Going into 2013, Chicago's bop scene took over the city's West Side, an organic street-based movement that sped up the South Side's street rap sound and gave it a euphoric injection. Around the same time, Zernardo Tate, alias ZMoney, hit the scene with the undeniable local hit "Want My Money," a catchy jingle that suggested this teenage rapper had discovered his own lane. With a mix of effortless nonchalance, big-screen charisma, and a gift for humor, ZMoney's debut tape, Rich B4 Rap, and the success of follow-up singles like "Regular" and "Let You Know" suggested the rapper was well on his way to success.
But since that moment, it's been a bumpy road. "The day we dropped the Danny Brown record ["Jug & Finesse"] he got locked up," says Z's manager Merk Murphy. "The same thing happened with the Trap Show tape." In fact, after he was dinged for a probation violation—the rapper had traveled across state lines to perform at South by Southwest—he has spent most of the time he should have been launching a career taking a timeout, missing a spot opening for Danny Brown on tour. Since then, he's been transferred from Cook County Jail to prison in Galesburg, Ill., where he spoke to Complex over the phone last week.
Luckily, the wait is almost over. Jan. 26, ZMoney will be freed; whether he can regain his momentum is an open question, but he plans on releasing the stopgap Green Dot mixtape before Christmas. "It'll end up around 14 tracks," his manager says, "about seven unreleased and seven that just fell through the cracks, that people have heard parts of." Accompanied by audio he's recorded from jail, the tape's title comes from a reference to the Green Dot pre-paid debit cards that have become ubiquitous in the Illinois state prison system. We spoke with Z about why he'd given the tape that title, what it's like on the inside, and what we can expect once he's freed next month.
You only have a month or two left right?
I've got a month and a half left. I come home Jan. 26.
How long have you been inside?
What was it exactly that happened? It was a probation violation?
Yeah, probation violation. I was on tour doing shows. I asked my judge, I'm going to do these shows—she told me naw, she wanted me to stay in Chicago. So I still went and did a show, and they locked me up for doing shows. I was going out of state without permission.
Why did you decide to do it anyway? Were you worried?
It was paid shows and...she wanted me to stay in Chicago, you know all the violence happening in Chicago.... I was trying to explain to her, I ain't want to stay in Chicago. But she just told me not to leave. I still—I felt like I wanted to do the shows. I probably would have been cool if I had never did them.
What did she say when they'd found out you did these shows?
She told me, "You went out of state without my permission, doing shows," and I told her, "This is my job, this is what I get paid for" and everything—the judge was on some straight bullshit with me, she wouldn't call me my real name, she was calling me ZMoney. She was doing all types of stuff. The judge didn't like me at all. I don't know why, but she didn't like me at all.
What were you on probation for?
I was on two probations. I was on probation for fraud, and I was on probation for driving [on a suspended license]. But the driving probation is what I violated. My other judge, she didn't even violate me—she knew I was trying to do something positive.
What's your day to day like in there?
Wake up, watch TV, chillin'. Writing raps, you feel what I'm saying? I don't really conversate with a bunch of people. It ain't nothing really different, only thing different is I'm locked up. I'm on the phone so much, it don't feel like I'm gone. But you know, I'm still here, chilling. It ain't too much to do except watch TV. I don't play cards, I don't play chess, I don't do nothing like that, so I just write raps.
I don't play cards, I don't play chess, I don't do nothing like that, so I just write raps.
What have you been watching on TV?
TMZ, that's my favorite. Sons of Anarchy. I've been watching all types—Kardashians, VH1, Love & Hip Hop. TMZ's my favorite though.
Who have you been keeping in touch with on the phone?
Everybody. I call my manager and my homeboy Trey every day.
What have you been writing about?
I've got a lot of nice songs I wrote. You know, basically just being in here, you can't take no showers at night. The hard thing about coming here was, I was locked up in the state jail. They only feed us twice a day. You only take one shower a week. No phone calls. Rapping about stuff like that. And then going back to what I've been rapping about, you feel me? It definitely changed a couple things. It just makes me—being in jail makes me patient. Me, I was always bad with patience, I was always on the go. It made me have patience, a little bit.
Are you able to listen to music in there?
Yeah, I bought a tape player. One of these dudes up here I bought it from has some tapes, Jeezy, Jay Z, Gucci. Yo Gotti. I got a whole bunch of tapes.
How do you get a tape behind bars?
They dub the tapes, I buy the tapes from some people that—I'm in jail with people that have been gone for 20, 30 years, you feel me, Dave? For these people here, they know how to dub tapes, all that.
Are there people there who know your music? Are you recognized for your music?
Yeah, a lot of people in here know me. Especially in the county [jail]. Where I came from, in the county, everybody knew me. I was kind of glad I got transferred, I was tired of getting bugged. People telling me they rap, and I'm just talking about, I'm just trying to do my time and chill, you feel me. When I came here, I'm in here with people that have been gone 20, 30 years, so a lot of people don't know me—I was a little boy when they got locked up. I'm kind of glad that I'm not where I was, because all they would do is sit in my face all day and ask me questions about rap. People think I'm just a rap connoisseur, every time they see me they want to start rapping.
What's the first thing you're gonna do when you get out?
First thing I'm doing when I get out, I'm gonna go take me a good shower, first of all. I'm gonna eat me some Ron of Japan. And then I'm going to the studio. I can't wait until I get to the studio.
Do you know what the first song is you're gonna work on?
My first song I'm gonna work on is my first day out song. I'm gonna be in the studio for like 10 hours when I get home. I'm not leaving, man. I've got a lot of stuff to work on. Mixtape out in February or March, right before SXSW.
Are you going to be able to travel when you get out?
I'm going to be on parole, but parole's going to be way better than probation. At first they wanted me to stay in Chicago, but my parole officer, since it's my job, she's going to let me go.
Tell me about your new project.
Green Dot mixtape coming out. The reason I called it Green Dot is because the situation I'm in right now, you feel me? I'm around a lot of people in here, people who say they got some family and was getting money in the streets but can't get nothing on their books. It's some real niggas in here who fucked up. So me, having what I got, I'll feed 'em or loan 'em something. It's just a real nigga perspective of Green Dot, anybody who been in a jam in jail know about Green Dots. All it takes is $20 or so.... $20 is a lot in jail. Load up for your people.
You recorded some of the stuff over the phone, right?
Oh yeah, I recorded almost every day over the phone, I just talk stuff, sometimes rap in here. You gotta record. I'll be in the room thinking. I don't even sleep—I go to sleep in the day time—[YOU HAVE ONE MINUTE LEFT]—all through the day. I'm going to be home Jan. 26, back fucking the streets up. I will be home. Green Dot mixtape, real soon, you know what I'm saying? The work never stops.