Hip-hop as a musical genre can be as elastic as it gets, and International Jones’ (IJ) new Player Chit explores new worlds by going back to the 1970s. Picture a chilled-out hometown hero rapper enjoying the high life to the sounds of a laidback groove. As IJ, better known as Fiend, brought up as Richard “Ricky” Jones, and a.k.a. Sleepy Eyes Jones, says to kick it off, “Cool is definitely in session.”
He sees it as another version of rap, another version of New Orleans. “The sound, the brand—how I look at it is Congo Square in rap form. The Louis Armstrong horn if it could rap. I’ve transitioned from being a kid that grew up on Edinburgh Street in Hollygrove to traveling the world and seeing a lot of things. This is me owning my right of passage.”
How does a man known for die-hard street music, particularly back from the No Limit days when he topped the Billboard charts and was Grammy-nominated, reinvent himself? There’s his voice, for starters, an instrument as distinct and bassy as Isaac Hayes and Barry White. Family too.
“When my father died in 2010, I ended up wanting to celebrate him and our time of him owning Morris Lounge barroom for over 40 years,” IJ said. “Celebrate him instead of being in mourning. I didn’t want to be miserable. The total opposite of loss.”
What kind of music did they listen to? IJ started an endless list with, “Marvin Gaye, Mandrill, Sade, Jamiroquai, Bobby Womack, Maze. These kind of textures.”
“My Uncle House [Theryl ‘Houseman’ DeClouet] was the lead singer of Galactic at that time. My dad would take me to Tipitina’s to see them. He said, ‘I’m telling you your trip is live bands.’ When my dad died, it made me reflect on all the great advice he’d given me,” IJ recalled.
The IJ sound is musical massage, but it isn’t soft. “I was a Down South kid who was East Coast influenced. No Limit was cool, but it had its cap. No room for growing. Ruff Ryders had me in my battle rap mode and to fill in the shoes if not do better than what DMX did. They wanted to give me the world, but when the main A&R guy went down, the studio went down.”
He self-released his next three albums before signing to Curren$y’s Jet Life label and kicking off the IJ persona. It was transformative, the streets mixed with rooftops and yachts. “It changed my life. Charismatic. Refined. The kid out of the hood that did good. It made me fall in love with rap all over again.”
Mature, youthful and groovy doesn’t easily happen. IJ explained, “Picture a young man trying to figure out a bridge from the time before him to now and tomorrow. A bridge that all ages can connect to. People told me they used to get in fights over my music back then, but now they’re counting money, making love to their woman, and getting more stamps on their passports to it.”
The IJ sound is evocative full-on hip-hop, and it’s almost entirely done by a live band. IJ praised, “Almost none of it’s a sample, but it’s a band that sounds like a sample. I have a nine-piece band and a dee jay when it comes down to doing shows. Horns and backup singers to give people an experience of how hip-hop has evolved. There’s nothing wrong with being mature.”
“I’m challenging myself. I need to go through something to talk about something that’s gonna mean something,” he continued, and his artistic fire was clear. “Energy creates matter, and then I can create something that matters. I work a lot, but I’m not releasing a mixtape every month like I was doing before. I want it to last.”
Since launching IJ, the former Mr. Whomp Whomp released Tennis Shoes and Tuxedos, Sweetest Hangover, Keep Ya Cool, Cool Is In Session, and maybe even a few more before Player Chit. He’s collaborated over the years with a heady list that includes, to name just a few, Snoop Dogg, Gucci Mane and Just Blaze. He’s produced, written songs, creatively consulted, done A&R, and anything else in between with locals and superstars. So how does he feel about the New Orleans vibe being mined?
“We have the richest culture in the United States, if not the world. That’s not to negate Africa. People like Beyoncé come here because they want to be close to the spiritual freedom. They can’t help but gravitate toward it. They’re capitalizing on it, because we haven’t capitalized on it ourselves since we don’t have those kind of platforms. I’m not surprised.”
Meanwhile, he keeps on and does his thing with a midnight sound so addictive that as Cydnie Lene sings on “Louis XIII,” “Where does the night go? I want this forever, forever, forever…”
IJ concluded, “I live off the three most valuable entities in this world that sometimes you are able to connect with people off of—music, love and food. The international language.”