When Jay-Z makes moves, the entire world pays attention. That's why the masses stopped wearing throwbacks, relaxed on the rims and bling and even started paying attention to a bespectacled kid from Chi-Town. So when word got out that Hov finally signed someone to his newly-minted Live Nation imprint Roc Nation whose last name wasn't Bleek, we weren't surprised when the entire rap world started scrambling to find out who Jay's new mentee was. By now, we're sure you've seen the newest member of the (new) Roc in a handful of online videos, but if not, allow us to introduce you to Jermaine Cole aka J. Cole.
Being the first artist signed to the best rapper alive's label would be daunting to even the illest of rappers, but J. Cole, a dude who figures himself a mash up of his influences ('Pac, Canibus and Nas), doesn't seem too worried—he's been waiting for this kind of attention since he was 12. While putting the finishing touches on his next mixtape, "The Warm Up"—scheduled to drop at the end of May—and touring with Wale, we sat down with the 24-year-old Fayetteville, North Carolina native and St. John's University graduate to talk about what got him into rap, meeting Jay-Z and where he sees himself in the rap game. It's the Roc, you bastards. Pay attention!
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: So, you're the newest and first member of the Roc Nation team. Tell us how you got to this point. When'd you start rapping?
J. Cole: When I was 12. I used to rap like Master P. I was 12 and my cousin from Louisiana moved to North Carolina for the summer and he was rapping so I looked up to him. I would try to copy what he was doing and he was rapping like Cash Money, No Limit, so my first raps were kinda like that: "I'm a muthafuckin' soulja, smoking on that doulja." I'm 12, talking about this stupid shit!
J. Cole: So that evolved into me rapping like Canibus and Eminem. I learned how to make beats at around 15. I couldn't get any beats from nobody. I met this guy Nervous Wreck from this local group Bomb Shelter, and I used to hit him up all the time begging him for beats, but he was too busy. So that's when I was like, oh shit, I gotta make my own shit like he makes his own shit. So from there I begged my mom for a beat machine, she spent a crazy amount of money— so there were no more Christmases, no more basketball camps, no more birthday gifts. I always knew that's what I wanted to do. I knew I had to leave and come to New York—'cause I saw some of my favorite rappers from North Carolina not even make it.
Complex: But it seems like the South was the place to be in the early 2000s, if you were trying to be a rapper.
J. Cole: That's when Lil Jon was poppin off, and that's when everything was moving to Atlanta. I didn't plan it like this, I just wanted to go to New York because in my mind, New York was the place where they had the underground rap shows and I could get in on some ciphers and just rap. This whole fantasy world I had created in my head about New York just from listening to the music my whole life, like, I'ma go up there and do that. But when I came up here, there was none of that, that scene was dead. I was still dreaming about that for the first two or three years I was up here. I was like, It must exist somewhere in New York. And I'm not saying that it doesn't, I just couldn't find it.
But the ill part about it, and this is the part that I didn't plan, was that me being from North Carolina with an East Coast flow, but still repping the South and having all the culture of the South in my music, that shit set me apart so much. If I was from New York, I probably wouldn't have gotten this deal, or I probably wouldn't have gotten as far as I did because, it's hard. People these days are less likely to pay attention to a New York rapper, unfortunately. Coming to New York was actually the best decision.
Complex: So you applied to college in New York
J. Cole: Yeah, I applied to two schools. I was supposed to go UNC my whole life—in my head. But I only applied to two schools so I wouldn't be tempted to go. NYU and St. Johns. NYU was out of the question—too expensive. So I ended up at St. Johns. The first time I saw the school was when I went to orientation. But when I got there, I got caught up. I always had the beat machine set up and I was always making music but I spent the first two years of college getting adjusted. Getting adjusted to a) college and b) to living in New York City.
Complex: When did you really start to grind for a deal?
J. Cole: Junior year. I thought to myself, OK, shit, what am I doing? That's when I realized that I had to get my networking up. I tried everything, dog. I mean Myspace messages, making up shirts with slogans like, "Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying." Standing outside of studios waiting. I was trying to get internships at studios! All of that led to me getting connected with one my business partners, Mike Rooney. Fast forward a year and a half after I graduate, I wind up meeting Jay-Z.
Complex: Tell us about that first meeting with Jay.
J. Cole: This is a crazy story. First off, I don't want anyone to think that this shit happened over night. You know, this is a long process of shit: fake ass industry people that I had to go through, you know, a lot of deception, a lot of struggle, and a lot of rejection just to get to this point. But fast forward through all that bullshit and we get to November 2008. I just got back from a show in LA. I just did a college show that I actually got paid for. Mind you, I'm broke... I have a regular job at this point, it's not a full time job. I have a college degree and I'm getting paid $10 an hour, you know what I'm saying? Working this terrible job, that I can't stand going to. So I get back from this show in LA, it was a Sunday. I'm buzzing like, Aw man this is the life I wanna live, doing shows. But the next morning I have to go to work, but I'm on such a high that I don't care, I'm actually early to work and I'm never early. I had got a call three weeks earlier saying that Jay-Z wanted to meet with me and I didn't believe it. It was kinda half excitement half skepticism.
Complex: Like, Jay can't really wanna meet with me.
J. Cole: Yeah. It didn't happen that week, it didn't happen the next week, and it didn't happen the third week, so after I got back from LA I'm walking into work and I get a text like, "Yo, yo! Hit me back, you got a meeting today that you didn't know about," I'm just like, Oh, shit this is it! This is the day, this must be it. It felt like the moment. I walked right out of work, I didn't say shit to nobody, dog. I didn't say what up to a manager, to another co-worker. I walked in, got the text and walked out. So about 10 min later I get the actual confirmation that the Jay-Z meeting is going down.
J. Cole: I was nervous as shit. My hands were sweaty, I'm drying my hands off on my pants. I had just enough time, sitting in the waiting room to get my nerves together. He walked in, cool as a fucking fan, said what's up, sat down, got right to business. I went in there and played him a song I got called "Lights Please." Jay-Z's reactions are incredible when he's feeling some shit, 'cause a) He's Jay-Z, so you're already gassed, and b) He's looking dead in your eyes, bobbing his head, intensely in the music. The best part about it is, when he's feeling something, when there's a line that he likes, he gives you that, "Wooooooo!" and he'll let you know that he's feeling it. It's a three hour meeting and we only played 5 songs, so the rest of the time, we're talking and building, you know, talking about Obama and shit. Then three weeks later I got the confirmation text that said he wanted to do the deal. And we just went from there.
Complex: What was the first thing you thought when you met Jay?
J. Cole: ... You really wanna known my first thought?
J. Cole: I was like, Damn, I'm taller than Jay-Z. Laughs. I got like an inch on him.
Complex: We've all heard the horror stories about the artists that were benched on Def Jam during Hov's presidency. Are you worried at all about getting thrown on the shelf?
J. Cole: Nah, dog. No. There's not even an ounce of fear and I'll tell you why. Ive gotten that question a couple times, but now that I've had time to think about it, it just hit me right now. I'm blessed in the sense that a) It's a new situation for them and b) Them niggas actually believe. It's not even a situation like, Aw, we'll give you a shot. I had dinner with Jay, Jay Brown, Ty Ty and John Meneilly, it was a welcome to the family type feeling and they just let me know, Yo, we're excited. The real thing is that they weren't going to do rap, if that tells you like my position over there. They weren't gonna do rap. I think Roc Nation was just gonna be a pop label. But when they heard me, it was a breath of fresh air. It was like, Oh, OK, we'll do it. So they're excited, I'm excited.
Complex: With the industry the way it is, it seems everyone's been getting 360 deals. Is that what you got?
J. Cole: Yeah, it's a 360 deal. Which is a bitch, but it is necessary.
Complex: Why is it necessary for you? Can you tell us about it?
J. Cole: Basically, 360 deals mean the label gets a piece of everything. Back in the days, it was sacred that a label could not touch your show money. Worst things worst, if a label wasn't putting you out, you could always eat off your show money, your merchandising, anything that your name is on, they couldn't touch. But now that albums aren't selling, labels need a way to make money, cause they're losing money.
J. Cole: So how do they do that? Now they get a cut of their artists show money, they get a cut of their artists merchandising, some labels, not mine, get a cut of their artists publishing, that's a big no no. I'm not getting raped, but it's a 360 deal. On the other hand you want that because if I'm an artist on Def Jam, and my album didn't sell that well, back in the day a label was so quick to shelf you. So quick to be like, Fuck you, nigga, we can't make any money off you no more, your album cost too much, blah blah. But now if he had a 360 deal, the label will say, Aight let's at least throw him on tour, let's at least make money off them like that. And now you're eating and the labels eating. And everyone's happy.
Complex: Besides Nervous Wreck from NC and Jay-Z. who else was an influence on you? I gotta ask, did Petey Pablo have any affect?
J. Cole: Nah, no influence on my personal music. But yo, I'm mad proud of Petey Pablo, I'm not gonna front [Laughs]. On the Green Lantern show, someone called in and they were talking shit about Petey like, Yo, its fucked up what he did. They were talking about how he blew up and he never came back to help put anybody from North Carolina on. But regardless of all that, I just look at the positives. This nigga had the entire United States of America spinning shirts around they head screaming North Carolina, a state that they probably never been to. That's beautiful.
Complex: So who were the influences?
J. Cole: Oh man you already know, Tupac. I'm a Tupac stan. But other than him, Nas, as far as lyrically. 'Pac is my favorite but I don't resemble him, lyrically. More like content wise, maybe. But lyrically it was more Nas, it's Eminem, Canibus, Royce, Jay-Z, the real lyrical niggas were the ones that were big on me. I used to go to Ohhla.com and print out Canibus raps and tape 'em to my wall, Eminem raps, and tape 'em to my wall. I used to just study these shits. Like if I was bored, I'm looking at the wall, reading along, just look how they break down their raps. I used to be a little battle rapper type nigga.
Complex: And now your goals have changed, right? There's a little get rich and famous mentality running through your music.
J. Cole: I'm not addicted to some idea of stardom, I don't give a fuck about that. It's more a respect factor, I'd rather be known as the best, but not just the best to hip-hop fans, I want the world to know. Even when I liked these underground rappers, and these real lyrical rappers that people not might pay attention to, my mind from day one was always on some blow up shit. I just want people to know the name and appreciate the music. That's all it was ever about. There were never fantasies about money or ballin' out of control. Even rapping in ciphers, that shit used to give me the biggest joy—when I was in high school, going to ciphers, laying shit down and having niggas come up and give me daps like, Yo, you murdered that shit! I guess it's just the respect. How big can you be if just the underground niggas know you? And you can't buy your mom a house when you just an underground celebrity.
Complex: We heard Mickey Factz got signed to Roc Nation. You excited about that?
J. Cole: Mickey Factz is dope—been working hard, grindin'. But as far as I know, I'm the only rapper signed to Roc Nation.
Complex: Do you feel like you have a lot in common with this new class of up-and-coming rappers? Seems like there's a similar vibe between you and some newer cats like Drake and Charles Hamilton.
J. Cole: I've always been a preacher for the past few years that rap is turning a corner. It has to. Everything happens in cycles, people had to be hungry for more in order for there to be more. And the people were starving. And it's not like these rappers weren't out there, but it's just that now people are so hungry that they have to pay attention now. It's like these new guys, maybe these guys wouldn't have been who they are five or six years ago but they have to be who they are now at this time. If I would have gotten signed five years ago, I would not be the rapper I am today. So I'm glad it happened at this time, it couldn't happen at a better time.
Complex: When you say turn a corner, I would think you're talking about getting away from the need to be a caricature in rap. None of the new dudes seem to be boasting about something they're not. That's a positive, right?
J. Cole: To me, it's a good and a bad thing. The music becomes more pure and soulful when it's true, and it has to be true these days with the way the internet works, and the way the game works, everyone wants authentic raps. But it's sad in the sense that, if you do that, you're basically saying to the world that you can't have another Jay-Z. You know? Because his story, he's a movie — of course it's based on a true story, but so were so many movies that can't possibly be that true and that are incredible. So if you're telling me that everything needs to be 100% accurate then you can't have Jay-Z's anymore, you can't have Biggie, you can't have Eminem, because his whole first album was a fantasy. That's the sad thing about it. But the good part is you get music with feeling. Rick Ross is a perfect example, because he can actually rap. This shit is wrestling, dog. It's a shame that people don't understand it. It's just about which character are you?
Complex: Which character is J. Cole?
J. Cole: If I'm a character, it's a biographical movie. My character is as close to me as possible. As close to being myself as possible. Not that I knock anybody that creates or intensifies their story, I just don't feel comfortable doing it. So my character, J. Cole, is very close to Jermaine Cole.
Complex: And it seems like that character is trying hard to connect with people.
J. Cole: If you look at most of my music, if you get past the mixtape shit and braggadocios raps, which I don't even like doing anymore, you get past that, most of my music is struggle, pain, progress, dreams. That's what people relate to, all the best rappers, it was all about struggle, pain, hopes, ambitions and dreams, all those things were always in the equation, in the pot, whether it was Pac, Biggie, Eminem. Even Eminem, as crazy as his raps were, it was all pain related shit and him talking about, I'm trying to feed my daughter type shit, I'm broke, unsigned. If you're not a rapper doing that, of course you could still succeed, but if you wanna touch people in a way that they've never been touched or rarely get touched anymore, you gotta tap into something.
Complex: I like the fact that a lot of your music like, "Get Up" from "The Warm Up" sampler, has this undertone that things will get better.
J. Cole: That's a big part of it. I try to do it in ways that don't come off corny. I'm not a conscious rapper, all those things we talk about, the struggle, the pain, the outlook to the future, keep your head up. I try to put all those positive things into a regular human character, which is myself, so you see that I am not perfect at all, 'cause he's talking about bitches, and he's talking about his ambitions for money, his flaws, but he's also telling you to keep your head up.
Complex: Yeah, you get the whole "keep your head up" feeling from the trailer for your next mixtape, "The Warm Up". What's with the basketball theme?
J. Cole: It's based on this story from when I was in high school and I got cut from the team. A lot of people get cut from the team, but it's really about how people handle the shit. Some people quit. They get spiteful, say fuck the coach and they wont try out no more, some people will just go harder and use it for motivation to make sure that next year it's undeniable. Most people get cut and feel like they should have made it. And that's what happened with me. I used the basketball story to parallel the rap shit 'cause that's how I felt. I was like, Damn, I'm so good, but I felt like I was getting looked over. It was really just that no one was hearing me, but I felt like I was getting looked over. I was like, Damn, can't y'all see how good I am? So instead of getting frustrated and quitting I just used that as motivation.
Complex: How different will it be from your first mixtape, "The Come Up?"
J. Cole: It's actually way different. You can hear the growth. The content is not even the same. It is 'cause it still has that dreamer aspect to it but "The Come Up" was just more raw lyricism. I just wanted to show how ill I was on every fucking song. This is more song making and more mature. Content-wise, it goes along with the story. "The Come Up" was about me coming up and moving to New York. This about me being up here and me having my feet planted and learning how to maneuver.
J. Cole's "The Warm Up" mixtape is set to hit the internets at the end of May 2009.
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jcolenc.