Published Oct 25, 2010To hip-hop and R&B heads, J. Period is renowned for his knack for taking the catalogue of a single iconic artist and condensing and blending the best guest shots, most timeless hits and choicest album cuts into a single don't-dare-touch-the-skip-button playlist. Nas, Big Daddy Kane, Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, Mary J. Blige, the Roots, the Isley Brothers, and most recently Michael Jackson have all been blessed with the L.A.-born, Brooklyn-based DJ's special tribute treatment, typically spiced with exclusive insight gleaned from interviewing the artists or their peers. Call these mixtapes "audio-biographies." But in recent years the 35-year-old has expanded his operation, lending his production and remix skills to film trailers (American Gangster) and video games (Tony Hawk's Motion, DJ Hero) and touring the globe with K'Naan. We chopped it up with J. Period this September minutes before he stepped onstage at Toronto's Dundas Square and, for this evening, took the place of the entire Roots band: dual-handedly backing MC Black Thought in a "live mixtape" performance that capped off Manifesto's main event. Much like J. Period's mixtapes, the show was free for listeners but the DJ got paid. Everyone wins.
Have you been to Toronto before?
Yeah, I've been here with K'naan when I did The Messengers mixtape project. I like it up here; I'd like to come more often.
You tend to go deep into a single artist's catalogue for these special tapes. How do you decide which artist you want to dedicate a mixtape to?
It depends. I started just following the artists that inspired me. So back when I did the Nas one [2004's The Best of Nas], the stars aligned for me to be in the same place as him to get the interview material. It happened like that for a while until I started to get approached to do these by labels as official promotional mixtapes. And there, it's a question of really going with artists that inspire me, that I feel like I can enhance their music or tell their story in some way. And now I also try to look for something different. Every time out of the box I want to try something different that I've never done before. Otherwise I just get bored.
Is there a particular tape you're most proud of?
The one I did with Q-Tip [2009's The Abstract Best Vol. 1] was the biggest accomplishment in a lot of ways, the biggest being that so many different artists recorded original stuff for me for that. They came and did a bunch of remakes of Tribe songs. Getting De La [Soul], getting Pharoahe Monch and Zion I and Black Thought and all these people to record stuff ― that's something I'm proud of.
How hard is it to pull that off?
It's sort of funny. A lot of people would look at that as a logistical nightmare, and in some ways it was, but I've been very fortunate that the artists that I know are probably the biggest fans of what I do. So they're always down. I don't really have to ask twice. For that project I put out 15 feelers, hoping to get maybe three people, and 15 people wanted to do stuff. So I was like, "OK! That's good." I guess I'm lucky in some ways.
Who haven't you done a tape with that you want to?
I started working on one with Alicia Keys a year ago that sort of fell by the wayside. I'd love to finish that; I think that could be a great one. Also, I've been talking to De La Soul for years about doing one. And [Talib] Kweli is in the works. As far as artists that I haven't worked with, honestly I'd love to do a Jay Electronica mixtape. I think he's a really talented MC. There's a new crop of artists that aren't getting that recognition that they deserve, and I feel like that's the group I'm really interested in working with because they're hungry, they have talent, and they're not getting a platform. I can provide a platform for them.
Give me some names.
Blu, from Blu & Exile. A guy named Reks, one of Statik Selektah's MCs. A dude named Homeboy Sandman. There's a crop of them that are out there and have good stuff that I would like to help.
After you've completed someone's tape, do you ever have regrets a month later? Have you ever forgotten to include an essential song?
Honestly, I take a long time [preparing]. The Q-Tip mixtape, I probably worked on that for six months. The Mary J. Blige probably for a year. Whatever I make, I like to sit with it, listen to it over and over and over again until I almost hate it, because that's the way I can tell if someone else is going to be able to listen to it over and over and over again. Once I get to the point where it just feels good from front to back, then I know I'm done and I have to leave it alone. But I'm a perfectionist; I could be in there tweaking little things till eternity.
With your best-of mixes, is there a sense of competition? Do you want to crush the other DJs who have tried to compile the best of a specific artist onto one CD?
My competition is myself. I don't look at other DJs as competition. I just want to make the best tape ever. I don't want to make a tape better than someone else. Not in an arrogant way. If I'm gonna work with Q-Tip, my contribution has to be on a level of the work that [A Tribe Called Quest] did. That's the way I look at it. Whether or not I live up to that is up for everybody else to decide, but that's what I'm aiming for.
When it comes to freestyling, who's the best MC you've seen?
The man I'm bringing to the stage tonight is unrivalled. Black Thought is unconscious. There's certain people, it's almost like they think in rhyme. Somebody asked me the other day: "Do you think these guys walk down the street rhyming?" And I was like, "Nah, I think people like [Black Thought], maybe they used to, but it's ingrained in their head somewhere, and I don't know where it comes from."
What was the very first mixtape you made?
The biggest one that took off was The Best of Nas, but the very first one was called Beats from New York. I made it right when I moved to New York in '98. I just put together my favourite New York hip-hop, and that was that. For me, it's always been about taking my favourite music and putting it into a little project that I can listen to and enjoy myself, so that's where it started.
You're known mostly for your mixing, but where does producing fit into the equation?
I produce a lot now. Probably my biggest work has been producing, but not necessarily for artists. I've done stuff for film and for film trailers and for video games. I was part of DJ Hero, the big Activision game last year. My production has been more on that and on mixtapes. So now, stepping forward as a full-time producer is what you can expect in the next 12 months.
Do you actually make money directly from mixtapes these days, or are they purely a promotional tool to help land production gigs and live performances like this one?
I'm one of a few, but I get hired by the labels to do these [tapes]. And it ain't cheap. If I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it right. And I have a team: Tasha Stoute does publicity, Tamir [Z. Brown] does marketing and events. I got people that do all the statistical tracking online for how many downloads and where it goes. It's a real process at this point in time. So we're hired almost as a marketing company to create these things now. But the mixtape world is kinda this grey area where you can't really live doing [only] that. So that's why it's important for me to be producing more.
Growing up, which mixtape DJs were you inspired by?
I grew up in L.A., so I wasn't really around [the mixtape scene]. I got some old Mister Cee tapes, and the Tony Touch 50 MC tapes were pretty sick. Those were the ones that I still remember to this day.
Anything else you'd like to add?
If you like what you've heard so far and you want to hear more, go to jperiod.com. We got a lot of CDs up there ― free downloads, a bunch of stuff ― so check it out.
Oh, one more question: Was it a conscious decision to not be shouting all over your tapes? Silent DJs are something I appreciate.
[laughs] I think that's the fan in me. I want to create tapes that I want to ride around and listen to, and I don't want to hear myself talk. I find other people's voices to say what I want to say for me, whether it's the MCs or the little interview snippets I add in. At a show I'll talk on the mic, but on a tape I don't want to hear that.