J. Cole Interview
|Next Project:||Untitled Debut (TBD)|
|Twitter:||J. Cole on Twitter|
|Website:||J. Cole's Website|
For most up-and-coming emcees, the prospect of stepping onstage in front of 10 thousand-plus fans to spit a verse alongside the great Jay-Z would sound like nothing more than a nice dream (or a nightmare, if you’re performing in your underwear). For J. Cole, however, this incredible scenario has become a reality. The Fayetteville, N.C.-bred, NYC-based emcee had just a single mixtape (‘07’s The Come Up) to his name at the time of his signing, but one listen to current single “Lights Please” was enough to convince Jay-Z to choose Cole as the flagship artist of his newly-launched Roc Nation label, even giving him a guest verse on Blueprint 3 track “A Star Is Born.” Now, J. is preparing to prove that the aforementioned record’s title is much more than simple coincidence – it’s destiny.
With “Grown Simba” and “Heartache,” both included on recently-released sophomore mixtape The Warm Up, J. Cole left Booth readers and staff fully convinced of his artist-to-watch status, and “Lights Please” only deepened that impression, earning an impressive four-star average rating. Fans can currently catch the rising star on a nationwide college tour with Hova and fellow buzzmaker Wale, running till late November. Once off the road, Cole will devote his full energy to recording his yet-untitled debut album, set to hit stores sometime in 2010.
In an exclusive interview with our own DZ “Z,” J. Cole steps into the Booth to discuss taking the stage alongside his legendary label boss for the first time, the pros and cons of being a beatsmith as well as an emcee and his unorthodox approach to phone bills and student loan payments.
Listen to the Interview
J. Cole Interview Transcription
DJ Booth: What’s goin’ on, everybody? It’s your boy, “Z,” doin’ it real big, and joining me inside the DJ Booth is a North Carolina native who warmed up earlier this year, and is on fire heading into 2010. Inked by Jay-Z as the flagship hip-hop artist on his Roc Nation label imprint, please welcome my friend J. Cole – how you doin’, my man?
J. Cole: What’s goin’ on, Z?
DJ Booth: Thank you for joinin’ me inside the DJ Booth.
J. Cole: Thanks for havin’ me, brother.
DJ Booth: Absolutely. You are a busy man – you are currently out on the road with my man Wale and, of course, your label boss Jay. Have you had a, “I cannot believe this is actually happening to me!” moment?
J. Cole: Yeah. The very first night, [when] we did Penn State. I open up for the opener, I open up with the janitor, that’s how early I go on. But then I come back later and do Jay’s set and come up for “A Star is Born.” Right before I hop up on the stage, I’m looking at the crowd, and at this point the crowd is like 12,000 people, which ain’t that much for Jay-Z’s level, but for me, I ain’t never did nothing like that. Like, every song, six songs before my [verse], I just keep rappin’ my verse, rappin’ rappin rappin’ my verse so I don’t forget. I’m like, “I wanna make sure I remember this verse!” I’m over-rapping it, so it could be, like, “Big Pimpin’,” is on, and I’m rappin’ my verse over that beat. But that’s just how nervous I am. So, he gets to “A Star Is Born,” he does his two verses, and the whole time my heart is beating fast as hell. I’ve never been that scared in my life. But the funny thing is, as soon as I set foot on the stage, literally as soon as I walked out, all that went away and I just felt good, like, “OK, yeah, all right – this is what I need to do.”
DJ Booth: I can imagine! Touring is nowhere near as glamorous as a lot of people are led to believe, so how, up to this point, have you had to adjust mentally, physically, emotionally, to battle all the rigors of being out on tour, away from home, for such an extended period of time?
J. Cole: I don’t even really know, man. I don’t think I prepared. I just kinda went with the flow. It didn’t hit me until I was on my way to the bus, like, “Yo, you’re about to be on the road.” I’m not the type to prepare much; I just kinda take things as they come and go with the flow and roll with the punches. So, in terms of how I’m adjusting, I’m adjusting good – it’s a lot of riding, a lot of driving, so I’m just sleeping on the bus till we get to our destination, checkin’ out the city that I’m in, and when it’s show day I try to just focus and go do the job. So it’s definitely not as glamorous as people think, but it’s also not as tough.
DJ Booth: So, somewhere in between…
J. Cole: Yep, somewhere right in between.
DJ Booth: J., some artists have told me that they enjoy recording material while on tour, but others have expressed how difficult it can be to get that focus that you need. Are you currently recording your debut, while on this tour, or have you put that process on hold till after you’re done?
J. Cole: When I’m out on the road, it’s on hold. But last week I flew to L.A., I missed a week of the tour, the Canada run so I could go to L.A. to record. I see what they mean, man; it’s hard to find any type of creative juice, creative spark when you’re on that bus. I think all you can really do is use the tour to kinda fill up with experiences and thoughts, and then, when you get back to the studio, or in some type of creative environment, that’s when you release everything that you’ve encountered on tour.
DJ Booth: How do you think your Canadian fans feel about you skippin’ out on their shows?
J. Cole: I know they’re probably mad as hell, but I’m on the next Canada run – I think I’m doin’ Toronto and a couple other dates on the next run.
DJ Booth: OK, you just got back into their good graces, they’re happy with you again. [laughs]
J. Cole: All right, cool. [laughs]
DJ Booth: Obviously, as we both can agree, Jay is a legend in the game, but very few of his protégés have ever lived up to the hype that preceded them. What prompted you to sign with the Roc and, to this point, do you feel any pressure to deliver results?
J. Cole: Yep, I took those things into account. ‘Cause Jay-Z’s shadow is so big, it would be hard for anybody to come out of that. But I’m the type of person where, A., I look at things as challenges, I like challenges and, B., I truly believe that you determine your own destiny. An opportunity is an opportunity, and one of that magnitude would be dumb to pass up, especially when I truly believe that I make my path and I set my course, and where I land, at the end of the day, or the end of my career, [is] because of me. Of course, you get help along the way, and cosigns and management and opportunities and things like that but overall, the ball is in your court basically. In terms of pressure, I used to say I didn’t feel any pressure ‘cause I really wasn’t thinkin’ about it, but now that I’m thinkin’ about it, it’s like a good pressure. I feel the type of pressure that a strong-minded first pick in a draft would feel. ‘Cause I feel like a first pick in a draft could either be like, “Damn, I’m the first pick! I don’t wanna mess up! I don’t wanna f*ck this up, they invested a lot of money in me!” or he could be like, “Yeah, I’m the first round pick, ‘cause I worked so hard to be the first round pick. Now I’m gonna show you why I’m the first pick.”
DJ Booth: All right. Well, hopefully you’re a lot more like Derrick Rose or LeBron James and not like Kwame Brown. [laughs]
J. Cole: Exactly. That’s my example right there – I wanna be Lebron and not Kwame! [laughs]
DJ Booth: Absolutely. In a freestyle you spit on The Warm-Up mixtape, you joke that your deal hasn’t enabled you to get medical or dental benefits. You know, my father is in the insurance business – do you need me to pass along your information?
J. Cole: [laughs] If you can get a hook-up for me, then yeah.
DJ Booth: [laughs] Nah, I got you. On “Grown Simba,” you spit the line, “Look at how she say my name/ I got her moaning ‘J. Cole.’/ They used to say Jermaine/ I never change.”
J. Cole: Yeah.
DJ Booth: This got me thinking. I mean, you signed a major-label record deal, you landed a guest spot on Jay’s new album, and you’re out on tour with arguably the top dog in the industry – how hard is it not to change?
J. Cole: I don’t know, man. I guess, keep a strong team of people that was around you from the beginning – I definitely make sure I do that. And also, you can’t take yourself too seriously. Like, yeah, I’m doin’ all that, but still I don’t feel like I’ve done anything, really. I feel blessed ‘cause I’m doin’ all these things, but I’m not satisfied. I still have that feeling like, “Who am I? Who am I to have an ego? Who am I to change up and act like some Hollywood character?” Technically, in the grand scheme of things, I haven’t done anything. Now, when I sell a few million records, then you can come back to me and see if I’ve changed! [laughs]
DJ Booth: [laughs] Well, your humble approach obviously will get you to the point you wanna be at, ‘cause very few of your industrymates share that same opinion.
J. Cole: Yeah, I’ve come across [some of that]...
DJ Booth: The guest spot that we’ve been talking about [is] on Blueprint 3, the title is “A Star Is Born.” Considering your situation, the title “A Star Is Born,” is this ironic or is this destiny, J. Cole?
J. Cole: Oh, man. I’m hoping it’s destiny – I’m hoping, 10 years from now, when they do the “Behind the Music,” or whatever they’re doin’, the biography, that’ll be the perfect setup to start the story. That’ll be like the generic J. Cole setup: “It all started with ‘A Star is Born…’” That sounds like some destiny sh*t. Now, if you pull a Kwame Brown it’ll be super ironic, but if you pull a LeBron James, it’s too good of a setup, [for that] to be my first feature.
DJ Booth: There are producers who decide that their work needs to be heard, but only if their own vocals are on top, and then there are emcees who, because they can’t find producers who match their sound just right, figure out a thing or two behind the boards and do both. You fall into that latter category. What are a few challenges, if any do exist, that you’ve run into while writing and producing some of your own work?
J. Cole: I’ve been producing for a long time, I started making beats at 15, so that’s damn near 10 years that I’ve been making beats for myself. Like, it’s one thing to be a rapper. When you’re a rapper, just a rapper, you have to kind of settle for whatever comes your way – if a beat is hot, you wanna rap on it, period. But when you’re a producer on top of that, just havin’ a beat that’s hot is not enough. Now you know your sound, ‘cause you’ve been workin’ on your sound for so long, and now you’re extra picky. You might do a beat that’s ill, that the average rapper would pay big money to get on, but you don’t wanna do it because you’re like, “Ehhh… it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s not what I’m goin’ for.” So you’re extra picky. So that’s the only thing I’m tryin’ to grow ouit of, ‘cause I don’t wanna forget the fact that I wanna be one of the best rappers. I feel like some of the best rappers ever – 2Pac, namely, one of them – could take sub-par beats or average beats and turn them into incredible songs.
DJ Booth: You mentioned Pac, and he made some truly horrible production work sound absolutely amazing.
J. Cole: Exactly.
DJ Booth: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Does doing both turn you into the ultimate perfectionist?
J. Cole: Yes, it does, it definitely does. But, like I said, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m trying to get out of that. Like, for instance, I got in the studio with No I.D., that’s who I’ve been in the studio with. I’m breakin’ out of that mold of just hoverin’ over my sh*t and just huggin’ it so hard and sayin, “No! Nobody else!” Cause his sound is the perfect sound. Like, I’ve finally found someone I can learn from, and [his] sound matches my sound. So it’s a perfect setup, and the joints we’ve been doing have been absolutely incredible.
DJ Booth: There’s definitely a give-and-take; you just have to find that perfect balance between the two.
J. Cole: Yeah, exactly.
DJ Booth: J., the list of well-known emcees to attend college and actually graduate is not very long. I polled all of my Twitter followers, all 9,800-plus of them, and we came up with Chuck D, Nappy Roots, David Banner, Kidz in the Hall, and a few others. Would you be in the position that you’re in right now without that degree from St. John’s?
J. Cole: Nah – that was my ticket. St. John’s was my way to be in New York. I had no other business being up there. Like, I probably wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for bein’ able to stay in dorms, and bein’ able to use college loans to get my apartment, and just stay afloat in New York City. But I believe that anything’s possible. I used to think I couldn’t have made it back home, but now I know, knowin’ what I know about the world and how it works, I know I could’ve stayed home and found a way to get on. But, you know, college had a great deal to do with my development as a person. I don’t know if I’d be the artist I was if it wasn’t for goin’ to school like that. School is a good place – it ain’t for everybody, but I think it’s for most people.
DJ Booth: You mentioned briefly student loans. Have you been afforded the opportunity to pay those off yet?
J. Cole: Nope, not yet. I can, but I’m a stubborn person, man. For instance, way back I owed Verizon some money, I used to be down with Verizon four years ago. I had a crazy high bill, and I never paid it, so I just left it and I went somewhere else. Now, I went to get one of those little wireless… you know those little wireless hookups for your computer?
DJ Booth: The laptop connect cards.
J. Cole: Exactly, from the cell phone companies. And I had a feeling, I told the lady, “Yo, they might come back with some previous money that I owe,” ‘cause I had to sign a contract, and she was like, “Yeah, you’re right. They’re saying, before we start this account with you, you’ve gotta take care of the balance.” Now, I could’ve easily took care of the balance right then and there, but my pride and my stubbornness was just like, “Man, you know what? When I was broke and I couldn’t afford this, y’all wasn’t tryin’ to work with me, so now that I’ve got it, I’m not payin’ it.” I walked out and I started something up with Sprint. Now, [to tell about] the college loan, I’m not accustomed to… I don’t know, man, it’s like I know how the game works and, with interest rates, I know that I’m getting screwed, but my stubbornness just really won’t allow me to go along with this payment system, so I just feel like one day I’m gonna pay it off in one big lump sum.
DJ Booth: [laughs] Well, I already told you that my father’s in insurance. I’ve got an uncle who’s a financial adviser, I can put you in touch with him also. He’ll explain everything to you!
J. Cole: [laughs] Don’t let my financial advisers hear what I just said, ‘cause they don’t agree with that, obviously.
DJ Booth: It’s to St. John’s benefit that you still owe the university money, ‘cause now they have an on-the-rise, going-to-be-famous alumnus.
J. Cole: Yeah. I mean, hopefully, if everything works out they do.
DJ Booth: Well, obviously, all of your fans can either check you out on tour or pop on The Warm-Up mixtape and enjoy that till your debut drops, but they’re probably itching for an answer; when is it going to drop? Do you have an idea, roughly?
J. Cole: Man, I used to say spring [or] summer. Honestly, at the pace that I’ve been working, and the zone that I’ve been hittin’, I wouldn’t be surprised if we played our cards a little earlier.
DJ Booth: And as far as a title, is it still untitled, or do you have something that you wanna tell me?
J. Cole: Nah… I’ve got something, but I’m not ready to say it yet.
DJ Booth: OK, how much money is it gonna take? I can start paying those student loans for you, on the phone, right now! [laughs]
J. Cole: All right, if you make my whole year’s payment on these student loans, then you’ll be the first one with the album title.
DJ Booth: Well, let me check and see how many commas I currently have in my bank account, and we might have to set up a transfer for you.
J. Cole: There we go, no doubt.
DJ Booth: J., give everybody a website, a MySpace, a Twitter account so they can find out more about you.
DJ Booth: Thank you so much, my friend, for takin’ the time to join me inside the DJ Booth. It has been an absolute pleasure – nothing but the best of luck.
J. Cole: Thanks a lot, man. Thanks for all the support!