I’m seated with Ja Rule, the seminal late-‘90s/early-aughts rapper behind hits like “Put It on Me” and “I’m Real,” in the restaurant of the W Hotel Union Square in Downtown Manhattan.
It’s not going well.
Ja Rule is in town to promote his first big project after serving a lengthy prison stint for gun possession, followed by failure to file taxes on approximately $3 million in earnings—charges that had him locked up from June 8, 2010, to May 7, 2013. The work is a curious one—a faith-based film called I’m in Love With a Church Girl. The movie is directed by Steve Race and distributed by Reverence Gospel Media, a company that, its website says, specializes in “God-glorifying, life-impacting projects.” The film stars Jeff ‘Ja Rule’ Atkins as Miles Montego, a former drug trafficker who’s turned over a new leaf. He falls for the titular “church girl,” played by Adrienne Bailon, but soon finds himself sucked back into his former life.
The publicist for the film, a little person who answered to the name “JoJo,” approaches Ja Rule with some unfortunate news.
“So, JoJo, quick question: The L.A. premiere is canceled?” says Ja Rule. “Yes,” JoJo replies.
“When were you going to tell me that? What the fuck, man? How are you not going to do a premiere in L.A.?” Ja Rule is clearly not happy. “That sucks… OK,” he says, defeated. “Let’s get on with this interview.”
This is a very Christian film. What’s your relationship with religion?
I’m all over the place, man. My family was Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is a really tough religion. It kind of deterred me from religion for a long time. They still practice, but I don’t. But I always remained spiritual, and had a belief that there is a God. I’m trying to find my way, you know?
What about being a Jehovah’s Witness turned you off religion?
I didn’t do too much of the “field service” stuff, as they call it. I stopped going to Kingdom Hall, the church, when I was 11 years old, so I was very young. They don’t celebrate birthdays, you get no Christmas, so it’s a very difficult religion for children to get into. And they do a lot of finger-pointing among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You’re not allowed to hang out with other people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses—they’re deemed “worldly people.” They do a lot of judging. I’m not really into that. But recently, I just got saved. I’m getting closer and closer to God.
When did that happen?
Three weeks ago at Hillsong Church [in Union Square]. I’ve been doing this whole church run with the movie, and I just felt out of place in a lot of the other churches I went to. They say “come as you are,” and a lot of the churches I was going to, I just didn’t feel it. But at Hillsong, I felt genuine, and felt like I was at home. And Pastor Carl Lentz comes out in a red T-shirt, red J’s, he’s got tattoos, and he started preaching and was really into it. I felt like he was talking to me.
You’ve got a lot of time to think in prison, and people tend to get philosophical, and ultimately, find religion.
People rely on God to help them get through it. That wasn’t me in jail. I prayed every night that God would keep my family safe. But as far as religion goes, I feel like everyone should have their own one-on-one with God.
During the opening credits, it says the film’s executive producer is “God.” So…
You’ve got to ask the director about that! I think the statement he’s trying to make is that God inspired this film, and all the things that were working to make this film happen had to be works of God. People said they weren’t going to make this film—that we weren’t going to get the cameras we wanted, the actors we wanted—so in the director’s eyes, it was God at work. And I filmed this in 2010, right before I went to prison.
Did they purposely bank the movie until you got released?
It took them about a year and change to do postproduction, and by the time that was all wrapped up, I had only about eight months in prison, so they figured they’d hold it so I could do all the promo for it.
You got big in prison. Like Marky Mark big.
Little bit! I just need some Marky Mark roles now, baby! [Laughs] I wanted to go into prison and come out a better person—mentally, physically. So, I read a lot of books, got my GED while I was in there, and worked out every day. Strong body, strong mind. It kept me sane a lot of days when it was stressful, and I’d turn on 106 & Park, and watch the BET Awards, MTV VMAs, and not be there. I could be home and not go into the awards, and that’s fine. But being locked up and not being able to go to the awards is a different thing.
How much weight did you put on in prison?
I went in at about 154 pounds and came home about 190. I did everything—bench press, arms, curls, and leg days. I had a regimen. I’d do back and chest Monday; Tuesday, I’d do arms and shoulders; Wednesday, I’d do legs; and then I’d repeat the cycle. So six days a week.
I read that you had some famous friends in prison.
Yeah. Dennis Kozlowski, the former Tyco CEO, was there with me. And Alan Hevesi, the former New York state comptroller, was there. Alan was a big Knicks fan like me, so we used to watch the games together. And Larry Salander, the big art dealer, was there, too. So I had some pretty cool guys there and was able to pick their brains.
Any bad shit go down in prison—fights, or anything like that?
No, I didn’t get in any fights when I was in there. A lot of the guys liked me a lot. For the most part, people are pretty respectful of everyone’s space and it’s a cool atmosphere.
How are you doing financially? A lot of celebrities, especially athletes, get cleaned out when they go to jail and have to file for bankruptcy.
I’m good. My situation is a little different because you don’t get residual checks from sports. And I was busted for “failure to file”—not tax evasion. When you sell 30 million records, those checks come for a long time. “Can I Get A…,” “I’m Real,” “Rainy Dayz,” those are going to be around for a long time. Plus, I have a few other investments that I was lucky enough to get involved in when I was younger. But I like to keep those close to the vest, because people in this world like to hate. So I want people to keep supporting and buying the products, and not even know I have anything to do with it. [Laughs]
What’s the first thing you did when you got out of prison?
The first thing I did was go to T.G.I. Friday’s and got a big-ass cheeseburger and some fries, man. I was starving and hadn’t had a decent cheeseburger in a while.
Being from New York, I followed the “beef” between you and 50 Cent. I read that it started over your and Murder Inc.’s ties to Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, and that since he is alleged to have been behind—or have knowledge of—the shooting of 50, you did, too.
[Laughs] Big shout-out to ‘Preme. What up, ‘Preme?’ I dunno, man…
50 had that song, “Ghetto Qu’ran,” which Supreme is said to have taken issue with because it exposed him a little.
[Laughs] I mean… those are ‘hood tales. The ‘hood knows how those situations unfolded. [Smiles big] That’s always going to be a part of hip-hop history, and there are always going to be question marks. I’m writing a book that may have some answers, and I’m supposed to turn it in Nov. 1. It’s tentatively titled Unruly.
A lot of young rappers tend to target existing ones, and 50’s beef with you really started right before he was signed to Shady/Aftermath, and then only heated up from there. What was your take on his beef with you?
I don’t know if it was jealousy, or pure hatred of the fact that I was on top. When you’re on top, there’s a bull’s-eye on you and everyone wants your spot. That was part of it. The other part was that we’re from the same neighborhood and the love was swaying in my direction. I really don’t know. A lot of things fed into it, and people got into it and picked sides. When I look back at it now, it was very childish. But it’s hip-hop. That’s what hip-hop’s about.
As far as the initial gun charge in 2007 goes, why were you carrying? I did an interview with T.I. after he got out of prison and he told me he was arming himself because he was getting death threats. Were you in a similar boat?
No. It’s just how I grew up. I grew up with the mentality that it’s better to be with it than without it, and it’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by six. That lifestyle and the way I was living kind of caught up with me. But that is one of our rights in this country, to bear arms. I just wasn’t doing it legally.
There’s also a lot of police profiling of rappers—especially in New York City. It seems like every time a rapper is in town they’re getting their tour bus pulled over and inspected.
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a little bit of a coincidence. [Laughs]
Back to the movie. Are you trying to transition from music to film, now?
For me, it’s a natural transition. I’m a little older now and I still look fairly young. But I really enjoy doing films, so I want to tackle some tougher roles.
You had a moment when you could have crossed over in the early 2000s, after starring in The Fast and the Furious and Half Past Dead. And it was around the time that Hollywood was courting a lot of rappers to be in films, like DMX.
They wanted me to make a bigger commitment, but at the time, music was my passion because it was my first love. It’s still my first love—I put out two new records last week, as well as the one I did with N.O.R.E. I love doing music but I’m really intrigued about doing film and being a great actor, and hopefully, getting behind the camera and directing some stuff.
How crazy did things get when you were on top of the world, selling millions of albums?
Not then—before then. I used to sell drugs. That was what we did. But after I got into the record business, no, I was making real money then.
As a fan of “Always on Time” and “I’m Real,” are we going to see any more Ashanti or J Lo collaborations in the near future?
We put out some great records. [Me and Ashanti] were in the studio recently but we didn’t put anything together, per se. But we talked about some ideas of stuff we could do. Musically, I like some of the new artists out there—Rihanna, Drake, Miguel. You never know where you might see a collaboration! But I’m working on a new album and I’m taking my time. I have a bunch of new tracks laid down—probably two albums’ worth done. But I’m going to keep working at it. I’m in no rush.
The interesting thing about Drake, in particular, is I think you served as a precursor in some ways to Drake. But at the time, you were hated on by a lot of people for being soft and showing your sensitive side.
Sometimes what people don’t understand, they’re scared of. I was never one to shy away from being myself. A lot of people say I tried to emulate Tupac, but when I look back at my career, we’re very different artists. I took pages out of Pac’s book, of course, and lots of other rappers—Biggie, Nas—of course you take pages out of those books, but you eventually make it your own thing. And I think I did a good job of that.
What are your thoughts on the current state of hip-hop?
When I look at hip-hop, and how it’s evolved, I love it because it’s growing up as we grow up. When I grew up, my parents didn’t listen to hip-hop, so it was really about youthful rebellion—it was our rock ‘n’ roll. Now, it’s grown. I have a 10-year-old son who listens to hip-hop, and I, as a parent, do too. I like the dancing, and the crazy stuff that’s going on in hip-hop. As we get older, you’re going to look at certain trends and say, “Why are they doing that?” But that happens as you get older. My parents were like, “Why do you have a flat-top?” And now, when I look at my son and say, “Why are your pants so tight?” it’s just the way it is. I love that about hip-hop—that we set the trends and distinguish what’s going on culturally.
What else do you have going on? Any new film or TV projects lined up?
I’ve got my TV show coming. It’s a reality show that I’m doing with my family, kind of like the new Run’s House. It’s on a network but I’m still in negotiations as far as paperwork goes, but it will be on one of your favorite networks, and we’ll be filming out in Saddle River, New Jersey, with the three kids and the wife. I’ve got some other movies going on, some action roles. Be looking for a lot of Ja Rule in the coming months.