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With two successful mixtapes, The Comeup (2007) and The Warmup (2009), a great deal of buzz has been generated in anticipation of Jermaine’s solo debut. Upon the release of “Who Dat?,” the album’s lead single, J. Cole managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on his love of Nas and 2Pac, the professional lessons he’s learned from Jay-Z, and the lasting influence his mother had on his burgeoning career.
AllHipHop.com: As a fellow native of North Carolina, I am curious to know if you have been engaged in any conversations with either 9th [Wonder], Phonte or Big Pooh? Have they reached out to you and congratulated you on your success?
J. Cole: Yeah, absolutely. Me and 9th speak from time to time. Actually, if he’s reading this, I want him to hit me back, because he never hit me back! [laughing] But I’ve been a fan of these guys for years. When I was in high school, I used to go to this club in downtown Chapel Hill, [Local 506]. And on [“Microphone Mondays”], 9th was deejaying, and there would just be freestyle battles. And basically, long-story-short, [Little Brother] had just made the cover of XXL, which was big. When that worked for them, I was like, oh man, they got a real good rating. So I was up there every Monday, getting a dose of some real hip-hop. I always remember like looking up to 9th early on.
AllHipHop.com: When you officially arrived in New York City, was the scene a little bit different from what you expected? Compare and contrast the New York scene versus the North Carolina scene.
J. Cole: The difference between the two scenes. Man, at that time, everybody had a mixtape in New York. Everybody, man! [laughing] And like back home, it wasn’t really like that. Some people were doing mixtapes, but it was more like, you know, people were pressing up albums. People were paying money to press up albums, and selling them out the trunk of their car. Up in New York, it was more like, let’s just go to the local spot where they press up CDs, and we’ll just like press up like a thousand mixtapes and hustle those. Back home, where I came from, it was more like selling albums out of the trunk of your car. Or even if you had to like burn the CD yourself and write on it, it was more so about an album, instead of mixtapes. So that’s like what the independent grind was about in the two cities.
AllHipHop.com: Was there a particular opportunity in New York City that really helped you shape your craft?
J. Cole: I don’t think there was just one thing. But going to school and actually being in New York helped me broaden my subject matter. And it helped me review what I was going through back home, or what was happening back home in a different light. It was like I was writing about home from a distance. Like it gave me time to kind of reflect. Seeing New York, kind of helped me see like damn, well, it’s not like just back home. Back home, we don’t have this and damn, back home they’re not doing this. It’s like, I realized how many damn strip clubs and pawn shops and crime we have in my city, to be such a small city. So that’s really what it was. It just gave me a different perspective to write from. It’s like, when you’re in one place for so long, sometimes you need to step away to really see, see what’s going on.
AllHipHop.com: I can definitely see that. While in attendance at St. John’s University, your studies revolved around communications and business. What rapper do you think was the best communicator?
J. Cole: I would say probably like Nas, in terms of telling stories. I love the way he told his stories. They were so vivid. Like he described everything in the room to you, basically, in rap form. And I was also into that. I started mimicking that pretty early on. And 2Pac’s stories, too! He wasn’t so vivid with his details, but he captured the emotions and those feelings that we can all relate to. Nas was more so about describing what’s happening, and Pac was like describing the feeling.
AllHipHop.com: And on the business front, what rapper do you think has the best business savvy?
J. Cole: In terms of business, I feel like that’s Jay. Jay handled his business in the best way a rapper can handle his business. So I try to model myself and my moves after those he’s made. I’m not necessarily following it exactly, but just knowing that you got to invest your money and think outside of the rap box. That’s major.
AllHipHop.com: Few emcees possess college degrees, so what life skills do you think the college experience provided beyond your coursework that prepared you for life in the music industry?
J. Cole: I think it just gave me more time to grow as a person, really. You know, college gives you an extra four years to organize your life and your thoughts and just really grow up. So rather than jumping into the real world at eighteen, you can say it’s like the difference between somebody that’s going to come into the NBA right after high school, and somebody that’s going to come in after four years of college. Like the guy with four years of college is a little more prepared; not because he’s a better player, but because he has had more time to prepare and grow up. So that’s what college gives: more time to analyze life and become smarter. And that’s what it did for me. It bought me some time, basically.
AllHipHop.com: As the first artist signed to Roc Nation, how does it feel to be selected to christen the label?
J. Cole: Man, it’s a huge honor, man, to like have these people believe in me, especially with the type of music I’m doing. It’s not your average stuff. This ain’t what’s normal out there, you know what I’m saying? Like this isn’t what’s typically on radio or selling a million albums. So to have people put their trust in me from Roc Nation to Columbia to my management, and doing the type of music I’m doing, it makes me feel proud. Like I’m not just proud of me, I’m proud of them! [laughing] The game is changing, because four years ago, somebody like me couldn’t get on. There was no place for me. People didn’t want to hear what I had to offer. But now, people actually do listen and they hear what I’m saying.
AllHipHop.com: Your song “Lights Please” created quite a buzz on the net and it is one of the songs that ultimately led to your signing at Roc Nation. Are there any special memories attached to the song – from a songwriting, production or recording standpoint?
J. Cole: Yeah, especially when I think about the beat. It just started off as a drum loop. Then, I added those keys, and it just sounded like something special. After that, I took a little break, and I just remember that when I came back to it, the words just flowed out so easily. And it was great, because there was no pressure involved. I was just broke. About to graduate school. So kind of, without even knowing, I was panicking – just hoping this music thing was going to take off a little quicker. But at the same time, it was like music was my escape, man. I could always go home from school or from work or whatever I was doing, and just work on music. And that was what came out that night. And it was really something that I was going through at that time, so that’s just why it just flowed out so easily. But yeah, I just remember being super duper broke. And not having enough. And not having no real career plan of what I was going to do. I just knew that I was not about to go get a nine to five career job after graduation, and I wasn’t going to go to grad school. So everyone else was applying for jobs, and applying for grad school, and I was like: “Man, I’m going to make this music thing happen.”
AllHipHop.com: When you look back on your Blueprint 3 collaboration, do you think that it is somewhat prophetic for you to record “A Star is Born” with Jay-Z?
J. Cole: Yeah, man, that’s kind of crazy. Like when you really think about it, and you think about where I could potentially be ten years from now, fifteen years from now, the power of that name right there is crazy. It’s not something I think about often, but when I do think about it, I definitely think: “Man, it’s crazy how that worked out.” [laughing] And Jay’s smart for that! [laughing continues] You know, if I end up blowing up, he is going to end up looking like a genius!
AllHipHop.com: With your recent touring experience with Jay-Z on the Blueprint tour, how do you think you have grown as a performer? And on top of that, what lessons did you learn as you watched him perform?
J. Cole: To answer all that: just over-all confidence. Like I gained confidence and I learned like, you know, the importance of confidence. When Jay is on that stage, he knows he belongs on that stage. And it shows, and it flows through every move he makes and every rap he speaks and every time he talks to the crowd with no music on. It shows. That confidence shows. So that’s one thing I learned, like, man. You’ve got to know that you belong up there and that the people are there to see you, if it’s your show, and people are there to see you. And if they’re not there to see you, you’ve got to make it so they will come to see you next time and they’ll never forget your name. So that’s what I gained from the experience.
AllHipHop.com: The first single for your upcoming album is entitled, “Who Dat?” When your name is mentioned, what qualities and characteristics do you hope people will mention?
J. Cole: Oh, man, I hope they equate my name with quality. Quality lyrics. Quality beats. Quality hooks. Quality concepts. You know, there are some artists who go out there and do what they need to do, but they know in their hearts that they are just throwing some s**t together. But it’s enjoyable music, so they know people will listen to it. I hope when they listen to mine, they know it is something special. It’s like the difference between watching Soul Plane and Avatar. You see the difference. You see the level of work that was put into a piece of work. So I hope when people view my work, I’ll be more like Avatar than Soul Plane! [laughing]
AllHipHop.com: Out of all the songs that you have recorded, what led you to select “Who Dat” as your grand introduction to a larger, mainstream audience?
J. Cole: This song turns heads. Like, this song is a conversation piece, because when it comes on the radio, for the people who don’t know who I am, they’re going to immediately turn their heads and ask: “Who is this?” It doesn’t sound like anything on the radio. Who knows what it’s going to do on the charts? Who knows how far it’s going to go? But it will absolutely strike a nerve. No one will be able to forget this song, because of how left it is of everything else. It’s impressive, and really strikes a nerve.
AllHipHop.com: When you look at the lyrics of “Lights Please” and “Not Too Late,” what inspired the creative observations of the female’s perspective in these experiences?
J. Cole: Observations. Even though they’re talking about a misguided female, it’s still empowering in a way. It’s not just bashing a girl. It’s touching on serious everyday issues, and if there’s a girl out there listening to my music and being exposed to that, hopefully she look at her man and say: “Oh, s**t, let me change that.”
AllHipHop.com: Your mother played an important role in jump-starting your early music career, when she bought a beat machine for you. What kind of special appreciation do you have for her?
J. Cole: Yeah, there’s a few things she always instilled in me. One of the most important ones is the she really made me believe that I could really do anything. Some people are blessed enough to have parents that try to tell them that. Some people don’t. But my mom constantly told me that and made me believe it to the point where it was like: “Well, I can do anything — be a basketball player, be a painter, be an astronaut.” I really believed her, and I never doubted that I could ever do anything. And when I started to think about rapping seriously, it was almost like the audacity to think that I could go do that came from her, without her probably even knowing that she was feeding me that.