Last year, Staten Island rapper CJ stole the summer with his hard-hitting drill single “Whoopty.” Though much of the country was confined to their homes due to the ongoing pandemic, Hot 97’s DJ $tacks, one of the first to champion the record, called “Whoopty” one of the “hottest singles in the streets right now.”
“Whoopty” was CJ’s very first attempt at making a drill record, but it immediately climbed up the Billboard charts. Since its release in July 2020, the song has only continued to blow up, and it currently sits at No. 25 on the Hot 100. CJ, who peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart earlier this year, was rewarded by scoring a record deal with Warner Records.
He tells Complex that he is grateful for the new record deal, but he never doubted that he would make it to this moment. “I knew it would come. I just knew in the back of my mind, I needed to put the work in,” he says.
Keeping the momentum going, he is now working on his debut EP with Warner, which he plans to release sometime in February. The project will be executive produced by French Montana, who was one of the many artists to co-sign the rising star. CJ says a majority of the project “is going to be drill,” but he’ll still reserve a few spots for melodic and slower records.
In conversation with Complex, CJ spoke about his new record deal, carrying on the momentum of the New York drill scene after Pop Smoke’s passing, and his forthcoming EP. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Congrats on the new record deal. How are you feeling?
It's definitely a blessing. This is something that I always wanted since I was a child. I always had a passion for music. I was just practicing and working on my craft up until now, and finally, my dreams are coming true. I knew it would come. I just knew in the back of my mind, I needed to put the work in. I always had that in my head that hard work pays off. I always live by that.
Can you explain how “Whoopty” came together? How did you come across the beat?
We were in lockdown, in quarantine, and there wasn't much motion going on. Studios were closed. Then I was just like, "Damn, man. I got to get back into the rhythm. I got to get back into the music. I haven't created anything in a little while." I was just at home going through beats on YouTube, and I came across the beat produced by Pxcoyo. What caught my attention was the sample. It was actually a sample used from a Bollywood film. I started rocking out to it. I was playing it into the speakers. Then luckily, I got my engineer to book a session for me during quarantine. That was pretty dope. And that's it. I kind of just came up with everything off the top of the head.
It’s impressive you created such a big hit during quarantine. Has your creative process benefited from this lockdown period?
I feel like it was definitely easier [to create music] because we weren't really doing anything. We were in the house, pretty much just locked in. I was just listening to beats all day, writing in my notes, and perfecting my craft. Then I found that beat, and I was like, “Oh, I got to get in the studio ASAP.”
“Whoopty” seems like a record made for outdoor events. With everyone being indoors, what do you think drew fans to the record?
I feel like it was the energy of the record, to be honest. It’s an up-tempo beat, up-tempo flow. Everybody was quarantined. But around summertime, everybody was just kind of ready to go. It's a good feeling record. It gets you moving. It gets you dancing. The energy of the record is just crazy.
You recently revealed that “Whoopty” was your first drill record. What made you decide to go with that route?
Yeah, I was just doing melodic records, like a slower tempo. The drill movement, it was kind of heavy. New York, the drill scene, that's where it was at. I was like, “Let me attempt to write to this beat, or attempt to rhyme on it.” That was the first beat that caught my attention, so I was like, “Yeah, let's try it out.” Luckily, I made a hit.
“I feel like after we lost Pop, it kind of slowed down a little bit. The scene started dying down. I try to just make great music, and I definitely want to keep his name alive as well.”
How would you categorize the music you were making before drill?
Just versatile, really. Like I said before, more slow-tempo beats, kind of like using Auto-Tune here and there, slowing the flow down a little bit. Not much up-tempo. It was like a slower tempo thing. Sometimes you’ve got to switch it up. Sometimes you’ve got to be versatile, and either move with the wave or make a new wave. I just felt like that was needed.
How would you describe the current state of the New York drill scene, in the absence of Pop Smoke?
I definitely want to keep the momentum up. I feel like after we lost Pop, it kind of slowed down a little bit. The scene started dying down. I try to just make great music, and I definitely want to keep his name alive as well. I was a huge fan. When we took that loss, it was a tragedy. I pretty much just want to continue making good music and keeping the momentum up.
“Whoopty” has over 100 million views on YouTube. Do you feel any pressure about releasing new music after that?
No, I definitely don’t feel pressure. I just feel like you got to have fun with it. If you try to chase another hit, you’re going to be so focused on that, and you're not going to have fun with it. You’re going to lose the fun in it. I don't think about that stuff. I just go in the studio, lock in, and make great music. If another hit comes, another hit comes.
You announced that you’re dropping an EP soon. Can you give us an update on what to expect?
Yeah, this EP should be dropping around next month. I want to say mid February. Pretty much, we're going to keep the momentum going with the drill. Then maybe we're going to switch it up for, I want to say like, two or three songs, and kind of just change the direction a little bit and try some new things. Probably go back to melodic, slow the tempo down a little bit. But the majority of the project is going to be drill.
French Montana will be executive producing the new EP. Can you talk about your relationship with French during that process?
French is a great artist. Super talented. As soon as we got together, we locked in. Our chemistry in the studio is crazy. We got a few joints together that we cooked up already, and I feel like our energy is crazy. As soon as we lock in, it's like everything around us doesn't matter. We're just super focused.
Are there any features on the project that you are excited about?
On this project, I’m kind of just doing a few songs by myself. Maybe I'm going to give away two or three songs with features. We’re really not trying to focus on features right now. We kind of just want to get my name out there, get my foot in the door first, and then start working with other artists. But yeah, you could probably expect some features on this project.
“I’m a huge Drake fan. If me and Drake could get something one day, that would be amazing.”
You’ve received shout-outs from artists like French and Cardi B. What advice have you been given?
I just wrapped up an interview with the legendary Fat Joe. He pretty much was telling me, “Just stay focused. Keep going. Don't get too cocky. Stay humble. Just stay humble through it all, no matter how much success you bring.” That stuck with me. And also, “Just be safe. We're losing a lot of young rappers due to violence.”
Who are some artists on your collaboration wishlist?
My teenage years, I was listening to a lot of Drake. I’m a huge Drake fan. If me and Drake could get something one day, that would be amazing.
It’s been a while since a young star came out of Staten Island. How would you describe the music scene at the moment? Do you feel a responsibility to put on for Staten?
I tell everybody, it’s a blessing coming out of Staten Island. It’s a lot of pressure as well, but it's definitely a blessing because I could say that I'm one of the chosen few who made it out of Staten Island—as far as hip-hop—since Wu-Tang Clan, which was 25, 30 years ago. To have that on my back, I feel like it's definitely more of a blessing than pressure in my eyes.
What do you think you add to the legacy of Staten Island’s rap scene? How are you looking to change its reputation?
New energy. That young, fresh, new sound. Like I said before, we missed that for 25, 30 years. It’s like a fresh breath of air. It’s like, oh, OK, we got something coming out of Staten Island finally.
What does it mean to you to occupy a space in rap as a Latin artist?
Oh, it’s another blessing, because it ain’t too many of us. We got the Fat Joes. May he rest in peace, we've got Big Pun. Cardi. There's very few of us, so being a Latin artist, I just love it. I’m embracing my heritage every chance I get. It definitely is a great thing.
What are some of your long-term goals?
I want to be named one of the greats when my time is up. Then just be relevant the next 10, 15 years. I want to still be in the game dropping hits, successful, wealthy, healthy.
Your uncle James Cruz is an award-winning executive in the business. How has that relationship helped guide you in your career, from making good decisions to finding your own sound?
My uncle, he’s very tough on me. He's just like, “If you want to be here, you got to put in the work. It's not going to come easy. Don't think because I'm here it's going to be easier for you. You got to put in the work.” He just pushes me to do better every day.
What’s something about you that may surprise people?
I’m heavy on the game system. I consider myself a little gamer on my futon. NBA 2K, Madden, UFC, MLB. I’m more on the sports side.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you right now?
Stay tuned. More music is coming. I got some great things in the works right now. My project is coming out. So look forward to more records and more heat.