In this day and age, anyone with a mic and a computer can call themselves a rapper. People will put out a track about any trending topic for a few clicks, and are even less discerning about their beat selection and public image. Topaz Jones is more analytical than most. Even during our interview, he chews on his thoughts before carefully spitting the words out. Sharing what he wants and no more. Like an embarrassing rap name that he used to go by – that’s for Nardwaur to dig up. Right now Jones, 20, is focused on the present and his new project, The Honeymoon Suite.
I was first introduced to the New Jersey native by Thelonious Martin in the summer of 2013 after an interview. It seemed to me, at the time, that The Honeymoon Suite was nearly complete, but Jones is just as critical about his music as he is about the story behind his rap name, which isn’t a bad thing.
In a world of cookie cutter music, thoroughly analyzing your work prevents you from playing the numbers game. Artists like Future, Juicy J and 2 Chainz can turn around guest verses quicker than McDonald’s turns out fries. But for an up-and-coming emcee like Topaz Jones, the ability to scrutinize every sound on every song only ensures that their project will stand out.
I sat down with Topaz Jones this week to discuss his start in music, the story behind The Honeymoon Suite, working with his dad on the project and what he hopes to achieve after it drops.
Photos by Durty Harry
Mass Appeal: Let’s start off by discussing how you got into rapping. How long have you been spitting?
Topaz Jones: I started out writing songs; R&B, soul, funk and shit. My pops is a funk musician, I grew up around him, watching him in the studio and picked up his habits. I think I started writing songs at seven, eight years old. A year after that, I started getting more into hip hop through my cousins. At that time I just thought R&B songs were so simple compared to rap songs. One verse of a rap song, that would be a whole R&B song. So I took it on as a challenge to try and write more lyrics and be more descriptive.
MA: Has your dad heard any of your music?
TJ: Yeah, he’s actually featured on the album. He always supported me but never pushed me towards music. So for him to really recognize how far I’ve come musically and to want to be a part of this record was really important to me.
MA: You’ve said before that you’re a performer first. Can you explain what you mean by that?
TJ: I had a lot of opportunities early on – people don’t really know this but I’m a practicing Buddhist. So through my Buddhist organization they’d say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cute if we had the little kid rap in front of the other Buddhist members?’ Then I would just do that. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than trying to explain and relate to people as a hip hop artist when you have a room full of old Buddhists members.
MA: What would you rap about to them?
TJ: I would do my regular raps at first, then throw something in every now and then to relate it back. I remember back in the day when no one would give us a shot, me and Thelonious [Martin], and this girl Lindsey Lombard we used to put together shows. Her mother would help us out and throw in some money up-front and we would throw these shows at the local art museum and different places. We would get people out, back when we didn’t have any material out. We were just young people trying to get nice on stage. I credit a lot of my success to being comfortable as a performer first. By the time I really started working on my studio material I was able to think in my head. Like, what’s going to connect to a person live, as well as in headphones.
MA: How did you meet Thelonious?
TJ: I don’t even remember because we went to high school together. I must have been 13, 14 when I first met him and he was just another cat. He was actually rapping back then.
MA: Oh, word?
TJ: He’s going to get mad at me, but he was a terrible rapper. I didn’t want to tell him. We were all getting started, just young rappers in this one town, so we didn’t want to throw shade on nobody. Everybody was trying to get together and cypher, work on records and stuff. One day he just started making beats. His first couple beats, they were very simple but, you know he was inspired by Dilla. He was like, ‘I saw what Dilla did and I’m in love with the way he was able to capture these sounds and make them into something completely new.’
He really developed very rapidly. He grinded. We were a source of inspiration for each other in terms of keeping each other on our toes and always working to one-up the other one. I think that’s how we came to work together because we were the main ones always going to be in the studio. We would always pick the studio over going out to party with chicks or hang out with homies.
MA: How did you come up with the name Topaz Jones?
TJ: It’s really not that great of a story, I gotta come up with a better story for it at some point. I had a really bad rap name originally that I’m not going to say.
MA: You’re not going to say it?
TJ: No. I went into high school and I was like, I gotta change this shit, so I started looking around at different words and names, what jumped out at me. I always wanted to keep Jones, I really fuck with my last name. I was in this filmmaking class, freshmen year, and our homework every weekend was to watch three classic movies and write about them. I got into a Hitchcock kick and one of Hitchcock’s movies that was playing on TCM was called “Topaz.” I watched the movie and I always had the word in my head from then on. Then, a couple months later it came on again and I decided to run with it.
At first I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out. But people started responding to it, like, ‘Yeah, that sounds dope!’ By junior or senior year teachers were calling me [Topaz]. At that point it just became more of a general nickname than my artist name per se.
MA: So how many projects have you dropped under the name Topaz Jones?
TJ: I dropped the first solo project my senior year of high school, and that was all me and Thelonious in my basement hatching out ideas, developing our sound. After that, I did two collaboration tapes with this collective, Tastemakers New Jersey, a bunch of up-and-coming cats that had the same kind of approach to music – creating hip hop that draws from that classic ‘90s aesthetic, but also experiments with more futuristic ideas sonically.
I did another EP with $aint Ros$, that was called 106 Miles to Chicago, that was more recent. Then I faded away for a little bit, just to reinvent myself and work on this project. The Honeymoon Suite is my first true, artistic statement that’s completely accurate to whom I want to be as an artist.
MA: Do you feel like it’s your first project then?
TJ: I do. There’s a lot of love for my past projects, I still meet a lot of fans who really connect with the old shit, and some of the raw talent that was shown on there, but now I think I’m far more refined. I really got into a groove artistically, and creatively, and found my niche. I think it’s a lot more of a diverse sound, which is always what I was going for.
MA: How did you come up with the name for the album?
TJ: It’s really inspired by those cheap old motels that you would find in Las Vegas, where people elope. There’s people dressed up like Elvis, and every room has a different theme. I wanted to create an album that felt like that. There’s a sexual element, there’s some danger to it but also nothing sounds the same. Every song on there is it’s own sonic space. There’s ones that are super aggressive, ones that are more mellow, and ones that have a very live feel. It’s all over the place while still managing to have a cohesive feeling to it. Which is something that wasn’t easy to do but I was very happy to be able to achieve that.
MA: Do you feel like it tells a story?
TJ: If you pay attention there’s a relationship narrative weaved in that doesn’t always poke its head out, but it’s definitely there and it’s the reason why The Honeymoon Suite is the main space that it’s named after.
MA: Let’s talk about the song with your dad, how did you guys come up with the concept for that. What was the recording process like?
TJ: What’s funny is we had this whole song, that people will never hear that was going to be the intro to the album. At the end of it I was like, ‘What we should do is an interlude at the end, and have my pops singing over it.’ We started to listen to it, everybody’s favorite part was the interlude. We got to a point where we ditched the first song and started building it from scratch around the part that he’d laid down. We built something completely different that surrounds that vocal and builds on top of it. I just played it for him a couple of days ago, he liked it.
MA: What do you want people to take away from the album?
TJ: What I want the people to take away is an understanding of me as an artist, and what I want other artists to take away is an understanding of how to create hip hop, and music in general, that draws from the past and works in the present without sounding like the same old song that everyone is making.
I think we need to get back to a place in music, specifically urban music, where it’s all about the originality and we’re looking for new and exciting sounds rather than who is the new flavor of the month over the same drum patterns we’ve been hearing since ’09. I just get exhausted. I get tired of the same shit over and over again.
MA: What’s next after the album drops?
TJ: We’re trying to possibly put together some tour options. Definitely hitting up SXSW, trying to do as many sets as possible. I’m excited to finally perform the songs that I’ve had for over a year now and really communicate with the fans head on. I have always had plans to — when I finally released the album — go to this sushi spot that I really fuck with, just go HAM on some rolls.
MA: What’s the name of the spot?
TJ: Nah, I can’t say it man! That’s my secret spot.
MA: Ahhh, that’s your secret spot. Is it in Jersey or New York?
TJ: It’s in New York, but it’s the best-kept secret. I’m might tell you after the interview – off the record.
Writer’s note: He never told me.
You can stream Topaz Jones’ new project The Honeymoon Suite below or download it at TopazJones.com.