Ever since I got put onto J.Lately (@justlately) at the beginning of this year, I’ve been a fan. While I haven’t fully listened to his past works a whole lot (steamed them a bit), other than his Fly With Us EP, I do believe that his most recent album, titled Make. Believe., is his best work. There’s always something refreshing about having an entire album that communicates positive and uplifting messages, through introspective and honest lyrics, while still having a damn good time. His laid-back flow over head-nodding, boom bap beats, handled by numerous producers, made the songs enjoyable to listen to over, and over, and over again. I had a lot of high praise for it, too.
After listening to Make. Believe. in full, I wanted to talk to J.Lately about it, and get to know him. I recently had the opportunity to talk with him, where I gained some insight into who he is as as a person, his struggle with confidence, the ideas behind some songs, his most recent tour experience, and a whole lot more. Check out my interview with the Oakland-based emcee below.
TIFFOLOGY: What’s your real name, and what’s the reasoning behind your alias J.Lately?
J.LATELY: My name is Jeremy. J.Lately comes from the idea that we should always be growing and progressing. I often see people presenting this idea that it’s bad if you change, and talking about people being different than they used to be, like there’s something wrong with that. My name is really a reminder to myself that if I go through an entire day and I haven’t grown and changed from it in some way, then I just wasted a day.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a human being who raps decently. I like long walks on the beach, good whiskey, bad whiskey, marijuana, and sweatshorts.
Who did you grow up listening to?
All types of people. The first music I remember really liking was oldies. I used to listen to people like The Temptations and The Beatles. The range of hip hop I grew up listening to was pretty broad, too. It really started with people like Dr. Dre, Snoop, Eminem, Pac, Jay Z, Biggie, 50 Cent, and others. As I got a little older, I started to get a lot more into folks like Brother Ali, Dilated Peoples, Little Brother, Common, Atmosphere, and such.
Who or what inspires you to keep making music?
It’s going to sound corny, but, honestly, the fact that I just love it so much. I’ve tried a lot of things in my life and never loved anything as much as music. I can be running off no sleep and be completely energized and happy, as long as I’m making music. I can “work” 16 hour days and be completely happy, as long as I’m working on music related stuff. I haven’t found many other things like that for me. I just find music to be such a personal thing for me, that anything I do for music feels like it’s benefiting me as a person, too, not just in a career sense.
Does living in California, the Bay Area in particular, influence the way your music sounds? If so, how?
Definitely. So much of the music I grew up listening to was from the west coast. And especially living in the Bay Area has definitely exposed me to such a great variety of people and music. I think one of the ways it influences my sound is it’s caused me to have a sound that’s not extremely identifiable in terms of location, because I’ve been exposed to so much.
Musically, who do you respect most in the West Coast?
Damn, that’s a super hard question to answer. I’ma just list some, but this definitely isn’t complete. Dre, Nate Dogg, Tupac, The Pharcyde, Hiero, Blu, Dom Kennedy, Dilated Peoples, and hella others.
Having released your Make. Believe. album in May, how has the reception been so far? Anything that made you smile or stick with you?
The reception for Make. Believe. has been awesome. I think that it’s my best piece of work I’ve ever put together, and it’s cool to see other people receive it that way also. Truthfully, the coolest thing is to just get positive feedback from people I’ve never met before. When they hit me up and tell me that my music is helping their life in some way, that’s the coolest shit. It makes me not feel so selfish for spending all my time pursuing my dreams when I know they have a positive impact on others. Also, this album, more than anything before, has been getting some cool attention in other countries, which is kinda mind blowing to me.
The album title and the subject matter strongly promotes positive messages of hope, faith in one’s abilities, self-confidence, persistence, and embracing life. What prompted you to make this album? Why do you feel it’s important to make music with uplifting messages?
This album was really me reflecting on the past couple years of my life, and also examining where I’m currently at in terms of achieving my dreams. Something I’ve learned is you really can’t fake a belief in something, especially yourself. It usually takes a ton of hard work and dedication to develop a true belief in something, and that often includes having to fail and get back up multiple times. The positive messages in my songs are, truthfully, usually reminders to myself to keep faith, or to continue to grow. A lot of times, in my songs, when it sounds like I’m talking to other people, I’m actually saying some shit that I think I need to hear myself. I figure if my words and messages can help me get through shit when I need, hopefully they can do the same for someone else.
What do you believe in?
Change. Growth. Progress. I think people get so caught up in things being a certain way that they don’t realize that it isn’t how it has to be. I also think people often get too comfortable with good, which prevents them from ever achieving great. I think that life is a process and to truly live it means exploring all its possibilities.
Tell me about the producers involved on the album, and how did you go about choosing beats?
It’s fun making a solo album where I get to choose beats from all different producers, because I have a lot of freedom to just pick beats I really like. I wanted to make an album that was natural for me while being sonically pleasing to all types of listeners. I’m a sucker for beats that evoke emotions in you when you listen to them, and that’s what this album is filled with. I also wanted to create a really complete album, not something that would just be viewed as a mixtape, so I focused on having good variety, but still a consistent sound throughout. Some of the producers were people I work closely with, others I’ve never met personally. It was really just about searching for all the right pieces to the puzzle.
Did you know who you wanted to bring aboard for guest appearances before you started, or did those choices come about during the creation of the album?
For the most part they just came about during the creation of the album in a real natural way. Almost every single person that’s on the album is one of my friends. I’m lucky to have some hella talented friends, and they were the people that were just hanging out at my house when I was writing and recording this album. The only people who didn’t record their verses at my spot were TiRon and Grynch. Grynch is definitely the homie, though, and someone who I’ve worked with before. TiRon is just someone whose work I’m a fan of and thought he would fit that specific track hella good, so I reached out to him. It was really cool, though, to make an album with such a close knit circle of people.
Can you describe your creative process?
It’s actually kinda hard, because it can be different depending on how things come to me. I really don’t like to force anything, so it’s basically just whatever happens naturally. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a song, and then I’ll hear a beat and it will just click that it’s the one I should use for that idea. Those are the best, because if I have a good concept before hearing a beat, it’s usually been well thought out before I even start writing. Most of the time, I’ll listen to beats ’til I find one that catches my ear, and then from there come up with how I want to approach it. It all really depends, though, on a variety of things, and if I’m not feeling something, I’ll walk away from it and, either come back to it later, or just scrap it and move on.
On “Here,” you talk about the difficulties in figuring out who you are, finding your voice, and building up your confidence. Can you give us some insight into what you were dealing with, and what it took for you to overcome said obstacles?
Yeah, that song really had to do with finding myself in hip hop. I obviously don’t look like the people who created the genre of music I’m making, and I have a very different story and upbringing than what’s typically been presented in this type of music. So “Here” is really about just finding my place, given all that. The funny thing is that hip hop is such a universal music now. There’s people who listen to it from all different countries, and from all different walks of life, but at the same time it’s still presented in a pretty uniform and one-sided way. It really took awhile for me to feel comfortable to present myself honestly in a genre where I hadn’t seen many people that looked like me or were talking about the same things I had experienced in my life. It wasn’t really until I stopped worrying so much about the other people who were making the music and started focusing more on the people who would be receiving my music; and realizing that most of these people could probably relate more to me just being me, than if I were to try to present myself in some way I’m not to fit a mold.
Having gone through those personal struggles, are you a severe critic of your music?
Definitely. I feel like I’m like obligated to be completely honest when I make music. It’s like, I know I’m stepping into someone else’s culture and I have so much respect for the people who created this art form and preserve it, that I don’t want to fuck up. I’ve always been a severe critic of my music, though. That’s one of my biggest struggles is always thinking I suck and having to prove to myself that I don’t. But in the end, it probably helps me, because it causes me to work that much harder and analyze everything I do that much more closely. Really, the only reason I’m able to keep going is because I realize that I’m getting better each time. I’m like, “OK, I used to hella suck at this,” then I kept practicing and now I’m OK at it; maybe if I keep working, I could actually be hella good one day.
In the second verse, you briefly speak on the negative effects of judging and lives lost. What was on your mind when writing about that?
Yeah, that was kinda just speaking to how we often judge people or things without really understanding them. I just think we get really closed minded sometimes and it prevents us from really living life to it’s full potential.
Did anything in specific inspire “All Away”?
“All Away” was really just inspired by a kinda turbulent period of time in my life that I was going through at the time when I was just starting writing for Make. Believe. I had just decided I was going to quit my day job and try to pursue music as a career, but I was still going to work everyday, seeing people dealing with terrible shit. I had also just broken up with a girlfriend of over 3 years, who really meant a lot to me. The song is kind of about how we deal with turbulence and struggle in our lives. I think we often turn to certain things and use them to help us get through it. For me, I smoke, drink, and look for women to make me feel better. And this song is kind of like accepting that and asking is that necessarily such a bad thing, or does it have to hurt us in the way it sometimes does.
What prompted you to write “Ungrateful”? What kind of sacrifices have you had to make to pursue music?
The concept of “Ungrateful” actually fits pretty well with what I just talked about with “All Away”. In general, the song is really about just dealing with feeling selfish for breaking up with someone who was so amazing to me. It was at a time when I was really giving up a lot of other stuff in my life to be able to put my everything into pursuing my dreams, and that can make me feel pretty selfish sometimes. This song was really like a journal entry or something, more of just a writing process to clear my head about some shit, so that it didn’t bother me so much and so that I could move forward.
Talk to me about writing “Flawless”.
It’s funny that you asked these last three questions in this order, because the concepts of the songs all really tie into each other. When broken down, “Flawless” is really about dealing with that feeling of selfishness on a broader level than just my ex or my family. It’s interesting, because when you’re first making music, you’re really doing it for yourself. You can say that you do it to have a positive impact on others, but, in reality, until you’ve reached a certain level, you’re doing it for personal reasons. I’ve finally reached the point where my music is starting to get heard by a lot more people, and “Flawless” is really about hoping that my music can benefit others as much as it’s benefited me in making it.
When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to make it better?
Smoke weed. I’m joking, but really though. I also have this thing about being productive that is soothing for me. As long as I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, I’m usually pretty happy. So that could mean writing music, really doing anything that’s going to benefit my music career, or it could mean, like, going outside and getting some exercise, or just hanging out with a friend whose time and opinions I value.
With “Destinations” in mind, what are some of your dream locations to tour in?
I can’t say I have really specific ones, because I’m really trying to go everywhere I can go. One of the best things about this past year and a half has been being able to go on tour multiple times, and it’s literally my favorite shit ever. I just really like being able to go to new places and see new things, especially if it’s while I’m getting to do music. I’ve never been to New York before, and haven’t been to much of the east coast, so that’s definitely somewhere I want to tour to. I also really want to tour overseas. Definitely Japan is on the top of my list, because that is where my dad grew up, and Korea because I’m half Korean. But really though, I’m trying to go everywhere.
“Please” is an optimistic track, and on it you say that you always speak from the heart. Is it easy for you to speak from the heart, even if it leaves you in a vulnerable position?
It’s not always easy to say some of the stuff that comes up and wonder how people are going to respond to it, but, for me, it’s definitely easier than saying something that’s not actually true. I feel more vulnerable not being honest, than being honest and putting myself in a “vulnerable” position, if that makes any sense. Like, as long as I’m honest, you really can’t say shit. You don’t have to like me or my opinions, but you can’t take anything away from me. It’s funny, because being vulnerable is something that we all are, at least at times. Like, I hate when people try to say they’re not emotional–fuck, everyone has emotions. When you try to hide shit like that, to me, it’s basically showing that you’re more vulnerable and uncomfortable with it, not that you have it together.
Well said! How is this album different than your previous work, if at all?
This album was what I would consider my fourth solo album. What made it different than the three previous ones is that it was actually good. But really, this is one that I’m really proud to show people, where as at this point I don’t even want to show people my previous solo albums. It just feels like it’s a really complete album with a storyline that ties the whole thing together, and my rapping doesn’t suck, which was the problem with the first 3. What also made this album different, though, is that I had released three collaborative projects between my first 3 solo albums and this one. What people don’t realize is that I was working on Make. Believe. the whole time I was making PB&Js with J.Good, Score One For The Good Guys with Trey C, and Fly With Us with Nima Fadavi. So, of course, throughout that process I got way better, but it also gave me the time to really fine-tune the album the way I wanted.
What do you hope people walk away with after listening to Make. Believe.?
I hope people can understand the process I’ve went through, in order to overcome certain things and gain confidence in myself, and not just ego, but actual confidence and comfort in who I am and where I’m going. I wanted them to see that finding that true belief in yourself will translate into others believing in you, not the other way around. I want people to listen to my music and feel inspired to live their life to their full potential, whatever that may mean in their specific situation. But, if all those corny things fail, then I guess, hopefully, it will be something that they can hang out and smoke to, and not feel stupider after.
How was your “Make Believe” tour experience? What stood out?
It was, seriously, like, one of the top 3 coolest experiences of my life. Like I said, I love touring and getting to go new places and meet new people. It was also especially fun, because I was with my friends. Azure and Beejus are probably the two people I make music with that I’m the closest with, so that was hella fun. And the only other person with us was our cameraman, Andrew, who’s a hella cool guy and became a really good friend through the whole thing. There was just never a dull moment. They’re the type of people where, for instance, one night we drove from the Bay Area to Seattle, and we left at like 10pm and got there around noon the next day. I was like, “Alright, we could get there and then go get a few hours of sleep at the hotel before the show that night,” and they were all just like, “Fuck that, let’s go see Seattle!” We ended up spending that day getting drunk with Grynch and shooting the “Roses” music video, then went and rocked the show that night, with no sleep, and all had hella fun. Like, I really can’t imagine a tour running much more smooth than that one did, and I think it was really because I was with such cool people.
Give us a little perspective on your tour life. Take us through a full day.
Going off the last question, we really don’t do too much sleeping. Our goal is to do as much shit as possible each day, since it’s such a cool opportunity to get paid to travel and perform. It usually consists of waking up hella early in the morning, smoking, hopping in the car and driving for awhile, smoking a lot more along the way, stopping in whatever spot looks cool to get food, then driving and smoking some more. Basically, your prime time to sleep is in the car, so we’ll all take shifts driving, depending on how long the drive is, so everyone can get a couple hours. Then, whenever we get into town, we usually check into the hotel and just start drinking and try to go find the coolest shit we can get into, given the time we have. I love just walking around cities I’ve never been in before and seeing what everyone’s living like. It’s crazy to kind of study the similarities and differences between the way people live from city to city. Even in the same state, things can be hella different. Depending on where we’re at, we might have a radio interview, or like in Seattle, we shot a music video. Then we head to the venue early, set everything up, and just hang out and party the rest of the night. I’ve never been into sitting in the hotel room until you go on. I’d much rather be at the venue drinking and smoking with people and having a good time. That’s half the fun of it all. Then, after the show, we pack everything up and basically go find whatever the most fun thing is we can get into for the rest of the night. Sometimes that means a house party, one time that meant hallucinating on the beach, and sometimes it just means getting really high and going to Denny’s. Then we get up hella early the next morning and go do the same thing. It’s awesome.
What was your favorite song to perform on tour, and why? What song had the most crowd response?
Definitely “Still”, because not only is it one of my favorite songs sound and energy wise, but it also has both Beejus and Azure on it. That was definitely one that always had the crowd going.
Speaking of touring, do you remember your first gig? What have you learned since then?
Man, I do, and I’m not gonna talk about it, haha. But, I’ve learned a ton since then. I’ve learned about just performing, in general, with things like breath control, crowd interaction, song choice, all that. I’ve also just really learned to go hard when performing, no matter what. The amount of people you touch each night and the amount of impact you have on them isn’t always correlated with the number of people in the crowd. I learned to rock every show like it’s in front of a packed house. I’ve performed in front of 20 people before, where 15 came up to me afterwards, said what’s up, bought a CD or shirt, and followed me on one of my social networks. Then, I’ve had shows in front of hundreds of people where I’ve only had 5 people come up to me and do that. I’ve learned to value every single person who is giving me their time, because their time is valuable.
I read somewhere that you work as a teacher at a high school in Oakland. Do you still do that? What pushed you to educate the youth, and what do you teach?
Yeah, I’ve been teaching PE and some other subjects at a high school in Oakland for the past number of years. I actually just quit my job at the end of this last school year to be able to focus more on music, though. I’ve always grown up wanting to work with youth in some way. My parents were both teachers so I was always taught to value education, but more importantly, I think they taught me to value personal development. I think that your youth is such an important time for your personal development and a time when a lot of us can be misled by certain adults due to their own personal fucked up issues. PE was cool for me, because I didn’t have to focus as much on subject matter with my students, so I got to focus more on things like life skills and goals and stuff. I will say, though, that the situation in public schools, especially in places like Oakland, makes it extremely difficult, and often depressing work, to try to make a real valuable impact in these kids’ lives. It was definitely a huge growing experience for me, probably the biggest of my life.
Did your students know about your music?
Yeah, some of them, especially recently. I kinda tried to keep it under cover, but that’s not very possible. I actually got into some legal issues this past year, because of things on my Instagram, haha. But that was all sorted out, thanks to my lawyer–shout out to that man! It was like a double-edged sword, though, because on one hand, a lot of students fucked with it, but at the same time, I say a bunch of stuff in my music that you wouldn’t expect to hear from your teacher, you know? It was just an interesting thing to try to navigate. But at the same time, I wanted them to see that you could smoke hella weed, go out and party, do whatever made you happy, then wake up the next morning and hold down a job to provide for you to be able to do all those things.
What is your long-term goal as a musician?
Two things. Simply put, I want to be able to make a career doing something that I love everyday. Because I’ve been blessed with a good education and have pretty good job opportunities, I could realistically make more money doing something else other than music. But, I’ve done a lot of other stuff and nothing has made me as happy. I just want to be able to do what makes me happy, and make enough money off it that I don’t feel bad about the opportunities my future children will have. Secondly, I want to reach a point where I really am able to have a positive impact on a large amount of people. Music is such a powerful thing and I want mine to be able to provide people with something they need.
What’s next for J.Lately?
A lot of the same things, just better, haha. For real, though, I’m just going to keep pushing. I have some cool tour stuff coming up for the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. I also have two different projects in the works, one collaborative EP with another emcee, and also a solo project. Everything is just in the creation stages right now and not ready to be really revealed yet. But, I’m feeling really good about where things are headed and the music I’m going to have for my listeners this next year.
It’s Friday and you’re staying in. What are you likely doing?
Probably trying to get a beautiful and intelligent young lady to come spend some quality time with me. But if that falls through, probably smoking and making as much music as I can. Whenever I feel like I’ve used up my creative powers for the night, I’ll make dinner, watch something on Netflix, and go to bed.
What’s the story on your panda bear logo?
It’s actually the logo for my clothing company, Unusual Suspects Apparel Co, which I run with my brother. It’s pretty random, I’ve just always liked pandas. I mean, for one thing, who doesn’t like pandas? Like, who is like, I fucking hate pandas? My friends also used to call me panda, because I was the Asian one out of the group and shit. But I don’t know, that shit just always kind of stuck with me. I like how pandas are such peaceful creatures, but they’re also extremely powerful. Like, a panda could rip your head off, but if you never make it [angry], it’s natural state will just be to chill, eat bamboo, play, and enjoy itself. I like that.
What is some key advice your parents gave you that you still take with you?
It was never really the words that my parents said that stuck with me, as much as the way they live their lives and treated me, each other, and everyone else. My mom has always been one of the most warm and caring people I know. She has also always had this passion and curiosity for life that I really admire. My dad is one of the most peaceful, hardworking, and honest people I know. Some of the biggest values I have in life have been passed down to me from them, through the example they’ve set for me.
Tell us one thing that not many people know about you.
I used to have pet pygmy goats. They’re like short little fat goats. When I was a kid, my family moved from Oakland to a small town, called Sebastopol, in Northern California. We had never been able to have pets in Oakland, because our house and yard was too small, so when we moved to the country my parents told my brother he could get a pet, figuring he’d want a cat, or dog, or something. One of the first weekends after we moved, we went to the county fair, and my brother saw a baby pygmy goat, and was like, “I want that.” My parents were like, “Shit, we told him he could have whatever pet he wanted, I guess we gotta get it.” We had no idea what we were getting into. We had to end up getting me one, too, because the other one was hella lonely by itself. I got so many funny ass stories about owning those goats.
Favorite home-cooked meal?
My favorite home cooked meal is probably my mom’s fettuccine alfredo. For my birthdays, when I was a teenager, she’d always make that with fresh cracked crab to go with it. Bomb.
What’s your usual order at your favorite food spot?
My favorite food spot was this Korean BBQ spot in Oakland, but it closed down. I definitely fuck with Korean BBQ, though. Always gotta go with some beef bulgogi and chap chae–those are necessities.
Drink of choice (alcoholic and/or non-alcoholic)?
MY favorite non-alcoholic drink right now is probably the lime and cucumber Gatorade, although I’ve been trying hella hard to convince myself it’s water. My favorite alcoholic drink is whiskey and ginger ale, but it’s been getting a lot of play lately and I’m feeling like I may need to switch things up for a minute, before I don’t like it anymore.
Do you have any guilty pleasure movies or television shows that you enjoy?
Nah, not really. My guilty pleasures come in the form of shitty R&B songs. I do smoke and watch hella Bob’s Burgers before going to bed, though. That shit is hella funny to me, though, so I don’t feel guilty about it. I just don’t know why it’s so funny.