An Interview with Legendary Rap-A-Lot Producer N.O Joe

Jimmy Ness talks with Rap-A-Lot legend, N.O Joe about producing for Scarface, Bun B, Pimp C, Jay Z, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, 2Pac, and more!
By    October 19, 2015

n-o joe

The potent knock of Scarface’s 187 raps. The blues inspired swang and bang of UGK. Though his name might not be immediately recognizable, N.O Joe helped shape Southern hip-hop. As Rap-A-Lot’s former in-house producer, the man born Joseph Jackson spread his “Gumbo Funk” sound across the globe. Like Organized Noize in their Georgia basement, Joe was inspired by his country upbringing to mix West/East Coast flavor with the influence of soul music and church instruments. The underrated Louisianan is considered among the first to add organs to rap and counts Dr Dre, Jay Z, Biggie, and 2Pac as fans.

Weeks after producing Scarface’s latest album Deeply Rooted with help from Spuf Don, whom Joe mentored along with Travi$ Scott, the production savant gave one of his most in-depth interviews. Jackson spoke beforehand of his photographic memory and said he can recall every instrument played on The Diary. He’s only half-joking. For almost two hours, he retold working with LL Cool J, his initial chance encounter with Scarface, meeting Mike Dean and his feelings towards J. Prince. Joe also does one of the best Pimp C impressions ever and shared memories of his close friend as well as tales of his decades behind the boards with UGK. This ain’t no 2015 listicle containing nothing but disappointment, settle in for a wealth of rap history. — Jimmy Ness

You produced in high school under the name “Joe Cool.”

N.O Joe: I grew up around music. My mom owned a record store. There was a bunch of great soul music around me, Donny Hathaway to Aretha Franklin, and I would sing in church. She [Joe’s mom] would actually do promotion for the artist when they would come into town. Like with the Jackson 5, she would bring them around to the different promotions. James Brown would come in town and she would do promotions for him. They come over to the record store and sign autographs, she would fix their hair, everything. So I grew up around a lot of this stuff.

I didn’t have that much money so I started out singing and a friend of mine did a lot of the music. Then I started learning a little bit more about the music. There was a cop that we met, actually he had some equipment so he loaned us a 606 drum machine and a 4-Track. What I would do is I would take those and there was a place called Jackson Square, New Orleans. They would have artists and they would sell their paintings [etc]. During the time, they had electricity from light poles so I would hook my equipment up and charge people for demos and make money.

Did you interact with these artists your mom worked with?

N.O Joe: I remember meeting Ernest K-Doe, he had the song Mother in Law.” Him and Teddy Pendergrast, Barry White, I met Aretha Franklin, a lot of these people as a kid and a couple of the Jacksons. I didn’t meet Michael, Michael was somewhere else, I met Randy and I think it was Tito or something like that.

How did you get the opportunity to move to New York in your late teens?

N.O Joe: There was a convention in New Orleans and I actually snuck in. Those conventions were like three hundred bucks or something for a pass. I didn’t have that kind of money so I kind of slipped past the guy and got in there. I met a guy named Kijana Brown, who worked with Universal, and at the time Run DMC had a label called JDK Records. I started producing for them. I met that guy there and the next day we went to his hotel room. I played him some music and he was like “Wow, this is great!” I had a bunch of rap tracks and I start playing that stuff and he kind of sat up in the bed and was like “wow!” He said “hey man, could you come out to New York tomorrow?” So the following week, I was in New York and that’s where I got my start.

Did you work with Run DMC?

N.O Joe: No I didn’t work with Run DMC, but I got a chance to be backstage at the shows. When I saw those shows, it was some crazy stuff, like the energy they put into those shows and the hits they had, everything. I worked with the artists on the label and through Universal, which was MCA records at the time, I met up with a group they had just signed called Jodeci. Devante [Swing] was a producer that was just coming up at the time.

You were a young guy from a relatively poor background and suddenly you find yourself in another state with some of the biggest groups around. That must have been wild.

N.O Joe: Oh man, it was mind-blowing. I was calling my friends like “guess what? I’m at Andre Harrell’s party. Man there’s LL Cool J here, there’s blah blah.” You know I actually thought I was dreaming. When I told my dad I was going to New York, he was like “yeah, right.” Until I left with my bags, then he was like “oh you’re really going.” Those days I met a bunch of people there and I learnt a lot. I was doing records with JDK, their artists like Mic Professor and Smooth [Ice]. I worked out of Chung King Studio B. I learned a lot because a lot of the big producers were coming in. Bruce Swedien, who did Michael Jackson’s records, I got a chance to watch him work. Steve Hodge, Dave Consada, all of these guys I got a chance to see them work because the label booked the studio for me, for like a year, so I was in there almost every day.

Why did you end up back down South?

N.O Joe: When I returned to New Orleans, I met Scarface. I was actually doing music for him, not knowing that I would meet him, because I loved his voice and just the way he said things. I just started doing music while I was in New York, kind of catering to that sound. I was actually rapping along just trying to get that same tone. Basically I wanted my tone to be a cross between Chuck D and Scarface, never knowing I’d meet him. So when I got back to New Orleans, I went to a record store and guess who’s there? Scarface!

I think it was Sound Warehouse, it was a music store. Anyway, so he was with Big Mello, RIP. He was on the road with Scarface at the time like as a hypeman and ‘Face’s friend as well. I was like “yo bro, is that Scarface? Can you come out to the car? I’d like you to listen to some tracks and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go back in and get him.” I played like ten seconds of the tracks and he like “Woah! Wait, wait a minute. Hold up.”

He went in there and got ‘Face and he listened to some joints and was like “you got any more of this stuff?” So we went back to my house. I was pulling out floppy discs from everywhere because I figured if I had music all in one place, if it got stolen then everything was gone. So I had stuff everywhere, ‘Face was just laughing man. From there, he was like “I’d like you to do my whole album” and that’s what bought me to Houston.

You met Big Mike after the Scarface record?

N.O Joe: I was supposed to work on Scarface’s second solo album, but they were working on the Geto Boys’ Till Death Do Us Part at the time. They contracted me to do three or four songs on the record and I winded up doing twelve. That’s when Big Mike was intro’d to the group. Working on that recording was just crazy because Big Mike was a real talented guy along with ‘Face. So I would do one solo record for ‘Face and Big Mike would say “hey man, I like that song you did, can you hook me up with one of those?”

You were also working with UGK around this time.

N.O Joe: I was working on my compilation album. We [Bun B and Joe] were just shooting ideas back and forth. Once we developed a good relationship, Bun was like “man, Pimp C wants to work with you, but he doesn’t know kind of how to ask you.” He’d never brought anybody else in [to work on UGK records] and I told Bun “what!? Man, dude! I’d love to work on a UGK record, bro.”

So Pimp C and I got together. We talked about music and we gelled real well together and worked out everything. Pimp C was like “you know, we don’t have the big budget to pay you.” I was like “I’m not worrying about that man. I love the music more.” That’s when we hooked up and did the Ridin’ Dirty album.

When Bun B told me that he wanted to work with me or whatever, I drove down to Port Arthur. Pimp C was having a birthday party and he didn’t know I was coming. So when I got there, he was like “oh wow, damn.” The look on his face was like “damn!” And he was looking at Bun like “you motherfucker, how you… what the hell! How did you bring this guy?” The look on his face was like joyful and we had a good time the whole day.

What were the studios like? Were they low budget?

N.O Joe: Well no actually, to be honest with you, I remember the owner of Rap-A-Lot was telling me that the [Geto Boys] We Can’t Be Stopped album was done on a pool table with like an 8-Track or something like that. We actually recorded the Till Death Do Us Part album on a 4-Track with one of those RadioShack mics that you hang on the wall, it was like a triangle. That’s what we actually recorded the demo version of it on. We were supposed to do something somewhere else at some other studio and I said “look guys, I’m not trying to be a Prima donna or anything but man, we have to step our game up in the studio.” [The album was later re-done at the Digital Services studio]

Scarface broke his hand when you guys were working on The Diary.

N.O Joe: Yeah, in the hallways we would always play or whatever and [laughs] we were just play-boxing and he swung and I ducked and “boom” he hit the side of the molding, like the corner of the door. You could actually see the white part of his knuckle. He was like “shit, I think I broke it man.” Just real cool, just like that. “I think I broke my damn knuckle. Shit.” We went back in the studio and we started recording again and he was like “god-damn, this shit hurt, man. Let me go see what the hell is going on with this.” And he came back like “yeah, I broke my knuckle, man.”

How was working with someone so open about their mental issues? That’s not something often talked about, especially in rap music.

N.O Joe: I mean, he’s a very creative person and you have to know him to work with him in some instances. I know him like the back of my hand. So if one day he comes in the studio and says “fuck you Joe, get the fuck out of here. I don’t like this.” You know, I just pack everything up and leave and say “okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow” [Laughs]. You know what I’m saying? That’s how we work so well together because I let him be him and he let me be me. Sometimes I’m not the easiest guy to work with. I have my faults, he give me my space. I give him space and when we come together and when we all in the right mind, we put classics together.

Scarface’s battles with bipolar are well documented and Pimp C also had his own struggles with bipolar and depression. You must be quite an understanding person to work with.

N.O Joe: I am. Big Mike was that way as well. I don’t know man. I grew up in the bad part, the Sixth Ward in New Orleans, so I got a chance to see dope fiends and all kinds of different people there. I think that’s how I was able to work with those guys because I understood some parts of where they were coming from. Not saying they were on drugs, but it’s that mindset when somebody kinda just starts dancing or whatever and kind of talking to themselves like “yeah, yeah…” You’re just like “yeah that’s cool.” You know? And you keep it moving because they’re in their zone.

In Scarface’s book Diary of a madman, he said famed producer Mike Dean looked like a cowboy when they first met. He was a long-haired white guy who played the guitar and drove a pick-up truck.

N.O Joe: Yeah, yeah haha! Spongy-haired Mike Dean. When Mike came into the picture, he had like super long hair and I think he played at a piano bar or something before he got to Rap-A-Lot and was doing engineering. I think I started working with him on Till Death Do Us Part. I can tell you like this, the studio was a pretty good studio but the monitoring system sucked. All my drum sounds were processed on SSLs and keyboards before I got to Houston. There wasn’t much mixing my records, but we had to go back and forth to the car just to get the true sound and it was a little bit draining at times. Mike Dean is a funny guy. Very talented dude, man. We had fun in those days.

Scarface also said Dean was a bit of a tough guy as well. He might have looked like a cowboy, but he wouldn’t let anyone mess with him.

N.O Joe: Mike didn’t really take no shit. He’d get in a fight, I don’t know if he’d win or not, but he’d damn sure fight ya [laughs]. Either that or you’d take ten steps back and draw with him! [laughs heartily]

You produced UGK’s follow up to Ridin’ Dirty, Dirty Money five years later. How was it different from your first time with them?

N.O. Joe: It was pretty cool man. You know Pimp C was very particular about his music. I wanted to get them in the studio earlier than we did. I wanted to get them in like ’99. That album came together pretty quick. Just like on Ridin’ Dirty, that was a two to three week process and Dirty Money was around the same. I had a lot of the music already done and Pimp C would bring in a lot of music. Like if I had some music, Pimp C would immediately, if he likes it, he would have a chorus and go in there and sing it. So that’s how a lot of that stuff came together perfectly.

When the record came out, I don’t think they got that much promotion on it, but the crazy thing is I’d sit back and be talking to the DJs and I’d say “how many records did you bounce out here? How many records are you putting up from Dirty Money? It’s like about seven songs in the club. They’re playing “Choppin’ Blades,” “Take it Off,” they’re playing “Let Me See It.” All of these records, we produced in the studio. Thirteen songs on the record and seven were still playing in the club regularly.

Part of what made UGK so special is they were proud of being country and from the South.

N.O. Joe: Besides the Geto Boys, it’s like “Texas hip-hop are you kidding me?” They thought about Texas as horses and cowboy hats. Pimp C and Bun, they always kept their Texas tone. That “twiiiine.” “You already know, I’m country mane! It’s me dawg.” They show it in their rhymes and that’s what made them so distinct. They never took anything from New York and never said “ya’ll want to rap like this, yo!” They did it in their own tone and that’s what made them work.

I’ve read that Pimp C struggled with the character he’d created. What was he like away from the gangsta/pimp persona?

N.O Joe: Man, Pimp C, I can say this here, very good-hearted person. He was one of those artists where if I had a new artist I was working with and I said “C, this artist is a fan of yours and I’d like to get you here,” he would drive from Port Arthur to come to Houston to do a feature on that record, like it was nothing. Again, they didn’t really have big budgets for [those first two albums].

They had a pretty decent budget for the last album when he was alive [Underground Kingz], which I produced a lot of stuff on there with him as well. He said to me “you’ve done a lot with us bro, what I want to do man is I want to put you into the best of whatever we have here. So I flew out to LA and I mean he actually really rolled out the red carpet. He said “Aye N.O Joe! Look here mayne, I ain’t going have my producer staying at no hoe ass Motel 6 nigga and I’m at the Le Ermitage! Nigga yo’ room on the same floor as mine! Joe, you been down with us when we ain’t had much of a budget now we got a big one, fuck that!”

He had just really recently got out of jail. When it came to anything with UGK, we always wanted to preserve that sound and where we were with that sound. He didn’t really trust a lot of people with his music, putting it together and even mixing it, so a lot of those records I mixed.

I heard that Big Mike worked on Dr Dre’s The Chronic. Do you know if that’s true?

N.O Joe: I don’t know if he did work on The Chronic, but I do know around the time they were recording it, Big Mike and [Mr.] 3-2 were then a group called Convicts. They were out there and they stayed in the same apartment with Snoop Dogg before he blew up. You know Big Mike and [Mr.] 3-2 were kind of ahead of their time as well because all of that “big baby” and “really tho” [ad-libs] and all of that stuff that’s [Mr.] 3-2. Before The Chronic and all of that stuff came out, just their whole persona. They were cutting edge. They were a different type of artist.

People have often compared Snoop and Mr 3-2s style including their cadence and flow. Big Mike also nearly signed with Death Row, before he returned to Houston to replace Willie D in the Geto Boys.

It’s been said that Dr. Dre kept a copy of The Diary in his studio because he aimed to make records at that level.

N.O Joe: When I heard that man, it almost bought tears to my eyes because you know Dr. Dre is one of my idols. I love the way he produces music and takes his time with it and for him to say something like that man… it was an honor.

Jay Z loves your music as well.

N.O Joe: When I met Jay Z for the first time, a lot of people didn’t know who I was because you always heard the name [N.O Joe], but you never saw the face. I remember the first time meeting with Jay Z, he asked ‘Face “hey man where’s N.O Joe the producer?” And ‘Face turned around and said “he’s right there, behind the drum machine” [laughs]. So when I met him for the first time, he was like “hey man, I’m a fan of yours.” I’m like “bro, I’m a fan of yours!” It’s just that mutual respect, we have for each other. I’d like to work with him again one day.

On “99 Problems,” he rapped Bun B’s opening verse from “Touched” which you produced.

N.O Joe: “This is not a ho in the sense of having a pussy. But a pussy having no goddamn sense, try and push me.” Yeah, he got it from that. Actually that was another one of his favorites, the Ridin’ Dirty album.

You worked with Ice Cube on War & Peace Vol. 1. How did the way him and Scarface create music differ?

N.O Joe: Ice Cube, he’s artistic, but he’s more business orientated. The very first song I did with Ice Cube was called “Little Ass Gee,” it was a remix on the Bootleg’s & B-Sides album. The next project I worked on was War. We actually recorded part of that at my studio in my house. The thing about him man, he came down for a few days and we recorded the five songs and he knew exactly [what he wanted] when he heard the music.

He wrote to it, he had the hook right there. He called after the “Pushing Weight” song and said I have a single, we’re ready to go, just like that. He gave me a bunch of his other vocals for his record, but I did five songs on the album because I didn’t know exactly which direction he wanted to go in. That being his comeback album, I wanted to gel with him a little bit more before I would go in and try to do more songs on that album.

People would say “hey N.O Joe fucked up Ice Cube’s record [laughs], so I was good with the five. The “Pushing Weight” song came out right after we mixed it, like a week or two. It was number one on the rap charts and then very soon became a gold single, then the album was platinum.

Several Rap-A-Lot artists feel like they were ripped off. Is it the same for you?

N.O Joe: No, with Rap-A-Lot man, it’s all about your business. J. Prince is a businessman okay, and he’s going to handle business the way he sees it needs to be handled. I’m a businessman as well, so when we handle business, we handle business in a proper manner. He know, I know when I’m supposed to get paid and what the royalty rates are and blah blah. So I never had a problem with that, with him.

Now some things may have fallen through the cracks, but guess who’s fault that was? Mine, because I’m doing a bunch of projects and some things fall behind, but I can’t sit here and say that J [Prince] screwed over me as far as whatever. I came in as a producer and that’s what I was, so give me my three percent, blah blah and we good. Until I become an executive and own all my own masters, then it’s a different story. This is nothing with Scarface because he handles his business too. I don’t want what happened with them.

On my end, I look at it like if this drunk guy comes in and he’s very talented and he write a lot of songs or whatever and J [Prince] says “hey listen, I need you to sign this work for hire form and give you ten grand and then later down the line everybody else gets paid,” you can’t say “he’s fucked me.” You’re a grown man. You should have went to him and said “listen, I wrote you some songs and I deserve this percentage.”

Some business I dealt with him, I lost, some business I won. It’s just the nature of the business and we’d laugh at each other and be like “you got me on that one.” It’s business, that’s all it is. I’m still cool with J. The thing is we respect each other as men to a point where I’m talking with J or whatever and he would never ask me “what’s going on with Scarface? Or what’s going on with Pimp C?” We never do that.

I work with Scarface on a level, we’re friends and I produce a lot of records and that’s that. Scarface and J. Prince have a special relationship. If they need to talk it over, they’ll talk it over amongst themselves. I’m never in the middle of any of that stuff, because that’s their business. I’m only talking my business, about me personally. Everything’s separate.

You still have unreleased UGK and solo Pimp C records in the chamber.

N.O Joe: Yeah, we recorded a lot of stuff with UGK. A lot of the stuff Rap-A-Lot have and they own it, but at the end of the day, I am going to put together a record with Pimp C. We had a vision, before Pimp C passed. When we finished the double album [Underground Kingz], we sat down and he had a deal he was going to do with, I think Jive or BMG, for his solo record. He wanted to keep a certain sound we did together and get back in a major way, so this record we talked a lot about how we were going to do the production.

Hopefully I can get a chance to put together some of those records that weren’t released and that was released and put the music out there, that you would know and love if you had heard from me and Pimp C now.

Did you witness a lot of drug use when you were in the studio with Pimp C?

N.O Joe: With Pimp C and a lot of his personal things, whatever he did in his personal life, I was never involved in it. There was never anything. When I heard he passed, I could not believe it because when we’re in the studio, Pimp C didn’t smoke and drink and do all of that crazy shit like that. He was a very creative person. I didn’t see him in there with the double cup all the time. He was very focused on the music. Maybe with some other people, but when Scarface or Pimp C or Bun B or whatever come in the studio with me, you’re going to get a fucking great album.

Even if they smoke a little bit, they know Joe is focused on the fucking music and I need to be right there. When they come in the studio with me it’s a whole different type of vibe. They may smoke a little bit or drink a little bit, but it’s only to be creative because they know we are going to the finish line. The finish line is that big trophy.

In 2004, you worked with LL Cool J. From an outsider’s perspective, that’s kind of an unexpected part of your discography. How did that happen?

N.O Joe: I would probably say luck. I always wanted to work with all of the greats. I had a meeting with Kevin Liles, really, really good guy. I had a meeting with him and I had a plane to catch. I don’t send out music, so let me vibe with you. Let me get in front of your face and see what you’re like. Let me work in person.

So I sat in his office right in front of him and there was so much going on at Def Jam at the time, people in and out and I said “hey Kevin, I’ve got a flight to catch. I’ll come back next time.” He was like “no, no, no just wait for a second.” So I got a chance to play him maybe three or four tracks. Kevin knows what he hears, he knows what he wants, so he’s like “ok can I have that track and that track.” I said “yeah, so what do we do from here?” He said “they’re going to be big songs for somebody. I’ll get back with you.”

So then I get a call from Kevin Liles saying “hey LL just recorded one of the songs.” I’m like “wow that’s cool!” So he’s like “we need you to come out to New York to mix the song.” Working with LL, when I got in the studio, he respected who I was, number one. I respected who he was, I mean I grew up on him. He’d say “is there anything else you wanted me to change in the song?” He was not big headed at all. “Is there any phrasing or lyrics?” And I’m like “no nigga, the shit is fucking dope.”

Then he went back in the studio and he put my name at the top of the song. I said “man, thank you dawg.” He said “man whatever, I respect your work.” Then I gave him another track. By the time I finished mixing that one song, I guess it was maybe about four or five in the morning, LL Cool J came in a couple of hours and left. About 4.30 in the morning, he calls me and says “hey Joe, listen you got a second? I want to let you hear the first verse to the track you just gave me.” I’m like “wow!” That’s fucking dedication! Here’s this guy, twenty plus years in the game and he’s calling me at 4.30 in the morning to let me check out a fucking verse. Like dude, I love his shit. So that was my experience working with him.

What do you remember about recording with 2pac?

N.O Joe: He was in the studio and I was just playing tracks. Every track that I played, he had a fucking song for it. This was before Smile.” ‘Face and ‘Pac could have had a whole album together in probably two days. Everybody was just talking or whatever, and he was spitting over the tracks. I’m like “let’s get these records done,” and he was like “oh yeah, we’ll get it together tomorrow” and it never happened. But every track that I played, ‘Pac had a verse and a hook for it. Yes sir. I did a version of Smile and it was redone.

You were going to work with Notorious BIG as well?

N.O Joe: With Biggie, I don’t know if they called Rap-A-Lot or whoever, but at the time, again this in the ’90s, so my name was out there, but nobody could kind of get in contact with me. It’s like “how do you call this guy?” So it wasn’t until later on with Biggie, I think it was Charlie Braxton, he was one of the writers for The Source magazine or something and we were talking and he was like “bro, I talked with Biggie and I was asking him, ‘why haven’t you worked with N.O Joe?’ ”

Biggie said “you know, my people called and nobody can catch up with him. I’d love to meet him.” I’m like “wow!” This was after he was already famous.

You spent a lot of time with Pimp C. Do you have any particular memories that stand out?

N.O Joe: The most memorable time was doing the Ridin’ Dirty photo-shoot. Man! That photo-shoot was done at my house. Them in the living room on that sofa and you know, with the girls coming out of the pool and the car, that’s my car. We were a family, so it was like “hey, we’re going to do photo shoot at my house, come on.” We had drinks. I’m from New Orleans, so okay I had drinks coming out of the ass, man.

It’s like the photographers got fucked up [laughs]. C and Bun, well C mainly, he was not going to let up. Like we were doing the photo shoot, I guess they were trying to shoot him in his regular clothes and C was like “Uh-uh. Hell naw, fuck that hoe ass shit, nigga we about to go to the mall! I need to look clean in my pictures. Ya’ll ain’t about to have me out there like that. I ain’t doing the photo shoot! Fuck this shit!”

So they took him to the Galleria mall, which is like a high-end mall in Houston. He got his Bally shoes and all of that good stuff, the cane and that man. After the photoshoot, man we got so messed up. It was just crazy. We had a blast. Mama Wes [Pimp C’s mom] was there. Everybody was there. You can ask Bun, we had a great time. That was a fun memory right there.


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