“East New York Is Where I Became Myself”: An Interview with Jimi Tents

Donna-Claire speaks with Jimi Tents about gentrification in New York, his new record, 'I Can't Go Home,' and his favorite rap records.
By    July 13, 2017

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You can’t trust a real estate headline, but you can trust Jimi Tents to bring you the truth. The East New York native’s newest album I Can’t Go Home is just as much about chasing dreams as it a comment on gentrification. Following the devastation of his family losing their home to foreclosure, Jimi penned this record because he had to make it, knowing that there was no ‘or else.’ We hear his urgency across the album, be it the leveling crunch of a snare or his consistently dynamic delivery.

Though skit-free, the album tells the story of a man who leaves the his day-to-day life behind in pursuit of his dreams. He heads out to LA, makes one too many mistakes, and heads home to New York. But this isn’t a tragedy, the album is a lesson in pacing yourself and using home find balance.

Jimi and I spoke on the phone about his early music memories, the dangerous intricacies of gentrification, his hunger as an artist, and the frontwards-backwards story he tells on I Can’t Go Home. —Donna-Claire


I know you grew up in a music-loving family. What were the albums that really marked your childhood experiences in East New York?


Jimi Tents: I lived in East New York for a vast majority of my life. I’ve definitely bounced around to other parts of Brooklyn, but East New York is where I became myself and the man I am today. Some of the music that soundtracked my experiences and fueled my passion were Stankonia by OutKast, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, and Da Real Thing by Sizzla. I grew up in a West Indian household, with my mom being Guyanese and my dad being Jamaican. My dad was a DJ and had dozens of vinyl records, and my mom loved R & B and soul. All of these different genres of music were a big-big melting pot. I listened to everything, and it played a part in who I became.


Which records from that melting pot really sparked your desire to become a rapper?


Jimi Tents: I can list the three projects that made me want to rap, starting with Get Rich or Die Tryin’. That was the first project where I heard it front to back and thought, ‘Wow, I love this.’ I have even earlier rap memories where I was really young and my mom would buy me little doctor toys—stethoscopes and the like—and I’d be playing with the toys. My grandmother had this big jukebox where she’d play Tupac. I had to be three or four, and that was the first rap that I ever heard. I didn’t know what I liked about it, but I knew that I did. Fast forward to Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and I had older cousins who would stay with us and one of them bought the album. That was the first album that I ever popped into a Walkman, and I didn’t understand all of the content until later in life. But that was the first album where I thought sonically I wanted to do something like that, wanted to rap.

The College Dropout showed me that I don’t have to be a gangster rapper to be able to rap. The Dynasty also really accompanied who I am. Those records are like the holy trinity of rap albums that made me want to rap. I don’t have one single record, because full bodies of work really made me want to pick up a pen. That’s why my albums sound the way they do now, because I focus on creating cohesive projects and not just single records.


With those doctor toys, how did your family react to you going all in with rapping?


Jimi Tents: They were more than supportive. My parents were immigrants, and that whole narrative is like, ‘I came to this country so you can have a better life and be a doctor or a lawyer,’ and that’s usually the end of the discussion. My parents were like that, but at the same time, they also had dreams they didn’t get to live out. For them, me pursuing my dreams, as long as I go extremely hard at them, that was enough. At first, my mom was skeptical, but she was always supportive. They were funding my studio sessions before I had a job, and it’s not like they had the money. They were just doing that because they knew I enjoyed rapping. That all paid off, because my mom was able to see me performing at Madison Square Garden.


I’ve got a similar immigrant parents story. My mom wanted to be a writer.


Jimi Tents: That’s dope, and you see, the thing is: my interest in rap started when I was eight or nine. I would write raps all the time, but my parents didn’t know I was rapping until I was sixteen. They just found it. Even when I was going to the studio, they didn’t really know about it. For me, I didn’t want anyone to know about it and then have them say, ‘Oh, you’re wack.’ I was still building my skills at that point; I didn’t want to rap for anybody.


How did you overcome that early fear of rapping for someone?


Jimi Tents: Recording music. You know, anybody can write a rhyme, but until you put it on wax and share it with the world, it’s not really tangible. I started recording more and figuring out what my voice was—really I’m a hip-hop nerd, I love this shit—to get past the fear. After I started creating original songs, that’s when I was put in a space where I realized I could actually do this. I was one of the only rappers in my high school and then I met two or three others. The morale that came with me being a dope artist, the support that I had from my peers, that also drove the confidence so I could make a project.


In 2015 and 2016 you released your debut, 5 O’Clock Shadow. What was the biggest lesson you learned from putting together that project?


Jimi Tents: Every song isn’t going to make the cut. We’re creating a body of work, and it has to be deeper than what my favorite song is. It’s more about telling a story and putting together something that flows, while also showcasing who I am. I learned a lot of lessons, because at that point in my career that was my first body of work, that was my introduction. I didn’t necessarily know how the music would be received. Once it was out there and I saw that people were enjoying it, I was put in a space where I had to create something bigger and better.


How did that energy change your approach on I Can’t Go Home?


Jimi Tents: Leading into I Can’t Go Home, I was in a really weird transitional period. My family found out that we would be losing our home in East New York and being a young man—my parents aren’t together—and then to be the man in the house at this point in my life, but not being able to help my family out because I wasn’t there yet, really had a strange impact on my psyche.

Feeling helpless and seeing the people around me feel helpless made my approach to I Can’t Go Home much more aggressive. I was going for the kill, and made a body of work to honestly tell my story and motivate people. I didn’t make the connection between I Can’t Go Home and me losing my home until after the project was crafted, so I imagine that was subconscious.


You mentioned in an interview with The Fader that I Can’t Go Home works both front to back and back to front. What was the process of making something so intricate?


Jimi Tents: I approach all my music with that same level of detail. I’m a really meticulous person. Even on 5 O’Clock Shadow, I would hear something and think, ‘Nah, we need real strings,’ and we’d call in a quartet. I won’t sleep until certain details are changed. We are in a world surrounded by ideas, and the main way to get these ideas out of your head is execution. So my main goal is to execute at the highest level every time. So if I’m making music, and I can hear the final product in my head, the goal is to get the final product as close as possible to what I imagine. I’ve never hit 100%. I can get to 85% or 90% if I’m really close.


What does 100% look like in your mind?


Jimi Tents: Because I don’t know how to produce, I can’t always articulate myself in a way where the person I’m working with can see what’s in my head. So if I suggest something, they can only get the music as close as they can comprehend. I’m reliant on other people to do things that I can’t. That’s why I want to learn how to produce and engineer, not because I want to do it all myself, but because I want to be in a better headspace to explain what I want. All I can control is my delivery, my voice, and the production I choose.


The title really feels like a triple entendre so let’s unpack that. First off, the title is a comment on gentrification. That’s a huge problem in cities, so what’s your personal experience with it?


Jimi Tents: East New York is changing rapidly. It’s not necessarily the place I grew up in anymore. There are people being driven out of their homes due to an influx of people that aren’t native to that neighborhood. The median income for a neighborhood like East New York is anywhere from fifteen to twenty thousand dollars per household. Next to East New York is Brownsville, which is one of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Brownsville is made up of anywhere between thirteen and fifteen housing projects. A single project is huge, but now imagine fifteen of them. Where do you have space for actual neighborhoods, actual houses, actual schools, actual parks? Now everybody in this neighborhood is impoverished, so they’re probably selling or doing drugs. There’s alcoholism, there’s abandonment, there’s a lot of things going on in this neighborhood. Now you have to compete with people that look like you to thrive, and they’re under the same living conditions, just trying to get a little more.

That’s what East New York is and was, including that little border between Brownsville and East New York. Now you throw gentrification into the pot and it’s like the government isn’t going to help you, not going to put organic foods into your neighborhood, not going to fix the trains, not going to fix the parks for you. But they have some people with some money that will come in, but not for you. When I lived in East New York it was fried chicken, deli, liquor store, fried chicken, fried chicken, and another liquor store. Now, we’re in a position where you’re seeing changes, but those changes aren’t for the people that live there. The changes are for the people that are about to come in.


How do you feel about real estate publications calling East New York a ‘hot new neighborhood?’


Jimi Tents: That’s just bullshit. It’s just uncharted territory. I see how certain communities in America are marginalized and other communities are empowered. Now, I’m not just talking about race, class, gender, or sex. I feel like America and the mass media finds ways to keep us divided. I see how they uplift certain communities and not others. I always wonder, why is this? I know everything can’t be 50-50, but if there’s government funding for certain things, why is it allocated in this way and not that?

For real estate companies to label East New York the new hot place to move—it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful neighborhood if you actually get to know it and you develop a keen appreciation for it. But if you’re not from there, nobody’s looking forward to you moving there. So that label is just really weird, because where are all these people supposed to go? Fuck that. We’re from New York. We’re already struggling and you’re going to add more to that, just to be hip? That’s weird to me.


I also read the title as something of a dream-chasing moment, so where does that urgency come across in the music?


Jimi Tents: The title became a mindset for me during the process of writing and creating the album. I know for a lot of my peers growing up, especially in East New York, there are a lot of things that you’re taught. If you’re in a fight, it’s either win or don’t come home. It’s almost like you’ll be disowned if you don’t win. That mentality makes you act different. I can’t even put a label on this realization of what you’re fighting for, but you realize that you cannot lose. With that mentality, after I dropped the first project, it was like, ‘I can’t stop now, I can’t back down.’


Is that mentality the driving force that helped create “Rick Rubin?”


Jimi Tents: The mentality inspired the entire album. Even on a more fun record like “Rick Rubin,” you have to go out and get it. There are no skits on the album, but I still mapped a story out in my head. We start with this character from New York and he’s fed up with his daily life. He has a huge dream that he wants to chase, but he doesn’t know how he can break that to the people around him. He has to go after his dream, and then he can come back and better everyone around him. So the first line on the album is him frustrated and talking to himself. He’s at work and he doses off, and that goes off into the LA half of the record. Now he’s in this larger than life reality and considers his perception of success.

He’s taking his girl shopping on “Domino Effect,” and then it’s “No Looking Back” where he runs into somebody that is successful. On “No Looking Back,” I’m not talking about me having a Jag, I’m talking about somebody else telling me, ‘Look at what I have, you can obtain the same things.’ Following that up is “Should’ve Called Pt. 2” where he just ups and leaves without telling anyone. Then he goes out to LA with the mindset that he’s going to achieve something positive, but gets caught up in the lifestyle. He realizes that he needs home to keep himself balanced, so in the end he comes back home. That’s what I mean about playing it frontwards and backwards, because it starts and ends at home.


How would you define your concept of ‘home’ on the album?


Jimi Tents: My concept of home is comfort. That’s why I Can’t Go Home sounds really aggressive, because I want to face the adversity and feel the growing pains. I don’t want to be where it’s comfortable. The album could be called I Can’t Be Where it’s Comfortable. When the character realizes that he’s too comfortable in the beginning of the album, he goes out and realizes he isn’t ready. So he comes back home with a new perspective about what comfortable is. The whole album is also a life lesson about moderation and balance.


I Can’t Go Home has more pops of color coupled with aggression than 5 O’Clock Shadow, despite the fact that you still handle topics of depression and loss. How do you reconcile handling such heavy topics while still keeping up a high energy?


Jimi Tents: My mindset for creating a body of work is to create somewhat of an array of sounds. I can’t draw or paint, but I have a vast appreciation for the arts in general. When I look at a painting, whatever colors are being used or thrown around, I treat my music in the same light. I sat down, and next to each song I wrote the color that I saw. I wrote the feeling that I felt with each record. That helped me determine what colors or feelings were missing from the album. It’s not as calculated as it may seem, because I don’t get too calculated until a song is 70% done.

This tracklist started out as sixteen, then twelve, then ended at thirteen songs. I wanted to make an album with solid replay value. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say the album could live without this or that song, which really affects my process. Doing things like tackling depression has me keeping the energy up on other songs, or trying to blend it like on “Should’ve Called Pt. 2.” I keep trying to find unique ways to get things off my chest.


That brings me to the extremely personal “Below the Surface.” I read that you didn’t initially want to put out that track, what changed your mind?


Jimi Tents: To be real, the song wasn’t even an option to be on my album because it wasn’t complete. It was just a verse and a hook for a long time. I knew I wanted someone on it, I just didn’t know who. I had been sitting on the record for so long, and I honestly forgot about it. I didn’t know where I was going to take the song, because the first verse was so personal. I try to make my second verses better than the first, so I didn’t know if I could draw out even stronger feelings out a second time.

Fast forward, I’m talking to my manager in Harlem and we’re just running through records. He mentions “Below the Surface.” The song isn’t done, but I did send it over to Saba. I met Saba at this Footaction cypher that we did at the top of the year. We exchanged contacts and connected. He had a show in New York and I had sent him the record, two months before the song was even an option for me. I called him after sending the song and he told me he would be in New York the next day, through some grace of God, and he fucked with the song. After his show, he went straight to the studio and cut the verse. That’s how it made the album.


Saba is a perfect fit for the song.


Jimi Tents: Especially since we’re both talking about loss. Unfortunately, he lost his cousin this year. I knew that was a very personal verse for him, and it was dope that he was able to really speak his peace and clear his mind. His whole verse is really about how he handled the death the first time he heard it, to reminiscing, to talking about how fast these things can happen. It’s extremely sad, but it’s also amazing that as creatives we can do this in hopes of relating to somebody else that lost a loved one or someone close to them.


Being that the song is so personal, did you feel any apprehension when you sat down to write it?


Jimi Tents: Oh, 100%. That was maybe another reason why I didn’t want to put it out. It was a lot of people’s favorite record, so I don’t regret a thing. It wasn’t until I sat down with HotNewHipHop and really broke down the lyrics that I realized this song was extremely deep and personal. Even with depression or suicidal thoughts, or the feelings of losing someone, all of those emotions started to creep back up for me. I didn’t realize how much power was in the song. The whole motive of the track is recognizing the light at the end of the tunnel, and having to go through the darkness to reach it. You might have a stone face, but you might also feel uneasy about your position or circumstances, and that’s okay. The whole song is saying that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable.


What mindset do you need to be in to be able to discuss your demons?


Jimi Tents: I don’t feel like I need any mindset. I feel like transparency is key. For me to be in this position, the more honest I am with myself, the more honest I can be with listeners. The popular perception is that people don’t care for substance anymore. I care for it; I love it. I consider myself someone with a message, but sometimes I worry if people will want to hear this. Every day, my fans tell me that people do want to hear this. So I always want to drill down and get more honesty out of myself.


You’ve told your story, and glanced out far beyond your city on both 5 O’Clock Shadow and I Can’t Go Home. So what’s the next story you’re going to bring us?


Jimi Tents: I don’t want to give away too much of the next story, but just know that if I’m not telling my story, I’m not telling any story. We do have the “Rick Rubin” visual coming soon. There’s more visuals coming, as well. The next project is going to be crazy. I don’t feel like I Can’t Go Home is my best work, so I’m gonna keep dropping dope shit until everybody wakes up.