SL Jones: Out of Bounds

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“I just want to maximize my opportunity. I want to win, that’s my goal. To me winning is being in a better position every time, whatever step it is. People think getting a record deal is like the end game or something but for me that’s like the beginning…”

When you think of southern hip-hop, Little Rock, Arkansas. isn’t the first place that comes to mind. With no prominent acts from the city, or even the state, it’s hard to imagine that hip-hop is thriving in the home of the Razorbacks.

Enter SL Jones, a 26-year-old rapper poised to make the latest mark on southern rap. When talking to Jones, the first thing that stands out is his southern drawl, laid back demeanor and word choice—colloquialisms that people from other regions of the country may not understand. Riding around with friends is bending corners, and talking about new experiences becomes I ain’t never. It’s all a part of the southern culture and it shows prominently in his music.

Thanks to HBO’s 1994 documentary Gang War: Bangin In Little Rock, gang violence is one of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of Little Rock.

“(Little Rock is) active, so depending on what neighborhood you was from it could get real, but for me it’s what I know.” Jones says there is much more to the city that raised him and that gangs are just another fact of life in his upbringing. “It was safe because it’s like, you know where to be and you know where not to be. I was raised in a Crip ‘hood but there’s Blood ‘hoods surrounding our whole neighborhood . . . so you just had to make sure you didn’t get caught out of bounds.”

He says growing up in a place where anything could happen at any time gave him a certain awareness about himself and his environment that is reflected in the music.

“It’s just my point of view, the perspective that I speak from,” he says, there’s certain stuff that you can’t get away from—certain lingo, certain gestures in the music, how I play on words, how I approach a topic. When I pick a topic, it may be something that’s broad (and people) may be like ‘what made him think of that?’ It’s because of the people that you grow up around, and those people influence your way of thinking . . . your way of life in general.

Jones broke onto the scene back in 2006 as part of Killer Mike’s Grind Time Rap Gang (GTRG). He lent verses to Mike’s Pledge Allegiance To The Grind I in 2006, Pledge Allegiance To The Grind II in 2008 and 2009’s Underground Atlanta. He says it was great to have the cosign of producers like DJ Burn One.

“I’m still an understudy to a certain degree, but I’m on my way,” Jones says about learning under such prominent artists. “I’m doing the right things. For people to do records with you and create art with you, they’re giving you an opportunity to show (them) what you’re made of. I’m appreciative and that’s really what I took away from it.”

Jones says the experience gained from working with artists like Killer Mike, Chamillionaire, Trae Tha Truth and The Clipse taught him the importance of building his own brand.

“No matter what, you still have to be able to stand on your own two because when that record is done, no matter what reason people heard it, realistically they’re going to hear it because of the bigger name; because they love that artist, so they’re willing to press play. It’s your job to make them love you too and not just skip to the verses that they like.”

During his time with GTRG Jones also started working for himself. He released his first solo project in 2009—a mixtape, aptly titled C.O.L.O.R.S: Bangin on Wax, was a homage to his Arkansas upbringing and the realities of growing up around the gang culture there.

In 2011 Jones struck out on his own releasing four mixtapes, most notably #23, which was hosted by legendary DJ and producer Don Cannon. In 2012 he teamed up with DJ Burn One for the critically acclaimed Paraphernalia mixtape.

Jones says working with a variety of producers allows him to push the boundaries of his creativity.

“Music is so saturated. Once upon a time you could fit in but now you really gotta stand out. I know from a creative standpoint, I be all over the place. I know that one of my jobs in music is to push the line creatively and just challenge listeners. When I go in with a producer, I’m not trying to make a certain kind of song with them. I’m not like ‘yo, let’s make a trap song.’ We go in and we just start working and whatever comes out, comes out.”

Pushing the boundaries of his music has brought Jones some criticism from fans and media outlets alike. Many reviews bemoaned Jones’ new direction on his most recent mixtape Way of Life, No Hobby. Critics claim he’s changed since the gang influenced, hard-edged sound of #23, and the more laid back, southernplayalistic funk sound of Paraphernalia. Jones, however, insists exploring different sounds, themes and flows is all a part of his journey, both as a person and an artist.

“I was prepared for (the reviews), I didn’t even read any of the critiques because I knew they weren’t listening to the project for what it was, they were listening to the project for what it wasn’t,” he says of Way of Life. “You can’t judge this project based on how much you loved Paraphernalia. That’s not fair to this project because it’s not Paraphernalia. If you lookin’ for that artist that makes the same song over and over . . . they done gave you four tapes of the same song—I’m not gonna say their names but they’re out there. You can go to their tape and every tape you play, they just re-looping the same struggle raps. They don’t give you no update on where they are.”

Jones is determined to continually take risks in his music and take his fans with him as he evolves. “Me, I might be going through shit, I’m going through a lot,” he says. “I’ma tell you about it, and the beat may change, but the words are still going to be relevant to where I am.”

As an up and coming rapper in the classic Trap genre, he views the term Trap as an acronym that fits his musical style: “Taking Risks and Profiting.” He interprets this as doing music on his own terms and preparing for future success by working hard day in and day out.

“I just want to maximize my opportunity. I want to win, that’s my goal. To me winning is being in a better position every time, whatever step it is. People think getting a record deal is like the end game or something but for me that’s like the beginning. I need to max out everything I’m doing now before I just accept a deal. Let me make sure everything that I have is already in order.

Jones says for now his next move will be continuing to hone his craft and reaching out to work with different producers to broaden his sound even more.

“I’ve got my own relationships with producers, we get in, we workin. At this point I’m gettin’ my catalogue up. I’m back in the studio, I’m back workin, we still running around doing shows on the road. We’re out here getting’ it, but at the same time setting it up for what the next move is.”

In addition to reuniting with DJ Burn One, he also plans on working with Childish Major, an opportunity he is clearly excited about.

“His production is going to make for some interesting shit too. He’s got some crazy records with Jeezy and of course you know the shit he got with Future and all the other artists that he’s worked with. He’s got range. I like letting producers pick the direction because that helps me stay creative. If I pick the beats, it’s always basically gonna feel the same, to be honest, because there’s just certain kind of shit I like. When they pick it, it may be something I wouldn’t have picked, but it’s dope.”

Look for the Jones to continue to push the limits sonically with his next project, and whatever you do . . . don’t make the mistake of comparing the present SL Jones to the artist on his previous project. He’s probably already slipped past you.

The Mixx Magazine Guest Writer Section. Where creative thinking is turned into words.