INTERVIEW: We the Best artist Kent Jones traces his musical journey from his roots as an industrious jazz nerd to his surprise chart-topping single "Don't Mind" and beyond.
In 2011, Fort Lauderdale performing arts high school Dillard Center for the Arts began their set at Jazz at Lincoln Center's prestigious Essentially Ellington competition with a piano solo by senior Daryl Kent Jones. Backed by a swinging rhythm section, he improvised a string of musical phrases that were tasteful, bluesy, and, quite simply, stanky. Dillard went on to win the competition.
Four years later, in 2015, Jones released an irresistible, Barry White-interpolating song called "Don't Mind." Once it got repackaged as his debut single on DJ Khaled's We the Best imprint, it became a radio smash. It peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since amassed 412 million plays between YouTube and Spotify.
Jones sat down with HNHH in the lobby of the Austin Hyatt to trace his musical journey from his formative jazz years and his evolution as a rapper-singer-producer triple threat under the guiding hand of Cool & Dre and DJ Khaled.
You come from a musical family. What instruments do your family members play?
My dad’s mom wrote songs and played the piano, my mom’s mom plays the guitar and sings, my mom’s sister sings, my dad sings, his daughter -- my half-sister -- she sings and produces and dances, and then all my cousins on my dad’s side are in music.
Once you got into jazz, who were you listening to and modelling yourself after?
A million percent, Oscar Peterson. I used to study and transcribe a lot of his tunes. Miles Davis. The whole Giant Steps album from John Coltrane. Kind of Blue, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, I even got into like Al Jarreau, God rest his his soul, he passed recently. James Moody, God rest his soul as well. The Count Basie Orchestra, can’t forget that.
Basie’s style of playing taught me a lot of discipline as a musician. And even Ellington. But the thing that Basie and Ellington had in common was a lot of their playing was simplistic, but not minimalistic. It kind of filled in certain gaps and spaces and adds, accents whatever the big band just played. Say if they did a 12-bar measure arpeggiation or like a bridge or something like that, Count Basie would find after those 12 bars a HALF a bar, not even a whole bar, and just touch the piano [taps the table] and set it off.
We can’t forget about my man Robert Glasper. He’s awesome. I actually got to meet him recently, he’s dope. This was recently, but this wasn’t even like “I’m Kent Jones.” I was just like, “Yo, you’re my idol, I’m a big fan. I studied you,” and I did, I studied this guy. And then me and him studied the same guy, Oscar Peterson.
You went to Dillard, which has had one of the best high school jazz programs in the country. How did that experience help you grow musically and shape your approach to music?
I a million percent owe it to my professors Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Charles for keeping their foot in my ass and making sure I continued on the right path. And just expanding my repertoire musically after that. Jazz is such an intricate style that it has several genres in one genre. So it completely expanded my musical repertoire, my horizons, and I feel like it made me the better artist, the better musician.
What were you like as a kid?
I was never focused on my studies, I’ll tell you that. Now, there were some times when I did do good in school, when I did buckle down. I always knew I wanted to do some type of music since I was little. But you’re in a box, your family is super religious, so when I got into my teens, I started going out, experiencing life. THEN the getting into trouble stuff happened, but nothing crazy. I got a clean record.
My album’s called Get Out Your Momma House. So I got out my momma’s house when I was in college. I didn’t go to the club not one time in college. College was a time when I was totally focused on my music. I was in my apartment everyday recording, producing and recording everyday. This is in Tallahassee. Florida State, Florida A&M, and TCC. So this is one big city with all types of parties happening everyday. Fortunately enough, my roommate -- shoutout my roommate Brian -- he was in a fraternity, he was a Teke, a frat called TKE. And they would get shit-faced sloppy wasted drunk hammered. So we knew how to have the party at the house. We’d leave class with fucking Monster energy drink and a big thing of gin, go stupid until we had like 30 bottles on top of our cabinets in our apartment. It was crazy.
At the time, that’s when I started really going hard on the music. [I was] afraid at the same time, because it’s like, I see all these other pe ople popping off. This is back when A$AP first got popping. This is when Mac Miller had just done Blue Slide Park. This was the Wiz and Curren$y era. And I was in college, so I was in a college crowd, so I would go and see all these different people. So back then, we was trying to figure it out, and you know, college didn’t go exactly how I planned on it going. I came back to South Florida I didn’t have anything, I was devastated. I thought I was gonna do this, I thought I was gonna do that.
But then you got plugged in with Cool & Dre.
This was going towards the summer of 2012.Some friends I had at the time that I grew up with were working with an artist that Cool and Dre had at the time. And they somehow linked up, it was a whole clique of ‘em.
So I go and they introduce me to Cool and me and Cool hit it off immediately, we started corresponding. They’d bring me in, so instead of having musicians come in and play over the stuff, I would do all of it, because that’s what I did.
In addition to keys you play drums, right?
Yes. So when they needed someone to come in and groove, whatever, I would do it. Eventually, I started recording, fucking around with the recording shit. Fat Joe discovered me when I was playing some music for Cool. He said, “Yo what is this?” Joe went crazy, and started rapping on it. I was actually trying to build my own project at that time. So I was away for a few days, and I came back and Joe had recorded on the beat. And that’s where I met this guy [gestures to Illa], who’s my brother, my manager.
We were signing to Joe together. After that, Joe had his situation, god bless Uncle Crack, he had to do what he do for his family, and I had to do what I had to do, and we’re even closer partners now today. I can always call Uncle Crack. I ended up being managed by Cool and Dre for a couple years, and I was actually living in their studio. I lived in their studio, it was like my home. So when I go back there now, it’s like I’m home. But I was actually staying there for four years straight. I signed to Khaled a year and a half, maybe two years before “Don’t Mind.”
Backtracking real quick. When you started producing, what producers or styles were you trying to emulate?
I thought I was the man on Reason 4. No, that’s not even when started. It was no software at first, it was the keyboard with speakers. Then it was Reason 4. Then, like I said, Mr. Charles for my school.
My school had two state of the art recording studios and a room full of keyboards and computers, and they actually taught a class on Logic. My freshman year they had Logic 6. By the time I left they had Logic 9. They going through all those versions year by year. What’s crazy is today, right now, I can call my professor from my high school, he’s the band director, but [Logic] is where his expertise was, I still call him to ask him questions.
Your raw musical chops are very good, maybe better than any producer in hip hop.
How do you incorporate your musicianship while maintaining a modern sound that people can relate to?
It’s like, if it feels good without it, you don’t need it. If you don’t notice it when you don’t have it, you don’t need it. And that’s how you build.
What was your first impression of DJ Khaled?
He’s everywhere, he’s an energy ball. He gets things done. Khaled is very assertive, very direct, and he’s the guy you go to when you got to plan and be ready to go and execute your plan. All the way. I can’t think of nobody else. Khaled is the guy for that.
You see what he does with his own vision. Khaled is an icon. Khaled is a good brother. And it started off with me learning the game, learning how to navigate what’s important like Khaled says, and outwork everyone.
“Alright” interpolates the Earth, Wind, & Fire song “Let's Groove.” What musical lessons do you try and absorb from EWF?
Every one I can. Every last lesson. Everything they got to teach. Whatever they want, I’m here. That’s the legends, they’re icons, they’re great musicians.
Do you see yourself as a kind of modern version of them?
That’s some big shoes to fill.
Or like a Barry White? You interpolated one of his lyrics in “Don’t Mind.”
I’d say like a Quincy Jones.
Quincy Jones is one of the most successful music producers ever. Are you ambitious enough to make it to his level?
I will be. Quincy is such a genius. If I could be close to his level, I’d be a happy.
When is your album coming out?
Give it a couple a months. It’s practically damn near finished. It’s gonna be a fun album. The youth are going to enjoy it. The music heads are going to enjoy it. When I first went in to build Get Out Your Momma House, it had this youthful sound. But then we kind of realized that you know, hey, I have music lover fans, I have musician fans that may not quickly understand what I’m doing this time around. Let me add something so that they can appreciate it.
So there’s like an intellectual level as well as a more visceral level that people can vibe out with?
Yeah! I’m a musician. I’m a real musician. So when I tell you it’s okay to just enjoy a vibe sometimes, to where music doesn’t have to be all about critical musicality and over-thinking -- it’s not about that all the time. That’s cool sometimes, I do it all the time. But it’s okay to enjoy a simplistic but not necessarily minimalistic vibe. That’s when you’re smooth sailing. You’re making what people want to hear.
Listen to Jones' mixtape The Luh Tape.