J. Cole [Interview]
Toronto, ON – Have you heard of a rapper named J. Cole? Yeah, the lightskin, college-goin, Fayettenam vet. Yeah, the Roc Nation signee, producer, rapper. Yeah, him.
Well he’s in Toronto tonight after releasing his third mixtape Friday Night Lights. I caught up with him on the road and had a few minutes to see what I could find out about arguably one of the best next artists out there. What we do know is, he’s in the middle of a very strong buzz – signed to Roc Nation, receiving a massive response to new his mixtape and featured on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Friday track “Lookin For Trouble.” Plus, the almighty Jay-Z co-sign (not that he’d admit he needs it to succeed, it just definitely fits nice in his back pocket). But despite all that, he’s not “BIG” BIG. Not like “DRAKE” BIG right?
Maybe the question is about to be answered. He’s quickly creeping into the popular scope, building off two Top 100 Billboard charting songs (“All I Want Is You,” “Who Dat”) and has been touring the U.S. and Canada for the past three months. It’s like he’s not in the zone where ‘TV people’ like him. He’s just really good at rapping and grabbing a ton of youthful attention. So much so in fact, that the release of Friday Night Lights, caused JColeMusic.com to crash because its server exceeded its bandwidth limit. That means, they like him. I talked to J. Cole about that and a couple other cool ideas below. Enjoy.
HipHopCanada: It’s been a good week for you, releasing Friday Night Lights to an overwhelming response online. So as a kid, what’d you walk around saying, “One day I’m going to grow up and shut down the internet?”
J. Cole: [Laughing] Nah, I didn’t know that! I didn’t think about that part. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s definitely a blessing. I seen Mecca from 2dopeboyz at a show in New York on Saturday and he told me I crashed his site and nobody’s ever crashed his site before so that’s crazy.
HipHopCanada: One of the first things you say on the mixtape is the line, “What good’s it being the one if you the only one that knows it?” I think it turned out incredibly ironic that you start your tape with that line, the same tape that shut down the internet when it dropped due to such high demand.
J. Cole: You know what I still feel like the underdog that’s why I said that line. I didn’t know the response would be so big but that’s how I felt and that’s how I still feel. Like man I think that I’m talented and I have what the rap world is missing and what they’re asking for but only a select few know it. So I think it’s time for me to really transcend to that next level and show the world and my fans but not just the people that already know about me it’s time to really show the rest of the world what these kids already know.
HipHopCanada: But I heard you say you were working on the tape till the very end. How close to the end?
J. Cole: It came down to the wire. In terms of working on it, because I’m out on the road I really don’t have all the resources I need on the road so we just had to make it work.
HipHopCanada: Am I reading the production credits right? Only three songs you don’t have production credits on? Do you feel that gives you a leg up creatively when you make the beat and rap over it?
J. Cole: It do man. I always feel like nobody knows your sound better than you. I just feel like it always gives you an advantage. You’ll always be able to create. You’ll never have to worry about relying on a producer. You’re only relying on yourself.
HipHopCanada: You sample an Erykah Badu song for “Too Deep For The Intro.” I didn’t even realize it was a sample off the top, I thought you got at her for it. Is that a connection you’re looking to make in the future for a collaboration?
J. Cole: Oh of course. She is incredible singer and song writer, her voice. Incredible. I thought about hitting her up to be on it but timing-wise I couldn’t get to it.
HipHopCanada: So the story goes that you went to New York, you were playing ball and going to school and rapping, trying to get on. How did a post-secondary education affect your musical ability?
J. Cole: I don’t necessarily know if it influenced that but it definitely just gave me more experience, more things to rap about. I think experience was the biggest thing I got from college, definitely the experience. I think I would have been as good a rapper as I am now if I wouldn’t of went to college, but just the experience I had I think was priceless.
HipHopCanada: If you weren’t rapping, what job would you have pursued after college?
J. Cole: I’d probably try to make it into the NBA somehow. Even if I had to go overseas and play and kind of grind my way up that’s something I’d be trying to chase still. ‘Cause that was the first dream I had was playing basketball and I can’t really see myself with a 9-5 career in any life.
HipHopCanada: You said in an interview with ILuvLola.net that at 15, something clicked for you. You went from just making “I’m better than you” raps to telling stories and speaking about real issues in your life. What was going on in your life around 15 years old?
J. Cole: I was just learning. I had mentors who were making songs. They were older than me, they were the best rappers in Fayetteville and they made their own beats too – named Bomb Shelter. And I kind of learned from them. They were making real songs and telling stories, doing so much more than me. I was just doing, like you said, “I’m better than you” raps and I got bored with that and really wanted to start telling stories
HipHopCanada: So paint a picture for me. You’re in North Carolina. You’re playing ball and you decide…what? You’re going to go to New York and get at Jay-Z?
J. Cole: Not just Jay, but Jay was one of them. I was trying to get at anybody man really. I was just trying to get on in anyway necessary. Jay, a few times I really aimed at him because he’s just Jay-Z like who wasn’t aiming at him. All producers, I feel like at that time, all producers were making their beats for Jay-Z. That’s what I was doing; I was trying to make beats thinking if I can get Jay to rap on one of my beats, then I can get on as a rapper. I thought I could take the Kanye West approach, because it worked out for him. And it’s funny; it never worked out like that. I really thought that was going to be the way to get in with beats. But getting in with beats was even harder than getting in with raps at that time with the industry and the politics. It’s crazy.
HipHopCanada: What’s the album going to be called?
J. Cole: I haven’t put out the title yet only because I’m waiting for a release date. Once I get the release date Ill put out the title.
HipHopCanada: I heard on Semtex that you’ve changed the album title you planned on before.
J. Cole: I’ve changed it a few times actually.
HipHopCanada: Has the story changed?
J. Cole: It’s basically the same story but I’m in a different place. The title that I might have had a year ago won’t work where I’m at right now. I’m trying to keep the story the same in my mind, the story of the album. But now I’m in a different place so certain titles wouldn’t have been the same or have the same impact next year when the album comes out than if it had of come out in March of this year.
HipHopCanada: I agree, we’d all assume you’ll be on a whole other level of notoriety by March than you were these past few months.
J. Cole: If I’d of dropped months ago, the amount of attention it would’ve received immediately would be different than if I dropped it next month and would definitely be different than if I drop it in March. So the mixtape was the first chest move to catapult to that next level I think I need to be at and the attention the music needs to get.
HipHopCanada: You’re Twitter description reads “My story ain’t the only one I’m trying to tell.”I found that interesting because in hip-hop especially it’s often assumed your telling first person accounts. ‘Did this happen to you? Is your story real?’ etc. In pop and in other genres that’s not expected. It’s not expected that if Beyonce is singing about how her man isn’t irreplaceable, that she’s talking about Jay-Z. But in hip-hop we often do. So, I just wonder is that a barrier you’re trying to break through?
J. Cole: It is. It absolutely is. I feel like Tupac was really good at that. But everybody thought he was rapping from first person, which made him so great. But in actuality, he was just taking on – a lot of it was first person –but majority of times he was taking on the role of somebody. He would never tell you that person but he speak about how they were feeling and what they were going through. Whether they were running from the cops or whether they were in jail, whatever, he would do that. And that’s not why I’m saying I’m doing this or I want to do the same I just think to only tell your story can get boring. That’s why you have these rappers that have been in the game so long still saying the same things and telling the same stories. And sometimes it’s great and sometimes it gets repetitive and boring. Now if I can break that cycle and get out of that box and tell other peoples stories not just my own then the possibilities are kind of limitless.
Like when Curtis Mayfield had “Pushaman,” he wasn’t actually selling drugs. We know that. Like he wasn’t a ‘pushaman’ but he said it. Whatever he was saying, “I’m your pushaman,” he was taking the role of a drug dealer and making it into a super cool song which actually did have a message. But that’s the type of thing I eventually want to get to. I can’t be limited by I got to tell my own story. If I want to make a whole album from the perspective of a drug dealer why shouldn’t I be able to do that?
HipHopCanada: Would you rather have access, status or fame?
J. Cole: Definitely not fame, out of those. Status? Nah, I’d say access. I don’t know access to what but… Access to whatever it is you’re trying to get to. Yea absolutely I’d take the access over the status and fame because the access you can still be happy and be under the radar. The status and fame are a little more, I don’t know the word, superficial kind of.
Written by Jonathon “Bizz” Brown for HipHopCanada
J. Cole is performing live TONIGHT in Toronto – Friday, December 3rd at Sound Academy. Click the flyer for more info.