“It’s insane. I remember looking up at the sky, talking to God, being like ‘thank you, this is the person I’ve been wanting to work with,” reminisces rapper Just John lightheartedly, as he and his producer, Dominique Dias, settle into an eclectic rehearsal space buried north of Toronto’s Dufferin Grove. Although the ’93-born artist has been active in the local industry for about three years, Just John’s collaboration with Dom Dias comes as a second wind that culls whiplash cadences from the 24-year-old with newfound ferocity and fervor.
With Dom Dias, Just John has found his alchemist. Before the two met, John layered his lyricism over soft and elastic grooves whose smooth house overtones lent a more delicate impression than the Scarborough native exudes today. “I was still trying to find a certain voice and sound. With DON, it was a nice marriage of the two,” details John. “Dom really pushed me in terms of what I thought I could rap on. Some of my past releases are really smooth and unnerving, but this DON project is right in your face. It’s aggressive.”
Manipulating classic Fender bass lines as 808s, Dias’ clamorous and metallic influences distinguish his industrial production style, which brandishes the ear as potently as it rebrands Just John as a whole. That said, their natural cohesion doesn’t mean that the two are sacrificing any of their artistic independence. “There will always be a Just John, as much as there will be a Dom Dias,” asserts John. “It’s just that when we get together, it’s different. I’m like Goku breaking out of his hyperbolic chamber.”
The pair uniquely celebrate the marriage between the producer and the vocalist, offering each role as an independent artist. “From the jump, we knew we were going to have an MF DOOM kind of collaboration,” details Dom. “Producer culture’s really weak right now, especially in Toronto. What’s between the artist and the producer, we wanted to celebrate that.”
John’s jagged, yet visceral lyricism hints at his creative upbringing as a breakdancer, where the rapper first connected with music on a personal level. “I was telling my story through dance and movement, but I wanted to start telling my story through voice. I knew I was able to make words rhyme, but I wasn’t going on the beat the way I wanted to. I needed to figure out my cadence,” recalls John. “From there, I started to really to ask how I was coming onto the beat, how I was dressed, what I stood for. It all culminated in the artist that I am now. I feel so in my person now, more than ever.”
With the release of their first collaborative EP, DON, the record’s cohesion stems directly from the intuitive synergy that defines their creative process. “The way that John is spitting on the beats, he’s never done this before. He’ll grab the pen and start writing,” tells Dom. “It’s incredible how fast he is. I don’t think we would have been able to do this if we weren’t both so heavily involved in the procedure of building this EP. There’s a lot of back and forth between us in the studio.”
Where Black Beret —John’s politically-charged 2017 release—thematically dealt with police brutality and overcoming adversity, the DON EP is a relentless siren call for rebellion that takes no prisoners. Its opening track, “Soundboi”, sits neatly between the restlessness of Skepta’s lyrical pace, and A$AP Rocky’s highly aestheticized production. “It’s me stepping into this affirmative role. In the past, I’ve always been humble and modest about being the leader, but now I’ve been through so many life lessons that I’m confident,” John details. “This is the territory I want to take up. This is the space I want to take up, and I’m unapologetic about it.”
The carving of this new facet stems in part from the closure of his gallery space that hosted monthly gatherings for his art collective, Dead Poet. Though he used the space as a platform to amplify the voice of his community, he recognizes the value in accepting change as it comes. “I’ve always been an artist before anything. You have to know when it's time to step back and allow things to take their course,” he tells. “I don’t think I really started making real music until after going through some personal adversity. It awakened me. It gave me something more to talk about.”
While the rapper’s natural charisma may come across as a character, his warmth exudes a sincerity that’s revealing of an honest approach to his craft. “I’ve always thought about legacy and longevity, so I ask, what are the things that I can do now that will be an archetype for the future? For people to look back at and think, “that black kid from Scarborough gave me a route”? I really believe in leveraging your experiences and your lessons, and making art from this.”
With a less is more approach, the duo’s three-track EP structure for DON embraces the advantage that comes with releasing fewer recordings per album. Privileging experimentation, their non-committal approach to genres alleviates Just John of any binding classification as an artist. “It’s truly changing, the artist doesn’t necessarily have to stay in one genre anymore,” John details. “With streaming services and with people’s short attention spans, an artist can go and try something totally left of field, as long as their integrity is still there and their personality is still there.”
It’s only a matter of time before Just John’s conviction comes for the charts. Despite the fact that today’s industry is rife with replicas, it’s rare and refreshing to witness an artist who invites his own growth and development so willingly. The title of the record could not be more fitting, considering the intensity and balance that underscores the pair’s working relationship. “We called it DON because of two things—his name is Dom and my name is John,” details the Scarborough native. “But it’s also in your face, and commanding. It’s an offer you can’t refuse. If I’m performing and rapping on top of it, I’m going to get people to listen. That’s the whole premise behind DON.”
That said, John is adamant about maintaining authentic ties to the communities that nurtured his creative expression before any attention was drawn to it. “Sometimes people feel like you can’t be this big artist, and also have a connection to your community, but I don’t believe in that,” he asserts conclusively. “I want to be a conduit of art and culture. You can share your voice with the masses, and still, have a community that you stand for and represent.”
Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.