Natelege Whaley interviews, Grammy award-winning hip-hop production super group, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League.
WORDS BY NATELEGE WHALEY
Every superhero has a signature. Batman had the glowing bat-signal, Flash a red suit with yellow lightning bolts, and Superman the distinguished “S” on his chest. But for the Tampa Bay producing trio, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, their signature lies in the pounding bass, strings, and old school R&B and pop samples. After producing ten tracks together in a single night, Rook, Colione and Kenny B. decided to form a group in 2003. The three knew the name was hardly original—a spinoff of the comic strip by the same name— so they switched it up, and added an acronym to, fully represent who they are: “Just Undeniably Some of The Illest Composers Ever.”
Rook, one-third of the team assures that the comic has nothing to do with the powerhouse producing trio. Yet, the similarities are clear: that three of the self-proclaimed best producers from the Tampa Bay-area have come together to “bring real music back to hip-hop.” A mission fit for superheroes.
The group didn’t wait long to use their super producing powers to gain recognition. They received their first break five years ago on Young Jeezy’s “Don’t Get Caught,” a track on his debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. The same year, they won a Grammy award for production on Mary J. Blige’s album The Breakthrough. Last year, they won an ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Award for rapper 2 Pistols’s “She Got It.” Even Rick Ross has heavily used J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s production on many projects including the track “Magnificent,” off his LP Deeper than Rap, “Luxury Tax” and “Maybach Music” off Trilla, and “Aston Marton Music” on Teflon Don.
The three producers sample cleverly from a selection of old school R&B, pop and Motown artists (Think The O’Jays, Angela Bolfill, and Friends of Distinction). Moreover, their beats often have samples with a busy string and brass section; then they add a heavy bass that complements, and never overpowers the instrumentation. Time will tell what other songs the producers will uncover from the past and rebirth. What is certain is that the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League have not been distracted by their positive reception into the music industry. As they turn on their tunnel vision, they look to leave their imprint as ingenious contenders not only in hip hop, but across all genres.
Kenny: We were all producing in the Tampa Bay area in Florida and working independently with different artists. We ran into each other at the studio and heard each other’s work and we were impressed. We decided to get together. We made 10 beats that day. The chemistry was so natural that we decided to become a team.
Rook: Honestly the acronym has nothing to do with the comic superheroes. The acronyms stand for ‘Just Undeniably Some of The Illest Composers Ever.’
Colione: It all happened because we had strong management who were there since the very beginning. We’re like a family. After we formed J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and began building our catalogue, our management was pushing and making sure we got our name out there. We didn’t just do this by ourselves.
Rook: Sometimes we each have our own ideas, or we come up with ideas at the same time. We might be in the studio and we collab with an artist like Young Jeezy, and he likes to say what he wants. It’s our job to give the artist what they want.
Kenny: I think it’s important to first sit down and vibe with artists and see what kind of person they are and what sound they like. That’s important because you can’t just go into the studio and blindly play tracks.
Colione: Of course musically we have a great connection with Rick Ross. Our sounds link well together. He is some of the best beats that we make. He actually uses our sound that we originated.
Rook: We have a great working relationship with Young Jeezy. We go into the studio every time and we come out with beautiful, great, epic music. You know our first song was “Don’t Get Caught” for him and it got us a good reputation in Atlanta.
Colione: We usually buy a stack of records and listen to each one until we find a gem. The music has to be up to par. We usually go back to the Barry White’s and the old school. We like artists who have done whole orchestras and also music with a lot of instrumentation.
Rook: I think producers’ choice to sample songs depends on their own judgment and what feels good for them creatively. Earlier in our career we sampled heavy. But nowadays, we’ll sample, and we’ll take the sample out and we’ll revamp the whole song, so it won’t be a sample.
Rook: We plan to bring music back to music and we also want the ability to change lanes. We want to produce for Ghostface and Rick Ross but at the same time do Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige. We were in New York working with Mary J. Blige, and then the next day we were working with a pop artist. We had to make the switch quickly from soul to pop, and from organic to electric.
Kenny: On the internet there are many ways to promote artists and to sell music. It can go both ways. A lot of people blamed the internet for declining record sales and it probably did have a part in it, but there’s so much opportunity on the internet.
Rook: A lot of it deals with bad music. If you make good albums you will actually sell.
Kenny: You can make a song using the autotune effect and use it wisely and tastefully, but when you just start to abuse it, I agree with him [Jay-Z]. Think about it first. Does it sound good with autotune on it, or not?
Kenny: I thought autotune was used well on 808s and Heartbreak by Kanye West. Kanye used a lot of autotune on there, but not to the effect that his rapping sounded like notes. He was actually singing and the songs were well written and well produced.
Colione: A bad example of autotune is a song in which you can’t tell who the artist is because the whole thing sounds like garbage.
Kenny: I think Swizz Beats has always been consistent and he continues to evolve musically. Also I like Dr. Luke and his style as far as pop goes.
Colione: I have to say one of my favorite producers is Diddy, and he’s not exactly behind the keys, or working behind the drum machine, but he is a producer. I also like Rick Rubin. He’s really inspiring.
Kenny: My dad used to play a lot fusion and jazz like Al Viola, which is funny because when I met Rook, I found out his father was a percussionist for Al Viola and that was fascinating for me. Growing up I was listening to Radiohead, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and anything in between.
Rook: My father played with Al Viola and when I was younger he would play the records for me and I didn’t like them. They didn’t make no sense to me. I was always into Dr. Dre, Wu Tang, and Gang Starr, you know hip-hop. Later on when I started doing music professionally I gained respect for what he’d done.
Colione: My mom was a rocker and I listened to a lot of her stuff. My cousin introduced me to hip-hop. He bought a drum machine and he was making beats and I started making beats with him. Then I kind of drifted off and got better than him and did beats on my own.
Kenny: I always loved the creation side of music. I remember getting whoopings by my parents because I wasn’t doing well in school, and I was so fascinated with establishing myself as a musician. Not saying that’s the right route for everyone.
Rook: I think when I was younger, I didn’t want to do music. When I got a little older and into high school, it just kind of fell into my lap.
Colione: I wasn’t really good at anything else but music. I got in where I fit in and I was challenged by it. But a lot people need to focus on school and try to get in that way. You gotta be able to work well under pressure, otherwise you go crazy.
Rook: It’s hard to be in the all-star league. You can be drafted to the NBA, but to be an all-star you gotta be the shit.
Colione: It was a tragedy. He was a legend. When I was a kid, I remembered Thriller coming out. I was real young and all the older kids used to dance to it. I only used to listen to rock ‘n’ roll music but his music had a rock vibe to it.
Rook: I’m gonna tell you how real Michael was. Thriller came out in 1983 and by 1985 it was still the album to get. It was a phenomenon. He shut down primetime TV. They would have an hour special of the making of the video and have another 20 minutes of the actual video. “Thriller,” “Bad,” “Remember the Time”-Nobody does it like Michael.
Colione: My best advice for producers is to be consistent with every single piece you put together. Learn how to make music and learn what to do with the music that you make. If you’re really not getting your music out there, it’s because you need to make sure you have a great team behind you that can push your music forward. It takes a team, not just one player to get you to the next level. You need people that can talk for you, and have the best interest for you.