Words by Jesse Serwer
With Scott Brown
Photos by Maria Izaurralde
LunchMoney Lewis’ “Bills” is shaping up to be one of the defining songs of the summer. Currently in heavy rotation on pop radio stations everywhere (both in full and during those segments where they offer to pay listeners’ bills), it’s already spent two weeks at No. 1 in Australia, and just debuted atop the iTunes charts in the U.K. Al Roker has danced to it on the Today Show. Not bad for a category-defying debut single from an artist few people had heard of before “Bills” leaked in February.
Those who did know the name LunchMoney Lewis would likely recognize him from his appearance on Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint track “Trini Dem Girls” (which he also co-wrote), or from Miami. The son of Inner Circle bassist Ian Lewis, “Lunchy” practically grew up at Circle House, the Miami studio complex owned and founded by the “Bad Boys of Reggae” and managed by his older brother, Abebe Lewis. That’s where we were introduced to Lunchy several years ago, as an up-and-coming rapper with a few mixtapes out. (Download 2011’s Munchies for a taste of what Lunchy was up to before “Bills.”) At the same time, the self-professed studio rat was also helping write songs for clients at Circle House, a facility as popular with pop stars like Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars as it is with Miami rappers (Flo Rida, Ace Hood) and reggae sound men (Supa Dups, Don Corleon).
LunchMoney’s story took a surprise turn West in 2013, when a song he wrote for Juicy J (2013’s “Scholarship”) led to a job working under songwriter-to-the-stars Dr. Luke. Relocated to LA, he impressed Luke enough to give him an artist deal with his label, Kemosabe Records, as well.
With the help of producer Ricky Reed, he’s now carving a lane for himself as a fun-loving, easygoing everyman who can comfortably rock a bathrobe on stage, as he did at last week’s Wango Tango concert in LA. “Bills” is a kid-friendly song about the troubles adults face, and his newly-released EP (also called Bills) contains similarly universal material. The fun-loving, hard-working persona Lunchy plays on “Bills” is not far off from who Lunch really is but it represents a different point of view than you might expect from a Jamaican rapper out of Miami. We checked in with him at Miami crashpad/studio The Pink House during his first visit home to the 305 since “Bills” began its meteoric rise.
LU: You were a rapper, but your new music is not traditional rap. Especially the viewpoint—the lyrics deal more with what you don’t have, versus what you do have.
LML: I wanted to talk about things we all really go through in my life. And because it’s soulful, it reflects. I remember growing up listening to soul music. I wanted to make music like a lot of the music that you made memories with growing up, and used to play with everybody. Some hip-hop songs, you had to listen to in your headphones because you couldn’t play cursing around your mom. The songs that I remember enjoying with my family was old reggae songs, listening to Bob Marley and Dennis Brown and Jacob Miller, and also Stevie Wonder. I wanted to make music like that, that’s real musical and fun.
LU: “Bills” is a record that pretty much anyone could relate to…
LML: I think people connect with the song because it’s something we all go through. No matter where you’re from, or what you look like, we all have bills and people who rely on us. I just made it sound fun.
LU: How did you come to be working with Dr. Luke?
LML: I met Luke through my friend, JKash. We wrote “Scholarship” on Juicy J’s last on album, and Juicy’s signed to Kemosabe Records, Luke’s label. I had a meeting with Luke and played him a bunch of records and hooks, and he told he wanted to sign me.
LU: What has your experience working and living out in LA been like?
LML: Working with Luke is like a learning lesson every time. He’s a genius. I pick up something new every time we work. He is always pushing you to do something dope. We have a tight team— My boy JKash, we wrote a lot of the songs I placed together, and my boy Ricky Reed produced the EP. Ricky did “Talk Dirty” for Jason Derulo and he just started making his way into the scene in the last year. We have a lot of fun. We never went in with any of these songs like we were gonna make a hit. We just went in making songs that we like, to bring some honesty and some fun into this. As far as LA, it’s a cool town, man. It reminds me a little bit of home due to the weather and palm trees. It’s a good working environment and I got a good community of friends out here. But you know, there’s no place like Dade.
LU: Your dad Ian Lewis and your uncle Roger Lewis are the famous “Fatman Rhythm Section” from Inner Circle. They’re reggae icons and also run one of the main studios in Miami. What were your earliest memories of music with them?
LML: I remember being really young going to rehearsals and seeing Inner Circle play at these festivals and it really inspired me. It was like they were superheroes or something, so I caught the bug young. I wanted that experience. I loved the drums. I was always by the drummer. When I was really young, my dad and Inner Circle had another small studio in Miramar. Then when I was around 8 or 9 there was the early Circle House, it was one little house not like what it is now. I got a chance to be there on the weekend, and I could just sit in the corner, and just watch.
LU: As a kid, did you gravitate more towards reggae or hip-hop?
LML: Reggae was the music I first heard. And then, through the streets and my homeys, I listened to Trick and everything on Slip N Slide, our Miami music like Uncle Al. And then I had my cousins from Jamaica who loved East Coast hip-hop—Jay and Pun and Nas and Gang Starr. When I got into hip-hop, the language of rap just kind of took over because I love lyrics and samples and beat breaks. But I always found that reggae and hip-hop were like brothers.
Reggae is definitely my first music language. So it’s easy to go back there when necessary.
LU: Who was the first person to pull you into a session, where you were a part of the songwriting process?
LML: My big homie CO. He was working with Mystikal at the time and was like, “You wanna help with this song?” So I ended up co-writing Mystikal’s single “Pussy Pop” on his greatest hits album. I think I was like 13 or 14. and I caught the songwriter bug after that.
LU: We’ve known you since your joints in Miami back when the jook/bop scene was popping. Do you see anything unique or fun like that coming out of South Florida again?
LML: I hope so. You know the core of our town is fun, dancing and having a good time. Kind of like Pacjam back in the day. And then there’s the other side that’s more street-based, but I think it’s dope that artists from the city are getting recognized because there’s a lot of talent in Miami.
LU: Now that your career as an artist is taking off, are you still doing a lot of writing for other people?
LML: Yeah, I got some records coming out on some people that’s really dope. I like writing. It keeps me creative, it keeps me in the loop of what’s going on in the world.. It keeps me tuned in to stuff. I got up with a couple of my homeys and worked on some new tracks.
LU: How did you end up working with Nicki on “Trini Dem Girls”?
LML: Dr. Luke hit me up to work on hooks ideas for Nicki. My homies JMIKE and AC played me the beat and it made me think of some yardie Caribbean vibes, so we did it, and played it for Nicki and she liked it. I didn’t think she was gonna keep me on it, but then Luke hit me and said, “Nicki gonna keep you on the hook.” Shoutout to Nicki!
LU: Have other people sought you out for that sort of Caribbean flavor?
LML: Not really, but it showed the depth of what I can do. I still have the reggae background strong, even though my stuff is more soul, hip-hop and pop-based. I listen to everything so I can do everything but reggae is definitely my first music language. So it’s easy to go back there when necessary.
LU: At Circle House, you have the two sides. The main house where you have a Pharrell making pop records, and then the reggae side across the street where you have Inner Circle and people like Supa Dups and Don Corleon. Did you ever do anything over on the reggae side?
LML: When I got to a space where I was doing stuff for myself, I started a spot down the street at a place with the homeys. We call it the Pink House, ‘cause it’s a pink house. And we put a studio on the bottom floor. We kind of turned that into a fortress of our own, and I would just sit and write songs. I wrote a lot of the stuff that came out in the last year there. And if they needed me over [at Circle House] I would go and mess with [Supa] Dups or Don [Corleon]. But I started to go into my own little world. At the Pink House, I did work with Daniel Bambaata, Ziggy’s son. He’s a good friend of mine.
LU: Who are some artists you are working with right now as a songwriter?
LML: I’m on a lot different projects coming out, but mostly I’m focused on finishing my album. We’re at the home stretch. I got some stuff with Ace Hood coming out that’s really dope. Ace Hood is the homey. Ciara’s album [just] came out. I co-wrote three songs on there. I did Jessie J’s “Burning Up.” I got some records coming out soon. Meek [Mill] has been working on some stuff with Nicki. I got a good record with them coming out.
LU: “Bills” broke on the radio. Today, you usually only hear of fresh, new music that’s a little different blowing up through the Internet. How did you cut through the barriers and get radio play right away?
LML: When we finished the record, there was already a buzz around about our project. I went to an IHeartRadio music conference in LA, and all the program directors were there, and we weren’t thinking radio, and we played “Bills.” All these PDs asked us for the song. I think people related to the song so they wanted to play it. Everybody was really supportive. They were like man, we love this song we want to break it. Sometimes you make one of those songs everyone reacts to, and it gets its own legs. We shot the video and people started making their own videos to the song. Now the EP is out so they can hear the depth of the music, it’s not just “Bills.”
LU: Do you have a name to describe your sound?
LML: I haven’t thought of a name but it’s some soul child shit—some funky, fun fusion. There’s no limits to what you might hear. Truth and fun–that’s kind of my whole thing. Just trying to be as honest and personal with the music, but have some fun with it.
Truth and fun–that’s kind of my whole thing. I’m just trying to be as honest and personal with the music, but have some fun with it.
LU: In Miami we knew you as just LunchMoney. Why add “Lewis”?
LML: Well the music grew and so did I and wanted something fresh, a little more classic. Lewis is my last name, so I just put it together. That’s the whole thing with truth and fun. The fun is LunchMoney, and the truth of it is Lewis is really my last name.
LU: So how did you get the name LunchMoney?
LML: Actually, it was through Salaam Remi. My brother was really cool with Salaam and he kind of took me in like a mentor. I was a big fan of his production. He used to be like, ‘You can come around and hang out and come to the studio.’ One day he was getting a haircut and he called me and he was like ‘Yo, if I was a chubby kid like you, I would call myself LunchMoney.’ He called me Lunch Money, and then everyone started calling me Lunch Money..
LU: Can we expect to hear any Caribbean vibes on your album?
LML: I’m stretching for it. We haven’t done anything yet but Ricky’s brought it up. I always incorporate reggae. Reggae is in my EP, just in my timing and how I deliver stuff. Reggae is in my bones.
LU: Did you get to spend a lot of time in Jamaica as a kid?
LML: I used to go all of the time. When I was young I used to stay in Spanish Town with my aunt.
LU: What was your favorite experience there?
LML: Being young and chilling in my aunt’s house, and she’d cook every morning. Just eating some ackee and saltfish when you wake up and going outside and getting some fresh mango off the tree. And just going to the beach and enjoying the city. Having to honk the horn every time we come down the hill because it’s dark and people can’t drive. Just fun stuff.