J. Cole is by far one of the most popular rappers in the United States of America, but for some reason it seems like he never really gets the credit he’s due. The fact of the matter is that J. Cole makes smart, accessible pop-rap in a landscape that rarely rewards such a thing. Though he’s signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and openly and honestly operates within the pop-rap idiom, J. Cole is an auteur in a landscape where major rap albums are assembled by committee. On the eve of a visit to speak at Harvard, J. Cole came to the VICE office to talk to me about his life before fame, his Illuminati decoder ring, and how he finally feels like he’s sounding like himself.
Noisey: Tell me about Harvard.
J. Cole: Harvard. Tomorrow. It’s a pretty fuckin’ huge deal to me, just the fact they would ask me to come and shit.
What are you speaking about?
It’s really on them. The title is called “The Mindstate of a Winner,” and I’ve got some things I wanna talk about in terms of hip-hop and the game, but I’m really gonna leave it up to them. They’ve got a mediator, Henry Louis Gates, who’s mad famous. So I’ll let them direct traffic and get my points in. But it’s not like I thought like “I’ma give a speech,” I thought it was gonna be one of those, you know where at graduation they always got a speaker coming? But I’m fuckin’ excited.
Who gave the commencement speech when you graduated?
George Stephanopoulos. With the huge ears.
What’d he talk about?
Random generic shit that people say when you graduate. Some people get Obama and fuckin’ crazy people. What school did you go to?
When did you graduate?
I wanted to go to Carolina my whole life, son. ‘Til I decided I wanted to go to New York. So I didn’t even apply to Carolina cause I knew if I got accepted, you know what I mean, it would be too much temptation to go, but I wanted to go for a long time.
Well, why did you choose New York?
The music. I knew. And just coming from Fayetteville, when I got to New York I just felt like the energy was somewhere I wanted to be. I knew right away when I first touched down, I was like 13 or 14 years old, I knew.
Tell me about your early days when you had just signed with Roc Nation.
That shit was mad fun. It was so fresh and new. I had just got signed. I don’t think I even had my advance yet, and they were talking about going on tour with Wale, ‘cause Wale was doing a promo tour and had just put his first single. And we would drive down and meet him—we weren’t really on the tour, you know what I mean? So if he was doing the University of Virginia, we would drive to Norfolk, or if he was doing Baltimore, we’d drive down there. So we was following the tour certain places but we weren’t technically on tour. It felt cool, because me and my homeboys would just ride in the car, it would be like four of us in either my little Honda. It was just mad innocent, you know?
We did Norfolk, and after the show, just me and my homeboys went right around the corner to the Karaoke bar, we just went around the corner to the Karaoke bar, doing Michael Jackson and shit, and then Wale walks in. I guess he was walking by and heard us in there. I had more opportunities to do regular shit cause nobody knew who the fuck I was. So it was the best of both worlds, I got to be on stage doing what the fuck I do, then I got the anonymous part, which I love, you know what I mean? That shit is gone forever now.
Do you feel like your privacy is compromised?
Absolutely. I can’t do regular shit anymore. And I definitely enjoyed regular shit. I’m a regular dude. I’m not one of those guys that like his whole life was training to be a rapper. I got friends that haven’t made it yet and their whole lives they been rappers, since they were 12, 13 years old, niggas been callin’ them by their rap names. That wasn’t me, I’ve always just been Jermaine, and rap was my alter ego, you know what I’m saying? And I definitely enjoyed regular life and now that shit is pretty much wrapped up. So fuck it, I’ll do this other shit for the time being.
Do you guys have cookout in Fayetteville? [Editor’s Note: Cookout is a delicious fast food restaurant specifically germane to rural North Carolina.]
Cookout is only North Carolina. I don’t know where it was started, maybe Greensboro, but um, yeah cookout is incredible. We got like four Cookouts now. People don’t know about it. It’s like the best meals for the cheapest prices. You get like a fuckin’ burger, seasoned fries, chicken nuggets, hushpuppies. New York people don’t know about hush puppies. The skating rink is huge where I’m from. That’s all we had, Cookout and the skating rink.
What were they playing at the skating rink?
Top 40 shit on Friday night, and on Saturday nights were hood nights, so it was all rap, and it depends on who’s DJing. And on Sunday night you got old-school R&B, or like the old ‘70s and ‘80s music, and all the old black people come out and skate. Tuesday night you had Christian night. I peeped it, because I used to work at the skating rink and I saw the whole business, how it was run and shit. It’s smart how they do it. Nights for everybody.In the ‘Ville it was like the club, damn near.
When you hit like maybe twelve, thirteen, it became the hangout spot. You know how in some towns it was like the movie theater or the mall—we had a mall, but the skating rink was the main spot.
What did kids do when they graduated from the skating rink?
Then it was the teen club. So from age thirteen to fifteen it was the skating rink, then when you hit sixteen you go to the teen club. And that’s like from sixteen to eighteen. Actually, at fifteen we started going to the club. That’s one thing that they don’t do in New York that we do back home, is club early. So when I was fifteen and hitting these hole-in-the-wall, nasty, raunchy joints, where kids were doing shit that kids weren’t really supposed to do, you know what I mean? Like, a lot of my first experiences was like, my “Oh shit!” experiences came from going to the teen clubs. That’s something I feel like they don’t do in other places, only some small town shit.
Do you like Lil B?
I don’t know a lot of Lil B but I like what he represents. What, you love Lil B?
For some reason I could just see you liking him. I don’t really know why.
I think a lot of people rode his wave and took it further than he did. You know? I feel like he introduced this counterculture shit, and just being mad weird and different, and I feel like other people came and did that and actually took it further. You know what I mean? So he’s almost the originator for some of these guys.
Are you in the Illuminati?
Did they give you an Illuminati decoder ring?
Can I see it?
No. I’d have to kill you. But if you want me to kill you, I can show you.
At what point did you realize you were famous?
I haven’t had that moment yet, honestly. There’s been things that should’ve made me have that moment, you know what I mean? Like large crowds of people screaming like, “Oh my God, J.Cole!” or not being able to go anywhere, but I have a hard time appreciating shit in the moment. I feel like when I turn 50, 60, if I make it that far, I’ll probably be disappointed that I didn’t live in the moment more. But for the most part I haven’t had that moment. I recognize it but I haven’t had that, “Whoa, shit, I’m here!” moment, you know what I mean? I feel once you hit that, you start plateau-ing.
You wear a lot of hats. Which one would you consider your main thing?
I was a rapper first, I take a lot of pride in rapping, and I’m mad competitive with rap. So I used to say that. But now I’m realizing that I’m just as competitive as a producer, but I’ve got even more to prove there nobody fuckin’ knows about it. So now I gotta show them. So now I look at myself just an entity.
Describe where your production’s at now.
I hit a zone this past year. It started about a year ago. I remember in my crib, in January. I could hear a clear difference of where I progressed sonically, especially the past four, five months. It’s effortless now, and I’m just following my heart and doing the things I like to do. It’s turning into some of the wildest shit I’ve ever done, and it’s turning into some shit that I can’t point at anything that’s close to it. Back in the days when I made my beats I could be like, “Oh that sounds like a Dre beat,” or, “That sounds like a Kanye beat,” or, “That sounds like a Timbaland beat.” Now I can’t. It’s just a mesh of all this shit.
Now they sound like Cole beats.
Exactly. Which is exactly how I started rapping. The first shit I recorded sounded like Eminem married Nas and had a baby and he made a song and that’s how I sounded. And then my next song sounded like a Canibus clone, and then my next song sounded like this, and before I knew it, in two, three years I had my own sound. And before I knew it, in six years I really had my own style, and that’s how I feel that finally happened with production.
Let’s talk Can-I-Bus, the first Canibus album.
The first album? Aw, man, that was a staple in my life. That changed the way I rap. It was like ’98, and my cousin was from Louisiana—I have this story that I told a million times by now. But I started rapping because he was the coolest dude I knew. He was 16, I was 12, 13. He had all these girls, he could play ball, he was cool, he had a Jesus piece, he had jerseys, and he also used to just freestyle for fun. And so, me just being young and looking up to him, I tried to rap too, like “Yo, teach me how to rap!” So, he showed me a couple of things about how to freestyle or whatever, and then we started writing, and so my first rap sounded like how he was rapping, which sounded like No Limit, Master P, and Cash Money. Long story short, soon after that I heard Canibus, I heard that album, and it totally changed the way I looked at rap. It was harder, it took more thought to be so clever and to have these punchlines and to come up with these things and have people react like “OOOOOH, THAT’S FUCKIN’ CRAZY HE SAID THAT.”
Do you smoke weed?
In the studio. Socially, can’t do it. Fucks me up. I’m too paranoid. I don’t really do it much at all, period. But if I’m feeling extra good, or if I need a different perspective, I smoke maybe a few times a year, just to give me a new outlook. I wish I could smoke. All my homeboys do—I wish I could smoke and just relax like them. I can’t. My mind is already on one thousand and that shit takes it to a million.
That’s what it does for some people.
Smoking hookah actually gives me a more relaxed feeling that I imagine smoking weed does for the average person. Even though you gotta keep smoking hookah all fuckin’ day to maintain that little buzz. But I wish, man. I just watched a documentary on how marijuana affects the brain and shit, but the people they were interviewing—one lady had a full time job, the other two dudes were comedians and they write together, and the other dude was a musician or whatever, and all of them said the same thing, that it helped them mellow out, lean back, feel at ease. I envy that shit. Just liquor for me. Hennessy does the trick.
Do you think 2013 will be the year of the hookah in hip hop?
Probably. Yeah man. It ain’t just hip hop, it’s coming to black culture. If I was an investor, I would invest in fuckin’ hookahs. Cause I definitely see it coming. Drake got the shit in his videos.
Pretty sure Drake has a backpack with a hookah in it at all times.
I found out about it a few years ago because one of my best friends was messing with it. He’s Sudanese, his whole family put me on the hookah years ago so it’s cool to see it catching up.
J. Cole recently announced he'll be returning to his hometown of Fayetteville, NC for his Dreamville Weekend, where he'll be encouraging kids to reach their fullest potential. Events will include a book club reading session, a skating party at local high schools, and a club event.
Drew Millard smoked hookah in college one time. He’s on Twitter - @drewmillard