For March’s First Look Friday, we spoke to Michigan rapper BabyTron about his new music, his upbringings before rap, and what he thinks about his Internet fame.
A face is covered in a spread of twenty-dollar bills, while ’80s disco synths blare in the background. A shot of a pair of blue Triple S Balenciaga sneakers appears on the screen before the name “BabyTron” is plastered in white text inside of a toilet. In the music video for BabyTron’s 2019 breakout single, “Jesus Shuttlesworth,” the Michigan-based artist is flaunting three things: the fact he has a lot of money, how fast he makes it, and the outfits he wears as a result. He wants to remind you he doesn’t live an ordinary lifestyle, while you’re stuck under the confines of a 9 to 5 job.
BabyTron, born James Johnson III, is swiftly becoming a phenomenon in the rap world for his ability to rap on any outlandish sample. Whether it’s the iconic theme from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on “Half-Blood Prince” or Darth Vader’s signature tune on “Sith Lord,” the 21-year old rapper delivers punched-in verses filled with witty wordplay and pop culture callbacks.
He was born in Ypsilanti, a suburb 30 minutes east from Detroit. “In Detroit, it’s not much different. It’s all the same for real. It’s just a dent in a different location,” BabyTron told Okayplayer about his city.
Excelling in language arts ran in the family with his father being a rapper — Mr. Sadistic from Motown Rage — and his mother an English teacher. Throughout his childhood, he would be exposed to an abundance of ’80s pop music which would later become his niche. “Yeah, I definitely heard some of that shit in movies or just anything — hearing it walking through the stores, I always had an ear for the type of beats I rap on when I hear it,” he said.
A part of the growing rap scene in Detroit and a member of the group the ShittyBoyz — alongside StanWill and TrDee — BabyTron initially started off in the realm of scam rap, following in the steps of Teejayx6 making music about hacked VPNs, stolen credit cards and successfully committing fraud. But Tron’s ear for quirky beats made him stand out from his peers, working with producers such as Helluva, Marc Anthony, and Danny G who helped bring to life his animated world.
Last year saw a major shift in BabyTron’s abilities as a rapper. His flow steadied and slowed, his punchlines became better crafted and he developed a better sense of style and cadence. Before the lines were thrown one after another like a UFC fighter finishing his opponent. Now they’re performed with a battle rap spirit that could hold up the walls of Saint Andrew’s. BabyTron has grown fond of spitting over various samples and beats in a single song. On “King of the Galaxy,” he nonchalantly raps over a flip of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” before an unholy transition into Nardo Wick’s evil “Who Want Smoke??” While on the relentless “Prince Of The Mitten,” BabyTron raps over 19 different beats, like a car repeatedly switching lanes.
Tron’s taste for uptempo dance music with syncopated bass lines in his samples has helped give ’80s freestyle music a resurgence. Having delivered a total of four projects last year, BabyTron has climbed the ranks of popularity amongst regional and mainstream rap aficionados.
Megatron is BabyTron’s latest album and it does a few things differently. While Tron still provides grimy street scriptures over wicked samples, there’s more emphasis on the use of harder beats here. He is showing off his pen game rather than the universality of his flows. Throughout its 23 song track list, the hour runtime breezes by. Between the hyped horns and snapping snares of “Beyond Turnt,” or the braggadocio shit-talking of the middle class on “Extra Butter,” Tron makes each track feel like a novelty on its own.
For our latest First Look Friday, Okayplayer hopped on a call with BabyTron to discuss the new music, his upbringings before rap, and his creative process.
What artists were you listening to on your own?
BabyTron: When I was in middle school, I was fucking with a lot of Chief Keef’s shit outside of Michigan. I always stuck with a lot of Michigan artists. At the time, I was fucking with Doughboyz Cashout, BandGang—a lot of the hot artists out of Detroit and Michigan at the time because that was what was going on in the area.
How did you come up with the name BabyTron?
Really just fucking around being a kid trying to think of some cool shit. I really don’t remember exactly what made me take it. It was so long ago, bro. It was really like 10 years ago. I was like 11 or 12. I’ve been keeping that nickname ever since I started. I didn’t even need a nickname for real when I came up with it but I just wanted a cool ass name so I used to just call myself that shit. Everybody else started calling me that shit when I started rapping so that was my name.
Being half black and white, did that affect you in terms of fitting in growing up like in high school or anything?
Hell no. I was always the cool kid.
What was a normal day like for you back in the day?
Before rapping, I’d go to school and play basketball. I used to want to be a basketball player, so I used to be heavy with the basketball shit.
I am not really even into basketball that much anymore. Like, I don’t even ever have time to play it. I’m always working on my new album or some shit. I kind of gave that up.
When did you get into making music?
Shit, like 10th grade. Me and the ShittyBoyz — StanWill and TrDee — we all went to school together. Stan had a studio in his crib. Well, not a studio, but everything needed to record us on. So ever since then. So really, like 16 or 17 — about four or five years.
You mentioned in another interview that you write and freestyle. When it comes to your quick witty wordplay, do you prefer to write or freestyle?
Recently it’s been all freestyle, I think. Really, the whole Megatron tape was freestyle. But recently, the stuff that’s not on Megatron, after that, the newer stuff that I didn’t put on the album is even more than that. I’ve been writing a little bit, so it’s going to be a mixture. They’re going to hear the difference. I’m leveling up like the Super Saiyan type shit.
I just work every day, bro. I’m growing and getting better, but it just comes with hard work. Like, if I wasn’t at the studio every day making songs, it might not happen. But that’s how I work. I’m a workhorse, so I’m always going to get better. They always have to watch out for the new BabyTron.
Do you listen to the beat or do you write the lyrics down first?
Usually the process is like I pull up to the studio, see what beats I’m working with. My man is Marc Anthony, that’s one of my engineers, beat makers. He might pull up with some shit [that will] surprise me. If I hear it, pull it up and rap on it. So usually I just hit the beat first. Usually I never write nothing down.
When it comes to picking the samples you rap on, do you usually leave it to your producers or do you have a hand in it?
I usually more than likely pick the sample myself but I go to the producer just so I can hear if I’m doing it right. I usually pick the sample but sometimes the producer has a crazy sample and I’m like, oh yeah that’s a hard as hell. Let’s do that. But most of the time usually with the crazy temples like the Bernie Mac song or [The Lost World: Jurassic Park] like that’d be my idea.
How long have you been working with Helluva? Because his beats and you are like it’s peanut butter and jelly with how well y’all go together
Yeah, that’s the dynamic duo for sure. Ever since I really started taking rap seriously in 2019. So for about three years I’ve been locked in with him ever since.
Detroit’s rap scene continues to blow up in popularity. Does that jeopardize the culture around it? And now that there’s more eyes on what individuals are doing.
Really, I just feel like it’s just time right now. It’s all eyes on it. So everybody’s going crazy. But even if all the eyes weren’t on Detroit, Michigan right now, I would still be going crazy and still be trying to put out as much music as I do.
Who else from the D right now should we look forward to hearing?
The other shitty boys. ScrumbleMan, that’s my Little cousin. I’m sure you already hit all the other names. It’s already going crazy and shit.
You pretty much have become an Internet phenom now. It’s not hard to find random posts about how you’re the greatest rapper this generation. What’s your thoughts on that? And just the surge of recent fame.
That shit crazy. But that shit feels good. That keeps me going, you know, it’s something else. The fans are crazy. Like they die for their favorite rappers. That’s all love. I would be nothing without the fans.
“Mainstream Tron,” it stands out to me because it’s like, what if you entered that world of pop and radio play? How do you feel about artists taking that mainstream approach to music? Do you see that for yourself in the future?
No, not really. That’s why I feel like I named that “Mainstream Tron” because you would know exactly what song it is. But I fuck with experimenting for sure. That might not be the last time you ever hear me on a beat like that. But I wouldn’t expect the whole album to ever sound like that.
Moving forward, you mentioned your future music. What else do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Shit, lots of videos. Did he really just do that? I’m going to make everybody do that. A whole bunch this year and shit. Probably round off the end of the year with another one. Until then, heavy pressure.