The future looks bright for Roc Nation's first signee. With his debut album hitting stores this week, J.Cole’s hip hop dreams are finally being realized. Damien Scott takes a look back at the days when the forecast was much cloudier.
This feature is a part of Complex's J. Cole week.
“Shit, it’s about to rain,” said J. Cole as the two of us stood outside of Baseline Studios in midtown Manhattan, the soundlab where Rocafella Records created many of its biggest songs during its reign over the rap game. The year was 2005. Four years earlier, Jay-Z had recorded his opus, The Blueprint, here. For that reason some considered it hallowed ground. Which is why—despite the falling rain, and despite me wishing Cole would say, “Fuck it, D, let’s roll”—we remained staked outside of 127 West 26th St., hoping for someone to open the door.
Cole’s plan was a simple one: Jay-Z was supposedly working on a new album, so if we went to the place where Jigga was known to record, there was a chance we would run into him, and… you know… the stars would align, and Jay would take Cole’s beat CD, and listen to it, and love it, and have someone reach out to get him on the next album.
As roommates from sophomore to senior year, I watched Cole hope and dream about getting a deal while working tirelessly to perfect his sound.
The plan couldn’t have been more far-fetched, but J. Cole believed it was viable. It never seemed to cross his mind that his dreams would not come true. To him it was inevitable. There was just one problem—in order for any of that happen, we would need to get into the building first.
We pressed a number of buzzers; hoping someone on the other end would thoughtlessly open the door. No dice. So we waited. And waited. Cole cracked jokes to keep the mood light. He would have waited all night if need be, but he could sense my resolve to the cause wasn’t as steadfast as his own. I wanted to bounce. Could you blame me? We had no idea if we were going to get in—worse, we didn’t even know if Jay-Z was up there. It wasn’t like there was a Maybach 62 parked outside. Dude could have been on a yacht with Beyoncé for all we knew.
Finally, we saw a middle-aged lady step out of the elevator and head towards the door. The woman leered at us as she exited, pushing the door wide enough for Cole to grab it before it closed. We headed upstairs to the glass-fronted waiting area where we saw a guy who looked a little older than us sitting behind a receptionist desk shooting the shit with some similarly aged dudes. The receptionist noticed us and buzzed us in through the next door.
At this point, I was straight-up stunned: Holy shit, I thought to myself, we’re actually at Baseline Studios! Now what? Do we ask if Jay-Z’s in? While I’m working through my bemusement, Cole, clear-headed and half-grinning, tells the receptionist that he came to check out the studio because he produces and he’s a big fan of Jay-Z and Just Blaze. She tells us unfortunately nothing’s poppin’ at the studio tonight. To make it seem as though we weren’t just star-stalking, Cole inquires about an internship. He grabs an application and we bounce. He didn’t meet Jay-Z that night, but he wasn’t dismayed—not in the least.
These days, Jermaine Lamarr Cole, better known as J. Cole, doesn’t have to stake out studios in order to talk to Shawn Carter. As the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint, he simply waits for the Big Homie to call him. Which is pretty crazy considering the bumpy road that led the 26-year-old rapper to the Roc. When was finishing high school in Fayetteville, N.C. in 2003, he figured the only way he was going to get record deal was by moving to a huge music market. So he packed up, kissed his mother goodbye, and headed north to attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens—which is where I met him. As roommates from sophomore to senior year, I watched Cole hope and dream about getting a deal while working tirelessly to perfect his sound. Though he’s prone to speaking about the power of dreaming—he calls his label Dreamville, his team is made up of Dreamvillains. It was his hustle and unwavering determination that got him to where he is today. Oh, and the fact that he can rap really, really well
When I met him a freshman year I remember thinking he was an affable dude, one who was very comfortable being the center of attention. My earliest memories involve Jermaine cursing his ass off. Not in a vulgar or insulting way—he seemed to use the word “Bitch” as punctuation. When Cole first started killing features for bigger artists—some people commented that he cursed too much. Shit, they should have seen him in his younger days. I didn’t know that he rapped until I stopped by his room and saw a dusty red machine sitting on top of his desk. Most of the STJ student body learned about Cole, who was then going by the name Therapist, when he performed at a talent show a few months later. Looking to connect with the crowd, Jermaine rhymed about things all the kids in the auditorium could relate to: Sallie Mae, grades, cafeteria food, sex, and bills. Each time he dropped a punch line the crowd roared so loud he had to pause and wait for the eruption to settle before continuing. He didn’t win the contest, but everyone agreed that he murked it. It was evident he had skills.
It wasn’t unusual to wake up in the middle of the night and see Jermaine at his tiny dorm room desk with his headphones on, tapping out a drum sequence.
He put those skills to work during our sophomore year. When he wasn’t doing homework (he was on the Dean’s List all throughout college) or playing ball (he was good enough to try out for STJ’s Division I team, and almost made it as a walk-on but decided not to show up for the call-back) Jermaine was up in his dorm room making music. Occasionally, he would take an hour drive up north to Purhcase, NY to visit his friend Anthony “Elite” Parrino. A producer who worked with Jadakiss, DMX, and Jim Jones, Elite would book gigs for the two of them to perform. The crowds were usually small and full of drunk college kids, but it was an opportunity for Jermaine to perform on stage and gauge people’s interest in his songs. One time Jermaine and Elite, along with a couple of their friends, did so well, an underground rapper named Tonedeff came up to them afterwards and gave them all props.
Jermaine says the only reason he started producing was because he couldn’t afford to buy beats when he was younger. It was the same story during his college years. He spent a good deal of his sophomore and junior year chopping up samples and stitching them back together. Cole studied producers like 9th Wonder, Just Blaze, and, of course, Kanye West. It wasn’t unusual to wake up in the middle of the night and see Jermaine at his tiny dorm room desk with his headphones on, tapping out a drum sequence. Similar to another producer-turned-rapper, he soon came to see his production as a viable path into the music industry, if he couldn’t at first get on as a rapper. But he was very protective of his music—you might even call him a perfectionist. He was okay playing stuff for those in his close circle, but he’d usually turn the track off when anybody else walked in the room.
In 2006, after interning for Bill Adler at Eyejammie Hip Hop Art Gallery and meeting Sacha Jenkins, I started contributing to Mass Appeal magazine. Brendan Frederick, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, tasked me with interviewing Lil Wayne for a column called “Fight Club.” It was the first piece I had published in a magazine. I was flipping out. I was so drunk with happiness that I had a t-shirt made that read “I’m Published” across the front and back. It was ridiculous. I showed all my roommates and they laughed. Jermaine asked me where I got it made, and I told him the website. A few months later, Cole came home with his own custom t-shirt that had the words: “Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying” splayed across the front.
It’s funny, if you ask J. Cole who his favorite rappers are he’ll quickly mention Tupac and Nas. To him they represented everything rap was supposed to be. He admired Nas for his lyricism, the way he flowed, and the way he told such vivid stories. He loved Pac for, well, everything. But Tupac was dead and Nas didn’t have the power to put people on the way Jay-Z did (remember the Bravehearts or Quan?). Jay-Z was as big as it got in rap. He was our living God MC.
Getting one of his beat CDs into Jay-Z’s hand became Cole’s new mission. That was why we were trying to get into Baseline. It was why he went to Aaron Reid’s Sweet 16 party wearing his customized Jay-Z T-shirt underneath his button-down with a beat CD in his back pocket. Jermaine, like Kanye back in the 1-9-9-9, felt that if he could just get one beat on Hova, he could get up off his cheap-ass sofa.With no direct connect to Jigga, and our college years coming to an end, Cole became laser-focused on rapping. He began making more music than I’d ever seen him make. I sensed that he felt his window was closing. By this time, I had just scored a full-time gig as a reporter working for VIBE magazine, while the rest of my class were going through their senior year, doing all they could to prepare for the job market. Well, everyone except Jermaine.
The man who was set to graduate at the top of his class didn’t have an internship, in any field, under his belt. He didn’t want to work. Said he just couldn’t do it. It was not what he was meant to do. He would have rather eaten a steady diet of hot dogs and ramen noodles than work a regular nine-to-five. To pay rent, he took up a job as a bill collector. The plan was to bide his time until he got a deal.
A bank statement was taped to his wall right near his bed. I took a closer look and saw his bank balance with a bunch of handwritten zeroes behind it. 'If I keep that number in mind,' he told me, 'I’m going to get it. I swear.'
Even though he was cranking out music, Jermaine didn’t have a set of songs he could hand out. We encouraged him to make a mixtape. He said he didn’t want to give his music away for free. Fuck that.
This was around the time when DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were flooding the block and Lil Wayne’s Dedication series made him the hot topic of conversation. Mixtapes, it seemed, were the way to go. Eventually “Fuck that” turned into maybe, which turned into him putting his all into the project that became his first mixtape. When we weren’t bouncing from lounge to lounge, Jermaine was holed up in his room making music. For the first time since I’d met him, he was completely devoted to his craft. He was in his zone.
Finally, in 2007, Jermaine dropped his first tape, The Come Up, hosted by DJ On Point. Even with a mixtape under his belt, Jermaine continued to grind. He would often call whoever was in the house up to his room to listen and give an opinion. Sometimes it was a beat, sometimes two verses held together by a chorus that Jermaine sang as a placeholder—like he did with the song “Lights Please,” an intimate conversation between Cole and a lady friend who he was attempting to educate while she just wanted to cut the lights and get it poppin’.
Another time I proposed to my roommates the idea of writing a hip-hop musical. They laughed. I told them it wouldn’t be like Carmen, the one on MTV starring Beyoncé. It’d be well written, with good songs that could live on their own. Jermaine dug the concept. “I’ve been working on something that would be perfect for something like this,” he told us. He sat down on my radiator and starting reciting verses from the song that would become “Lost Ones,” a powerful track about a guy and a girl trying to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When the song leaked a few months ago, I texted him and told him I was sorry to hear about the leak because I knew how much “Lost Ones” meant to him. He responded, “Yeah, man. Shit sucks. Only good part is that’s an old-ass version. The album version sounds crazy.”
Despite getting a lot done in his bedroom, Jermaine realized he needed to record in a studio. In order to make it big, he had to get more professional. In 2007, Cole linked up with Mike Rooney, the nephew of multi-platinum songwriter and producer, Corey Rooney. Mike got Jermaine studio time and had him working with more established producers like Syience. With a business partner working to get him a deal, things started to look promising. Cole felt he was close.
Even though he was still working a bullshit job, and money wasn’t flowing as well as he’d like, he believed in his heart of hearts that he was going to make it. One day I went up to his room to see what he was working on and I saw a bank statement taped to his wall right near his bed. I took a closer look and saw his bank balance with a bunch of handwritten zeroes behind it. “If I keep that number in mind," he told me, "I’m going to get it. I swear.”As Jermaine and his team—which now included his current A&R rep, Ibrahim—worked to get his music in the right hands, he began to work on his next mixtape, The Warm Up. This tape would be bigger than The Come Up with more original songs and production from outside beatsmiths like Elite and Sycience. After taking in a Lee Fields and the Expressions show in Williamsburg, NY, I send Jermaine some of the tracks, telling him he may want to sample one. He agreed, and made two songs for The Warm Up—“Ladies” and “World is Empty.” His team got stronger when Mark Pitts, President of Urban Music at Sony, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s former manager. Pitts decided to manage Cole. That’s when things got serious.
All his years of perfectionism paid off that day. That night a gang of us hit a bar on the Lower East Side and drank, and drank, and drank to J. Cole’s future success.
I don’t remember the day; all I remember is getting to my desk at COMPLEX one morning in 2009 and seeing missed calls from my roommate Rich and Jermaine. I called ’em both back asking if anything was wrong. Rich picked up first. He asked me if I’d heard the news. “Nah,” I said. “What happened?”
“Son, Jermaine has a meeting with Jay-Z today.”
I told him I’d call him back. I dialed Cole again, and this time he picked up. He sounded like he was in motion. “Dude, I heard you got a meeting with Hov?” He paused, caught his breath, and told me that he got a text at work saying that Jay-Z wanted to meet with him. He didn’t know why. But he just left work, went home and changed, hopped in his car and raced to the city where he was currently awaiting his meeting with Jay-Z. The man he’d been trying to meet for the past five years; the man for whom he stood in the rain; the man he saw as his way into the game. He had to go, he said. He’d hit me when he got out.
Not an ounce of work was done that day. Rich and I both sat in our respective offices waiting to hear what happened. Now the story is part of Cole’s lore: He sat in a room with Jay and Mark Pitts as Jigga told him how much he liked his music—especially the song “Lights Please.” The song that exemplified the internal struggle of good intentions versus bad ideas that pervades his music (as well as his logo, an “O” with devil horns and an “E” with a halo)—the song he made in his tiny room; the song he once told me was one of the best songs he ever made—was getting props from the biggest rapper in the world. It was the reason he landed his first record deal. All his years of perfectionism paid off that day. That night a gang of us hit a bar on the Lower East Side and drank, and drank, and drank to J. Cole’s future success.
Cole frequently quips in interviews that all the work he put in up to this point is nothing, and that getting signed was just the beginning. And of course, he’s right. Since inking the deal that made him the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, Cole hasn’t let up. He dropped two stellar mixtapes, spit one of the best breakout verses ever on the so aptly titled “A Star is Born” from Jay’s Blueprint 3, murdered a raft of rappers on their own songs (Wale’s “Beautiful Bliss,” Reflection Eternal “Just Begun,” and Kanye’s “Looking for Trouble,” to name a few), toured the world, and now finally has an official album hitting stores.
Not only does he have an album coming out, he has an album coming out that he produced almost solely by himself. This is the way he’s always worked. Even with a major machine behind him, he’s staying in his zone, a place where he can best balance the industry’s commercial requirements and his artistic needs. Given the opportunity to work with seasoned hitmakers like the Neptunes, Cole opted to go it alone, to put his future in his own hands. If he fails or succeeds it will be by his own volition. Yes, Jay-Z signed him and put his name in bright lights, but it was Jermaine who put his nose to the grindstone and amassed a legion of fans—Dreamvillains as he calls them—who pack out his shows. He’s betting that staying in this zone will bring him massive rewards even if Cole World: The Sideline Story isn’t appreciated until the second album comes out.
In July of this year, while sporadically checking my Facebook page, I read a message from a young rapper asking me if I really knew J. Cole, and if so, could I tell him how to get some music to him. Maybe he should make a T-shirt.