A talented hip hop producer from Chicago, J. Slikk is one of the most ambitious people in this business I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Having a vision is one thing, but having the drive to make it happen is another. And J. Slikk has drive.
A couple weeks ago I had the chance to see him perform with R.O.E. and The Soulvillians at Duffy’s Tavern in Lincoln, Nebraska. Read my review of the show, and then sit down and get to know J. Slikk.
Editor’s note: After taking a hiatus from local journalists and radio interviews due to “vulgar” commentary and small-minded views (like bashing interracial dating and his work in and support of the LGBT community), this is J. Slikk’s first interview in two years.
Meet J. Slikk
Say Hey There: At 29, you’ve been in the game for a long time, almost 15 years. Can you talk a little about the accomplishments you’re most proud of and where you are now?
J. Slikk: Just getting the opportunity to get my foot in the door. There’s a DJ here in Chicago by the name of DJ Sean Doe. At that point in time he was with this collective by the name of All Natural Inc. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me do things that were far beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. He’s been my mentor ever since. Under his suggestion, I started going to local shows. I met a lot of big name local artists and started working with them.
I worked my way to North Carolina and worked with a lot of artists there. Especially Cyrano Sinatro. We put out an album called Soul Train Dancer: A Tribute to Rosie Perez. That right there was by far one of my biggest accomplishments because it got international attention. You can’t really pay for things like that.
“That right there was by far one of my biggest accomplishments because it got international attention. You can’t really pay for things like that.”
One of the first instrumental albums I created was called Separation Anxiety. I was engaged years ago and broke it off, but before that we went on a hiatus to figure out if we really wanted to be together longterm. It was a huge event in my life at that time, and I took all that sadness and sorrow and turned it into creative energy and made an entire instrumental LP in the span of four days. I used to be really good at that, but somehow I lost my way. I figured out the key was just going back to the basics, so I committed myself to doing that at the beginning of this year.
After a few years of personal loss and tragedy. I’m just looking to put my heart and passion into everything I do. I haven’t really made much noise in the past few years, minus a couple beat tapes. It’s not a comeback, but it still kinda feels that way.
“It’s not a comeback, but it still kinda feels that way.”
Say Hey There: What are you working on right now?
J. Slikk: R.O.E. and I are putting the finishing touches on Road to Happiness. That should be out this spring.
It started when R.O.E. called me and asked me to do something that sounds like this, this, and this. There was a particular sound he was looking for, and I’m good at matching what he wants. I wanted to sit down and sample this Rhodes keyboard from this 45 I had in my collection, but the vinyl was too gritty and I couldn’t get a clear sample, so I pulled out a keyboard and emulated what I was hearing and tweaked the melody to go where I wanted. You could really feel the pain and sadness that I was going through at the beginning of this year. It was the weirdest thing, when I made that, it took me back to the fall of 2008 when I did Separation Anxiety, and it just sparked something in me to the point where I felt just a little bit different after I got done doing it. A little bit better.
I literally did that beat in ten minutes. It’s like Separation Anxiety only five years later. Kind of like that controversial Nike / Tiger Woods commercial ad years ago where at the end his dad (post-mortem) says something like, “All this time later, what have you learned?” That beat was kind of like my Tiger Woods moment if you will, and I can’t wait for people to hear whatever R.O.E. does with it, because it’s going to tug at people’s heartstrings. The beat builds, there are no drums until the first hook, and it rises in emotion. In the second verse there’s this moment where the keys go an octave higher, and that’s supposed to me sitting there having a moment of clarity, realizing where I’ve been, what I’ve gone through, and what I have to do moving forward. So even though it sounds like the same melody, the beat gets sunnier and sunnier and sunnier until it eventually ends. I don’t make hip hop just to make hip hop. I make art just as much.
“In the second verse there’s this moment where the keys go an octave higher, and that’s supposed to me sitting there having a moment of clarity, realizing where I’ve been, what I’ve gone through, and what I have to do moving forward.”
My mixtape, Fifty Shades of Jay, will be out this spring as well, and I’m officially announcing my intentions to do Separation Anxiety 2. It will be my final instrumental LP.
Then there’s the concept album I’m working on. It’s my most ambitious project yet. It’s a concept album. You sit down and think not like you’re creating a hip hop compilation but like you’re writing a musical and casting the parts to tell your story. I want to take the various artists I’ve worked with over the years and use their voices to paint the picture and get emotion out of the listener via the beats. The artists will tell my story but in their own way, by conjuring up lyrics based on how the beat feels to them.
Say Hey There: So how do you do that, get other people to tell your story? Do you have a timeline or storyboard that you will give them that walks them through various milestones in your life? Or do they just know you well enough to know the message you’re trying to convey?
J. Slikk: Mikala, that’s a great question. It’s actually none of the above, and that’s what I love about it. Whatever the beat makes them feel, I’m going to encourage them to go with that. And then I’ll build up around it and paint a picture with whatever instruments I need to garner that emotion. I’m going to match the perfect artist with the perfect beat for them and use their voices where they best fit.
I might use certain things in unconventional ways. I’ve been even discussing putting a trap rapper on a track with an underground conscious rapper and have them battle back and forth as a way of describing confusion and frustration. To achieve the soundscapes I’m looking for, I plan on incorporating elements from outside of boom bap. Elements from trap, techno, industrial, EDM, house, rock, and everything around me.
I don’t want to just make music anymore. I want to make art. Synesthesia is something I’ve been happily afflicted with my entire career; the ability to see sounds. I want to make something where you see them and feel them, and the whole experience takes you on a ride.
“I want to make something where you see them and feel them, and the whole experience takes you on a ride.”
Say Hey There: That sounds like a really exciting project.
J. Slikk: Yeah. To be honest, I just became disenchanted with hip hop today. We as underground hip hop artists complain about the mainstream, and one of the most repetitive phrases I hear is, “Everything on the radio sounds the same.” At some point, we got so focused on the mainstream sounding repetitive that underground hip hop started developing repetition. I’m sick and tired of the same old boom bap record. I listen to a certain Spotify playlist and it seems like it’s all the same samples, beats, and brakes. I’m guilty enough of contributing to that, but I’m stepping outside my comfort zone to break out of that and I’m never going back.
“At some point, we got so focused on the mainstream sounding repetitive that that underground hip hop started developing repetition.”
J. Slikk: Yeah, it’s all stereotypes to me now. I debate back and forth with my best friend about the state of hip hop. He listens to old school songs from the early 90s; if there’s any 90s artists that have mixtapes out now, he’ll go out and download them. And I commend him for that. He’s my brother and I love him to death, but even that stuff starts to sound repetitive. And he gets on me because I’ll be sitting there listening to trap music or drill music, and I’ll just be zonin’. And truth be told, I’m not a lyrical person because I’m not a rapper, my thing is beats. I want to listen to anything that just catches my attention and makes me nod my head. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s being open-minded.
The concept of taking elements from trap, EDM, industrial house, and heavy metal and finding a way to bring those all to a boom bap-ish flavor, that’s the biggest challenge that I see moving forward, and mark my words, I’m going to find a way to do it somehow.
“And truth be told, I’m not a lyrical person because I’m not a rapper, my thing is beats. I want to listen to anything that just catches my attention and makes me nod my head. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s being open-minded.”
CyHi the Prynce just released his Black Hystori Project mixtape, and that’s right along the vein of what I’m talking about. I don’t want to say he beat me to it, but he damn near beat me to it. That project is a very influential, crucial project moving forward and, honestly, he’s a lock for mixtape of the year right now.
Say Hey There: Wow, I’m going to have to check that out. Have you started working on yours?
J. Slikk: I’ve done one beat for it. Other than that, I’ve just been hitting record stores like crazy, trying to find vinyls that I wouldn’t normally use. I’ll sit here for hours and listen to Spotify and go to whatever artist they recommend off that and discover new things. Discover different techniques other genres are using and take notes. I was always a big fan of Coldplay’s chord progression, I want to try to bring more of that into hip hop today.
People are afraid to venture out and grab elements of other genres and bring them in with the fear of being scrutinized. If I can be a catalyst for change as far as this conversation, I’m willing to start that conversation or be scrutinized for it, I really have nothing to lose right now.
“People are afraid to venture out and grab elements of other genres and bring them in with the fear of being scrutinized.”
Say Hey There: I’ll challenge that. While I agree with that and think that innovation has always and will continue to propel hip hop, there are some hip hop artists out there who are venturing too far into these sub genres and still calling themselves hip hop when at the end of the day, it doesn’t sound like hip hop anymore. And then young fans who don’t know the history think that’s what hip hop is, and I want to push a couple old school records in front of their faces and say “Listen to this.”
J. Slikk: I agree with you. Absolutely. Especially if you go back and listen to Cyrano Sinatra’s Tribute to Rosie Perez, the challenge within that album with me was to prove that a Golden Era album could still be relevant today. If you listen to it, a lot of the songs pay homage to Pete Rock, CL Smooth, and Gang Starr, because that’s what we were compared to coming up.
But a lot of my colleagues and I believe that if we’re not evolving from one album to the next then the genre is completely stagnant. I like to believe that I can push the envelope to what is conceptual, what people believe is out there. I love this music so much to the point that if I feel deep down in my heart that there’s something wrong with it, I’m going to sit down and figure out a way to change it. And I’m going to change it, period.
“I love this music so much to the point that if I feel deep down in my heart that there’s something wrong with it, I’m going to sit down and figure out a way to change it.”
Say Hey There: So why do you think people are so afraid to push the envelope?
J. Slikk: You ever seen the movie Cool Runnings?
Say Hey There: Oh yeah. With the icicle dread? That’s my favorite part.
J. Slikk: (Laughs.) Exactly. There’s one prominent quote that came out of that. The one guy says, “Why are they making fun of us?” And Malik Yoba replies, “Because you’re different.” People fear anything that’s different and they fear change even more.
Say Hey There: In addition to your album, you have a bunch of other projects you’re working on. Can you talk about some of those?
J. Slikk: I’ve designed the artwork for a handful of albums I’ve produced. I executive produce a lot of projects and I’m looking to do more. I’m currently designing special-tailored hoodies to contribute to the fashion world. I’ve always been intrigued by fashion and have had designs drawn for ten years now and I’m finally getting the chance to create in that regard.
I’m doing the theme songs for two different Comedy Central pilots, one that just got the green light called Broad City. I’m writing the storyboard for a short film that I’m hoping to have shot by next year for indie film festival season. I’m trying to get a children’s book I wrote about self-confidence published. I’m designing a screen-projected visual for the concert-going experience that reacts to the music and speech of the artist performing. A prototype should be done by the time R.O.E. and I head back out on tour. All this while still focusing on the music.
Say Hey There: That’s more than most people are comfortable just jotting down on a to-do list. Do you ever feel like you’re too ambitious?
J. Slikk: The workloads don’t even bother me. The one thing that is the truest joy to me is to create. The hoodies aren’t just for hip hop. The one thing we do have to get away from is the whole urban clothing thing. This is for anyone who wants to wear them. The children’s book is pretty much done. It comes from a place in my heart. I can come off as arrogant, but that’s not where my head is. My parents raised me to be self-confident and the best that I can possibly be. And the only way that you can be the best that you can possibly be, is if you know you’re already the best before you enter anything that you do.
Kids make fun of kids and bully kids all the time, but the way to solve that isn’t to slap a kid on the wrist and tell him not to bully anymore, it’s for that other kid to have that confidence instilled in him from day one. So the way I see it, a children’s book about self-confidence is essential; if I can contribute to that cause, I am one hundred percent onboard.
“And the only way that you can be the best that you can possibly be, is if you know you’re already the best before you enter anything that you do.”
Say Hey There: For those who haven’t heard your work yet, can you recommend three songs you’ve produced that represent the range of your sound?
J. Slikk: That’s a tough question. “Revive” with R.O.E. is one. Another is “Full Circle” by Cyrano Sinatra featuring Sharp and rapper Big Pooh. And then “CeleBROtte” by Cyrano Sinatra featuring The Primeridian.
Say Hey There: I’m glad I got to see you perform, because you surprised me. You have this animated energy onstage, as opposed to many DJs I see who prefer just monitoring their equipment in the background. Can you talk a little about performing and your style?
J. Slikk: It started with beat battles. After a couple years of losing when I obviously had more talent than most of the producers I was facing, I had an epiphany. Sometimes you need a little bit extra. You’re not going to win just by playing the dopest beats. That’s where I developed this idea where the producer or DJ has to do probably as much as the emcee if the crowd isn’t participatory.
After Summerfest one night back in ’07, I walked into this after party where Questlove was DJing. The crowd was less than responsive. Noticing that, he cut the record off. I mean completely scratched it off, and then he was like, “May I have your attention please? Wake the fuck up, hip hop is not a spectator sport.”
“…and then he was like, ‘May I have your attention please? Wake the fuck up, hip hop is not a spectator sport.'”
From that day forward, I started developing little tactics. For this beat battle I did at the Shrine here in Chicago back in April of 201,2 I made a beat where I sampled Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and I ordered this rhinestone glove off eBay. For the first round of the battle, I put that beat on along with the rhinestone glove on and started dancing like Michael and doing the moonwalk and stuff. And what would happen is, even if this beat wasn’t good enough, it still propelled me to the next round. If there were girls standing out in front of the stage, I’d be flirting with them. If anyone was hollering at the stage, I’d listen to what they’d say and shout back out at them and get the crowd into it. If it’s about crowd participation, I’m going to get the crowd on my side by any means necessary. That’s rule number one of being an entertainer on stage.
“If it’s about crowd participation, I’m going to get the crowd on my side by any means necessary. That’s rule number one of being an entertainer on stage.”
A couple years ago when I did The Shrine battle, I pulled out all the stops and still lost into the finals by this guy from North Carolina named Ki of NC, and he was the best man to win that night honestly. And I want him to read this and know I still feel he was the best producer that night. But I did everything I possibly could to get everybody in the crowd on my side. I just fell short.
I believe in not only sitting there on the 1s and 2s and queueing up a track and helping the band remember what song is next, but also being just as much as a showman onstage as the guy with the microphone, because at the end of the day, I know whatever he’s going to miss I’m going to catch, and it’s going to make the show that much more exciting.
If I’ve gotta do cartwheels across the stage while R.O.E.’s doing the Roger Rabbit dance, I have no problem doing that. Just so I can get you to dance or move your hands or even laugh during the show. Being the background showman, I want you to enjoy the entire experience. I’m just a fan that they let get a little too close to the stage one day. I know what I’d want in a show and I’m happy to work with my friends and collaborators to bring that experience to you. There’s nothing I love more than the fans. Whether it’s my fans, R.O.E.’s, or Cyrano’s, I’m just grateful and I will always give 110% for them.
“I’m just a fan they let get a little too close to the stage one day.”
Say Hey There: It contributes to the whole good vibes thing you guys have got going for you.
J. Slikk: Absolutely. We’re on the Road to Happiness.
Say Hey There: Besides R.O.E., who are some of your favorite underground rappers from Chicago?
J. Slikk: Rashid Hadee is one of my all-time favorites. Thaione Davis. Abstract Mind. Adad. Cap D. The Molemen. The Primeridian. Astonish. Decay. Dee Jackson is one of my favorites as well and he’s also part of a group called The 80s Babies with a producer by the name of Tall Black Guy who a lot of people have heard of. He’s one of my friends, and in some ways I have a friendly rivalry with him. And it’s not just him. That goes with a lot of producers in Chicago. That kind of competition keeps me going.
Neak. Add-2, who just got signed by 9th wonder. The Future Freshmen, Ibn Inglor, huge fan of his. Vic Mensa. The Highest Low, they’re a really dope group. Chance the Rapper, although he’s not really underground anymore. If it’s about Chicago hip hop or R&B, especially the underground, I check for all of it. And just because I don’t talk to you doesn’t mean I’m not listening. I’m always listening and eventually I will make that phone call when the time is right.
J. Slikk: I’ve always been very charming and cunning and outgoing. I have a very effervescent personality and it usually wins me a few awards, figuratively speaking. When I started rapping it was at this time when everybody was calling themselves young this and lil that. I got the nickname “Slick” from my uncle because I was always conning my way out of trouble from a very early age. So I took that and started going by Yung Slikk. People from high school still call me that. When I ended up going to college I was transitioning into making beats and wanted to start focusing on that and I decided to just go from Yung Slikk to being Just Slikk, but I took off the “u, s, t” so it was spelled and pronounced J. Slikk. Then when people asked me what the “J” stood for I’d say it can stand for whatever you want it to stand for, it’s Just Slikk.
“I’ve always been very charming and cunning and outgoing. I have a very effervescent personality and it usually wins me a few awards, figuratively speaking.”
Say Hey There: It’s been awhile since you’ve spoken publicly, is there anything else you want to say to readers?
J. Slikk: One of the biggest things is, to everyone who has supported the movement, whether it’s R.O.E. and The Soulvillians or Backpackers Anonymous, from the bottom of my heart, I appreciate it. Anyone who’s supported me musically and given me compliments about my music, I appreciate the love, every second of it. Whatever close family and friends I have left, and they know who they are, God bless them and I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. When I really needed them earlier this year, they were there. They and the fans are the reason I get up and do work every day.
I was mostly raised in the Wheeling-Buffalo Grove area right outside Chicago. But, seeing as I’m originally from the Southside, I’ll quote a Kanye catchphrase from the College Dropout days: “To everybody that supported, whether you’re friends and family or music supporters, thank you very much. For those of you who didn’t or fell short or those who think they did but are kidding themselves, thank you very little.”
Catch J. Slikk with R.O.E. and The Soulvillians this Friday at the Double Door in Chicago and on tour this spring as they promote “Road to Happiness.”