It’s 11 degrees outside. I’m sitting in Royal’s, a restaurant in Louisville’s Nulu section, eating hot chicken and drinking Ale-8-1 with James Lindsey. We arranged to meet up and talk about his new music but we mostly talk about Kentucky’s relationship to broader pop-culture. The conversation spans the time MC Hammer entered a horse in the derby, how his home-girl Dani recently played drums during Childish Gambino’s live set on Jimmy Fallon, how Hannah Welton played with Prince on his last tour and particularly shined during their stop at the Louisville Palace, and so on. Like so many of the vital, but decidedly secondary and tertiary players we speak of, James Lindsey seems to want more than that for himself.
James Lindsey’s story as a MC from Kentucky reflects that. His mother Ms. Rowe, who was part of the namesake for Lindsey’s original MC name Jalin Roze, raised Lindsey in a single parent home. His father was an absentee alcoholic and she worked as a sitter for elderly people, mostly from wealthy families. After his mother’s passing, James convinced himself to begin pursuing music after years of self doubt over whether he was talented enough. He began releasing music in 2009, but it took a major blog post for his 2010 nod to Mos Def’s “Taxi,” before his city took him seriously. Encouraged, he released his next record The Brilliance in 2011, and while it bolstered his prominence at home, it fell on deaf ears nationally.
Frustrated by the lack of reception, his 2012 release Grand National Dreams, was decidedly a record for Louisville. A Louisville centered album simultaneously did and didn’t work, as evidenced during James’ 2013 CMJ performance in New York. While references like, “Young Johnny Patrick, modern day saint,” connected squarely with hometown crowds, in that space they mostly missed the mark. In 2014 he landed his own slot at Forecastle Festival, a nationally recognized music festival in Louisville. Before Lindsey, no unsigned rap artist from the city had ever played the event. Since Lindsey, there has been a consecutive streak of three years during which Louisville hip hop artists have had a slot. Still looking for his place in a context outside of his city, his profile grew all the more at home.
It’s been four years since Lindsey has dropped a complete body of music. Last spring he ditched his original stage name, Jalin Roze, for the one he was given at birth. In that four year span he has opened for Chance The Rapper, Slick Rick, and sold out some of the city’s biggest venues, headlining his own shows and putting other area artists on the bill. Though he pushes to cast his net out from Louisville to achieve the widest audience possible, his city has also championed him as a homegrown son.
This winter James Lindsey breaks his four year hiatus with his January 20th EP, Same Sky, and a full length record set for later this year. Will it reflect the growth of a four year sabbatical in song writing and melody? Musically, will it receive recognition alongside national and regional artists beyond city and state limits? Ms. Rowe’s son sets out once again to see, except this time, Jalin Roze is dead and James Lindsey has been born. —Allen Poe
Your mom was part of the inspiration for your first MC name, Jalin Roze. What lasting traits or impressions did she leave on you that you carry in your music?
James Lindsey:It didn’t matter if she was at home or in someone’s house for work, she was never scared to be herself. She never toned down who she was for anyone. When my mom died, I became fearless.
It has been four years since you last put out a record. That can feel like forever in hip hop’s fast paced landscape.
James Lindsey:Those four years were honestly everything I needed. I stopped being a rapper and I became a song writer. I studied melody. I worked with a band. I studied what elements make songs stick.
On your last album cover for Grand National Dreams, you were riding in a Grand National through a city with clouds over head. On Same Sky, the theme again is cars and clouds. My interpretation is that you’re trying to stay grounded while dreaming.
James Lindsey:Yeah clouds have always been a symbol of peace to me. Dreaming and a symbol of being away from what the world has going on. It’s where I like to envision myself in relation to everyday life.
I never witnessed it personally, but I always heard riding up and down the strip in cars used to be a huge part of the Derby experience. I feel like some years back that was shut down by the city.
James Lindsey:Yeah. I mean Derby was everything to people here. Derby was our Coachella. You would see OJ Simpson or Jordan out in random clubs partying, or some actor or actress. There was definitely this underground car scene where people would come from Detroit and Atlanta and the folks with the nice rides here would cruise. It was just a vibe. This was around the Freaknik days so it was just dope to see people come from all around riding down broadway. Real inspirational.
Even though you still get inspiration from it now, it sounds like the fondness is more in the nostalgia for how it used to be. You reference that on “8-Ball” even, “Back when Derby was a car show.”
James Lindsey:Yeah, definitely. The city was alive at those moments. I just love to talk about the excitement that was in the city then. It’s still exciting in Louisville but “Black Louisville” was always popping around Derby.
Your last record, Grand National Dreams is drenched with Louisville references, Same Sky still has some, but not to the same extent. Was that intentional?
James Lindsey:Yea that was totally intentional. I mean, I always saw my city as a better version of itself. GND was more Sunday at the park, Derby City riding music instead of First 48. So I have songs that just speak to my city. But in 2013 I played CMJ in New York where a lot of my punchlines were references to Louisville, I could tell they weren’t connecting the way they had at home.
I think that’s when I wanted to make songs with a global appeal. I feel like KY is an island in the middle of America, a lot of our songs don’t make it off our island. We have people from Kentucky that are globally or nationally known, just not that many. I wanted to appeal to a wider audience when making these records. My story is in Louisville, I’ll never have to run somewhere else to get my story, but that story doesn’t have to stay here forever.
What is Kentucky’s relationship to hip hop or even pop culture on a national scale?
James Lindsey:Kentucky is the Kevin Bacon of the music industry. We’re known enough, we have connections inside and around (the industry), but we don’t have stand alone recognition. We’re not Brad Pitt.
Outside of switching up references from Louisville to more general concepts, what else goes into making music with broad appeal? What did you try with your new music that you hadn’t tried before?
James Lindsey:I think songwriting is everything. It all starts and ends with the songs you are making. I learned a lot about songwriting and what makes people enjoy music on a broad scale. Songs have to be digestible to a large audience. I think it starts with the hook and it goes from there. I’m not saying dumb down your lyrics but making them digestible is the key. Simplicity is key and there is a difference between being simple and “dumbing down.” All of my favorite lyricists know when to keep things simple.
I agree. The best teachers are able to take complex concepts and work them into understandable ones. Human emotion is also complex, so artists who can capture it and express it clearly are relatable. One of my favorite MCs out now is Ka from Brownsville because he says a lot with a few words. GZA once rhymed, “Make it half short and twice strong.” Are there any artists you think do a great job at this?
James Lindsey:Yea I think Andre 3000 is the king of making the complex look simple. As far as popular artist right now, I think rappers like Chance and Kendrick do a great job with that. Anderson .Paak, Isaiah Rashad…they all have the ability to make complex topics feel like conversations.
You met Andre after your Forecastle set, right? Did he leave you with any advice?
James Lindsey:Yeah man. Dude kicked it with us backstage for a good 45 minutes before he went on. Dude was mad cool and super funny. We sat backstage and cracked jokes for a while. I had a million “fan questions” to ask him but I couldn’t get the strength to ask. I just wanted it to be genuine and it was. That was one of those moments when you meet your hero and they live up to expectation. He just told me to keep killing it and good luck with my set.
Forecastle is a big deal in Louisville. It’s really a big deal nationally, at least it gets coverage from national publications.
James Lindsey:True! I was grateful, but after Forecastle I knew it was time to stop competing with Louisville and start competing with the world.
Regarding the new approach with a focus on songwriting at the forefront, are you waiting to see what works and what doesn’t with Same Sky before beginning new work? This is kind of a new path for you.
James Lindsey:I think I really just want to explore and challenge myself. I don’t think I will continue to stay on a path. Honestly, this project showcases that I can make any sound I want. It’s really just depending on the mood I want to create that day. I think what works is whatever feels right!