A Fearless Frequency
Artist/Producer JB Russell is working towards organically growing the Hip-Hop and R&B scene in Nashville.
The first time I met JB Russell in October 2017, I was driving for Uber and he was a passenger in my car. We talked easily about our shared roots in Illinois and the rapidly growing music scene in Nashville. Even after that brief trip, I knew he was bringing something special to Music City.
The past couple months, he’s been splitting his time between the studio and driving for Uber himself. We met at Red Bicycle on March 5th, 2018, to discuss everything from family to his debut album to Will Smith.
Currently, JB is working on his second album, and plans to release it later this year. It will be expanding his music style from what you hear in his first album, BEAR.
“Bear is more of an R&B album. I like to do that, but I’m trying to blend R&B and hip-hop right now. I’m from Chicago, and back in Chicago, everyone knows that I rap. Nobody knew that I sing until I moved here and started writing and singing more.”
“Was that why you decided to move to Nashville? The music scene?”
“It was a variety of different things.” JB pauses thoughtfully, then continues, “I was in a previous management situation, and I got out of that and started to realize — I want to do more than just hip hop. I walked away from the management situation I had, and took a year off from everything — not from music, from school — and that also opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t working as hard as I should have been. I felt like it was because I was home, I was in Chicago, and I felt like I knew everything. I called my own bluff and decided to put myself in a situation where it was either sink or swim. If I don’t make it, it’s all on me. I didn’t know anybody here, so that was going to force me to get out and network and really sell myself because I don’t have any other choice. If I don’t meet anybody, it’s my own fault.”
His experience in the Nashville music industry has been a bit slow going so far, but he’s not at all worried.
“Right now, I’m still in a building stage. The last project gained a little bit of a following, and I want to keep building an organic fan base. Right now, it’s too early to really be thinking about like labels or deals or anything like that. I think the music is worthy of it, but nobody knows who I am. So I’ll keep putting out good music and come up with things to get people interested and involved. That’s my main focus right now — album, more shows, and some videos to get peoples’ interest.”
“I produce it all myself, I write it all myself, I mix it all myself. It’s real music. Even if you haven’t been in the exact situation that I’m talking about, you can relate to the feelings around it.”
Now 27, JB has been performing since he was a young child and producing since he was 15.
“My cousin is the reason I started rapping,” he tells me. “I was maybe 7 years old and we were at a family barbeque. He had some friends there and we went to the backyard, and they were freestyling. It got to me, and they didn’t expect me but I just started freestyling. My cousin was really impressed, and told me ‘I want you to keep it up. But instead of freestyling, I want you to start writing.’ There is a difference in being able to freestyle and being a lyricist.”
As far as getting into producing, he had a friend in high school who created beats for him to rap to. “His dad gave him all the software to make beats, and he would make beats and put them on a CD for me. I realized I wanted to get into that, but I didn’t really start until sophomore year, and he gave me FL Studio, which is what I still use.”
“Do you go back to Chicago to visit often?”
“Not as often as I’d like to. Almost all my family still lives there. I try to go home often because I get homesick randomly. Yesterday I was looking at Google Maps and I zoomed in on a street that my mom lives in, and I got sad. I’m not even looking at her picture, I’m just looking at the street I lived on!” He laughs before continuing. “I quickly closed out the app, telling myself, ‘Don’t do this.’ But I’m planning on trying to go home soon, within a month or so. It’s always good because it’s like a recharge for me. Family is very important.”
I tell him I relate to this, as visiting my hometown in East St. Louis is always very refreshing. JB nods eagerly in agreement.
“It’s always good to get encouragement from your family. Going home refuels the creative juices and keeps me energized.” He then laughs a bit and says, “I always think of it like a video game where there’s a point where you can heal. The only specific example I can think of is Pokemon, when you go to a health center.”
“I try not to force my music. If I get to a point where I feel like I’m trying to hard to write a song, I’ll stop and take a step back. Most people would just throw it away, but I save it because I have the mindset that it means I’m not ready to finish it, I haven’t experienced what is needed to allow me to finish it.”
Let’s talk about your creative process. What inspires you to write the songs that you do?”
“It depends. Sometimes I’ll come up with a random line and I’ll write that down and come back to it later, expand on it. 100% of the things I write about come from my life experience. With BEAR, all of those songs are pulled from feelings that I felt about relationships or moments in life that I’ve had.”
Offering an example, he says, “Some of it might be made up — there’s a song called ForbiddenLove, and I’ve never had to…” JB stops himself, laughing. “Well, actually, I did, now that I think about it. It’s not to the extent of how dramatic that song is, but in high school I did sneak out to meet a girl late at night, and when I came back I got caught.”
After some more laughter and reminiscing on younger years, we return to discussing the music he is currently creating.
“This new project that I’m working on, it’s really going to talk about my experiences from Chicago and my experiences from Nashville and how they blend together. I also want to bring hip-hop and R&B here on a much grander scale than it is. There is a small scene of it here, and the people that I’ve met, they tell me they want more hip hop and R&B. Country’s cool, and the pop scene is great, but so many people are moving here and not everybody wants to hear country music all day every day. They want a variety, they want to choose, and I want to add to that.”
“Why is it important for you to show that you can blend R&B and hip-hop?”
“I just don’t want to be in a box.” JB becomes more animated, and the passion he feels for his music is clear. “Even with R&B and hip-hop music, the way I produce it can draw from different genres. Whether it’s rock or pop or EDM, I don’t want people to have a specific view of my music… I mean, I guess that’s cool because I’ll surprise them every time, but I want people to know, I rap and sing. Expect both.”
“Not everyone will understand your dream, because it’s not theirs — it’s for you. It’s up to you to believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you.”
While family and friends are his most important influence, JB also draws inspiration from celebrity artists and producers. He tells me Pharrell is his number one influence and producer he hopes to work with some day. He also mentions Childish Gambino, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar multiple times during our discussion.
As we walk back to our cars, we continue to discuss personal influences, and he tells me there are several YouTube videos of Will Smith speaking that he watches when he needs some inspiration. He put three quotes pulled from these videos on his dry erase board at home, and repeats them in his mind almost as a mantra to keep himself going.
After the great conversation we had, and then this additional peek into his mindset, it is clear nothing will stop JB from continuing to create and chase his dreams — especially not fear of failure.
Don’t let Fear stop you.
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