J. Cole: Ready to Roc the Nation
The first signing to megastar rapper Jay Z-‘s Roc Nation label, 26-year-old North Carolina-raised MC J. Cole is already being widely hailed as the flag-bearer of a new movement in rap - one that both the critics and the fans feel is turning its back on the champagne-popping/auto-tuned bling of recent times and making a long-awaited return to what the connoisseurs term “the real hip hop”.
Much of which is arguably apparent in J.’s current UK single ‘Who Dat’. Which - with its blend of warm, chanting horns, addictively pounding beat and Cole’s trademark lyrical swagger - has prestigiously been compared favourably with the early work of classic rap acts like Gang Starr and Nas, while simultaneously acting as an effective appetiser for the bi-racial MC’s upcoming, as-yet-untitled debut LP - 90% of which will be self-produced.
Relaxing on a typically-grey British Saturday afternoon, it’s a highly personable, handsome and instantly receptive Mr. Cole who greets ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis in his plush suite at West London’s K-West hotel - with first topic on the agenda being predictably his highly-anticipated forthcoming album: “Musically anyone that’s listened to the mixtapes I’ve already had out will see that it’s basically an evolution of the sound they already know me for”, he begins confidently: “In that this time it’s more polished, while the production is a bit grander in terms of the instruments that come in. Because, while in my early stages I’d be doing a lot of four-bar loop shit, now it’s a lot bigger in terms of stuff like the hooks, the breakdowns, and the backing vocals. While lyrically and story-wise it’s a lot more PERSONAL.”
“I mean, there’s concepts and songs on the album that have stood the test of time because I’ve been SAVING them for a while”, he adds enthusiastically: “I consciously didn’t throw them on the mixtapes because I thought they were too special. So I just think the material overall is more authentic, plus there’s things on there for EVERYBODY! You know, you could be 35 years old with kids and STILL find a lot on there that you really connect with! It’s like you don’t HAVE to be young, cool and hip to listen to it! I genuinely do feel there really are universal concepts on this album that people from ALL walks of life can relate to!”
Born Jermaine Lamarr Cole to a black father and a white mother in Frankfurt, Germany in January 1985, Cole nevertheless spent most of his upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he attended the local Terry Sanford High School before graduating in 2003: “Yeah, the earliest memories I have are of being in military housing, where I lived probably until I was maybe two or three years old”, he recalls “Then from there we moved with my mom to like a trailer-park in Fayetteville, North Carolina until I got to kindergarten or maybe First Grade. Then, when my mother got together with her boyfriend who would later become my stepfather, we ended up moving to a two-bedroom house where me and my brother shared a room.”
“And musically the influences at the time were INCREDIBLE!”, he remembers with a smile: “Because, with my mother having grown up in Michigan on folk and rock music, every day I’d be listening to anything from Eric Clapton to Guns N’ Roses to Peter, Paul & Mary! But then, at the same time, there was also this OTHER side! In that my stepfather, being black, would be coming home with 2Pac albums, Ice Cube albums, Dr. Dre albums... And so the whole time there was this weird mixture of MUSIC going on! If I was riding with my mom she’d be listening to the Classic Rock stations, while if I was riding with my dad he’d be listening to the ‘Above The Rim’ soundtrack!”
Having first started developing his lyrical skills at the tender age of 12, an ever-forthcoming J. today happily takes up the story of what first got him into rhyming: “Yeah, when I was around 12 years old my cousin came up from Louisiana and spent the summer with us. He was around my brother’s age, but he became somebody I really looked UP to. Because he was cool, he had girls, he could play basketball - plus he used to RAP a little! And, though he’d basically just be freestyling in a jokey/playing-around kinda way, I was like ‘Man teach me how to DO that!’!... So he DID! And it wasn’t hard to copy him, because all you had to do was basically rhyme some words and just have the confidence to be SILLY with it!... But then, what he thought of as a joke and what he was basically just doing for leisure, I instantly fell in LOVE with! So, after he left for the summer, I started to take it WAY more serious, and began studying rappers like Eminem, Nas, Jay-Z, 2Pac... You know, the ones I liked and was inspired by were always the ones that were really difficult to EMULATE!”
Nevertheless, by the time he’d reached 15 a teenage Jermaine - by now taking from his favourite artists a love for powerful storytelling with an intense inner-strength - was already writing his own lyrics and amassing stacks of notebooks filled with rhymes and observations. Meanwhile, following his mother then buying him a beat machine, the next step was to begin producing the actual MUSIC himself. To where, by the age of 17, he was diligently posting songs on various internet forums under the moniker ‘Therapist’. Since which time - determined to follow in the footsteps of the rapping greats - he has released three critically-acclaimed and well-received mixtapes (2007’s The Come Up’; 2009’s ‘The Warm Up’; 2010’s ‘Friday Night Lights’) in addition to guesting on ‘All I Want Is You’, the recent US R&B Top 10 debut single from up-and-coming R&B male vocalist Miguel... Though arguably his highest-profile recording moment to date has been the much-coveted guest verse he contributed to the track ‘A Star Is Born’ on Jay-Z’s US-chart-topping/internationally-successful 2009 album ‘The Blueprint 3’.
… Which in turn brings us neatly to discussing how the still-humble Mr. Cole (who’s interestingly also a graduate of St John’s University, New York) came to become the first artist signed to the aforementioned Jay-Z’s Sony-affiliated Roc Nation label: “I actually came to sign to Jay through my now-manager Mike Pitts”, he replies instantly: “You know, Mike used to manage Biggie Smalls, plus he signed Chris Brown, Ciara… So he’s a real heavyweight in the industry, and so he was the one who actually played this song I had - called ‘Lights Please’ - for Jay-Z, who then straightaway said he’d be interested in meeting me… And we went on to actually sign our deal from there.”
“And, in terms of our ongoing relationship, I’d basically describe Jay as my MENTOR - in that I do get a lot of ADVICE from him”, adds an ever-open Mr. Cole, as our 20-minute chat draws to its inevitable close: “Plus, with Roc Nation being his label, at the end of the day he’s the one who has to be satisfied with - and give his OK to - everything! So in that way he’s kind of like my boss - and, as in all cases, your boss has to be pleased with your WORK!... So yeah, right now I’m definitely looking to create a record that’ll be both a critical AND a commercial success, in addition to taking my production skills to the next level. Which is why I’m currently dedicating 100% of my energies into making a classic album that’ll stand the test of time!”
The single ‘Who Dat’ is out now through Roc Nation/RCA Label Group
Words PETE LEWIS