With his album New Blood about to drop (October 11th), here is an exclusive for The Huffington Post by Peter Gabriel performing the song "In Your Eyes."
A Conversation with J. Cole
Mike Ragogna: How are you doing, Cole?
J. Cole: I'm excellent. How are you doing, brother?
MR: Excellent. You have a new album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. Let's get into that title.
JC: The title is a Tupac title, actually. The Cole World, I guess is basically saying, "Don't expect to get treated friendly because anything is liable to happen." So, that's the Cole World part, and my fans really gravitate towards that. The Sideline Story is more like a chapter of the story that we're in. People that follow me know I kind of use these basketball analogies. So, in that analogy, right now we've made the team, but the problem is that we're just sitting on the bench and we never get in the game. It's like your parents are in the crowd, they come to every game, but you never play. The Sideline Story is my struggle to get in the game, aka, put out an album.
MR: That's great, man. Vibe magazine says that you're one of the top five rappers under thirty years old in the country, and the BET Awards nominated you for best new artist. I have to ask you, with that kind of acknowledgment already, and given the spirit of your first album, do you feel a kind of responsibility to further that message yourself?
JC: Yeah, I mean, I do. I had plans of always being the best--that was just the thing I always wanted to be, and I still do. I'm a natural competitor, so even when I succeed and people congratulate me, I always feel behind the curve. I always feel like I have more work to do because somebody out there doesn't know about me. That's my goal, to a) get better, and b) get bigger.
MR: Right, and the bigger picture is that you may have some of it done, but you've got to keep it going.
JC: Absolutely, and that's how I live my life. I'm never satisfied, I'm never content, and I always feel like there's something that could be improved upon.
MR: Nice. Now, in your video for "Can't Get Enough," you feature Trey Songz--who's also on the recording--and you also have Rihanna showing up.
JC: Yeah, Rihanna's in the video, and that's because we shot it in Barbados, which is her home country. So, it was only right that she came to represent her country.
MR: It's also cool because you were also on tour with her a while back, right?
JC: Absolutely. I was opening up on the Rihanna: Live tour this summer, which was just a great experience for me.
MR: Looking at some of the other guests on this record, you've got Jay-Z--one of the people that played an important role in you getting discovered, right?
JC: Yeah, absolutely. I'm signed to Jay-Z's label Roc Nation. Mark Pitts is my manager--at the time he wasn't my manager--and he played this song I had called "Lights Please" for Jay-Z. Jay-Z heard the song and was like, "Man, get me this kid." Sure enough, I had a meeting with him. By the way, I had been working for years before that, just to get in the door--that's my whole story, just the struggle to get noticed in this game. When it all was said and done, I finally did catch a break, and it's Jay-Z that I caught it with.
MR: You've also have Drake and Missy Elliott on this album.
JC: That's right.
MR: Cole, you're friends with everybody, and you've been on so many hit records.
JC: You know what? I've been blessed to have all these people enjoy my music. I only got four features on the album, and to be able to get a Missy Elliott feature was really incredible for me.
MR: Looking at the way that you've been releasing music over the past few years, you've been pretty creative with things like the "Simba" series, which I thought was a pretty cool concept. Can you go into what motivates these different kinds of projects?
JC: I like connecting themes, so the first Simba song I had was like, "I can't wait to be king...young Simba." So, I just took that metaphor of Simba knowing that one day he was going to be king. The second one was just continuing on those feelings of what is meaningful. I've got another series called "Dollar And A Dream." My album Cole World: The Sideline Story starts with a song called "Dollar And A Dream III" so, people who don't know about me will be like, "Whoa, 'Dollar And A Dream III'? Where's I and II? I thought this was his first album." That will force them to go back and do some homework and do their research. My fans connect instantly because they've been there from day one, and they know about I and II. So, it's cool for the fans to connect with.
MR: Yeah, and, of course, your fans would know you from your great mix tapes like, The Warmup and Friday Night Lights.
JC: Absolutely, that's what they know me from. That's the whole reason I am what I am now, and the reason that I could even put out an album right now. I don't have a smash radio hit right now. I'm really just putting out an album on the basis of my fans and my followers, which comes from those mix tapes and touring for the last couple of years.
MR: Cole, another cool thing is that you offered free downloads with your Any Given Sunday series. That must have been very fulfilling, to give your fans something back?
JC: Yeah, absolutely. I knew my fans had been waiting for a long time, and I know they get antsy, so doing that was really just trying to give them something to hold them over 'til the album. I'm connected with my fans and I know how much they want new music, so Any Given Sunday was just me being like, "Alright, let me put out some songs to kind of appease them right now." It's a little appetizer before the whole meal.
MR: That's great. Hey, what is the most personal song to you on this album?
JC: The most personal song is called "Breakdown," it's the last song on the album. It's super personal and emotional. When I finished that song, I felt like I went on a roller coaster ride because that's how heavy it is, emotionally. That's the most personal, but my favorite might be the Missy record right now. It's such a good song, and that hook is so powerful.
MR: The song is "Nobody's Perfect," do you think that will eventually be one of the singles?
JC: Yeah, that's going to be next, after the Trey Songz record, "Can't Get Enough," that will be next.
MR: Cool. You also have a brand new video for "Daddy's Little Girl," right?
JC: Yeah, that's a bonus song on the album, and we show a video for that. I love that video. The song concept is about women who are kind of living a wild lifestyle, kind of promiscuous, and how did that happen? What was the "dad" correlation with that? Did he not give you enough attention? Was he not around? The video kind of deals with that too. It flashes back and forth between this girl that used to be in ballet, but now she's a stripper. You just fill in the blanks of what happened. Did her father not come to the ballet performances? Was he just not around? Did she get abused? I love that song and that concept.
MR: Now, they say that you've got the New York rap style, but you have lots of other influences. Do you feel like you've learned from the best in the field?
JC: Yeah, because I study them. I learn from them without them ever having to talk to me. I study the Andre 3000s, the Tupacs, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem. Before I even met these guys, I had their style absorbed into my style. At any given time, I could write a rap that would sound exactly like one of those guys because that's how much I've studied them. It just makes me stronger to have that type of ability. It's like, you know, Kobe Bryant is going to study Michael Jordan--and he has--and you clearly see that. Great players are going to study the great players and take what they can from them.
MR: Very nice. Okay, I'm going to flip that around a little now and ask you what advice you have for new artists?
JC: Man, I would say, "Take your time." I just got my first numbers in. I just got a call with the incredible numbers that I sold on the first day, so I'm just buzzing right now. That's incredible first day and first week numbers coming from a guy that doesn't have a smash radio hit, and how did that happen? Because I took my time. I had a two-year journey just to put out my first album. I put out projects and toured. I would tell all new artists that it's better when you take your time and build a family.
MR: That's beautiful. Are you going on tour to support the record?
JC: Yeah, I'm on tour right now. I actually had to jump off tour just to go do promo stuff, but I've been on tour for about a month and a half. We started in Canada, we're in the States right now, we'll go through the U.K. in October, and then we'll do the rest of Europe up until mid-December. So, I'm traveling and working super hard.
MR: Cole, we'd love to have you back sometime to get a progress report on what's going on with you, okay?
JC: Absolutely man, I appreciate it and I can't wait 'til next time.
2. Dollar and a Dream, Pt. III
3. Can't Get Enough
4. Lights Please
6. Sideline Story
7. Mr. Nice Watch
8. Cole World
9. In the Morning
10. Lost Ones
11. Nobody's Perfect
12. Never Told
13. Rise and Shine
14. God's Gift
16. Work Out
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Sheila E
Mike Ragogna: Hey, how are you?
Sheila E: I'm fantastic, thank you.
MR: Sheila, you are always fantastic.
SE: (laughs) Life is good, what can I say?
MR: Life is good and you have a new album Now & Forever that you made with your family. Can you tell me how you guys decided to come together and make this record?
SE: Sure. It happened about three years ago, we were talking about it and we decided to do a family album together because, actually, we've never done one. We figured out we played on each other's projects and thought, "Oh, my God, we've never done one together!" So, we said, "Let's do it!" and we got together and started writing some songs, which was actually a little bit challenging because we had never written together as a family either.
MR: How did it work out?
SE: That was kind of exciting, and because we are all individual leaders in our own bands, it took a minute for us to even figure out how we were going to work things out because everybody had to give 25% as opposed to, "No, let's just do it this way," you know? So, it was a little bit challenging on that end. Then we decided at that particular time, we made an A-list of celebrities and artists and friends that we wanted to be on the CD, so by the time we started recording it, of the people that were available--of course the list had 50-60 people on it, we had a lot to choose from--we ended up having Earth, Wind & Fire, Joss Stone, Israel Houghton, Raphael Saadiq, George Duke, and Gloria Estefan on the CD.
MR: When the family came together and listened to this when it was done, did you guys do a little ceremonial thing sitting down with maybe a glass of red wine or something to celebrate what you had made?
SE: Were you there? (laughs) Yeah, absolutely, that was exactly what happened.
MR: That's great, and what was the feeling afterward?
SE: Oh, it was fantastic. It's pretty amazing and we were all thinking, finally, after all of these years playing together as a family, to really accomplish this and do something. I think we were--us kids, meaning my brothers and I--were looking at Pops and saying, "Wow, this is something that he's always wanted," and we were proud of him. We call him our secret weapon because no one has Pops as their secret weapon. He's pretty amazing, he brings the legacy of the family and what he's brought to Latin jazz, and that was also just a wonderful thing because putting together the music, making sure that he was involved and bringing his part of it and what that entailed, we were really proud of him. So, it was pretty awesome to look at him and say, "Man, you know, Pops, this is for you."
MR: Very sweet. Of course, we're talking about Pete Escovedo, and your brothers, Juan and Peter Michael. So, since this is your first album together, it opens the door for many more projects like this doesn't it?
SE: Oh, absolutely it does! I'm going to try my hardest to start working on my CD in about two months and I'm hoping to release it by the end of next year on my birthday.
MR: Nice. Happy birthday way, way in advance.
SE: Thank you. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Is the family going to be featured on it?
SE: We might do that as well as Pops wants to do another record and then we all decided you know, this was so much fun, for a first project together and as a family, so let's do another one. First, we thought, "Well, let's just try to see what happens," but now, we're so excited and starting to hear the songs on the radio and everything. We've really been pumped about it. Wow, we can't even wait to do the next record. But it's been great even playing the songs live, and some people knowing the music that you've written, and when people know it and they like it, it's just a great feeling.
MR: With a musical family like yours, it's got to be difficult to get together and not just want to make music together all the time, right?
SE: Well, that's kind of what we do, and that's why we were like dumb founded, like, "Wait a minute, we haven't done a record before...really?" This is crazy, so I mean that's what we do. We get together all the time, we're always playing together and creating. I think there're not enough hours in the day to be able to do what we all want to do.
MR: Sheila, as you were saying earlier, you had some surrogate family members join in, like Earth, Wind & Fire, and Raphael Saadiq. Do you have any particular fond memories of when they came into the studio, maybe what the experiences were like?
SE: Oh, absolutely. When Earth, Wind, & Fire came into the studio, they were, I think, just as excited as we were. We started telling stories, the first that came about was Phillip Bailey was explaining how, back in the day when they first started, Earth, Wind, & Fire, they opened up for Pops' band--him and my dad's brother. They had a band called Azteca, so Earth, Wind, & Fire opened up for them, and they were like, "Oh, my God, this is Azteca." They were signed to CBS. It was a huge band, it was an eighteen piece band, and they were just trippin' about. We're in the hotel with them and they're catering all this food and drinks, and people were hanging out and it was a party and we wanted to be a part of this band. This was amazing!
I want to say Phillips said he was maybe 20 or 21 years old when that happened, so it comes all the way back around full circle, and everybody's telling stories about when they were on the road. It was just pretty amazing. Then when we were, it was a song that I wrote for Earth, Wind, & Fire on the CD called "Peace And Joy," and when we were actually doing the song, Ralph Johnson--who was the original percussionist for Earth, Wind & Fire--I looked at him and I said, "Okay, here's the percussion breakdown, so this is your timbale solo," and he freaked out and he said, "No, no, no, no, wait a minute, I'm in front of four Escovedos, there's no way I'm going to be in the studio and do a timbale solo, you've got the best percussionists here!" I said, "Man, we wrote this song for you guys, you're being featured on this, and we just so humbled and totally just like, thank you thank you, this is amazing." It was a great moment.
MR: I'm sure you grew up on Earth, Wind & Fire records too right?
SE: Absolutely we did. Again, my younger brother, Peter Michael, he was saying in the interview that he was trippin. He said, "I grew up on Earth, Wind & Fire, and they're sitting here, and we're playing together." It was amazing.
MR: I have to throw Raphael Saadiq into the mix now. Lately, I have been really loving his work. Got a Raphael story for us?
SE: I'll tell you the story before he became Raphael Saadiq. He was in my band. Most of the musicians I used all came from Oakland, the Bay area, and he was in my band with two of the members of Tony Toni Toné. But originally, he was in the band with me, and we went out on a tour and we starting opening for Prince, and then I disbanded the band, and I took half of the band with me for the Sign O' The Times Tour, and Raphael and two of the other members, I didn't bring them with me. That's when they started Tony Toni Toné, and that's a great story.
MR: Now, you recently did a residency with Prince in California and we talked about that in an interview dedicated to the show. How did that end? You were in the middle of it the last time we talked.
SE: Yeah I did either 14 or 17 of the 21 shows because I was in and out and again, trying to get this record out with the family, so I was multitasking. It was crazy, some of the times, I don't even remember being there. It just seemed like one big huge dream that I just played for like a month straight. We had such a great time, we had so many artists that came to see us, and friends and fans, they really loved that opportunity to afford being able to come and see the show. Actually the E Family opened for one of the shows for him at the Forum.
MR: That's really sweet, how after all these years, you're obviously tight with Prince, but the family is tight with Prince too. Love that.
SE: Yeah. When we first met in '78, once he first started to come and hang out and I brought him to one of the shows with the family--of course, we were playing way back then--he looked at me and he said, "Oh, my god. Where did you guys come from? This is crazy, you guys play this music all the time? How'd you learn this, what's going on?" And again, this is Pops, this is what he's been doing all his life and he shared that with us, and that's why we know.
MR: Will you share with us the creative process when it comes to all of you working together as the Escovedo family, and when everybody is coming from a different place, what does Sheila bring to the mix creatively? You know, songwriting etc.?
SE: It's pretty crazy because we are similar because we all bring everything to table. Our writing process is different for every single song, none of us ever write the same all the time. We don't usually start with just a melody. We could start with a drum beat or a title or a word or an idea or a story. So, every process was different. What I brought to the table was what I always bring, and I think that's what is so great about the family, we all bring the same thing, and that's 150% of "The Sky's The Limit." We don't limit ourselves or say we can't do this or we can't do that. There are no mistakes, you just keep doing it until it feels right.
MR: Nice. Is this album the most special out of all the recordings you've recorded?
SE: Up to this date? Absolutely. It means a lot for many, many reasons--because it's family, because of what Pops has brought to the table, his legacy. The passion we put into it, thinking about how after all these years we were able to do this. It's a labor of love, it's special. We are a close family anyway, but it was emotional, it was love, it was friendship, it was everything that we grew up with, and all the different genres of music combined together. It's one of the most special things I think I've done.
MR: Beautiful. By the way I'm looking right now at the E Family stage plot. There are more drums and percussion instruments on this map than in Sam Ash.
SE: (laughs) Yeah there's a lot of us. Just imagine, how many bands have four percussion players? And that's the other crazy thing about it, is that we all trade instruments. I go to congas sometimes, I'll play timbales, I'll play bongos, and Juan will come and play drums. Peter Michael will play drums. So, we're switching throughout the entire show.
MR: Yeah, it seems way large, and the show is about how long?
SE: It depends on if we are headlining or opening, or if it's two shows a night or whatever. It varies from an hour to an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five, it just depends. About an hour or an hour and a half, an hour is too short. We love to do an hour and a half. It's better.
MR: Yeah, especially if everybody is dancing in their seats or otherwise. Actually, I can't imagine there's anyone is their seat when you get onstage.
SE: Yeah. I'm telling you, it's happy, happy music, and I think that's definitely why people enjoy it. I think they see the love between the family and the passion. I think we make the audience feel, "You are a part of our lives, I mean without them we wouldn't have a life, and to be able to share the gift of music that God has given us, with everyone." Like saying, "Man, we're just as happy as you are and you're part of this family as well." We encompass that, we encourage that with the friends--I always say "friends" instead of "fans," but it's just that, and I think they see that and I think that's what we get back from them. They feel what we feel.
MR: Really beautifully said, really sweet. I want to ask you about the song, "Nothing Without You." Can you give a little background on that one?
SE: My brother Juan and Michael Angel were the two that originally brought this song in and they gave us a little demo of the song and we thought it was a great idea for a song. Then, once we started working together, all of us got together and started messing around with the song. We thought, "This is a cool little latin, r&b-ish...I don't know, a little something like a cha-cha. I think it's one of the first songs we wrote together.
MR: I wanted to ask you about, "I Like It," what's the story behind that one?
SE: "I Like It," Peter Michael co-wrote that song and he brought that in and it's pretty funny because I think it was a song that was more on the young side. When Pops first heard it, he said, "Ah, where do I fit in?" (laughs) We try to figure out ways of incorporating Pops when musically, our music is a little bit younger than his. But once he got the idea of, "Hey, guido cha-cha and a little hip-hop," and now, you know, he's got his little swag on. It's all good. (laughs)
MR: With all that percussion, the big arrangements and all the other elements like your guests, you would think, "There's no room, there's no space, there's no air." But the record feels like it has plenty of space as well. How did you do that?
SE: Wow. That's pretty cool that you get that and that you understand that because that's a part of, again, having four percussion players or four drummers or whatever. We have to figure out where we can and cannot play, so the key is when not to play. That's what makes it happen and gives you that space that it needs to breathe.
MR: Yeah, that gap.
MR: I don't want to ask you what is your favorite song, but may I ask you which was the song on the album where you went, "Awesome"?
SE: Huh. Wow, that is a difficult and unfair question. I want to...oh gosh, that's really hard. I don't know. I can think of two, one was the Earth, Wind & Fire song...
MR: ..."Peace And Joy"
SE: Yeah, because once we wrote the Earth, Wind & Fire song, and we presented it to them, they freaked out and they said, "This sounds more like us than we do." (laughs) Once we put them on it, they were kind of emulating what we had because we're such fans. It's like we knew what they sounded like because we grew up listening to them so they were pretty amazed by that. And the Joss Stone tune, the way that that came about was that I asked Joss to write a song with me and then said, "If you have an idea, or come up with an idea, or a title, or anything...," so she gave me a title, and a couple of lines, and she sang it on her phone, and sent me an MP3 from London. I took the idea with no music and wrote the music and by the time she came back to the States, she came and sang the song and I played her the music and she loved it, That's how we wrote that song, we just went, "Wow, technology."
MR: Wow, technology.
MR: Yeah, just like you. (laughs) Sheila, I really do appreciate your time. I don't want to keep you much more, but I do want to ask you like I do every time we chat...but you know, artists change their mind. What advice to you have for new artists?
SE: What did I say the last time? (laughs)
MR: Work hard, study your craft...something like that, I don't remember.
SE: No, you're pretty close. Absolutely. No, you've got to work hard. You have to study. You have to understand what you want to do. You have to be confident. You have to be humble, respectful, and don't bring any baggage and really know what you're going to do. You know, it takes a lot of work, it just doesn't happen over night. I think that sometimes the difficult part in seeing shows like American Idol and shows like that--not to put it down, I think it's amazing, I wish we had it when we were younger--but I actually, at the same time, enjoy the change to be able to start from scratch, start in the garage, start in small places and build and understand what it takes working behind the scenes and playing in places you wouldn't be caught dead in and making it happen. That experience, I think, has made me what I am. And I think that's another thing about starting with American Idol. Where do you go from there?
MR: Exactly. The poor kids. It gives the illusion of, "Hey, well, all I need to do is kind of sing okay, and I can have a record deal."
SE: Yeah, it's really hard. I'm hoping they are helping these kids really prepare themselves for what it's going to take, because we've seen some of them fall, and it's hard, and they're alone after they leave that show. That's my biggest worry, you know, that it is a lot of pressure. It was pressure for me when I was younger once I really made it, you know? I can't imagine going from nothing to all of that.
MR: Yeah. Oh and Sheila you put your finger on it. I mean maybe something that we have been forgetting in the culture is that after you're on a show like American Idol or The Voice or any of these reality shows where you're supposed to be showing your talent and you lose the show, we may need to start an organization to repair these kids, you know?
SE: Exactly. Absolutely.
MR: It seems logical that there would be some psychological damage done during or as a result of the process
SE: I would think so. I feel for some of the kids when I see it, and a lot of times, even the ones that don't make it when they go out for auditions and I think that some of them are pretty good. They go, "I quit my job, and this is all the money I have and I have got to make it, this is my last chance." This is your first chance! There are many chances. We get rejected all the time, and that's the thing. It's having that insight to say, "You know what? It's okay if they say, 'No,' I'll keep trying and I'll get better." It's okay. They show some of these kids where they're just like devastated almost to the point of, "If I don't get this, I don't know what my life is going to be like." Oh, my God! Your life is just beginning!
MR: Yeah, and of course those are the moments when the camera does the close-up on the face.
MR: Yeah. I have such mixed feeling about those shows. Thank you for having that conversation with me, it really is a touchy subject.
SE: It is. It is. I love the show. I love it. But I'm hoping that they are really helping these kids because it is a lot of pressure.
MR: Yeah, hear that, Clive?
SE: Yes, Clive, my friend.
MR: (laughs) One last thing. What does your future look like? You have the album coming up, you'll be touring with the family, and there'll be more E family projects like Now & Forever down the road. But what else is up for Sheila E?
SE: I'm almost done with my book. I'm working right now. I'm talking to you from London. I'm working on Madagascar 3 right now with Dave Stewart and Hans Zimmer so I'm having a blast.
MR: Nice. Well, all the best with everything, Sheila.
SE: Thanks man.
1. Take It Back
2. I Like It
3. Nothing Without
4. The Other Half Of Me
5. Do What It Do
6. Peace And Joy
7. Praise His Name
9. All Around
10. It's Gonna Make You Dance
11. The J
12. Get Out Of My Way
13. Live Percussion Jam
Transcribed by David Proctor Hurlin