You’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on HipHopGame and you’re looking like you should be an MC that everyone keeps an eye on. With so many MCs trying to come up today, what do you feel is the best way to get your music heard?
Oh, man. Well, first of all, thank you. Thanks to everybody on HipHopGame leaving good comments. If you haven’t checked out the songs, check them out and let me know what you think. But as far as getting it heard, the internet is definitely the level playing field when it comes to musicians and especially rappers. You got guys without deals from the center of America who are able to get the same shine as guys with deals. Your friends and local networks are step one, but other than your local network, the internet is definitely your top choice for getting your music heard.
How have you been using the feedback you’ve gotten on HipHopGame for your new music?
It definitely affected me as soon as you guys put it up. I could definitely tell the difference in terms of the people hitting me up, whether it’s on MySpace or Twitter or Facebook, whatever it is. They were just saying that they heard the songs on HipHopGame and certain guys are saying they’re new fans. I could definitely tell the difference and I’m glad. I want to give people time to get to know me, especially on that site. I see the culture. Y’all post up music every day so to be able to get love from those guys, especially when there’s so much to compete with, that’s cool.
You’re a North Carolina native who moved to New York for college. What was that move like for you?
Oh, shit. It was definitely a necessary move but it was hard because I didn’t have any family in New York. I couldn’t stay with my grandma there. I had to go because I saw so many talented people from Fayetteville who never got a deal and never got exposure. The internet wasn’t as strong back then as it is now. It was tough. I was 15 or 16 and I noticed how hard it was. When it came time for me to almost be done with high school, I knew I was going to college and I knew I had to go to college in New York. In my eyes, t hat’s where the music scene was and ironically the music scene shifted to Atlanta but it was still great for me because the music industry is still based out of New York. My internet buzz is just now starting to happen. I was putting it off because I was concentrating on an industry buzz with executives and A&Rs.
But back to the move. The move was crazy, man. I didn’t know anybody and it actually took me a few years to get adjusted and realize that my real purpose was the music shit. I kind of got caught up in college a little bit.
Did you get any resistance from your inner circle for moving to New York City?
That’s the beautiful thing about it. I thought there might have been some of that but everybody back home found out I was in New York and it was northing but respect. Where I’m from, it’s hard for someone to leave that comfort zone of being home. When they heard I was in New York, they were kind of shocked, like, ‘Wow, you‘re in New York?’ Then they hear about deals and mixtapes and they’re really impressed. There was no resistance or calling me a sellout. I think at the end of the day everybody knows what I’m doing it for. It’s for the good of the state and it’s not like I’m repping New York, even though I do show New York a lot of love.
You talk a lot about college in your rhymes. How much of an influence did college have on you as an artist?
College had a lot of influence. I was always bright but college kind of expanding that. If I didn’t go to college I wouldn’t have anything to talk about because back in the days I was a battle rapper. When I first started rapping, I was a battle rapper and I was telling stories but they were fantasy-type stories. When I went to college and moved out of state, I had all these new relationships and experiences and was just becoming a man. That was the whole basis of my style. I’m not a college rapper and I don’t just rap about college, but being up in New York and being in a whole different setting definitely positively influenced my music.
You have a very polished sound for a young MC. How did you work on getting your sound up to that level?
Thank you. That’s a big compliment. Basically I’m a determined up-and-coming rapper but I don’t feel like that. I guess that’s why you would say my sound sounds like that. I started rapping at 12 and I started producing at 15. My mentor is Nervous Reck and he taught me how to make beats. I wanted beats from him but he was busy. I guess my polished sound comes from making my songs completely from top to bottom since I was 15. I know I’m up-and-coming in the public’s eyes but I’ve been writing and recording for so long that I feel like a veteran. I appreciate that you said that.
I used to get Reck’s CDs in the mail.
Are you fucking serious? That’s the man! That is my mentor. That’s what I’m talking about when I say why I had to come out to New York. That’s who I was coming up under. Those guys are my favorite partners, him and his partner Filthy Rich. They should have got on but industry-wise, they’re in the middle of nowhere. Shout out to Nervous Reck. He’s definitely my mentor and the illest producer ever and one of my favorite rappers. My success is definitely going to be in large part to him because he was helping me since I was 15.
How does producing for yourself help you get your songs to sound exactly how you want them to sound?
Oh, man, it’s valuable. Any up-and-coming rappers out there, that’s one thing I would definitely suggest because we’re in the day and age where you almost have to be more than a rapper. Rappers’ aren’t just rappers anymore. They’re singing on hooks now and stuff like that. If you come in the game with that extra talent that you can produce, it just gives you something else you can put on the table.
Beyond that, it’s even more important because you can connect to the music from start to finish. You’re not just taking someone else’s beat and hard work. From the moment that you hear the sample to the moment that you set it up to the moment that you add the drums and the moment that your write the hook and the moment that you write the raps, that’s the illest feeling because you know it’s coming from you. It’s all organic. It’s not even about getting the 100% publishing. Nobody can produce your own sound better than you so you might as well produce your own sound.
You also work with Elite. What benefit is there to working with producers like him?
It’s hard, honestly. I’ve been producing since I was 15 and producers might get frustrated with me where it’s hard for me to get on their tracks. Elite knows my sound and a producer like Science knows my sound. He’s the fucking man as well. When it does click that’s when I’m able to zone out and write something. Sometimes it doesn’t click. Sometimes I’ll hear the illest beat ever but it doesn’t click for some reason. Maybe I have to break out of the element of being a producer myself. But when it does click, it’s just ill to hear myself on somebody else’s shit. It’s like, ‘Oh, man!’
It won’t last long. By the end of the year I’ll be able to murder anybody’s beat. But until then…
What’s it like working with Elite?
Elite is the fucking man. He knows me and we vibe on a friendship level. He knows the right things to say when it comes to working with him. For instance, there’s a song on the mixtape called “Playground” that’s fucking incredible. He did the beat and I actually did the track on the spot. It’s the first time I didn’t write. I write all my shit. I wanted to just try the Jay-Z shit out and just do it for fun. Working with him is incredible because he knows all the right things to say to give me that extra boost and momentum in a positive way. He speaks my language. It’s ill, man.
“Simba” is a song where you talk about wanting to be the king in the game. How did you come up with the concept for “Simba”?
The first “Simba,” off The Come Up, was simply me being hungry as hell and broke and feeling like I was at the bottom, money-wise, but hunger-wise and motivation-wise, I was hungry to get it. That’s how the whole “Simba” thing came about. I said in the last line of the song, “I can’t wait to be the king. Young Simba.” And I’m not running with the Simba thing. It’s just a cute thing to play with. The next “Simba” is more like I’m grown up. Energy-wise, I’m speaking as hard but it’s more mature with the beat and the flow. The “Simba” shit was something playful, something to play with.
“Grown Simba” is the track I think you’re talking about, which is a great song. What was your writing process like for that song?
The second “Simba,” basically I was coming from this crazy meeting with this pretty big music executive. There was no deal put on the table but I was closer than ever and I was ready to show what I had. I had that sample for awhile and I re-stumbled upon it and I made the beat and added the drums and those words just kind of, they basically flew out, like I was in the zone, kind of, and I didn’t really have to think that hard to get them onto the paper. Just like the other one, I didn’t know I was going to call it “Grown Simba” but then I was like, “Young Simba, I can’t wait to be the king!” That’s how that came about. That was a very fun song to record. There was a lot of energy in that one.
If you are the king of the game, what would your agenda be?
That’s a good-ass question, man. How would I change the game if I was king? There would be a lot more alliance if I was the king. There would be a lot more love. Okay, I got a perfect example. I was in the studio the other night with Wale and Joe Budden and Currency, who’s the coolest nigga in the world and later Bun-B stopped through and David Banner stopped through and 9th Wonder was in there just being a monster on the beats. I haven’t been around actual signed rappers like that. That was one of my first experiences but there was so much good energy and positive energy that this must have been what the sessions were like back when B.I.G. was around. That’s one thing I would bring back. There’s a whole lot of hating and a whole lot of Deebo bullshit. They want to send songs back and forth and do all of that. There’s no actual collabs. So that’s one thing I would definitely bring back, man. And I think that would only add to pushing the genre forward.
What’s it going to take for you to get to that level in the game?
I gotta come with consistency and a classic album. A classic album is really the foundation. I’m not even thinking in terms that I have to come with hits. I have to come with a classic album just to solidify my slot. That’s one of the things I want to have, a classic album, an undeniable first album. Of course I want to have hits. I want to end my career with a billion hits but that’s not the way I’m thinking and I’m glad with the situation I’m being put into I don’t have to do that. When you have that classic first album like an Illmatic or a Reasonable Doubt, you can do whatever you want to do. You have a solid foundation to do what you want to do. It’s not about sales and it’s not about hits right now. It’s about getting that core foundation of fans and getting that trust and letting the word spread from there.
How big do you want to be in the game?
Okay. It’s a mixture of everything. I don’t want to be an underground rapper. I don’t want to be labeled as that. But I want the fans of the underground music who damn-near despise mainstream music, I want them to love me even if I’m going platinum and even if I have hits on the radio, kind of like how Jay has it, honestly. I want them to accept me because I speak to them as well. My whole hip-hop sound is story-based, raw, punchlines and wittiness. Of course I’m going to have the underground fanbase and I don’t want to be limited by that. I want to have as many fans as possible from the streets to overseas. At this point in my career I’m not trying to be fucking Prince or Madonna. I just want to go down as one of the greats when it’s all said and done in hip-hop and if anything else comes with that then so be it.
Looking at what you just said and your concept of “Grown Simba,” a lot of hate comes with getting to the top. Are you ready for that side of the game?
I think so. I’m developing thick skin as we speak. I don’t take things too personal. One thing I am happy with is the response so far. I honestly haven’t experienced too much hate. Something that amazes me about the music more than the music itself is the reaction to it. People in my circle, whenever I hear the feedback, it’s always the same thing. Nobody is hating on this. You will find the most hating-ass nigga and play him this shit and he’ll face will unfrown and he’ll cease to be a hater. He’ll be like, ‘Shit, he is nice.’
Am I ready for the hate? Yeah, but I’m not expecting that much. But if I do get it, that’s just a part of the game. I don’t want to concentrate on that. I want to concentrate on the love that’s actually coming through.
On “Simba” you talked about rappers disappearing like former Kentucky great Ron Mercer. Whatever happened to him?
Ron Mercer? (laughs) I don’t know, man. Ron Mercer, if you’re out there…I honestly can not tell you the last team he played for. I just remember him being on the Bulls and after he got blocked by Jordan when Jordan was 48 years-old and he took his shit off the glass, he just disappeared. Ron Mercer was nice. I don’t know what happened to him. Ron Mercer, if you’re out there, please tell us something.
I was never a Kentucky fan.
I’m not a Kentucky fan myself. No, on second thought, PR move, I love Kentucky. I love Kentucky. I’m just a Carolina fan to the death. I’m out here all day.
Too bad about the ACC tournament, huh?
I was pissed about that. I don’t understand that. Put it like this – we got our last loss of the season.
What round will Duke choke in the NCAA tournament this year?
See, I’ve been dealing with this kind of, man, how can I put it? This is the place I’ve been in. I’m a diehard Carolina fan so you can imagine how I feel about Duke. But one day I’m going to want to perform at Duke. (laughs) So do I wish them luck in the tournament or do I hate? I’d rather just wish them luck then. Good luck.
I don’t think they’d want you to wish them luck.
Yeah. They probably wouldn’t even want me to wish them luck. So good luck, Duke!
From listening to songs like “School Daze,” you have the ability to look back on things that happened while still looking forward. How important is that quality to your music?
That’s definitely important. I guess that’s the type of person that I am. Reflective but also my mind is constantly on the future and the possibilities and what could be. So at the same time I’m reminiscing on the past. I’m not dwelling on it. I’m just focusing on the highlights of it.
A song like “School Daze,” to me, is the perfect reminisce track. It gives you that feeling. It almost puts you back in school. So many people that I talk to, no matter what color they are and what they did in high school, it all gives them a feeling because they can relate to some part of that song. It does have that element that’s so focused on the future because to me, that’s what it’s all about – the inspiration and dreaming. I guess that’s one of the major themes of my music. It’s basically dreaming and scheming to better yourself in some way and to get up out of whatever situation you may be in. That’s a big part of it. It’s both of those, man. You’re absolutely right.
Were you happy with how your mixtape The Come Up did?
Yeah. It’s crazy now. Now that the internet buzz is going to pick up and the deal situation is slowly leaking out there, The Come Up is, I guess, being downloaded a little bit more and people are doing their homework. The Come Up is actually very old. I don’t mean that as a copout. I thought it was good and now that people are digging it up, it makes me happy. Some of my favorite material is on there. It’s from when I was a junior and senior in college and the year after I graduated. It’s definitely put together like it’s an album and I paid a lot of attention to the beats on the album and the stories that’s I told. I think everybody should listen to that. My new mixtape is The Warm Up and if you listen to both of those you will know exactly where I’m coming from.
The Come Up means I’m trying to come up in this tough-ass industry and it also looks at me as a little-ass nigga from North Carolina coming to the biggest city in the world and not knowing anybody. They both tell both of those stories at the same time. I would love it if everybody out there could listen to that. I’m glad that it’s still out there. That’s the power of the internet for you. I’m glad that it’s still around. That’s the power about that.
And the next one is The Warm Up. It’s two stories at the same time. It’s the story that’s basically based on a kid getting cut from his basketball team and not quitting, promising himself that he’s going to make it undeniable for the coach to pass him over. it’s going to be impossible for the coach to pass him over because of what he did. And that parallels me with The Come Up and how I dropped it. I didn’t have no concept of how the game worked. I thought I would be signed the next month and it was two years later without me being signed. I didn’t get the response that I wanted in terms of getting a deal and blowing up. On this one, The Warm Up, I’m going to make it impossible for these labels to not sign me. The two stories are parallel. I didn’t plan it like that but that’s how the story works.
Are you working on an album now?
Yeah. I’ve been working on an album for years now. It’s always changing. Songs that I was in love with a year ago I’m no longer in love with and songs that are two years-old won’t leave. I have an album and I have so much time before my album even comes out. I have to get my buzz up and get a solid foundation, so it will be a year before my album comes out and it will change but some songs will never leave. I’m itching for people to hear it. It’s hard sitting on these songs for so long. We also shot three videos last fall. It’s like a story. They flow into each other. I’m also sitting on that. I can’t wait to put that out.
I got high expectations and high hopes for the album. I can say that. I can honestly say that I believe it’s going to come out classic. I’m not saying that like it’s going to be easy but I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that it happens. I can’t wait. I honestly can’t wait. I can’t wait to get back home so I can start working on it now. But I hope, at least, that it’s going to be something that people talk about for a long time and have to have with them.
What is your label situation today?
Oh, man. I guess time will tell. I guess the public will know in a couple of weeks when I go ahead and spill these beans.
How far do you think you can go in the game today?
Looking at the current climate I think that the lane is wide open for me, man. Truly for me, every day has a reason and there’s a reason why I felt like I should have been on at age 17 and wasn’t and at age 21 and I wasn’t. There’s a reason now where the game needs a fresh young face to bring what Nas was bringing and what Jay was bringing and to be a storyteller. It’s wide open, man. The game and the fans are hungry for something else. I’m actually grateful that it took so long because the doors are so wide open right now. And how ironic is it that the new niggas in the game, look at where they’re from. Wale is from D.C. Kid Cudi is from Ohio. Drake’s from Toronto. J. Cole is from North Carolina. It’s the ultimate symbol that the game is finally changing because before the best rappers, they had to be from New York. It had to be that way. You had Jay, Nas and B.I.G. Rakim. These are New York guys who will be on the top forever but there’s no rules no more. You can be from Wisconsin as long as your story is real and you can make people feel what you say. The potential is limitless.
How much do you think a crew like Little Brother paved the way for other artists with a message to come out of North Carolina?
Oh, man, even bigger than Little Brother was Petey Pablo. People will laugh but he had the whole country singing a song about North Carolina. How big was that? It was big for Little Brother to be signed and for 9th Wonder to be on Jay-Z’s album. Shit like that was so big. Big shout out to Petey Pablo even though people don’t give him no credit in the hip-hop world. You could be in New York singing about North Carolina. I mess with my New York friends that they were singing about my state and they had never been. There are guys that have never been heard. I believe Kaze just got a deal, if I’m not mistaken. Small World has a deal with Luda. I’m not sure if that’s still going down. North Carolina is the melting pot. It’s right in the South but it’s in the middle. You have guys like Little Brother with a Pete Rock sound and then you have artists like Petey Pablo.
What’s the next move for J. Cole?
Hopping on as many other cool-ass rappers’ songs as I can and doing as many songs as I can and trying to meet the people that I feel best relate to me so they can be energized and really want to spread the word because that’s where it comes from, whether it’s on the internet or in a town of 250 people. At the same time while all this is going on I’m working on my album and trying to get better as a rapper and as a producer. I’m still studying the cats at the top, which is where I want to be. And I’m still studying my peers and who I came in with. And I graduated from college, so I’m a good student, obviously.