Mixing different musical genres with country is nothing new at this point — in fact, some may say it’s become a bit of a trend these days — but it’s safe to say not too many country artists found their way to Nashville via a hip-hop route.
That’s exactly what happened to Jessta James, however. Although you’d probably never guess it by listening to his debut album, Time To Get Right, the Montana native discovered his initial love of songwriting through rapping. The hip-hop world led him to Los Angeles, where he cut his musical teeth working with a number of high-profile names in the industry, before deciding he wanted to mix up a sound all his own. And that sound involved a lot of his favorite genre, country. He found his connection to the country world via an Atlanta-based music producer, who believed in James’s aural “vision” and co-wrote music which they eventually brought to Nashville.
Now he’s a country boy through and through, but James will never forget his multi-genre past–which even saw him opening up for rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in cowboy boots!
We had the opportunity to hang out with James for a bit and get his take on the unique musical blend he’s brought to the country scene.
Our Country: What’s your background in country music? Have you always been a fan?
I was raised on country music and rock ‘n’ roll as long as I can remember. My dad heavily influenced my music growing up–he was into outlaw country music: Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. I grew up with a love and appreciation for the older country and even some classic country. As I got older and got into high school, [I also liked] a lot of Southern rock and classic rock. I guess I was always a generation or two behind what my age was, musically. I just always responded to music from different eras. That’s how I got into country music as a fan.
But you didn’t originally start out as a country musician once you entered the music world?
Later, when I found out I had a passion for songwriting–it was on the hip hop side of things, believe it or not. I was exploring hip hop and finding a new appreciation for that style of music because it was something new to me. I got into it, and found that people were really responding to my songs. So actually when I got into music, I was in hip hop. But when I knew it wasn’t quite right, I wanted to start fusing country and rock into it because that’s where I came from. I knew there was an open lane for that, because I had not at that point heard anything how I envisioned it for myself.
What hip-hop artists specifically inspired you?
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so it was the hip-hop that I guess you could say most of America was brought up on. The golden era of hip hop. Back in the day–Naughty by Nature, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, that stuff. We grew up with that music too, but I also fell in love with some Southern rappers like Outkast and Bubba Sparxxx as well.
Can you talk about your initial forays into hip-hop?
It really started as a hobby–I would freestyle. Which is basically just off the top of your head coming up with lyrics. Some of my friends and I, if we were hanging out, we would just kind of mess around and be freestyling…and that’s how I got exposed to songwriting in hip-hop, because there was a hip-hop artist who heard me freestyling and was like “Wow, that’s really good, have you ever thought about wirting songs?” He ended up hooking me up with some instrumentals to write to.
And that got you going.
It just sparked something in me. Made me realize I should be a songwriter, so I built a home studio, even though at the time I was a business owner in the construction industry. I would spend every waking minute that I could thinking of lyrics, even if I was on the job. And if I wasn’t at the job I was at home in the studio. So it was evident to me that it was something I was meant to do.
So, then, can you explain how you started to blend country and other genres into your mix?
When I started recording professionally, I was in Los Angeles. At that time, I was crafting/honing my own style of music. I started incorporating country instruments–fiddle and banjo and acoustic guitar–all these live instruments, and live drums as well, laid over a solid hip-hop beat! I realized that it was moving in the right direction but wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned yet. I always call it a fate thing: I was introduced to a producer out of Atlanta. I didn’t think I needed a new producer; that was the last thing I thought I needed. But I was over there doing a morning show in Florida, and I decided to go and meet this producer. We got into the studio and immediately wrote a song…and as soon as I heard it…I knew that was the sound I was looking for. The song was “If That Ain’t Country.” Instead of being a hip-hop song with country instruments and elements to it, it was a country/rock song with a little bit of hip-hop style. Kind of the polar opposite of what I’d been doing. So that’s how I found that sweet spot.
Being a fan of genre blending, what do you think about all the recent high-profile country hybrid songs that have been making news lately? Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, etc.
I think it’s great and amazing, and I think it shows what the people want. It shows proof that there’s such a demand for something new, and different. I look at myself and I look at kids today, and if you take anyone’s iPod–whether it’s from the South, or where I grew up in Montana, or California, or New York–it doesn’t matter what corner of the country, if you look at someone’s iPod, they have everything on there. A very small percentage of people only listen to one genre. Most people listen to everything, just like I do. They’ll have Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as much as they’ll have Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr. on there, and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC in between! People really do have an appreciation for music of different genres, even if they aren’t connected to that style of living.