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Image via J. Stone/Instagram

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Steven Louis is a restricted free agent.


As marine blue legend has it, shortly after Ermias Asghedom’s revelatory family trip to Eritrea inspired a reckoning with his career focus, the first call he made was to Infant J. Stone. A battle-tested Crenshaw representative with prodigious intelligence and far more talents than opportunities, J. Stone quickly elevated his new friend’s bars, helped him sell two-for-$15 bags of fake dope to afford studio time, and asserted himself as one of All Money In’s sharpest performers. While Nipsey Hussle was the chief and headliner, Stone was boxing out. It was he who helped Nip put up posters in territories staked out by Eight Tray Gangsters, Grape Street and Hoover Crips (they paid homegirls and weed smokers to take care of business). It was he who spit the AZ-Illmatic-scene stealing feature verse on Crenshaw, a free download that Nipsey had the confidence to sell for $100 a physical copy (needless to say, it’s worth exponentially more today). And it was he who handled hypeman/adlib/opener duties from self-promoted strip mall performances to the star-studded Victory Lap premiere show.

This is not to define J. Stone in relation to the late Nipsey Hussle, his close friend, collaborator and business partner. It’s to consider J. Stone as a centrifugal force, both in loving hip hop and in accepting the cold limits of contemporary American existence. Stone’s entire life has been plagued by loss, but the way he tells it and the way he raps it, he’s made a sacred responsibility out of making each loss into a vehicle for betterment. His mother was fatally shot by the cops when he was just three years old. He not only stomached the murder of Nip, on his own block and by the gun of a neighborhood man with SIXTIES tatted on his flesh, but then lost another friend and independent heavyweight, Young Dolph, under wrenchingly similar circumstances one year later. He flew to New York for DMX’s funeral to honor an inspiration-turned-mentor. 18 months before Nipsey passed, Stephen J. Donelson, the co-founder of The Marathon Clothing better known as Fatts, was taken from All Money In too.

Stone has responded to the turbulent past three years with a triptych of chest-out, heart-open albums. The Definition of Loyalty, fittingly, depicts Stone crowned with a Crip bandana, on the same sun-drenched Slauson Avenue that Nip and Lauren London shot for GQ. The album features All Money In lifers like Bino Rideaux, Hoodsta Rob and Pacman da Gunman, but also brings on West luminaries Snoop Dogg and Game. Its follow-up, 2020’s The Definition of Pain, was highlighted by a new Nip and Dom Kennedy song, named after the latest great L.A. Laker. But The Definition of Sacrifice might be the most complete and assured of the series. On songs like “Round Table” and “C.E.O.,” J. Stone assumes a more grizzled, mature and wealthier version of the self-made talk that All Money In broke out with. “No Time” brings a vintage verse out of Jadakiss and even elicits the rare Swizz Beatz vocal performance. “Different Purpose” takes the shadowboxing, lonely-at-the-top counter-rhythm of “1 for tha Money” and flips forward some of the best rapping heard all year. It’s a bossy soundtrack that occasionally goes beyond comfort zone (what were the Vegas odds on a K Camp hook about bussin’ it open?) but never eschews its functionality as Survival Music. Hell, it’s even got a high-as-balls Dolph laughing about 101 freeway traffic and shouting out OG Bobby Johnson from South Central.

“I don’t like interviews,” he raps matter-of-factly on the album’s intro. There were jokes upon jokes about how Stone doesn’t smile much in his No Jumper interview. But when we connected a few weeks ago, the veteran emcee seemed genuinely excited to talk about the work he’s putting in. 2022 means it’s “Summertime in that Maybach” now, he told me. Most people never run a marathon in their lifetime, but those who have typically don’t just stop after that.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)



Tell me about the process of putting this music out, and how you think it’s being perceived thus far.


J. Stone: Man, I love the reviews, I ain’t gonna lie. They’re really riding to this album, man. They’re already saying it’s a classic. They’re already saying it’s an album of the year. The industry ain’t gonna give me my flowers, because you know, I’m still independent. As long as the fans love it. As long as all my supporters love it and they ain’t scared to show it. They’re really riding to this joint and I’m excited, bro.


Is it a bit of a trip for you, now that there are so many more independent artists in this space? You guys were doing it so early.


J. Stone: Yeah. I mean, at this point, when you figure out the formula, it’s just better. I think there needs to be more CEOs. There’s a lot of artists, there just needs to be more CEOs, man. We need to create our own lanes and do it our way.


Well, what’s been inspiring you as a CEO or as a businessman, as opposed to as an artist?


J. Stone: Just the fact that, OK, Nip is gone now and it’s not a lot of opportunities on the West Coast or in L.A. We need more CEOs to put on a lot of the young talent, or a lot of unfamiliar talent, that we have over here. That’s what I feel like is important.


Was there a specific instance, like an ‘aha’ or a lightbulb moment, when you realized how set up the standard industry contract is? Or was that something you learned over time?


J. Stone: Over time with Nip, definitely, because he always knew things that we didn’t know. He was always ahead of himself. Even when we were younger, before we were putting out a lot of music, he already knew shit. And now that I’m learning shit, it’s familiar to me. Like when I hear certain terms, it’s all coming back to me.


With this trilogy of [The Definition of] Loyalty, Pain and now Sacrifice, there’s an unavoidable throughline of loss, and what that might mean in different forms. I wanted to ask specifically about your relationship with DMX. On “Miracles” with Styles P, you said that you flew to New York to attend X’s funeral?


J. Stone: Yeah, I had to show respect. I had to. I grew up on West Coast shit, but I love rap music, period. And X’s energy, that’s part of why I do music, part of why I talk about the struggle and the pain. So that hopefully somebody hears it, like, ‘damn man, I’ve been through that same thing. Oh, there’s somebody out there other than me that went through that.’ The song “Slippin’,” when I heard that song when I was young, and I realized that he was going through certain shit that I went through, like in and out of group homes, that shit connected with me.

We ended up developing a relationship later in his life, he definitely challenged me and put me on to a lot. Mainly, that you just can’t be afraid to show the world who you are. Some people be like a facade now. It’s a lot of facades now. Sometimes you just gotta express who you are. We all go through shit. I mean, I don’t know. It’s kinda crazy to explain, but that was my experience. A brief little summary of it.


And another song off the album, “Blue Heart,” is a particularly emotional listen.


J. Stone: I’ma give you some history behind that. I don’t think I’ve talked about this in an interview or anything.


Woooo, it’s an exclusive!


J. Stone: Yeah, yeah, exclusive, definitely. “Blue Heart,” I recorded like, five minutes after I did “The Marathon Continues.”


Oh wow.


J. Stone: Yup, I did “The Marathon Continues” and I did “Blue Heart” five minutes later. Lumidee wasn’t on it yet, it was just something I was getting off my chest, and I never put it out. I could’ve put it out on [The Definition of] Loyalty, I could’ve put it out on [The Definition of] Pain, but I didn’t. It was just a record that I held on to, for a while. I don’t know, maybe it didn’t match up right with the other songs that I had on Loyalty or Pain. Or maybe, I don’t know, it was God’s timing. I don’t know what it was bro, but I was sitting on that record and then I reached out to Lumidee. I wanted to let her know I was using the sample, you know, I wanted her blessing. And then not only did I get her blessing, I got her on the song! That’s when I felt like, ‘alright, yeah, it’s time to put this thing out.’


For folks who haven’t lost like that, or written like that, how do you go about making that song? Are you off the liquor? Are you alone or trying to surround yourself with the homies? Do you use a pen or just go in?


J. Stone: So that song, “Blue Heart,” that was just straight off the gut. No pen, no pad, just bar for bar. Just went in there, said how I felt. ‘Put the hood on the map / Yeah, we done that.’ That’s one take. Second take, ‘Travel around the world, then we come back.’ That’s another take, you know what I’m saying? It was just a feeling. And I think if I would’ve written that song, it probably wouldn’t have come out that way.


It’s interesting that you mentioned “The Marathon Continues,” where you said you engineered Nip on Mondays before he engineered you on Tuesdays, back-and-forth. That line stuck with me. Do you reflect on that time when you’re in nicer, professional, self-owned studios in 2022?


J. Stone: Yeah man. It’s crazy when you think about it though. Like where I’m at with it right now, you can just kinda hear it in my music. It’s elevation, you feel me? Like, I always had bars, you know that I always had bars, but with this, I mean bro, you can tell that melodically and sonically, you know where I’m headed with this music shit. I’m really tryna take this music shit to the next level. And I’m not just making music to make music, you know what I’m saying? Like, if you listen to the project, it sounds like I’m tryna make a stamp. And a statement.


You know, it’s a really involved album, but I gotta be honest, I think my favorite so far is just the most fun one, which is “Weekend” with Dolph.


J. Stone: That’s a fun record, I ain’t gonna lie! You can play that anywhere. It’s definitely for the summer. I’m glad everything lined up the way it was supposed to, ‘cause I wanted to put this album out before. I wanted to put this out in November, December, even top of the year but I don’t know. Here we are, summertime, and I feel like the music matches with the season. Working with Dolph, it was just amazing, bro. We was in the studio together.


It sounds like it! You had that man driving on the 101!


J. Stone: (Laughs) Everything felt right, you know what I’m sayin’?


Can you tell me a bit more about the energy that day?


J. Stone: Yeah man. I mean, shit, it was just one of them days, man. Getting in the lab with Dolph, knowing he good at what he do, I’m good at what I do, and knowing the fact that we both fuck with each other as people and as musicians. ‘Cause before you even get on a song with a person, you kinda wanna vibe with them, just to know if y’all even compatible. You don’t wanna just be doing music with people just because, you feel me? And then you get around the person, you be like, ‘damn, this motherfucker’s weird!’ We talked about life, we talked about independence, distribution and things like that. Me and Dolph used to even talk on the phone and FaceTime each other. He would ask me about my distro and if I ever needed it, he would plug me in with distribution companies and shit like that. We got in the lab and that motherfucker just clicked, right off the top.

And bro, Dolph was gassing that motherfucker, you feel me? So in my head, all I was thinking was like, ‘man, not only I’m doing this for him, I’m doing this for myself.’ It was just like, one of them days, go hard or go home. And I was on home turf, I definitely wasn’t going home! So you know, to match that level and energy that he was on, it was just awesome, bro. I’m a real lyricist bro. I feel like I can get in the booth with any rapper you feel has the best lyrics. I’m talking about from Eminem to Nas to whoever you can name that got that type of energy and them bars and that lyricism. I feel like I can hold my weight with any one of them artists. And I want the world to know that. You can put me in a booth with anybody and I guarantee you, I’ma come out swinging.


That’s refreshing to hear, because these days, it’s easier than ever to just collect the check, do the feature and DM it back.


J. Stone: Hey, I’m glad you mentioned that! Not to cut you off, but Curren$y just sent me a record, I think it was yesterday.


Woooooooo!


J. Stone: He sent it to me and was like, ‘aye, I need you to do this today. I’m finna put this out Friday.’ And then I hear it and he’s gas on the record! I’m like, ‘whoa, he wants this shit done today?!’ I’m like, ‘sheesh!’ That brought the best out of me, you feel what I’m saying? Just knowing the fact that I gotta turn it in today and I know that it’s Curren$y’s shit and he went hard on this motherfucker and it drops Friday? That was a challenge.


Man, if you’re able to spoil it, who’s on the beat for that?


J. Stone: Shit, I don’t even know man. That beat is so cold! You know, he’s from Louisiana and they specialize in that bounce. Man, I ain’t heard a bounce like that in a long time. Well I would say, I ain’t rapped on a bounce like that in a long time.


On that note, are there any sounds you’re eager to try rapping on?


J. Stone: Definitely. If they hear The Definition of Sacrifice, from top to bottom, they’ll see how versatile it is. It really can touch a lot of genres, a lot of regions. Definitely East Coast when we bring Styles out, or Jada[kiss] and Swizz [Beats] on “No Time.” I’m a LOX fan, if you can’t tell. Then West Coast for sure. South, you know I got the joint with Dolph. I even got a lil bounce with “Flashin’ Lights,” you know what I’m sayin’? Other songs and stuff like that. Then we go to Atlanta with the lil songs for the females. You know, I didn’t have songs like [“Buss it Baby”]. I wanna take that “Blue Heart” sound further, for sure. We had club drums coming in at the beginning of that! But I’m definitely trying to evolve and go beyond what I’ve already done.


If the J. Stone from five years ago ripped open this album and pressed play, how do you think he would’ve reacted?


J. Stone: (Silence) I think, sheesh, that would be the reaction! I think the younger J. Stone would be like, ‘man, you set the bar. You set the bar high on this one.’


Can you touch on how you’ve seen L.A. change during the past decade or so? We saw Nip buy back the block on Slauson and invest in STEM, but we’ve also seen wide scale gentrification in those same hoods. You rapped about grinding by Starbucks and Baskin Robbins in “On Slauson,” and I feel like a lot has changed since that song in 2013.


J. Stone: L.A. has changed as far as these neighborhoods, you know what I’m saying? They’re definitely building up in certain neighborhoods. Downtown is looking like New York. A lot more business-oriented, business-minded stuff than 5-10 years ago. But a little bit more family-friendly too. I mean, of course the gang culture is not going nowhere. I wouldn’t say it’s any change or difference with that, because that’s the culture. But as far as everything else, I just see more people wanting better. I see more opportunities in L.A. for young Black men. We was limited to things we wanted to do and what we wanted to be. Now the sky’s the limit, man. People are starting to see that and wake up and just want better for themselves.

Now, we’re being taught to not be followers. So if you following somebody, that’s gonna run you into a brick wall. We already know ain’t nobody gonna really respect you being a torpedo. A lot of people [are] starting to realize that and think for themselves. I mean, you still got a couple dummies around, but that’s just everywhere. That’s life. That’s not even in the hood. That’s Corporate America, wherever, anywhere. You always got a couple people that wanna go against the grain or that are just reckless, but you know, we’re all tempted to do things, so I can’t fault nobody, man. This is life, man, we just gotta play the game how it go.


I hear you rapping more about your Muslim faith on this album. How has that faith been tested or challenged during these past couple of really tough years?


J. Stone: Man, it’s a challenge every year, every day even. Knowing that we got somebody whispering to us, telling us, guiding us to do wrong. We got a conscience that’s telling us, ‘hey man, them people over there got you fucked up, you mad? They got you fucked up, do something about it!’ Those are challenges we gotta snap into and kinda like, fight off. I think we gotta fight our own demons off. With Ramadan recently, it helps me, you know? I fast, not only from water and food but from curse words, sex, anything potentially detrimental to my lifestyle, you feel me? Thirty days, sunup to sundown. So when that fasting is over, hopefully in my mind and my body and my soul, I still got that discipline. That’s what it’s for.


How about fatherhood? I’m sure that kinda goes 1-2 with your faith, believing in something bigger than yourself. From your own tough experiences as a kid, from getting kicked out of schools to banging around Crenshaw, how is that informing how you raise your children?


J. Stone: I definitely don’t want them following my footsteps. It’s not even the schools you put them in, ‘cause you know, there’s all kinds of shit going on at every school, you feel me? But it’s the environments you put them in. I gotta teach them that, because I didn’t make wise decisions. If I can just instill that in their head, like, ‘just make sure y’all stay in school, attend class, get good grades,’ I think everything else will connect because that’s all they really gotta do. Just be kids and go to school. Everything else is going to fall into place.


That wasn’t your case, right?


J. Stone: Nah. School was cool, until I started losing family members and shit. Then I just didn’t care for school no more. I wanted to just be in the streets and that’s what it was.


It’s summertime, damn near 90 degrees as I’m talking to you today. What did summer look like when you were a kid? Put me back in that “Summertime in that Cutlass” zone. What did South Los Angeles smell like, sound like?


J. Stone: Hold on! So this summer man, 2022, it’s summertime in that Maybach! Summertime in that Maybach, man.


Oh shit. Will we hear a version of that? I know you’d connect on that beat.


J. Stone: Hey, that would be dope. Tryna do a remix! But back in the day, as you ask me that, it was girls in Daisy Dukes, you know what I’m sayin’? (Laughs) Summertime, the public swimming pools are open. Crenshaw was lit, lowriders everywhere, the girls are out, the homies are out, we partying, just having a good time. Barbecues. Nothin’ like an L.A. summertime barbecue, you know? We don’t do that a lot no more, but that was the thing back then.


How are you on the grill?


J. Stone: I mean, you gotta think…barbecue grills are kinda easy, man! All you gotta do is put some links and some burgers on, and just watch it burn.


Do you catch yourself reflecting on your classmates, neighbors, peers or whoever didn’t see the All Money In vision? Like, you’re featured on a mixtape that was available for free download but sold for $100 a copy.


J. Stone: Motherfuckers laughed at us. They didn’t believe in us. I guess they didn’t see themselves doing nothing or getting past the hood or going further in life, so that’s probably why people were shooting our dreams down. Whenever we explained some of the little ideas or business shit that we were into, when a motherfucker said ‘you can’t do it,’ I think that they were telling themselves that they couldn’t do it, you know what I’m sayin’? But we never listened to that. It’s funny to me now. It makes me mad sometimes, but you know, I always stay positive about it, so now I just laugh.


I feel like it was a similar situation with the LAPD too, how after Nip passed, they were quoting him and mourning, while they were watching him and harassing him until his life was taken.


J. Stone: Yeah man, ‘cause it’s like, ‘bro, I thought y’all wanted us to get off the streets. I thought y’all wanted us to do something with our lives. To be successful.’ But hell no, that ain’t the case.


You were behind those walls for a while too. You’ve even got a really cinematic joint called “County Jail.” Right now, a bill was just stalled in the California state senate that would’ve made it illegal to pay prison labor wages. It’s literally legislating against “involuntary servitude” except as punishment to a crime.


J. Stone: Yeah, they was tryna make me wash dishes and all that shit, man! They had me working in a scullery and you couldn’t leave that motherfucker until every dish, every pan was scrubbed and all that. I told them, ‘fuck that!’ I wasn’t doing that shit no more, you feel me? I said ‘I’m cool, man. I quit.’ That n**** pulled out his baton, like he was about to hit me or some shit. I got extra time for that. I got extra time just for not wanting to work in that scullery no more, bro. I couldn’t do it.


I mean, how did you get through that mentally? What would you tell other people who are going through that, or have family members going through that?


J. Stone: I mean, man, how did I get through that shit? I don’t know, I guess it’s just something that you KNOW you gotta get through. It’s easier said than done, but I don’t know, not everybody can handle them situations, you know what I’m sayin’? I just feel like you gotta be strong, man.

It’s a thing where it fucks with your mental. It fucks with your spirit and it could almost cause you to quit. You can literally say ‘fuck it.’ You can literally be like, ‘I’m done. I’m done with this shit. I don’t even know how I’m gonna be able to continue.’ Like, you start questioning yourself, you start doubting. I can’t say the best way to break or snap out of that, because I’ve been dealing with that since I was young, bro. You know, my mom passed when I was three years old. Losses after losses. It’s something that I’ve been dealing with as early as I can remember.


So what’s giving you strength? What’s getting you up out of bed in the morning right now?


J. Stone: My kids. Definitely my kids. I could be having a bad day and you know, they’re gonna always put a smile on me. It’s a beautiful thing, man! ‘Cause you know, I’ve been focused on the music. I’ve been bleeding this music to the point where I don’t spend that much time with my kids. So you know, it was kind of a good thing in quarantine, just to spend that much time with them and get close with them and bond, and learn things from them.


What’s their favorite thing now, at their ages? Are they getting into music?


J. Stone: My oldest, she likes gymnastics. My oldest definitely likes gymnastics. The younger ones haven’t figured it out yet.


You’re gonna be a gymnastics dad, up in the stands?


J. Stone: Hey man, for sure! Anything my daughter wants to do, I’m supporting for sure.


Well man, thank you for the time. Is there anything I didn’t ask about, or anything on the next album in this series, [The Definition of] Success that you wanna tease?


J. Stone: Just stay in tune! I haven’t even begun thinking about that, to be honest. But as of right now, The Definition of Sacrifice is out, man. That shit is charting. Good reviews. Everybody’s liking it. They’re saying it’s better than a lot of albums that’s out, you know what I’m sayin’? So yeah man, continue to play it and stream it.


Hey, I’ll stand on that too – better than most of what’s out!


J. Stone: Man, I appreciate it. That means a lot, for real.


Maybe we’ll tap in and do a follow-up when Success eventually does drop. I’ve got the A$I logo tattooed on my arm, so I gotta say, this was a cool experience, being able to hear about your perspective and your love for hip-hop.


J. Stone: Dang, that’s wassup! And yes, come on, you already know how we’re rockin’!


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