On a Wednesday afternoon at VIBE’s Manhattan headquarters, Jay IDK is casually saying what’s up to everyone before getting comfy in the main conference room. He appears to be a casual, laid back dude with little worries and a personable spirit. But don’t let the chilled demeanor fool you. As soon as we get down to business, he makes it clear that he doesn’t plan on simply coasting his way through this music industry; he’s planning to shake things up.
For the rapper who calls the DMV area (although he usually reps DC to outsiders) home and claims to bridge the gap between Gucci Mane and A Tribe Called Quest by “Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge,” his interest in music stemmed from a culmination of influences. There was Kanye West’s “I Don’t Like,” which he cites as a pivotal moment that worked its magic on his ear for music and a brief stint in a Go-go band, which he rather not relive. But it wasn’t until he was incarcerated at the age of 17 that he decided to pick up a pen and write music of his own.
As Jay IDK sat behind bars as a young adult, he began writing as an R&B singer, but over the course of three separate incidents of incarceration when he was 17, 19, and 20, he developed his sound into that of a rising rapper garnering much attention. Today, Jay IDK delivers a matured sense of reflection on his troubled past, which has led to the creation of his new album, Empty Bank. A 12-track listen boasting of features from Ab-Soul, Fat Trel and Saba, its message, while giving the people something to bob their heads to, also aims to send a message: it ain’t all about the money.
And while the tunes will definitely speak for itself, we sat down with the rapper to get his full story from his upbringing to the creative process behind his new album, straight from the breakout star’s mouth.
VIBE: Let’s talk about your upbringing in the DMV. What was that like?
Jay IDK: I grew up in – I’ll say this with quotation marks – a middle class home. We lived in a good neighborhood, but I don’t know if we belonged there because we went through things where we couldn’t afford to live there. It was a period of time where we were there off of a generator and no hot water. So it was a weird, middle class kind of thing.
How’d you start rapping?
I went to a bad school and hung out with kids who did bad things. I ended up going to jail, and that’s when I started rapping. I was just bored and wanted to write music. And people kept asking me to rap for them. When I rapped for them, they liked it so I stuck with it.
At the time did you know you had talent?
I was just doing it for fun. I would listen to my radio and hear beats that were playing and memorize them in my head. So when I would get back to my union, I would start writing to whatever I remembered the beat was. I always had a thing for writing. Even when I was in school, I was always good at writing. But when I first went to jail, I was writing R&B songs. I was 17 at the time. I don’t think I can sing that well, but I can hold it down a bit. That’s really where it started. I went to jail and I wasn’t charge as a minor, so I was 17 in an adult jail. They had to separate me at one point, and I was on 23-hour lock down, just writing songs.
What made you want to transition from R&B to rap?
I don’t know bruh. I just started rapping; I just started writing rhymes. When I was doing the R&B stuff, I was kind of throwing some raps here and there. So I guess that was part of it. But that’s just what I felt like doing at the time. I wrote in my book that when I got out, I was going to try to make a mixtape and here we are today.
If a stranger stopped you on the street and wanted to know who Jay IDK is, how would you describe yourself as an artist and your sound to them?
[I have] a lot of live instrumentation. I try to take the foundations of what music is and add some type of twist to it. And then some of the beats that have modern twists already, I like to bring it back to earlier stages of music and add live instrumentation. I like weird beats that are musical. I want it [to sound] weird but it’s still like this guy knows what he’s doing from a technical aspect.
Being that there is such a small group of well-known artists from the DMV area, many people might group you all together. What do you think separates you from a Goldlink or a Wale?
We’re not the same people. We don’t have the same interests nor do we make our make our music the same. Like Goldlink, we have totally different sounds. That’s my homie, but music-wise, we have two totally different sounds. He does what he does and I do what I do. It’s not too hard for me to be different. I guess that’s just because who I really am. I like to try and be outside of the box or do things that other people aren’t doing.
Going into the industry, did you have a support system? Or was it more people cheering for you to fail?
Oh man. When I first started, I had this app that would [let] me send mass texts to all 1,000 contacts. I used to send all my music and half of the people wouldn’t respond. One-third would be like, ‘Stop texting me.’ But I had a support system in terms of immediate friends. And recently, when I started getting a management and team around me, [I got support]. But at first, it wasn’t like that.
You’ve got a new project out, Empty Bank. What was the creative process like?
Well, I’m sure you’ve never been to hell before, but that’s exactly what it was. It was one of the most difficult things ever, but at the same time, it was very fun. It was a lot of back-and-forth, lots of changes. But it’s just me being a perfectionist with everything that we did. If you were to hear it one day, you’d hear a song that you’d think is done, and then you’d hear it another day and all this other stuff is on it. It was layers on layers of different things on specific songs. I’m very involved in the production as well as the lyrics so I always add and change and bring other musicians in to do different things. It’s a very collaborative process.
What’s the vision behind your album art? Where did the concept come from?
That was so last minute. I had a whole other concept; I just didn’t like it. It’ wasn’t coming together right. So it was a couple days before I had to drop the cover art, and I was like, ‘What can I do in one picture that’s going to be impactful enough to make people [shocked] and also describe the project in one [image]?’ I was trying to get this Gullwing Benz. So what if I was sitting on this Benz with black overalls, white shirt, black hat, black and white shoes, and I had a noose around my neck and a dead president was holding it? I said the idea to the people that were doing my graphics and they were like, ‘Yo, that would be crazy.’ So I hit up Benjamin Franklin and set up the photo shoot and shot exactly what I saw in my mind. It’s basically about people being slaves to money. It’s that simple. And not even just people, me [too]. Me putting it in the picture shows that I see it for what it is now. But me not seeing money for what it is, is what that picture reflects. It’s just the truth.
What can people expect from Empty Bank?
You’ll hear growth in my music in my voice and everything. I’m more conscious of what I make. I study a lot of artists that are a lot bigger than me. I find ways to be able to compete with them. Well, not so much compete them, but when you play my music next to theirs, mine’s doesn’t sound mediocre.
If there was anyone you’d love to collaborate with in the future, who would it be?
I really like the Gorillaz and Arctic Monkeys. I don’t know how our collaborations would be for sure, but Gorillaz, I would for sure murk one of they songs. Kamasi Washington, I like him too. 21 Savage was supposed to be on this one, but he didn’t make it in time. Busta Rhymes, Tyler, the Creator definitely, Erykah Badu, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a lot, but those are most of the people.
Rumor has it that you want to be the first rapper to win the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you plan on doing that?
Yeah, that would be sick. I don’t even know [how]. I just know that I talk about things that you should really pay attention to and understand. And I think that one day I will make an album that could open that door. Rap is such a part of pop culture now. The President is all up in the rap scene. So it’s not impossible. There’s a lot of things that I try to do with my stuff that’s unprecedented. Some stuff works, some stuff is crazy. But at the end of the day, because some stuff works, I won’t limit myself.
Do you think it’s important for artists to speak on social issues?
Hell yeah. [As an artist] you have the most reach out of everybody. Some people turn it into a thing where it’s just about money, fame, popularity, being cool. But I think the best artists can balance both. I think what matters the most is not how much money you make, but how much you’re able to impact the world and some one’s vision with what you do. Rap music is very influential; not too many things more influential than that. So if you’re going to make rap music, and you have so much influence, why waste that on just bull****.