Being a rapper hailing from the birthplace of Hip Hop is no easy task. Eyes and ears are all over the artist observing and critiquing their every move. It’s tough but the treatment is somewhat warranted given the history New York City has with Hip Hop.
Some of the greatest and most iconic rappers have come from the Empire State. They’ve all raised the bar so high that not many of the new generation artists have come close to matching the same success these days. J.I., one of the new young artists out of Brooklyn, NY thinks he’s more than ready to take on the challenge, and he’s off to quite the start.
The Crown Heights native developed a passion for Hip Hop when he was just a kid listening to his two brothers freestyling in their home. By the time he was 11, J.I. would freestyle battle his brothers as a way to work on his lyrics. Over time, J.I. studied artists like Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Big Pun, Nas, JAY-Z and DMX to develop a style and energy that was credible in the streets and had the potential to elevate the young rapper to stardom.
Following a stint on Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game competition in 2016, J.I. had a slight buzz releasing a handful of singles and a three-song EP titled Barely Famous. Unfortunately, the stigma of being a reality tv personality began affecting him and fans began losing interest since his clout from the show was diminishing. J.I. would then go on a hiatus with no clear direction of where his future would go.
“That time was hard,” J.I. tells HipHopDX looking back on his brief hiatus. “They put you in a category once you come off the TV show like, ‘Oh, he’s more like an entertainer or a TV show artist’ and I wanted to shake that. I had to set my own bar.”
Thankfully, J.I. showed his grit and determination when he linked with Gaby Acevedo of GStarr Entertainment to try his hand at music once more. From there, J.I. had a breakout moment in September 2019 when he began his comeback with his debut project Hood Life Krisis Vol. 1. The project showcased J.I. using a sound more in line with the melodic rap wave that’s dominating Hip Hop and the fans ate it up.
The project boasted the single “Need Me,” which clocked in over 20 million views on YouTube and became a hit on radio stations all over the tri-state area. The song led to Interscope Records signing J.I. to a deal via GStarr Entertainment and two months later, J.I. unleashed Hood Life Krisis Vol. 2, which added on to the young star’s growing popularity.
Today, J.I. is one of the hottest young rappers out of New York City. Before the coronavirus ravaged the country, shows on J.I.’s tours sold out regularly and his social media following grew tremendously. The “Blame On Me” rapper even got the coveted Drake co-sign in April when his songs “Used To” and “On Me” were played during the 6 God’s Instagram Live session.
His latest EP, Welcome to GStarr Vol. 1, is the next step in the fiery comeback for the Brooklyn rapper. Led by the singles “Beautiful Girl” and “Spanglish” featuring Myke Towers, J.I. is on a mission to not only further establish himself as one of the next big stars in Hip Hop but to put people on to what’s to come from the GStarr Ent camp.
“The fans know who J.I. is, but they don’t really know who GStarr is and I’m using this EP to represent my team and show my growth,” said J.I.. “The journey continues.”
HipHopDX spoke to J.I. about the new EP, his journey from The Rap Game to where he’s at now in his career, working with Lil Tjay on “Hood Scars 2,” transitioning into Latin music, doing a Brooklyn drill record, his competitive spirit despite disowning the King of New York title and more.
HipHopDX: How are you feeling about Welcome to GStarr Vol. 1 and what goals were you trying to achieve with it? You’ve come a long way from The Rap Game.
J.I.: I wanted to put together a body of work in the amount of time I had as far as me meeting the deadline. I also just wanted to represent my team like I said before. You watch every music video and you see the GStarr logo in the beginning but don’t know what it’s about. So I just felt like it was only right. The goal between these three EPs, I’ve just been trying to show fans growth as far as me being versatile. I don’t really want to stay in the same lane and I don’t really want to do too much as far as mixing up and changing. I’m just trying to give it a good combination of both.
To be honest, I’m still growing throughout these projects. I told you I want to be able to convey growth. If I can’t, then I feel like the job that I’m doing isn’t really correct. You feel me? But I’m very excited. The EP is going crazy, the fans are supporting it. I got two EPs that dropped prior to that which the fans love. So the journey doesn’t stop here. Whatever’s next to come, you just got a ride with it.
HipHopDX: With an artist like you who’s blowing up right now, it’s really pivotal for you to be touring and doing shows. How has quarantine affected you in this time where you should be out promoting this project?
J.I.: I mean, you pretty much pinned the tail on it as far as just performances and interviews and really networking. I feel like that’s pretty much what it affected, like firsthand me being there personally. But I mean, it’s all about adjusting. As long as you find a way to adjust. Now, it’s a dope time as far as streaming goes, because now the fans are really in tune. So like now you could chop it and really stream crazy now just because all the attention is towards the music now. But I mean, like I just said, it’s all about adjustments. You feel me?
HipHopDX: How would you describe your journey from being on that show to where you’re at right now in your career?
J.I.: It was a long one. To most people, maybe not, but for me, it was a long journey because I first picked up the pen at 12. From 12 from up until now, you’ve got all these years in the middle, but from the rapping element, it was dope and it prepped me. It got me to where I needed to be mentally at that age and I matured quickly for my age. That was pretty much like the main benefit from it just as far as getting to see a sneak peek of what the industry was like.
HipHopDX: With a show like that people have their opinions on the contestants and how they’re not really serious about it. How does it feel knowing you were able to bounce back after being eliminated from the show?
J.I.: You know what it is? It was hard, and for me, I was in my own type of bubble. So I didn’t really realize the category I was put in until I got out the category and I set my own bar. You feel me? It was dope because I tell people this all the time, it’s not really about what you do on that show. I mean, yeah, as far as the hyping a fan base, it matters. But it’s really what you do afterward. It’s the work you put in afterward to get to where you need to be because a TV show is just a platform. It’s what you do afterward with that platform.
HipHopDX: Following your elimination, you went through some tough times. What was something about your come up that you admired and kept you going?
J.I.: My work ethic. I was very hungry when I was young. You couldn’t tell me anything because I had the drive for it. I’m not saying I don’t have class. I still have that but that’s something that I want to definitely bring back because I love being young. When I was younger, bro, the whole work ethic with travel was crazy and I would freestyle all day. But like I just said, it’s all part of the process. You grow up, you mature, you age and through time, you can change. Me, I got an old soul. I feel like I will always have an old soul. But what I really appreciated was the work ethic. Definitely that was it. It was always there.
HipHopDX: Speaking of you having an old soul, you know your history with New York Hip Hop. What does it mean to be apart of that lineage and coming from a place like Brooklyn that’s birthed so many legendary rappers?
J.I.: I mean, I grew up listening to it. You got certain artists that it was forced upon them when they tried to force it upon themselves. So obviously they won’t really click with the music or understand it or appreciate it. With me, it was just something I was always around. My mother was playing it. If she wasn’t playing it, my father’s playing it. If my father wasn’t playing it, my neighbor was playing it. Or I was just hearing it somehow. So it was always natural for me.
I grew up listening to it and I had gained some type of respect towards it. I really started to appreciate it more when I started making my own music because I felt like it was right that I did my research. I don’t know. I don’t know about the other artists, but for me when I started making music, I just felt like it was right that I did my research. So I respect the artists that came before me and paved the way.
HipHopDX: With you embracing this melodic rap sound people often compare you to other New York rappers who’ve adopted that sound like A Boogie and Lil TJay. How do you try to stand out from your peers?
J.I.: At this point, I don’t even feel like telling people I’m different. I feel like if my music doesn’t speak for itself, then I’m doing something wrong. You feel me? I’ll drop three tapes and I feel like, with these three tapes, you hear different things. I got a Spanish record with Myke Towers. If that’s not different then I don’t know. And even people still have mixed emotions with that record. It goes to show you not everybody will understand it. For me, I feel like I’m just different in my own way. I’m not really concerned about who’s ahead of me, who’s behind me, who’s next to me. I’m concerned about where I’m at.
I feel like I admire the artists that people compare me to and I admire them very much because we’re all in the same field. We doing what we all love. You understand me? But I don’t make music to try to sound like the next man or try to. I really enjoy doing music and the fans, like I said, they have their comparison that they feel like I sound like other artists. That’s dope, but I don’t know. Like I said, if the music can’t show for it, I guess I got to change it up.
HipHopDX: How would you change up your music if that’s something you had to do now?
J.I.: Just what I talk about. You know what it is? If my voice sounds like somebody else’s voice, I understand that. It’s cool, we from New York and we all talk the same. But now if the words coming out my mouth sound the same, then it’s wack. But I’m different. If you listen to my first tape, my first two tapes, you really hear just the way I try to put my words together, saying certain things and coming off sarcastic. I feel like I do it differently and I just feel like I talk differently.
HipHopDX: One artist that people tried to pit you up against early in your career was Lil Tjay. How important was it to collaborate with him on “Hood Scars 2” and do you feel like doing a record with him silenced the critics?
J.I.: I mean, like I said, I’m a fan of TJ, I’m a fan of A Boogie and everybody else coming out of New York. You feel me? I admire their work and I see what they’re doing. I was too focused on what I had going on with the first two tapes that I didn’t really get any features. I felt like with the fans, they deserve the feature. I paid attention too just because it’s like, those are the fans in my comments all day telling me to do this, do that and collab with this artist. At the time, I wasn’t really in tune with many artists coming out of the city. I was just really focused on me.
When I viewed my comments and saw the TJ comparisons I thought let’s get on a record and do a track. I’m sure he was getting the comparisons too or he was in tune too because we knew about each other and we had just chopped it up. So it came together perfectly. I feel like the response is amazing. The fans, they soaked it up the right way and they going crazy with the streaming right now. So it was a win-win for me.
HipHopDX: You mentioned previously that you don’t care for the King of New York title and rather work with others as opposed to competing with them. You’re even being referred to as just J.I.. How do you work around that camaraderie while being a natural competitor?
J.I.: I just try to put out a lot of music and I try to put out good quality music because I’m not the type of person that talks crazy and then can’t back it up. So I let my music talk. Yeah, it’s a competitive field but I feel like I’m in my own lane because the first two tapes, I was streaming crazy independently. I’m doing this other tape, the label, backing it up ridiculous and they’re supporting me. But I know how to put myself in my own lane and separate myself from other artists.
The fans, and especially in New York, they know who they like, they know who they don’t. The top three artists in New York, the top five artists are usually different based on what you like and what type of music you like coming out of New York. But I’m not really concerned about that. I’m just concerned about fulfilling the fans, making sure I please the fans I’ve got. That’s really what I’m really concerned about, leveling up too, growing. And like I just said I’m proving my skill, my craft and I’m elevating it. If I can’t do that, then it’s like I’m not really winning.
HipHopDX: One thing about New York rappers is how versatile they are. With the Brooklyn drill sound that’s making a lot of noise lately, do you see yourself doing a record like that?
J.I.: The thing is honestly if the people want to see me do it, that’s the thing. I guess I got to put up like a poll or something on my page. Like what do y’all want to see? I’m all for it as long as the fans are all for it. If I jump in the lane and I make a record and the fans don’t like it, I’m going to feel like, damn, I just walked into a wall right now and y’all set me up for this. But I do have a drill record in the works that I did already and we got to fix up. But I don’t know because if the fans like it, I’m all for it. You understand me? Who knows?
I’m trying to soak up everything especially with the interviews and the questions you’re asking me. I try to take them into consideration too just to see what you are interested in because you guys listen from a different perspective. You guys are coming more from a listener’s perspective and I need that because I wouldn’t really know. I’m not the listener, you understand me? I’m the person making the music, so if that’s something you guys are interested in seeing, let’s do it. I’m all for it. But I got a few things up my sleeve. I don’t really want to say too much. I’m going to do something different though for sure.
HipHopDX: With you talking about growth and incorporating Latin music with the “Spanglish” record, are you worried about transitioning into that realm too soon because you’re just getting your feet wet in the hip hop circle?
J.I.: I don’t feel like anything is ever too soon as long as you do it right. If the fans feel like it’s too soon, oh well, I’m going to just have to kill y’all with good music because I love dipping my hands in different pots to experiment. If I can’t do that, then I don’t even want to do the job. Because it’s like, I’m not trying to stay in the same lane. I’m trying to be different. Also, we got a dope response from it. So you don’t really know unless you try it. You feel me?