Unusually Usual: The “Liberation” of J.R. (Part 1)
By: Swing (on Twitter @Swing_813 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Swing: So lt’s just jump right into it. How long have you been producing.
JR: I’ve producing for 14 years. Since I first put my hands to the keyboard, but producing professionally I want to say about 9 years.
Swing: You’re independent now, and your sound is now taking a different turn. From “Metamorphosis” to “Life By Stereo” there was a BIG jump in style and sound wise. Was that a prelude to what’s to come with “Liberation”?
JR: Absolutely! Yup! I’m a real progressive dude in my writing, my arrangements as well as my producing. There’s only like a handful of guys I can really call and make music with. For the most part, specifically in Christian circles, there’s just nobody thinking outside of the box. On “Metamorphosis” I produced the whole album myself. I was influenced by a lot of stuff that really didn’t come off on that record. A lot of “Metamorphosis” was older stuff. Most of it was older stuff but there were some new things on there, but we wanted to keep it more hip hop and R&B dedicated to the Crossmovement audience. My production getting in was still progressive. It had a lot of pop elements. It had a lot of guitar elements.So when the second album came out you heard me almost 3 years later like me grown up. My sound was changing. I was still figuring out who I wanted to be. So when you listen to the record I praise God that I can pull it off. It’s all over the place though. You can hear hip hop on one record. You can hear pop on another record. I was trying to find myself as an artist and as a producer on that album [“Life By Stereo”]. So, between 2008 and now I got some really good stuff that real consistent and reflects where I am and it doesn’t sound that much like “Life By Stereo” either. It’s been crazy, man. It’s truly been a metamorphosis in my music and arranging.
Swing: Now being a part of a label, especially on the level of a Crossmovement Records, was it harder to find your sound or style? Were they pressing you to put out certain style or certain sound?
JR: Naw, it was hard because they had no input whatsoever. I was around 100% rappers. I remember in an interview I did last year they asked me “what would you do different if you could go back.” I said, “I would have someone co-produce both of those albums with me even if I produced all of it.” I needed someone to look at me and say, “JR, I see where you’re going with this. I hear you when you write and when you freestyle, but let try to find and really try to pull more out so you can get better as an artist.” That’s what I wish I would have had on those two albums. My sound would have been more concentrated.
I wish the label would have brought somebody in though. I wish they would have brought somebody in…another producer and, said “Hey, this is JR. How can you bring the best out of him?” That’s what major labels do, but being with an independent in Crossmovement they just didn’t know any better. So I had to do all the detailed stuff myself with all the direction, arranging and the recording.
Swing: Was it something that you thought about during that time that you could have brought to the forefront, like, “This is something I might need. Can this be done” or was it something that didn’t become clear until hindsight?
JR: Actually it did occur to me but when I brought it up it just wasn’t in the budget. Bringing in a producer to tweek all that I was working with just wasn’t in the budget. At Crossmovement all the producers were hip hop heads. I worked with a guy named Kevin Arthur a dope bassist. We worked on like 3 records on “Life By Stereo” but that was the only time I worked with a producer hands on that knew what he was doing with chords and scales and was a musical guy. I worked with my partner NAB, but NAB is a hip hop head. So it was like, “This is what we’re dealing with and you have to make the best of it” you know?
Swing: Do you find that working with live drums adds more punch to your sound than using live drums compared to using Drum Kits or the MIDI sound? What are the benefits to using live drums & guitars compared to software sounds?
JR: Synth drums do have their punch. When you do them on MPC or Logic or whatever and you have them layer and compressed. That stuff just stays, but there’s nothing like a live sound. When you catching live audio there’s just something about it. Whether you’re banging on a bass drum or a tom or beating on a door and you’re recording it, just that sound that comes from being live makes it more broad. The consistencies are so much more much wider with live instruments. While I do love synthetic drums and I use them on some of my records, a lot of my records I’ll have live drums on top of synthetic drums. So I’ll mix a synthetic kick with a live kick or a clap with a live snare. I mean, it’s beautiful when you combine the two. There’s no substitute for a live guitar. I mean, I have no, no synthetic guitars on this project.
Swing: I know sometimes when people take time away from doing their music or in between projects they sit back and listen to other peoples projects and they experiment by listening to different things. Right now who’s inspiring JR creatively production wise?
JR: I would definitely say Will.I.Am, my homegirl Jai. She’s a gospel pop artist. Oh, Timbaland always inspires me when I’m working on urban stuff. When I’m working on my stuff I listen to a guy named Kenna. I listen to a group called Phoenix. They’re a British band. Let’s see…I listen to Radiohead, a group called Paper Route from Greenville, Illinois.
Swing: Ok, well what creatively do you think you’re getting from these different groups?
JR:They’re helping me to blend the two worlds of pop and R&B, hip hop thing, which is in my roots. I can do that without thinking. Then I have this 80’s/dance/ rock/alternative part of me that I love when I’m performing. Most of my music now is about 120 bpm or higher, because I love to move on stage. I love the dramatic build ups and breakdowns. You have a lot of that in alternative rock and 80’s music. Those guys offer their brand of pop music, alternative music, electronic music and rock music. Coldplay, I love everything they play. I mean, I love the passion that Chris Martin sings from. That’s pretty much where I get that from. There’s a passion in the music. The other bands have the dynamic of how to use synthetic lead sounds or some sort of raised sound with a bass line and put live drums under that or they use a soft pad with a MIDI guitar or a real distorted guitar. My sound is a blend of pop music and alternative music and experimental. So I’m using melodies and patterns that are underground and wouldn’t find on the mainstream, but yet I still have mainstream songs, ya know?
My vocals are soulful, so my arrangements are soulful and my drums are heavy and hit like Timbaland because of my urban background but my melody and the sound I’m using are from the electronic/alternative world. So I’m just studying everything. How they been doing what they do. These people have been doing since I’ve been doing hip hop and R&B. So it’s late in the game but I’m still putting my ear to the ground and saying “Ok”.
Swing: So I heard you mention 80’s music as a reference tool but I didn’t hear you mention any groups. I’m an 80’s baby myself. Do you still dig into the 80’s music as much?
JR: Yeah, yeah. One of my favorite bands is The Police. I can’t do the pop thing that doesn’t seem like it has any emotion, you know, in the vocals? Because I’m a singer and a producer both of them mean a lot to me. Phil Collins too. He sings with so much passion and write from his heart, but the music, even when it’s “bouncy” and “clubby” it has a soul about it. Sting has really been an influence to me on how he goes from being on something mellow to going to almost hard rock but still has this high pitched voice that blends it all together.
Swing: Yeah, I hear that, because I’m a big fan of The Police’s “Wrapped Around My Finger” and Phil Collins featuring Phillip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” due to both carrying that passionate rock/pop sound, but strong vocals which get both constantly played in the iPod.
JR: You’re gonna hear it. My softer songs are almost like a soft rock with electronic pieces in it but my harmony…? It’s always dramatic or a soft feel. You’re gonna hear the smooth harmonies that compliment the track in a way that you wouldn’t normally hear an alternative artists but their voice is usually awkward. Sade is another one of my influences. In fact, I have to say that she’s my favorite female artist of all time. She influences me on how she takes laid back, soft rock, semi alternative beats and puts these warms, soft melodies to them.
Swing: I’m a big fan of the stuff her band Sweetback did with her and on their solo album with Maxwell and Amel Larrieux. Their sound is “Spacey” and “Experimental”. I loved it!
JR: I love that “Spacey” sound. You need that sound where you just let the track breathe and put that delay on it and the deep reverb.
Catch more of my conversation with J.R. on part 2 of We “R” Producers.