Jack Riedy debuts on the site the only way he could: talking to an excellent Chicago rapper about the restaurant business.
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One rainy night in summer 2019, I followed an engineer through a River North creative marketing agency, past stacks of complimentary granola bars, to an all-gray studio, where I met Z Money, clutching two stacked cups and ready for a long night of recording. I interviewed the Chicago rapper, then signed to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records, for a story that never came to fruition about rappers with investments in the local community. Chicago has produced several superstars in its last decade of rap, but Z Money represents the rest of the city’s rappers, who drop singles and mixtapes when they can amidst other businesses and hustles. It’s a blue-collar approach to art that matches the money-over-everything attitude of his verses.
Z Money raps about the joy that comes with making money anyway possible. He delivers his verses in a casual drawl stemming from his family’s Mississippi roots, like if his hero Gucci Mane had grown up in the neglected West Side neighborhood Austin. The rapper born Zernando Tate earned national attention in 2013 when he released two mixtapes, Rich B4 Rap and Herion Musik [sic], on the same day, but he was already popular in Chicago; Chance The Rapper used Z’s track “Want My Money” to soundtrack a teaser for his Acid Rap mixtape in April 2013. Z Money had a style all his own, distinct from Chance, his collaborators, drill or bop.
But his music career stalled when he was incarcerated due to a parole violation for most of 2014. Like Southsider Lil Durk and other Chicago rappers, Z Money relocated to Atlanta after his release in early 2015 to focus on music. Back home, fellow Austin resident Saba shouted him out while reflecting on the divides between Chicago neighborhoods on his 2016 single “Westside Bound 3.”
In 2017, Z Money began collaborating with emerging producer ChaseTheMoney, who paired Z’s mush-mouth delivery with dark, cavernous beats. The resulting project ZTM, released that Halloween, is still the rapper’s definitive project, and the final song “Two 16’s” with Valee has become a hometown classic. Valee’s verse is rightly acclaimed for its vivid imagery and nonstop (and often-imitated) flow, but Z sets the tone perfectly with his first couplet, about cooking crack while drunk off dark liquor and eating Pop-Tarts. ZTM brought Z into the conversation–and studio–with brooding L.A. rap acts emerging at the time like Shoreline Mafia, the Stinc Team and 03 Greedo.
I met with Z Money to learn more about his non-rap businesses: various trucking companies and the now-shuttered soul food restaurant Emma’s, named after his grandma, which Chicago journalist Leor Galil fondly recalls as “inexpensive, hearty comfort food that hit the spot and satiated me without weighing me down.” The rapper was a friendly host as he settled in for a long night of recording, eager to describe each step in his journey from standing on the corner to signing with his musical idol. Z Money sometimes called across the room to the engineer like a late night host bantering with a bandleader. They started trash talking Jordans, and I sheepishly slid my beat-up Vans under my chair. When he dropped a blunt wrap in water, he simply spread it out to dry, unfazed, jewelry jingling with each movement.
Z Money left 1017 after 2019’s Shawty Paid, and hasn’t dropped much music since, but it’s possible he just took 2020 off. His latest single “Still Thumbin,” along with recent features for his 4Ever Paid signee Trello and for producer JoogSZN, show his hustler ethos hasn’t changed at all.
Jack Riedy: How did you first get involved in business outside of rap?
Z Money: I never knew I was gonna be a rapper, but I always knew I was gonna be a CEO. I knew I was gonna be a boss. I never knew how I wanted to do it. But I knew what I wanted to do.
When you were growing up, who did you first learn leadership from?
I used to go out every morning with my father, bro. To the real estate companies. I just see how he reward his workers. I can see how he do his job. He always told me that if there’s someone around you doing something good, reward them. When I wasn’t in school, I’d see my father every day. He didn’t even know that he was teaching me, probably. So as I grew older, I was learning from my mistakes, because I’m not gonna sound like a perfect person. I made plenty fucking mistakes. But I learned off of them. There’s so many guys that I grew up with, those my friends, but all them guys isn’t where I’m at now, because they don’t understand you gotta grow out of certain things. So nowadays, they still cool. But those guys can’t hang around me because they can’t bring nothing to the table for what I’m doing, or they can’t even relate to the conversation I’m talking about. Like, I love them. But right now, it’s not about love. It’s about business.
Do you get a lot of business advice from your dad?
Oh yeah, my dad is my business partner. 100% sure. Like, I wouldn’t even have a restaurant if it wasn’t for my dad. You learn how to do certain things. I put all my money in my music, I put all my own money into my restaurant. I was thinking that it would be good for me to do it in my own neighborhood. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s pros and cons with it. It’s the pros, is that I’m doing some good for the community. There’s no other restaurant like this in the community. Everybody knows it’s Z Money’s restaurant, they will come back. And boom. We don’t throw food out, we give to the homeless. So I do things good with the community, but it’s a lot of gunshots. It’s a lot of killing around. I’m from Austin community, one of the worst areas on the West Side, with the gangbanger violence. If I want to get smack, I’d go to Holy City. I hustled over there, I’d get my money there. Austin community on North Avenue, I’m from that area but I can’t really hustle like I do on the other side, because there’s so much gangbanging. We used to have better shrimp and grits in Chicago than any other restaurant. I can put it hands down. We had a great thing going on. No one had the type of food we had. In the community, there was no other restaurant like us, so it was good. But, the area.
How did you first get the idea to open the restaurant?
My father. He was in jail, and I was home, I was hustling. You know, young guy. I was 19 years old, having a lot of money coming in. My father told me, “Don’t be doing stupid shit with your money.” He wasn’t here, but he was with me. He was like, “Man, invest in something.” My first thing I always wanted was a building. So I bought a building first. Residential, on the West Side of Chicago. I grated it, I put the back porch in, and I did everything to it. Then my father was gonna come home, he was like, three months out from coming home. I can’t have my father working at anybody’s place. So I open my own restaurant. My father was working in my restaurant.
You’re working in the community and providing a job for your dad.
I did. He put his two cents in, now my dad made the restaurant jump harder. His friend was a special cook, they came in, made our menu for us, made our dishes, how we wanna cook this.
And then, my father came to me like, the restaurant is a little slow right now, let’s go to trucks. That’s how I got into the trucking business. My father, he’s my 100% business partner. All my things that I’ve invested my money in, he is the reason. We started doing the trucks. You buy a truck, you get the insurance, you get your driver with two years experience and you workin’ and makin money.
What kind of trucking?
Sleepers, like 18-wheeler trucks. If it’s not on sleepers, it’s going railroad.
When did you start investing? How many drivers do you have?
2017, the beginning of 2018. We have six trucks now. We have two truck companies. Me and my little brother, his name is Isaiah, we have our own truck company called Z and I Trucking. And my father, he have his own trucking company called Unity Trucking Company.
We do everything for family. My brother has a percentage of my record label. Him and my little brother don’t even do music like that. But we family oriented like that. So that’s what we try to do: help each other out.
You’re working with Gucci a lot now. Has he given you any business advice? Or do you guys strictly talk music?
Gucci always been someone in my life. I was around Gucci before me and Gucci even met. Gucci always gave me advice just to keep on. Gucci’s just keeping me staying humble. You don’t want to get too big-headed in certain things. Gucci advice is always good advice. Always.
Does your grandma like the food? I assume she got the grand tour.
Yeah, she just don’t like being on her feet like that. I want my grandma food in there so bad, but she just can’t be on her feet like that. Her and my–I call her Miss Porter–both of my grandmas can cook. I shoulda called it Emma’s and Porter’s. Both of my grandmothers got it bomb. I got a type of family where all of us is tight. My cousins like my brothers type shit.
Do you feel like you’re making a difference in Chicago?
Oh, yeah, for sure. Where I came from, I was the person that used to be in the corner all day. I used to sell drugs, like, I never knew I was gonna be a rapper. My thing was to be the best drug dealer. You know when you’re young, you think something is cool, but it really not? That was me. I’ve grown out of that. Drugs don’t even excite me no more. Goin’ to the studio, seein’ my videos, that shit excite me. I used to love what I was doing. I grew out of that shit so fast and I thank the Lord that I did that, because it’s just about growing up and growing into the man that you becoming.
Do you feel like your music has evolved in the same way?
Oh yeah, definitely. I dropped my first mixtape, two mixtapes in one day. No promotion, didn’t even promote it. One was 22 songs, one was 24 songs. My first mixtape ever made Rolling Stone‘s Top 10 mixtapes 2013. It was me, Chance the Rapper, Lil Durk, Vic Mensa, the only rappers from Chicago on there. I remember I was in my restaurant, eating, when I found out this shit.
Your own restaurant.
I was in my own restaurant, swear to God, my hand on the Bible, bro. Man, somebody kept hittin’ me up, my phone kept going off like, “Congratulations!” And I’m like, Oh my fucking God. Imagine not even taking rapping serious. I had one foot in, one foot out. Then with me going to jail. I learned I had to have two foots in to compete. You can’t pussyfoot one foot in, one foot out, because sometimes I have my mind focused on the wrong things. Rapping always was stress-relieving for me. I wake up early in the morning, hustle, do what I got to do, sometimes taking losses, losing friends, losing a lot of money acting like that. So at the end of the night, I got to go to the studio, I could leave my stress. That’s something I fell in love with, and I just learned how to capitalize off it. And I was going back in jail for a lot of my career. I went back in jail so much, bro. Back and forth, stupid shit. But the Lord sent me a message, like, “Bro, stop playin’.”
Was it the time in jail that made you start to realize that music could be your main business?
I was gettin’ mails comin’ through everyday stacked up. People sending me money I don’t even know, that’ll make you feel like you’re missing something. Coach K flew up here to Chicago to try to sign me. I had 300 [Entertainment], all that. I missed opportunities. But here I am now with Gucci. Maybe if I woulda never went to jail, you never know, right? A lot of things happen for a reason, bro. I’m just trying to keep capitalizing off everything.
Does it still feel like stress relief for you to rap, even though it’s a bigger part of your life now than it used to be?
Yeah, rap always gonna be a stress relief. If I go two weeks without rapping, I might be snapping off, I might have a bad attitude. I live in the studio. I don’t go to clubs, unless I’m getting paid. I don’t do certain shit. Really, go to the studio, go to work. I’m back in the crib. That’s my thing.
Did you write when you were locked up?
Bro, I swear to God, bro. I wrote like 600 songs in jail. You know how many songs I got with raps that came from jail? I only did one.
Of those hundreds?
Yes. I swear to God. Like no bullshit. And you know the one song I did? “Everybody cut your stove on.” I wrote that in jail. And I actually wrote that in the worst part of jail that I was in. I was in the county. I thought I was going to go home, I went to court. The judge is like, Mr. Z Money. She showed me everything on my page.
She called you Z Money in court?
She didn’t even call me my name. She called me Z Money. She put up my picture, showed me everything that I was doing wrong, showed me all the drugs and stuff. I had a video called “10 Hours.” I have flour in the video, and I’m cooking up the flour, like I really do the dope. And it was looking so real that I told myself, Imma put this flour in the video so people aren’t falling for this shit. I put the big ass bag of flour on the table just to let people know what I was playing with, flour.
This is a video, this is fiction.
Still got in trouble for it, bro. I got a whole year for that shit.
Do you have more stuff with Shoreline on the way?
I got so much music with Shoreline. Started from 03 Greedo, that’s like my brother from another mother. Me and him, we got so much songs together. Those some good guys. Those guys, they all brought us in together, they liked my mood, they liked how we was coming. You know, them some real guys on the West Coast. I can’t click with the fake and the phony.
Have you talked to Greedo recently?
Yeah I’ve been talkin to Greedo, like two, three times since he’s been to jail. I sent him a letter but they sent the letter back to me because my dumb ass–I put the city and the state but I ain’t put the fucking zip code. And they don’t play about the mail. Me and Greedo got a lot of shit. The West Coast wave right now, them my boys. Stinc team, I fuck with them too.
Now that you’re traveling more and linking up with people in other parts of the country, have you thought about opening restaurants in other cities or expanding the trucking?
The restaurant, I wouldn’t want to put one in Atlanta.
What’s the food like down there, compared to up here?
Not like Chicago. Nobody got food like Chicago. I’m gonna keep it real with you bro. People always say New York pizza’s better, well it’s not better. I like Baltimore, I love they seafood. I’ma say east coast. I like their seafood better. I like in the South, barbecue–it’s just different things. But Chicago got everything. We got everything, like it’s crazy.
Who else you listening to from Chicago lately?
Valee. I got another n*gga named Gato, El Gato, that’s my little homie. I listen to Brick Fair, that’s an artist of mine, he work for 4Ever Paid. Polo G, lil bro hard, Calboy, that’s my lil brother, he hard. It’s a lot of guys I fuck with in this city. Just to be real, like speaking the real music, and real real, you know what I’m saying? Queen Key, she hard. Little bro Zay Osama, he hard. I think our city on fire right now.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity and length.