jordan, especially with Tecmo Bowl.

Alchemist: How about what Jackson did with the sneakers? One of the best kicks of all time.

This is the fourth project you two have done together. Why do you guys think you have such great chemistry that makes you want to keep working together?

Alchemist: It’s the same way that I know when I’m going through records, if I’m looking for something that gets my ear. It’s like, “I know what I can do with that.” Just like when Chuck [Inglish, Boldy’s cousin and a member of the Cool Kids] first played Boldy, it was like, “I know what I can do with Boldy James.” And then once we connected, results is what dictates it. If you’re making a bunch of hot garbage you’re not going to go real far. Out the gate, we were already making things that were really good. And it was at a point in my career when we linked. It was just good timing. When you look back at what I’ve been doing the last 10 years, doing whole albums, that was real young.

Boldy: When the hood hear it, and they thumbs-up it, then shit, you know you got one. I’d play the records for the guys, and they would tell me, “You and Al on some shit.” And I just kept getting it from that point, and just trying to make sure that every time I come in the booth that I deliver. And minds motivate certain things. Bro might cook up, and when he cook up certain shit, it helps me with the rhyme scheme. I let life and the beat write the lyrics for me. I’m just reciting the shit. Bro put the touch-up paint on it. After I bind some shit down, he’s going to let me know whether or not it’s a green light.

What do you guys think made The Price of Tea in China really break through? You both had this incredible 2020 musically, and that kicked it off for both of you.

Boldy: They was just happy that me and Al was back putting music out. Boldface was the taste tester. The Price of Tea in China was the full dish, but Al didn’t feel like we finished our breakfast. So we came back for seconds. And with this shit that we doing, it’s Old Country Buffet. We trying to put as much quality content out as much as possible, but we still got to let it marinate, and let it soak in. So y’all can catch up with Bo. We dropped some shit that’s so far over everybody’s heads. I might have somebody play the album, and everything y’all don’t understand, I might break it down for y’all. We might have to have class in session with me and Al.

Alchemist: I knew we had something really good when we did Price of Tea in China. I was anxious to see how it would fare out in the world. I was very inspired by Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. That connection was so dope to me. It was like, “Damn, Freddie’s talking that chicken, and Madlib got those beats that are just undeniable, and the juxtaposition of them.” Freddie might have been normally on a more current or trap type of beat and sound good. And I just remember thinking, telling Boldy, I was inspired by what they did. And I felt like if me and him could lace it up and go to war, we could be as quality. I just looked at that as a benchmark. What they did was so good. That’s why we do what we do. I feel like the stage was set because of all that stuff. Also, because of what Roc Marciano had been doing, and what Griselda was doing, Action Bronson—I think everybody set the stage by making music that people liked.

Is it a friendly competition with those guys?

Alchemist: I love all my brothers, but of course when we hit the court, it’s competition. Don’t play easy on me. Let’s go. Of course there’s competition amongst our brothers, but at the highest level of respect. That’s how we all raise the level of each other. Madlib might play me something and kick my ass. Let me go make some other stuff, and I play it for him, and we inspire each other. It doesn’t crush my spirit. It makes me want to compete and add on. When people are competing really hard, the viewer wins. The guy in the stands wins. The listener wins. So that’s why I’m winning. I love it.

Was there any difference in the approach between Bo Jackson and The Price of Tea in China?

Boldy: The approach to The Price of Tea—I had a clear head then. I had a more clear head now, I guess. That might be the difference. I’ve elevated a lot since Price of Tea, life-wise. But I feel like Bo Jackson is actually grimier than The Price of Tea. I just wanted to stick to my guns and make sure that Al was cool with it. You know at the end of the day, it’s me and Al got to be cool with it before we leaked it to the world. We was cool with it, so I knew it was going to be a banger.

Alchemist: The first go-around, I felt like we had something, and I didn’t know who was really going to pay attention to it. And then it far exceeded what I thought to the point that—without naming names—anybody you could imagine, it hit them. So now I know, “All right. We don’t got to fire warning shots. Now, we know everybody’s paying attention. They know. Now we just got to do it at the highest level.”

I was being real picky when we finished the album. Picking songs and asking him to go back in. Whatever it was, I was being picky to the point where a lot of artists might’ve been like, “Yo, man. Leave me alone.” But that’s the thing. He trusted me. And you know sometimes we bump heads. But I was doing that a lot on this album more than the last one. … I still like albums. Even though it’s not really an album-driven market these days, I like albums. I like a movie. And so if I want to make a movie, that’s how I approach it.

You guys are both consistently putting out cohesive, album-length statements in an era when everyone is chasing singles and playlist placement. What’s it like operating in this market?

Boldy: Everybody’s chasing the club scene and the nightlife. Me and Al are trying to raise the bar constantly. We’re never content in where the bar was set. We’re always trying to clear the bar, or we trying to raise it. Like he said, when we was going in, we had a lot of records to pick from. I trust his vision on knowing what works cohesively. The way he sculpted the album, when he played it for me in its entirety, I was feeling it. Like, “I’m fucking with this, bro.” I was proud of it.

What’s the difference between working with Al and working with another producer?

Boldy: We fight a lot. We do a lot of push-ups, lot of pull-ups. We got 40-pound dumbbells laying around. It gets gruesome in the studio. We locks the door with me and Action in there. Action be trying to mud wrestle me and shit, man. [Laughs.]

That’s great. But seriously, does he offer something that you might not be getting from another producer?

Boldy: Al’s the GOAT, in real life, in real time. I’m just honored to be in brody’s good graces enough to be able to work with him. Even beats that I don’t always feel like I would sound the best on, he believes that I would. So it makes me want to step out of my comfort zone and attack the beat as if I’m putting that same energy into the track just as much as he’s putting in.

Al, what do you think he brings to the table as a rapper?

Alchemist: He’s just one of one in his perspective, his voice, his presence on the record, his cleverness. He has that rare combination of street smarts and almost nerdy level of rhyme schemes. Like, how does he get that good? He’s like a guy that was that well-versed in the street. How did he find time to put words together like that? He touched both worlds: the world of a person who’s really into lyrics or writing, and then also somebody who was like, “Damn, he just spoke my life just now.” And somebody lives in a totally different city, but they’re like, “Man, his shit is so relatable.”

I always said Boldy got the cheat code, because everything that he raps about he’s done. He doesn’t even have a good imagination! He’s not imaginative! He just talks about his real life. It’s so crazy. He doesn’t have to make anything up, versus some rapper who would have to be so imaginative. And really, that’s the cheat code. But the thing is, everybody can’t use it, because you’d have to have walked what he’s walked. That’s what makes him special to me.

What’s it been like for you the past year to watch him kind of blow up on a different level, to the point he’s getting noticed by places that wouldn’t have in the past?

Alchemist: I love it. It makes me happier than if I was working with an artist who had already been established. Getting someone in position and helping them get where they need to be is way more fun. And just seeing him glow up and then go on that tear last year. I didn’t see that coming. I knew we was going to get right. And he took to it. And even connecting with Griselda, it was unstoppable, like when a snowball falls down the hill and keeps getting bigger.

Al, you were in a much different situation. You had a lot of commercial success starting when you linked up with Mobb Deep in the ’90s, and then you have a whole history as Eminem’s tour DJ. You’ve just been putting out records for so long. You never really went away, but you just kind of evolved. What do you think the difference is for you between then and now?

Alchemist: I’m more comfortable. I don’t feel like I’m in the music industry, to be honest. I don’t really go by any of the rules like that. I do what I want to do. I think about the days I used to want to push something, [and I’d hear,] “No, we can’t push it back. It’s got to drop tomorrow.” Nowadays, I make my call and I adjust. And it feels so much better just to control your own fucking destiny. So that’s the difference.

A lot of artists, if they were feeling that type of comfortable, they might get complacent. But you’re putting out more work now than ever.

Alchemist: I’m a workaholic, and I always feel like I enjoy what we do. I want to go further. I’m not where I’m not. I’m not the top guy. Even though I know I had a period where I really flourished, in the early 2000s with the beats, I like where I’m at now a lot. I think I’ve grown. I feel like I’m better now. Whether the beats I’m making are more classic to a fan, I know where I’m at is perfect. So as long as I can feel that way, and keep having access to people like Boldy, and where I can make what I feel are great records, let’s battle. Let’s go.

The Grammy nomination for Alfredo, your Freddie Gibbs collaboration, came this year. This came at a time when you were doing your own thing, versus in the early 2000s when you were having to work more within the confines of the industry, having to play the game a little bit more. Did you see that as validating?

It felt kind of unreal. Like, “Damn, word? We’re hitting like that? We’re making waves that are recognized in that realm?” I can’t front, at first it was like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” But then when we got closer, I was really hoping we were going to win, just because I felt like it would’ve been a win for everybody. For Boldy, for Roc, for Evidence, for Action, for all of us who’ve been putting in. You know what I mean? It would’ve been everyone’s W, because I think it represented that you could do something, do your best, and still be recognized on that level.

I never came into the music game and wanted a Grammy. I wanted to be liked by Q-Tip and DJ Premier. I wanted them to say I was dope. If they said I was dope? RZA? Who are the people who pick the Grammys? With all respect, because obviously I’d be fronting sitting here like I don’t care if I was to get a Grammy. It would’ve been amazing. You know your price goes up, everything goes up. It would’ve been a nice win, man. But losing to Nas ain’t a bad thing either.

Absolutely. After everything The Price of Tea did, what do you guys hope Bo Jackson does?

Alchemist: Grammy! [Laughs.] No, I’m not going to lie, we submitted it. But I think for me, I just want people to know that we’re a threat. I want people to feel inspired. I want somebody to hear it and go fix their interlude on their album, because they’re like, “No, we can’t cut corners. You hear what they did on Bo Jackson?”

Boldy: I just hope it reaches a broad enough audience to where, with me and Al, when we decide to come back for dinner, I want everybody to tune in. I ain’t tripping off nothing else that come from it. Like I tell people all the time, I’m going to do this shit whether I get paid for it or not. I just love music. You know what I’m saying?

To bring it back to Bo Jackson, the athlete: Al, you used to be somewhat of a hip-hop Bo Jackson. You used to rap a bunch. There was obviously the Whooliganz stuff, there was the Big Twins joint, “Hold You Down,” etc. Do you ever think about getting back on the mic?

Alchemist: I do for fun sometimes. But I don’t want to cut these guys down. One thing’s for sure, I might have reached my height when I was 15. I was probably the best at rapping. But you know, man, I want to leave food on the table, because if I start rapping, then it’s going to get crazy. If I go into the booth and just like, “Yo, get out!” When he frustrates you a few times, I’m like, “Let me show you how to do it.” And I go in there and just levitate one time. And it’s like, I had to erase it out the computer, because it’s so fire. [Laughs.]

Do you think the art of dual threat has been somewhat lost? In the ’90s, it seems like you had more producers on the mic. You had Large Pro, you had Pete Rock. RZA, Dre, a lot of stars.

Alchemist: I mean, Kanye West. Pi’erre Bourne.

Sure, there’s J. Cole too.

Alchemist: J. Cole, Chase N. Cashe, I could keep going, dude. Hit-Boy. But I think it’s such a bigger game now, and they don’t take their career rapping as seriously as [people did] back then. So I think that element is a little different, but shit, I feel like people do everything now more than ever. When I first met Odd Future and all of them rapped and made beats, I was like “Damn, everybody does everything.” You know?

What other athletes do you guys think deserve the Bo Jackson treatment? Who else could you name an album after?

Boldy: Barry Sanders.

I thought you were going to say that, as a Detroit guy.

Boldy: Watch one of my mixtapes this year. I got a trick up my sleeve, man.

Alchemist: Another nickname for Boldy is King James, but [LeBron] doesn’t need recognition. He’s obviously one of the best. He gets plenty of it. There’s so many underrated sports players from back in the day though. Don’t get me going, because I’ll pull a bunch out. … Swen Nater. Or Mitch Kupchak, he needs an album. Kurt Rambis!

You said on Jalen & Jacoby that they used to call you Jeff Hornacek on the court.

Alchemist: Yeah, quick pull-up. I used to pull up quick. You know, I was small. Small guys we have to have a quick release to trick you, so you don’t block our shot. So I was forced to play in the style of Jeff Hornacek.

So are we going to get a Jeff Hornacek album out of you?

Alchemist: I don’t know, man. Anything can happen. Anything can happen.

Boldy: Fuck the album. We just need a Jeff Horna-check. [Laughs.] That’s what we need.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.