For J. Cole, success as a rapper has been built on a love of music and the technology used to make it.
Hey man, nobody ever asks me about this stuff. I love talking about it, so thank you,” exclaims J. Cole. An interview with SOS is a welcome chance for him to talk about the tools of his trade, from his very first music-making machine, the Ensoniq ASR X Pro, to his current DAW, Logic, and how he's planning to move into using Ableton Live, Reaper, and analogue mixing methods in the near future.
The fact that Cole is never asked about these topics reflects the fact that most rappers rely on other producers to make their backing tracks. J. Cole, by contrast, writes and produces almost all his beats, and regards himself as both a musician and a rapper. "They are both equally important to me,” he insists.
Cole's interest in the nuts and bolts of music-making can be traced back to his unusual background. Born Jermaine Lamarr Cole in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985, to a black American GI father and a white mother, he was raised in a multi-cultural environment in North Carolina by his mother and her family. One influence was his mother's extensive CD collection, which included albums by Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Al Green — "I went through all her CDs” — he says, while his mixed-race background inclined him to associate with black culture and black music, rap and hip-hop in particular.
The young Jermaine Cole had already started writing raps at the age of 12, but also studied guitar and Western classical music, as he enjoyed violin lessons from sixth to 12th grade (ages 12 to 18) and sometimes played in an orchestra. At age 15, he persuaded his mother to get him something on which he could make his own tracks, so she bought him the Ensoniq ASR X Pro (not a Roland TR808, as has been erroneously reported elsewhere), and Cole began to write his own beats as well as his own words.
Cole's entire background appears to have been about integrating different cultural and musical influences, and it's telling that he uses the word 'marriage' repeatedly when describing his creative process, for example when he notes that being both a musician and a rapper is "like a marriage”. He adds: "I don't play the violin any more, but I still know how to read music, and what it's like to sit in an orchestra, which means that I understand orchestration and know what the different sections of an orchestra do. And I taught myself how to play keyboard and program drums and to engineer.”
In a combative move that illustrates the scale of his ambition, J. Cole's second album, Born Sinner, was released on June 18th in the US, the same day as Kanye West's Yeezus. Jay-Z's Magna Carta... Holy Grail was released a couple of weeks later, and the three major hip-hop albums — all on Jay-Z-founded labels Roc-A-Fella and Roc Nation — have been battling it out in Top 10s worldwide, with Born Sinner more than holding its own, topping the US charts and reaching number seven in the UK. In the process, Cole's name has been routinely mentioned in the same context as the two biggest names in hip-hop, which clearly was what he was aiming for.
Reviews of Born Sinner have also been predominantly positive, with much being made of the stark juxtaposition between Cole's confessional, in-your-face lyrics and the melodic, lyrical backing tracks, which incorporate a variety of styles, including soul, jazz and gospel. With lavish use of real orchestra and real choir, Born Sinner is clearly made by someone who loves melody and likes to paint with colours and create elaborate arrangements. Indeed, Cole's lush and sophisticated production approach was already apparent on his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011), but he's taken things further on Born Sinner. "The first album had live musicians as well,” observes Cole, "but the new album has an 18-piece string orchestra on many of the songs, guitars and live bass lines. I love live bass lines and will always try to include live elements. Ron Gilmore, who is my keyboard player on the road and in the studio, wrote string parts, and Ken Lewis put together the choir for me on many of the songs.”
According to J. Cole and his engineer, Juro 'Mez' Davis, work on the new album began at the end of 2011, soon after The Sideline Story was released. Much of Cole's initial writing work was done on a tour bus, though he emphasised that he can work anywhere. "I come from the era of making songs at home, but I also create a lot of stuff in the studio. I don't have my own studio, because hiring a place in New York City can be so expensive, so I often work out of Premier Studio or Plaza Sound Studios. Being able to work anywhere is the beauty of being a musician in these times. All I need is a laptop and an USB keyboard, and a set of speakers or headphones. I don't mind what keyboard I use, but normally it's the M-Audio 49 or 69, and I have Dr Dre's Beats headphones, his biggest ones. I didn't like them in the beginning, but eventually grew to love them. My favourite monitor speakers are the M-Audio BX8s. I love them and often take them with me.
"It doesn't really matter what equipment you use. I'm comfortable with my current setup, with Logic and the USB keyboard and some headphones, because it is convenient: everything I need is right there. I come from the school where I used a physical machine, a sampler, with drum pads and so on, but I like the freedom that a computer with a DAW gives me. It allows me to make whatever I want to make. I also record myself into Logic, using a small Neumann microphone, the Neumann TLM103, and an Apogee Duet or Presonus Firestudio interface to create demos of my vocal hooks.”
Davis, who was a rapper before he became an engineer, and who first worked with Cole on the latter's debut mix-tape, The Come Up, comments: "We like to work in commercial studios because of the vibe, and also because things sound better in an acoustically treated room. Cole tends to work on his own in Logic when he writes, but I sometimes will go in and help him to record. Once we get to the studio, I transfer things to Pro Tools and make sure that everything is in good shape. But sometimes Cole will record himself in the studio. It all depends on the mood.”
Further outlining his approach to hip-hop songwriting, Cole explains that his working methods have gradually changed. "I always used to find the sample first, and create the rest of the beat around the sample. But I don't do that much any more. There are maybe one or two songs on Born Sinners that started with a sample, like the song 'Rich Niggaz', for which I used a sample by Télépopmusik, and I really kept it minimal by just adding a kick and a snare. But my go-to process these days is to start with the drums because I can always, in the blink of an eye, turn on the computer and create drums that I love. It takes me three or four or five, or perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. It's really easy for me to make some drums that excite me out of thin air! So I first create drums that move me and excite me, and I may then look for a sample that fits with the feel of the drums. Or I will play a line or a riff that fits with the drums and build the track around that.
"When making drums, I start by picking the sounds that I like. Many producers have their favourite drum kit, and they load that up and work with that. I also have a couple of favourite drum kits, but I normally go through all my sounds. I randomly click folders, and will take the first kick sound that I like. And then I go for the first snare sound that I like, and the first pattern that I play with them. Or I use a drum loop. The moral of the story is that I use the first thing that I like, and I follow that and I keep following that. I have collected a bunch of drum sounds over the years, sounds that I found online, or from CDs, or from other producers — there's a whole community of producers that share sounds and help each other out. I'll take my drums from anywhere, because there's nothing like getting a new batch of sounds. High-quality sounds are great, but you can also make really good stuff from low-quality sounds. Sometimes low-quality sounds have a great feel to them.”
After he's created a drum track, Cole continues, "I'll start looking for a sample, or play music, or create a sound, and play these things on top of the drums. If the sample doesn't work, I'll try to find another sample, and if that gets me excited, I follow that. I use [Propellerhead] ReCycle to sample and chop the sample up, and I'll then load it into EXS in Logic to play around with it and have it play the way I hear it. Sometimes you're lucky enough to immediately find a great loop that you don't have to do much to, but I come from a school of production that's about chopping samples up and reworking and replaying them. Time-stretching samples is an amazing tool in this respect, that wasn't around when I worked with the ASR. The only way to do it at that time was to chop the sample into tiny pieces, but now you just click and drag and stretch them. It's easy in Logic, though I recently saw Ableton Live and it's even easier in that. I was amazed by how easy and user-friendly Live is. Another user-friendly and amazing program that a friend of mine uses is Reaper. These are great alternatives to Logic, and I might use them on the next album.”
J. Cole is keen to point out, though, that his method is not fixed. "Every song is different. The song 'Runaway' on the new album is based on a drum loop that I found, and to which I added a new kick, and I took a sample from my first album, from a track called 'Interlude', and I slowed that down and chopped it up and slid it in. I then added live bass and some really cool keyboard sounds and, at the end of the recording process, brought in live strings to give me a more lush feel, especially because the drum loop was so dirty. For the song 'She Knows' I had these crazy, amazing, drums for three or four months, but I couldn't find any music that worked with them. I tried three times, sometimes with a sample, sometimes with original music. Then one day I found a sample by this group Cults, of their song 'Bad Things', I loved that song and was playing it over and over, and suddenly the idea popped in my head to use it with these drums. So I cut the two together and it was the perfect marriage. I didn't have to do much to the sample, it was a simple loop. I then added a bass line, using a keyboard, and some more cool sounds. The snare in that song is on the third beat, giving it a half-time feel. This changes the entire feel, and I did it a lot on this album. Like the single 'Power Trip', which moves at 100bpm, but because of where the snare is placed, it sounds like a slow beat, at 50bpm.
Cole ended up writing a whopping 16 tracks on Born Sinner, including four short songs subtitled 'Interlude' or 'Skit'. "These skits are a classic part of hip-hop,” Cole comments. "Several classic hip-hop albums have funny skits, and all my projects have skits and interludes as part of the story-telling. The guy in the first skit ['Kerney Sermon'], makes money off selling people prayer packages. So people pay him to pray for them, it's crazy. I put him on there because it's a great representation of pretending to be good, but actually being bad. It's why I put it at the beginning of the album, which is way more dark, almost like the evil side, the Hell side. The skit that starts the second half ['Where's Jermaine'] is a choir practice, which is a more authentic church experience, something that's real. The church choir is wanting to praise God in the right way, not for money, just for the love of music and the love of God. The second half of the album has a lot of love and many more introspective songs. It's about finding yourself woken up, it's the Heaven side of the album.”
Asked whether Born Sinner can thus be seen as a journey from darkness to light, he simply replies: "Exactly.” The dark themes of the album's first single 'Power Trip', which features singer Miguel, definitely belong to the first half. The song is a tour de force that took Cole and Juro 'Mez' Davis 10 days to mix. "The mixing stage is an important last step for me,” Cole explains, "because I am very particular about how I want things to sound. We normally take a day to mix a track and tweak it the next day, but mixing 'Power Trip' was so tough. It took us five days full-time at Premier Studios, and then we flew to Los Angeles, where we tweaked it for several more days at the Record Plant, while also working on other tracks. The track had a clean kick and an 808 that went together perfectly, but there was also a bass line and they were in each other's way. When it comes to the mix, it's like, 'Damn, I have to make decisions about what's most important.' We wanted it to sound perfect, because it was the first single. But because of that, we probably were over-thinking it. Sometimes you over-think things and before you know it you are far away from where you were. But it worked in the end.”
Davis elaborates further on the mixing process: "On some of the songs, I was mixing while we were recording, and with other songs, Cole will come in and we lay the track and mix it on the spot. That's the approach that works best for us. We did that with the song 'Let Nas Down'. Cole was really happy with it, and all I did was brush it up at the end. But in many cases I just made sure that what we recorded sounded good, and I didn't do anything else, because I wanted to be sure that it was going to be on the album before I would do more. With 'Power Trip', we experimented a lot. Cole and I were not entirely sure what to do with certain stuff in the track, because it had a very weird beat. It was hard to get the bass line powerful and in your face while still having the kick and the 808 thumping. Going back and forth and deciding what to sacrifice and what to pull up in the track took a lot of time. There are shakers at the top and we spent a lot of time on them as well, and on the hats. We ended up panning each of them out to give them more time. These weird, crackling percussive noises? I don't even know what they are. I think they may be hats that Cole pitched down. There wasn't a whole lot of stuff going on in the mix. It was just a very weird beat. We all loved it, but weren't sure what to do with it a lot of the time. We knew it was going to be first single, so the pressure was on!”
J. Cole and Juro 'Mez' Davis are both of the digital generation, and working 'in the box' is second nature to them. It's interesting, therefore, that both place great emphasis on using the SSL desks at Premier and the Record Plant when mixing. "We use the board only during the mixing stage,” explains Cole. "Mez is definitely more comfortable in the box, but for this album we were playing a lot with using the board for all its capabilities. It's a matter of things sounding more precise and real and powerful. Some of the feel and power got lost when people started going digital and started mixing in the box, and I want to do my next album entirely on the board.”
"The SSL was a big reason why we rented the room at Premier,” adds Davis. "I'd mix things on the board, and then print it in Pro Tools, and then I'd mix some more in the box. We'd run things through the board when we wanted it to sound more analogue, or if it wasn't sounding right in digital. On 'Power Trip', I put almost everything through the board, printed it in Pro Tools and then sent it out through the board again. When we were in LA, I put Miguel's vocals and the filtered drum parts where his vocals come in through a real EMT 140 plate reverb. I also put his vocal through an [Empirical Labs] Distressor and crunched it pretty hard with a Pultec [EQ], to warm it up a bit and make him sound a bit older. The bass also went through the board, to beef it up and get a warmer sound. At one point I split the bass into three different tracks and effected the high end completely different from the low end and the mid-range, which worked to be tuck the lows underneath the 808. By keeping the highs prominent in the mix, we could keep the sound of the bass. I put Cole's vocals through a [Waves] Kramer tape emulation plug-in, and ran it through the board, using desk EQ and compression. I doubled the vocals for the 'love songs' parts in the intro and outro and put a [Waves harmoniser plug-in] Doubler on that, to spread it out. The Doubler is automated so it works more strongly on every other line, just to make it different. But overall I didn't do too much to Cole's voice, because he usually sounds pretty damn good.”
"Mez created the initial mixes,” concludes Cole, "then I'd come in and we'd tweak it together. We turn things up, we brighten things, it's a very collaborative process. In the end, we get it exactly the way we want it. When I hear 'Power Trip', I am happy and pleased, and feel that it was worth it to have spent 10 days on that. I gave myself an engineering credit on the album, because I thought it was cool for history purposes when people can see that I recorded myself on this, but even though I was part of the mixing process every step of the way, I didn't give myself a mixing credit. I often fall in love with my rough mixes, but I'm not such a great mixer. The more you make beats, the more you are naturally going to know what sounds good. Your ear becomes better and you become a better mixer. To learn to mix my own beats in a great way is my next step.”
One area in which J. Cole does conform to hip-hop tradition is in making elaborate use of samples. Thirteen of the 16 tracks on Born Sinner incorporate samples, from sources including the Notorious BIG, Outkast, Hubert Laws, Cults, Fela Kuti and many others. These samples often are craftily integrated into wider arrangements, rather than featured as the main hook, and in the process become part of the many colours and layers of Cole's arrangements.
Cole explains: "I initially found samples on CDs, like from my mother's CD collection, and then from MP3s on my computer, and I also got a record player and started going to thrift shops, where I bought vinyl records for one dollar. But nowadays I strictly find samples online, from iTunes or blogs with rare music, like rare jazz, fusion, progressive rock or soul. I definitely don't have time any more to go through vinyl records or CDs to find samples. Sometimes I'll buy 100 CDs to find samples, but I never have the time to listen to them, because who has the time to open up a CD case and put the CD in his laptop? It's a hard thing to do in this day and age when things are moving fast, especially with my career happening the way it is at the moment!”
J. Cole's approach to songwriting is usually to create a fairly complete backing track before adding any words. "The raps don't come until I complete the music. The beats, hopefully, inspire me to start writing words, and I then usually record these myself. If I'm not happy with my vocal demo, I can always later re-record it in Pro Tools in the studio, when we record my voice with a Neumann U87 and run it through an Avalon mic pre and the right compressor, and so on, to make it sound the best possible. We transfer things to Pro Tools and work in the box while recording, adding live bass and other things. Recording the orchestra and the choir were the most fun I had in the studio, just being there with the live string players and asking them to play things in different ways, like more staccato or playing certain notes in different ways. Because I played in an orchestra, I know the terminology. It was the same with the choirs, where I also was very hands-on in helping Ken Lewis.”
Juro 'Mez' Davis adds: "I use the Avalon 737 [input channel] to record Cole. It's a classic combination with the U87. I usually set the attack time pretty fast on the 737, making sure I get some of the transients before the attack hits, and the release setting depends on the song. If it is a mellower song, I often slow the release time down a bit, and if it is a more aggressive song, I'll dial in a faster release. I don't use EQ on the way in, other than perhaps a low cut. The bass guitar will go in DI, and I'll usually run it through an API mic pre and an LA2A, but it depends what I feel like in the moment. I'll sometimes run the bass through the Avalon as well. Ken [Lewis, Cole's orchestrator] recreates the feel of samples for many other guys as well, like Kanye, for example, in cases when it's impossible to clear the sample.”