In honor of our 15-year anniversary this month, DJBooth will be publishing a series of "lost" interviews from 2006 through 2011, including Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Clipse and more.
In June 2009, J. Cole unveiled his acclaimed mixtape The Warm Up, his first project release after signing a record deal with JAY-Z and Roc Nation. Three months later, Cole appeared alongside his label boss on Blueprint 3 standout "A Star is Born," co-produced by No I.D. and Kanye West.
Not a bad formal introduction to the masses, right?
That fall, in support of Blueprint 3, Jay hit the road for a 24-date college campus and arena tour, with a 24-year-old Cole—and Wale, two months away from releasing his debut album Attention Deficit—along for the ride of a lifetime.
On the morning of Tuesday, October 27, 2009, as their tour bus was pulling into Baltimore, Maryland for a show at Royal Farms Arena (formerly known as 1st Mariner Arena), my phone rang. It was Cole. I knew he would be calling, but our interview wasn't scheduled until early that afternoon. I was used to rappers arriving several hours late for an interview, but several hours early? Never.
Over the course of an hour, we spoke about opening for Hov, the expectations that come with being signed by arguably the greatest rapper of all time, the value of a college education in the pursuit of a career in music, destiny, and how to not become the rap Kwame Brown (sorry, Kwame).
Our interview, edited for content, clarity, and length, follows.
DJBooth: Have you had an “I cannot believe this is actually happening to me!” moment yet?
J. Cole: Yeah. The very first night, [when] we did Penn State. I open up for the janitor, that’s how early I go on. But then I come back later and do Jay’s set and come up for “A Star is Born.” Right before I hop up on the stage, I’m looking at the crowd, and at this point, the crowd is like 12,000 people, which ain’t that much for Jay-Z’s level, but for me, I ain’t never did nothing like that. Like, every song, six songs before my [verse], I just keep rappin’ my verse, rappin’ rappin' rappin’ my verse so I don’t forget. I’m like, “I wanna make sure I remember this verse!” I’m over-rapping it, so it could be, like, “Big Pimpin’,” is on, and I’m rappin’ my verse over that beat. But that’s just how nervous I am. So, he gets to “A Star Is Born,” he does his two verses, and the whole time my heart is beating fast as hell. I’ve never been that scared in my life. But the funny thing is, as soon as I set foot on the stage, literally as soon as I walked out, all that went away and I just felt good, like, “OK, yeah, alright—this is what I need to do.”
Touring is nowhere near as glamorous as a lot of people are led to believe. How have you adjusted mentally, physically, and emotionally in order to battle all the rigors of being out on tour, away from home, for such an extended period of time?
I don’t even really know, man. I don’t think I prepared. I just kinda went with the flow. It didn’t hit me until I was on my way to the bus, like, “Yo, you’re about to be on the road.” I’m not the type to prepare much; I just kinda take things as they come and go with the flow and roll with the punches. So, in terms of how I’m adjusting, I’m adjusting good—it’s a lot of riding, a lot of driving, so I’m just sleeping on the bus 'til we get to our destination, checkin’ out the city that I’m in, and when it’s show day I try to just focus and go do the job. So it’s definitely not as glamorous as people think, but it’s also not as tough.
Some artists enjoy recording material while on tour, but others have expressed how difficult it can be to focus. Are you currently recording your debut while on this tour or have you put that process on hold until after you’re done?
When I’m out on the road, it’s on hold. But last week I flew to L.A., I missed a week of the tour—the Canada run—so I could go to L.A. to record. I see what they mean, man; it’s hard to find any type of creative juice, creative spark when you’re on that bus. I think all you can really do is use the tour to kinda fill up with experiences and thoughts, and then when you get back to the studio, or in some type of creative environment, that’s when you release everything that you’ve encountered on tour.
Jay is a legend in the game, but very few of his protégés have lived up to the hype that preceded them. What prompted you to sign with the Roc Nation and, to this point, do you feel any added pressure to deliver results?
Yep, I took those things into account. ‘Cause Jay-Z’s shadow is so big, it would be hard for anybody to come out of that. But I’m the type of person where A) I look at things as challenges, I like challenges and, B) I truly believe that you determine your own destiny. An opportunity is an opportunity, and one of that magnitude would be dumb to pass up, especially when I truly believe that I make my path and I set my course, and where I land, at the end of the day, or the end of my career, [is] because of me. Of course, you get help along the way, and cosigns and management and opportunities and things like that, but overall, the ball is in your court basically.
In terms of pressure, I used to say I didn’t feel any pressure ‘cause I really wasn’t thinkin’ about it, but now that I’m thinkin’ about it, it’s like a good pressure. I feel the type of pressure that a strong-minded first pick in a draft would feel. ‘Cause I feel like the first pick in a draft could either be like, “Damn, I’m the first pick! I don’t wanna mess up! I don’t wanna f*ck this up, they invested a lot of money in me!” or he could be like, “Yeah, I’m the first round pick, ‘cause I worked so hard to be the first round pick. Now I’m gonna show you why I’m the first pick.”
Well, hopefully, you’re a lot more like Derrick Rose or LeBron James and not like Kwame Brown.
Exactly. That’s my example right there—I wanna be LeBron and not Kwame! [laughs]
In a freestyle you spit on The Warm Up mixtape, you joked that your deal hasn’t enabled you to get medical or dental benefits. You know, my father is in the insurance business—do you need me to pass along your information?
If you can get a hook-up for me, then yeah. [laughs]
On “Grown Simba,” you spit the line, “Look at how she say my name/ I got her moaning ‘J. Cole’/ They used to say Jermaine/ I never change.”
This got me thinking. I mean, you signed a major-label record deal, you landed a guest spot on Jay’s new album, and you’re out on tour with arguably the top dog in the industry – how hard is it to not change?
I don’t know, man. I guess, keep a strong team of people that were around you from the beginning—I definitely make sure I do that. And also, you can’t take yourself too seriously. Like, yeah, I’m doin’ all that, but still, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything, really. I feel blessed ‘cause I’m doin’ all these things, but I’m not satisfied. I still have that feeling like, “Who am I? Who am I to have an ego? Who am I to change up and act like some Hollywood character?” Technically, in the grand scheme of things, I haven’t done anything. Now, when I sell a few million records, then you can come back to me and see if I’ve changed!
You're featured on Jay's “A Star Is Born.” Is this irony or is this destiny?
Oh, man. I’m hoping it's destiny—I’m hoping, 10 years from now, when they do the Behind the Music, or whatever they’re doin’, the biography, that’ll be the perfect setup to start the story. That’ll be like the generic J. Cole setup: “It all started with ‘A Star is Born…’” That sounds like some destiny sh*t. Now, if I pull a Kwame Brown it’ll be super ironic, but if I pull a LeBron James, it’s too good of a setup, [for that] to be my first feature.
Since you write and produce your own material, what are some challenges, if there are any, that you frequently run into?
I’ve been producing for a long time. I started making beats at 15, so that’s damn near 10 years that I’ve been making beats for myself. Like, it’s one thing to be a rapper. When you’re a rapper, just a rapper, you have to kind of settle for whatever comes your way—if a beat is hot, you wanna rap on it, period. But when you’re a producer on top of that, just havin’ a beat that’s hot is not enough. Now you know your sound, ‘cause you’ve been workin’ on your sound for so long, and now you’re extra picky. You might do a beat that’s ill, that the average rapper would pay big money to get on, but you don’t wanna do it because you’re like, “Ehhh… it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s not what I’m goin’ for.” So you’re extra picky. So that’s the only thing I’m tryin’ to grow out of, ‘cause I don’t wanna forget the fact that I wanna be one of the best rappers. I feel like some of the best rappers ever—Tupac, namely, one of them—could take subpar beats or average beats and turn them into incredible songs.
Does being able to both rap and produce turn you into the ultimate perfectionist?
Yes, it does. It definitely does. But, like I said, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m trying to get out of that. Like, for instance, I got in the studio with No I.D., that’s who I’ve been in the studio with. I’m breakin’ out of that mold of just hoverin’ over my sh*t and just huggin’ it so hard and saying, “No! Nobody else!” 'Cause his sound is the perfect sound. Like, I’ve finally found someone I can learn from, and [his] sound matches my sound. So it’s a perfect setup, and the joints we’ve been doing have been absolutely incredible.
The list of well-known emcees to attend college and actually graduate is not very long. Would you be in the position that you’re in right now without that degree from St. John’s?
Nah—that was my ticket. St. John’s was my way to be in New York. I had no other business being up there. Like, I probably wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for bein’ able to stay in dorms, and bein’ able to use college loans to get my apartment, and just stay afloat in New York City. But I believe that anything’s possible. I used to think I couldn’t have made it back home, but now I know, knowin’ what I know about the world and how it works, I know I could’ve stayed home and found a way to get on. But, you know, college had a great deal to do with my development as a person. I don’t know if I’d be the artist I am today if it wasn’t for goin’ to school like that. School is a good place—it ain’t for everybody, but I think it’s for most people.
Have you been able to pay off your student loans?
Nope, not yet. I can, but I’m a stubborn person, man. For instance, way back I owed Verizon some money, I used to be down with Verizon four years ago. I had a crazy high bill, and I never paid it, so I just left it and I went somewhere else. Now, I went to get one of those little wireless… you know those little wireless hookups for your computer?
Exactly, from the cell phone companies. And I had a feeling, I told the lady, “Yo, they might come back with some previous money that I owe,” ‘cause I had to sign a contract, and she was like, “Yeah, you’re right. They’re saying, before we start this account with you, you’ve gotta take care of the balance.” Now, I could’ve easily took care of the balance right then and there, but my pride and my stubbornness was just like, “Man, you know what? When I was broke and I couldn’t afford this, y’all wasn’t tryin’ to work with me, so now that I’ve got it, I’m not payin’ it.” I walked out and I started something up with Sprint. Now, the college loan, I don’t know, man, it’s like I know how the game works and, with interest rates, I know that I’m getting screwed, but my stubbornness just really won’t allow me to go along with this payment system, so I just feel like one day I’m gonna pay it off in one big lump sum.
I already told you that my father’s in insurance. I’ve got an uncle who’s a financial adviser. I can put you in touch with him also. He’ll explain everything...
[Laughs] Don’t let my financial advisers hear what I just said, ‘cause they don’t agree with that, obviously.