Despite having a musician as a father, R.J. was a self-described jock growing up in Long Beach. He graduated from the University of California in San Diego with a degree in political science and was planning to take the LSATs when he happened to read Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
"Her whole objectivism philosophy was that man has the inherent right to do what makes him happy, and not always have to be conventional," he says. "I remember reading this book during finals week, and I just had this epiphany that 'I want to do what's right for me. I need to stop doing what everybody has been telling me to do my whole life.'"
So instead of taking the LSATs, he became a concert promoter and started a company called Into the A.M., booking EDM artists like Steve Aoki all over the West Coast.
"From there, I decided that 'Hey, I kind of have an influence on the West Coast music scene,' so I wanted to manage DJs," R.J. adds. "I felt that I could kind of get them in front of these gigantic DJs and grow their brands for them. So I did that for a couple years, and I came to the realization that, 'I think I can do better than the guys I'm managing, and I could be making 100 percent of what I'm doing instead of wasting all my marketing ideas on the guys I'm managing and making only a small cut. I have music in my blood, so let's do it."
And so in 2013, Bear Grillz was born. From the outset, the character always wore a bear mask to protect R.J's identity.
"My anonymity was a big deal, because I didn't want a lot of my friends in the music industry to know what I was doing," he says. "At that point, I was pretty deeply rooted in the music industry, so I knew everybody from the agents to the managers to all the other promoters, and I didn't want them to think, 'Oh this guy is doing this because he can take advantage of all these connections.'"
Not even his friends and family knew the real identity of Bear Grillz, and since he frequently toured with the DJs he managed, no one questioned his long absences while he was on the road, playing under the persona.
That all changed in 2016, when a producer from the Jerry Springer Show called and said they were interested in having him perform on the show, but with one catch: He had to reveal himself. After much debate, he agreed, and he removed his mask on air.
Now, after putting out several EPs, Bear Grillz is getting ready to release his debut album, Demons, on May 17. The twelve tracks are rooted in dubstep, but venture into future-bass, hip-hop, trap, house and reggae.
"I really tried to make this album a little more genre-friendly, so it's still bass-y and dubstep-y in a lot of parts, but I really wanted to make an album that, if you weren't a hardcore dubstep fan, you would enjoy listening to the album, but if you are a hardcore dubstep fan, it wouldn't necessarily alienate you from the album," he says.
Bear Grillz has been very open about his battles with depression and anxiety caused by constant touring, and the title references those inner struggles. When initially visualizing the album in early 2018, "I felt that with all these people committing suicide publicly, like Anthony Bourdain, that it was time for us as a society to really start talking about mental health and putting it out there to make people aware. So I wanted to sort of use my experience with these inner demons, which is why I came up with the title Demons, to show people that we're all facing this no matter who you are as a person. Everybody has problems, and unless we talk about these problems openly and actively, I don't feel that we're going to be able to help each other."
In an effort to help his fans open up about their own mental health issues, Bear Grillz posted his personal email on his Twitter, inviting anyone to write him if they were feeling depressed or alone. So far, he has received thousands of emails, and has responded to each one.
The title track on Demons was co-written by the song's vocalist, RUNN. Of the process, Bear Grillz says, "We just had a conversation. Honestly, we were just texting back and forth and talking about our experiences with touring and being in the spotlight and having anxiety and depression and whatnot. We literally wrote the lyrics to the song from our conversation."
That kind of personal connection was key to bringing together all the featured artists on Demons. Because this album was somewhat of a deviation from Bear Grillz's previously released music, some featured artists were initially skeptical that he could pull off this more experimental work.
"So when I set out to do this album, I really wanted to speak to my musical influences a bit more. I'm a very emotional person, and dubstep is obviously very aggressive and very energetic, and so I wanted to speak more to my emotional side. It was very hard to convince vocalists at the time. I said, 'I want to make more emotional and melodic music,' and they're looking at my discography saying, 'This guy makes the heaviest dubstep.' So it was very hard to convince people at first. As with anything, it was sort of like knocking down one domino at a time."
Once one vocalist hopped on board, others followed. Luckily, R.J. went to high school with one of the members of the reggae band the Dirty Heads, so they were happy to lend a hand with the reggae-influenced tracks on the album. Working with different vocalists opened up Bear Grillz to new musical avenues, and he says he's eager to release more vocally influenced music after Demons.
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For a Denver-based artist, playing Red Rocks is a huge milestone. Reminiscing on how far he has come, Bear Grillz says, "I've lived in Denver for about three and a half years, and I've done the Ogden Theatre several times, I've done Beta, and my very first show was at Cervantes', so it's a cool evolution. Most people don't see that; most people think that successful people are overnight sensations, and they don't see the years of the grind. And now, Red Rocks is just the pinnacle of Colorado, venue-wise."
Global Dub Festival, 4 p.m. Saturday, May 18, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Golden.