How many young r&b singers coming up nowadays can you name that are interested in making soulful music? How many young r&b singers coming up can you name who can actually play at least one instrument? One last question, how many can you name that are actually concerned with musicality and making good music? Well I’m proud to say I’ve tracked one down who can meet all three of these requirements, J Records artist CJ Hilton. A student of Raphael Saadiq, CJ is ready to help lead real r&b music back to the fore front with his brand of singing; and I couldn’t be happier to hear him say it. Check out the interview I completed with him where we discuss his bouncing around between labels before landing at J Records, his opportunity to work with Stevie Wonder, what to expect on his debut album, all of the instruments he plays, and writing for other artists.
YKIGS: I just want to start talking to you about the good news your manager just gave me, you just found out your album will release in March. Tell me how that feels.
CJ Hilton: Oh man that’s exciting news. I’ve been just been working towards this point and now that we’re finally here we’re just getting ready to release the album. We’re going to be doing a lot of promoting, a lot of shows, other little things coming up, I’m really excited.
YKIGS: Is the album complete at this point?
CJ: Yea we’re pretty much done, about 95% done, got to do a couple of intros, a couple of outros, but pretty much all of the songs are good to go.
YKIGS: What can fans expect to hear on this album in terms of production, features, everything like that?
CJ: Well I produced about half of the album, I have Salaam Remi executive producer on the album with me, I have Tyga, representing for Young Money, he’s a feature on the album, we got Fat Joe on the album, Mario, one of my good friends. I got a couple of dope things, I don’t want to give away everything!
YKIGS: I want to ask you a little bit about the mixtape you released awhile back. I had a chance to listen to it, how do you feel it was received by your fans and r&b fans in general?
CJ: Well you know I got a lot of positive feedback, I feel like everybody pretty much…it took some time for people to understand me, but I feel like pretty much everybody understands me from that mixtape. Like I said I got a lot of positive feedback, I love soul music, so I don’t feel like it’s typical r&b but I feel like it’s a mixture of r&b, soul, reggae, a couple different types of music I like. But I feel like it’s a good warm-up.
YKIGS: What kind of put you on my radar in terms of looking out for you was in your bio where you talk about you don’t feel there are many young soulful dudes right now, and that’s what you’re trying to do, and you think people are scared to do that type of music. Talk to me more about that.
CJ: Well you know I got a lot of friends that like soul music but it’s not a lot of soul guys in the front right now, it’s more rap and hip hop. I love the hip hop, but I’m a soul dude, I love real music, real instruments, keyboard, bass, guitar, drums, real instruments. I feel like I know for a fact that there are a couple more guys out there that like that type of music just like I do. I feel like I could just stand in the front at this point, go hard on what I believe. It’s not a lot of soul dudes out here right now, like I said I don’t do hip hop, which is cool too, but soul is definitely good music too. I feel like we’re missing that right now.
YKIGS: Yea definitely missing that. Since that’s not really on the fore front of radio right now, it’s more of a commercial sounding hip hop, more commercial sounding r&b, do you think it would be tough to break through and portray your sound and get noticed?
CJ: Yea, it has been tough. But at the same time, I feel like we’re breaking through at this point and people are starting to really understand my type of music and I’m finding out like we said, there are a lot of people out here that like real music and want that real music. So I feel that we’re definitely getting further.
YKIGS: I want to take it back to the beginning for a minute. After coming up singing in church, how did you eventually get noticed and how did that lead to your first deal? Talk to me about that.
CJ: Well yea I started off in church, my dad was basically a preacher in church, and basically what happened was my mom and dad got a divorce, my mom and dad split, and I decided to go with my mom. And my mom basically just told me “I believe in you son, you can do whatever you want to do, and I’m going to back you.” I wanted to sing r&b and I actually, some guys in DC, actually Ginuwine’s band at the time, they formed a production company called Backwoods Production Company and they signed me as their first artist. So that’s when the industry really started to hear about me, I went to all of the record labels, Jive, Tommy Mottola and Sony, J Records, I went to every record label. Actually Tommy Mottola, I signed to Tommy Mottola for two months or three months, that deal didn’t go, something happened with Tommy Mottola’s record company, so I would up leaving there. Another guy named Bert, Brandy’s ex husband, he found me, and he was in L.A., and we took a trip out to L.A. and I signed to Big Bert out there and then we signed to Capitol Records. So that’s how I ended up on Capital for a couple of years. After that, actually working on my album and being signed to Capitol Records, I ran into Mr. Saadiq and me and Saadiq have just been great friends, he’s like a father figure to me, big brother figure to me right now. So we became great friends, and I started working over there all the time and that’s how I came to actually working on his album. He needed one more song so I actually came up with the song “Never Give You Up,” I produced it. And he walked into the room and he heard the song and he loved it! So he cut his verse, I cut my verse, we did the hook together, and then he called Stevie Wonder and got Stevie Wonder on the track. That was a funny story how that happened, but it happened, and that’s how we got the “Never Give You Up” song. The Capitol thing didn’t work out, but thank God we got a great song out of it, like I said it’s a Saadiq song, but actually we decided to switch labels again after that and wound up at J Records. J Records picked me up, I’m here now and everything is great, so we’re looking at a release date now, so we’re moving forward.
YKIGS: Do you think you’ve found a home now at J Records? Do they really understand you and what you’re trying to do?
CJ: I feel like they do understand me, they really understand me as an artist, they understand me as a person, and they understand my music. So I feel like this is a good home for me and I feel like this is where we’re going to do some good work.
YKIGS: Early on your career, since you mentioned bouncing around between so many labels, did that ever get discouraging to you? What was that like?
CJ: I mean not really, because I always knew like I said that people love real music and I feel like my music is real. Everybody might not like it, but at least understand it’s coming from a real place so it’s real music. At the end of the day, I’ve connected with a lot of the labels because it was real music. So I didn’t feel like it was going to be hard to get to another label, it was just finding the right label that would understand me as a person like I said, and just understand everything about me. I feel like J is that place, so I think it’s going to be great.
YKIGS: Talk to me a little about your writing skills, because I know you’re a writer as well. Where did you develop that talent for writing?
CJ: Basically I’m always, when I’m not in the studio working on my album, I’m working on somebody else’s album, or trying to get a song placed. I got a couple of placements on Mario’s upcoming album, Raphael Saadiq’s upcoming album, I got a couple of things coming up on that. So I’m always writing, like I said, even if it’s not on me, working on somebody else just trying to perfect my craft.
YKIGS: Talk to me about the difference between when you’re writing for yourself, and then when you’re writing for another artist. Is it tough for you to switch gears or is it just natural?
CJ: Well I mean writing for myself is fun because I don’t have any boundaries when it comes to writing for myself. I just create, whatever I feel for the moment, that’s what I do. When it comes to other people, you really gotta listen to their music and to their voice and figure out what they like to talk about and what they want to talk about, you gotta write more for that person. But when it comes to me, I just write, it’s just the creative process.
YKIGS: In your bio, one of your goals is stated as you’d like to work on production with other artists and help them to find themselves as an artist. Talk to me about that process, how you work with other artists and how you can help them along?
CJ: Well when I work with other artists, before we even begin a track, really a lot of times I just sit and talk to the person, try to get to understand them, and understand who this is person is, and what they like and what they don’t like, really kinda chill out and have fun and try to get to understand the person. For me someone’s personality helps me understand where they want to go in their music a lot better. It’s a fun process just getting to learn new people and hang with people and hang out and chill out and then put all of that into the music. It’s a fun process, that’s pretty much what I do when I work with other artists.
YKIGS: I was also reading you play a bunch of instruments. Tell me some of the instruments you play and how you took an interest in learning each of these?
CJ: Well I play bass, guitar, drums. I actually learned how to play bass from Raphael, because like I said I hung over there for maybe about four years, so just seeing him playing bass and guitar every single day, I kinda just picked it up and he started showing me some things so I learned how to put little things on my record. I’m not great at it yet, but I’m still learning, I can play enough to play on any of my records. I’ve been playing drums since I’ve been in church, since I started off in church singing, I’ve been playing drums since maybe I was 10 or 11. I’ve been playing piano since I was about 10 or 11, same age. My dad used to have a little gospel group actually, I started off playing with them going to different churches and having different events, playing with them, so I’ve always been playing piano pretty much all my life. Actually my mom told me a funny story, when I was two I had a piano, my dad would have a piano and I would never bang on the piano, I would always try to play, so I guess that means I’ve been playing piano since I was two! *Laughs* Yea I play pretty much every instrument. I want to learn how to play violin actually, I think that’s a beautiful instrument, so I’m trying to pick that up now. Just pretty much keep learning, I like to keep enhancing on everything, never stop learning really.
YKIGS: I think that’s rare these days, especially for artists coming up, the musicality of it, instruments, and all of that. Do you feel that’s missing these days in r&b and music?
CJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I feel like it’s coming back, with Kanye, I love Kanye’s new album, that’s all I listen to, he has a lot of different instruments, that’s all I’ve been listening to for the past two weeks, man I’m in love with his album. I feel like that’s progress, like I said musicians, soul guys and soul females out here, I feel like that’s just progress for us. Something like that musical to be in the mainstream, I feel like we’re getting back to the music.
YKIGS: Talk to me about some artists you’d like to work with in the future?
CJ: I want to work with…me and Marsha Ambrosius are going to work together, Chrisette Michele, I’d like to work with her, J. Cole, I’ve been trying to get in with him. Who else…Mario, like I said we’ve got some things coming up. Who else would I like to work with…Drake, I like Drake, I think Drake is dope so I’d like to work with Drake. Maybe Lil’ Wayne, like I said I like hip hop too, I just would like to do different type stuff with them, some real music, see what would happen if they could do some stuff like that.
YKIGS: Besides pushing with your album right now, are you currently working with any other artists writing or producing, or is it just you’re focusing on the album right now?
CJ: Well right now we’re pretty much trying to wrap up my album, for the past week I’ve been trying to get the album wrapped up so I can turn it in and we can promote the single. My new single just came out maybe two weeks ago, it’s called “Heavy,” it’s me, my man Tyga from Young Money, and Fat Joe, it’s called “Heavy.” I’m just trying to wrap up the album right now.
YKIGS: That’s all of the questions I had for you, is there anything else you’d like to add?
CJ: I thank you and appreciate your time. Also, if you could mention my Twitter is @IAmCJOfficial