By Cameron Lee
January 28, 2022
On his latest project, Iridesense, James Haley, best known by his rap name BigBabyGucci sings on track “RoboCop”: “I just grew up out the ground and turned to a rose / I just took another flight now we on the road.” This might be the best way to describe his unpredictable ascension over the past few years. The west Charlotte-born rapper, who dialed in from LA where he currently resides, grew up all over the city as a kid moving from West Boulevard to Remount Road to Beatties Ford with several more stops along the way. “It was ugly. I lived everywhere,” Haley said.
The youngest of four boys, Haley grew up in a strict and humble household with not a lot of means. A wild child who would often rebel against his parents, he was sent to a group home when he was just in the eighth grade, where a streak of petty crime commenced, eventually landing him in jail.
Rap music would first enter Haley’s world when he was a middle schooler listening to OutKast and Kanye West, often hiding the music from his mother, who didn’t condone it. Haley was a bit of a castaway himself, as a skater and a fan of the oddball rap of Lil B, he felt isolated. “I was just mad weird in high school,” he laughed.
Haley attended Harding University and West Mecklenburg High School before he moved to Gastonia to attend Ashbrook High, where he proudly mentions is where NBA Hall of Famer and Tar Heel legend James Worthy went. He then went on to college briefly at Mars Hill University and began experimenting with making DJ mixes with a MacBook his mother gifted him. But he left some of his legal obligations behind– failing to show up to court dates– he ultimately landed in jail for a short stint in 2015 for grand theft auto.
After five months, Haley was released and hit a low point. Not knowing where his life was headed and working at Papa John’s, he then had his laptop stolen. Needing a change of scenery, Haley moved to Greensboro with his girlfriend at the time, who was an artist.
He started to take his music more seriously and, in 2016, compiled his first assemblage of songs in a very DIY manner, recording his vocals through an XBox microphone, which gave him the lofi hip-hop sound he desired at the time. Art Hoe Collection is a fuzzy, ten-track project very representative of the SoundCloud “mumble rap” era. While the songs did okay on the platform, and showed glimpses of his melodic rapping cadence, it was a track dedicated to Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane that brought Haley his first success with the underground masses. It also influenced his name, BigBabyGucci.
Relentless in his approach, Haley uploaded a barrage of low-quality recordings and networked incessantly on the platform. The effort would pay off. In 2017, after connecting with Master Kato (Shoreline Mafia), he got booked for multiple shows at South by Southwest, which ultimately led to his move to Texas. In October of 2017, Haley released a music video for a song called “Tales from the Cornerstore,” shot and edited by Reel Bump, who is now a close friend. The video got picked up by Elevator Mag and accumulated over 100,000 views in its first week.
Bobby Johnson, a Germany-based producer best known for his song “OG Bobby Johnson,” produced for Atlanta rapper Que, took notice and reached out to Haley on Twitter. Soon after, Haley was flown out to Atlanta to meet Rico Brooks, a veteran music manager who has worked with Yung Joc, Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and many more ATL-based artists.
In the course of just over a year, Haley went from being a depressed college dropout, fresh out of jail to a hot commodity in the cyclical music industry system obsessed with turbulent young rappers.
“I ended up getting a deal off that shit because of Bobby Johnson. That’s literally how it worked, I moved to Texas, I got videos…then Elevator wanted the videos, and then I set up a tour and on the tour I met my manager [Icepack Jack] and engineer [Joe Dirt],” he said.
Johnson and Haley would go on to make an EP called 10 Minutes To Live at Billboard Studios in Atlanta, released in October of 2018. The project would eventually land a deal for Haley with Payday Records, a New York-based hip-hop label started by industry mainstay Patrick Moxey, distributed by Ultra Records, a division of Sony. It was the same label that once housed acts like Jeru the Damaja, Group Home, and even Jay-Z’s first commercially released single, “In My Lifetime.”
While Haley parted ways with PayDay Records soon after the project, it didn’t slow him down one bit. He’s released nine projects since the release of 10 Minutes To Live, and currently boasts well over 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
His music has come a long way since his days of self-recording muddled tracks on GarageBand. On his latest projects, Iridesense and Human, the production is sturdy with his signature distorted bass drops executed by up-and-coming producers like Jackpott, Sapjer, Ian Francis, Glitterboy, and Fish, along with his engineer Joe Dirt. Haley navigates through complex beats, floating over transitions and switching from emotive crooning to hard-hitting bars, balancing the essence of the lofi SoundCloud sound with better structure and more moving songs.
Now Haley is embarking on his first U.S. tour with multiple dates supporting “Uber Everywhere” rapper MadeinTYO. He also has solo show dates, including a hometown show in Charlotte on February 1 at The Underground. He’s bringing along North Carolina rapper-singer Kevin Powers along with Charlotte’s Frais and 10cellphones. He’s thrilled about the opportunity to play in his hometown: “It’s love. It’s gonna be real crazy.”
As far as 2022 is concerned, Haley isn’t expected to release a ton of music, but he’s working to make an impact in the music industry with the new label he founded, Better Temperatures.
“We just doing a lot of groundwork. I guess I want to be more official this year,” he said. “Less work, more quality.”
Haley’s career as an artist is in many ways just beginning. At the age of 25, he’s learned the ins and outs of the music business having been signed to a label. But more importantly, he found a way to turn his life around, proving that you can indeed turn into a rose from troubled grounds.
Listen to BigBabyGucci‘s latest albums Iridesense and Human.