Former Fly Union member makes peace with the past, debuts enigmatic solo album
For some local rappers, performing on Breakaway's Mapfre Stadium stage with big names like Migos and Khalid could be intimidating. But it's nothing new for Jay Swifa.
As part of Columbus hip-hop trio Fly Union, Swifa collaborated with artists such as Big Sean, Curren$y and Dom Kennedy, who introduced the group to Kendrick Lamar. In 2012, Fly Union hit the road for more than a month with Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay-Rock and Stalley for the BET Music Matters tour.
Thinking back on that tour now, it's not the wild nights and crazy stories that stand out. “I never saw Kendrick party,” Swifa said recently at a Downtown coffee shop. “He had a studio on the bus. … Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is about to come out, and he's still working. I definitely could see the difference between him and everybody else. That was very inspirational.”
Coming up in North Linden, Jay Swifa, born Jonathan Tribune, initially took inspiration from his father, a funk musician who messed with samplers in the basement and was a “one-man electronic band” on Sundays.
“There was a whole hip-hop community at church,” Swifa said of Rhema Christian Center on the Northeast Side. “That's where every Columbus rapper has been. I got into battle raps out there. … People were saying ‘Jesus' and ‘God,' but it sounded like Mobb Deep. From being around a lot of that, I started rapping.”
Swifa also started making beats at age 11, and by 13 he knew hip-hop would be his life. So he started seeking out mentors, who all turned out to be local luminaries in the scene. “Daymon Dodson — I grew up around him. He was the reason I was into all that underground hip-hop,” Swifa said. “When I was young, I used to go to Rashad's house after school and watch him make music. J. Rawls, too. I used to hang out with Camu [Tao], RIP. He was one of my favorite people. He used to tell me my shit was wack; he was the only person who told me that. It crushed my world, but I appreciated it. I made sure nobody else ever said it after that.”
Early on, Swifa was part of a 10-person gospel-rap group, traveling and sometimes performing for thousands. During his freshman year at Northland High School, Swifa's dad agreed to go halves with him on an Ensoniq ASR-10 synth/sampler, which came in handy when he formed the group Basic Element with friends Jerreau, Mon B and Trek.
“We used to go knocking on doors at record labels,” Swifa said. “We had a boombox we used to carry. I remember this one time we walked into Def Jam South, and Scarface was the head of the label, so we walked in there like, ‘Is Scarface here? … We have a meeting with him.' Then my dude hit ‘Play,' and we just start rapping. The office is all quiet, and everybody is looking at us. We got kicked out of like three or four labels.”
A more mature version of that hustle paid off later when Swifa and Iyeball (also known as the production duo MnkeyWrench) teamed with rapper Jerreau to form Fly Union, which turned heads well beyond the outerbelt (an early incarnation of the group also included Vada, previously L.E. for the Uncool). LeBron James hyped Fly Union's breakout 2011 album, TGTC (The Greater Than Club). A deal with Interscope soon followed.
But things didn't go smoothly with Interscope, and tension began to build within the group. Fly Union released Small Victories in 2014, then called it quits toward the end of 2015. Swifa moved to New York for a bit but music ventures didn't pan out there, either. So he moved back to Columbus in the middle of 2016. It wasn't exactly a joyful homecoming.
“I was definitely depressed coming back here from New York,” Swifa said. “I was staying at homies' houses, moving couch to couch. It was a hot summer in Columbus, and I had no car, just riding the bus everywhere. I stopped doing music for a while. I hadn't had a real job in six years. I had to come back to reality. … I went back to my parents' house at one point, and they sat me down. I felt like I was 15 again, but they were like, ‘What are you doing?' That was a coming-to-God moment.”
Reflecting on that tough summer now, Swifa is grateful. He needed that transition to get grounded again, and to remind himself of his biggest responsibility. “My son is 11 now,” said Swifa, 34. “Just knowing I wasn't taking care of that at that time, I felt really bad. So I shaped up.”
He also started making music again, tinkering with songs that had been in the works and writing new ones. Eventually he had enough for an album, Enigma, Swifa's nine-track solo debut that came out in May. The record is a welcome reminder that Swifa is a wizard with beats, but he's also more than a producer.
“People love me for my production, but I can rap, too,” he said. “I wanted [Enigma] to sound like me. I wanted people to actually hear some shit in my life. That's why the album is so many spectrums. It's about being broke, about money, about my kid… it's kind of everywhere. I wanted that to be all compiled into one album.”
Iyeball engineered Enigma, and Swifa has since reconnected with Jerreau, too. “There was a point where we were fighting so much. Then it was like, ‘Yo, let's just all meet up,'” Swifa said. “We've been through fire together. At the end of the day we're still brothers.”
Swifa also made the beat for Jerreau's single “Really Got It,” from the rapper's 2016 solo release, Never How You Plan; with another assist from LeBron, the song has been played more than 22 million times on Spotify, and it's now on the soundtrack to “NBA 2K19.”
As excited as Swifa is about releasing Enigma, it's the live shows he finds most energizing, whether it's a small gig at a local club or the big performance at Breakaway on Sunday, Aug. 26.
“I just did my first solo show at Kafe Kerouac,” he said. “I'm dating this girl, and she's like, ‘I've never seen you like this.' I'm a whole different person onstage. … It's one of the things that made me, me.”