By Zack Einhorn
J. Cole is officially crossing over into the deep end of the pool. The young rapper is having an industry release party tonight in New York City. Click here for details.
"Get your buzz up" has become the prevailing mantra for the unsigned hip hop community in the past five to 10 years. The quality of an artist's music has played second string to their ability to acquire a following independently. This new breed of artists with "movements" has converted record labels from havens for the development of new talent into investment firms searching for the next small business to acquire and fund.
Enter the "buzzless" J. Cole, the first Hip-Hop artist in recent years to be signed based primarily on his music. Seemingly coming 'out of nowhere,' the Fayetteville, North Carolina native and current Jamaica, New York resident has found himself in one of the most lucrative label situations in the hip hop world. He is Jay-Z's first and only signing to his forward-thinking attempt at resurrecting a decrepit hip hop industry, known as Roc Nation. On the verge of releasing his first major mixtape, The Warm Up, J. Cole, who's name has begun to light up the blogs over the course of the past month, sat down with AllHipHop to discuss his unique situation and what the hip hop world can expect from a soulful lyricist/producer who puts the music over the movement.
AllHipHop.com: So now you are the first artist signed to Roc Nation; very prestigious. How did you end up meeting Jay-Z and getting the deal?
J. Cole: Well, as the story goes, somebody ended up playing the song I had [called] "Lights Please" for Jay. And from what I'm told, he heard it, and as soon as he heard it he was just like 'yo, who is this kid, like what the $+%*, I wanna set up the meeting.' When it was told to me I didn't believe it, like I always say and a few weeks later I got the call out of nowhere. Just as I was starting to lose faith that is was real, I got the call that he wanted to meet. So I just flew out to the city, met with him for like three of four hours and the rest is history. Couple months later we're doing a deal.
AllHipHop.com: Did you ask Jay any of those fan "if I ever meet Jay I'm definitely going to ask him..." questions?
J. Cole: Aww man, I still haven't, I ask him questions but I haven't asked him some of those questions like "Yo one day I'm gonna ask him…" I don't feel that comfortable yet. But I did tell him this funny story about how I stood outside the studio all night just waiting for him to come and I had beat CD for American Gangster, I was trying to get (a beat) on American Gangster and I tried to give it to him and he just played the %%$@ out of me. He was just like 'yo, I don't want that %%$@.' I told him the story, it's a hilarious story.
AllHipHop.com: So Roc Nation is not your run of the mill record label. How does your deal differ from an artist that signs with an Atlantic or a Def Jam?
J. Cole: I don't know how their deals work over there now, so it might be similar but my deal is almost like all levels, obviously. Its not just record sales anymore it's touring, it's merchandising, actually I don't think they get merchandising, but it's a lot more well rounded. But this works to my advantage because I'm not just left out there to dry if my album doesn't do well. Which I'm not expecting, but lets just say it did, I wouldn't be left out to dry, they would still be booking me shows cause they have an interest in that, they're taking a piece.
AllHipHop.com: Ok so you have this mixtape The Warm Up about to be released. What can people look forward to on that? What's the sound like?
J. Cole: I guess just an overview of my sound meaning you can expect a lot of storytelling, witty lyricism, introspective lyrics, you know, I get deep. I got some fun %%$@ on there. But one thing you can expect is, what's the word, like a concise sound. Its me doing most of the production so its not one of those mixtapes where it's like every song is different. It's not like that. There's a sound, it almost feels like and album, it flows. So you can expect that. (There is) a lot of production from me. (There are) only two other producers on it, two songs. (not produced by me)
AllHipHop.com: So you are from Fayetteville NC which is a big Army recruitment town. What was it like for you growing up?
J. Cole: Well, the whole reason I was there is because I was an army brat. My mother and my father were in the army when I was young, so that's how we ended up there. Its diverse, there's a whole bunch of different types of people. You got, White, Black, Asian, Latino. So you meet a lot of different types of people, (I have had) a lot of different types of experiences. I done seen it all from the worst side of town to new kids from the best side of town.
AllHipHop.com: I can imagine it must have been a big change moving to NYC. What kind of adjustments did you have to make?
J. Cole: First of all, I had to get my sense of direction around here, it's such a big city. [I had to] figure out how things work as far as trains and %%$@. I had to adjust to attitudes. It's faster paced so people have much shorter tempers and just different interactions with people. So I had to get used to all of that, get adjusted to being in school and not being around any family and having that to fall back on.
AllHipHop.com: Now you graduated from St Johns in 2007 and from what I understand you were an excellent student. Since you were obviously not relying on your talents as a rapper to be your meal ticket, what was your major? What were you planning to do if the rap thing didn't work out?
J. Cole: I started out a Computer Science major as a freshman but I switched quick as hell cause it was boring, to me. Then I switched to Communications a couple years later. It seemed like a generic major but I couldn't picture myself doing anything else. But the honest truth is I never ever even visualized any other career, I never even decided on the type of job I would look for. I knew, at least I hoped, I just knew it would be rap.
AllHipHop.com: Shifting gears, your first mixtape The Come Up hosted by DJ On Point came out in 2007. How did you connect with On Point and how did this tape help you get the attention of your new manager Mark Pitts?
J. Cole: I got On Point for the mixtape through my man Aristotle. We were working together for a while, back in 07. So he set up the On Point thing. As far as the mixtape goes, it didn't get me to Mark Pitts. (laughs) I don't even know if Mark Pitts honestly has heard The Come Up, it was so under the radar like that. I got to Mark Pitts through other avenues. Actually someone that works for him happened to hear my %%$@ and got it to him. So The Come Up was really under the radar, people are just now going back to listen to it.
AllHipHop.com: You recently went on a small tour with Wale. Was that your first time on tour? What was that experience like?
J. Cole: Yeah, that was my first time on tour. I really didn't even go to every city with him, I was doing east coast cities. It was fun man, it was literally just me and my team hoping in the whip and driving down the east coast to the shows. It was fun. It gets no more fun than that at these beginning stages. We're paying for %%$@ (like) food out our pockets, hotels and %%$@. It's just really the grind. It was the best man because people don't know you when you get on stage and they don't know whether they want to cheer for you or be like 'get the $+%* off the stage.' By the end of the show hopefully I grabbed their attention enough for them to be like 'yo that dude was sick, what was his name again?'
AllHipHop.com: These days it seems like artists need to saturate the market independently before they are able to get a deal which can be a problem because when they do get their deal and its time to release a project, their is no anticipation because they have released so much material. You on the other hand got you deal before the buzz really even began which is reminiscent of a 90s marketing format. Do you feel like that gives you an advantage?
J. Cole: I hope so. I hope that gives me an advantage. I think so and I hope so but that was all planned. Three years ago when I was really like 'I'm getting a deal, $+%* it.' Everybody was saying that you have to go out and get your buzz first before you get a deal. You have to put out mixtape after mixtape, you have to do this, you have to get radio, you have to get your myspace friends up. I think right now I probably got 2,000 myspace friends. There are independent artists with way more friends than me. I have no buzz, or had no buzz up until right now. So I never believed in that theory. I was always the one that was like 'I don't HAVE to do that I don't have to #*$%+@ follow that way of thinking' And I didn't I got a deal based off my music with zero buzz. And it does help me out because I'm sneaking up on the game rather than already having my name out there. Now people are more curious like 'who the $+%* is this that just got signed.' It's just like what you said, the way it used to be.
AllHipHop.com: Hopefully they'll start doing that again.
J. Cole: Yeah, I hope so.
AllHiphop.com: Another artist whose buzz is defining right now is Drake. I have heard people compare you to Drake several times in the past few weeks. I don't really hear the similarities, have you been getting a lot of that?
J. Cole: I've been getting enough of it to hear about it but I wouldn't say I've been getting a lot of it. But I've definitely heard it.
AllHipHop.com: When I listen to your music, I hear subtle elements of 2pac, Nas and Kanye West. Who are your biggest influences?
J. Cole: Damn, everybody you just named definitely. 2pac is just my favorite rapper, period. Kanye, he's one of my favorite rap ARTISTS, period. Not even just rapper/producer, just one of my favorite rap artists ever. Nas, I'm a huge fan, huge studier. Eminem as well was big for me. Even Royce Da 5'9" in that same 98/99/2000 period, Royce was huge for me, Canibus…and Jay of course, a sprinkle of Jay. These are artists that all had huge influence on me. Kanye definitely though with the beats, and Dilla and Preemo (laughs) as I fade out with all of the greats.
AllHipHop.com: I have heard a great deal of your music but the record I have seen generating a buzz online is "Grown Simba" what's the reaction you have been getting from that song?
J. Cole: It's been great. From what I've seen from it, it's a good response. People are really feeling the beat. I'm proud of that. And I just see people saying 'oh he goes hard.' But I look at it like, those songs that I put out, other than "Dead Presidents 2," I feel like the other songs that I put out, they're dope, I like them and I stand for them but they don't even really truly reflect me. You're gonna see the ENTIRE me on the mixtape. That's why I'm really adamant about people listening to the whole mixtape and not judging based on "Grown Simba" or "Dead Presidents 2," hearing everything. But "Grown Simba" yeah, I love that song.
AllHipHop.com: Have you begun working on the album? What producers have you been getting in with? Any secret Jay-Z colabs we should (or shouldn't) know about?
J. Cole: (laughs) As far as my album, yeah I've been working for the past two years on my album, so I been working on that but once this "Warm Up" %%$@ kinda cools off, little play on words, (laughs) I'll be able to really get in. Two weeks from now I'll be able to really sit down, analyze what I've got, what needs to go, what needs to come in. As far as secret Jay-Z collaborations man, I mean all I can say is, (laughs) if there were to be any secret Jay-Z collaborations, I wouldn't be able to speak on them. BUT, you know, I would ASSUME that by this point I might have been in the studio with him. If I was an outsider looking in I might assume that, but I'm not saying anything in particular you know... (laughs)
AllHipHop.com: What can the people look forward to from J. Cole in the coming year?
J. Cole: This bangin !@@ mixtape that I need you to dive in (to) and explore, in an out, which is called The Warm Up. I'm on Wale's mixtape as well, "Back to the Feature." I'm on Wale's album which comes out I think end of the summer. I might, I got some top-secret %%$@ lined up, top-secret features lined up. And then look for a big college tour from me. Not big in terms of size but big for me in terms of my idea for it. So look out for that next semester, what's that fall 09 for all you college kids. And you know, just look for me around, I'm working hard. I haven't gotten a deal and gotten comfortable, I feel like I haven't made it yet. So I still got a lot of work to do.