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Interview: J-Live

Interview: J-Live

J-Live is a rare breed: rapper, producer, DJ, former teacher—and he has mastered all of them. Since 1995’s classic track ‘Braggin’ Writes,’ he’s released fifteen full projects. A few times backed by greats like DJ Premier, Prince Paul, Pete Rock & DJ Spinna. And other times handling production duties himself, such as on his newest release, 'At The Date Of This Writing.'

By DannyVeekens

Looking back at your entire catalog, I think it’s safe to say that you’re far more into intricate chopping rather than straight-forward looping, right?

Indeed, I usually don’t take samples in a way that you’ll recognize what they are. I always like to put samples into a collage: to take a bunch of pieces of something and make it my own picture. Whereas just looping one particular record is more like rapping to one certain song. With that being said, I actually love breaking down to others what I did to a song. But there’s always this sort of self-snitching when you sample something and don’t clear it, but at the same time want to show others what you did and how you did it…

Why do you like to break that down? On an educational level for listeners, or just because you are proud of what you’ve made?

For me, a lot of times when I play beats for people, such as for record collectors or DJs, I’ll ask “Can you tell what this is?” If they can’t, I kind of take joy in that. And if they can—depending on how intricate the sampling is—I definitely appreciate that. And on stage, it goes well for a show, too. To use the sampled track as a loop before or after my own song. That’s also why I like to use Tracklib: it allows me to openly break down my sampling to others without having to worry about clearance issues.

"Tracklib is like the Star Trek Enterprise for sampling: anything you can think of will materialize in the system."

— J-Live

At the same time, there are cases when you couldn’t use a sample. In an interview with Albumism, you told there was originally a Bill Withers sample in “The 4th 3rd,” which you had to replace by a band playing another melody. Isn’t that frustrating to you as an artist, on a creative level?

A little bit. There’s a certain authenticity and grittiness to samples. It’s almost as if you don’t get all the seasoning. Like, if you’re making a soup and they tell you, “Okay, you have to take out the potatoes and the meat.” And it’s like, well, the celery is still there, the carrots are still there, but you know…

All of a sudden it’s a vegetarian soup.

Exactly. [laughs] It’s different. Even if you take the meat out and replace it with something else, you’re not getting the sauces. You know what I mean? A lot of times the thing about the sample is the sauces. If you want to sample an upright bass from an original song, you can use that part. Then there’s a Rhodes behind that, a kick behind that. A little brush snare in the background… Mixed to 2-inch tape, it all went through a Neve mixing console... all those things give it a warm 70s sound. All blended into that little piece of an upright bass you sampled. You can play the bass on your keyboard or bring in an upright bass player to try to recreate what’s happening in the original song. But it’s never the same.

And what happens when you add Tracklib to the equation?

It gives you access to a whole record store worth of music. And it let you pinpoint a lot as the music is divided by so many different things. If I’m looking for something from Japan from 1982 to 1984 in a B minor that’s either jazz or polka, it will show me, well, the two songs in the entire system. [laughs] That’s pretty amazing. It’s like the Star Trek Enterprise for sampling: anything you can think of will materialize in the system.

Playing the devil’s advocate here: but shouldn’t digging be a real challenge?

The challenge isn’t about access to music. Sure, you might hear that argument when you talk to traditional record-digging, dusty-fingers vinyl audiophiles. That’s fine. But Tracklib is teaching producers what’s out there the same way a record store would. You still have to search to find what you want. And you still need to listen to hear what you want to use. It’s not tactile, but it’s very similar to the process in a record store. At least the way I dig on Tracklib.

So how do you dig on Tracklib?

I like to dig by years and genres. For a few specific styles, I might mess around with the regions. But usually, I know the sweet spot for my style to use. I actually have a public collection on Tracklib. The collection is maybe one-tenth of the stuff I snagged from Tracklib for myself to use.

Sweet, let me take a look real quick. So what’s that sweet spot you’re talking about?

It’s not limited to these combinations. But a lot of times I find myself listening to like 70s jazz, 80s rock, 90s reggae, 00s alternative… So the sweet spot depends on what mood I’m in and what I’m looking for. And then I deviate from that process just for the sake of variety and to find stuff I’m not looking for.


I’m looking at your collection now. I see Claude Debussy. Is that an example of something you’re usually not looking for?

The beauty of classical music is that a lot of times there won’t be any drums behind it. So then you’re not even subject to the time signature of the piece. It’s great for a really clean sound.

Ah, another great one: Magic In Threes! They sound like they’re straight from the 70s, but they are a few fairly young guys making this music...

Yeah, there’s a lot of really-really soulful and funky music on Tracklib that is actually fairly recent. From around 2005 or even the early 2010s. So I feel like, well, these bands put their stuff on Tracklib for a reason, so I might as well use it! And I also love that there’s a lot of old school hip-hop on Tracklib.

Speaking of old school hip-hop… I was listening to “Anotha Hip Hop Song” on your new release, ‘At The Date Of This Writing (Vol. 2).’ I think you sampled the same bassline as the one on, most famously, Das EFX’s “Real Hip Hop”...

It sounds like that bassline, yeah… Let’s stick to “a similar bassline.” [laughs]

[Laughs] Fair enough. Do you also use samples like that one as part of a story you want to convey? Or only because you like them sonically?

Absolutely! That’s very important to me. A good example is a James Brown sample we wanted to use on “How Real It Is,” a track on my second album, All Of The Above. We were planning to sample “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” but my label didn’t want to burn their fingers on clearing it. On my track I talk about a lot of similar things as James Brown was talking about on his song. That’s why I wanted to use that sample. The same goes for the bass line on “Anotha Hip Hop Song”; I used it because people would make the connection to those old school tracks.

"I think [Tracklib] is very revolutionary for sample-based producers—and even for producers who haven’t been sample-based but who have aspirations to do so."

— J-Live

Which potential do you see for Tracklib for producers in the (near) future?

I think that sky is the limit. Every day the system is expanding with tracks, labels, genres, et cetera. So I think it’s very revolutionary for sample-based producers—and even for producers who haven’t been sample-based yet for certain reasons but who have aspirations to do so. So I think it’s good for the culture, in that regard. Tracklib also allows me personally to take more liberties because I actually have permission from the sampled artist. So I can now go back to turntable-type of productions such as on my 1995 track “Braggin Writes.” That’s exciting to me.

Do you think it also opens up more creativity when it comes to sampling? I mean, in the sense of, we’ve never seen a 'Paul’s Boutique' anymore, a '3 Feet High And Rising', an 'Endtroducing'… Do you feel like Tracklib opens opportunities there?

I wouldn’t go so far to say there’s a lack of creativity. I think that speaks more to the cookie-cutter assembly line tendencies of major labels. More than a producer’s abilities per se. Those classics relate more to the fact that when you sample multiple artists, you end up with nothing. [laughs] I don’t know to which degree Tracklib solves that, but I think that’s just a different era.

Rather than looking down upon today’s artists, it’s more about appreciating yesterday’s artists for that era. The music of that time period—like Bomb Squad and countless others—is much rarer now. But it makes you appreciate that era even more. If it wasn’t for that era, there probably wouldn’t be a Tracklib.

Listen to J-Live newest project, 'At The Date Of This Writing (Vol. 2)':