Before becoming the biggest rap boss on the southeast coast, Rick Ross was a young, hungry ghostwriter desperately seeking a breakthrough. Though he was a precocious writer for many notable acts, Rozay had loftier ambitions and wanted to transition into a mega-star. In August 2006, he accomplished his mission when he released his debut platinum album Port of Miami.
Early on, the Def Jam signee wowed listeners with his captivating anecdotes, steely wordplay, and commanding presence on the mic. He had the gravitas of every street hustler imaginable, and used that to his advantage when he nimbly pieced together his first single “Hustlin.'” Laced with a bevy of drug references and catchy one-liners ( “Who the f–k you think you f–k-in’ wit’ I’m the f–k-in’ boss”), Rozay pedaled his way into rap prominence and Billboard success. The record peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became an instant classic for the Carol City rapper.
“I started playing the record in New York with tons of energy and excitement. I always loved it, but I knew it was a hit from the reaction I was getting instantly,” says former Hot 97 DJ Cipha Sounds. “The first time I played it, I was yelling, screaming, and kept rewinding it. The phone lines were going crazy, and when I got off the [set] and went to the club, people kept asking me about it.”
The cherry on top came when Ross secured verses from Young Jeezy and an elusive Jay-Z — who at the time served as president of Def Jam — for the song’s remix. The stamp of approval from Hov gave Ross the extra momentum he needed to land a Billboard 200 No. 1 album — his first of five.
“I remember the day Ross walked into the Def Jam offices like it was yesterday,” recalls general manager of Maybach Music Group Yvette Davila. “After our meeting, I walked up to him, introduced myself, and made him a promise that I would take care of him from that day moving forward. Here we are 15 years later — I keep my promises.”
As part of our new Black Music Month Album Appreciation series, Billboard highlights the 15th anniversary of Port of Miami with Rick Ross, where he discusses meeting a young Kanye West, signing to Def Jam, creating “Hustlin’,” and the essential tracks from his seminal debut album.
Let’s take it back to the days when you attended TJ’s DJ’s conferences in Florida and were writing 10 songs a day for artists. Tell me about that Rick Ross.
Man, that was the roadrunner. That was Rozay and like you said, TJ’s DJ’s… Florida had a very limited hip-hop circle. So whatever was happening, which was limited, you had to be a part of. So I would go to Tallahassee and anywhere else in small parts of Florida because there wasn’t a lot going hip-hop-wise as far as the mainstream in Miami.
Miami music was always outdoors with the beach and turn-up with chicks twerking with a vibe and uptempo. It’s beautiful, but that wordplay meant a lot to me — so I went to TJ’s. I was on every mixtape. Anything that was going on from Tallahassee to Miami. DJ Bigga Rankin in Jacksonville, DJ Smallz in Tampa Bay and wherever it was going down at, I just made sure to insert myself to not miss nothing.
Going back to these ghostwriting days — how did they better serve you to become the artist that you are today?
The pen introduced me to a lot of different people. At the time, when I was a younger artist, I never would’ve known how these same relationships would re-emerge and come back and forth. Dre from Cool & Dre called me with an artist he was working with, so I could come to the studio. I came to the studio, and I sat with them going through beats and a lot of different stuff. This wasn’t anyone I was familiar with at the time, and she had a lot of cool Jordans. Come to find out, it’s Angie Martinez. I said, “Damn, she doing her thing — and she a bigwig and she into hip-hop.” That’s how we met. We didn’t talk radio and I didn’t know she was into that. I just saw her Jordans and we went through beats. That’s just one of many that came back many years later.
That’s like when you met a young Kanye.
I could’ve bought one of them man’s beats for $5,000. When you young and hungry as I was — and ‘Ye was at that time — it’s not even about the money. It’s really about solidifying the relationships, knowing when he come to Miami, he got artists he could depend on. That’s what you establish first as an artist. I just knew that when I go to California, I can smoke good. I sat down with a young Nipsey Hussle. I did that on the East Coast in New York City. I met a young Remy Ma when she was in The Bronx projects and that was through street n—as before I ever got on. Those are the relationships you connect [with] and that’s what comes with networking. When it’s 20 years later of doing solid business with real individuals, that’s when you see the boss Rick Ross and the position that he’s in.
I’d be remiss not to mention the fallen Def Jam executive Shakir Stewart who signed you to the label. Talk about the relationship you had with him and why that had such an impact on your career.
Rest in peace, Shakir Stewart. If it wasn’t for Shakir Stewart, I’m positive I wouldn’t have signed to Def Jam Records. He was the deal closer in that situation. It was because he had the time to come visit me in Miami and not just for a meeting, but whatever I was doing. I’m just gonna ride shotgun around with you if you moving around, hustling, in the streets, Circle House or if we going by Poe Boy studios, I’m just riding with you. That’s what sealed that deal. By the time I released a hit record, I had every record label in the business wanting to do business with me, which caused a bidding war. Once it hit seven figures, that was just the start of it all.
Take me back to the day you shot the video for “Hustlin'” and driving from South Beach to Carol City during the making of the video. What was going through your mind?
I felt like it was a new day, time, and era. Rick Ross was the birth of an entirely new era and music scene in Miami. I always felt like us having nothing, we were always trying to work our way toward South Beach. With my video for “Hustlin’,” I started on South Beach and left South Beach, and went back to where I was from. That was my approach with the music — the same way. Let’s take it back to, “Every day I’m hustlin’.” I see what Will Smith and them doing. That looks good and it’s successful, but let’s take it back to Carol City and the real Miami — and that’s what we did with the opening scene.
I remember the biggest thing from that record lyrically was you rhyming Atlantic [Records] twice. I read an interview with Rolling Stone and you said you shouted out Atlantic twice because they had your CD on their desk and passed you over.
They was f–k-ups. They dropped the ball and were wide open for the Super Bowl and they dropped that motherf–ker. That’s why I mentioned them twice in the raps. I remember when Atlantic came to Miami and there were a few artists on the docket, and I’ll never forget when I got the message of Atlantic choosing Pretty Ricky over Rick Ross. That s–t might’ve drawn a tear from Rozay. If I didn’t cry, I was just happy to see my lil’ homies do their thing. I was just happy to see someone do their thing and win. But at the same time, these people don’t see my vision. I’m like, “Do they not see this vision? I’m tryna make it as clear as possible.” I mentioned Atlantic twice and we kicked the door down with that b—h.
Lyrically, you held back on “Hustlin.'” Looking back on it, would you have kept the same rhyme scheme and cadence?
I would’ve kept the same rhyme scheme and cadence — because I think that’s what the masses wanted. That was the perfect way to introduce them to Rick Ross. I was releasing underground raps like “Mafia Music” where I would just rap 100 bars with no chorus and everybody wasn’t ready for that. When I watch the audience perform that record to this day, you could have a rapper today with a hit and then I come out right after them to that “Hustlin.'” It’s just different. It connects with motherf—kers different. I don’t even gotta rap nothing.
For you a young Miami artist like you coming up, what did it mean to get that [Jay-Z] verse that early in your career when you guys did the remix for “Hustlin’”?
Like I said, Miami has always been hip-hop, but it’s a wild audience. There’s a lot of different genres down here. What it did for me, in the format of music I make, it was priceless. He’ll always be on the top of my list for that. That was the introduction and everybody sees the vision now. People that may not have seen it, but then they saw “Hustlin'” being the top record of the year possibly. People may have thought we would’ve met and that would’ve been the end of it, and not those seven or eight features coming behind that.
I got to shout-out another New York rapper in LL Cool J because he inspired that “I’m Bad” record. Talk about channeling LL for that deep-cut classic.
I’m a huge fan of LL Cool J. That’s what made me buy those Troops. To me, when I was a fan, I absorbed the music just as much as the merchandise. The LL t-shirt, I wanted it, and I wanted the Troop sweatshirt and the Troop sneakers. That’s what I apply when I’m repping Belaire or Bumbu. I approach that the same way I do with my music, that’s family. When I saw LL Cool J cooling with the bubble, that might have been the first sneaker I ever seen with a bubble in the sneaker. I wanted them with his wardrobe, jewels, and raps.
So with the “I’m Bad” record, a lot of people may have missed that too. Because in the South, that’s a big record. I channeled that from LL Cool J. I know LL knocked up a lot of y’all mommas.
Let’s take it to “Pots and Pans,” where you’re talking about cutting your college football careers short and leaving your life in the streets to focus on hip-hop. When you hear “Pots and Pans” today, does it still tug at the heartstrings like when first you wrote it?
It does because when you say “Pots and Pans” and “Tears of Joy,” those are the very few records I’d put in that circle. Those records become what they are by themselves. You can’t say you’re going to make a “Tears of Joy” today, you’re playing yourself. I remember getting the track from No I.D. and leaving the Hawaii sessions with Kanye and coming back and writing the raps.
Then just pulling up to Ceelo [Green] and I walk up to him and told him this was the idea. He looked at me and said, “Let’s do it!” You can’t plan that. The homies made that [“Pots and Pans”] instrumental and wanted $2,500 for that beat. The other homie that’s on it went to high school with me. I believe he’s managing one of the Finger Licking’s down here. We didn’t reach out to nobody. That’s an idea and I’m writing the raps and my homie right here’s a singer.
I’m gonna go straight to the third verse: “I look forward to working with all the real n—-z/ I look forward to looking back on drug dealing/ I look forward to making my momma smile once/ Looking forward, just know I’m smoking them loud blunts!” Would you say based on those lines, you’ve accomplished your mission?
When you talk about those lyrics, my perspective — and me seeing what I could bring to the game with just the hustler I was and the principles I had — I knew what would resonate all around the world. That’s why when I encounter real dudes, that’s the beginning of something. Rare times, that’s the last time we speak when I connect with certain people. The position I’m in now, I’ll still speak to the youngsters. I just got off the phone with Steve Stoute, and it just keeps going. We most definitely pulled off what we came to do.
I know Rozay is very spiritual. What is Psalm 27, Rozay?
The Lord is my light and salvation whom I shall fear. The Lord is the strength of my life of whom I should be afraid. When my enemies and foes came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp me, my heart shall not fear. The war shall rise even in this I shall be confident.
When you recite those types of words and you feel that and live and die by that, you a different kind of individual. When it comes to me being the artist I am or the hustler or gambler that I am, there’s not much that I fear. That’s when you hear those “Mafia Music” records. If it was anything else in the way on the tracks I feel that I would crush it. I believe my music made it clear. That’s why I don’t have a lot of traffic in my lane. I have a lot of enjoyment but I only enjoy it when someone deserves it. There’s a difference between murder and to kill. You should start and end your day with [Psalm 27] every day.
Why did you decide to name it Port of Miami instead of Career Criminals?
For one, I wanted to rep the city. It was bigger than me. I wanted the city to be in my title when I said I wanted to give them some game. A lot of people said, “What is that?” I’m gonna give y’all the game, and let y’all know how it comes through here. We gon’ show you who made Escobar rich. We showed them another level of hunger as well as class. When you put that together, you get an empire.
You got five No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. Not a lot of people can say that and even with their debut album going No. 1, why makes that one special compared to the previous albums that went No. 1?
My first album going No. 1 makes it more special than the others because that’s my true and raw introduction to the game and to the fans and to that one person listening to me painting my pictures. Is this s–t gonna be subpar or average or is going to be exceptional? I believe that debut being No. 1 put it in the class of exceptional work.
What would you say was your favorite verse on that Port of Miami that gives you goosebumps 15 years later?
Is it the third verse of “Pots and Pans” or was it the second verse? It’s very conversational if we break it down. The way I play with the words and went back and forth, I know I didn’t do nowhere else on the album.
Where do you think Port of Miami ranks in terms of street albums?
It’s arguably one of the best. That really depends on who you’re speaking with, but that’s the doorway into Rozay and Rick Ross. As far as what I’ve accomplished in the time I’ve done it, ain’t nobody else done this. When we talk about every day we hustlin’, we meant that. We laid it on the table and still hustlin’ right now. We’re putting the touches on some s–t that’s gonna f–k the game up. The same way we said every day we hustlin, it’s a whole new game now. If you appreciated that passion and drive, wait until you hear this.