J57 has fast become an underground mainstay, producing tracks for a variety of artists while sharing the mic and production with his Brown Bag All-Stars crew. Read up on the former Fat Beats employee, his roots in the game, and where he’s going.
It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years since we first met at the Wonder Twinz Connex List party.
I know. I remember it was summer and it was hot out. I remember you and me were the first people to get there to the Wonder Twinz party. I didn’t know anybody there. I think I rolled with Undefined and DJ Concept when they were Crisis Center. We started talking, I don’t remember why, but you were telling me about HipHopGame when HipHopGame was new. I asked you who you interviewed and you were like, ‘Oh yeah, I just interviewed Juelz Santana.’ It’s funny because we were talking so long before that and it made me realize what a humble dude you were, talking to all these people and then talking to me, who no one in the world knew about, the same way. That was cool.
I always enjoyed interviewing artists like Crisis Center more anyway.
No doubt! That was a good time back then, keeping in touch with everybody. Those Wonder Twinz parties were dope, definitely.
You were also known as J-Log1c back then.
Yeah, and I spelled it with a 1! I was rhyming with my boy Hi-Q and we had a crew TNK with all these other cats like Citizen Vein. I still work with them. They go by a different name now. They go by The Nezitiq Mute. They’re definitely still hip-hop and they’re making dope music – it’s more trip-hop. Yeah, that was classic!
What’s crazy is that back then, Undefined was killing it on the mic and he just produces now, as well as how many people that used to go to those parties that stopped making music.
It’s crazy. Undefined was such a dope MC. He has a new EP that’s coming out and the Brown Bag AllStars just did a joint for that and it came out crazy. I talked to him last night. He just makes beats now and he’s been working with Vinnie Paz and Army of the Pharaohs. He’s really known in that lane. It’s crazy because he used to be a real dope MC that I looked up to and would emulate the type of rhymes he would write. He said he didn’t want to write rhymes any more.
But it’s crazy, a lot of the people we would see there, I wouldn’t say they’re not active, and maybe they still make music, but they’re not out there like they were. I remember seeing Pack FM, Poison Pen, Scram Jones, and Saigon at these events. I never became friends with them then, and some of them I became friends with because of Fat Beats, but it’s crazy because some of these other artists, they just kind of stopped.
My favorite Undefined line was, “Flows so precise it could slice a grain of sand.”
Yeah! He has so many bars. My favorite stuff from him is on the Harvard Blue mixtape. It was gully. He was rapping over a lot of Alchemist beats that came out around that time. I guess it was ‘04. He was rapping over RZA and a lot of raw stuff. He said he was doing that mixtape and he would be out, that he would never spit a verse again. I’m sure he’s written, because I think everybody continues even when they stop. But yeah, he killed it. Every verse was murder. He had so many quotables in there. The name of the mixtape was Harvard Blue but before he’d start a verse he’d shout out, “Fuck your favorite rapper.” I loved that. And actually my group TNK is on there too.
You’ve changed the name and definitely grown as an artist over the past ten years. How would you describe your growth over the past decade?
Oh, man, it’s been crazy. I think to sum it up, I’ve paid a lot of dues. I’ve learned a lot. I played the game right. I knew when to speak and when not to around certain people and how to approach people and how not to approach people. I’m not going to say I played the game on some corny industry stuff. I’m around people a lot of the time that I looked up to growing up and I wasn’t back then and I think the reason I am now is because I knew my place. I still know my place and I always will, no matter where I am. It stems from paying dues and being the little homie with Crisis Center when DJ Concept and Mickey Knox would bring me around to parties and I would just keep my mouth shut and observe what was going on around me. And then with Brown Bag, I’m one of the older cats and they learn from me, although everyone brings something to the table and I’m not going to discredit anyone. It’s been over ten years and it’s been a lot of hard work and dedication. It’s really dope to see it paying off because for a long time it wasn’t.
Also I’m the New Yorker in the group. Koncept’s from Queens but went upstate to college and then to Vermont when he was going to be a pro snowboarder. I grew up in Long Island and I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the past seven years because I was working at Fat Beats and the commute was crazy from Long Island every day. But Soul Khan’s from L.A. and Audible Doctor’s from Wisconsin. I kind of had to teach them and show them the ropes of the New York scene and then we figured out how we wanted to do it and made our own rules.
The Brown Bag AllStars has a very organic, genuine buzz and fanbase. How did you guys build that?
Thanks, man. I think it comes from making honest music and having really good supporters. Our fans really ride for us. The people who really ride for us are really, really down for us. I always say it’s not cool to like Brown Bag. It’s cool to like the people who are popping now. The younger kids go to the parties and they dress all dope and they want to name-drop who they know, like, ‘Oh yeah, I met A$AP whoever,’ and that’s not a diss because I like them, but if you fucks with Brown Bag, it’s because you’re really into the music.
That’s no knock to us, but as you said, it stems from having an organic buzz, or whatever, and making organic music. We don’t rap on a trap beat or a dubstep beat because it’s the hot thing to do. We would rather hear the beats and do what we want to do. It’s not like we’re stuck in 1990, but I think it comes from our supporters being down for us. We’re not a flash in the pan. We’re going to be here forever. And a lot of the cool shit that people are into, it’s not going to be cool next year. I’ve seen it. I’m 30 years-old. When we first met I didn’t understand how any of this shit worked and now I understand all of it. You couldn’t surprise me with anything anymore. Look at Atmosphere. They built what they did from the ground up and they’re never going anywhere. That’s the most inspiring shit.
How’s the official Brown Bag debut album coming?
Oh, man, it’s going really well. We’re pretty close to finishing it. We just need to lay down vocals for a lot of tracks, so we’ve been rewriting a lot of stuff. It’s not that we’re trying to outdo each other, but we’re trying to outdo ourselves. There’s a feature with a legend and I rewrote and recorded my verse probably five times over the past couple of years. Koncept is the same way. The beats have been done. Me and Audible Doctor even went up to Berkelee and rocked with the College of Music and had a string section play on some beats. Even with that, we’re not happy with the lyrics, thinking about what I can do better. That’s why we’re nitpicking a lot, but it’s going to be our best music. Tomorrow I’m going to the studio to place everyone’s vocals so Audible could start mixing it and we’re going to be seven tracks into a twelve track album. Now we just have to lay vocals and we’re done.
How does a Brown Bag track come about?
Well, we all met at Fat Beats. We would get a lot of free tickets to go to shows. I worked Fridays and we’d get tickets for a lot of shows in Friday night for free. A lot of times we were on the guest list and after awhile it was a joke to say, “Put me down, plus eleven, and put us down as the Brown Bag AllStars.” We would pregame at Fat Beats. After awhile, it was like, ‘We’re all in different groups. Let’s just come together and make some music.’ We’d go out to my boy’s studio in Williamsburg and make beats and write rhymes on the spot. We knew those songs had potential. We thought about sitting down and making music when we weren’t drunk and we were actually focused.
Then we started figuring out who would do what on each song. We went from chaos to pretty organized chaos.
You’ve also become known as a producer in your own right today. What’s that been like for you?
It’s been amazing and it’s opened up a lot of doors for me. I definitely got better at making beats than MCing early on. It was a lot easier for me to build with people through beats because I had nothing to talk about in music because I was working at Fat Beats, which I loved, grinding with the music at the same time and living with my girl. I was juggling a lot and I didn’t have a lot to talk about and I didn’t feel I should talk a lot. I’ve been working harder on my rhyme game probably harder than I ever have in my thirteen years of rapping. I learned about producing a lot faster and earlier on. It’s more accessible than being an MC sometimes. You can get in with some people as a producer easier because you can send them beats and if your music speaks to them, then you’re kind of in. And that helped me a lot.
You’ve also worked with DJ Premier in the studio. Have you picked up anything from Primo that helps you as a producer?
Being able to help him is a dream come true. I can never put that into words. Let me tell you, it’s crazy. I’ve learned a lot from him just from watching him. He never sat me down and told me how to do stuff. There’s nobody in the world that does that, nobody. You have to always learn from watching. I know everyone was just watching Quincy Jones back in the day, just watching and learning. I see how Preme tracks vocals and where he puts the volume on his mixing board and what levels the kick, snare, and hi-hat are.
I saw it and I studied it. I love it and on some photographic memory shit, I would go and apply it to my beats and I noticed that my drums started to pound a little better in the last year and a half. I see his tactics and how he approaches his stuff in an old school way on purpose, and he told me that. Shortcuts kind of fuck shit up for music. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and if you apply the knowledge that you’ve obtained over the years, then you can really do something memorable, and that’s what he does. It may take longer with making a beat, but he’s a legend and he’s going to always be around. I’ve learned that kind of stuff and I’ve learned to be patient.
What do you do to push yourself as a producer?
It’s 100% for me being very, very eclectic as a listener and as a fan of music. I’m lucky that I’m into different genres of music and different sub-genres of music. If I was only into the lane that Brown Bag is in, do you know how boring and stagnant my shit would sound? Been there, done that, you wouldn’t fuck with me at all. For example, I’m going to get on the train later and I’m probably going to listen to the Justin Timberlake album the whole time. My beats don’t sound anything like that but I’ve been making a lot of beats that are big-sounding and sample free. People will still know I made it, it will still sounds like me. It just sounds like me, 2.0. I’m very eclectic and I listen to all sorts of different stuff and I’m lucky I listen to that, otherwise I would be very stagnant.
You’ve got a variety of EPs you’re working on as well as the Brown Bag album. How are you balancing everything and making sure they sound the way you want them to?
They’re going good, thanks. It’s very, very hard to juggle all of this. Like, when Fat Beats closed in late 2010, I took on a lot of projects because I thought I was going to have all this free time and I stupidly bit off more than I could chew. I have too much on my plate and right now, almost two and a half years later, now I’m finally getting to a place where I’m narrowing it down to two or three projects at a time, where before I was working on six or seven and it was a fucking nightmare. It was frustrating and it was stressful and nobody can juggle that. You can’t apply yourself to all of those at 100% and I didn’t realize that. I thought I had made all the beats and it was all good. But a lot of MCs don’t want the beats that you’ve already made. They want you to tailor-make all of them and you will, if you care about your project.
I just finished the Blame One and J57 project. He hit me up on Twitter when he heard Fat Beats was closing and he said he was a fan of me and I was blown away because I was a fan of his. Right now there’s two indie labels fighting over the project. That comes from working on that for two and a half years as I’m working on the Brown Bag album and the Koncept & Soul Khan albums. I learned to not bite off more than I can chew. I don’t regret it. It was a great lesson, but it also made me go into more of a work mode where I turn off my phone and just work on something for a whole day straight without taking a break. I learned how to manage my time better and to not take on as many projects at the same time.
What are you most excited about releasing?
Oh, man, I’m so proud of the Blame One album. I just can’t wait for people to hear this shit. I can’t wait for people to hear this album. It’s probably coming sometime in late August. I want people to hear that album so bad. The Soul Khan album, the Brown Bag album and I’m working on three EPs with other people that are getting finished. I was taking on a lot of projects and now I get to finally reap the benefits and let the people hear it because I’ve been working on these projects for so long. I’m thankful that all of these artists are patient with me. Homeboy Sandman and I are one track away from finishing our EP. I don’t want to spoil the other EPs I’m working on, because we’re still in our early stages.
You went to Europe with Koncept and Booda French for the Full Bottle Tour. What kind of perspective did you gain seeing Europe as an artist and not being there strictly on vacation?
I’ve been wanting to go on a tour like that forever. I’ve had offers and nothing was lucrative enough in the sense that they weren’t flying us out at the time. I wanted to wait and do it right where people were guaranteeing us stuff. At that time; One, I got too much stuff on my plate and two, I know they’re not waiting to see me. I’m going to wait and build my fanbase and do it right and it was really, really mind-blowing. The whole two and a half weeks was just crazy. It exceeded expectations.
We didn’t have any problems and there were no loopholes. We waited so long because I was picky about it but it was done right. It made me come back and have more confidence than I ever did before. I’m not cocky, but I know what I’m doing is the right fucking thing. It’s crazy being in other countries where motherfuckers don’t speak English and they’re screaming your lyrics. I’ve had that happen in America before and that’s dope and it’s happened in Montreal and other places, but it’s nothing like people chanting “Brown Bag” in Switzerland. In the U.K., everyone knew our shit and shows were sold out and I didn’t expect that.
I have a new perspective on things and I’m taking MCing even more serious now because I feel I need to. That put the battery in my back and I know what I’m doing with the beats is right. My newest beats got the biggest reaction every time, so I know what I’m doing now more than ever.
What kind of goals have you set for yourself for the rest of the year?
I have a lot of them and I’m thankful that I’ve accomplished some of them. We have another tour possibly coming up. Those goals have been accomplished and I’m fucking grateful for them, but the main shit for me right now is to get real indie label situations going for all these projects I’m doing. I’m not saying I’m done with the free shit. I know how the game goes, but we haven’t really been on a label of any sort. We’ve had a few things come out on labels but we haven’t had a name-brand label that’s like been in the game for 20 years yet. We haven’t had a co-sign and I think now is the time for that in some way, shape, or form and I think that will bring us to the next level. And also me getting a beat on a major label project. I need to get a beat on a major album. That’s my biggest goal in the world. I know once I get one, it’ll be a wrap and I’ll be in there forever, but I need to get that first one and it’s always the hardest one. Everyone always says that that’s the hardest shit. If and when you see that happend, fucking be happy for me because I’ve been wanting that shit for a long time.
I gotta ask, what do you guys keep in the brown bag?
I love a lot of alcohol, I can’t lie. My favorite beer is Hoegaarden. I love Blue Moon, Corona, Shock Top and Heineken. Overseas there’s a lot of dope beer, like Carlsberg. There’s all sorts of different beer that I never even heard of, like cider beer. I don’t drink gin, it’s too piney to me, but I love vodka and tequila. Koncept loves tequila too much so we gotta stay away from that shit on tour! I’m not an alcoholic. I know my limits. We live up to our name and everyone up to Premier can co-sign that shit. Me, Preem, and Marco Polo were working in the lab once and I got a 22 oz for Preem but I didn’t get one for Marco because he doesn’t drink, and he’s like, ‘Nah, I’m working, but you’re for real with the Brown Bag shit.’