How J. Cole Found His Sound on '2014 Forest Hills Drive'

Juro “Mez” Davis gives insight on crafting J. Cole's platinum-selling album '2014 Forest Hills Drive.'

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Complex Original

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Last Sunday, J. Cole’s Dreamville label took fan appreciation to a whole new level.

Just a few hours before midnight, Cole, his manager, Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad, and label mates tweeted a number (1-888-88-DREAM that read as 2014 Forest Hills Drive on your iPhone) for their followers to call. Some fans were lucky enough to speak with Cole, who promised that something special was coming the week of the one-year anniversary of his platinum-selling 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Cole rarely lets his fans down. He delivered with the label’s first compilation album, Revenge of the Dreamers II, debuting two new signees and more music from Cole, Bas, Cozz, and Omen. Initially, it was slated for Dec. 11, but the date moved up to Dec. 7 when Cole emailed a few followers with a download link, which was another display of the direct-to-fan model.

All of this was reminiscent of a year ago when 2014 Forest Hills Drive was getting ready to drop on Dec. 9. Remember, he announced it in mid-November—without any singles or snippets—and accompanied the short rollout with a personal listening at his home address in Fayetteville, N.C., for selected fans. 2014 Forest HillsDrive sold exceptionally well in the first week (353,000 copies) and eventually went platinum this past November.

You could list accolades and applaud marketing strategies of Cole and his team, but none of it matters if the product isn’t good. Cole made this album extremely personal, with key collaborators who were able to elevate his sound, namely mixing engineer Juro “Mez” Davis. The 31-year-old Manhattan native has been in Cole’s corner since The Come Up, perfecting the quality of each project throughout their nearly 10-year friendship. Mez got a lot of props from Cole’s fans because of his mixing style on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, where you can notice the tweaks and adjustments only his ear can catch. It’s really a flawless listen that captures a feel of a sonic movie.

Here, Mez speaks on a wide range of topics, including his initial meeting with Cole and how the rapper wanted to sound like Kanye West at first, the dynamic range of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the possibility of it becoming a double album, and where he sees Cole’s sound going next.

When was the first time you met J. Cole?
A friend of mine and business partner at the time, this kid named Mike Rooney, actually brought him to the studio we worked out of in Manhattan named Romeo. I was like the main engineer there. It shut down, but it was a bunch of producers there and businessmen. Rooney brought him through and he played some records. I’m trying to remember which records it was. Shit off The Come Up though because it was back then. Shit was just fire. And we worked from there. I think that was like his first professional studio session ever. Before that, he would just be recording in his house and stuff. 

When you were hearing those records off The Come Up, what were your first reactions to them?
I just thought his storytelling ability was crazy. That was the main thing. I just remember that standing out more than anything.

When Cole was starting out, who did he want to sound like? Was he sampling?
He was a huge Kanye fan when I met him. He was always sampling. I definitely thought to myself, “He’s doing the Kanye right now.” You know, The College Dropout Kanye days and shit like that. I would say that, even more than 2Pac. I know he likes ’Pac. He likes ’Pac the most. But at that point, he was definitely on his Kanye vibe. 

How has the mixing process changed for you with each project?
I think as it's gone on, he’s gotten more hands-on. Like The Come Up, I just did whatever. But then again, that was the most unprofessionally done out of everything we did, you know? Then The Warm Up, some of that was before he got the deal. That actually got him the deal. And then some was after. We actually stayed up at the end, which happens with a lot of the projects, for like three nights in a row. I remember we were at a studio called Allido, which was Mark Ronson’s spot back then. And Roc Nation let us be up there and mix it up there. They were all pretty much sleeping [in the studio] and they were trying to stay up with me. I had things to do, and it’s easy to stay up at that point. But for someone who is sitting there watching you, fucking listening to a snare over and over, they gonna fall asleep. I remember Ib was there and Cole was there of course and a couple other people. Other people came and left though, but it was actually them who stayed the whole time.

We moved to the studio called KMA on 42nd Street I used to work out of. I think they shut down now. I just remember looking over to Ib and being like, "Yo, man, I don’t even know what I’m doing at this point." I’m just automatic because I was so tired. We trying to make this deadline and shit. It’s funny because the deadline was so much more important in our minds then it was for everybody else’s in that point and time. People were definitely checking for him, but it wasn’t like now where if you don’t make the deadline, all this shit gets pushed back. It wasn’t an album. It was mixtape.

Do you have that same mentality these days?
It don’t make a difference. I pretty much work on things until I am happy with them. Somebody told me early on in my career, this other engineer who actually taught me a bunch of stuff, he said, "It’s really about the person that keeps mixing until it sounds right." It’s not necessarily about who is best or who does it the fastest. The most important thing is that you keep going until it's done. Not like settling like, "Ah, OK, that’s good enough." Keep going until it sounds like what you wanted it to sound like.

For Friday Night Lights, we definitely went in on that too. I did that in Atlanta at Tree Sound. We rocked out there for Friday Night Lights. They went on tour or something, so I just stayed there by myself. That’s probably my favorite studio because everybody is like family over there. They cook meals and shit, and everybody is just so friendly. They have an organic farm close to them that they own also. It’s fly. I love that spot.

For Forest Hills Drive, why did you two decide to record it in commercial studios instead of a home studio?
I mean commercial studios clearly have more equipment. Some of the things, like the outro, were done with the whole band. That’s a positive of not doing a home studio because we had the whole band playing at once. They ended up writing it down and stuff like that, but it just started out as a jam session. And there are mad little funny songs that came out of the jam session that didn’t go on the album.

Was the majority of it recorded in Hollywood?
Yeah, I think so. Mind you, Hollywood was our home studio. It was just an expensive one. It was like a house that was also a studio. It was called Perfect Sound. It was in Hollywood Hills. And they had a nice little view of the city. But it was a house and also a studio in the back. It was dope. Normally people would send an engineer a song, they mix it and then it’s done. For this, the mix process was going on throughout the whole thing. I really felt as close to perfect as I’ve gotten with the whole thing. 

I was reading the NPR interview Cole did last year and he said that Forest Hills Drive was initially a double album but that certain scenes needed to be cut. 
It wasn’t really tough, it’s just the double album shit was dope though. [Laughs.] I was all about the double album. I think it was dope too because nobody...I don’t know. Who was the last person to do a double album that mattered? 

Vince Staples did this year.
Vince Staples did? I didn’t know he did a double album. But that was this year.

If we’re talking about 2014...
—no one. That’s why it was just dope. When you do a double album, it just doubles your sales. So, if you sell 300,000, it equates to 600,000. So that’s a plus. I thought the double album shit was fire. But at the end of the day, shit is about cutting the fat to really get things tight. I feel like everybody knows you can add songs. The hard part is subtracting things. In mixing, that’s a big rule. One that takes a long time to get is that really you should sit there and think about what you are going to take away when you mix rather than what you’re going to add. Of course, you are going to add stuff at the end, but it is really more important to make space in the song when you’re taking away stuff.

What would it sound like if Forest Hills Drive was a double album?
What would it sound like? Damn, I wonder what songs we would have cut? I would have to look at them, but I’m not gonna tell you no names. [Laughs.] It would have been fire though. 

In terms of the sound, you and Cole went a different direction.
When I send it to a [mastering] engineer, I said, "Don’t worry about the loudness." Pretty much for all the albums. But this one in particular, it was like, "Nah, really. I don’t give a fuck. [Laughs.] Don’t compromise the quality for the volume, period." And on top of that, we sent it to six different mastering engineers. We sent “No Role Modelz,” just one song, to test out to like six different engineers and we picked one out. I’m not gonna lie, the difference was extremely drastic. It was mild, and we told them all the same thing.

We went with Brian Gardener who has done tons of shit. But they sent back two versions. The mastering engineers get worried about whether it’s loud enough for the labels and shit like that. So, they sent back a low version and a loud version. And I remember that I sent them both to Cole. I listened to both myself and I told him I liked the low version. It just sounds better. There’s no compromise. So he listened and he initially was fucking with the loud version. That’s the thing—when it's loud, you automatically feel like it's better, which is just not true. You just gotta turn the volume up. It’s nuts that everybody just goes for the loud shit. But if you turn them down and compare the volumes, it’s different. That’s just the day and age we’re at. It’s called the “loudness wars,” everybody is trying to get their shit louder than the other person.

So anyway, I think he liked the loud one first and then he thought about it. I’m like, "You sure? I like the low one." Then he thought about it and he hit me back. He’s like, "Go with the low one. It sounds a lot clearer." I remember when I hit the mastering engineer, the assistant, Mike. I was like, "Man, we’re gonna go with the low one." He was like, "Man. Nobody goes with the low one. That’s new." 

What were some musical influences that put him in a certain headspace for songs like “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Love Yourz?"
I know he was riding a bike a lot at this time. He told me he was listening to a lot of Beatles for whatever reason. But I remember, he got on this whole bike wave and he was bringing his bike to the studio every day and riding it to the studio. He had a spot in Midtown he was staying at. If you noticed, remember when they did the video for the intro? It was him riding his bike. That was just the cameraman following him one day.

It's been one year since 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped. It’s been a huge success. What does it feel like to see your peer become this huge rap star now?
I almost don’t realize it sometimes. I realize the success of things. I almost don’t realize how big of a star he is, though. The other day I was like, "Let’s go to a fair or something." He was so against it. He was like, "Man, I can’t go." I’m like, "Why, what you mean?" And then I realized, "Oh, you kind of famous." [Laughs.] Mind you, it was gonna be a hassle. I be forgetting that shit. I acknowledge how famous things are, I be forgetting that it even affects a person’s life. Things are different for him than they are for you and me.

Why do you think fans relate to his music and story so much?
I think he has a very important voice right now. I was noticing the other day how much nowadays, and I think since that album, that people post clips of his interviews as little inspirational things. I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the success of his album, but I think he’s gotten more comfortable and better at interviews or has more to say or something. Like his interviews now are kind of becoming legendary. I see a lot of people posting them and I click on them and I'll be like, "Guy’s pretty smart." [Laughs.

Lastly, where do you see Cole’s sound progressing on his next project?
That’s hard to say. It’s really just what the songs say, you know what I mean? It’s easy to listen to the song and say what I’d do because it’s all based on what he brings. What he brings for me to mix, for me to be like, ‘I think we could do this, we could add this or this type of mix.’ But I definitely don’t want to go back to demolished sounding music. I definitely want it to always be more clean and pristine.

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