Rick Ross: Living the American Dream
–By Allison Kugel
One conversation with rapper Rick Ross will have you questioning the definitions of success, wealth and opportunity; how to identify opportunity, how to achieve success and how to maintain it while keeping your soul and bodily faculties intact. Ross, born William Leonard Roberts II, rose to prominence in 2006 with his breakout single, Hustlin’, a word that defines his character and approach towards life. Though Ross doesn’t speak like a scholar, his wisdom permeates our conversation. He is an alchemist; aware of his power to transmute base metals to gold. Rick Ross’ fans are believers in his use of language, and his unabashed celebration of riches. He’s proud to remind people that he created a palatial oasis out of the urban desert that was his early life.
Where many others in the Carol City district of Miami where Ross grew up saw few options, Ross saw the opportunity to translate his experiences into music. He came on the scene as hip hop left its golden era behind in favor of corporate commercialism, and then helped to usher in a rap renaissance of which he has become one of the genre’s most powerful voices.
The way Rick Ross explains it to me, the flash and cash his lifestyle portrays goes deeper than flagrant materialism. It leaves a roadmap for others behind him to follow – from no way out to a yellow brick road of possibilities. Even Ross’ palatial Georgia residence can be dubbed rap’s incarnation of The White House, with A-listers paying homage to the famous property (once owned by Evander Holyfield) on occasion.
With eighty-seven singles under his belt, Rick Ross moves through the music business with the urgency of being on borrowed time. Not since the late Tupac Shakur has an artist been quite so cognizant of, nor vocal about, his own mortality, and for good reason. Witnessing the loss of life has been a constant for Ross since his childhood. In recent years Ross survived a grisly drive-by shooting and multiple life-threatening seizures. He’s emerged more prolific than ever with his tenth studio album, Port of Miami 2 and the release of his new book, Hurricanes: A Memoir.
From sleeping in his car in the early 2000s while doggedly pursuing the American dream, to holding tremendous clout among the most successful artists of the moment, Port of Miami 2 features guest appearances by Swizz Beatz, Meek Mill, the late Nipsey Hussle, John Legend, Lil Wayne and Drake. The relationship between Rick Ross and Drake goes back nearly a decade, when Ross showed tremendous support for Drake’s career after the release of his early work, with the breakout mixtape So Far Gone. The two have been allies and collaborators since.
The focus of our conversation was Ross’ memoir, Hurricanes, and the rags to riches story he loves to illustrate for his fans.
Allison Kugel: You come across as nostalgic in your memoir, Hurricanes. If you could travel through time and bear witness to the making of any classic album, which one would you love to be a part of?
Rick Ross: A rap album? That would have to be Paid In Full with Eric B. and Rakim. Rakim was such a supreme lyricist and B. was the epitome of a DJ/dope boy. They were the center of style and fashion with their Gucci suits on the album covers, sitting on the hood of a Mercedes Benz S550. It was the epitome of what rap music really represented.
Allison Kugel: Generational wealth or artistic legacy… which means more to you?
Rick Ross: Generational wealth, without a doubt.
Allison Kugel: You’ve had some close calls between your health issues and an attempt that was made on your life. What was the greatest lesson or insight gained from those experiences?
Rick Ross: Ha! Something just ran across my mind, and I want to say that if it was the end, I would want to make sure I smoke all the roaches down until they’re by my fingertips (laughs)! But it boils down to appreciating and enjoying every day.
Allison Kugel: Do you believe in destiny, free will, or both?
Rick Ross: Destiny, for many different reasons. When there was [sic] twenty shots fired at my Rolls Royce, I had the audacity to go back and get my Cuban link chain. Not only did I go back to get my Cuban link chain, I went back to go get my girlfriend. It had to be destiny.
Allison Kugel; It’s nice that you went back for your girlfriend but thank God you didn’t lose the Cuban link (laughs). Kidding!
Rick Ross: (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: What is the source of your drive and ambition?
Rick Ross: Other than my DNA, it comes from my neighborhood, and being so blatantly aware of the haves and the have nots. I knew I was one of the [have nots]. It may not have been traumatic at all. It could have been something as simple as me not having the Nintendo with the Mike Tyson Punchout game.
Allison Kugel: That was my favorite game! You’re taking me back…
Rick Ross: Mine too. Mike Tyson Punchout and Double Dragon. When you’re the one on the block, where your friends have to bring the game and cartridges in a Winn Dixie bag to come spend the night at your crib, you kind of know.
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? And who or what do you pray to, and what do you pray for?
Rick Ross: Daily. I call him The Big Homie because there’s only one Big Homie; I don’t care what nobody else calls him. I just let Him know I’m appreciative of everything, and I’m really under his command. The second he calls for me or is ready for me, I’m going to open my arms to him.
Allison Kugel: What are you here in this life as Rick Ross to learn and to teach?
Rick Ross: Just that others like me, who never learned math, that you can still be the CEO, you can still become authors and artists. Nobody ever told me that. I had to learn that on my own. When I was in school, I sat in the back of the class making jokes, trying to cover up the fact that I never learned multiplication or algebra. I want to let youngsters who are in the position I was in, know that they can be in this position I’m in now. My father wasn’t there to tell me that, and I never had a big brother. The people I looked at were the ones in the street. I know the advice I always got from them, but I want to teach others that you can become a CEO, a huge success. I’m not only the CEO of one company, but close to a dozen. That’s what I want to be able to teach people on a major scale.
Allison Kugel: To divert a bit, let’s talk about a song from your recent album, Port of Miami 2, Gold Roses featuring Drake. It’s a great song. Describe the dynamic between you and Drake, musically and personally.
Rick Ross: Drake is a genuine human being, and I think that is what I admire and respect about him so much. The role I’ve always played with him was Big Homie, and he always played my Lil’ Homie. That dynamic has always been as natural as it comes, and that’s when we’re in the recording booth and when we’re outside the recording booth. He’s not afraid to show his sensitive side, and that’s what makes him the artist he is.
Allison Kugel: You’ve been quoted as saying that you never question God. Even in your darkest moments, you’ve never asked, “Why?” or questioned Him in any way?
Rick Ross: If I have, it was many years ago before I began to understand what life is. Life can be a cruel place; it can be a cold place. But it also can be as beautiful as you make it. I didn’t even question Him on the morning I woke up with my closest friend dead in the room next to me. We had just been together three hours earlier, and now three hours later, he’s dead and gone (Ross recounts this story in his book, Hurricanes: A Memoir/Hanover Square Press). I never questioned when my other closest homeboy was gunned down in a home invasion in front of his two, three and four-year-old sons. I’m not going to question the Big Homie. Whatever his plans are, that’s his plans. However I go out, it’s destiny.
Allison Kugel: Have you ever stopped to reflect on, and question, the violence that’s surrounded you throughout your life?
Rick Ross: Growing up where I grew up, I never questioned it because questioning it did nothing for it. Hearing AK 47s going off for sixty seconds at a time, you can cry, you can pray, you can question it, but you better just sit back, shut the fuck up, and wait for the ambulance to come. Year after year of seeing and hearing it and walking to school while passing a dead body, it gets to a point where you don’t question it. You got to decide, am I going to survive or am I going to die?
Allison Kugel: You discuss your solid financial prowess in your book. What do you teach your children about money?
Rick Ross: The disadvantage my children have is that they’re my kids, and my entire family is in a different position. They’re receiving money from everybody. I could put my kids on an allowance, but my daughters have credit cards. I do explain the importance and the value of building a brand. I don’t speak to my daughter about coming up from the mud to the marble and starting with nothing, because that’s not her life. She’s not in the position me and my sisters were in. Instead, I talk to her about the importance of maintaining our brands and bringing something new to the brand. By the time she was fourteen, my daughter knew how to run a Wingstop (one of Ross’ several business interests). If we left her in a Wingstop [restaurant] with two other people, they would be able to run it for a full day. With my haircare line, RICH Haircare (RICH by Rick Ross), I allow her to be in the conference calls and to sit in on the meetings. At the same time, she gets to live and enjoy life much more than I did at her age. You have to take the good with the bad, but I most definitely let them see firsthand what hard work is.
Allison Kugel: You’re raising your kids in the Holyfield Mansion (Ross’ 44,000 square foot Georgian estate, once owned by Evander Holyfield). I would imagine there has to be a sense of entitlement when your kids are growing up in what is, for all intents and purposes, a palace.
Rick Ross: It’s not something I overthink. As parents, we need to set examples because we have to let our children grow into what and who they are going to be. I really don’t put a lot of pressure on my kids, because they’re good students and they are very respectful of me and of everyone else around them. I’m allowing them to become young adults, and to decide what college they want to go to, what they want to be, what they want to do, how they want to do it, and where they want to do it. I’m pretty free about that. But it’s true. It’s not an upbringing I would know about firsthand, and I’m pretty sure I would feel entitled if Eddie Murphy was walking around my dad’s home and Coming to America 2 was being filmed at my father’s estate. They’re filming Coming to America 2 at the estate right now.
Allison Kugel: Okay, well that’s awesome! Are you in it?
Rick Ross: I have a small role and I did my first scene a few days ago.
Allison Kugel: I’ll have to look out for you when it comes out.
Rick Ross: Most definitely. You’ll have to look out for Rozay in the movie when it’s out (laughs).
Allison Kugel: I love how in the back of your book you thanked a jeweler who let you browse his watch collection for hours and ask him a bunch of questions years ago, when he knew you couldn’t afford to buy one. Do you think you envisioned your dreams into existence?
Rick Ross: Without a doubt. I think that’s a part of destiny. I believe that if you believe in something or anticipate something coming to you, you try your best to prepare for it. For example, I’m trying my best now to prepare to be a huge actor one day. Before I finished my book, I wanted to thank Mr. Morgan; that was the name of the jeweler. He was extremely kind and patient with me. For some reason he would always let me, for two hours at a time, look and ask questions about the jewelry. He knew I didn’t have money. I probably didn’t have money for a damn soda at that time. He’d take the time to describe the different watches to me, and my mind was just blown. I was fascinated by the idea of having jewelry. He would let me stand there for a long time and I never got the opportunity to purchase anything from him. I just wish he knew who I was, and I wish I knew where he was now, because I would personally want to thank him.
Allison Kugel: How do you feel about your fans getting to know you on a more intimate level when they read your book? Does that make you nervous or excited?
Rick Ross: I would never be nervous at the idea of my fans getting to know me, and I feel like if they really knew who I was, they wouldn’t even believe me. The book paints some pictures for you but can never really give you an idea of what the real play was, because I came up in the era of some real things happening. Neil [Martinez-Belkin] did a great job of putting the book together. He spoke to maybe sixty or seventy of my closest friends and family, because talking to me there’s only some much conversation I’m going to give you. The shit I’ve seen, when we talked, it got no realer. When I talked about getting real money it got no realer. That’s what made me the businessman I am. Unlike a lot of other artists, I was familiar with money before the music came. Most artists, by the time they get their first advance, they got to go get a car or a home. I already had these things, so by the time I got money in the music business I was ready to invest in other things and do other things.
Allison Kugel: At the end of your book, you also pay tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle. Why do you think his life ended the way it did and when it did?
Rick Ross: As painful as it is to watch this type of shit online (referring to surveillance video footage of the shooting), that’s what I grew up seeing. As painful as it is, I almost became numb to it over the years. I’ve always been the one that’s been the shoulder for others to cry on. Why did it happen? I can’t answer that. Was he a special individual? An incredibly special individual! Would I still consider Nipsey Hussle blessed and highly favored? Yes, I would. I’ve stood in those shoes before, and I was blessed to walk away. But for some reason, if it was to happen to me and that’s how the Big Homie upstairs chose for me to go, I’m going to open my arms to him. I don’t fear death, personally. I’m sure if Nipsey was here, Nipsey would still love and support his community the same way. Would Nipsey still love flossing in Crenshaw? I believe so. I would still love Miami 305, even if that was the city that took my life.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope fans are getting out of reading your book?
Rick Ross: I just hope the youngsters that are from where I’m from can see the potential in them in becoming authors, becoming CEOS or whatever they want to become. Do I really think I’m going to make money off this bullshit? Probably not. Do I think it will be successful? Really, anything with my face on it could be successful, but I didn’t do it for that. I wrote the book because I’m another youngster from a failing situation that’s seeing some success. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about. Going from being the hunted to becoming the hunter.
Hurricanes: A Memoir by Rick Ross with Neil Martinez-Belkin is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Port of Miami 2, Ross’ 10th studio album, is out now. Follow him on Instagram @RichForever.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of the memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of communications firm, Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.
Photos Courtesy of Bob Metelus. Creative Consultant: Sheldon Wright