A Movement Over a Moment: An Interview With J. Prince

Eric Bernsen talks to the Rap-A-Lot founder about his new book, The Art & Science of Respect.
By    October 8, 2018

Art by J. Prince Instagram

In a time where popularity contests and controversy dominate social media discussions, defining respect and its intricacies can be a tricky proposition. For industry veteran J Prince, best known as CEO of Rap-A-Lot Records, respect is the quality that’s driven an illustrious career marked by decades of music business successes and unwavering admiration from hip-hop’s elite.

From used car salesman to becoming a forefather of Southern rap music, J Prince laid a blueprint as founder of Rap-A-Lot, opening up the doors of a previously closed off industry for future movements such as No Limit and Cash Money. Prince kept everything independent, yet took advantage of major label resources thanks to an entrepreneurial spirit, putting an impressive roster of artists (he assembled the Geto Boys then signed the likes of Z-Ro, Devin the Dude and many more) in a position to succeed and most importantly, moving with tenacity and refusing to fail.

The proud Houston native experienced a resurgence in prominence this summer—well-timed with the release of his new memoir The Art & Science of Respect—by reportedly convincing Drake to can his response to Pusha-T’s menacing diss track “The Story Of Adidon.” During recent ‘Aubrey & the Three Migos Tour’ stops in Boston and Philadelphia, Drake brought out one-time adversary Meek Mill, ending their notorious beef with passionate reconciliation. In an unsurprising revelation, J Prince played his primary position of peacemaker between the two, helping to end a feud that seemed irreparable not too long ago.

Ironically enough, J Prince chooses to place himself in these unstable situations. But what’s his secret? How does a man in his early 50’s who has primarily worked behind the scenes continue to play such an integral role in bringing balance to rap’s most topical and convoluted disputes, situations during which guidance can often fall on deaf ears.

The simple answer is Prince understands the importance of his words, often conveying an old-school bravado when he speaks. His self-awareness guides him through the moments that require his assertiveness and he understands how to frame any dilemma with a big-picture, ‘what’s the greater good’ perspective. This skill-set, backed by years of experience and a calming, enlightened presence, allows his words to resonate in times where no one else’s would.

As a result of these natural instincts, J Prince has flourished for decades. He’s fluent in damage control, helping to settle the Pimp C vs. Master P conflict, and he recognizes talent potential, with his son Jas Prince discovering Drake on MySpace. But industry accolades aren’t the sole source of J Prince’s influence; it’s his action-first approach and Thanos-like infinity stone principles of heart, loyalty, mental toughness and commitment to building community. These are the qualities that face hip-hop’s most tense conflicts head on behind closed doors, and leads them in the direction of longevity (a movement) vs. ego-driven hostility (a moment).

J Prince’s recent time in the spotlight isn’t just a compelling ploy to sell more books. Respect is embedded in his core which has helped his reputation hold weight from the streets to the boardrooms. And even with so many accomplishments under his belt as well as a feared reputation known more for intimidation than amiability, J Prince remains devoted to pushing positivity on a grassroots level while promoting his book and sharing his life’s story.

Prince’s all-knowing smile early on a Sunday morning says it all, his convincing nature and charisma of a well-seasoned veteran working its magic whenever needed. We joke about the big Boston vs. Houston sports weekend in preparation for the Patriots vs. Texans game, during which Prince plans to catch up with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who’s publicly advocated for Meek Mill during his legal troubles.

With his every move, the prevailing theme of Prince’s character connects on all levels. Unity can win out over negativity and as he shares in his memoir, a relentless work ethic guided by spirituality can empower the basic principles of street hustle in ways most couldn’t imagine.  During our conversation, he paves the path to get there and how we can all take a page out of his book to build each other up in an era where it’s become too commonplace to tear each other down. — Eric Bernsen

Why does the art of respect mean so much to you and how have you made it the cornerstone of your character?

J Prince: Respect was something that was given to me as a kid who grew up with structure, being instructed to say yes sir, no sir.  From there, it’s just been having a track record as a stand-up individual, knowing what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and the youngsters understanding it because we come from the same place. We’re from where the wolves are at, so it demands respect and I couldn’t imagine being in an environment without it.

Respect has to be earned and one of the best ways to earn it is by having a sense of humility. Learning to follow direction first and then lead, gaining wisdom along the way, has allowed my word to really mean something.

With your hometown in mind (Houston), what were those early years forming Rap-A-Lot like and did that experience of giving Southern artists the confidence to share their own identity help build the reputation you hold to this day?

J Prince: In the beginning we were in an unwelcoming environment and being discriminated against by business owners as well as facing racial profiling from police. There wasn’t much support for our out-of-the box attitudes and artists were emulating East and West Coast sounds. After visiting the Def Jam office in New York City and seeing more successful examples of authenticity, I realized we just had to be ourselves and lay the foundation of not being ashamed of where we come from.

You and your son, Jas Prince, are often credited for first discovering Drake on MySpace. What kind of intangibles/ instinct does it take to know when to trust an artists talent and see their potential for more and having everything it takes for career of longevity?

J Prince: Drake’s buzz even back then required attention and outweighed any doubts, even my own opinion on the sound. He dared to be different and that’s what stands out. The importance of a real buzz and not being afraid to lead in your own lane. Once those are recognized, it’s a matter of truly believing in that person and putting them in a position to succeed.

As an early and active entrepreneur who remains part of a rapidly changing music industry, where do you see things going in the future, especially for young artists trying to break through in an oversaturated market?

J Prince: The new generation is more content-aware than ever before and that excites me as an entrepreneur. New artists are coming up in different ways especially via social media, but it’s still about building the right foundation and laying the groundwork for when you’re ready and it’s time to grow. Only then can you truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about your role in Drake deciding not to release his response to Pusha T. Now the latest example is your part in helping Drake and Meek Mill put their disputes behind them. Why do you think you’ve become such a trusted, mentor type figure for rap’s biggest names and what was it like for you to see Drake/Meek come together?

J Prince: I’ve had to settle down a lot of angry individuals in the past. With the Drake-Meek situation, Meek was looking for a positive word and I told him, ‘Let’s be about a movement and not a moment’ and he understood the validity in that. So to see the positive vibes from them was beautiful and historical. I always choose those kinds of nights because only a fool runs toward adversity and confusion.

You often talk about your key three principles of heart, loyalty and commitment. How are you able to ensure those mantras don’t get lost in the mix during conflicts that seem irreparable?

J Prince: It’s important to have a word. Whatever the word is, you stand by it and then have the mental toughness to follow through and do what needs to be done. I’ve had a lot of material and experience in this, so that’s what provides the wisdom and earns the respect of others in these types of situations.

Now that your book (The Art & Science of Respect) has been out for a few months, what’s the reception been like and how are people responding to it as you connect with them face-to-face?

J Prince: The response has been overwhelming and beyond my expectations. I had no idea it would add to my legacy in this way. But it just goes to show that there’s power in sharing your livelihood and the timing of it has been perfect. This book has changed my life and inspired me. I can’t get away from it!

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