Hip-Hop Producer J. Period On DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Roots, and His “Story to Tell” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, February 28th, 2024  

Hip-Hop Producer J. Period On DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Roots, and His “Story to Tell”

Invisible Vibrations

Apr 30, 2021 Photography by Robert Adam Mayer Web Exclusive
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Famed hip-hop producer J. Period is as much a biographer as he is a musician. He has risen to fame through a love of hip-hop culture and by grinding day in and day out at his craft. But along the way, he discovered something special, a corner of the art form that he could call his own. That’s where memory and memoir helped J. Period to formulate his now-signature mixtapes.

J. Period came to music through his parents and, especially, his father. He learned from an early age to bridge song with story and he’s been hammering away at this technique ever since. To date, he has worked with The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, Dave Chappelle, and myriad other legendary names, all of whom respect the way J. Period blends melodies, rhythms, and recollections.

Now, the artist is beginning to tell his own story, with his release, Story to Tell, an album that J. Period is releasing in three parts. The first installment boasts tracks with Black Thought, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and writer Jemel Hill. But J. Period has plans for more releases in the coming months. We caught up with the artist to ask him about his love of music, his love of story, and his new album, which is out today.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music?

J. Period: To be honest, I think music has always been a part of my world. My father was actually a folk singer before he became a teacher and everything in my youth was sound tracked by a song, either that he was playing or that he was singing. I felt like every situation had a song and, in addition, a story. So that’s the kind of combination that burst the style of what I do, combining music and stories in that way.

But I got all different styles from my parents, who listened to different things. I had an older sister who listened to different stuff and I came along at the perfect moment to discover hip-hop. It was a wrap from there.

That’s really cool that your father attached a song to each moment. It’s almost like sonic stepping-stones.

It’s funny, I find myself doing a little bit of that right now. It’s like I’m constantly singing through situations in life. Recalling songs was just a big thing throughout my childhood.

How did you discover hip-hop and double-down on your interest?

I discovered hip-hop originally through Beat Street, the movie. I grew up in L.A. and it was like a universe unfolded for me when I watched that movie. That was my introduction to hip-hop and I just became really obsessed with this music. It was a thing where in the early days, I was transcribing the lyrics and showing them to demonstrate the power of the music. Then I was really just a fan in the truest sense where I had an amazing collection of music not because I intended to be a DJ but just because I wanted to hear it.

I always had a thing where I would hear a song and it would make me want to hear another. That’s the early seeds of my DJ’ing. I never really imagined it would get to this point. Just the very nature of how I approach things, I always wanted to get better and learn more and understand more about it. I think that pursuit has led me to this day, although I didn’t really anticipate it. As I came to New York and I really started taking it seriously, I was fortunate to be here at a moment when I met a lot of talented DJs in those early days, be it Mark Ronson or DJ AM, guys who are legends, who I had a chance to work with a little bit.

The album really comes out of my relationship with Jazzy Jeff and the Playlist Retreat, which is a gathering of creative that takes place every year for the last six years at his house. That’s where I got to sharpen my sword as a producer and measure up against these incredibly talented producers that made me go back to the drawing board over and over again until I felt like, okay, this can hold up. That’s where we are now, I think.

Wow, I’d never heard about that retreat. Can you talk about it a bit more?

Yeah, it began at Jazzy Jeff’s 50th birthday party. There was a handful of us there and the following day, we were just trading MP3 files and thinking about how awesome it would be if we could do this again. That went into Jeff’s mind and by the following year, he had invited about 30 different producers and DJs, people who are all trailblazers in their own right. And he did this experiment where he put us all together and really tried to push this idea of mutual inspiration and collaboration. That, over the next several years, grew to, I think, almost 175 people.

Holy crap!

Yeah, it was the full range of artists, from guys like Pomo to Stro Elliot, Tall Black Guy, DJ Scratch, Questlove. Just an amazing array of folks. And what he would do, he would pair us up as part of this retreat and create tracks. You’d have 24 hours to work with this group and make a song. To be honest, that is the origin story of “All In Your Head,” the first track on my new album. It was originally created at the Playlist Retreat as part of this challenge.

It just stuck with me. It became my anthem in the course of making this album, that idea of what Tiffany Gouché sings about, breaking through your fears and being creatively bold and brave, which this album definitely is. That’s the seeds of a lot of this. The guys there are so talented that it ended up being that a lot of them became collaborators with me on the project. Every song almost we’ve got one or more collaborators I met at the Playlist Retreat. So, a lot of credit goes to Jazzy Jeff.

Amazing! Okay, before we talk a bit more about that, let me ask, what were some of your earlier professional turning points. You worked with Q-Tip, The Roots—how did that come about and how did those help you improve?

I had the seeds of this combination of music and storytelling, but it didn’t really take shape until I had an opportunity to go to a listening session for Nas. It was for the God’s Son album in 2003. It was at that listening session where all these other DJs had their recorders on the table and Nas was just kind of talking. I had this thought of what if you mixed the storytelling he was doing with the music. So, I got a co-sign from him in a drop and I went home and made this mixtape.

That one ended up in The Source hottest mixtapes and I got asked to do another one for one of my heroes, Big Daddy Kane. That one became the seeds for the one that really took off, which was my mixtape with Lauryn Hill. At the time, it had been sometime since people had really heard from her and I was able to get access to her and she co-signed this mixtape. That became the thing where other artists would come up and say to me, “Hey, can you do what you did for Lauryn Hill for me?” Including Q-Tip, including Mary J. Blige.

That’s how a lot of these things unfolded, I combined the artist’s story in their own words with their music and it became this really unique thing that nobody had ever really done before. So, in the realm of mixtapes, that’s how I built my name. Then opportunities came out of that. So, when the Brooklyn Nets moved from Jersey to the Barclays Center, I was tapped to be the music supervisor for the team and I would create these little mixtape moments, mixing in Biggie and Jay Z and other Brooklyn elements and that, again, was a springboard in many ways.

One of the mixtapes I did in 2006 was with The Roots. Every one of these mixtapes I would do, this crazy thing would happen where the artist would ask me to go on tour with them. This happened with Big Daddy Kane, with Q-Tip, with Ms. Lauryn Hill and then with The Roots. The Roots relationship really blossomed. That created the opportunity for the Hamilton mixtape. For that, I was approached by the record label. Rigo Morales at Atlantic had this idea to make a mixtape to promote Hamilton even before anybody knew what Hamilton was.

Back then, my demo was taking the “10 Dual Commandments” vocal and mixing it with the Biggie “10 Crack Commandments” instrumental. So, that became the blueprint for this idea. Then when Hamilton blew up, I was called into that by way of The Roots and became one of the album producers for the Hamilton mixtape, which obviously was a huge moment and became a Billboard #1 album and all the rest of the things that go along with Hamilton.

I think all of these things have been seeds in my development and getting better and better and establishing myself with these legendary artists so that when it comes time for my album, I’m able to call on Dave Chappelle and the first thing he says to me is, “Oh, your Q-Tip mixtape is my favorite mixtape of all time.” And Lin-Manuel has experience with me from Hamilton, so he became a part of it. It’s just been this really crazy, organic journey in that way.

I first came to know you through your Bob Dylan and K’Naan mixtapes, which are really great. But hearing you talk about your process and the people you’ve worked with, I wonder, what do you like about biography? What do you appreciate about the author as well as their work?

The music, to me, always opened up a universe and made me want to know where it came from. So, in the early days of doing these mixtapes, the first question I would ask every artist was what was the music they heard in their house as a kid? I found it to be this really curious thing that if they gave a specific answer, it became a window into their experience. Then you start asking more and more questions and you find out that these guys who we imagine to be these legendary, mythic figures have actually quite humble origins.

I thought it was a really amazing thing to humanize the artists in that way and demystify these icons by telling their stories. It also would give the music additional context. You might be a fanatical A Tribe Called Quest fan, but you might have never known that “Award Tour” came from the bass line from Jade’s “Don’t Walk Away” until the mixtape told you that. Even Questlove, who knows everything about everything, at that time said he had no idea about that, and he learned that from the mixtape. So, I just thought that was such an amazing thing

Hip-hop in general has all these internal references, there’s all these storylines built into things, so it felt like a natural mix. I think the world comes to learn about that by way of Hamilton because you have this story brought to life by hip-hop in a way that it couldn’t have been brought to life with any other genre being quite as powerful. I think that’s part of where it comes from. For me, those stories just unlock another level of fascinating stuff. So, I just kept wanting to pull on that thread.

On the new record, on the tracks, “Globetrottin” and “El Gran Combo [Interlude],” there’s mention of basketball and the fundamentals of the game. But it strikes me that the fundamentals of hip-hop are also very important to you. So, can you just talk about the concept of the fundamentals in terms of your music?

I think part of it is that I’m a lifelong hoops head. And Bobbito, who mentions that on the interlude, knows it. But, in some ways, for folks who know basketball, the highest complement you can pay is that they understand the fundamentals of the game. And I think that when it comes to what I do, I think it’s about respect for the culture and an appreciation for the culture and an understanding of what those roots and seeds of everything are.

I think if you’re’ aware of it and respect it and want to hold it up, then it becomes a kind of thread throughout all of our work. At least for me that’s been the way that it’s happened. The other thing that’s happening on the album is all these songs are telling my story, even if they’re not necessarily about me. Every song has a story behind it or is a story itself.

The basketball game [referenced on the song “Globetrottin”] actually comes from that a game where Masego and I played, a series of games we played where he was surprised that I was able to beat him. [Laughs] And he wrote this song about it. I thought it would be so funny to make it this mythic game that actually happened. So, I reached out to Jemele Hill to be the courtside reporter and make it official.

Bobbito is a guy who, I think, in hip-hop is widely respected for understanding the fundamentals. Including him and having him say that line is a nod to that.

You’re releasing the first section of this storytelling album on April 30th but what can you say about future sections? And how do you think about your releases fitting into the greater hip-hop ecosystem today?

It’s never really good to look out and measure yourself against what’s current or popular in that way. I think what I’m trying to make is timeless music. So, it might have a little bit of the feeling of 10-20 years ago but the sonics and the sounds and the feel are very current.

The new album is trying to accomplish multiple things at once. One is obviously the storybook idea and releasing it in chapters and every chapter has a little bit of cliffhanger, a tease to what’s coming next, including the end of chapter one, which you’ve heard. Part of it for me was about the change in listening habits. People listen to much shorter form things these days.

My mixtapes in general are much longer play experiences. You go into it and you come out 60 minutes later. That has changed a lot out in the world. So, I thought it would be great to walk that line of putting things out in bite-sized pieces, whether it’s singles or chapters. Then the magic of how these things come together later is the reveal that we’re saving as the chapters unfold.

In terms of what’s coming next, I don’t want to give away too much. But every chapter approaches storytelling in a slightly different way and comes from a slightly different part of my story. As a DJ, it’s always important for me to mix styles and bring elements of the past into the present, reaching toward the future. All those things are very much in the spirit of hip-hop.

So, you’re definitely going to have a wide variety of styles, musically, artist-wise. I’ve been really trying to pair artists together that you wouldn’t expect to go together and are surprised to find out, like, oh, that sounds good together! Whether it’s Dave Chappelle and Tiffany Gouché or Masego and Shad or Joell and Lin. You’ll get more of that as this unfolds. My hope is that people who discover chapter one will stay along for the ride. We’ve been doing a lot of really cool animations.

I have this amazing artist from the UK who is doing all our cover art and the finale of all this is going to be an actual storybook. I was inspired by these book and record sets from when I was a kid. So, we have a comic book and book and record set for “Globetrottin” specifically, the basketball game song that’s coming out soon. And we’re going to have a hardbound full double album with illustrations for every song that will be coming later down the road when we get to chapter three. So, yeah, it’s the beginning of the journey right now and it’s exciting that all this is starting to unfold.

What do you love most about music?

It brings things to life in a really special way. Probably what I love most is that music is the one thing that crosses all boundaries, all bridges. It brings people together. It’s an amazing thing that you have these invisible vibrations that can go out into the world and penetrate people’s chest and get into their system in a way that nothing else really can. It’s why social movements rely on music and why we have emotional associations with music from specific moments in our life. It’s this magical thing. And I think for me that’s definitely been the case. What I’ve found in terms of storytelling is that music brings the stories to life. As you hear on the mixtapes or on the album, it takes these things and gives them rhythm and movement and life.

www.jperiod.com

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