You’re not going run into too many rappers who name drop Nancy Farmer. She's a legend in the world of young adult fiction, a writer whose journeys to dystopian worlds have garnered national book awards and a teeming mass of readers. One of those Farmer fans is Atlanta lyricist J.I.D, the latest signee to J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint.
“I try to read as much as I can,” J.I.D says over the phone while working from his home studio. “I’m in the middle of reading The House of the Scorpion.”
The literature junkie is the label’s first signing in over two years, and he joins a roster that already includes Bas, Cozz, Ari Lennox, and Omen. But J.I.D’s relationship with Cole is nothing new—the signing was something that happened organically over the past few years.
Aside from mutual musical ties, chances are J.I.D’s 2015 EP DiCaprio also played a part in his catching the right kind of label attention. The project, which was inspired by J.I.D’s favorite actor, came about after binging on flicks such as Catch Me If You Can and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
J.I.D is also part of the Atlanta/Baltimore collective, Spillage Village. The group’s exceptional 2016 album, Bears Like This Too Much, was a huge moment for the lyrical talents of J.I.D., EarthGang, Jordxn Bryant and Hollywood JB.
In spite of the media’s trap-centric focus on the music and culture in Atlanta, the Spillage Village creative spirit seems rooted in reflecting the harsh realities of growing up black in the South. J.I.D's nimble flow, distinct, high-pitched delivery and brutally honest content speaks to those everyday struggles in vivid detail, and the MC brings many more of these red clay realities to audiences with his excellent album The Never Story, released last week.
“It’s just going to dig deeper into the story I’m trying to tell,” J.I.D says. “It’s the common man’s story. Everybody’s not rich. I ain’t come from anything really. I’m just really telling it from my perspective. I wasn’t a trap nigga. I’m just a goddamn Atlanta nigga.”
The debut project on Dreamville covers the last few years of J.I.D’s life, which he describes as “rough.” During our interview, the MC opened up about his New York influences, songwriting process, and those Kendrick Lamar comparisons.
So I’ve read that along with Southern rappers and trap, you took a liking to New York rap early on. What drew you to that sound?
For me, I always saw [hip-hop] as being an up north thing, and us south niggas had to adapt to the shit. But I was in love with all of it. I was in love with T.I. That time period he was my favorite rapper, and still is one of my favorites. But there was big Jay-Z influences. That whole Jay and Nas beef had me like, “Oh shit! What the fuck is this?!” That was something different that I hadn’t really seen before. I would say New York hip-hop inspired me, but everything I was around helped mold what I’m trying to do today.
But you also grew up admiring other writers, not just rappers.
I would say New York hip-hop inspired me, but everything I was around helped mold what I’m trying to do today.
On some funny shit—Langston Hughes, he wrote a song for Nina Simone that I saw in this documentary I was watching, and that kind of sparked me like, “Damn, writers collaborating with greats!” I read and liked Decoded by Jay-Z. I try to read as much as I can. I’m in the middle of reading The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.
You like to name drop folks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. How much does pop culture/Hollywood play into and inform your songwriting process?
I feel like hip-hop inspires everything. That’s just my play on trying to say something a little different, and then open peoples’ minds up to how I see things, how cool I think DiCaprio is and all of the shit he does with acting and trying to improve global warming. I think shit like that is cool—people who stand for something.
And Matthew McConaughey gets a lot a of love on your song “Underwear.”
At that time period I was just binge-watching a bunch of their movies. Those songs, to me, are relatively old, but not to the listeners who are just getting adjusted to me. That time period, I was watching a lot of Leonardo DiCaprio movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Catch Me If You Can.
On track like “Never,” your being frustrated and blunt seems very relatable. What fuels your songwriting process?
Yeah man, that [track] is all pure frustration. I have the studio equipment set up in my crib, so I record everything by myself. With that, I was on a writing binge where I’d just wake up and get right to it. It’s not the most fun process, but it’s something that works for me. Finding some shit that sticks. My writing process is consecutive, like mad scientist crazy. It’s not totally writing something that rhymes or even writing a rap necessarily. Sometimes it’s just writing down stuff that I’m going through. It sounds corny, but it all ties into my emotions and how I’m going to live with something.
Trap music gets a lot of shine right now, but you’ve said you hope that your music along with other folks in Spillage Village can help change perceptions about Atlanta being home to lyricists. Do you feel like the city’s overlooked in that department?
We just want to show variety. I feel like as far as Atlanta’s concerned, we’re all from the state of Georgia, red clay and all of that shit, so it’s not that much different, there’s just a variety of styles. Black people, there’s a whole bunch of black people in our city and that’s creation, creativeness. What some people do, that’s their version of their creativity. What we do, it’s not that there’s not a light being shined heavy upon it, it adds more to the story of what’s going on in the city. It’s Atlanta; we’ve always had a cool culture. It’s fun, it’s a party city, but at the same time you have these great thinkers that were born here.
it's fun, it's a party city, but at the same time you have these great thinkers that were born [IN ATLANTA].
T.I., he can do both sides of the spectrum. He can do some real hood shit, one of the founders of trap. Today, he’s expanded his career to do more. He’s done the adjustment shit. Artists that are doing it today, they can always grow and make different music. It’s just the culture in Atlanta that brings everything together for me.
Earlier you mentioned that you admire artists and musicians that stand for something. Why’s that important?
I just think people who stand for something are cool as fuck. One of my favorite players in the NFL is Eric Berry just because of what he went through with the whole cancer shit, beating that and coming back. There’s great people who are doing great things outside of music and that makes the world go ‘round for me. Through my eyes, those are the people that are making everyday life easier for people going through things. Good or bad, perception is through the eye of the beholder, if you’re standing for something that you were always raised on and that shit’s all you know—that’s standing for something.
So then is The Never Story a culmination of those different perspectives, what you’ve learned and worked on over the past few years?
The Never Story is a culmination of me being sensitive to my surroundings, to everything that is going on all my life. But you’re right, the past few years have been the toughest part of my life. It’s rollercoaster as far as the sound because my sound... I really can’t explain it. I just work on different things and I try and get better at those things through the music. As far as everything on this project, it’s fine-tuned and took time. Everything has a different meaning but it’s still the same storyline. My process, I got up with good composers, not just producers, but people that are good as fuck at music, and people that know music, and people with good ears that don’t even do music. I created it from scratch almost, but pulled in a couple of different puzzles pieces to help it come together the right way.
One part of the puzzle is your voice. People like to make a big deal of your voice and compare it to others. The use of your voice as a musical tool just seems to be part of the method to your madness…
It takes time with shit like that, so I just got into it. Well, not just got into it. I always try to get to the point where I can do different things with my voice. Now, it’s like I’m understanding how to do it a little bit better. It takes practice. I played sports and shit, so practice makes perfect—or at least get as close to perfect as you can is something that I’m real big on.
What’s been the biggest misconception you’ve heard about you folks started taking notice?
In our genre of music it’s easy to compare somebody to make them feel more familiar with you. Of course, I’m a short guy. I’m not the biggest guy and my voice is isn’t really deep so if you’re thinking of people with those same attributes you’re going to get your [Lil’] Wayne's, your Kendricks, Anderson .Paak. It’s not even really a bad thing because I’ll take those great fucking comparisons.
If you take those names that I just said—those are great people. That’s kind of setting a bar for me, but at the same time I’m literally the only one where I’m from. I’m from Atlanta. I’m from the South. That’s totally different, bruh. And I don’t feel like anyone has told—of course no one has told my story yet, because I’m doing it right now. Even with my projects that are out, it’s not going to sound that familiar. It’s going to sound like J.I.D, and that’s what I was going for, taking my time with it, just trying to fine-carve it out.
What do you hope people can take from your story?
It’s just going to dig deeper into the story I’m trying to tell. It’s the common man’s story. Everybody’s not rich. I ain’t come from anything really. I’m just really telling it from my perspective. I wasn’t a trap nigga. I’m just a goddamn Atlanta nigga. I played sports, came from a big family, low-income, but a nigga made it, trying to make this shit a success story.