When Topaz Jones arrives at a coffee shop in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he takes time to notice his surroundings. The room is uncannily bright with picnic-style benches, stained rustic brown walls, and dangling light bulbs. Large air conditioners churn loudly, their hum occasionally interrupted by a cash register slamming shut. He spots me sitting in a corner. The length of his 9-year-old dreadlocks, which droop against a blue and white collarless shirt, becomes more pronounced as he approaches. His slim frame and long arms accentuate his 6-foot-4-inch frame. Up close, Jones lacks any distinguishable slouch, a habit tall people often perform to assimilate to the world.
As he places Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lesser-known memoir The Beautiful Struggle on the wobbly table between us, I think about what kind of statement he might be trying to make by bringing this book. Jones smiles and admits that he’s fallen down a bit of a rabbit hole: After reading James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, he took in Coates’ acclaimed Between the World and Me and then felt obligated to read its predecessor. “I’m a serial obsessor,” he tells me. I wonder what he will read next.
In conversation, Jones’ demeanor is curious and enthusiastic. As he tears crumbs from his breakfast pastry, his eyes never wander or disengage. He asks me questions about my hometown in the Bay Area, about Ohio Players album covers, about college. We discover that we share an alma mater, New York University. At 23, Jones is a nimble thinker on the fly, and his versatility enables him to effortlessly traverse a wide swath of topics—from the fine art of burrito rolling to police brutality.
These talents and idiosyncrasies translate to his music. For a young artist, his voice and cadence are extremely polished, and he is just as comfortable allowing a beat to fill space as he is moving through stanzas in double-time. But perhaps equally impressive is how emotionally and intellectually transparent his work feels. He processes the world around him through a deft use of timbre and twang.
Jones offers doses of his diverse interests throughout his chameleonic catalog thus far, which includes The Honeymoon Suite, from 2014, and a few singles from his upcoming album, Arcade, which is due out later this month. On the recent “Tropicana,” a colorful record that could peel stagnant bodies off the wall at a house party, he converts a childhood affinity for wrestling into a clever testament to individuality. On “Coping Mechanism,” from 2013, he fills a notebook full of grim details from quotidian black life, looking for some catharsis: “I pray for mothers of their kids, ’cause it’s painful yo/To raise a child inside a space where there just ain’t no hope.” On an unreleased song called “Grass,” he turns his secret pleasure of enjoying a sunny day on a blanket into a ballad of forgiveness for tuning out the heaviness of the world.
Born George David Brandon Jones, he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, under the “activist eye” of his mother, a Harvard scholar and holistic doctor who once volunteered in the Black Panthers’ breakfast program. She enrolled him in a small learning community at a neighborhood public high school with curriculum tailored to social justice. On weekends, Jones and a few friends would travel to NYU to study in a program for aspiring music moguls. (He later graduated from the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.)
Jones grew up listening to a plethora of funk. His father, Curt, a musician who played in the funk bands Slave and Aurra in the 1970s and 1980s, could often be found in the back of the house, strumming a guitar in his small studio. Those days soaking in his parents’ wisdom are perhaps no more visible than in Jones’ single “Powerball,” a funky dream of finding fortune through chance and hard work. The song recently debuted on Beats 1 Radio, a moment that Jones views as confirmation that he doesn’t need to stray far from his roots to be heard. Or, as he puts it, “I don’t have to sound like Lil Yachty to get on.”
As he tells me this, I think of the song’s hook, which conceals an appeal for curiosity inside a call and response. “If you don’t jump,” shout the voices before Jones answers in a crooning, funky tenor: “How you gonna get down?” A familiar aphorism, with a twist of stank. The more I listen to Jones, the more the philosophy behind the groove becomes clear.
Pitchfork: What does the success of a track like “Tropicana,” which has more than half a million plays on SoundCloud, or “Powerball” being played on Beats 1 mean to you?
Topaz Jones: It shows that there’s more than one path, that urban music doesn’t just have to be what radio or the club dictates. It can have connection to Black music’s past and embrace things that maybe people have forgotten about and still seem fresh and new. My goal is to merge things retro and futuristic. So right now feels great, but there’s so much left to do.
When did you start making music?
I had a boy band in kindergarten and first grade, back when ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys was popping. It was me and four white boys that I went to school with. I wrote all of the songs, and they all sang them. I was so young. We wrote songs about being firefighters, just little kid shit. Then I started writing weird soul ballads when I was 8. Me and my older cousin used all of the stock demo sounds on this keyboard that I had in my room and made a cassette tape. Cassettes were still a thing! We put our name on it and “sold” them—but really just gave them out at Thanksgiving to our whole family. That was my first mixtape; I made a mixtape at 8.
Who are some of your influences?
Definitely my dad. It’s funny that, with this album especially, I find myself circling back in order to find my own voice and separate myself from all the other rap influences that I’ve had in the past. [After] the last album, people would say, “This shit is super fresh, but you remind me of this person.” They would say it as such a compliment, but I would take it as such a diss because I don’t want to sound like nobody else. When I first heard Cudi or André—these are people you could never confuse with anybody else. I wanted that same energy around my shit. So I just put myself on a diet. I went back to all the music that my father raised me on: Prince, Parliament/Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire. This is where I come from.
How difficult has it been to learn how to sound like yourself?
It just takes a lot of real honesty with yourself. In the past I have been more fake honest, like, I know that this is something that people want to hear from me versus what I really have to say. With every song, I get better at tapping into that external thing that has to come through you, versus you trying to force a message.
A real message passes through you. It doesn’t start with you. I’ve written a lot of things that I had to scratch out and start over again because it just didn’t feel genuine. I’ve written a lot of things that were uncomfortable and made me feel weird, and then I knew I was doing the right thing. Even on this album, there’s a song that I go back and forth on because it’s really uncomfortable for me to share. But it’s arguably the closest I’ve ever come to achieving that authentic voice. Anything that’s going to make you uncomfortable and scared has some value and some merit to it. So I’m trying to step out onto more ledges.
How much does your music channel political ideas?
Because of my mom and the people that I grew up around, politics has always been a part of my DNA. In 2013, I made a song called “Coping Mechanism,” shining a light on police brutality, and it rings so true today—it almost makes 10 times as much sense now as it did a few years ago.
But this album [Arcade] is way less political. The statement that’s being made here is how it’s hard not to want to run away from these ideas. On “Grass,” the first line is: “I found love, a great distraction from checking the evening news and staying up on what’s happening.” I got into a relationship. I focused on music. I did all these things and found all these ways to distract myself from the reality of the world. I was forgiving myself for tuning out the world.
It’s understandable as a black man in America to not even want to have to deal with these things that you’re being bombarded with—these images, these narratives that are being pushed on you. When people who look like you are being killed on television, that’s a crazy thing, and rather than attacking that head on, I found myself just avoiding it all together and trying to distract myself from it as a coping mechanism. My role is more to just make really good music and to make things that represent my truth, and to have people relate to them.
What’s the energy like when you’re in the studio making music?
I light a lot of incense. I went to Istanbul last summer and I have this little Turkish rug that I keep in my home set up for inspiration. Sometimes I just put on old tour footage of Parliament, with the Mothership coming down. But my favorite thing is to go in the park and just lay out on a blanket and just write on a pad.
There’s a purist vibe to that.
I still write my lyrics on my phone mainly, but there’s something so impure about that. The idea that you could be writing on your phone and then you get a notification from Twitter, or somebody tags you in a photo, or a text message that you don’t like comes in. Why not put yourself in a situation where you don’t even have that distraction, where it’s just you and this piece of paper.
I abuse social media like every other kid my age. But I’m in the process of trying to find a way to wean myself off of it and have a more productive relationship with it. I almost have to just remember to be a real person. Have conversations with people. Read more.
What does funk mean to you and why do you think it resonates so much with you?
It has to be because of my parents, because of where I come from. There’s something about funk that’s so black. There’s something about it that just feels connected to Africa and to the origin of my identity as a person. It feels almost like a heartbeat. It’s something that you can come in tune with and learn more about, even though it’s the same thing over and over again. It’s still subtle changes. All that is just so beautiful to me. The idea that certain songs are on the downbeat and other songs are on the upbeat. The downbeat is so crucial to funk, and I’ve always been that guy who cringes when people clap on the one and the three.
I read a part of George Clinton’s book where he talks about how [funk] used to be a bad word—how in the beginning people didn’t want to call funk music funk because they felt like it represented things that were unclean. But at the end of the day, funk music is embracing all the beautiful things about blackness that are inherently shunned by American and Western society. It’s full on, stepping into that and owning it.
Does funk feel expansive to you?
Funk is so connected to Afrofuturism. This idea that, in general—sci-fi movies, Star Wars and all that shit—when they imagine the future, there’s never people of color in it. Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament make music that envisioned a future that was almost lead by brown people. Funk is taking everything psychedelic and futuristic and still embracing the roots of where we come from.
When I listen, I’m programmed to think about music in terms of funk. You know when you smell a scent and it reminds you of the preschool you went to? There’s this scent that’s faintly of graham crackers and weird juice that reminds me of the pre-k that I went to; or a certain smell that reminds me of my grandmother’s old apartment that smells like old people. The way that scents can do that, certain sounds for me trigger memories too. I was listening toTo Pimp a Butterfly and remembering being a kid in my uncle’s brownstone in Harlem and hearing conversations that my old heads were having about the world and life. I gained so much game from soaking up those conversations. So anything that takes me back to that time of being young and slowly listening to all the conversations the adults were having is a place of real joy for me. It makes me feel at home. So I feel like I make funk shit because funk is like a home base for me. It just feels so rooted in what I am. It feels like going to your grandmother’s house.
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