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How J. Cruz Made ‘Llama Llama’ the Coolest Thing in Rap

J. Cruz has been the host of KPWR’s Power 106, one of the biggest hip-hop radio shows in Los Angeles, for less than a year, and he’s already taken the show in an unexpected direction. Not only is Cruz an unexpectedly sly interviewer–he’s a master at cutting through industry beef–he’s low key become the biggest producer in kid rap. And a lot of credit goes to Llama Llama Red Pajama. Cruz has made it a habit to have the biggest names in hip-hop perform their version of the children’s book about sleepy camelid on his show. Why? Because Cruz just became a dad. Also, because it’s fun as hell.

Witness the Ludacris rendition, which has been viewed over two million times on YouTube. It’s insanely catchy and insanely accomplished. The funny dude from the Fast and Furious movies seizes the opportunity presented by, of all things, a picture book to remind people why he got famous in the first place. In a sense, it showcases the non-lyrical part of rap. Sure, Luda once rhymed “Lamborghini” with “put it all on TV,” but he’s got an amazing sense of rhythm and a surprisingly disciplined delivery. Well, surprising if you’re not J. Cruz, who saw the whole thing coming.

Fatherly spoke with Cruz about how fatherhood inspired him to make rap more accessible for kids, what albums he already has his three-month-old son listening to, and why parenting is changing rap (and rappers) for the better.

The rap remixes of Llama Llama Red Pajama has been a huge sensation, what made you come up with the idea?
We were brainstorming ideas for the show. And I have a son who is about three months old now, but he was on his way at this point. And I wanted to let the audience know what I was going through at home.

So we were trying to figure out what we could do to set our show apart. And I was at a bookstore and I saw Llama Llama Red Pajama. And I brought it into the studio and we started having fun with it. Then as artists were coming into the studio we started asking them if they’d read it on the air. I told them I was going to be a dad, and I would play these for my kid. And they were all cool with it, and everyone seems to be having fun with it. And we have fun with it. I’m just so glad I found it.

Were any other books considered?
No. It was Llama Llama Red Pajama from the start. It was the first book that I saw, and I knew. Luckily, it’s worked out. There are other Llama Llama books that we are looking into for the future, but for now, we are completely loyal to Red Pajama.

Were you surprised with how much people responded to it?
Not surprised, more proud than anything. You aren’t sure what is going to catch on, and seeing it catch on was so cool. It made sense right away. It’s fun. It’s friendly. It encourages reading with a hip-hop twist. I mean, I’m playing it for my son.

The Ludacris read, in particular, seemed to have caught on with people. Do you have a favorite?
I’m gonna have to agree with the public in this case. Ludacris is my favorite. He took it to a whole new level. Kid Inc had a close number two. He had a real good time with it as well. Migos also did a good job. But Luda just killed it.

Part of the fun is watching these famous rappers commit to making a reading of a kid’s book their own. Is there anything you do to make them comfortable or are most willing to do it right away?
We’ve had some artists recently walk in and they see the book and they get excited. They’re starting to recognize the book and are wanting to do it. Which is awesome. But we don’t really do prep time. We just ask them if they’ll do it, and if they want to they’ll read it on the air and just have fun. We do prep for which beat we want them to read it over.

Chances are a lot of these artists have kids of their own, and they’re excited to do something a little silly and unexpected. And we encourage the artists to make it their own. We had Ice Cube on and he did an a capella version which was great. Almost spoken word. You don’t have to stay on script.

Who are your dream guests for doing a reading?
I have a short list. Nicki Minaj would be great. Her doing different voices would be so funny. Think about Kanye West reading Llama Llama Red Pajama. Try to imagine what that could look like. YG is a local guy from Compton who I would love to have to do it. And Lil’ Yachty. We gotta get him on at some point.

Similar to what happened with rock and roll, rap is now reaching a point where icons of the genre are starting families and becoming parents. Do you see that influencing rap at all?
I think it does change them. They have a persona to keep up because that’s the business. But it shows a more human, natural side to them. It makes a lot of these artists more creative and allows them to be more playful. I do think it helps them. Becoming a parent changes you for the better, no matter who you are.

Will we ever see a major rap album composed exclusively of lullabies and bedtime stories?
That would be fun, I would love to help produce that. My Llama Llama credentials make me the right guy for the job. That’s gotta happen.

How do you like being a dad?
I love being a dad. Every day is a new day. My son looks different every day. He’s so funny and it’s the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I mean that. I enjoy it so much. There’s always love around me and I can’t wait to get home and spend time with him. I love making him laugh. He’s just getting to that point where he’s starting to giggle. And getting him to laugh is a blast.

Do you have a plan for introducing the world of rap to your kid?
Oh, yeah. I already play Life of Pablo, Kanye West’s latest album, for my son. Because it’s an album that I hold very close to me. It’s one of my favorite hip hop albums of all time. I found the clean version and I play it for my son. You can’t start too soon.

What is your advice for all the dads out there?
Have fun with it. Sing along. Be a fan, not a coach.

This interview has been edited and condensed.