J. Cole: In The Zone (Online Cover Story)

Story by Damien Scott; Photography by Matt Salacuse; Styling by Matthew Henson; Additional Credits.

When I met him a freshman year I remember thinking he was an affable dude, one who was very comfortable being the center of attention. My earliest memories involve Jermaine cursing his ass off. Not in a vulgar or insulting way—he seemed to use the word “Bitch” as punctuation. When Cole first started killing features for bigger artists—some people commented that he cursed too much. Shit, they should have seen him in his younger days. I didn’t know that he rapped until I stopped by his room and saw a dusty red machine sitting on top of his desk. Most of the STJ student body learned about Cole, who was then going by the name Therapist, when he performed at a talent show a few months later. Looking to connect with the crowd, Jermaine rhymed about things all the kids in the auditorium could relate to: Sallie Mae, grades, cafeteria food, sex, and bills. Each time he dropped a punch line the crowd roared so loud he had to pause and wait for the eruption to settle before continuing. He didn’t win the contest, but everyone agreed that he murked it. It was evident he had skills.

 

It wasn’t unusual to wake up in the middle of the night and see Jermaine at his tiny dorm room desk with his headphones on, tapping out a drum sequence.

 

He put those skills to work during our sophomore year. When he wasn’t doing homework (he was on the Dean’s List all throughout college) or playing ball (he was good enough to try out for STJ’s Division I team, and almost made it as a walk-on but decided not to show up for the call-back) Jermaine was up in his dorm room making music. Occasionally, he would take an hour drive up north to Purhcase, NY to visit his friend Anthony “Elite” Parrino. A producer who worked with Jadakiss, DMX, and Jim Jones, Elite would book gigs for the two of them to perform. The crowds were usually small and full of drunk college kids, but it was an opportunity for Jermaine to perform on stage and gauge people’s interest in his songs. One time Jermaine and Elite, along with a couple of their friends, did so well, an underground rapper named Tonedeff came up to them afterwards and gave them all props.

Jermaine says the only reason he started producing was because he couldn’t afford to buy beats when he was younger. It was the same story during his college years. He spent a good deal of his sophomore and junior year chopping up samples and stitching them back together. Cole studied producers like 9th Wonder, Just Blaze, and, of course, Kanye West. It wasn’t unusual to wake up in the middle of the night and see Jermaine at his tiny dorm room desk with his headphones on, tapping out a drum sequence. Similar to another producer-turned-rapper, he soon came to see his production as a viable path into the music industry, if he couldn’t at first get on as a rapper. But he was very protective of his music—you might even call him a perfectionist. He was okay playing stuff for those in his close circle, but he’d usually turn the track off when anybody else walked in the room.

In 2006, after interning for Bill Adler at Eyejammie Hip Hop Art Gallery and meeting Sacha Jenkins, I started contributing to Mass Appeal magazine. Brendan Frederick, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, tasked me with interviewing Lil Wayne for a column called “Fight Club.” It was the first piece I had published in a magazine. I was flipping out. I was so drunk with happiness that I had a t-shirt made that read “I’m Published” across the front and back. It was ridiculous. I showed all my roommates and they laughed. Jermaine asked me where I got it made, and I told him the website. A few months later, Cole came home with his own custom t-shirt that had the words: “Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying” splayed across the front.

It’s funny, if you ask J. Cole who his favorite rappers are he’ll quickly mention Tupac and Nas. To him they represented everything rap was supposed to be. He admired Nas for his lyricism, the way he flowed, and the way he told such vivid stories. He loved Pac for, well, everything. But Tupac was dead and Nas didn’t have the power to put people on the way Jay-Z did (remember the Bravehearts or Quan?). Jay-Z was as big as it got in rap. He was our living God MC.

Getting one of his beat CDs into Jay-Z’s hand became Cole’s new mission. That was why we were trying to get into Baseline. It was why he went to Aaron Reid’s Sweet 16 party wearing his customized Jay-Z T-shirt underneath his button-down with a beat CD in his back pocket. Jermaine, like Kanye back in the 1-9-9-9, felt that if he could just get one beat on Hova, he could get up off his cheap-ass sofa.

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