We often hear tales of people who strike out on their own at an early age, stars in their eyes and big dreams in tow. While very few people at any age actually achieve that time at the top, St. Louis native J-Kwon was a rare success. When he was just 17-years-old, he hit the top of the charts in 2004 with “Tipsy” from his debut album Hood Hop (So So Def/Arista). Now 22, J-Kwon is back with an independent stride and even bigger goals. He digitally released his street album Hood Hop 2 on February 17, and will release his album Hood Hop 2.5 this Summer, both in association with Gracie Productions and EMI. His new single “Fly” will be available on iTunes in May.
Unusually driven as a child, J-Kwon left home when he was only 13-years-old to pursue music. Family and friends didn’t believe in his vision, but fortunately there were people who did, namely Sean Caldwell. The budding music exec gave J-Kwon a place to stay as they began to build up the young rapper’s music catalog. Within two years, local production celebrities the Trackboyz heard J-Kwon’s song “Personality,” and the world opened up.
At the time, Trackboyz were already making hits for Nelly and Nappy Roots, and in their attempt to build up their production company, they signed J-Kwon for a $1,000 advance. From there, things moved quickly, as the Trackboyz introduced J-Kwon to the now-defunct Arista Records A&R MeMpHiTz (now at Jive). MeMph then arranged a showcase for Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Jermaine Dupri and their team of A&R executives.
After a rousing audition for the Arista team, Jermaine Dupri gave J-Kwon the opportunity to pour the last four years of his struggle into song for the world to hear, and at just 17-years-old, J-Kwon created Hood Hop. This 2004 debut release on So So Def/Arista featured production by the Track Boyz, Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, and hit #7 on the Billboard 200, while the lead single “Tipsy” hit #2 on the Hot 100 chart and #4 in the U.K. He followed promptly with the singles “You & Me” and “Hood Hop,” however neither had quite the reception with fans as “Tipsy,” which is still a mainstay club and radio track around the world to this day.
While J-Kwon went on to record the song “Get XXX’d” with Petey Pablo and Ebony Eyez for the XXX: State of the Union soundtrack, an EP remix of “Tipsy” with Chingy and Murphy Lee and appeared on Bow Wow’s popular “Fresh Asimiz” single in 2005, things behind the scenes were falling apart. Arista Records folded, and even through a series of negotiations, the Trackboyz and J-Kwon were left out in the cold.
“The experience was crazy, because it was what I had dreamed about,” explains J-Kwon. “I had dreams like wanting to make it to Saturday Night Live and Jay Leno – and I did that. Repping St. Louis was quite easy, because I had my friends and I was doing it. You’ve got Chingy, Nelly, then you’ve got J-Kwon. The city was on fire, and it was like a dice game – we were rolling too many 7’s and 11’s, and the industry turned that magnet off.”
Never one to allow setbacks to fade him, J-Kwon began to create new opportunities. Still on good terms with the great majority of his associates, including Jermaine Dupri and Trackboyz, the 22-year-old has already set out on his venture as an independent artist. He is working with a new manager, Keith Matthews of Skot Fre Music, and has now teamed with Gracie Productions and EMI to digitally release his new projects.
Working without limitations, J-Kwon has been developing his production skills as well. “I actually sit down with the MPC, the new Tritons, Blue Tube and plugins, I work it all. Then after I work with it, I pay someone to work it behind me, so we’re gonna make this extra nice. I play the drums and piano too, I’m kind of nice. I’ll play the harmonica if they pay me enough,” J-Kwon laughs. “My brother was telling me ‘you just got an ear for it’ when it comes to the instruments, and maybe I need to start running with that. I mix records too, I’m an engineer.”
True to his entrepreneurial spirit, J-Kwon also launched Hood Hop Music, and has his own roster of fresh talent including Gino Green, Lou Kane and the group The Showoffs, which J-Kwon is actually a part of. “I still work with the Trackboyz, I never really needed anybody but them. They’re hitmakers, and of course I do production by myself too. I’m just going to put out Hood Hop 2 right quick, and then spread myself out with everybody else. I’ll be following with Hood Hop 2.5, which will come this Summer.”
J-Kwon’s journey thus far has been an amazing ride, and he’s really just getting started. In retrospect, he may have liked some things to go differently in his life, but he knows in the end that he’s a better man for his experiences.
“I didn’t get to graduate high school, and I can’t sit up here and say I never got to the point where I wanted to quit, because I have gotten to that point, I have been at that breakdown stage. I really work so hard for this, and people don’t know I put everything on the line just for my fans. I just work so hard for them – I transformed myself from the same type of ni**a from the south side of St. Louis toting guns and selling dope just so I could be out here for my fans. I really have a passion for music, and I want to give people what they need to be listening to. I don’t feel like anybody can do that better than me.”