“Music is pretty much the only thing that has ever mattered in my life,” says Johnny Ciggs, a major member of the Gritty City Family. I was introduced to this creative crew of rappers and producers by my man Tim Baker over at SYFFAL. He sent me the clip for “Hunnid Dolla Bills” by Fan Ran, Skweeky Watahfawls, and the dude Johnny Ciggs [embedded below]. I’ve been following the fam ever since. Johnny’s “Write Like the First Day” (featuring Fan Ran) off of his 21 Tracks About Malt Liquor, Fat Asses, and Other Ill Shit mixtape has been my go-to hype song for a minute now. Vee Aye All Day.
The following interview was conducted by my close friend and colleague Mike Daily with photos by Sirus the Virus. — Roy C.
Johnny Ciggs and the Gritty City Family from Richmond, Virginia are killin’ it. That’s what I heard from my professor Roy Christopher, so I followed up on it. I liked much of what I heard and saw. They rock shows, throw backyard pool parties and close bars—literally, as key members of the crew serve alcohol to make a living. The rawness is real. All too real, at times. In Fall 2013, I picked up a few CDs direct from Johnny Ciggs as he was passing through Portland on a road trip and conducted the following interview with him.
Mike Daily: I like the video that shows you guys bootlegging power from your neighbors’ house with the extension cord.
Johnny Ciggs: [Laughs.] Yeah. That was funny. We didn’t have the money to pay our electric bill for like two months. I was sayin’ to Sirus [the Virus], “We gotta pay that bill, man.” And he was like, “Yeah, I know. We should do that.” We just kept sayin’ that like every other day for two months. I woke up that Monday and my clock was off and I was like, “Why is my clock off?” For a while there–me and Sirus livin’ together—we were both makin’ no money at all. I can’t remember what song it is—I think it’s on Toilet Wine—I talked about splittin’ ramen noodles on the kitchen floor because we didn’t have any furniture and all we had was a pack of ramen noodles. I think the thought of bills—now that we’re makin’ a little more money—scares us still. We act like we’re still broke like that.
MD: You said “makin’ a little more money.” Is that from music?
JC: No, I wish. We actually just got lucky and got a good bartending gig at a good bar in town. We were both servers for a while but we were barely scrapin’ by. We knew all the bartenders at a bar down the street and Sirus was lookin’ for a job. He got one up there and then got me a job up there. I don’t make much money off the music itself but I make money off the merchandise like t-shirts and hoodies. I don’t think it would be enough to live off of but it’s just nice to get a little bit, so we can buy supplies like the new mic we need, CD cases…stuff like that.
MD: Is that where it’s at now with music in general? Shows and merch over music sales?
JC: Yeah. Especially at the level we’re at right now. We’ve got a pretty decent local following. Instead of thinking that we’re owed something at the level we’re at now, we just want to get people to hear us, so we’ll go hand out CDs for free, hang out with people and find out what kind of stuff they’re into. We’re out around town all the time so we’re basically working on connecting our faces to the brand. We’d be foolish to try and sell our CDs for 15 bucks or something. That’s how you turn people away. We’re trying to bring people in. New music is everywhere. You have to give people a reason to care and separate you from the rest. Where music is at right now–where everything’s free and there’s so much stuff and the whole scene is watered down by the internet and everything–it’s really hard to ask—at least in my opinion—to ask for money, when you’re just tryin’ to promote yourself. I spent like 300 bucks gettin’ these CDs printed for the trip. I’d rather do that–that’s a few bar tabs. I’d rather just stay in a few nights here and there to get the CD out, you know, than spend 300 bucks for a headache.
MD: In that “Power Outage” video, there’s a BMX bike sitting there. Whose is that?
JC: That’s Pandemic’s. He rides that around town. It’s the worst bike in the world. I had to ride it to work one day. It’s terrible. The seat’s super low and the bike’s just tiny in general. It doesn’t ride like a normal BMX bike. It rides like no bike I’ve ever ridden before in my life.
MD: Does it have brakes on it?
MD: Do you guys skate?
JC: Not all of us. I came up as a big skateboarder. I’d ride skateboards ever since I was a little kid, and then startin’ when I was like 14, I really started gettin’ into it. I still skateboard here and there—mostly just mini-ramp. Not as much as I used to. My passion kinda died out a little bit probably like three, four years ago. A lot of my friends who skated left Richmond, and then the mini-ramp that I would go to all the time, a tree fell through it, and it was just kinda like, “What the hell now?” Skweeky [Watahfawls] was a sick skateboarder in his day too, but he doesn’t skate much anymore either.
MD: That’s right around the time you must have started rapping.
JC: Yeah, so it just kinda worked out. I still like to skate when I can–it’s just hard to do. I work like 12 hours a day and then the rest of the time is all spent recording, writing, rapping or whatever the hell we’re doing.
MD: The first raps you made, how did you know how to make bars and choruses?
JC: Well, I’ve been a drummer my whole life. I started drummin’ when I was a little kid. I just understood it. I didn’t even really understand how to write bars necessarily at the time, but just like I do these days, I basically used every syllable as a drum hit–that way I would stay on time. My first verses would just round out to 16 somehow by chance. Sixteen is the basic length of a rap verse. It just kinda worked. It changed my writing once I realized how to count out the words by bars though. With that, I was able to write more cohesive verses and build my own formula on how a basic Ciggs verse should be put together. What gave me more trouble was taming my voice and getting a smoother flow. When it comes to hooks, I hate them. I can write them, but I don’t enjoy it. That’s Sirus’ department. He loves writing hooks.
MD: You said you favor flow over lyricism, but you do have some lyrical lines.
JC: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I do have the ability to get lyrical. The fellas always make fun of me when I start makin’ mythology metaphors and stuff like that. I just don’t want it to sound like rappers trying to sound overly lyrical. That just bothers me. It didn’t always but now it just really bothers me. I like there to be a little style. A lot of rappers who are trying to be too lyrical will come out with some seriously intelligent shit, but it will have no personality and will be the most boring shit you’ve ever heard in your life. I feel like there’s certain rappers—who I won’t name names—that could be great rappers. They’re already great, but they could be even better if they just dumbed it down a little. Not even “dumb it down”—that’s a bad way to put it. But just not try so hard and make it a little more natural. I don’t want to hear what a rapper thinks he should spit or what he or she thinks will blow away their listener. I just want to hear rappers spit what they spit. That’s all I do. The lyrical ability comes naturally to me. I worry more about rockin’ on a track. And the only way to really rock in my book is to have a nasty flow. Peace to Treach.
MD: Do you do storytelling, would you say?
JC: That’s something I want to get back into. I used to do a lot of storytelling earlier on. On my first mixtape [21 Tracks About Malt Liquor, Fat Asses, and Other Ill Shit, May 2012], there’s a few stories. What I’ve heard is my greatest track ever is “Street Stories,” where I tell two stories with a middle verse from the homie Che Broadway. I really like storytelling. I’ve just kinda gotten away from it on what we’ve been workin’ on lately. I’m plannin’ on gettin’ back into that. The album I’ve been tryin’ to figure out how to put together, I think I finally got a feel for it. There’s gonna be a lot of storytelling on that one.
MD: When you say “tryin’ to figure out how to put together,” do you already have the beats in mind? Do you have the concept for the words?
JC: I’ve got so many beats for this album, it’s ridiculous, but I still need more. With Gritty City, the thing is there’s no politic’in’ your way into it: You gotta get down with us. We’re all really good friends. We all hang out all the time. It’s just been a rough year. We just lost another member of Gritty City, Joe Threat—Rest in Peace. And it’s just, you know, with stuff like that, it’s just been… This was supposed to be the year where we were gonna do 16 releases, and it hasn’t worked out. We’ve still been doin’ a lot, but there’s been other stuff gettin’ in the way. I just want to do an album that reflects on the lifestyle and things I’ve seen—more than just the punchline rap and stuff like that. Which is fun, but I feel like people wonder where exactly everything we talk about comes from. I just want to more blatantly go out there and put it out there and talk about the life we lead, and reflect on that—get into my head about thoughts I have, doubts I have, the whole bipolar nature of my existence. I want this album to have more to offer and be more personal than my past releases. I feel a lot right now, I just gotta figure out how to say it. Don’t worry though. There will still be plenty of the classic Johnny Ciggs rawness on there, too.
MD: What do you mean by “lifestyle”?
JC: I don’t even know how to explain it without sounding like we’re totally out of our minds. We’re just fuckin’ crazy. [Laughs.] I’ll put it like my homie Seap One (R.I.P.) used to say before he passed: “Lemme tell you bout this life…” If anyone ever asked him what he meant, he would laugh and shake his head and repeat himself. Let’s just say we have a good time.
MD: You guys work full-time jobs and you’re prolific, making music every chance you get. That’s “lifestyle”, right?
JC: Yeah, that’s lifestyle. It’s just what goes on. We talk about the way things have happened in our lives and everything. We took the harder route, maybe you could say. We all have had our problems with just bein’ stupid kids and gettin’ in trouble. We’ve seen friends pass from drugs. Some people have recovered from drugs and now they’re doin’ this. We all drink too much and stuff like that. And just everything that goes along with that—the crazy women that come around. Just…whatever. I mean, I can’t even really explain it in a sentence. That’s why I’m trying to figure out how I’m supposed to do it—back to the original question—I can’t figure out how to say it. Fan Ran said it the best. He’s like, “What you gotta understand is 99% of people ain’t as crazy as we are.”
MD: How many guys are in Gritty City?
JC: There’s eight of us total, including Seap and Joe. Delta Automatik, Skweeky Watahfawls, Pandemic, Fan Ran, Sirus the Virus and myself. Those are the artists, but we’ve got friends all over the town like the Divine Prophets guys. Fan Ran is in Divine Prophets as well, which is an old Richmond group. I don’t know if you all have heard of them, but that was like the big Richmond hip-hop group, forever. And they actually just lost their producer this year as well: R.I.P. Chadrach. We hang out with those guys all the time. I don’t know if you heard in the songs, we talk about Main Street Mafia. There’s a strip in Richmond where it’s like the dive bar scene, and we all just hang out around there and get smashed and make rap music. That’s basically it. Then we also got extended fam like the homie Devious Kanevil, Oktober 9, The Fugitive 9 crew, which is family ties right there. We got members married to the same mob and shit: RT, BC Music First, Sleaze. There are a few rappers that show their face around the Gritty City house pretty regularly. We love all of them.
MD: How old are you?
JC: I’m 29.
MD: I first heard about you guys in a text that Roy Christopher sent me: “Check out Adam Zombie and The Gritty City Family (especially Skweeky Watahfawls and Johnny Ciggs): Richmond, VA is killing it.”
JC: [Laughs.] Skweeky Watahfawls is my favorite rapper. That dude is hilarious. What you gotta understand about Skweeky Watahfawls is: Skweeky Watahfawls is the biggest asshole on the face of the earth. He’s a douchebag, asshole, drunk piece of shit, and I love him. But he’s a fuckin’ dick. That’s what’s so funny…I feel like people appreciate him for his lyrics, but if you know that guy personally and you listen to some of the stuff he says, it is just the funniest shit you ever heard in your fuckin’ life. This is another one that’s just unexplainable in words. He is hilarious, his wit is incredible, he’s super smart and then on top of that, he’s just a fuckin’ dirtbag so it’s just like a perfect mix. He’s like a comedic rapper, in my mind. When me and him write together—we work on a lot of songs together—we’ll go line for line, just tryin’ to make each other laugh. And if we laugh the whole time we’re writin’ it, then it’s gonna be a good song. But back to the original question, yeah, Richmond, VA is killin’ it. There is a lot of good hip-hop happening and I’m honored to be able to say that I work closely with most of my favorite rappers in town. This city will be on the map here soon. Just wait.
MD: Does Skweeky have a solo album?
JC: He’s workin’ on it. We’re about halfway through. He was livin’ at my house before Seap was livin’ there and we were workin’ on his stuff pretty heavily, but then he moved and got a different job and things just changed. There’s been a lot of shiftin’ around lately. It kind of got put on hold but it’s gonna be real sweet. It’s good. He’s almost got more of like a Beastie Boys sound on it. Where other guys do more like hardcore and soulful hip-hop, his has got a few rock samples on there and things like that, but it just really works with the way he raps, so it’s good. It’s called Cocaine ‘n Demons. Keep your eyes peeled for that one.
[Note: As I was wrapping up the article, Johnny Ciggs said in a voicemail message: “I know your boy Roy Christopher and you had been askin’ about me and Skweeky Watahfawls and everything. I don’t know if y’all care but me and him in the past couple weeks started an album together. We’re about halfway done with it and just wanted to give y’all a heads up on that. It was actually kind of influenced by y’all though so we thank you for the compliments. We decided to run with it, do somethin’ together, so hopefully y’all will like that when it comes out here in the next couple of months.”]
MD: A friend of mine said that he considers himself one of a thousand rappers out there. I was really surprised to hear that because I think he’s a great artist. Do you think like that?
JC: You mean sayin’ that I’m just one of a thousand guys all tryin’ to do it?
JC: I don’t really consider myself that way and I don’t consider really anybody in my group that way. I had trouble explainin’ the whole lifestyle thing, but it’s like…what we bring to the table is more than just like, you know, “Yo, I’m an MC, look how dope I am at rappin’.” It’s more than that. A huge part of it is really just personality. We’re not gangsta rappers and definitely not anything like all those club rappers out these days. We’re not doin’ that. We’re not really followin’ any sort of mold. We’re just touchin’ on what feels right, and I really do feel like it’ll help us stand out in time. There are thousands of other rappers out but a lot of them dudes are just boring. Even a lot of those “real hip-hop” rappers out these days are wack as fuck, even more wack than the music that they supposedly hate. We can rhyme, man. That’s one thing I know for sure. I’d put my team up against anyone. We are hip-hop, even when we’re drinkin’ bottles of Bud and listenin’ to hair metal. We’re original and anyone who crosses paths with us realizes it. We’re about to release some “day in the life” videos and cribs episodes and shit. We feel like we’ve done enough music–now we’re tryin’ to show people who we are. We don’t just make this shit up. People ask us, “Where do you come up with this shit?” I’m like, “I live it at my house. I just sit back and watch, if I’m lucky enough that night to not be directly involved. Some total fuckin’ weirdos come through there. And what happens next… It makes for some good rap music.”
MD: What’s it take to stand out now?
JC: I don’t know. Just somethin’ original. I don’t even know if what I do is actually original, but it’s fun and I never stray from being myself. Because of that, the product is what it is. I feel like our music is good on its own but I really do want to start puttin’ more faces to the names—gettin’ some more videos out there. Not just music videos. We’ve got video footage from the past three years of us just hangin’ out. I’ve got a video comin’ out that’s a day in the life of Joe Threat and Johnny Ciggs. Every day that we were able to hang out—like probably three days a week—he and I would get up, get some food, maybe go check out the swap or whatever, and then do a track, and then we’d go out to the bar and close the bar. It was just these crazy, super eventful days that we were doin’ every time he and I kicked it, for months. We were like, “We should videotape this.” So we did a day where we just basically videotaped ourselves all day on just a standard day that me and him would have. Just little things like that. I’m tryin’ to find ways to make us stand out as a crew of characters–not just another group of drunken rappers. Everybody’s funny, everybody’s got their own works, everybody’s got their own style. Everybody’s a general in their own way. The world must know about it.
MD: How long has Sirus been writing?
JC: I don’t know…two years; three years? He started rapping because he was staying on my couch for a while and I was recording myself all the time. Next thing we knew we had some songs together. I’ve been rappin’ three-and-a-half years, so no longer than that. Sirus is like my best friend. I’ve known him for like 10 years. We used to beef over graffiti way back when we were livin’ a couple neighborhoods apart from one another. I like his stuff a lot. He’s got some real funny verses, which fits his style perfectly. When he first started rappin’, he didn’t even understand how to ride a beat. I’ve got Sirus verses that are just all over the place. He just stuck with it and now his shit’s nasty. I love seein’ that progression. He didn’t even ever really wanna be a rapper—-he just did it for fun–and he’s still havin’ fun with it. He’s made incredible progress. He’s dope now. He’s among the Virginia elite.
MD: What’s the story behind your track “Hunnid Dolla Bills”?
JC: It’s a beat that Fan Ran originally gave to somebody else and they never did anything with it. We were just sittin’ around my house—me, Skweeky and Ran—not really doin’ shit, and Ran was like, “You guys wanna write to this beat? I really like this beat. I wish that somebody would do somethin’ with it.” So we wrote to it. It was funny because Skweeky…that was when he first started workin’ with us, and that’s totally not his type of beat. He was like, “I can’t write to this shit.” He’s more into faster boom bap-type beats. He did it anyway. That was the second verse he did with us. He had just moved to Richmond. He killed it, too. Me and Ran came real correct on it and it just became a monster of a track. That track was a total accident and it’s our most popular joint. It blows my mind.
MD: How popular is it? Did it get a lot of downloads?
JC: We don’t even have it up for download. I need to do that. We did that video just for fun. It was this hot-ass day. We were all hungover as hell and we went out and shot a video for it–just havin’ fun. That video… I haven’t checked it for a while, but it’s got 1500 views, which is probably the most views we have on any of our videos. Which I know is nothin’ in the grand scheme of things, but you know, I’ll take it. That video was the one that those guys at SYFFAL did a write-up on, and that was the first time we saw anybody from out of town talkin’ about our shit except for some people that we had met personally, but that’s different. They said they got it through that dude Roy Christopher. I don’t know, I guess people just like it. Alaska and Blockhead did a write-up of the pool party video, which had us all crackin’ up. Blockhead called us “suburban whigs,” and we were dyin’! It was funny as hell. That video was actually shot in our backyard in the city, where we live. I know who Blockhead is—that’s cool. He didn’t give us the best review, but at least he said somethin’… Even though his facts were mad twisted. Shout to SYFFAL.
MD: Blockhead? The producer of Aesop Rock’s early stuff?
JC: I guess.
MD: I wrote to Roy Christopher and said that I wanted to get some Gritty City stuff on CD, but it seems that isn’t how you’re rolling for distro, unless it’s local. Roy wrote back, “Those guys don’t have money to make CDs!”
JC: [Laughs.] We have ways of making CDs but yeah, a lot of times it’ll be like just a few. And then we’ll get money together and do like a hundred copies of whatever’s newest. We got our little hustle for how we can get that cheap, so it works. But the only one we’ve ever done professionally was the Delta [Automatik] CD, the first one [The Resume]. We saved up for that for like two years, and then we realized gettin’ it professionally printed was expensive as hell and not worth it. So we’ve just been doin’ our own packaging now. Because like you said, it’s just a local thing. There’s no reason for our shit to be shrinkwrapped. Half the time when we’re givin’ out CDs, I’m givin’ ‘em to someone at a bar. They say, “I’m gonna listen to this on the ride home!” And hopefully they do. Drunk people don’t need to be unwrapping shrinkwrap while driving. But yeah, it doesn’t need to be like that anymore, because it’s all digital now, which I hate to see because I’m a collector of music myself. I don’t download anything, except I’ll download my own stuff just to have on my iPod or whatever–if I even remember to do that. I’ve got like one or two of our CDs on my iPod. It is really sad to see that that’s goin’ out, but nobody really seems to care except for me and I guess you and maybe like five other people I know, tops. But no, it really is too bad. I like hard copies. Like I said, I’m a collector. I’ve got thousands of CDs and records that I’ve just been collectin’ my whole life. I refuse to not release hard copies.
MD: Can you name some stuff that you’re stoked that you have in your collection that you revisit and listen to for inspiration?
JC: Wu-Tang Clan’s like my favorite group ever. Them or Mobb Deep were both like neck-and-neck. I think Wu-Tang’s got the upper hand. I could go on forever, man. LL Cool J is the greatest rapper of all time. AZ, Nas, guys like that are right up there too. Cam’ron is my shit. I got so many hip-hop CDs, it’s out of control. I recently revisited Motley Crue stuff. It had been a couple years since I really got into them. I love Motley Crue–up until the late ‘80s. I lost interest, let’s say, after probably their fourth or fifth CD, if it even goes that far. The stuff that people don’t realize I liked, which kind of makes people laugh, is I absolutely love Luther Vandross and R Kelly. I just can’t help it. Bobby Womack, Poet 1 and 2. Awesome. Barry White. Marvin Gaye. He’s great. Dokken, Van Halen, ZZ Top. It doesn’t stop. Music is pretty much the only thing that has ever mattered in my life.
MD: What stuff do you currently have your eye out for?
JC: Fred the Godson. He’s the nastiest rapper out right now–new rapper. That guy… I slept on him forever. My roommate would play his stuff and I just didn’t even really listen–I don’t know why. And then the other day when I was in L.A., they had a Fred the Godson and the Heatmakers CD. The Heatmakers I’ve always loved—-beats they made over the past probably like 10 years now. And I was like, “Alright, I’ll buy it. It’s only six bucks. Whatever.” And I just loved it. And then I went and revisited the mix tape that Sirus had been playin’, and it’s just nasty. That guy’s just real clever. He’s got good concepts, good flow… He’s a good rapper. That’s who I’m checkin’ for these days. I just got the new Alchemist and Prodigy CD—-Prodigy and Mobb Deep–and that’s a great CD. Besides that, when it comes to new hip-hop, I’m not really checkin’ for too many besides Raekwon. Raekwon is the king of rap music and no one notices for some reason. No one is doin’ what Rae does. He’s everywhere and he’s not showing any sign of slowing down. But yeah, rap ain’t offerin’ me much else these days. I’m not tryin’ to hate on anybody. I’m just listenin’ more for old soul and hair metal. [Laughs.]
Bonus Track: The Sickness of Seap by Seap One: “Seap One’s one and only album, the album that released a couple weeks before he passed—The Sickness of Seap–is on there and that album is fuckin’ bananas. It’s a look into his life, his problems, his shortcomings. It’s a pretty sad album but it is beautiful at the same time. It’s an album about depression, drug use, jail, wishing he could do certain things and stuff like that. It was an honor to be a part of that one. I didn’t know we were gonna lose him right after that but the whole process was great and it was awesome workin’ with him.”—Johnny Ciggs
Mike Daily is a novelist, journalist, zinemaker, spoken words performer and co-creator of the Plywood Hoods freestyle BMX team. He lives in Oregon. Daily is at work on his third novel, Moon Babes of Bicycle City, which will be published by Portland’s Lazy Fascist Press.