Though he began his career making bass—the electro-inspired party music synonymous with Miami and Luke Campbell—Jim Jonsin has left his biggest mark on hip-hop via the numerous smash singles he's produced, tracks like Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," Kelly Rowland's "Motivation," and Wiz Khalifa's "On My Level."
Jonsin spent his formative years spinning at parties all over Florida. From the age of 14 on, he was a fixture of the scene, DJing under the name Jealous Jay. Jonsin spoke with Complex about his early days in the scene, his transition to hip-hop, and his new found passion for car racing. Along the way he found time to discuss Miami strip clubs and steakhouses, as well as a couple of Italian joints anyone traveling through Florida should make a detour for.
Complex: So you grew up in Florida?
Born in Brooklyn but I’ve lived in Florida since I was 3 years old. I’ve worked in Miami for the past 15 years, traveling back and forth, doing different music with different artists. Working at Slip-n-Slide records. I had my own record label, but I grew up in Palm Beach and Broward County. Mostly Broward. That’s where I live now. But Miami seems to get the credit for most people that come out of Florida, regardless.
Why do you think that is? Because it’s the most recognizable city?
It’s like when you’re from L.A., you’re from L.A., you know? You could say, Snoop made Long Beach popular and Dre made Compton popular. Now, [because of those two] you can say that you’re from Compton. But you know, you hear Pitbull’s from Miami, but do you know where he’s from in Miami? Is he from Liberty City? Is he from Palatka? But even when you say you’re from Broward, there’s Fort Lauderdale. There’s Pompano. There’s Parkland, which is where I live now. Miami always gets that thing because it’s the big city.
And people associate it with bass music too, I think.
Most people that grew up in Miami end up moving out of Miami into places like Broward anyway, to get to calmer areas.
Just to get away from the energy of the city?
Yeah, you know they can get into it anytime they want. It’s only 20-30 minutes away. Same thing in the city [NY], if you want to live out in the city, you can do that or you can go out and live out in Jersey, jump right on and you’re there in 30-40 minutes.
So when you were in Florida, how did you get into hip-hop?
I just had this talk with LL last night, because a lot of people don’t know how long I’ve been in music or in hip-hop. I used to break dance and we had this DJ friend, Scratch D, Dave Noller, who DJ’d for our crew. And I used to watch him DJ and I thought it was the most amazing thing. So I started DJing and learning from him, and then from that I wanted to make beats and make mixtapes and things. So I brought a drum machine and from the drum machine I brought another drum machine, then you know, a keyboard, then a mixing board. I just started getting into it. The same way most DJs do. And that’s how I got into music. I put my first record out in 1988, many, many years ago.
That’s a seminal year for hip-hop.
Yeah, big year. So from that, and it was bass music. You know about the Miami sound. Luke Campbell, 2 Live Crew. We had Shy-D, though he was from Georgia. Tons of artists.
So you were making bass initially? Because that was the music around you?
Yeah, but I mostly listened to New York hip-hop. I know me and my friends used to come to New York to listen to DJ Red Alert. We’d try to get samples of their radio shows, record them on tape, and bring them home to flip the tapes to all my friends. It could have been from Kool Moe Dee, Whodini, Planet Patrol, all that stuff.
Do you see bass as apart of hip-hop or do you see it as something outside of it?
I think it came from that electronic stuff. Like Man Parrish to Planet Patrol, Soul Sonic Force, Cybertron, Kraftwerk. And we took it and we just turned the decay up on the 808 and added the bass to it. That’s where [bass] came from. It’s up-tempo and some slow tempo, but electronic sounding drums.
As opposed to?
As opposed to more “Funky Drummer,” hip-hop stuff.
Where the samples were coming from funk and R&B as opposed to electro.
That’s right. I mean, I bet “Planet Rock” was flipped a billion times for bass music.
Is there still a big bass scene in Miami?
No, but there’s some guy that’s actually doing, who worked with me back in the day named Chris, he’s putting together a documentary about the beginning and end of that [sound]. [The music is] still moving in Europe; we sell a lot of bass records over there, some of my older records sell. So they’re doing this documentary about the scene. Some artists sold a lot of music and had a lot of hit records.
Speaking about hip-hop, is this evidence that the scene is less regional then it was? That the sound has become more…
Oh, yeah. Popular. You know, now you have artists like Drake, B.o.B. You’ve even got [Lil] Wayne singing love songs. And that’s just evidence that the youth requires some heartfelt shit. They need to be able to grow up and listen to songs that make them feel emotional. Every tough guy has love in him. They need love songs; that’s why Wayne is doing it. Because he knows it. He needs it. I’d rather my kids grow up listening to hip-hop and more melodic based hip-hop then just the boom bap. We hear more music, more singers are coming out and so rappers are like, “Oh shit, we better put some more melody in our music.”
It seems like hip-hop has become far more tuneful.
Which I think is great.
Do you feel like something has been lost, though, now that the regional scenes are disappearing?
I think some character in some areas might get lost. For example, with Wayne and Baby and all of them, they have their thing going, but when they were in New Orleans, they had their own unique style and stuff. And right now I think Wayne sounds a little more like Drake. I think the Internet helps with that. You know, you get so many influences from all over the world.
I think before you had to get your hometown behind you first, but right now all you need to do is upload, right to the internet. Then all of a sudden your records are bigger in Houston than they are in your hometown. Or maybe in Australia. So you lose to gain. Something is lost but there’s something gained. I still think that kids grow up in certain areas and they apply certain things that they learn, but if they’re not and they’re sitting in their rooms on the Internet all day, then yeah, they’ll lose that.
I wonder if you would talk a little bit about where you live now and how it factors into your music—what your day-to-day life is like.
Well, where I live now is, well, it's where I’m building my studio, actually. It’s where I’m raising my family. It’s not the most happening place. It’s quiet, about 40 minutes from Miami but 15 minutes from downtown Delray or Fort Lauderdale, so we can go out and party if we want, and I can go down and hit all the music business seminars if I want. My hometown’s a small place called Parkland. But I’ve lived everywhere from Riviera Beach in West Palm to Lake Park to Boca Raton. For a long while, I lived out in West Palatka to Broad View in Broward, which is like Tamarac, and those areas are what influenced me musically. It’s the people I met there that got me into music. You know, a lot of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm people were doing bass music. Miami just got the notoriety because of Luke. That shit was popping everywhere. You know, Jacksonville, you know “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and all those big records coming out of Tallahassee and up that way. T-Pain and all that. T-Pain was doing bass music. “I’m Sprung” is bass. “I’m in Love with a Stripper,” that’s bass music. “Lollipop” is bass music; “Whatever You Like” is bass music.
What were the early days of the scene like?
It was fun, man. It was a big difference, though. I explain this to some of the artists and producers that I work with now, you know, me and my buddies we would work hard during the week, save the money so we could get in the studio on the weekend, and then the following weekend or week plan to get our record mixed and mastered and then the following week go to print, 12”. Once we got our thousand 12”, we would hit the road and every other weekend we would head out from Tallahassee to Fort Myers to Fort Pierce to Miami and hit radio DJs to play our records in hopes that we would get it popping. Now its like, mix, mp3, upload, YouTube, all that. Back in the day, when The Beatles were making 45s, you know what type of work it took to get them shits popping? These kids are spoiled rotten; they’ve got it made. But if you can’t make it, then you don’t have it. You don’t have hits. I always say a hit will holler. If you have a hit, believe me, you’ll know it. Because the Internet will tell you. And they’ll tell you if it sucks, too. The blogs will kill you.