Born on January 28, 1985, at an American military base in Frankfurt, West Germany, J. Cole has, over the past decade, transformed into one of the best rappers in the game today. The Dreamville head honcho’s journey from Fayetteville, North Carolina to becoming the first artist signed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation is nothing short of inspiring.
J. Cole: I signed my record deal on February 24th, 2009. I had just turned 24. That date is easy for me to remember because it’s the day before the birthday of one of my closest friends and business partner, Ibrahim Hamad. That day, we both took an elevator way up to the fancy office of a high-end entertainment law firm housed in a New York city high-rise. Far from what I would have imagined, the actual moment of signing the contract was relatively unremarkable. Ib and I sat in a small, quiet conference room across from an associate of my fancy new lawyer. The mountain of papers in front of him included multiple copies of a record deal that I never actually read. The associate pointed at the area of each page that needed my signature, and when all the copies were signed, Ib and I probably dapped each other up and said some shit like, “Aight my dawg. Let’s get it.” With empty pockets, we hopped in the dented black Honda Civic and slid down to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to celebrate at a bar with some of our homeboysThe Audacity | The Players’ Tribune
Growing up in a multi-ethnic environment, Cole’s upbringing was shaped by his African American father, who served in the U.S. Army, and his European American mother, Kay, a postal worker for the United States Postal Service. After Cole’s father abandoned the family, his mother moved with him and his older brother Zach to Fayetteville, North Carolina. The rapper’s diverse background allowed him to identify with various cultures, but he ultimately connected more with his African American heritage due to the way he was treated.
From an early age, Cole displayed a strong affinity for both basketball and music. He began rapping at the age of twelve, inspired by Master P. “I used to rap like Master P,” he told Complex. “I was 12 and my cousin from Louisiana moved to North Carolina for the summer and he was rapping so I looked up to him.”
Cole’s tastes evolved into looking up to lyrical wordsmiths like Canibus, Nas, Tupac, and Eminem. With his cousin, he worked tirelessly to develop their understanding of rhyming, wordplay, and storytelling. Despite initial struggles with beat production, Cole’s determination was unwavering, as his mother purchased him an ASR-X musical sampler and a Roland TR-808 drum machine to aid in his growth.
After graduating high school with an impressive 4.2 GPA, Cole moved to New York City to attend St. John’s University. He knew that being in the Big Apple would increase his chances of securing a recording contract. He later switched his major from computer science to communications and became the president of Haraya, a pan-African student coalition.
During his time in college, Cole worked various part-time jobs to make ends meet while continuing to hone his craft. He produced an entire CD’s worth of instrumentals, hoping to play it for Jay-Z at Roc the Mic Studio. However, Cole was dismissed by Jay-Z after waiting for hours. Undeterred, he used the CD as the starting point for his debut mixtape, The Come Up. The 2007 tape showcased the rapper’s exceptional storytelling, lyrical prowess and thoughtful songwriting, and it wasn’t long before Jay-Z came around in his life once again.
In a 2009 interview with Complex, Cole recalled the meeting he had with Hov where he played “Lights Please,” which subsequently led to his historic signing to Roc Nation.
J. Cole: He walked in, cool as a fucking fan, said what’s up, sat down, got right to business. I went in there and played him a song I got called “Lights Please.” Jay-Z’s reactions are incredible when he’s feeling some shit, ’cause a) He’s Jay-Z, so you’re already gassed, and b) He’s looking dead in your eyes, bobbing his head, intensely in the music. The best part about it is, when he’s feeling something, when there’s a line that he likes, he gives you that, “Wooooooo!” and he’ll let you know that he’s feeling it. It’s a three hour meeting and we only played 5 songs, so the rest of the time, we’re talking and building, you know, talking about Obama and shit. Then three weeks later I got the confirmation text that said he wanted to do the deal. And we just went from there.J. Cole Talks Roc Nation, Meeting Jay-Z & ‘The Warm Up’ Mixtape | Complex
Since his signing to Roc Nation, Cole has cemented his place as one of his generation’s best and most important artists. With multiple Grammy nominations, chart-topping albums, platinum plaques and a label to his name, the “Lights Please” MC has come a long way from Fayetteville, North Carolina, but has never forgotten his roots.