In February, after having contributed vocals to “Jermaine’s Interlude” on DJ Khaled’s Grammy-nominated Major Key, Atlanta rapper J.I.D. became the latest artist to sign to J. Cole’s Dreamville. His debut on the imprint, The Never Story tells a single tale: Before J.I.D. started rapping, he never had shit, least of all hope for the future. Like Gucci Mane, he claims the same East Atlanta street, Bouldercrest Road, as one-time stomping grounds, but he’s a world removed from the trap star, opting for a boom-bap revival inspired by Sly and the Family Stone, D’Angelo, Wu-Tang Clan and Little Dragon. Rolling Stone caught up with J.I.D. in between tour dates with Jazz Cartier, to learn more about how he isn’t screwing up this chance to tell his story.
East Atlanta is often cited in rap lyrics. What was growing up there like for you?
I grew up pretty fast because I had a lot of older brothers and sisters. The closest sibling to me is probably, I’d say like six years detached. It wasn’t that bad because we all worked together. There was just different family scenarios that you go through growing up. We moved around a lot. We stayed in low-income situations. Then we moved up. It was all right.
In “General” you rap, “I don’t fuck with happy trappers.” How did you get to that point?
I don’t even know what made me think of that in particular. But the statement is definitely true. When I grew up, drug dealers and people who was doing illegal stuff to get money, I never saw it as like a glorified thing. I didn’t see it like you sit and be stagnant – be happy with where you at in life. It was always means to a better way, to feed your family. I just never fucked with the over-glorification, but with more of the struggle. I feel our generation, we’re cool with the fiends or whatever. I’m getting too deep. There’s shit I hate. But at the same time, I’m trying to understand. Like, “Damn, why do people like it? Why are they attracted to this?” I do my research, get information on why something works, as opposed to just saying, “I hate this shit. I’ll never listen to it.”
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You recently signed with J. Cole’s Dreamville. Was this something you knew you wanted?
I didn’t really know too much about deals; I had to talk to people and learn about the industry. But I knew I didn’t have any income. I was working little odd jobs. But sometimes you just need the fucking money. I ain’t never had bread, bro. And it’s an amazing situation with amazing people. Even outside of J. Cole, I mean the people he works with. It wasn’t that hard of a decision. It wasn’t really even about the money. It was about me being able to create the art I want to make.
Do you write every lyric out, or are you someone who sketches out the melody first?
I try to do like a combination of both, if that’s a thing. I don’t really go in without a thought on where I’m gonna go with it. Even if I try to freestyle some shit, I literally have the topic in mind and the first eight lines. I literally bring a writing utensil and a book with me. I try to be like hella sensitive to my surroundings.
A lot of artists talk about waiting for inspiration to hit. You’re being more proactive.
You have to. Writer’s block, I hate that fucking idea. I pray my shit doesn’t go away. I read fucking books like a asshole. I will go to fucking Chinese proverbs. I will go to every fucking length to spark an idea. It’s so much shit out there, especially with the internet. There’s fucking flying cars. I could literally be anywhere I want, on my phone, a laptop or computer. You know what I’m saying?
What is inspiring you now?
I just got my wisdom tooth taken out. I started recording again last week after I healed up. This is the first time I’ve been able to do the shit and there’s no physical problems. I used to have straight migraines after shows or when I record, and I was spitting blood out because I bit my cheek with the fucking wisdom tooth, and it was just sucking for years. So they took my wisdom tooth out. But I take it with me just in case.
Yeah. I was talking to one of my engineers, and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, man. You might lose all your juice after they took your wisdom tooth out. It just may not be the same.” He was making a joke and shit like that, like a total asshole. So I definitely got that shit with me. He made me feel superstitious about it. I go it in one of my drawers in this little case right quick. I might bring it on tour with me and shit. I start tour in like a couple days.
Which songs on The Never Story are you most proud of?
“Lauder” is a favorite because the name of the song is a friend of mine who passed away. Everybody’s like, “I love ‘Lauder'” and don’t know what shit means, though I just told them now. I was just trying to spill my guts, and I think people received it that way. Initially I wanted to be a writer for other people. “Hereditary,” I was writing it from a woman’s perspective. I was thinking Rihanna could kill a part, or maybe Kehlani or SZA. SZA was in the same studio that night I created “Hereditary,” because I did that in L.A. Everything else was done in Atlanta.
What has life been like for you since signing to Dreamville? Have you had a chance to relax?
No, I haven’t really stopped, for real, because I know I still got a lot of work to do. It’s not going to stop until I’m ready to stop, and I don’t see that happening. I’m just trying to tell my story.