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Chris Jones is an MC and producer based in Des Moines, Iowa and he just released his debut album titled Unplugged. In our discussion we exchanged thoughts on social media, finding personal meaning in the creation of art, the branding of self, and a story of self-sabotage revolving around Naughty by Nature and an NBA game in Minneapolis.
villin: Hey, this is villin and you were just listening to a track called “Time Will Tell” from Chris Jones. The two of us recently spoke about his new full-length project titled Unplugged, which is what Chris calls his first true album despite having release several other pieces which date back to when he first started recording music in his mid-teens. While including a few self-produced tracks, Unplugged is rounded out by a series of collaborators, including production from Simon Hodapp, Joe Gallagher of Sonic Militia, and Wesley Opus, who also mastered the project. Despite the numerous cooks in the kitchen, what comes of the collaboration is a cohesive sound. The most consistent aspect of the album, however, comes with Chris’ storytelling—a focus he takes seriously as a lyricist and one that dates back to when he began writing raps at the age of twelve.
Chris Jones: Some of the first songs I ever recorded were extremely story-based; not about myself, just about completely made up things. I figured out pretty quickly that I was pretty good at telling a story. To me, the trick is being able to tell a story and keeping the integrity of the rhyme. And just not compromising there, not compromising with the rapping at all. But, also, being able to tell a story in a way that if you were to just sit down and look at the lyrics without the music behind it it would still make sense.
villin: While Chris now wields a biographical approach to lyrics, it’s interesting to recognize the threads of his creative progression which date back to his childhood where fiction was at the heart of his writing. It’s kind of funny then to see a young Chris on the cover, at the time unaware where his life would lead, while the Chris of today looks back on that period and reflects on how fitting it was that his younger self was once shot playing make-believe with handcuffs, given what life had in store for him.
Chris Jones: Honestly, I was just over at my mom’s house just going through old photos and I saw that photo of myself. And it’s me in handcuffs, and I was like “huh, this is, like, a very foreshadowing photo that really works well with a lot of the content on the album.”
villin: The thematic focus of Unplugged covers several personal subjects including legal problems and the death of friends, but its most magnetic lyrical moments land at an intersection between Chris’ self-deprecating humor and a realization that he belongs behind a microphone doing exactly what he’s doing. A balance between those two sides to him show up throughout the release, all the while finding the lyricist remaining firmly planted in the reality of his life.
Chris Jones: I took a little bit of a break from music because of some personal things, but I had to create some stories. And I had to experience some life and just get to a point where I could digest stories from my past and look at them somewhat objectively before I could actually tell ’em, you know? I don’t ever like to force it, like today I probably wouldn’t necessarily make a completely made up story and rap about it. That was me as a kid trying to figure stuff out, but I really do love to be able to tell a story.
villin: Originally from the greater Des Moines area, Chris has bounced around geographically, ultimately landing up north in the Twin Cities on a pair of occasions. Unplugged was recorded up there and the album features several tracks with a longtime collaborator and friend of his who lives in the area named LQ. While the New York native wasn’t featured directly on one of the album’s finest lyrical showcases, he was present and accounted for when the story behind the track titled “One More Song” went down. Through the track, Chris relates his story of self-sabotage, where an introduction to the legendary Naughty by Nature led to an opportunity to hang with them at a local NBA game. Instead of taking them up on the offer however, Chris no-showed the game, deciding instead to head home to write and record a song to show them through his music that he was worthy of the acceptance or attention that they had already shown him.
Chris Jones: Yeah, I’ll never live that down. Honestly, I genuinely thought… I saw that as: OK, I have this big opportunity now. These guys believe in me, or they’re gonna take a chance on me. I’m just going to go show them right now that I can get down and I can do whatever. And I made a dope song. So that’s where my mind was at. And it was also like, I think I was maybe twenty years old, maybe twenty-one. I mean that’s no excuse, I was dumb. And my buddy Q [LQ], too, ’cause Q came with me and he is a huge basketball fan. He was deferring to my judgement because he always really really believes in me, too, and he was just deferring to my judgement. He was like, “whatever you want to do.” And that’s the call I made. Oh yeah… should have fucking went to the game.
villin: Calling it “a lesson learned,” Chris didn’t write the lyrics as a means of closure, but instead just to share the story. While he doesn’t seem to expect much of anything to develop from it, there may be more to add to that story as the coming months progress.
Chris Jones: I did shoot a video for “One More Song” at the record store in St. Paul owned by the individual who knows them and who hooked me up with them. And he was like, “When it’s done I’ll send it to [Naughty by Nature producer] KayGee.” So, you know, at least they’ll probably see the story and get a kick out of it, if anything.
villin: More pressing for Chris, compared to how his music might help him “make it big,” have been concepts surrounding what his music might mean, or what difference it might have in the bigger picture. Despite using his wit in the process, Chris has found himself prone to self-judgement in the past, which probably isn’t surprising for someone who includes a song on their album where he roasts himself as a “terrible rapper.” Judgement in this case isn’t without a point, however, and in this situation aligns with a sense of questioning the goal of his music, and what purpose it can and does serve in his life.
Chris Jones: Looking at my own music within the context of, you know, just some of the bigger issues going on in the world… for a little bit I just didn’t see any importance in my music with other things going on. Kind of at the end of “Unplugged,” the song “Unplugged,” I say—I don’t even remember the line, but it’s something to the effect of “I feel bad for complaining about the stuff inside my music when people are dying every day.” I had a lot of that going on and I was kind of just, like… I would like to be able to be helpful to individuals who really need help. I don’t really see how my music is helping anyone. Yeah, I don’t know, I sat on that for a year and a half, just those thoughts like, “You know you’re not that important, putting out music is not going to do anything.” But that was really just me being super analytical, which I’m certainly guilty of in a lot of aspects.
villin: It’s within this space where you can begin to hear the push and pull of different influences. Several tracks invoke Chris’ reactions to social media, for example, which is an area of life where he’s continues to strive for a balance. On one side, Chris is soundly resolved to the notion he doesn’t actively need validation from others, while on the other exists a hope that listeners can relate to the music. While producing the album, he wasn’t certain that some songs would find an audience, but what came out of recording and releasing them anyways was a response he hasn’t anticipated.
Chris Jones: I was pleasantly surprise that—it’s interesting for me to hear people’s favorite songs and stuff, and a lot of people really like “Time Will Tell,” but a lot of people also really like “Wired.” And to be honest those were a couple of the songs that… I mean, it’s 2022 and I guess probably just from the amount of modern rap music I’m exposed to I thought this, but I was kind of wondering, like, specifically “Time Will Tell,” I was like I don’t know… I would listen back to it and this is long, and this is a detailed story, and it’s a lot of bars, and that was the song that I was like, “Yeah this song is probably for me.” But people love it. That surprised me. I’m just grateful for those people still being out there. I just wasn’t even entirely sure how some of this writing would even go over being that it is so detailed. But people do like it, so I’m just happy about that, really.
villin: Despite not purposefully seeking validation, social media has proven a tricky tightrope to walk for Chris as he uses it to serve his music, sharing his work with an audience and trying to reach new listeners, while simultaneously avoiding its pitfalls. When talking about our histories with social media, we discussed concepts surrounding a self-centered viewpoint that social media platforms nurture, where everything at all time becomes about “me,” contributing to a warped sense of self by allowing for a persona to be developed where all interactions somehow reflect upon the value of that online avatar. But what do you do when that avatar is you, while also being your “brand”? And where does the self exist within that space?
Chris Jones: I have become aware at this point—and I wasn’t for a very long time—for me, I am usually in a better mood and my life usually goes better when I’m not thinking about myself all the time. And it’s just like in general, day to day, the day’s more purposeful. I’m not perfect at that and I’m not some guru or anything. But that is the tough part about social media. Even music promotion, too, because I’ve just been trying to get better at it and learn a bit about it and you need to put—or I now feel like I need to put things out there on social media. Some sort of content, even if it’s a post about music, in order to just use it as well as I can for the purpose of music promotion. But the line between just posting on social media and doing it for music blurs extremely quickly. Particularly if you’re someone who wants to build yourself up as an artist with a particular brand, which would be in the benefit of any artist attempting to get their artwork out there. But yeah, to me that’s such a gray area, I don’t even understand what that looks like for me. I don’t understand how to create a brand out of myself when I’m only just myself.
villin: This is perhaps unrelated to any point Chris was trying to make, but in reflecting on our discussion I’m reminded of a line from Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, where he discusses the relationship between the creator and their work, emphasizing that whether a creator is a “professional” of their craft can be determined by how they approach their work. He writes, “Madonna does not identify with Madonna. Madonna employs Madonna.” The point he’s making is that the creator here employs the persona for the creator’s own benefit, and not the other way around. In thinking about the discussion with Chris, however, my interpretation changes a little. Social media has created a strange blending of the roles where the person is now also the persona, the creator part of the creation. And in viewing oneself as both a brand and a being, it’s hard to always know where one side of that ends and the other begins. While struggling with these sorts of questions, himself, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that naming his album Unplugged marks a point in Chris’ life where he’s detaching or distancing himself from people, places, and things. But the irony is that the release seems to have helped plug him back into areas of his life that provide him fulfillment. He recently played a live showcase, as an example, which marked the first time in around three years that he performed on stage. Chris told me that seeing people and being seen and being part of something like that reminded him just how rewarding the whole process can be. And reflecting on that feeling, what surfaced was a still-developing sense of clarity around what meaning his music might provide, and what the creation of it has given back to its creator.
Chris Jones: I got a lot of confidence, is what I got, or motivation, or a mixture of the two. That’s mainly what I got. I told you I’ve been recording music since I was fifteen—been releasing music since I was fifteen—and I’ve never, not once, referred to a project as an album until this. Because to me words carry weight and I wanted to reserve that word for something that felt like an album to me. So, essentially I’m like thirteen years into recording and just released, technically, my first album though I’ve put out plenty of projects beforehand. It gave me a lot of motivation. It just showed me something tangible, like that “you can make a good album.” ‘Cause I do think it’s a good album. I think it’s cohesive. I think it’s, you know, I’ve thought it out. Just, in general, the whole process made me really motivated. It just made it feel really fun again, is what it did.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]