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J. Cole: '09 'Til Infinity

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By Eric Tullis

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On a Saturday afternoon, a few thousand J.Cole crusaders are wreaking havoc on downtown Raleigh, NC, trying to figure out which music venue will be used as the “secret location” for this stop on Cole’s Dollar and a Dream tour. Before he gets the chance to tweet the name of the venue to his 5.3 million followers, his North Carolina fans have already cracked the code and begun to blanket the entire block where downtown’s 800-capacity Lincoln Theatre sits.

The Roc Nation star has just hit the tarmac at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, on a flight from Miami, where, two-nights ago, at Grand Central, a similar-sized crowd made the police shook enough to cancel Cole’s second show of the night. If all goes well, that won’t happen here in his home state where he also plans on doing back-to-shows. Hell, maybe he’ll even throw in a third. 

In its second year, the Dollar and a Dream tour has been a way for the 29-year-old rapper to show his appreciation for his day one-fans by only charging a $1 entry fee to the “secret shows.” Last year, the tour was in promotion of his sophomore album, Born Sinner. This year, it’s to celebrate the five-year anniversary of his mixed-format The Warm Up mixtape—the project he was working on when he became the first artist to be signed to Jay Z’s new record label. Missing from The Warm Up—a version of Sir Mix-a-lot’s immortal booty anthem, “Baby Got Back,” which Cole contemplated making during the final stages of recording The Warm Up. Instead, he replaced that with the Lee Fields and the Expressions-sampling, “Ladies.” He confessed this much during the first of his two shows that night in Raleigh, before breaking out into the opening lines, “I like big butts and I cannot lie…!” Thirty minutes after he stepped off stage for a break between shows, we sat backstage and chatted about The Warm Up and how maybe he should reconsider the “Baby Got Back” idea. 

Noisey: I remember you from the early 2000’s back when you went by “Therapist.” You used to come out to this weekly hip-hop showcase at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. I believe it was called Microphone Mondays.
J. Cole: That’s right. I was just about to go to college. That was the summer of 2003. I didn’t spit, but I used to go out there for the producer battles. One Monday they’d have the producer battles then the next Monday they’d have the MC battles. I wanted to play my beats against niggas and see how it would come out.

You didn’t have any interest in rapping back then?
Nah. I was already rapping. I just didn’t care to prove it. I knew that no one could fuck with me and I didn’t care to battle because I had the really embarrassing moment when I was in high school. I knew that wasn’t my thing. I got on stage one time when I was 15 or 16 going up against dudes in the ‘Ville [Fayeteville] who lived for battling. I had crazy written verses and cipher verses. But in terms of clowning your shoes or clowning your shirt—I wasn’t good at those.

But back then, did you feel pressured to frequent the Triangle area where there was a mini, North Carolina hip-hop renaissance happening with Little Brother and other acts?

No. I was amazed. I had just started hearing about Little Brother. XXL reviewed their album and that was such a big deal for someone from North Carolina to be in XXL. Half of the reason why I used to come to Chapel Hill was because 9th Wonder used to DJ the producer battles. Those were some of my best hip-hop moments--in that small-ass club with 9th Wonder playing the real hip-hop. The classics. From Mobb Deep to A Tribe Called Quest. We didn’t have a spot like that in the ‘Ville.

What’s your relationship like with 9th Wonder now?
We have a friendship and a mutual respect for each other. He remembers me as that little kid that used to come around. I remember one time when he was playing beats out of his car outside of Local 506. It was me, him, and some other dude. I was like “Damn!” That was such a big moment for me. He’s just someone to be super-respected and heralded for being the first to make real hip-hop out of Carolina.

Then, you did the same. This Dollar and a Dream tour that you’re in town for marks the five-year anniversary of The Warm Up. You were in the middle of working on it when Hov signed you to Roc Nation. Did the record deal make you want to go back and change anything on the mixtape?
Well, I kept getting pressure from my business partner, Ib [Ibrahim Hamad]. At the time, we were just two niggas who were rockin’ together on some Dreamville shit, but he’s my business partner. He wanted it [The Warm Up] to come before the deal. He was like “Yo, we need to drop this.” I was like, “Nah man, we already did that.” We had put out this shit called The Come Up and drove down to North Carolina A&T and sold them for a $1. The Warm Up wasn’t ready yet. I had some joints like “I Get Up and “Can I Live,” but the timing didn’t feel right. I knew it would be more impactful if I dropped it after the deal. I didn’t feel pressure from the deal to change it, but I felt pressure because the game had shifted. A lot of the songs, like “The Badness,” “Grown Simba,” “I Get Up,” “Can I Live,” and “Lights Please,” were album songs. We used to ride around and listen to them and be like, “Yo, when we get signed, this is the album!” But when Drake put out So Far Gone for free and took over the mainstream sound, then I had to compete against that wave that just happened. So, I couldn’t just put out a tape with just freestyles and shit, and not put my best foot forward. I had to show niggas what I was comin’ with. I had to show them the stories I’m tellin like, “Dreams.” I had to show them that I was coming with content and that I was actually saying something about the world like on “I Get Up.” The Warm Up went from being freestyle-based with a few dope songs that I love, to all songs that I love with a few freestyles.

Did you use classic beats, like “Dead Presidents II” for freestyles because you didn’t have weren’t satisfied with your own batch of beats or were you just paying homage?
It wasn’t so much paying homage as it was like practicing in the gym. Whenever I’m in a slump, I go to those classic beats. Like Kobe in the gym practicing a new move. That’s how I look at the freestyles on the The Warm Up.

What’s up with basketball as a running theme in your career?
Because it was my first love. The reason why I made it in rap is because of what I learned from not making it in basketball.

Do you still play?
I still hoop, but not as often. I’m probably trash by now. Well, I’ll never be trash, but I’m definitely not as fluid.

You should play in one of those NBA All-Star Celebrity Games.
I actually did in 2012. My performance was terrible. I did catch an alley-oop for a dunk. But I was so rusty from not playing all year that I was blowing easy layups and missing shit. Regardless, as I got older I saw the things that prevented me from making it with basketball. At all times, someone was out there working harder than me. My coaches used to always tell me “Right now, someone is out there shooting 5,000 shots. And you’re not.” It never hit me till I got older and realized that that was why I didn’t make it. So, I applied that learning lesson to rap. First of all, I never felt like anyone was better than me. But, I still needed to make sure that no one out-worked me. Everyday, I’m gonna write. Everyday, I gonna make five beats. Everyday I’m gonna write verses and songs. So, the basketball references are there because it paralleled my rap career. Then, there’s the real story of me getting cut in high school, which was a metaphor for me being overlooked in rap. I felt like no one was paying me any attention.

You recently said that you’re going to open yourself up to working with more producers besides yourself. What made you change your mind about that?
Oh, I didn’t change my mind. It’s just evolution.

Are you getting sick of rapping over your own beats?
Oh hell no. Never. That’s one of my joys as an artist. I feel more complete when I do a song all of the way. But don’t get it twisted. Now that I’ve worked with other producers, it’s a relief to not have to make the beat. I’m a rapper first. But there’s still no better feeling than to do everything from scratch.

You’re one of few rappers who earned a college degree. Can you talk about how your education has helped you as a lyricist and a writer?
Other than perspective, I don’t think it’s affected me as a writer. I have a perspective that other rappers can not touch. Lately, I’ve realized that I’ve seen more of America than many Americans. I’ve seen it from growing up dirt poor in a small city like Fayetteville, to my mother getting married and being somewhat middle class, to going to college in a major city like NYC, A lot of my friends didn’t see that life. I met so many different types of people. It’s totally different from where I’m from. But in terms of being a great writer or great thinker, you don’t really need college for that. But my college experience gave me a viewpoint that no one else is talking about. I rap like a young black man who went to college. But I still do all the nigga shit that niggas do.

You said that you had to “fight” to get this Raleigh, North Carolina date added to the tour. This is your home state.
Yeah, it’s a no-brainer for me. But when you’re trying to build a brand, you got a team of people who sometimes wanna be like, “Eh, it’s easy to do New York, L.A., and big markets.” People always wanna overlook the smaller markets. I’m like, “Nigga, this is home. We have to go.” So when I said “fight,” I meant that, internally, there were some people who were not so excited to come to Carolina like it was a hassle. I’m like, “Nah, fuck that.”

What about some of the hatin’-ass mothafuckas who I’ve heard make fun of the concept of this $1 tour? They seem to think that it’s cheapens your brand.
Cheapens my brand?

Yeah, as if to say that you can’t sell out these shows at regular price.
Nah, nah. Hell no. I don’t care about the brand. A. I don’t think that’s true B. Even if it was, it wouldn’t matter because when I’m on that stage, and those people walk out of those shows, do you think that they think that the brand is cheapened? Or do you think they they’re going to make sure that they’re at every show when I come back because they just had the best experience of their life, and I just had the best experience of my life. Sitting on that stage, I’m like, “Man, shows like these are my favorite moments.” So, who cares if it cheapens the brand?

It was rumored that you were going to do three separate shows tonight. Do you think you could have handled that?
Yeah, I thought about doing three shows. But at the end of the day, it was just too much. People gotta understand that it’s hard to do these shows. No one is making money We’re outta pocket. It costs six figures to do all of these shows. I’m spending money. I’m not making any money. I’m doing this for the love and for the connection with the fans. This small venue—you can’t duplicate this connection in an arena or an amphitheater. I’m doing this for the love of the music. This shit reminds me of back when I was writing the music. This is just as much for me as it is for them.

So, what are your priorities going to be after this tour is over? The next album?
Just working, man. I’m always working. You tried to sneak the album question in there [Laughs]. I feel ya.

You should think about finishing that “Baby Got Back” remix you started to do on stage tonight and putting it on your next album.
Yeah! People were rockin’ with it though. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. 

 

Eric Tullis covers music and Duke basketball in North Carolina. He's on Twitter - @erictullis

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