It's been a long time coming for Topaz Jones, the New Jersey-based singer/rapper producer with dreads down to his waist. His is a home-grown movement, one that started with middle school talent shows and, most recently, had him performing at our most recent No Ceilings show in Brooklyn.
His next album, Arcade, is starting to look like a big one. Previous releases like "Powerball," "Tropicana," and the Pell-featuring "Winona" have built a deafening buzz for the young artist, and forced him to acknowledge a new level of professionalism—just when Arcade was set to release last month, Topaz pushed the date back due to sample clearance issues.
The new due date is October 28, and it can't come soon enough. After seeing Topaz play most of the album live, funk's future in the next generation of musicians seems safe and sound—the music is irresistibly kinetic, dance music that makes you think. And to hear Topaz talk about it, there's a whole lot more in store.
How was the recording process for Arcade different from your previous releases?
A lot of this music I’ve had to sit on for a while, because I’ve wanted to get everything else around it right. Arcade itself was an exercise in me finding my sound and what I wanted my home base to be as an artist. Now that I have the freedom to make whatever I want outside of that, it’s taken me to a deeper place, what really drew me to funk and this style of music to the first place.
There's definitely a foundation in funk, but your recent singles have been so diverse, musically speaking.
I always tried just to make music, and not worry about what classification it’s going to have. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of people who were making different types of shit, whether it be working with Late Night Episode—the band that co-produced a lot of the album—or all the different artists that inspired me when I was living in Jersey… If something’s cool and makes me feel something, I’m going to find out a reason why.
What do songs that really connect with you have in common?
I first fell in love with funk just because of melody, harmony, the chords—then I got attracted to rap because of the lyrical dexterity. I remember the first time I put on Stankonia and The Love Below, sitting there and dissecting “A Life In the Day of Benjamin Andre” forever, trying to pick apart what makes this so dope.
At the end of the day, I think it just comes down to authenticity and feeling. If you’re an artist and you’re really baring yourself and making yourself vulnerable, I think people feel that.
Is that something that always came naturally to you?
I think there’s this misconception that people are just coming out the womb with the performance skills they have, but there’s a lot of hard work that happens behind the curtain. In my case, I was lucky enough to be given a lot of opportunities to perform for people as a kid—in front of my family at Thanksgiving, or at religious ceremonies, or at school. I was always doing talent shows and stuff. It helps when you're not waiting for an opportunity based on music industry clout—me and my boy Thelonius Martin, we would throw concerts when we were in high school.
Putting on our own shows, and having to win over fans every time, and trying to get more people to come the next time, it’s a sufficient gauntlet.
What did you play at the talent shows as a kid?
I know one day Nardwuar is gonna poke through my stuff and find my home videos—at least, I hope that’s what happens. I dressed up as Michael Jackson, repeated the dance moves… it’ll be really embarrassing if those videos come out, honestly. I used to be able to do the moonwalk, but I kind of lost it. It’s been a while. I had the jacket with the zippers and everything. We would have school events and I would take it upon myself to write the raps that were on-topic.
I got laughed at a lot early on. I’ll never forget, there was a kid in middle school who really took it upon himself to shit on me. It wasn’t like everyone was riding with me from the jump. I had to win over my hometown first, which was an important step. Once I became the kid at the party who rapped, it brought out people to test me, people started listening to my music, it connected me to where I’m from that gave me confidence that I could do something beyond the street where I grew up.
Putting on our own shows, ANd trying to get more people to come the next time, it’s a sufficient gauntlet.
It’s great to have that person who shits on you early on, because that person is going to be there the rest of your career in one form or another.
Yeah, it’s either going to be an internet troll, or somebody talking shit.
I saw you tweeting about sample clearance issues...
I’m just trying to play the game smarter and prepare myself for where I want to be. When I put out The Honeymoon Suite, we weren’t thinking that we were gonna put it on streaming services. A lot of those issues weren’t present, but now as we came into Arcade, I put so much more passion into these songs—they’re better songs, and as I write better songs, I want to protect myself. I don’t want to end up in a “Blurred Lines” situation.
What was your instrumental involvement on these songs?
I’m the type of musician where I can pick up something and try to make it bend to my will, and if I spend enough time with it I get what I want. But most of the time, I’d bring in my friends who are super sick. Eric Sherman, the guitarist for Late Night Episode, put down some really awesome riffs in these songs… there’s a really talented producer/singer named Levankali who produced and sang on “Powerball.” Just working with him and seeing him pick up every instrument and be a virtuoso with—it was humbling.
What were you listening to during the making of the album?
Funnily enough, I was listening to a lot of Prince the last couple of years. I’ve always been a fan, my father was a Prince fanatic, brought me to see him a couple of times when I was a kid. I felt some kind of kinship with him, and I felt I needed to return to that root. None of us had any idea he was going to pass, but it felt almost weirdly appropriate that I was able to grow my appreciation for him before he was gone.
Aside from that, a lot of Outkast, a lot of Earth, Wind, and Fire, younger artists too, but mainly old stuff.
I was very focused on being the best rapper for a lot of years, and now it’s just about being the best songwriter.
Have you stuck with those funk artists throughout your life? Did you ever through a crazy dark punk phase?
We were in the studio last night, singing a melody and trying to figure out where it came from. It turned out that it was an Evanescence melody… instead of the super hardcore emo phase, I went through a psychedelic Beatles phase, tried to become a hippie a little bit. Some of that lingers, but I have my roots in funk and soul and hip-hop. I was very focused on being the best rapper for a lot of years, and now it’s just about being the best songwriter and just making music that people want to move to. Movement is big for me, I love music that makes you move.
Do you still have a day job?
I just quit actually, this past Friday. That’s not to say I might get another one, but I’ve been working harder since I quit. The album is coming, and I wanted to have space to move around and finish all the things I needed to do, tie all the bows. I also had a couple of shows coming up I wanted to prepare for… I always told myself, ‘I don’t want to be at this place longer than this amount of time, and I was rapidly approaching that amount of time. Summer was coming to an end… I felt like leaving work, and waking up just to go back to work was very taxing on me creatively.
Where do you think an artist’s responsibility lies in commenting on societal ills?
I’ll defer to that Nina Simone quote—it’s the artist’s duty to reflect their time. As things get crazier, we can’t just ignore it. It’s one thing if you’re a person who doesn’t think about these things and you’re xan’d out somewhere...if that’s your truth, live your truth.
But if you’re a person who’s culturally aware and pays any attention to what’s going on in the news, it’s inevitable that it’s going to turn up in your work in some way, shape, or form. I was talking about this with my girlfriend, we go back and forth on cultural issues. She’s more activist-minded than I am, and a lot of the conversations we have, I find myself thinking about them when I’m making new stuff now.
I’ve always found issue with saying things the right way so you can sneak the medicine in the candy, but if 2016 in music has taught us anything, it’s that it’s time to not hold back any more, and just speak freely about how fucked up shit is. And how to make it better.
Music is a universal language. It will touch a lot of corners, more than tweeting about it or saying something online will ever be able to do.
Topaz Jones' Arcade will be released October 28.