Sebastopol-raised rapper J. Lately discusses new album and hip hop journey

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, March 30, 2021

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Hip hop artist J. Lately lives in Oakland now, but experiences like growing up in Sebastopol and living on the road touring for months gave him a taste of the open space and freedom at the heart of his latest album “Winnebago,” he said.

Graduating from Analy High School in 2005, J. Lately eventually went on to tour with the likes of Bay Area rapper Andre Nickatina through Canada and the west coast before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he said.

J. Lately recalled in a March 4 interview with Sonoma West Times & News stealing Andre Nickatina CDs from his older brother growing up. His path has spanned shows in Sonoma County at the Mystic Theater, Hopmonk, the Arlene Francis Center and the Phoenix Theater to cross-country touring with Locksmith, A-Plus from the Hieroglyphics and Zion I, according to his Feb. 25 email and his website.

“Winnebago” came out March 12 and is named after the motorhome, available on streaming platforms Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music and TIDAL, he said.

“It’s this feeling of kind of needing to break free, needing a breath of fresh air, needing some open space, needing the open road. And to me, Winnebago just perfectly exemplified that. Like one of these RVs just being on the open road, living out of your vehicle with just what you need, no extra fills, that type of stuff,” he said.

It’s been over a year since J. Lately performed a concert in-person, “touring heavily” before the pandemic, he said. That longing to be back on the road and feel free was a major inspiration for the album, he said, describing his difficulty sitting still in a physically confined space and also feeling the limits of his own mind.

Through the making of “Winnebago,” J. Lately said that despite the physical limitations of the pandemic, one of his greatest revelations was understanding that fears, insecurities and other mental “confines” in his power to release.

Far from the home of hip hop, Sebastopol is where J. Lately’s journey as a rapper began and where he grew familiar with “open space and room to breathe and natural spaces,” he said. J. Lately met Trey C, one of the producers of “Winnebago” at Analy, where they both played basketball and where Trey C was one of the first to start rapping.

Growing up in Sebastopol presented a level of difficulty entering the hip hop scene because although J. Lately and his friends listened to music rolling out of the North Bay and the Bay Area, “there were just shows happening around, there weren’t cyphers going on with people free-styling,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of hip hop artists around us, so we were trying to figure out how to do this, but I wouldn’t say we were good at all when we started, me and my friends, you know?”

J. Lately said much of his exposure and developing experiences flourished from attending Pitzer College, about 45 minutes east of Los Angeles. There, he could immerse himself in weekend shows, on-campus concerts and cyphers.

Reflecting on the milestones of what his album’s press release described as “a slow and persistent” rise in the music industry, J. Lately said coming into his own as an artist involved an extensive period of time honing his skills as “a late bloomer in rap,” starting up in late high school and gaining confidence in his small-town origins “because I come from a place where, when I fell in love with rap and hip hop music, I wasn’t seeing anyone do it who looked and sounded and spoke like me, or had the experiences I had,” he said.

Stepping fully into his growing music career after becoming a teacher right out of college meant presenting a clear identity, “sometimes almost like a more packaged version of yourself,” which he said was challenging because he “always felt somewhere in the middle,” in social groups and growing up half-white and half-Korean.

“And then another piece is just being a white-looking individual from a small, fairly well-off town in Northern California that does not have a lot of diversity in it. And then also being part of a genre that comes from Black and brown cultures, that comes from neighborhoods very different than the one I grew up in, and does have a lot of history that I’m not a part of,” he said. “But I’m in love with it. So, that’s always been an identity thing too, feeling like I don’t fit the mold of what a rapper should be, but I feel like one, so how does that happen?”

He found how to exist in that space by understanding that hip hop and music overall is about the human experience and that his relationship “is an ever growing one, like any relationship,” J. Lately said.

“The culture of hip hop music is one that changes and I’m also a person that changes and matures and grows,” he said. “So, the relationship is an always changing one, but I always try to always approach my kind of place within the hip hop world just with as much respect and reverence for this culture that I’ve been allowed into.”

Between people are barriers, differences and shared experiences like the desire to be loved, respected and accomplished, he said. “I feel like someone who likes country music could appreciate a hip hop song if they can feel what I’m feeling. I could appreciate a country song, even if I don’t like the genre, if I can feel what they’re giving me.”

Appreciating the journey and the stops along the way as an artist also appears to allow for more peace with the process.

Despite having often wished for more swift success, J. Lately said “I don’t think I ever felt like I was going the wrong way. I really do think everywhere I’ve gone with my music career has led me to where I am now, and it all feels like it was part of the process. I couldn’t just take away a year. I don’t feel like I ever wasted a year, I needed that year to get better, I needed that year to experience things so that my mind could change so I could grow as an artist or things like that.”

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com