Interview: J. Cole's Producer Elite Discusses "Born Sinner" and Meeting L.A. Reid

Elite speaks on his work for Born Sinner, his upcoming mixtape, and how "Crooked Smile" has opened new doors for him.

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Complex Original

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While J. Cole has proven himself to be a superior songwriter as well as a beast behind the boards, having someone in studio who he can bounce ideas off of can only enhance his creative vision. Enter Anthony Parrino, aka Elite, who has known Jermaine since he dropped his first record, "The Storm," when Cole was 15. At that time, Elite was working his way up the ranks as a producer for Ruff Ryders, and he would link up with the Fayetteville rapper who shared a similar passion for music as he did.

Their musical relationship has blossomed since their fateful connection online (on a Canibus rap forum, no less), with the 30-year-old producer contributing three beats to Cole's latest album, Born Sinner. One of those records is the TLC-assisted single "Crooked Smile," which caught the ear of L.A. Reid and subsequently led to a meeting with the Epic Records CEO. 

We recently spoke with Elite, who detailed his first interactions with J. Cole, his work on Born Sinner, as well as what he has planned for his as-yet-titled second mixtape, which is due out in August. He also gave insight on his encounter with L.A. Reid, which looks to be a groundbreaking moment for the Byram, Connecticut artist.

Interview by Edwin Ortiz (@iTunesEra)

A few years back you rapped, “She don’t go here, she look a little older/Looking like she hopped up out a TLC poster.” It’s fair to say that you can throw that poster out now that you have the real thing on “Crooked Smile.” That must have been a surreal moment for you.
[Laughs.] I literally was just in L.A. Reid’s office a few days ago and I told him that. I was like, “Yo, I rapped in a song and I said that lyric.” TLC was the reason why I wanted to be in hip-hop culture because I wanted girls like that, that’s how much I was in love with TLC. 

J. Cole explained that the collaboration with T-Boz and Chilli was something that was made through management. Was TLC the original feature you guys wanted for “Crooked Smile?”
Yeah, that’s the only one. It was an obvious choice because of the content in the song. The song is about insecurities and embracing your insecurities, and TLC had “Unpretty” and songs like that. They always represented that positive, uplifting message, so it fit. The hook was written for them. That was the plan since day one.

Another record that you co-produced on Born Sinner is the title-track. It plays off this album-ending narrative that details J. Cole’s sort of melancholy yet hopeful demeanor. How do play off of that type of vibe when you’re crafting the beat?
I don’t know if that was the thought process for me; it probably was for Cole because he had more of the direction and scheme of the album on his mind. As the artist and the writer, he always had that vision and was very conscious of it.

At that time when we did “Born Sinner,” we were in Los Angeles for a couple months working in No I.D.’s studio. It was just one of those situations where I was just making beats and making beats, and if he heard something he liked, we would work on it. That was my mindset, I’m just going to make as much great stuff as I can, and we’ll see what he gravitates towards and what becomes of it.

Cole has hundreds of songs, people don’t understand that. They think just because he doesn’t put out a lot of music...I don’t know what people [think], but it’s not from a lack of a work ethic.

You said the track “Let Nas Down” uses a sample of one of your own records, and you stated that original record actually has a different vibe. Do you know what the motivation was for J. Cole behind flipping that?
Well, the song is called “Do She Got A Friend.” It’s me and Bas, who’s another Dreamville artist, and it’s going to be on my upcoming mixtape that I’m putting out this summer. That song is really like some fun, party [track]. It’s a totally different vibe.

When I heard “Let Nas Down,” I was shocked. J. Cole told me that he sampled the song and I’m thinking, “Huh? How would you sample that song? I don’t understand.” When I went to the studio and heard it, it was like a totally different vibe. I was just like, “Wow, this is crazy how you got this out of that.”

Were there any records that you produced and were worked on that didn’t make the final cut?
Yeah, a bunch. Cole has hundreds of songs, to the point where I forget about songs that we’ve done and he’s forgot about songs. People don’t understand that. They think just because he doesn’t put out a lot of music...I don’t know what people [think], but it’s not from a lack of a work ethic. The kid works his ass off. When he puts out the albums and the mixtapes, he’s picking the best of the best.

It’s also subjective, because he has tons of songs that I think are just brilliant that have never come out. He has songs from The Warm Up days that I tried to fight for to be on Born Sinner. I was like, “You got to put this song on Born Sinner. It needs to be on an album.” He just has his own vision. He’s always striving for better. At the end of the day, I respect it because he’s continued to grow with that mindset.

You have three co-productions and a sample flip on Born Sinner, but on Cole World: The Sideline Story, you didn’t have any beats aside from the promotional single, “Who Dat.” What was the reason behind that?
I don’t think there’s a reason, it’s more just how it worked out, because we were doing records back then too. But also, I will say while Cole was predominantly working on his first album, I was really locked in and working on my first mixtape, Awaken. That was kind of at the time when I was really going hard on Awaken.

It actually worked out, because me doing that mixtape made me a hundred times better as a producer. I really learned how to make songs, and I grew as a producer from that experience. I would have never been able to do “Crooked Smile” if I didn’t do Awaken first.

You mentioned you’re working on your new mixtape. How is that coming along?
I’m very close to done, I have all the songs now. It’s just a matter of filling in a verse that I haven’t written yet or mixing and post-production. It’s little stuff that I have to tighten up. I’m tedious with that process of producing the songs and making sure that everything is in the right spot, but as far as the writing and the beats, everything is there. 

Earlier, you said you met with L.A. Reid. What was that meeting for?
He heard the TLC record with Cole, and he wants me to work on their new project. They have a movie coming out, he showed me the trailer, it was unbelievable. It’s definitely the craziest experience of my life to this point to have L.A. Reid asking me to be a part of one of his most legendary acts. 

L.A. Reid heard the TLC record with Cole, and he wants me to work on their new project. They have a movie coming out, he showed me the trailer, it was unbelievable.

The history of you and J. Cole meeting seems like a pretty simple formula, but could you divulge a little bit on how that all occurred?
When I was just graduating high school and going into college, I got discovered by my manager at the time [Alimah Dean], who was the sister of Dee and Waah, the CEOs of Ruff Ryders. She started managing me as an artist and got me an internship at Ruff Ryders studios in Yonkers. I’m young, doing my thing trying to come up and be an intern, and I was also making beats for myself. I got a few placements and starting to get a little buzz going. I used to go online and post in the forums like any other huge rap fan would do at the time. I put it out there, “I’m working for Ruff Ryders.”

So one day, this kid hits me up, he’s like 15-years-old or whatever. He’s like, “Yo, I’m dope. Listen to this.” So he sent me the song “The Storm,” which is the first song he ever recorded. I was blown away. Like, this kid is incredible, there’s no way that he wrote and produced it himself, there’s no way someone this young is writing like this. The relationship started from there, and then when he moved out to St. John’s we kept working together.

What was that like meeting J. Cole in the flesh? The Internet can be a bit shady at times.
I mean, we had built a relationship at that point where we would send each other music all the time and talk. He was just a regular guy. We’re college kids, so it’s like we were just having fun, happy to be talking music with someone who sees it the same way you do. At that time in your life, not a lot of people are going to share the passion that we had because we had extreme passion for music, damn near obsessive. It was just cool to be hanging out with someone who shares that.

Born Sinner comes out tomorrow (June 18).

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