Houston came to know AJ McQueen as a soulful emcee from St. Louis, Missouri. His undeniable lyricism, consciousness and real testimony as a reformed gang member has landed him on BET’s 106 & Park, the Northern Lights Tour, SXSW Music Conference and the Sway In The Morning SiriusXM radio show. McQueen was recognized by President Barack Obama in receiving the White House Service Achievement Award for his service to his community and his positive music. He also founded his nonprofit performing arts and literacy company, Writer’s Block Inc., in which he was awarded the Top 30 under 30 Entrepreneur Award. With an impressive and transparent growing musical catalog that often uses drinking water as a central theme, the “Goat-ish” rapper is now taking ownership in the term: practice what you preach.
McQueen has turned water into rhymes in several songs, including, “Distilled,” “Alkaline” and “Girls Love Water.” And now he is making that lifestyle available to everyone by creating his own Black-owned water company ― “Hydrate Hill” alkaline water.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with McQueen recently at the Reggae Hut, a Black-owned café that is known for serving a mix of delicious Caribbean dishes. Being a personal friend of McQueen’s, I couldn’t wait to get the details about the launch of Hydrate Hill water and his highly anticipated new mixtape project, “The Water Boy Mixtape” (pun intended).
In sitting across from McQueen, I couldn’t help but to point out the irony in us selecting a Black-owned Jamaican restaurant as our meeting point, as the St. Louis-native looked across from me with his long voluminous dreadlocks hanging down to the chair. McQueen is engulfed in Jamaican culture, often slips into Patois and makes the best jerk tacos that one will ever taste.
We began the conversation by first discussing his musical project.
Chelsea Lenora White: Let’s talk about “The Water Boy Mixtape.” What made you want to bring back the mixtape culture?
AJ McQueen: Honestly, the nostalgia of it. If people go back into my musical catalog, they’ll see that I’ve put out multiple mixtapes before. And I’m a person of depth. I want my music to be deep and to reach your soul, but I can’t be ignorant to the fact that before I get to your soul, I have to get past your mind. And because rap is so saturated these days, you have to be a breath of fresh air, or a glass of fresh water.
I honestly believe I’m Top 5 of all time when it comes down to lyricism but that doesn’t mean anything just to know that myself. It doesn’t mean anything if I don’t make it accessible, to get people to draw their own conclusions and make their own opinions of it. So I decided I wanted to do something different. And I have a core group of people who believe in me and I involved them. As a millennial and as a person, it’s very important to have those people around, who want to see you win. So I bounced the idea around to my core group of friends and they encouraged me to do the mixtape. And they stepped up and each volunteered to help out in some way. It was beautiful. So shout out to my core group of friends; they know who they are, who assure me that I got this.
I locked myself in for months and made this mixtape. Every single day and night, I was rapping. The songs that people will hear, I’ve re-done about five or six times and I freestyled them. I didn’t write them. There are probably only two songs on the mixtape that I wrote down because I’m telling a story. But other than that, 95% of the project is me punching in and rapping.
CLW: When can we expect the “Water Boy” mixtape?
AM: The “Water Boy” project isn’t coming out until April. But the Hydrate Hill water is available now.
CLW: That’s exciting. So, it’s official like a whistle.
AM: Absolutely. Launching Hydrate Hill during Black History Month was so important to me because I feel like the best way to celebrate Black History, is to make Black History. February 28 is also my dad’s birthday; so this is about him and this is about making Black History. I have a commercial that I shot. It’s an actual commercial with red cameras. I put like $7k into this start-up.
CLW: It’s interesting that you said that because I wanted to talk to you about sacrifices that you’ve had to make, as it relates to entrepreneurship. It’s a lot that people don’t see. What kind of things in your daily life did you have to change to do something like this?
AM: A lot of it was a lifestyle change. But it was also learning and re-learning things that I personally needed. For example, I like clothes. I’m from the hood. In our minds, because we come from nothing, it’s like, as soon as we get something we want to show it. So, I come from that. Although I’ve never been a flashy person, I like nice things. When I look back, in retrospect, I used to want to do this music thing and want to be an entrepreneur, but I would complain about not having enough; and other people passing me up. Or seeing other people thriving in different ways. So, I had to look at what I was attached to.
I began to practice minimalism. I became a minimalist. I literally wear Adidas track pants every day or every other day. I switch them up and I did that because it was something cheap that I could identify with and say, “This is me.” I stopped spending money on clothes. I don’t buy clothes. I make my own clothes. I make things that reflect my brand. Before, I was attached to it. I used to feel like I needed the nice shoes. I used to wear suits every day, because I felt like I needed that for you to take me more seriously, or to listen more and respect the things that are coming out of my mouth. But I started studying and digging deeper and I realized that you are the energy you keep. So people will remember that. They can remember the clothes that you wear as an additive but that should not be the only thing that they remember.
So I knew that if I wanted to get into this business or any business moving forward, I would have to change what I value. I started eating more plant-based. I’m about 85% there. And that helped out a lot. So all of the money that I saved there, I’m putting back into my business. I used to drive an Infiniti, a white jawn. It was one of the cars that I wanted. I remember when I started this whole thing, after my Dad passed, I pulled up to the dealership, gave them the keys and told them that I didn’t want my car anymore. And they were like, “You can’t do that.” It worked out because after I told the guy at the dealership what I was doing, he didn’t put it on my credit. I told him, “I need to do this. I can’t afford it.” Then, I bought a cash car. So in my music, I rap about cash cars.
CLW: Do you find that the water business is much different than the music business?
AM: Yeah. Getting into it, I’m not going to lie, was intimidating at first. I didn’t know where to start but what happened was, I dropped a song called “Alkaline” and the streams from that song paid my rent for months. So I started getting these e-mails from different alkaline water companies and they wanted me to be a brand ambassador for their water. Two of them I took seriously and we went through different stages. But then honestly, it just didn’t make sense; for what they wanted me to do and what they would do for me in exchange. So I prayed about it and God told me to start my own.
The way that it aligned was so real. I met so many people that don’t come from my community who are in the business and I would ask, “How do I do this?” I’ve always been that type of person. I could pull up at the gas station and see a person driving a car that I really like, and I’ll ask them, “How are you? I like your car. How can I get that?”
People don’t know, I’ve been taking water classes. I didn’t just jump into this. I’ve been studying the reverse osmosis process. I’ve been studying pH and what it does to our bodies to know the brand and water that I wanted to supply. For eight months I did product research before I even got started. Being from St. Louis and my family line, I’ve seen drugs in my community, so I look at it like the drug game. I know the drug game. So, this person is my connect. I need supply, demand and I have a certain amount that I need to flip. It became less intimidating when I made it real to me.
I did my research on black-owned water companies and honestly, there aren’t that many. And the ones that exist are not connected to our people. The ones who are out here, we need to know you. We need to know where you are and how we can support. So Hydrate Hill will be OUR water.
CLW: A lot of your musical catalog is filled with songs about water and that was before the launch of Hydrate Hill. Why is that?
AM: I just knew that I didn’t want to rap about alcohol or poison. I really come from that. When I go back home to St. Louis, I have friends who are heroin addicts. I have family members who passed from alcoholism. So, I don’t want to rap about that. I knew that first. So, metaphorically, I would say things like, “My flow like water.” I would talk about water a lot and once I realized it, I started planting those seeds and realized, we’re not in this [alkaline water] business. When we see other brands like Ozarka or Essentia, we don’t know where they come from or how much money comes back into the communities where they sell them. I want this to be the difference.
CLW: Let’s talk about the name “Hydrate Hill” and this amazing packaging.
AM: I’m from St. Louis so we lived on a hill. We didn’t have swimming pools and all that growing up. We would have to go on the hill and open the fire hydrant with a monkey wrench to make little waterparks. So that’s where that name came from. That’s the only time where whatever set you claim or whatever you were selling, didn’t matter. We were kids and we were thirsty and wanted to have fun. The “A” in the logo is a nod to the Houston Oilers. Every detail in the label is intentional.
I’m one of those people that realizes, “Nobody cares; go harder.” My dad passed away, I was abused as a child, I don’t have this or that; nobody cares. Work harder. What impact are you making? What are you putting out into this world? I want this water to inspire people. When I first got the water from the factory, I prayed over it.
There’s a scripture, John 4:14 on the Hydrate Hill label; and in that scripture, it says: “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
CLW: I see you’re wearing a Hydrate Hill sweatshirt. Will the merch be available to the public as well?
AM: Yes, it’s a lifestyle. Drinking water is not one-dimensional. You don’t only need water when you go to the gym. You’re made of water. You’re supposed to constantly be re-fueling yourself throughout the day. I wanted to show that water is multi-dimensional; at the office, at the studio, etc. And I want Hydrate Hill to be the water that you’re drinking.
CLW: How can people get Hydrate Hill water?
AM: You can order Hydrate Hill water on our website at www.hydratehillwater.com. Here, locally in Houston, I’ll have about six places that I’ll announce after the roll-out where you go to these physical locations and get the water. We’ll also be doing pop-ups statewide and nationally. We’ll have brand ambassadors and we plan to sponsor various events. I also want to help aid the Flint [water crisis] issue.