Last April, J.R. Brown stepped onto the wooden stage at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and looked out at the small-ish audience that had gathered in the auditorium. With the house lights on, he could see everyone’s faces. All of their eyes—and ears—were on him. He was nervous. He closed his eyes.
The 17-year-old had rapped plenty of times between classes in the breezeway at Albemarle High School, where his fellow students could hear him, but this was different. This was a performance, meant to impress not only a bunch of strangers but a handful of leaders of Charlottesville’s hip-hop scene who were judging the competition.
“Once I spit two bars, I just flowed out and opened my eyes,” says Brown, who goes by the moniker Zeus4K. He got comfortable quickly, spitting rhymes about the ample life he’s lived so far—about family, taking wrong turns, his frustration with how some people are “poppin’ Trayvons” while others are “poppin’ bottles,” about his hopes for his future.
“Life ain’t easy, it’s just crazy as it seems / Living life of hard knocks, of broken hearts and broken dreams. / …Going through a struggle really ain’t a bad thing / Because it made me rhyme harder, gotta get my diamond ring,” he spit a cappella, no beats to fall back on, just his flow.
Rugged Arts Hip-Hop Showcase
Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
Brown was born in the Charlottesville area and moved to Hampton, Virginia, with his mom, his stepdad and three siblings when he was about 8. As a kid, he was diagnosed with a heart condition and couldn’t play sports, which meant no more basketball with his boys at the neighborhood park until the streetlights came on. His mom and stepdad worked three jobs between them, but money was still tight—sometimes the water or lights were turned off. He was bullied by his peers for lacking the latest fly gear. “I’m not saying I had it the worst, but I didn’t have it the best, either,” he says. That “broken heart” he rapped about on the Jefferson School stage is real, in more ways than one.
Inspired by Nas’ “I Can,” he started writing his own music when he was about 12 or 13. “Any time I was messed up in the head, I would put on some tunes,” he says. Nas, Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan, Jeezy. Freestyling over classic beats (especially the Wu-Tang/RZA “Ice Cream” beat) was his release. He noticed that any time he focused on music, he stayed out of trouble, but too often, he says, he lost sight of the music.
Eventually, Brown was suspended from school for fighting. His family knew him as a shy kid who was a good student and they lectured him: “This isn’t you. This isn’t you.” He promised to change, and when he didn’t change, his mom brought him to live with his dad in Albemarle County last year.
“I’m always going to progressively grow up, but right then and there, I [realized] I had to get my shit together,” Brown says. He kept thinking about music, about how his friends would say things like, “I’d kill to have your talent,” and “You’re nice with your music. Why don’t you just stick with the music?” So when he got to Albemarle, that’s what he did. He started rapping in the breezeway and signed up for—and won—the Nine Pillars high school rap competition.
That night, “everyone really listened to me,” he says. “Even though it wasn’t a humongous crowd, it’s just something I love doing. …Music is everything to me. It was a real game-changer.”
One person listening closely that night was Doughman, a local producer and engineer who served as a judge for the competition. Struck by the young MC’s a cappella performance (a rarity in the hip-hop world), by the resonance and rhythm of his voice and the content of his lyrics, Doughman knew immediately that Brown was his top pick.
Along with bragging rights, Brown won a small trophy, a set of Beats By Dre headphones and two hours of studio time with Doughman. He laid down two tracks during those two hours, and is now working on two EPs with the producer. He’s appeared on Remy St. Clair’s “The Throne Room” show on 101Jamz and in August performed at the Rugged Arts Hip-hop Showcase at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. He’ll perform at the September edition of Rugged Arts this Friday.
“Life is rough, and you can choose to make it better, or not,” Brown says, noting that since he started focusing on music, his grades have improved and he’s stopped fighting. “Music is such a blessing for everybody,” he says. “Music gives people opportunities to say whatever they want,” and right now, Brown is happy to have that opportunity.
What’s in a name?
Last spring, J.R. Brown signed up for the Nine Pillars Hip-Hop Cultural Fest’s high school hip-hop showcase, and when he did, he needed a stage name (J.R. wasn’t going to cut it). So he thought about how music makes him feel: like a god. In Greek mythology, Zeus is the god of the sky and ruler of the gods—the gods’ god, if you will—so that was a no-brainer for Brown. At the time, he had 4,000 followers on Instagram, so he added “4K” to get Zeus4K. Plus, he says, the number four pays homage to Charlottesville’s 434 area code.