A few weeks ago, Jules Born and I were driving to a taco spot in Jersey City trying to define his debut solo album, Memorybilia. Alternative was too vague, begging the question, "Alternative to what?" R&B was straight-up inaccurate. He said his sister once called it progressive punk, which I didn’t really understand at all.
“Last year was the first year the Grammy’s had the urban contemporary category. Maybe we should just call it urban contemporary?” Born then said. “I don’t even know what urban means. Black music that’s not R&B and not hip-hop, I guess. Should I just own that?”
About an hour later, as we were driving back into Manhattan, we decided to settle on urban contemporary. Weirdly enough, the old white dudes who I imagine sit around a gilded table and decide how to categorize all Grammy-worthy music have gotten it right. Or at least they were able to decide on a fitting name.
For Born, it’s more about uniting a group of artists who have been miscategorized or not categorized at all, just because no one knows what the fuck to call it since they’re making something that we’ve never really heard before. A post-R&B, post-hip-hop, post-soul, post-funk sound of black music. There’s Gordon Voidwell, Allan Kingdom, Young Fathers, I Love Makkonen, SZA, and Born’s other project, Voices of Black, making weird, smooth-sounding and melodic electronic music that they mostly sing over.
Born and his high school friend Baba Ali started Voices of Black back in 2010 and quickly built a fan base that includes musical innovators and tastemakers like Little Dragon, who asked the duo to open for them in Prospect Park. Over the past year or so, Born had been producing and singing music on his own and finally decided to release it as a solo project. The time just felt right.
It’s an enveloping, quirky, and warm soundscape of his life in Teaneck, New Jersey. And if he decides to in fact call it Urban Contemporary, he might just make it a bit easier for himself to win a Grammy.
VICE: Do you see yourself as part of any scene?
Jules Born: I’m for the scene of progressive people, and that scene doesn’t exist—it’s a mind state. So anyone with that mind state, I make music for them. It doesn’t have to do with race, color, economic background, gender, sexual preference, or anything. It’s progressive people who do things that come from them and want to live their life with positive energy.
What is progressive to you?
Progressive is just pushing yourself to be as creative as possible without worrying about format or genre or how you’re marketable as a product. It’s trusting the universe and having an authentic expression of yourself to take you wherever you want to go in life.
Why’d break out from Voices of Black and go solo?
With this album, I honestly just wanted to have non-conventional song format for most of it. But then at the same time “Alone in this Town” and “Missouri Loves Company” are traditional song format, but more chord-based. I wanted to build around that with more sounds for a full experience and then to be listened to together. But if anything, sonically, I wanted to set an example to blur the lines between what can be classified as certain genres. I just feel like it’s starting to happen for a lot of alternative black artists and I just want to embody that instead of being like, Oh well, I got to make something that’s a little more for hip-hop fans or something for electronic fans. I just kind of did what I wanted. I guess that was all I was really trying to say.
Do you play instruments?
I grew up classically trained in piano. I went to Yamaha music school when I was a little, recital at Steinway when I was young and all that. But I just never dedicated myself. I played sports growing up and I would never practice. I didn’t stay up with my music theory and my sheet music and I kind of unlearned it, but now I’m actually relearning scales and chords and all of that. I’m actually happy that I didn’t stay with it because I think it could be limiting in some ways.
Are your parents musical?
Yeah, in the sense of surrounding me with music, but no one in my family’s really professional or anything. I come from a real big sports family. My dad played two years of professional football, my uncle coached and played professional baseball, and my other uncle, my moms brother, is a running back coach of the Chargers and he’s been with the chargers for like ten years. I used to intern for Immortal Technique when I was 17.
MySpace. I MySpace messaged him. I’m the king of the private message. Two months later I got my internship as a freshman at Pace University, transferred over the college credit, I was in a video, I was helping sell merchandise at shows.
Have you messaged anyone else?
I message Wardell. It’s Sasha Spileberg and her brother. Not even on some creepy shit.
It’s just out of the blue though, right?
Yeah. I don’t want to name drop, but I’ve messaged a ton of people, like Kali Uchis. I messaged her. She didn’t answer, but we’ll meet.
Do you think that anything about your music is inherently New York?
I’m going to say it’s inherently New Jersey. New Jersey is kind of this place that everybody knows about for the wrong reasons and low-key has produced arguably the most talent out of any state in America.
Who’s your top New Jersey talent?
George Clinton, Bruce Springsteen—obviously—Sarah Jessica Parker, Shaquille O’Neal, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, Kool & the Gang, the Isley Brothers, Sugar Hill Records, Bruce Willis, The Fugees, Naughty by Nature, Ray Liotta…
People don’t rep New Jersey.
That’s the problem. It gets washed into the New York metropolitan area thing, but I’m trying to change that. I’m not trying to act like New Jersey has a sound. New Jersey has contributed through that amazing vision and talent from the state that I think is very undermined.
Eight is kind of a short, random number of songs for a full album. Why’d you choose that?
I like the number eight and I knew I wanted to do something that wasn’t that long and I never wanted to break its cohesiveness. A lot of the Parliament albums and rock albums in the late 70s and mid 70s were seven or eight songs. Not that I was trying to embody that, but with everyone’s attention span now, I like the idea of having seven or eight songs. It’s either the extreme where it’s like the single or the EP or the album, and I wanted to do something where you respect it for what it is cohesively, but it’s not long.
How do you listen to music?
By feeling and color. The melody or the chords register in different colors. If it’s sad and minor chords it’s going to be dark purple and black and gray. If it’s major chords: oranges, light blues and greens. I instantly know—that’s just how I listen to it.
Do you have Synesthesia?
I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t want to be that guy that’s like, Yeah, I got Synesthesia! I’ve always heard music in terms of color. Days of the week is the same thing. Every day is a color. That’s how I memorized the days of the week, but I just thought that was normal. I’m not going to rep synesthesia just because.
What are the days?
Monday is light blue, Tuesday is white, Wednesday is orange, Thursday is black, Friday is maroon, Saturday is yellow, and Sunday is baby blue.
But you’ve never been diagnosed?
I do have a sensory disorder that I was diagnosed with in high school.
What is it?
All it means is that I have a really bad sense of direction and I can’t really do puzzles. I was super advanced at math at a young age, and that’s why I think when I was very young I was very advanced in music theory and playing scales. I was in piano classes and recitals with my sisters who are three and five years older than me when I was eight. So I think I topped out of the mathematical side of my brain and it fucked up my other side, and that’s what I am now.
Memorybilia's official release date is August 19th. The album will be available for free download and will also be sold on iTunes beginning on September 3rd.
Follow Lauren on Twitter.