You're friends with the guys in Souls of Mischief. How did you meet them?
I went to high school with Phesto. I met them when we were all freshman, and we all were in the same circle. Tajai lived around the corner from me in Oakland. We started a fraternity 'cause we all grew up watching School Daze. Tajai, Damani [Phesto], and I were all in it. It was just one of those things, kids in the hood growing up together.
Then they started a rap group and you take that energy to college. I went to Boston University and they would come and do shows in Boston, and when I moved to New York they would come do shows in New York. We’ve all stayed in good touch in the last 20 years, and it’s been great. We know each other’s kids and their wives. All through the years, it's been great seeing shows in many different cities and countries, running into them.
Did you ever have an inclination to rap?
I was never that guy. I was the actor. I didn’t have a gift for putting rhymes together like that. You realize quickly the discipline it takes to write rhymes. I grew up listening to hip-hop and had an immense amount of respect for those guys. You play around with it and leave funny rhymes on your answering machine, but I grew up listening to Rakim and the intricacy of the Souls' rhymes and I couldn’t compare. So I just left the pros at it.
What was it like for you to see critics heap praise on your your friends for their lyrics?
What I respected more than anything was their business acumen and hustle. That’s what Oakland is about; it's a hustle city—Too $hort selling tapes and CDs out of his trunk back in the '80s, MC Hammer getting his grind on. To see them start Hiero Imperium, I respected that so much.
Being from Oakland is walking in the spirit of the Panther, having a revolutionary spirit and the sense of being a free spirit, looking for a sense of justice wherever you go. But also having that hustler vibe, not taking no for an answer. That's why I'm here.
The magazine article that I remember the most was in Vibe, the one where Wesley Snipes was on the cover, and the title of the article was “Fresh air and trees breeds dope MCs.” It had the four of them laying on the grass with trees in the background, and that just epitomized Oakland and where we grew up. We grew up in a very hippie but very revolutionary atmosphere that had all of these forces going at once. They epitomized the revolutionary spirit of Oakland, but also the intellectual spirit of a UC Berkeley. And I think that’s what their image was and what their lyrics and music reflected at the time.
How would you say that Oakland vibe made itself apparent in you?
Again, just walking in the spirit of the Panther, having a revolutionary spirit and the sense of being a free spirit, looking for a sense of justice wherever you go. But also having that hustler vibe and constantly working at it, not taking no for an answer, always being willing to go the extra mile. That’s what it takes—that’s part and parcel of why I’m here.
You gotta go get yours, be true to yourself and represent where you come from, be proud to be black and do what you got to do to make it happen. That’s Oakland. I don’t live there anymore but my brother still lives there I go back as often as I can. Still, that spirit of Oakland, of growing up with the image of a Too $hort, the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers, all the intellectualism, all of those things inspire you to be the person that you are.
And now that you've achieved your biggest success to date with Grimm, how has life changed for you?
The biggest difference is that people know my name. Before, I was “that guy” and “Weren’t you on that show?” Now they know. “Russell Hornsby, right? I love Grimm!” Now they know my name, and that’s been the show's slow shift.
It's humbling, quite honestly. I appreciate it. I know it can be gone tomorrow, so it doesn’t change how I live, how I interact with people, how I treat people, or the relationship with my wife or my family. I’m the hot guy right now on the hot show but that can change tomorrow. The reality of it is that I’m an actor who wants to continue to do good work and be an artist who does work that speaks. I’m enjoying the time right now and I’m enjoying the shine but it's just something to grow on. Onward and upward.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)