The continuing education of producer J. Rawls

The Columbus hip-hop legend is set to release ‘Role Reversal,’ a new collaborative album recorded with DJ Rhettmatic. And he’s far from done.
DJ Rhettmatic (left) and J. Rawls
DJ Rhettmatic (left) and J. Rawls Courtesy J. Rawls

J. Rawls arrived for a late-January interview with a laptop and backpack in tow, planning to head directly from the Olde Towne East coffee shop to Ohio State, where he teaches a course on hip-hop culture. 

The producer’s continued thirst for knowledge has shaped his work both in and out of the recording studio, with his off-hours spent absorbing documentaries and his creative time focused on expanding his musical vocabulary, incorporating everything from bossa nova to house into his hip-hop-steeped compositions. Even his long-developed love of sampling is a byproduct of this drive, his repeated crate dives helping him discover acts like Thelonius Monk, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Dizzy Gillespie, among countless others.

Indeed, a new collaboration with the California-based DJ Rhettmatic, billed under the name RawlsMatic, appealed to Rawls in part because it pulled him from his comfort zone, leading him to explore “edgier” sounds on the pair’s debut, Role Reversal, out Friday, Feb. 3.

“A lot of the stuff we ended up doing together had that edgier flair, which I like to do, but it isn’t my natural tendency,” Rawls said of the partnership, which dates back nearly two decades but only recently started to take musical form. “And it became something we were excited about, because we both wanted to show our growth. People know me for the hip-hop and the jazz. And people know Rhett from the Visionaries (a Los Angeles-based underground hip-hop collective) and some of those other West Coast groups, where his stuff is more hardcore. And combining all of that together, it started to come out pretty good.”

Rawls described the path to Role Reversal as gradual, with the two becoming friends and then working to develop a musical vocabulary, first recording together “maybe 10 years ago,” with earlier tracks feeling slightly less steady than the songs the two assembled in the last couple of years, reflecting that early feeling out process.

Generally, Rawls said he would create the sample and the bassline, with Rhett adding the drums, though there were times the two switched roles (hence the album title), neither wanting the collaboration to stagnate or become predictable. Despite the geographic distance, much of the work took place with the two together in a room, Rawls traveling to Los Angeles and Rhettmatic visiting Columbus for sessions, which Rawls described as essential to the process. “Because then even when we sent things back and forth [online], we already knew what the other person was feeling and what made sense,” he said.

The mindset Rawls adopted for Role Reversal reflects the attitude he has taken with music in more recent years, drawn more toward working with longtime friends and generally in his free time, viewing music as a pleasurable escape from the pressures of daily life rather than the central tenet to his existence.

“In the past, I tried to push my music out there more, where I don’t feel I have to do that anymore,” Rawls said of his shifting motivations. “Honestly, it’s hard to find the time [to record] because I’m teaching and doing other things. So, it’s my relaxing time, where I can sit back and have fun. I don’t really feel pressure to make music anymore, because I don’t have to live off of it."

This shift is further reflected in Rawls’ evolving view of legacy – an idea so dear to the producer that he titled his 2014 album The Legacy.

“I’m not a millionaire or anything like that, but once I’m gone, I hope people say that I had some good music, some great educational theories,” said Rawls, who is also scheduled to join Rashad for a tribute to late producer J Dilla at Addella’s on Oak on Tuesday, Feb. 7. “Once you turn 40 and heading into 50, you start thinking of life differently. … And, for me, I think of my three sons, I think of my boys. What impact did I have on them? Did I inspire them? I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years. Have I inspired the students? … The music, how you lived your life, everything you did, it stays with people.”

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