J Rawls, the Columbus-born musician who first grabbed national attention with a production credit on the ’98 hip-hop classic Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star and has since carved out an influential career as a DJ, producer and sometimes rapper, spent the last few months putting the finishing touches on his final solo project, The Legacy — though few of Rawls’ peers actually believe he’ll follow through on his threat to step aside.
“I honestly don’t believe him,” said rapper King Vada, 30, seated in an Olde Towne East coffee shop in late May. “Knowing him so well, I know it’s impossible for him to not be involved [in music]. He’s one of those guys like [late DJ/producer] J Dilla who’ll be about to check out and still have his ASR-10 [sampling keyboard] next to his bed.”
It’s a point echoed by everyone from scene veterans — “I believe when J Rawls is 60 he’ll still be collecting records and will still be making beats and will still be sharing that music with his friends, at a minimum,” said Blueprint, reached in the midst of a Texas tour — to relative newcomers like rapper P. Blackk, who described his emotions surrounding the news as “bittersweet.”
“It’s like, ‘Why? Why do your last album?’” said Blackk, 23, who first met the producer as a teenager when he visited Rawls’ home studio to record the track “She and Her” with Vada, then known as L.e for the Uncool. “I have no doubt he’s going to continue to make music, and he’s going to continue to make music with other people — hopefully me. When we both have free time and we’re ready to build I’m hoping he won’t be like, ‘Nope. I’m done.’”
For his part, Rawls, 40, sounded light years from retirement during a late May interview.
“It’s definitely not the last music you’ll hear from me,” he said, seated behind the control board in the basement recording studio of his Pickerington home. “I’ll still be on the scene. I’ll still be deejaying. I’ll still be involved. I’m just not looking for the spotlight anymore. I’m at the point where I don’t need that. I’m happy being the man behind the scenes.”
In a sense, Rawls’ transition from marquee-dominating artist — “the international J Rawls,” as friend and rapper Dominique Larue described him — to businessman, mentor and supporting player, mirrors a larger shift in the Columbus hip-hop scene. Many of the artists, producers and promoters interviewed in late May spoke fondly of the scene’s 1999-2006 heyday, when Bernie’s standing Sunday night hip-hop showcase regularly drew hundreds of music fans, and Columbus-based artists like Blueprint, RJD2, Copywrite and the late Camu Tao were starting to attract national attention. Nowadays, the scene tends to be more splintered.
“You’ve got your thugs and your hippies and your skinny-jeans rappers and your old-school guys,” Rawls said. “You’ve got a little bit of everything.”
“The scenes are definitely more fragmented,” Blueprint said. “I think the guys in the scene still know each other, and there’s still a sense of camaraderie, but there’s not that one [venue] or that one set path for guys to travel.”
While a number of venues regularly host hip-hop shows, including Skully’s Music-Diner and Alrosa Villa, among others, there’s really not one spot dedicated solely to the genre. Absent a centralized location, the younger generation has been forced to think more creatively, hosting events everywhere from fashion boutiques (Milk Bar, Sole Classics) to venues normally associated with other forms of music. When Josh Miller and David Wade, the principles behind Writers Block, a newly launched, monthly hip-hop event that features live performances, art displays and a freestyle open mike session, started scouting potential venues late in 2013, the pair settled on The Summit, a Campus location more commonly tied to the DIY-punk scene.
“When we were doing the Weightless shows back in 2002 [and] 2003 we started at Bernie’s like everybody else. Then we were like, ‘Let’s not play on a Sunday. Let’s play on a Friday and take things down the street to Skully’s and (the now-defunct) Little Brothers,’” Blueprint said. “I think that process continues now where you don’t have to go through that one spot to build your career. Those past gatekeepers don’t exist.”
But even as the scene presses forward — buoyed by a rising cadre of talented young artists (Blackk, Larue, Fabrashay A and DJ Chris Mars B, among countless others) and a forward-thinking cast of behind-the-scenes movers-and-shakers (including Miller, Wade and Jordian Ross, owner and creative director of AnimalXHouse) — there remains a strong awareness of those who served as musical pioneers.
“I think it’s important to educate the up-and-coming people in the city on the history of our scene,” Vada said. “I remember going to the Hip-Hop Expo [as a teenager] only to meet J Rawls, and that’s when I came across [pioneering local hip-hop crews] Spirit and Greenhouse Effect and 3rd Eye. But Rawls, that seed he planted was the reason for everything.”
Blackk echoed these thoughts, saying, “I personally am aware of [Rawls’] influence, and I think the people who know me and enjoy my music … know the name J Rawls.”
Rawls, long a student of history (when he visited the Dispatch building earlier this year he appeared visibly awestruck as he examined the various framed newspaper front pages lining the hallways), is aware of his standing and influence in the local hip-hop community, which is part of the reason he termed his final solo album The Legacy. It’s only a small part of the reason, however.
In conversation, Rawls makes it abundantly clear the legacy he’s most concerned with shaping has little to do with his solo work. Rather, it has to do with the young artists he’s assisting as both a producer and as the head of the record label Polar Entertainment, the students he one day hopes to mentor as a professor (he’s currently a doctoral student in the College of Education at Ohio University) and, most importantly, his role in guiding the next generation of J Rawls: sons Josiah, Joshua and Justus. The vinyl edition of Legacy even includes a message to his young children, which reads, in part, “The time is yours now. I see, in you, all the possibilities of the future.”
“Having a family and maturing, I’ve gotten to the point where I see the big picture,” said Rawls, who invited friends like Rashad and Kev Brown to produce all the beats on Legacy so he could focus solely on rhymes detailing everything from his early days in music (“One Time”) to his hopes for hip-hop’s future (“My People”). “I don’t have to be on stage. That’s not what I’m looking for. Now I’m really looking to help some other careers and guide some young people.”
Along those lines, he already has in-process collaborations brewing with Dominique Larue and King Vada, and it’s a safe bet P. Blackk won’t have to worry about rejection whenever he finally decides to pick up the phone and give Rawls a ring.
Although it’s virtually assured the producer will remain a presence in the local music scene, there’s still a lingering sense among some in the younger generation that Rawls taking even a small step back will leave a yawning chasm.
“It for sure feels like there are big shoes to fill for the younger guys coming in,” said Miller matter-of-factly.
Rather than any one individual, it appears a small army has been amassed to the fill the void. Miller and Wade have managed to attract diverse crowds in excess of 80 or so to Writers Block, and Jordian Ross, working in tandem with Chris Mars B, has attracted the likes of (then-unknowns) Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper to headline concerts for AnimalXHouse, which recently celebrated its third anniversary with a night of music featuring Odd Future founding member Casey Veggies.
“I respect what J Rawls, DJ O Sharp, Copywrite and all the OGs (original gangsters) have done for Columbus,” said Ross, 26, who also has a hand in Off High, a more brand-and-fashion-oriented venture founded alongside Mars B, Marquise Mays and Mattey Spicer, and tied to the urban culture that exists just off High Street. “But I’m also looking forward to what’s happening in the future, and what’s going to be the leading cause for Columbus to get a little more shine and attention.”
Shane Tubaugh, founder of Phase Two Studios, which recently relocated to a home on the North Side after noise complaints got the startup booted from its North Campus digs, expressed similar sentiments in far-less-polished terms during a late May interview at the still-in-progress space.
“I think [Columbus artists] respect the work those guys have done, but at the same time the mentality a lot of people have now is ‘We have our own shit to worry about,’” said Tubaugh, 22, who has engineered tracks for Fabrashay A and Ay Streatz, among others.
For his part, Tubaugh, who has a VU meter prominently tattooed on his forearm, hopes to contribute both via increased production work (he produced a track on Fabrashay’s forthcoming The Drought Is Still Over mixtape) and by providing an affordable space where rising MCs can capture studio-quality recordings.
“The more I’ve worked in studios with artists without money, the more I’ve wanted to create a space where they can come and get their stuff recorded, mixed and mastered cheaply, but in good quality,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s OK to get a shitty mike and a shitty setup and create this music, but I think there has to be a standard [of quality].”
For all of the obvious differences, each of these individuals — Tubaugh, Ross, Miller, Wade, etc. — shares at least one major thing in common: They each spotted something lacking in the local hip-hop scene and rushed forward to fill the void. In that regard, nearly everyone involved in building up the community is taking at least one page from the J Rawls playbook.
“I had one song on a classic album, and I took it and made a career,” Rawls said. “Nobody really said, ‘We want you to do more’ or ‘Do this.’ I was presented an opportunity, and I ran through the door.”
Photos by Meghan Ralston and JMiller