Jim Jones is living proof that you can be in the game for over two decades and still have more to say. The Harlem rap legend is nearing the 20th anniversary of his and Diplomat’s iconic album, Diplomatic Immunity (March 25), and he just dropped his 31st solo project, too—which includes his massive catalog of mixtapes—Back in My Prime.
“Just to be in this game this long and still be able to make music that people are actually listening to and streaming and things like that is great in [and of] itself,” Jones tells Complex at our New York office. He feels thankful to still be rapping at the level that he is. “And then, looking back on all the years and all the work we put in, all the good times we had, all the money we made, I’m grateful to be in this game. It took me from the project steps to anything I wanted in this world, man.”
In our conversation, the “We Fly High (Ballin’)” rapper touched on connecting with Drake to perform at the Apollo with the rest of the Dipset crew, his new EP, and being able to make new anthems to fit different generations of hip-hop fans, like his 2022 track “We Set the Trends” with the Migos. Jones also shared his condolences for the late Takeoff, whom he had grown close to prior to his passing.
“RIP to Takeoff,” he said. “Like I said, again, very special individual. One of the closer friends that I had inside of this industry, and I don’t have too many of them. He definitely was a genuine person, and had a big heart.”
After several decades in the game, Jones is still able to maintain a high musical output because he feels reinvigorated thanks to collaborators like the Migos, DJ Drama, Hitmaka, and many others who have helped catapult this third leg of his career. “And I feel better than I ever felt musically, spiritually, mentally, and physically,” Jones emphasizes. “I feel better than I felt when I was 22.”
As the name suggests, the Dipset member’s new musical offering finds him revitalized and hungry. On the 8-song EP, Jones reconnects with long-time collaborator Hitmaka to string together a concise body of work. He raps about the wading relationship with his longtime friend and fellow Dipset member Cam’ron on “Status Update,” and reflects on how far he’s come on “Bet It All.” With appearances from Benny the Butcher, Jeremih, Ty Dolla Sign, and more, the project also sounds distinctly warm thanks to the way it utilizes fresh soul samples, like flipping the iconic beat Jay-Z used on “Imaginary Players” and turning it into a love ballad on his track “YKTV.”
“It’s kind of crazy how I’m just reaching my prime,” Jones raps on “Status Update.” He doubles down on that statement in our conversation, affirming that there is no finish line in sight.
“I could do this shit with my eyes closed and I’m getting paid for it,” he says confidently. “I don’t know about retirement. It’s part of the business. It’s part of me. I’d be able to do music forever if I wanted to.”
We talked to the Harlem legend and Dipset member about his latest EP, Back in My Prime, stories from the peak Diplomats era, his thoughts on the new crop of New York rappers, and more.
It feels like you haven’t taken a break from solo music for over two decades now. What’s been keeping that fire for creating alive?
Living. As long as I’m able to live a life, I have something to talk about. I have something to be creative about. The more you see, the more you want to do and tap into your creative spirit. That, and just keeping a sound mind and not being stuck on yesterday, because today and the future are two of the things that we got to be on top of. And it’s a young world, so I always try to give as much advice to the younger generation coming up as I can. And in turn, I learned a lot from them also. So, it’s a lot of different things that keep me here and keeps me sane.
“I have to re-create myself every 10 years.”
How do you stay adapted to the times? You’ve been through several decades, a different century now. How do you stay on point with it?
Perseverance for one. Being able to know I have to re-create myself every 10 years. It’s a whole different lifestyle. And every 10 years a person becomes a new person anyway, so you got to be able to accept that and know where you’re going in life and things like that. And know how to turn that into something that works for you. And as you get older, the decisions you make should be that much better and things like that. And as I got older, that’s what happened, you know what I mean? And behind all that, we’re living and music is about what you got going on today and where you came from yesterday.
You have anthems for different generations, too. So, you think about the ‘90s, 2000s, that era of Jim Jones. And then recently, “Set the Trends.” What’s been the difference between that approach compared to the past?
RIP to Takeoff. Just being able to be respected by the generation coming up and the mutual understanding of what the music is and Takeoff was just a different individual. We had a great relationship and just being able to be respected in the realm of what was going on, presently. And when he was in the studio, he’s like, “No, we got to get one in, big bro. We got to go.” Like, “No, fuck that.” And pulled up the records, a couple of beats, he picked the beat. And he gave me an alley-oop. Pretty dope.
So, RIP to Takeoff. Like I said, again, very special individual. One of the closer friends that I had inside of this industry, and I don’t have too many of them. He definitely was a genuine person, and had a big heart. I haven’t met too many people like him in life, let alone in this rap game. He definitely will be missed. My heart pours out to his moms and his family.
You said in a previous interview that you feel like you’re having a second career now and you’re thankful for that.
Third career, maybe. The first would be the career with Cam[ron]. That would be when Cam got signed and everything that we needed for Cam to become a superstar is what we did. That would be my first introduction to having a career. The second introduction, I guess, would be The Diplomats and that whole movement and where it took me. And then, from The Diplomats, it took me to have my own solo career, which was Jim Jones. And that was the whole “Ballin’” era. And now, a decade later we’re in a whole other zone. And I feel better than I ever felt musically, spiritually, mentally, and physically. I feel better than I felt when I was 22.
Recently, you had a lot of fun outside with Drake at the Apollo, and even christened him an honorary member of Dipset. When did he reach out to y’all to be involved with the show?
The date had got pushed back a few times. From the first date, we had got in touch with him and there was no more to be talked about, it was self-explanatory. Especially when somebody really let Drake know the significance of him being in Apollo; it is not the biggest crowd. But it is one of the most historic places that you can perform at, with all of the greats that you can run down the line. And also, it’s Dipset’s home for what they say we’ve done.
Drake has a lot of respect for [us] coming up listening to Dipset music. So, it just was a full circle [moment], you know what I mean? It was dope. He gave us our flowers that a lot of people don’t give us. That we deserve. So, I really tip my hat to him. Plus, it’s a family-oriented thing. Drake is Young Money, Young Money is Dipset. It’s one big family.
I know you’ve been tapped in with him for a long time. For you, where does Drake stand in hip-hop history?
I would say he’s the greatest of all time. I would just give that to him. And I mean, there’s a lot of people from the beginning and people that invented hip-hop, I know. But the greatest of all time, it’s a big statement, and the relevancy that he keeps showing year after year, hit after hit, record after record. Any song that he has put out has seemed to go multiple platinum. That’s never happened before in history. I mean, there are a few other people that do astronomical numbers like that, but he really in it, you know what I mean? From all angles of music. It ain’t no place you go where they’re not going to play some Drake records to get the party started. He moves around here like the real Bruce Wayne. He’s my spirit animal, man. I just got to give credit where credit is due, and not taking away from nobody else.
What [Jay-Z] has done to this game is astronomical. He’s like Michael Jordan for what he has put on and what he has done since he came in the game and where he’s at right now. But Jay exited music a long time ago. And that space, that void, I don’t know if it’s a void, but Drake has not exited and he’s still going strong to this day and it doesn’t seem like he’s stopping no time soon. So, I would say the difference between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. LeBron James has accomplished way more than Michael Jordan has accomplished. Maybe not everything, but he’s got championships on four different teams or three different teams. Drake definitely has the scoring title for the whole rap game. You got to give him that. [The greatest] would definitely be Drake or [Lil Wayne] or Tupac. And I’m saying Tupac because I’m selfish with that. He was my all-time favorite coming up.
“Tupac was my all-time favorite coming up.”
Plus, half of these kids don’t know any Jay records. They’re not quoting no Jay records. They’re quoting all Drake shit. They know multiple Drake records. So, in our day, we’re willing to highlight Jay or Tupac, then yeah, we could. But in this day, us highlighting our era really don’t hold no merit in what’s functioning right now. And it ain’t basketball, it’s rap. So, we tend to forget a lot of that shit from back in those days.
Diplomatic Immunity dropped 20 years ago in March. How does it feel to reach that landmark while simultaneously preparing to drop this new project?
Just to be in this game this long and still be able to make music that people are actually listening to and streaming and things like that is great in itself. And then, looking back on all the years and all the work we put in, all the good times we had, all the money we made, I’m grateful to be in this game. It took me from the project steps to anything I wanted in this world, man. I got a good foundation, got a roof over my head. I could eat at the finest restaurants every night if I wanted to. I got options and I’m grateful for that. So, that’s what it means for me to be able to still be here, be able to still be relevant and not starving.
In your 2009 Complex cover story, you tell a story about how you found out Jay-Z snagged the beat for “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” from Cam’ron. What happened with that song?
That was crazy. Cam actually did the whole record to that beat. He was about to use it as a single. As you know, he was signed at Roc-A-Fella. We were all recording out of Baseline [Studios]. And Kanye, Cam liked it and the recording to it, so he’s excited about it.
The BET Awards come on, and we’re in Cam’s house. We see Jay come out performing to that same beat and it just crushed us at that time because we were definitely counting on that record to come out and blast off. You can see how it did for Jay-Z when he put it out. So, we were definitely tight about that one. I know Cam especially was tight. But hey man, shit happens. We had taken the “Oh Boy” beat from him, whether he really wanted us to or not. So, I guess that was his payback.
“Retirement, what is that?”
Tell us about the EP, Back in My Prime. How did it come together?
I started doing this EP about two years ago. So much happened, the pandemic, all types of things. But me and [Yung] Berg [Hitmaka] have been friends for a long time in this game. He’s also one of the few friends, one of the few closer friends that I have in this industry that I consider to be a friend and I could call on him and it don’t got to be about music and things like that. And he’s probably the No. 1 producer right now. So, for me to be able to get a full album from him is like a cheat code. We’ve been working back and forth throughout the years. It’s another lane attitude, what Jim Jones is. But I know the females are definitely going to dig this, and the guys dig whatever the females dig.
What informed your sample choices?
They’re not my choices, those are all Hitmaka’s choices. That was the beauty of being able to collaborate with him. He pretty much put these hits in your lap and you just got to fill in the blanks, from hooks to everything. So, this was a different way for me to record because, creatively, when you have so many things in order, this helps you out. Just makes the records come that much easier and things like that. So, he comes to the table prepared already and it helps the artist out tremendously. I can’t take any credit for any of those things. He’s a creative genius and I’m following his lead on this one.
How therapeutic was recording “Status Update?”
I talk about a lot of current events that are going on in my life, things that people know have been going on in Dipset, where I’m at in life, and a couple of my personal views. It’s dope. I know I say a couple of names in there and people can take it for what it is. I talk about Juelz [Santana], talk about Cam in it, I talk about a few things that’s going on in life. But it’s just me venting and putting some of my life on record.
Have Cam or Juelz heard the track?
I don’t know if they heard the track. Juelz heard the track. I don’t believe Cam’s heard it yet. I never got to play it for him, but he’ll hear it pretty soon.
You had Dusty Locane, Fivio, Rah Swish, and a few other NY drill artists on your Gangsta Grillz tape, so I know you’re tapped into the scene. What do you think of the new crop of artists coming out of the city?
I love them. As you see, I always work with up-and-coming artists. I think they’re dope, they got a lot of energy. A lot of people got a lot of opinions on what drill music is and how they feel about it. But they need to respect what drill music has done for the temple of New York. I’m not saying it was the only reason that we’re back in the music circle, but it’s one of the main factors, the energy that these kids have been projecting and they’ve been really putting off for us and helping us get back inside this musical game for New York standpoint. There are a lot of people that had their hand in it, but that drill music has really put a light on us, and with that, is helped us all come back as a whole.
And the women in drill have also been really pushing the scene forward.
You need more of that. I mean, it’s been so many dope women throughout the history of hip-hop, but not at the magnitude that it is right now. They’re really bossing up, they’re giving a lot of these guys a run for their money, which is pretty dope. Ain’t nothing stronger than a Black creative woman. So, I tip my hat to all these artists, these queens that have been putting on for the city.
“It’s been so many dope women throughout the history of Hip-Hop, but not at the magnitude that it is right now.”
What does success look like to you now as a veteran who’s accomplished so much already?
I haven’t thought about what success looks like right now. Success, to me, looks like my bills being paid every month, and not having to struggle. The money in the business means way more to me than success. And I’ve learned that through having so much success.
With a project called Back in My Prime, it makes it sound like retirement is nowhere in sight for you.
Retirement, what is that? I don’t think I have a job to retire from. People say it like that, but we aren’t on the basketball court. We aren’t getting tired, we’re in a booth. Shit, I could do this shit with my eyes closed and I’m getting paid for it. I don’t know about retirement. It’s part of the business. It’s part of me. I’d be able to do music forever if I wanted to.
So how much longer do you want to be rapping?
Depends on how much longer I plan to live. And I mean living, not being [alive], you know what I mean? For the most part, I think that it’s not about the rapping, it’s about the message. It’s about the responsibility I have and the influence I have. And at the end of the day, getting across to these people how to not go through a lot of the shit that’s going on outside, in these streets, and avoid all the pitfalls I’ve been through. I’m not saying that I’m trying to impose my will on anybody, but it’s all about the message. You got youngsters coming up, so I’m trying to be as responsible as I can, and I can do that through music forever. I can do that through [rapping] forever.