The last rays of the setting sun filtered into the Art Wing of the Smith Campus Center on March 7, creating a natural spotlight for hip-hop artist J.I.D and his management team, Since the 80s. Invited by student group No Label, the critically acclaimed rapper and his managers, Barry Johnson and Zekiel Nicholson, spoke about their experiences breaking into the rap industry.
Since the 80s and J.I.D are the most recent in a string of artists and producers, including Travis Scott, that No Label (founded by Marcelo P. Hanta-Davis ’20 and Miles W. Weddle ’20) welcomed to campus this year. It is the self-described goal of Since the 80s to bridge the hip-hop sounds of the 80s with contemporary artists of today. Johnson and Nicholson highlighted their close relationships with artists such as 21 Savage and EarthGang and the importance of creating a vision that both they and their artists desire and can achieve.
Moderator Makeda V. Daniel ’19, a member of No Label, began by asking about the team’s motivations and creative process. J.I.D — sporting a camo jacket, Adidas joggers, and Yeezy sneakers — chimed in.
“I do something, and I don’t stop at it. I don’t sleep, I sit in my room for hours. When I get it right, then it’s over,” he said. The artist added that he is extremely passionate about music and obsessive in his work ethic.
J.I.D then compared the team’s creative process to sculpting: He starts with an idea and together he, Johnson, and Nicholson chip away at it until they find the right medium. The trio traded jokes and laughed, trying to find the right words to describe the “tug-of-war” aspect of their process. Johnson summarized their response.
“Our goal is to find something realistic,” he said.
An Atlanta native, J.I.D initially dreamed of playing for the NFL. He attended Hampton University on a football scholarship, but dropped out to pursue music at the encouragement of his friends. Asked about leaving football behind, J.I.D shrugged and attributed his confidence to enter the rap scene to his support system.
“They really just believed in me,” he said. “We wanted to be the biggest in the game. They had the same mindset as me, and we wanted to be successful.”
The trio’s journey came with obstacles. J.I.D and Since the 80s recalled the struggle of promoting the artist’s first album, “The Never Story.” For months, Johnson and Nicholson asked every artist and producer in the hip-hop industry to give J.I.D’s album a listen, but nobody cared.
“We have to go and do stuff. If you don’t do it for yourself, it don’t get done,” J.I.D said.
Johnson joked at the beginning of the panel that all three were psychopaths, and he circled back to the idea to underscore their dedication to their dreams. “The dream is crazy,” Johnson said. “All of us up here [in the panel] are probably the craziest people in this room.”
During the Q&A session, Johnson recounted one of their efforts to promote J.I.D. Seven people squeezed into a six-person Chevy, packed with all their luggage as they drove cross-country, opening concerts for free. The men slept on friends’ floors, eating ramen daily and struggling to keep moving forward. Even after two positively received albums, J.I.D and Since the 80s refused to claim success. “To say I’m successful now is to limit myself,” Nicholson said. “It’s more about being happy with what you’re doing.”
After the event, Daniel explained the purpose of No Label. “[We] wanted to create experiences for artists in the community and students who were just interested and passionate about conversations in music,” Daniel said. “[They are] able to be in the same room with artists that have already sort of ‘made it’ in this idea of success, whatever it may be.”
“I thought it was really good, I thought it was really insightful,” said Alexander E. Arlos, a Boston University student, about the event. “[My friend and I are] doing something very similar to what they’re talking about right now. We’re trying to make music, so getting his advice was really helpful to me and I got a lot from it.”
Hueston M. Brathwaite, a Boston resident and aspiring artist, also attended the event to learn and network. “Just being able to meet potential new artists that I could possibly work with later on, was amazing, and to see that I have so many things in common with homeboy, was really cool,” he said.