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Lyric Jones Raps Better Than Your Favorite MC

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For our latest First Look Friday, we talked to Lyric Jones, who spoke about her career path, lyricism in modern-day hip-hop, the role Phonte played on her new album, and more.

“‘Tay said it takes 10 years to pop overnight.”

If this line is true, it means Lyric Jones is ahead of schedule. For eight years, Jones has built up a respectable career as a world-class MC. Even if mainstream recognition wasn’t always there, her skills were still respected. MCs knew about her. Throughout the years, while sporadically releasing music, she would collaborate with the likes of Guilty Simpsons and Phife Dawg; pick up co-signs from Rah Digga; perform with the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Elzhi, and Robert Glasper; and rip down Sway in the Morning multiple times.

And yet, this year Jones is seeing momentum like she’s never seen before. Last, fall she attended Little Brother’s May the Lord Watch tour in LA. Backstage she ran into Phonte. The two were familiar with each other; they met more than a decade earlier in Atlanta. The two had acquaintances in common and Phonte was a fan Jones’ just-released Gas Mask EP.

That initial meeting happened in November 2019. By February the two were working together. With the guidance of Phonte, Jones started crafting Closer Than they Appear, Jones’ third official album. Released in October, the album is excellent and carried by Jones, a highly-skilled, cool MC who rarely raises her voice, sneaking metaphors right by you.

Phonte is an executive producer on the album and the album is indebted to Little Brother. Like the LB, Lyric Jones knows how to expertly mix craft and levity. Listening to Closer Than they Appear, you can sit with the lyrics or you could sort of just two-step. It’s up to you. 

Lyric Jones is a traditionist but her music does not sound dated. Nor does she ever come off as sour about where hip-hop is now. She just has respect for the art of MCing. What makes her different from other MCs — even gifted ones — is that she takes a studious view to rapping. (While talking to her, she casually namedrops technicians like Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch as rappers she admires.) She is an educator who teaches a class at where Hollywood where she teaches “mostly international kids” things all hip-hop fans should know about — like the four elements.

For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with Lyric Jones who spoke about her career path, lyricism in modern-day hip-hop, the role Phonte played on her new album, and more. Check it out below. 

How much planning goes into making an album, or are you just more of someone who just records all the time and just works from there?

Well, this album was drastically different because it was executive produced by Phonte. I’ve never had any albums that I put out executive produced by anybody else. So, everything about it was different, every last thing. So, from discussing the beat process and what songs we were going to do. It was constantly a partnership. Everything that comes into putting a song together from the intro, to the verses, to the content, to the bars, to the hooks, the melodies, to the mixing, to the personnel on the project all had to be a process between us both.

This was a very unprecedented year. So, there was a lot of heavy stuff going on that impacted my content and what everything is about. Nothing was normal. I can’t really give you a cookie cutter. Like, “This is the normal process.” Because nothing about this year or putting music together really was normal because of the circumstances with COVID and the racial tensions in the world, and the music industry stopping. Nobody’s performing, I have no shows. So, it’s been a lot of different elements into it. So, everything you could think of that comes with the beginning and end of putting a song and album together was different for me.

You said you’ve never had really like an executive producer help out with an album. What was your expectations on working with Phonte?

The good thing is I had no expectations. I never even had the idea of an executive producer in my head because I’ve never had that proposed to me. So, I was very open, it was Phonte’s idea to really amplify me in that way. He saw me as a clay, in a way, where he wanted to mold something that people would be more willing to hear and put me in a bigger light. I was a blank canvas and was ready to experience the good, the bad, the energy of just creating with another person, of course, one of my favorite artists ever. That was definitely a great experience and a learning experience for me too.

Your first official project was in 2012. Can you give me some background of what the seven years was like? How would you describe that period?

Very networky, I would say. I did a lot of festivals and I put a lot of my own events together from Atlanta to LA. I’ve moved a couple of times since that album. Well, just once, I moved from Atlanta to LA. So, it was a big transition because I put a lot of groundwork in the Atlanta scene. Then, I’m developing from 2012.  So now I put out several projects as well and got acclimated with the LA scene. So, that eight-year time period is really my LA chapter. A lot of that was just transitioning and adulting, which is a song that’s on Gas Money.

I was in my 20s, so I’m just dealing with a lot of getting to know the LA scene, the people here, and then also just life in general, building friendships, and trying to maintain some type of income. LA is very expensive. So, my life was very balanced with just the walls of just trying to deal with adulthood, but also like trying to deal with being an up-and-coming artist. But there were some highlights, of course. I did Sway three times. I put my own tour together with Rah Digga. I went on tour with Cali Agents. I’ve been overseas and then met tons of celebrities and had a lot of experiences.

Would you describe it as times that you enjoyed? How would you describe it?

Oh, yeah, mainly tough, mainly tough, because I’m out here in LA by myself. Then, when you’re grinding to get to where you’re trying to be, it’s not easy. So, definitely tough. But the moments of triumph — we’re going on tour, going overseas, my interactions, and meeting some of my favorites — those were definitely some highlights. Of course, every day of my life wasn’t a struggle. There were smiles, of course. But definitely a challenging period, I would say, because you’re on the come up. You’re trying to get recognized amongst peers.

Then, you feel like you should be at a certain level for all the work you put in. It was challenging because people definitely want a certain type of MC, or a certain type of look, or whatever the industry wants. When you’re an individual and you go against the grain, that’s always difficult.

Can you expand on that idea?

Yeah. It’s the mainstream. You know the music industry. You know what the mainstream industry wants and you know what they expect, the sound. It’s very sexualized. It’s very one dimensional. So it’s hard to break through when you have a certain voice and especially when you’re by yourself and you just hold your own. It’s hard to push through when you don’t have a manager, when you don’t have a big machine behind you. That’s everybody’s story.

It’s hard to break through when you’re an individual and you don’t fit into a box. That’s another common thing that. On top of that, being a black woman in hip hop and having a certain stance on really championing lyricism and quality content, anybody who presses play on me off top can know that I’m not like everybody else. I’m not what the machines are pushing. So, yeah, that goes hand in hand with everybody. If you’re an individual and you don’t have a big machine behind you and you’re by yourself, it’s very challenging.

Do you feel like lyricism isn’t celebrated in in 2020?

It’s definitely making its rounds again, but on a mainstream level, like on the charts, not necessarily, I don’t think. There’s way more love for respected lyricism as far as conversations now. But it’s still not reflected in numbers as we used to see it in the ’90s and 2000s. You would see the people that would get the love in these conversations also resemble charts and Grammy’s and all those things, too.

Photo Credit: John Benneche

I’m interested, what do you think makes you such a strong MC? What do you feel like your strengths are?

I would say my biggest strength is that I’m constantly a student. I guess that’s why I’m a teacher now. I teach hip hop at Musicians Institute here in Hollywood. I’m a rap techniques professor. But unlike many of my peers, I really dig deep in the culture. I know a lot of history and I constantly study music. I have a jazz background. I have a music background. I play drums. I sing like I’m an actual jazz-trained vocalist. So, all those things I apply to my musicianship, whereas a lot of people that are in the mainstream right now… can care less about the history or foundation of hip-hop or music in general.

They just put words together. I’m very skilled. I hold technique very highly. So, I’m big on how I put my words together — flow, pocket, wordplay, and double entendres I hold very highly. We see that a lot in the battle scene. We saw that a lot in the ’90s. But now it’s rare. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Whereas back in the day, it wasn’t really a surprise. It was the standard. Now, that’s flipped, it’s a surprise and a refreshing thing to see somebody who’s skilled now. It’s like, “Whoa, she can spit.”

What is being a rap technician professor like?

Not a rap technician. I teach rap technique, but I also teach a slew of other things. I teach songwriting. I teach performance. I teach artist development. So, it’s a bunch of things I teach there, but primarily my title is basically the hip-hop umbrella at MI. So, along with all those things that I listed, I teach those. But specifically for rap techniques, I teach the history of hip hop because there are kids who come there who have no idea about the four elements of hip-hop.

I teach a lot about the evolution of the sound of hip hop from the ’70s all the way to today. I just teach about being an MC, being able to move the crowd, delivery, flow, being in the pocket, and commercialized hip-hop versus what the sound is of your own intricate fan base. So, I teach those things and I educate my students on why that makes them who they are and what makes them unique in their individual ways.

Your average student they aspiring rappers or are they sort of looking at it academically?

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I think the average student is just curious. I’ve had a couple of students that are trying to play with the idea of rapping, but not anybody who’s necessarily taking it as serious as how I did when I was 17, 18, 19 years old. I think people were just curious in the class, it’s an elective. So, it’s not like a minor or major where I would probably get students who would be trying to hit the pavement. They’re just curious about rapping, and if they could play around with it, if they can learn how to rap and perform.

All right. So, I want to talk a little bit about Closer Than They Appear. What I find really interesting is that you start the album in a very political kind of way before diverting. Why?

I don’t think I thought about it that deeply. I knew that I wanted to speak about how I was feeling in the moment.. As people hear,  I’m not coming at it from a preachy perspective and just a whole lot of performative Black Lives Matter jargon. It’s really personal. It’s really kind of, “here I am, a black woman in 2020 dealing with a lot of things that are pulling me in different directions.” I live alone. I’m by myself. I’m also trying to figure out what’s next with my career. I’m also fearing my life as a black woman.

I’m also looking at politics right now, looking at coronavirus, and what’s next with that. It’s a lot of things in our heads. As creatives, it’s hard to talk about those things. Well, it can be difficult for some to talk about those things from a very authentic place without it being redundant of what we already know. We already know what’s going on. What am I going to say that’s unique that a lot of people can relate to. My goal as an artist is always to give room for other people to see themselves in my music. Or else, what are you doing this for?

You might as well just keep it on your laptop or your phone. You know what I mean? You got to give room for the listener to feel like there’s a place of your story in them and vice versa. So, I just want it to be very transparent and address the elephant in the room before I just start talking about love or whatever, you know what I mean? To me, it’s insensitive and it’s just tone-deaf to not be very transparent about what’s happening if you’re going to put out a whole album in 2020. That’s me as an artist and my fans know that’s me as an artist.

The first official single, “Show You How,” was much more lighthearted. How would you describe that song?

Yeah, it was this another example of wordplay. I’m a woman, so I wanted to talk about women things — whether it’s sexual, or love, or relationships. That was definitely a little bit edgier — for lack of better terms — because it wasn’t edgy at all, considering what you hear today. But the reason why it’s not as edgy is because it’s implying things. It’s like, I miss when people used to play with words and imply things. When it was about sex or relationships with a man or a woman.

Your kid can sing along to the chorus and not really understand where we’re coming from unless they’re either older and are breaking down the lyrics. That’s how I remember coming up in the early ’90s, like singing along to some of my favorite songs and then, later on, going, “Oh, that’s what they meant!”

What’s the next sort of year look like for you?

One day at a time because we were in the year of the ‘rona. So, I’ve actually stopped with the, “Oh, 2022, I’m going to do this, 2023, I’m going to do that.” Because that’s what we did for 2020 and look what happened. I don’t know what [2021] will look like, but the goal is to hopefully get back on a stage and get on bigger platforms to continue to push the album as long as I can. I’m not in a rush to put out anything new. I’m not in a rush to smother this flame of what’s been going on.

What was being on Sesame Street like?

It was dope. I was a kid that grew up on Sesame Street like most of us. So, it’s cool to think about all the generations that have seen Sesame Street or came up with Sesame Street. To know that there’s going to be a two-year-old who’s going to know my voice as a rapping hamburger is a cool idea because I remember being two, three years old watching Sesame Street.