“The Universe Kind of Conspires with Us”: The Journey of Jansport J
The L.A. native discusses the moving story behind “Malcolm (History).,” his methods for building intimate connections with supporters, and the importance of bumping your head.
This article was edited with the assistance and keen eye of andre j gee.
Long before he scored production credits with Blu, Snoop Dogg, Freddie Gibbs, and Ab-Soul, L.A. native and current resident Jansport J found his entry point to music making during kindergarten with a See ’n Say toy. Not fully aware of how rap music was made due to his young age, that didn’t stop him from tweaking the See ’n Say in an effort to emulate a DJ scratching a record.
After hearing Timbaland & Magoo’s Welcome To Our World and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain” several years later, Jansport’s fascination with beatmaking reached new heights when his sister told him both projects were produced by Timbaland. Then his best friend Zeeshan introduced him to a pirated version of FL Studio in high school — an introduction that proved to be a major turning point. The two teenagers started out making “goofy” songs for fun, but the goofy phase was short-lived, as they soon embarked on an extended period of musical self-discovery.
With no mentors to show them the ropes, Jansport and Zeeshan were forced to learn the foundation of basic beatmaking on their own. “You couldn’t go on YouTube and see a tutorial and you couldn’t look at an instruction manual because you downloaded it illegally,” Jansport says. “But I feel like that was important, because when you learned something, and you figured out why things worked a certain way, you could put that in your arsenal and your knowledge of producing music.”
“The industry was completely in the toilet. I realized, ‘Nobody knows what they’re doing. Now we need to come up with new ideas.’”
By the time Jansport wrapped up high school and entered his freshman year of college at Pepperdine University, he no longer had access to Zeeshan’s copy of FL Studio. Putting a new laptop and licensed copy of the program on his credit card as he started classes made him approach his musical vocation with a new level of discipline and focus. He told himself, “I’m gonna be a producer now in the dorm room.”
Honing his craft for countless hours during his college campaign, Jansport was ready to level up from dorm room producer to a true professional when he graduated in 2008. Looking for different ways to get a foot in the door, he took an internship at Interscope Records just as artists and acts like Pac Div, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay Rock were establishing themselves.
Though his spot at Interscope provided an invaluable learning experience, these were dark and unprecedented times in the industry. With physical sales declining at a rapid rate and Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and streaming services not yet available or widely used, many artists and labels were completely lost with how to monetize and promote their art. “The industry was completely in the toilet,” Jansport says. “I realized, ‘Nobody knows what they’re doing. Now we need to come up with new ideas.’”
“When I make my music, a lot of times there’s a lot of heavy meaning behind it. But I don’t expect for everybody to pick up on it.”
As Jansport’s confidence and industry savvy grew, he put out his first instrumental album The 2 AM Tape in 2009. A steady stream of vocal-less projects followed, with an average of one album dropping every year. December of 2012 would see Jansport release For Love. [Instrumental LP], an important entry in his canon for several reasons. After celebrating its five-year anniversary in late 2017, the album has experienced a recent resurgence in interest from fans and acquaintances. It is also notable for being the last album he produced entirely with FL Studio before switching to Maschine, representing the apex of his experience with the DAW. “If you listen to For Love. as a producer nerd, it sounds a little different than anything else I’ve ever made,” he says. “I think at that time I figured out how to use Grose Beat and some other stuff on FL Studio. I was figuring out a lot of things as far as how to make something loud but still compressed.”
The album also showcases a broad spectrum of emotion, something Jansport strives for with every project. The deeper layers of symbolism may not be obvious to all who listen, but that doesn’t stop him from working them into his music. “When I make my music, a lot of times there’s a lot of heavy meaning behind it,” he says. “But I don’t expect for everybody to pick up on it. They’re just beats at the end of the day, if people connect with them that’s cool.”
On one end of the spectrum lie feel-good cuts like “ULuvDOOMILuvU.” and “Simpin.,” which takes a big, obvious chunk of an 80s R & B class and extends the loop perfectly. “If you strip it all the way down and take all of the effects off it’s a very lazy loop,” Jansport says. “But that album, to me, was more about the EQing of things. It was just super weird and all over the place. That’s just the zone I was in.”
“It was a real dilemma of exactly what Malcolm was saying in that clip. ‘Who are you? What’s your history? Where are you from? Where did it go?’”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Malcolm (History)..” Though the song starts out with a disarmingly upbeat loop and some hype vocal snippets, the content of the vocal samples as the track goes on represent something much more somber. This is no accident — Jansport created the beat during a time of deep introspection after a chance encounter with someone left him ruminating about his personal history. “I randomly ran into a guy who asked me where I was from and I said, ‘Oh, I’m from Covina,” he says. “He kept asking me, ‘No, where are you from.’ He was referring to what part of Africa, because he was Nigerian and he felt like I was actually from his tribe, the Igbo tribe.”
Like most African American Descendants of Chattel Slavery, Jansport was unaware of his family origins due to the mass forcible deportation and cultural eradication that took place during the Atlantic slave trade. Unable to trace his family lineage beyond a certain point without the aid of a DNA test that he wasn’t completely comfortable with, he was at a loss for how to deal with the emotions raised by his acquaintance’s questions. “It really fucked me up that I couldn’t say where I was from or do no kind of research without some kind of blood test where — who knows what that is,” he says.
After the conversation, Jansport decided to channel how he was feeling through music. Watching some Malcolm X videos online, he found clips that helped him articulate his state of mind and later incorporated them into a beat. “It was a real dilemma of exactly what Malcolm was saying in that clip,” he says. “‘Who are you? What’s your history? Where are you from? Where did it go?’”
“It really fucked me up that I couldn’t say where I was from or do no kind of research without some kind of blood test where — who knows what that is.”
Looking back on “Malcolm (History).” six and a half years later, the creation of it has an almost serendipitous feel. “I think the universe kind of conspires with us where something like that will happen, then I’ll start randomly watching Malcolm speeches on the web, making the album, and then it comes together,” he says. “I think that’s what I was feeling at that time and I transferred a lot of emotions or energy into a beat.”
When the project was ready for release, Jansport took a unique approach to help For Love. find an audience in a pre-streaming era. Instead of seeking broad recognition from the biggest blogs and websites, he instead chose to focus on his die-hard fanbase by sending them a personal email with an advance download. “I didn’t send it to any blogs until a month after,” he told journalist Jesse Kuss in a 2013 interview with Stimulate Your Soul. “However during that time, what started off as an email to 150 fans spread to 1000 downloads before an official press release.”
Jansport’s reasons for taking this approach were two-fold. First, he understood a true bond with a modest group of listeners always trumps brief and casual acceptance from a big audience. “I don’t just want the look of ‘I’m on Nah Right, I’m on 2DopeBoyz, I’m poppin’.’ I want people to actually connect with the music and have real-life fans.”
“People can tell you shit all day long about what to do and what not to do. But until you bump your head and learn that lesson, it’s not gonna stick with you the same.”
Jansport also realized that blogs — though once a dominant force in breaking and establishing the popularity of new artists — probably wouldn’t maintain their industry-wide influence forever. As we’ve seen with the ever-increasing presence of social media, he was right. “I always had in the back of my mind that one day these blogs might not be here,” he says. “And if you’re building your house on that, when the blogs disappear, what happens? Who do you rely on?”
Now, Jansport is carrying the lessons of connecting with supporters to his live shows, which have taken him all of the United States and abroad. During a late 2018 performance, he used his powers of connection and crowd assessment to turn a potentially disastrous gig into something positive when only five people showed up at the beginning of the night. “There were a bunch of kids downstairs dancing, so I did beats for 20 minutes and I just turned it into a DJ situation,” he says. “By the end of the night, I had 200 kids up there dancing, remembering my name. You have to adapt and figure it out and entertain people at the end of the day — that’s what I aim to do.”
Now, looking back on his decade-plus as a producer, Jansport chalks a lot of his victories up to going out into the world, interacting with people, and learning from his mistakes. In a candid bit of advice to young and emerging producers, he advises them to do the same. “People can tell you shit all day long about what to do and what not to do,” he says. “But until you bump your head and learn that lesson, it’s not gonna stick with you the same. So it’s important to go out and fall on your face a couple of times and really learn out here.”