RH In The Studio With: Ajani Jones
Go into the studio with emerging Chicago emcee, Ajani JonesRead More
photo credit: Katie Levine
Hailing from the Northwest side of Chicago, IL, Rich Jones is a seasoned veteran of his local Hip-Hop scene. Jones has been throwing and hosting events since 2012, his monthly series “All Smiles” hosted at Tonic Room is an apt description of the friendly emcee. Jones, a firm believer in the power of positive energy and reinforcement has invested his life’s work into the city’s scene. With the dividends finally showing themselves over the course of the past year with the success of his Vegas EP, a future blending Pop record that showcased just how diverse the 29-year-old wordsmiths’ musical palate is. Whether crooning like an old Chicago blues man or singing like a top 40 artist or reciting his thoughtful everyman’s raps, Jones is true to his authentic self. His musical catalogue has grown immensely over the past half-decade and will only continue to evolve.
Sitting down with him in the lobby of Soho House Chicago, he pauses thoughtfully after every question, sipping a cup of coffee while gathering his thoughts. Clearly he has absorbed a lifetime’s amount of information through his music and the pursuit of reaching wider audiences. His seemingly tireless work ethic would impress even the busiest workaholic, but Jones insists that it’s all in line with his teenage dreams of musical pursuit. The end game being not just furthering Jones’ own art, but also putting on for a community that has helped him grow time and time again.
Alexy: Where are you from & what’s your family background?
Rich Jones: I’m from the Northwest side of Chicago. My mother is a former musician and now works at Northwestern. My father used to work for the Chicago Reader and now he’s an editor at a poetry journal and does some other freelance work.
Alexy: What got you started hosting events?
Rich Jones: I began hosting events and all that starting in 2012 I believe. I was in a group called SCC (Second City Citizens), I wasn’t trying to bother promoters anymore. I wanted to start doing stuff on our own. So it just made sense to kind of make that happen. Also, it worked out that we had already had a great show at the Tonic Room and they said whenever we wanted to go back we should hit them up, so I just happened to pop in there and that’s kinda how it all started.
Alexy: Did you go into it looking to make it a monthly series?
Rich Jones: I went into it thinking it should be a consistent thing. That way the group could have consistent money coming in too. I also was looking at it from the perspective of, how could I get my friends on shows and potentially break into other venues that artists had connections with? You know by kind of being able to trade like, ‘hey we have this, could you possibly get us on something in the future?’ And it worked pretty well for a while. We had some really awesome years while the group was more active so when the group kind of went on hiatus back in 2016 we rebranded to “All Smiles” because I wanted to keep throwing shows even if we weren’t performing every month. I had friends from out of town that I wanted to take care of and offer them shows in the same way they take care of me in other cities.
Alexy: The Vegas EP was a very different sound than your previous work, what brought about that stylistic chance?
Rich Jones: With Vegas EP, I wanted to give more straight up pop records a chance in terms of writing them and executing them. I’ve always had a pop element to my music so it made sense. I really wanted to go all out with it and see where it led. At the time I also felt like I had hit a wall with what I was able to make, so I wanted to break out and try something different, and it felt really good. I had a wonderful partner in crime with Ryan Lofty just because he had been having a lot of success with placement on television and commercials, stuff like that. So I was kind of going out there (to Las Vegas) to try my hand at songwriting for other people, but also to get more prominent looks for the music I was making. And I’d say given all that’s happened in the last 10 months or so when the project dropped, we achieved a lot of what we wanted to achieve, especially in terms of gaining a little bit more exposure for what I’m doing. Especially with the music I’m making, it showed people I was more than someone just trying to make Hip Hop records. It showed people I was committed to making solid records that were eclectic and interesting. In terms of presenting that by using a full band or more live elements to it, I think it ultimately forced me to up my game across the board.
Alexy: How’d you link up with Ryan Lofty?
Rich Jones: I met Ryan in 2010 after a holiday party. A friend was going to a bar and Ryan happened to be deejaying and we exchanged contact info and hit it off. That was kind of it, we just got along really well. He’s a really funny goofy guy from Iowa and you know, we just clicked. Seeing how seriously he took music; they say the people you surround yourself with are kind of a reflection of yourself. So while I wouldn’t say I was Blue Days hip or anything, I definitely respected him for his work ethic. A big reason for why we stayed in touch is we’re both driven in what we want to do and still are driven.
Alexy: Do you plan to continue with that same sort of singing sound?
Rich Jones: I think whatever the record calls for is the best answer there. But at this point I’ve proven I can excel making that style of music and I already have my background as an emcee making more Hip Hop slanted music. I just want to combine all those worlds. I do have pop influences, I do have Hip Hop influences. I listen to a lot of different types of music. It’s really important for me to do that because it keeps the sound interesting. It keeps me open to different musical approaches in my craft and there are definitely records from the Vegas sessions that we plan to release at some point so there are more songs in that part of the catalogue like that. Plus, I’m actually going out there in November for a couple days to work on more songs along those lines. So I’m definitely not going to say the intentionality is as strong as it was 2 years ago when we started working, but we intend to keep doing more. His (Ryan Lofty) strong suit is more power pop sounding stuff and I think mine is an interesting lyricism and all the kind of weird sounds I like, so when we come together we make some pretty interesting shit.
Alexy: I first heard your music because of your project Pigeons & Waffles in 2015, what did that time period do for your career?
Rich Jones: Well, I guess backing up a little bit before we get to Vegas, I had been hoarding music for about 3 years. Pigeons & Waffles and Pink Slips (the follow up to P&W) were both kind of bookend projects, they’re kind of relevant to each other because they’re from a similar batch of music. With Pigeons & Waffles, the big thing I was excited for was being able to make a complete project with Montana Macks, one of my oldest friends and musical collaborators. Having the opportunity to hunker down and finish records we had been working on for a while and make new things that compliment that, that’s what was important for us in that project. Also, with the title itself people joke that the city bird of Chicago is the pigeon so I just kind of decided to make that a play on words from the classic dish chicken & waffles.
I was actually really happy with that project though because in a lot of ways it was as complete as I was capable of making it at the time. I felt up to that point, because I had been hoarding records, people didn’t really know what I had unless I was playing it for them. I remember Fake Shore Drive did a panel with Salam Remi and Just Blaze, one thing they talked about was how at some point you just gotta get the records out. A big part of tempering expectations is by setting that baseline so people can know what to expect from you and have any reason to be excited about you. In terms of my previous work, it’s funny, I sometimes go back and listen to the project around the same time of year it dropped and I hear all sorts of things I’d do differently and sometimes I’m like ‘damn I see why they didn’t like that.’ But it doesn’t work to get stuck in the past. I would say with that project we showed we could properly rollout a project, promote it, attach other content like videos to it just to kinda keep people engaged with what we were doing.
That worked out really well with getting people’s attention online, because the next year with Pink Slips we were able to take some of that buzz and put that into the venue setting. We threw a free show at Schubas on a Tuesday, it was a rainy day but that place was over capacity. That to me was a very exciting show because up to that point I had never had a solo show where there had been that sort of reception or build up. We got some key looks building up to that, that got more people interested in what I was doing. Pink Slips didn’t do as well numbers wise but it was really key in terms of convincing venues I was viable.
Alexy: What’re your goals/plans for the next year?
Rich Jones: I’ve got an EP called “Light Work” with the producer Vapor Eyes dropping in December, I’ve got a release show for that coming as well. The EP features Kosha Dillz, ShowYouSuck, & Sports Boyfriend. After that I’ve got a project with the producer WalkingShoe. We have a group called “Bad Ambassadors” that we started that is the perfect blend of my Hip Hop influences with the Pop you’ve seen on Vegas.
Aside from that I’ve got a ton of music in my catalogue and given what’s occurred in the last 2-3 months with some of the looks we’ve gotten in the media and also with the performance looks like playing North Coast, I’m looking to keep the momentum. I’ve got a ton of music that I’m excited about and I think the key difference between 2 years ago and now is that I’m not as worried about how a song does. If it doesn’t pop off immediately or the way that I pictured, I’m just not gonna freak out about it because guess what? I’ve got so much other shit. I try not to be unrealistically positive, I definitely try to keep an even keel and see how things are going just as long as I see forward motion I’m happy.
Alexy: Who’s one rapper who you’ve studied?
Rich Jones: I think recently because his shit is so effortless is Guru from Gangstarr; I think more MCs need to study him. That was a big artist Montana Macks and I bonded over because Montana was the one who told me I should buy Moment of Truth. I had been familiar with some of their work because of the LimeWire era but that album is just so… you’re listening to something where every single song has meaning and a message attached to it and it wasn’t so preachy that it was unlistenable either. You also have to give credit to Premier because his production on that album is crazy. Post-Vegas I kind of got back in touch with my MC roots and Guru’s someone that I’ve thought about a lot because he could say things in such a monotone matter of fact way. Not getting himself all worked up for nothing, being angst-y for no real payoff, one thing I’ve never been good at is getting extra energetic in my shit. It just doesn’t sound sincere and doesn’t really mesh with my true character. I can do some turn up shit but again it all comes back to can you do that while making it look effortless.
Alexy: You went to school in Appleton, Wi. Discuss your time there and who you leaned on for growth while being away from the city and its music scene.
Rich Jones: I had a couple friends at school who started a studio senior year at the radio station. They really made it possible for me to finish my first post-college project Sweater Weather. When I came to Chicago I linked with my friend Kyle Resto and we finished the job but they were really instrumental in getting me going to finish something. Although there wasn’t a huge Hip Hop crowd up there and not necessarily any mentorship for that, I was on the phone with (Montana) Macks pretty much every day. Talking about Hip Hop and everything under the sun but mainly a lot of music. Having that outside line to someone who knew a lot more than me but had the time and inclination to help teach me from afar, that was really helpful.
Alexy: With all the things you do outside of creating music, where do you find the time to actually make music?
Rich Jones: This year the best decision I made on some time management shit, I decided that I need to be in the studio at least once a week for an extended period of time. My friend Joel Gutman runs a studio called Fat Tongue and he owed me some time because I literally helped bring in all the lumber that he used to build the studio. After recording the Vapor Eyes EP with him I realized I really liked him and had a lot of other production that I was sitting on, or in the process of getting from people so it just kind of clicked. So give or take a week or two, I’ve pretty much been there every week since the end of March. Making a commitment to be there anywhere from 6-10 hours in a week, Joel’s been really generous in making sure I’m not breaking the bank on this. We take care of each other, when I go in there he makes sure I can get the time I need because he likes what I do, respects what I do. Having someone on the engineering/mixing/mastering end is an integral part of the process.
Alexy: What was it like playing North Coast Music Festival this past summer?
Rich Jones: It was pretty surreal; we had been working hard to get the live set up to a place where it could really shine in that sort of environment. My backing band Cool Runnings, we really gelled because the rule at the beginning of the summer was we had to have everyone play every show that I had that called for a band. So we played Logan Square Arts Fest, A Benefit concert at Lincoln Hall for ALS, and North Coast. Between those three shows, everyone really came together and created a wonderful unit of musicians that I really respect and have fun playing with. So to kind of have everything culminate like that for us was really cool.
Aside from the band aspect, being able to have my parents experience that moment with me and have them see people enjoy my music and see all my hard work and investment pay off. I think in a very real sense they’ve been pretty much on board with this since day one. Give or take a couple of days because like any parents they just want what’s best for me and they want me to be happy. I showed early on that I was committed, so for them to see that time commitment pay off it was really good for them because I know they want the world for me as much as I want it for them and myself, so that was really special. Also to share the stage with so many other great artists that performed that day and meet some of the people performing was a real crash course in knowing what to expect for similar shows like that in the future. We were also able to bring on my friend Bob Zeigler who’s the visual guy for Chance The Rapper and he put together an amazing visual show to compliment what we were doing. I don’t usually get to really stunt on a set so we just figured we’d just pull out all the fuckin’ stops and try to make this as impressive as possible. It was definitely an investment.
Alexy: What motivates you to keep this hustle going?
Rich Jones: Ultimately I have to remind myself sometimes that regardless how 29-year-old me is feeling about it, 14-15-year-old me would be over the moon with what I’ve been able to accomplish. A lot of the things you want in life, you get them but they don’t often arrive in the way you think they would or are what you think they would be. I try to be very appreciative of what’s being offered to me, there’s a lot of people who work very hard, people that I look up to, that haven’t gotten the looks I have or have gotten different looks. Everyone’s path is different; you can’t be jealous or upset about other people’s successes. A lot of the time the best way to feel about certain things at least for me, is if I can through any way help my friends and if we look out for each other I think that’s the healthiest environment and headspace to approach it from.
I remember 10-15 years ago they used to call Chicago “Haterville”. It was a really big deal that Longshot, an MC from the North Pole-Rogers Park area made a mixtape called Civil War Pt 1 & 2 and brought artists from around the city to work together. It comes back to how do we keep this going, how do we keep supporting each other staying positive because look man, this is an industry that is prone to fuck shit and people that aren’t the highest character in terms of how they conduct themselves. I think as long as we’re looking out for each other and making sure everyone is being honest it makes all of our lives way easier. So I think to roundabout answer your question is the idea that this is a community worth investing in and that it isn’t just about my personal success.
As far I’m concerned I want to see Chicago grow, I want to see the region of the Midwest grow in terms of the spotlight that’s being placed upon it. Making sure these artists are getting their just due whether it’s me or anyone else. I remember seeing Chance The Rapper open up for my group SCC; there was 10 people there, RTC (Closed Sessions label head) was there, he deejayed that show, and within like 2-3 years Chance is playing for thousands of people at Lollapalooza. You know I had a chance to run into him backstage after that set and I point blank just thanked him and said “hey man you know you proved 17-year-old me right” in that you could be an artist from here, stay at the crib, you don’t have to move and go elsewhere to be successful.
I know that was our goal (SCC) but it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t us, it mattered that it happened, because it only makes it easier for everyone else. Not everyone’s going to be happy with other people’s success, you can call it jealousy or whatever you want to call it but at the end of the day having an artist like that, it brings more opportunity. The more institutions we have that are legitimized we have to support that, because that’s how others will start taking us as a city seriously. There’s a lot of money invested in the coasts and you have to go there, but I think one thing that’s overlooked about here is the possibility of travel is so doable. Knowing the right time to not leave here permanently but just go elsewhere, that’s a big way to not only expand one’s perspective on what’s out there but also on what you can bring back to home. Seeing so many amazing performers and different things in this country, it’s made me better in the sense of what could possibly be fostered here so that we’re a happier and healthier community.
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