Locals: History buff J. Rawls reflects on his own life in music

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From the February 27, 2014 edition

J. Rawls has long had a fascination with history.

In 5th grade he’d quiz his teacher, Mr. Hunt, a World War II veteran, about his time in the military, and on a recent visit to the Dispatch offices he repeatedly paused in the hallway, visibly awestruck by the framed collection of newspaper front pages lining the building’s walls. The local hip-hop DJ/producer, currently hard at work on his final solo album, The Legacy, takes a similar approach to his music, crate-diving and mining old records for samples, which he weaves together in unexpected and artful ways.

In the coming months there will be plenty of time to discuss the local hip-hop producer’s decision to step back from recording and his plans for the next phase of his remarkable career. But with a landmark birthday lingering — Rawls will celebrate his 40th with a bash at Double Happiness on Saturday, March 1 — the musician took time out to reflect on his own history, discussing the various sights and sounds that inspired him along the way. Here are select highlights from the conversation.

On his introduction to music

My father, he sang doo-wop, but he also had every record. A lot of my collection came from my father. He had a lot of jazz, a lot of blues [and] a lot of soul. When I was young I was into rock ’n’ roll. I was a Kiss fan. I liked the rebellious thing with the makeup, and Gene Simmons with the tongue. They were bigger than life.

On the one song that changed everything

The [song] that changed how I thought about music was “You Gots to Chill” by EPMD. It has that Kool & the Gang sample, and I was like, “I know I’ve heard that before!” A friend of mine, DJ Buka, who still works with me to this day, we went through all my dad’s records until we found that Kool & the Gang track, and from there it was over. That made me a hip-hop fiend. I’d hear new songs and be like, “Ooh, what’s that sample? I gotta find that!”

On producing beats for Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star

I met them through mutual friends in Cincinnati. One day Kweli said they were going to do an album, so I asked if I could give him a beat tape, which was an actual tape back in those days. The “Brown Skin Lady” beat they ended up choosing was an interlude. It wasn’t even a whole beat; it was probably 50 seconds. Kweli phoned me with Mos on a three-way call, and he was singing the chorus. That was it. I flew to LA and we recorded it, and it changed my life.

Photo by Meghan Ralston