When J-Kwon leaps onstage to accept his first major music award, he'll have lots of people to thank. But his speech won't be a litany of memories about friends and family who believed in him and fueled him with the positive encouragement he needed to succeed. Instead, he'll thank those passersby--known and unknown--who left him, at the age of 13, to fight for his dream on the lonely streets of south side St. Louis. It was their inability to see his vision that made his dream bigger and stronger, and it was their disbelief that forced him to show and prove.
"When I was 12, 13, I was a real good student," J-Kwon recalls, "but I was like, 'Mama, I wanna do this [rap] thing.' I used to watch TV and see rappers on. I was like, 'That's all they doing? I can do that.' I was like, 'All I need is some girls and a little jewelry, Mama, and keep myself clean, Mama. And I can do it, Mama.' Mama was like, 'Yeah, right. If that's what you wanna do, get out my house. You wanna do that, go show me.'"
And he set out to do just that. "As soon as I left my mama, I didn't have anywhere to go, so I ran to the south side because I knew this dude that stayed on the south and that's where I was most comfortable. I'd ask people, 'Hey, can I sleep in the back of your car?' I did that for about a year and a half. I turned to wanting to sell drugs, got my jaw broke..." What followed was a seemingly endless cycle of hustling, struggling, and fighting on the streets to keep his head above water by any means necessary. J-Kwon sank so deep into darkness that he wondered if he'd ever see daylight again, but there was light--a light that burned deep inside of him, guiding him towards his dream. With his street-smarts and common sense, he was able to survive.
But it was during those long, dark hours curled up in the backseat of a car that J-Kwon--by nothing but the glow of a cigarette lighter--composed the rhymes that would ultimately earn him a recording contract.
J-Kwon eventually hooked up with St. Louis music impresario Sean Caldwell, a man he came to refer to as his "daddy." Caldwell took an interest in him musically and took him in off the streets. "It wasn't the best place to stay, but compared to the place I came from, I couldn't complain," J-Kwon says. "Now I could sleep on this hardwood floor in Sean's mama's house. At least I ain't cold. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor." About two years passed, and one day, after J-Kwon's persistent nudging, Caldwell took one of the rapper's songs, a track called "Personality," to hot producers the Track Boyz, who had already begun to make a name for themselves with Nelly and Nappy Roots. They were blown away by J-Kwon's talent and offered him $1,000 to sign with them. "That was a lotta money," says J-Kwon, "because I didn't have anything. I was 16, getting ready to turn 17. I ain't got no bills." From there, things moved quickly: from Track Boyz to MeMpHiTz, A&R executive at Arista, to a showcase in front of Arista Records president and CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid, So So Def CEO and Arista Records senior vice president Jermaine Dupri, and their team of A&R executives.
"When MeMpH heard me, he said, 'L.A. and Jermaine gon' love you. They gonna want to sign you.' I was like, 'Yeah, right.' I been lied to so much. I gotta stay focused, because the minute you feel like you've accomplished something, you accomplish nothing, because your drive starts going down." J-Kwon remained unfazed. Even after he received a plane ticket to go to New York, he still kept his guard up.
"That door went open to L.A. Reid's office and they had every A&R in there," he recalls. "I did mine right before them...I threw some shots at Jermaine and L.A. There's a part that comes in one of my songs that says, 'If you don't like it bite me, dirty, bite me!' I turned around when that came on and said, 'If you don't like it, L.A., bite me!' I pulled down my pants, turned around, showed 'em my ass. At that point they clapped--they all just clapped."
Jermaine Dupri gave J-Kwon the opportunity to pour the last four years of his struggle into song for the world to hear. The result is Hood Hop, his debut release on Dupri's So So Def/Arista label which features production by early believers the Track Boyz and Dupri as well as Bryan-Michael Co x(who has produced for Usher, Jermaine Dupri, and Ginuwine).
The album's lead single is the bass-heavy "Tipsy," a track that J-Kwon calls a "crazy party joint with an old-school feel." Produced by the Track Boyz, the song, which opens with a spoken admonition about teen drinking, boasts a chant-like hook and a beat that is totally irresistible. "The beat was right in front of my face," says J-Kwon. "I could feel it. I didn't wanna mess the song up by taking it somewhere the beat wasn't taking it." He said the lyrics just flowed organically.
And so does the rest of the album. It's clear from track to track that J-Kwon is not trying to be the next anybody. He's simply doing what he feels and doing it well. But listeners better keep up, because J-Kwon can shift gears so fast you'll get whiplash.
In stark contrast to the rugged "Tipsy," "Ask Me," which opens with a supple strumming of a guitar, is more melodic. "That's my story," he says. "For anybody who wants to know the story, go to that song and you get the story." He raps, "Times got hard, I had to get harder/Let me take that back, I had to get smarter."
On the passionate and urgent "Ain't Gotta Like Me," J-Kwon tries to relate to people who are still trapped where he used to be. "I realize everybody ain't got no deal. Sometimes you gotta relate to people and how they feel. That's what I do on this song. I'm saying, 'I'm sick and tired too. You been living crazy all your life? Me too.'" But J-Kwon is careful not to be too preachy. "It gets deep, because I gotta explain everything without overexplaining it. I still wanna give them hip-hop, but I want to have them guessing what I'm gonna do next."
J-Kwon delves into relationships on the cleverly deceptive "You And Me," which explores a partnership that starts out rooted in love but diminishes into one tainted by materialism. He says in the song, "The money got happy but we got sad."
With its many twists and turns, Hood Hop is a true depiction of the thoughts, fears, joys, and experiences of a 17-year-old boy who has seen way too much of life for such a young age. But it is also a reflection of what happens every day in the real world--the way real people think and feel and act. It bridges gaps, opens minds, and moves feet. It covers a lot of terrain, musically and emotionally.
"I wanna introduce hood to pop, and I wanna introduce pop to hood," J-Kwon says of his music. "I don't want no set crowd. I'm going for a lotta crowds and everybody gon' feel me, because there's cats who ain't got this. There's cats who ain't Jermaine Dupri and ain't living like that."
J-Kwon says he's not looking for people to worship him. Rather, he wants people who understand him. "I don't want a fanbase. I want love. I want you to feel like I'm one of you. I want us to be equal. That's why I make something for everybody. I want people to understand me. I want love and I want respect, and I'm gonna give out respect."
And that's all it's ever really been about for J-Kwon. When he left his mama's house four years ago, it was about finding the respect and understanding that he couldn't find at home. It was about latching on to the toughest of all dreams and wrestling it into submission. "It ain't really about money for me," he muses. "It's about being able to accomplish something. I just gotta accomplish something."