What The Fall of
Trinidad Jame$ Can Teach Bobby Shmurda
Big expectations, little label support and a legion of haters all conspired to end a million-dollar rookie’s
stint in the majors
This summer, a 20-year-old Brooklyn rapper named Bobby Shmurda became hip-hop’s newest star, owing to a viral video for his braggadocious indie release “Hot N*gga” and the playful “Shmoney Dance” that accompanied it. The dance has now moved the feet of Beyonce, Philadelphia Sixers’ Joel Embiid and even a U.S. soldier stationed overseas, who brandishes his gun while dancing in the desert.
In July, I spoke to Bobby about the fervor surrounding him. By the the end of that week, he had signed a deal with longtime industry vet Sha Money XL, producer and EVP of A&R at Epic Records, who announced via Instagram: “Deal is done @bobby_shmurda #EPIC no one does the underdogs better then [sic] me. Brooklyn this 1 is for you!”
Just as Shmurda was gaining momentum, another rapper was unraveling. Trinidad James had been the Bobby Shmurda of 2012, with a viral video that led to a deal with Def Jam Records purported to be worth $2 million. But around the time of Shmurda’s signing, Trindad James announced via Twitter that Def Jam had dumped him. Pundits, fans and even 50 Cent immediately weighed in to draw comparisons between the two, leaving many to wonder if Epic has put Shmurda on the same track of quick rise and demise as Trinidad James.
“We’re at capacity,” the security guard at Santos Party House said flatly. Three words I never want to hear on a night like this. It was December 4, 2012 — Trinidad James’ breakout performance in New York City. Everyone who was anyone in hip-hop was inside. After failing to cajole my way in, even offering to buy a ticket at scalper price, I left. Walking home past the line of fans snaking around the block — most of them would never get in either — I knew I was missing history.
A retail-to-riches story, Trinidad James (born Nicholas Williams) catapulted from working in Atlanta’s Top of the Underground boutique to become the hottest rapper-of-the-moment. His song “All Gold Everything” was an infectious, indie banger in late 2012, buoyed by a slick music video in which Trinidad struts about shirtless, dripping in gold baubles and cradling a pit bull puppy. Juxtaposed against the rural backdrop of Clayton County, Georgia, his Molly-poppin’, Instagram-flexin’ flamboyance was the epitome of nouveau balling. Rolling Stone lauded the visual for making the rapper an “instant touchstone online” while Complex asked, “What’s not to love here?”
But with every click, “All Gold Everything” generated backlash. Many people blasted Trinidad’s over-the-top antics and excessive use of the N-word as ignorant, perpetuating racial stereotypes that set back hip-hop and African American culture (Comparisons to Martin Lawrence’s pimp character “Jerome” certainly didn’t help). “This Trinidad James character is the most ignorant fool I have ever seen,” said speaker and writer Taurean Brown, while Peter Rosenberg, Hot 97’s resident hip-hop purist, directed his anger toward white fans: “Your shtick to me seemed geared to be appreciated by white hipsters. I have mixed feelings about it either way. For black kids, I don’t think that’s particularly good for them to see that imagery and for white hipsters, kind of like, ‘This is so crazy. Look at him!’ I don’t love that either.”
Charisma or clown? Trinidad James had everyone talking.
The show at Santos proved a turning point. Shortly after, Trinidad inked a deal with Def Jam Recordings, rumored at a whopping $2 million. Fervor quickly flipped into criticism, leaving many asking whether Def Jam had overpaid for the neophyte. $2 million seemed like big bucks for a guy with one song, especially for an industry in cash-strapped times.
Def Jam commercially re-released Trinidad’s Don’t Be S.A.F.E. mixtape and “All Gold Everything” became even more so when the RIAA certified Trinidad with a gold record. Trinidad released an all-star remix featuring 2 Chainz, T.I. and Young Jeezy. He started making the mainstream rounds, including a performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Trinidad’s rookie-of-the-year status was cemented when he earned a spot in XXL’ s coveted 2013 Freshmen class cover story, alongside other rappers-to-watch like ScHoolboy Q and Action Bronson.
But within a few months, the new artist buzz dissolved, and Trinidad found himself struggling to move beyond the hype of his first single. His Jonathan Mannion-directed follow-up video, “Female$ Welcomed,” failed to move the needle, garnering 4 million views on Vevo, relatively anemic when compared to the 20 million amassed by “All Gold Everything.” Fans ripped the song. Said one Vevo commenter: “It really pisses me off that this guy is this rich. He sucks at probably everything he does in life… except sucking… He does really good at that.”
The rapper cracked under the scrutiny. “People don’t want to hear positive raps as much as people want to hear negative rap,” he said openly to XXL in mid-2013. This interview went viral as an admission of his cashing in on ignorance. “America turned it [“All Gold Everything”] into the ratchet anthem. That’s not my fault,” he snapped during an interview with Hot 97’s Angie Martinez, later in the year. ”Ratchet undermines my intelligence. You damn right I hate that!”
This angst culminated in a public meltdown on November 11, 2013 at a show for Converse in Brooklyn. During his set, Trinidad boasted about the South’s stranglehold on hip-hop. “We run y’all,” he said, to a chorus of boos. This time, I had a view from a perch onstage. “Is he serious?” a guy near me muttered. “I came to hear ‘All Gold Everything.’” Trinidad eventually stormed backstage, leaving the crowd and industry denizens in disbelief.
When the rapper announced that Def Jam Records had dropped him this August, it was the coup de grâce. “I should tell yall. I got dropped by the label. My album is now free,” he said in a tweet that was later removed.
Social media was merciless. “Trinidad James turned out to be the swag rap Chumbawamba,” music journalist Jeff Weiss jibed, while blogger Shake Zela, owner of rap blog 2 Dope Boyz, shared, “A surprise to NO one.”
Trinidad James’ dizzying ascent and crash has now come to epitomize the pitfalls of overhyped and overpriced signings in hip-hop.
Still, very little is known publicly about what went wrong. From whispers of mismanagement within the rapper’s camp to accusations towards the Def Jam executives responsible for the bum deal, Trinidad James’ story is a complex tangle of rumors and corporate intrigue.
Corporate finger-pointing starts at the top and the person most credited (or blamed, depending on how you view the deal) for signing Trinidad James is Joie “Joey I.E.” Manda, Def Jam’s then-president. Manda maintains he has no regrets over signing Trinidad. “I can’t feel any blame because I don’t think any wrong decision was made,” he says. “I would do the deal all over again.” Manda claims that it was a group decision to sign Trinidad. “I was not the only person at Def Jam who wanted to sign him. Everyone wanted to sign him from colleagues to people that I work for to people that worked for me.”
DJ Dirrty, Trinidad’s manager at the time, affirms that the entire hip-hop industry, not just Def Jam, was in “a whirlwind” over the rapper. Just days after releasing the “All Gold Everything” music video, Trinidad was in talks with notables like Sean “Diddy” Combs and L.A. Reid at Epic Records.
But there was another player in these conversations. Like many emerging artists, Trindad was already signed to a smaller, regional label named T.I.G. (Think It’s A Game) that funded his project. According to Dirrty, Trinidad was contractually bound to T.I.G. and any interested major label would have to go through the Atlanta imprint to secure a deal. As Manda courted Trinidad for Def Jam, he was introduced to T.I.G. and its CEO “Fly” Henry. Manda was so impressed that he signed T.I.G. to a joint venture deal that included not just Trinidad, but other T.I.G. artists, Rich Homie Quan and ForteBowie, in late December 2012. Manda says the deal — though touted as an artist signing — was actually a partnership with T.I.G., and the notion that Trinidad walked away with $2 million in his pocket is inaccurate. Manda did not reveal the exact figures of the deal but says that it was “a healthy deal that wasn’t as rich as people thought. It was over the course of three years for three artists.”
Sources close to Def Jam have said that Trinidad received approximately $500,000 upfront and another $500,000 as a recording budget for his debut album. Manda would not confirm these figures but did say that money was allocated to pay for the commercial release of Don’t Be S.A.F.E. in January 2013, including compensating producers, shooting the music video for “Female$ Welcomed” and reimbursing Fly for costs previously incurred.
Still, the perception of an inflated valuation hurt Trinidad. Sha Money XL was an A&R executive at Def Jam at the time of the signing. “Y’all are bugging,” he remembers telling the powers that be. “This is crazy and everyone is gonna talk about these numbers.” Rob “Reef” Tewlow, Program Director at Shade45/Sirius XM, agrees that word of the big payday, propelled by social media, damaged Trinidad. “There’s people who want to see you fail. The first question people will ask is ‘Is it worth it?’”
After his signing, Def Jam had little hands-on creative involvement, and there are conflicting accounts about how his project was being guided and by whom. Manda says that Trinidad and his team were “doing their own A&R.” Dirrty confirms that T.I.G. was spearheading the project, and that Def Jam’s style was largely laissez faire aside from some involvement from marketing executive Chris Atlas, who declined to comment for this piece. In Dirrty’s opinion, Def Jam’s instructions were simple: “‘Make another album. Make another hit. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. That’s really all it was.” According to Sha Money, “No one was there to work it and A&R it and see it through,” he says. “They saw him make one record and they thought he could make another.”
Restructuring, reorganization and resignations at Def Jam may have played a role in Trinidad’s demise.
Sha says he was interested in working with Trinidad but he left the label before the project got off the ground. Manda also transferred to Interscope Records, a sister company under Universal Music Group, in March 2013, when the deal was only a few months old. “A lot of this stuff, I wasn’t there to see how it played out. I don’t know who ended up doing the A&R or shepherding it through,” he says. Manda vehemently denies that his exit from Def Jam was a repercussion for signing Trinidad. “That’s ridiculous,” he says.
“With him out of the picture, it didn’t really work.” Dirrty says of Manda, whose experience working with other Southern rappers might have propelled Trinidad forward. “He understood that Southern market and I feel like everybody else at Def Jam [were] New York kind of guys.”
Dirrty says T.I.G. was more responsible for Trinidad’s troubles than Def Jam was. “When you sign a production deal, you sign away your rights on a lot of stuff. Really that’s what ultimately happened,” he says. “T.I.G. was making the call.” Dirry says he advised Trinidad against inking a production deal with T.I.G. in early 2012 but the rapper was attracted by the lure of financial freedom. “He wanted to quit his job and all this stuff. He was promised that he wouldn’t have to work his job.”
Dirrty claims that it was he who handled the initial legwork that broke “All Gold Everything,” including leveraging personal relationships with Motion Family and Fader to direct and debut the video, respectively. But with T.I.G. at the helm, Dirrty says that he was increasingly left out of business decisions. “Def Jam cut the biggest check. T.I.G. did that deal. I was his manager but they did that deal in another room. I found out about it after it happened.”
From Dirrty’s perspective, T.I.G.’s strategy for “All Gold Everything” was antithetical to its organic growth, and that the label over spent promoting the song at radio. “They blew ‘All Gold Everything’ out of the water and I feel that was ultimately the kiss of death because it forced [Trinidad James] into a position that you have to have a crazy follow-up [song],” says Dirrty. “It made it all about this one song when we were trying to build up this artist’s career.” (Of course, one can argue that radio saturation has an upside. A hit song put Trinidad on the map and gave his follow-up more exposure and visibility than he would have had otherwise.)
Fly refused to be interviewed for this article but said through his publicist: “We support the music of Trinidad James now and have since day one.” T.I.G. would neither confirm nor deny whether the partnership deal with Def Jam is in place still and sources close to the label were unsure when asked about the current status. Manda complimented T.I.G. and Fly several times, stating, “I would do another deal with Fly in a heartbeat.”
Recently, Trinidad opened up to MTV News about his brief stint at Def Jam. “I feel like we just had a difference of creative ideas,” he said. “For me personally I don’t think I needed a major at the point of time in my career that I was at.”
Of course, Trinidad is culpable, too. According to Dirrty, Trinidad was unable to produce enough music for an album to Def Jam’s liking and fast enough. “I think Def Jam wanted another Trinidad James album within a year, not over a year,” says Dirrty. He remembers holing up in the recording studio with Trinidad in Malibu for several weeks, hoping to record a slew of new songs, but leaving with only a handful.
Pressure to deliver musically was exacerbated with the onslaught of criticism by fans, commentators and critics, as witnessed during his Brooklyn meltdown. “It got into his head,” remembers Dirrty, who continued to work with T.I.G. and Trinidad until the rapper eventually let him go in September 2013. “He read all the comments on YouTube and online and that shit fucked with his head. He needed a break. He just couldn’t put himself through another interview.”
Trinidad James’ fall from grace has been public, but in hip-hop a rapper is only one hit away from success, or a comeback. Trinidad is returning to his roots and is now releasing music independently. “I really just want to get back to the people. The only thing that matters is the people who love me,” he told MTV. He’s piquing attention, especially for his collabo with buzzy upstart iLoveMakonnen (who recently signed a record deal with Drake after the viral success of his track “Tuesday”). “Trinidad will have a second life. I think it’s very, very early in his career,” says Manda. “Hip-hop is a blood sport. People turn on you quick, but people love the underdog and love to see you come back from the dead.”
The stakes are high for Bobby Shmurda and the rapper and his team are aware of this. “Hot N*gga” is still climbing the charts but Sha says (and social media confirms) that Shmurda is in the studio already working towards the next hit.
Sha maintains that he is hands-on, propelling the project and providing guidance from onset, one of the biggest advantages Shmurda has over his Trinidad. He points to the more strategic, subdued way in which Shmurda’s deal with Epic was announced versus Trinidad’s public bidding war. “You don’t even know how much money he got because that’s not what the deal was about,” Sha says. “It’s not about the money we spend. It’s about giving all these kids in these hoods an opportunity to express their feelings.”
Chuck Creekmur, CEO and Founder of AllHipHop.com, underscores the leg-up Shmurda has because of Sha. “Sha has 50 Cent, G-Unit and other production credits in his discography so for him to be helming the project is awesome. I think he’s a hands-on kind of guy who knows and genuinely cares about the people he works with.” Sha’s expertise as a producer helps Shmurda’s creatively and may even offset the demands of the label system that affected Trinidad. “Any artist I sign and dedicate my time to, we’re going in there to make some music. I’m a studio head,” says Sha, emphasizing his focus on music. “Anything else. That whirly shit, y’all can do on your own. I’m gonna get into the studio.”
Shmurda’s street credibility, interestingly, is more in line with 50 Cent and G-Unit than Trinidad James. The rapper recently got caught a felony gun charge, making “Hot N*gga” lyrics like, “Run up on that n*gga, get to squeezing, ho/Everybody catching bullet holes” all the more compelling. A rapper doesn’t necessarily need to live up to his lyrics—and very few actually do—but it doesn’t hurt. “Bobby Shmurda really has that street credibility all the way to his criminal record and Brooklyn roots,” says Creekmur. He doesn’t see being attached to a dance as hurting Shmurda’s rep. “I don’t think the dance hurts his street cred. It gives him a fun side, which I think is really important in this climate of hip-hop music.”
All things considered, the real test for Bobby Shmurda will be his music.
A successful rapper needs a body of work beyond one hot song. Says Creekmur: “When you’re talking longevity, you’re gonna have to come up on some substance. You’re gonna have to touch your fans in a real way beyond a simple dance or beyond a hit record.” Longevity after the Shmoney Dance is exactly what Sha is banking on. “Every rapper I worked with put an album out,” he affirms. “No matter what.”