In 1991, thanks to the second film in the Terminator movie franchise, the name John Connor became synonymous with the fictional character chosen to lead a resistance against artificially intelligent machines threatening to destroy humanity.
Exactly 20 years later, in 2011, the name Jon Connor will become synonymous with the very real emcee chosen to lead a resistance against artificially manufactured artists threatening to destroy Hip Hop.
Hailing from Flint, Michigan (the city that launched the Midwest into the national spotlight exactly twenty years ago thanks to the now-deceased rust belt pioneer MC Breed), 25-year-old Jon Freeman, Jr. is looking to take his hometown to heights it unfortunately failed to reach during Fli City’s brief reign as the Midwestern capitol of Reality Rap. And thanks to business partner (and onetime Michigan State “Flintstone” and former Detroit Piston and Cleveland Cavalier) Mateen “Mo” Cleaves, the music of Jon Connor has reached far beyond Flint’s borders, recently receiving high praise across the Hip Hop blogosphere, as well as from luminaries of the culture like DJ Kay Slay, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, and maybe most notably, Nas.
But Jon Connor is far from an overnight sensation. A quick perusal of JonConnor.Bandcamp.com reveals that the deft lyricist has spent more than five years showcasing his remarkable skills via two albums (2005’s The Calling Pt. 1 and 2008’s The Calling Pt. 2: The Second Coming) and two mixtapes (2006’s Everybody Hates Connor and the recently-released, Entourage-inspired, Jon Connor as Vinnie Chase: Season One).
On Monday (January 10th) the “Mayor of Flint” spoke to HipHopDX about the praise he is finally receiving outside of his Dayton Avenue stomping grounds, how Nas has become like a big brother to him (and if Connor and Esco will soon become labelmates), and maybe most interestingly, if Flint’s most famous filmmaker, Michael Moore, and Flint’s new hope for long overdue national recognition in the music industry will be working together to unify entertainment forces in their hardened hometown.
HipHopDX: Alright, well let’s just start things off by discussing the most slept-on Hip Hop song of 2010, “Epic.” Are folks finally waking up to the greatness of that joint a few months after it first hit?
Jon Connor: First off I wanna thank you for that compliment. For you to say that joint is greatness, I appreciate that, man. I just appreciate people feeling what I’m doing. But yeah, it’s nuts, people are just now starting to open their eyes and wake up to it. I’m happy about it. People hittin’ me up, catching on after we shot the video…
DX: At around the 2:40 mark of the “Epic” video a quick clip of the co-sign Nas gave you is shown. How did that face-to-face meeting with Esco come about?
Jon Connor: My brother Mo Cleaves, who is a co-owner of the company, [All Varsity Entertainment], with me - him and Nas, they been cool from way back. Mo Cleaves, Chris Webber, Nas, them is all like my big brothers. So, it was like, Mo had been put Nas up on my music. And, he had heard it and was like, “Okay, it’s cool…” But then the more time went by, the more stuff I did, and he had heard some of the newer stuff that I did and was like, “Man, this is really crazy.” So him and Damian Marley, they was on they promo tour for they [Distant Relatives] album and they was in Chicago. And, Chicago ain’t nothin’ but a minute from Michigan, so Nas hit us up like, “Yo, why don’t you and the man Connor; why don’t you and the guy Connor come through.” And we came thru, kicked it, politicked. It was a beautiful thing. [We] had a great time. We was at – in Chicago, I really wish I could remember the name of the club, but it was a beautiful night all around. And after that, we dipped out. He wanted to just sit me down and talk to me, ‘cause he seen where me and Mo was going wit’ it… He just was like on some big brother, I see where you going [tip], let me holla at you about the ills of the game, and just make sure you move a certain way. And telling me things that as an O.G. in the game – just giving me them jewels, man.
DX: So that was probably about what, like six to nine months ago. So has the Nas/Jon Connor collabo been recorded yet?
Jon Connor: I ain’t gon’ speak on it [yet]. I’ma say it’s in the works though… We trying to make that happen, man.
DX: You murdered Nas’ “Poison” on Season One.
Jon Connor: I appreciate you saying that, man… I came up as a huge Nas fan and just observing everything he did in the game. He a legend, in my eyes. Yo, it’s an honor to be able to say that I look at him as like a big bro’, and to be able to have those type of sit-downs with him. And [an honor] for him to give me the head-nod and say I like what you doing – coming from somebody that I studied and is definitely on my top five, I’m sure anybody’s top five. So, I appreciate you saying that, but Nas held it down [on the original “Poison”]… I’m just trying to make him proud, because he put a footprint on that joint that can’t be erased.
DX: I understand you might soon become Nas’ labelmate at Def Jam?
Jon Connor: Uh…uh, we gonna take a pass on that one. Ask me that question in like a month and I’ll be able to answer it, man. [Laughs] We gon’ go wit’ pass on that. I’ll just say good things is happening. You don’t wanna speak to soon. But when it’s time to speak on it, I’m definitely gon’ speak on it.
DX: Now, I don’t wanna just talk about the big-name co-signs you’ve recently received, but I gotta ask about the convo you had with Scarface. What did you and the legendary Brad Jordan chop it up about?
Jon Connor: Aw man, he got on to me early, early. Like, super early, before I even was done with Vinnie Chase. I think I was working on Vinnie Chase and he caught wind of my [earlier] music. People should go check it out. The Calling Pt. 2 was one of the earlier [projects] that I did, and he caught wind of that… Back to that conversation, what’s so crazy [is] it actually happened around the same time I had the conversation with Nas. And it was [also ironic], because once again, that’s a legend, ya dig? So, [Scarface] came at me just like, “Yo! I hear it. I hear what you doing. I definitely hear what you doing.” And he was just giving me those jewels like, “Yo, you don’t sound like nobody else. You carving out your own niche…” And it was one of them type of things where, just as a veteran, as a legend, him giving me that keep doing what you doing, ‘cause you ain’t doing nothing wrong right now [encouragement], it was amazing. He’s probably one of the realest dudes ever.
DX: And, just for clarification, all the big-name drops on Season One, were those people coming at you; was that Mo Cleaves hookin’ all that up or - ?
Jon Connor: Like, honestly, everybody that has a drop on there, I think with the exception of a couple of people, I actually chopped it up wit’ ‘em: from Asher Roth to Big Sean to The Game. It was people that heard the music and was like, yeah, I’m down to do that. I’ll vouch for that. Like with Rick Ross, I remember we was at…the radio station [in Flint], Club 93.7 – shouts to my man, Ian - and we was up there, and Ross was coming thru and we played him “Epic.” And he [was] like, “YO.” [Laughs] Like, yeah, I mess wit’ it. It was the same thing with The Game. I played him some of the Vinnie Chase and he just fell in love wit’ it… It was a beautiful thing, because it came at a time where it was like, it wasn’t somebody just doing it just to do it, they really appreciated what I was doing, and appreciated my craft, and they went on and did [a drop for me].
DX: I wanna switch gears a little bit… Do you see yourself as a contemporary version of what your fellow Flintstones Top Authority and The Dayton Family were doing in the ‘90s, or do you see your movement as something different?
Jon Connor: First of all, big shout out to The Dayton Family, Top Authority, and rest in peace to MC Breed… I wanna continue on the legacy that they have already set; I would just like for my generation to take it further… They [laid] the groundwork and the foundation. They was the first introduction of Flint into the game. With my movement, just me being the younger generation, I wanna do what they did and take it to a level beyond. What I wanna do with my movement is just take over the world, man. I wanna get [All Varsity] to that point of a Roc-A-Fella Records, a Ruff Ryders, Cash Money, Death Row. That’s where we trying to take it. Like I said, I wanna continue on and just expand on what they did. And for this generation, just take it to a whole ‘nother level to where the world understands what it is to be from Flint, Michigan. And to put that footprint on the game and the world.
DX: Yeah, I think you’ll get there ‘cause Vinnie Chase talks about the females way more than they ever did. [Laughs]
Jon Connor: [Laughs] Aw man, that’s what it is, man. Like, we all human. That’s why I don’t like boxes. Like, this person’s an underground artist, this person’s a commercial this and a lyrical this, or a club rapper. I’m a human being. And different things affect you as a human being, so I’m not gon’ just make songs for the girls, or just make songs for the streets, or just – I’m a human, I go through everything. I like girls just like the next man. I see issues that go on in the world and that bother me just like the next man. So that’s where you get songs like “Poison.” I love the craft; I love the art form of Hip Hop. So that’s where you get songs like “Epic.” That’s just one thing about me, I’ma try to keep y’all expecting the unexpected. I don’t never want people to say oh, it’s a Jon Connor record, I know what this ‘bout to sound like. ‘Cause you won’t, until you hear it.
DX: Yeah, I mean, you’re gonna get comparisons to cats from Detroit, cats like Royce Da 5’9” or Elzhi [though]. Are cats in Fli City respecting that you’re more lyrical and not as much on that street shit? Do they feel something like your “American Psycho” freestyle?
Jon Connor: Yeah. You know, it’s a respect thing. Because coming up in Flint, I grew up around a lot of craziness, a lot of violence…but I never let it conform me or my message… The people in Flint respect me because they know I’m just being me. I’m just doing me. I’m not trying to be no tough, gangster this and all that type of shit, ‘cause that’s not what I am. I could tell you I seen that. But I’m not gon’ promote that. [And that’s] the thing about Flint, we just respect realness. We respect hunger. We respect that type of drive. They can appreciate it, because it’s like, the people in Flint know how long I been doing this, and they respect my come-up and respect my grind. They understand what I’m saying is real, and they know [like], yo, this is our dude. This is the dude that’s puttin’ on for us right now so we support that. It’s been a long road, ‘cause it wasn’t always like that. But now at this point, the people of the city [are] really behind me, supporting me, and respecting that I’m not fakin’ or frontin’; I’m keepin’ it thorough; I’m just doing me. And they respect that.
DX: I personally hope you and Freddie Gibbs from Gary, Indiana can ensure the Midwest stays seen as a source of real emcees as this decade progresses.
Jon Connor: Oh, no doubt… Yo, we need to make that happen: that Freddie Gibbs/Jon Connor collabo.
DX: Yeah, definitely… Now, you’re not just an emcee, you’re also a producer. So how much of the beats you spit on are self-produced and how much are produced by ya man Optiks [from Cincinnati]?
Jon Connor: Under All Varsity Entertainment we got a production company: The World’s Greatest Music, which is myself, Optiks, my man Uncle Sam – or Unc Sam, Bearyman, and K Wills… If it’s a certain type of emotion I need, and I can’t make it, I got four other talented dudes that I can go to and get that from. So the thing is, it depends on the project [who produces what]. You might have a whole album where it’s just me [producing it]. Or, a whole album where it’s just Optiks beats. It’s whatever it is at the time. But as far as projects in the past, [for] Vinnie Chase I think Optiks got like five [beats]. There were 13 original joints on there, and I think Optiks got like five or six. Then I got like five or six. So, it’s a team effort around here. Ain’t nobody greedy. The way we look at is, we gon’ progress with teamwork. And if Optiks got the hot joint, then I’ma go off that. If I make it, then we gon’ go off that. If my man K Wills got it, we gon’ go off that. We all pass the rock around. Mo Cleaves, Co-CEO, we adapted that teamwork/basketball mentality [from him]. That, don’t nobody be selfish, don’t nobody be greedy [mentality]. We all gon’ distribute the ball evenly. Everybody gon’ get to shine. We all gon’ win. If we work together, we all gon’ win.
DX: Are you planning to, or have you already started to, venture out to work with any big-name beatmakers though?
Jon Connor: Yeah. Big shouts out to my man Rob Tewlow, [a.k.a.] Reef. He worked wit’ 50 [Cent for “What Up Gangsta”] and a lot of other cats in the game. My man, Elite, who co-produced “Who Dat” with J. Cole, we got some things bubblin’. It’s a lot of people reaching out now… It’s been cool, I been gettin’ to reach out and share my gift with other people as they share they gift with me.
DX: I noticed Saigon and Consequence jumped on the remix to “The Message” , so have any more notable collabos come about recently?
Jon Connor: Big shouts-out to Consequence and Saigon, appreciate what they did. They came through, spit flames on the remix. As a new artist I appreciate that. And, yeah, we got some craziness coming. Within the next couple of weeks, probably within the next month – I’m just gon’ put it like this, there’s an “Epic” remix, and I’m not gon’ say who on it, but I think y’all gonna enjoy it. [Laughs]
DX: Okay. [Laughs] And, is that “Epic” remix, is that gonna be on this EP that you’re about to drop?
Jon Connor: Um…we probably just gon’ give it to the people. We might put it on Vinnie Chase [Season] Two. I stay working. It’s just so funny, man, big shout out to my brother Sav, and Mo Cleaves, and J Rich. Them dudes, they keep me working so much I don’t know what’s gon’ be on what. We just gon’ keep givin’ y’all music, and just making that stuff people wanna hear.
DX: So do you know the game plan, what the order’s gonna be, if the EP is coming first before Season Two?
Jon Connor: Yeah, the EP definitely coming before Season Two. ‘Cause the EP is pretty much – it’s done now. And, I know everybody that’s involved wit’ working it is ready to put it out. I’m ready to put it out… I’m still a fan of Hip Hop at heart, [so] I look at myself in an out-of-body [way]. Like, if I wasn’t Jon Connor would I listen to this shit? Would I listen to this song? And as a fan of Hip Hop, I’m ready for the EP to come out, and Vinnie Chase Two. [I want to] keep, like I say, sharing the gift. And I’m just enjoying everybody’s support, man.
DX: Can you give up that tentative title for the EP?
Jon Connor: We still working on it. Me and Reef was talking about it today.
DX: And I understand Michael Moore is gonna be hosting Season Two? [Laughs]
Jon Connor: Aw man! Wouldn’t that be gangsta? That’d be gangsta to have Michael Moore host the mixtape… I might have to pull some diplomatic strings to get that to happen. That’d be just the ultimate Fli City collabo. Jon Connor puttin’ Michael Moore on a track, that’d be ridiculous, man. We gon’ make it happen.
DX: Well if he can’t come thru for you, I know Plaxico [Burress] gets out in June so…
Jon Connor: I’m glad you mentioned that. The only statement I’ma say is "Free Plax." That’s another cat who is like a big brother. Before any videos, before the buzz was really poppin’, Mo had threw me like a launch party and [Plaxico] came through… True story: Plax seen me perform, and that night – he grew up in Virginia [but attended Michigan State University], that’s Pharrell and them country - he was like, “Yo, I’m calling Pharrell right now! I’ma tell him they need to fuck with you…” And it was just a beautiful thing. It was just like genuine love. And his situation was real unfortunate. Can’t wait for him to come home. It’s nothin’ but love for Plax, man.