Ajani Jones Credit: Cooper Fox

Chicago hip-hop label Closed Sessions is gearing up for another banner year. Late last month House Arrest, the distribution wing of important Mississippi indie label Fat Possum, announced it had struck a deal with Closed Sessions; earlier this week, Pitchfork Music Festival announced that this year’s gathering will feature one of the label’s marquee artists, Kweku Collins. The Evanston MC makes a guest appearance on Cocoons, an EP by Closed Sessions’ latest signee, Ajani Jones; the label announced it signed the Chicago rapper last week, on the day it released Cocoons.

The 24-year-old Jones made the lush and contemplative EP this past winter while holed up at Soundscape Studios, collaborating with a cadre of producers—Boathouse, Noah Sims, Sebastian Kamae, and Banks the Genius, who Jones credits with helping him get to this point in his career. “Without him, this whole thing would be null and void,” Jones says. “I was working a terrible job, waking up at five in the morning, driving from the south side of Chicago all the way to Rogers Park to do a factory job. I hated it every single day. It paid so good, though, that I was able to pay my studio time, and he was giving me discounts. He was looking out for me because he understood, he saw something in me no one else did.”

A Thornton Township High School graduate, Jones began rapping in earnest after he moved to Iowa for college. But Jones couldn’t quite gel with the Hawkeye State, and in January 2015 he moved back to Chicago to enroll in Columbia College. He dropped out after a few semesters, though he released his first full-length through the school’s student label, AEMMP Records; Eternal Bliss came out last May, nearly a year after he’d left Columbia. That album brought him to Closed Sessions, which has provided Jones with the environment he needed to create Cocoons and its forthcoming follow-up, a full-length called Dragonfly. Just before he dropped the EP, I talked with Jones about his budding musical career, finding his voice with his high school speech team, and how his mother helped him become a better rapper.

Leor Galil: How’d you link up with Closed Sessions?

Ajani Jones: I linked with them just through AEMMP—it’s a student-run label at Columbia. I had been there the previous year—going to Columbia—and I dropped out. Once I dropped out, my manager, Alexy Erouart, and Noah Sims, they submitted me; I was working on my project Eternal Bliss at the time, and I played a song for the class. They liked it, so they chose me. Alex [Fruchter, Closed Sessions cofounder] runs that class at Columbia.

It was a genuine thing, where it was like, “Man, you like my music.” I’ve been in love with Closed Sessions since I was in Iowa going to college, and I really wanted to work with them; that’s why I came back to the city. It was really cultivating that relationship.

At what point did you link up with Closed Sessions after putting out the project through AEMMP?

The project came out in May. They didn’t start speaking to me about linking up until, I would say, October. They do those cocktail shows at [the Robey Hotel] in Wicker.

They had me at one of those and that went really well. They met my mom and dad. Once my mom gave the stamp of approval, it was like, “All right, cool, if she thinks these guys are genuine then I’m gonna rock with them.” So, we signed in November.

That’s sweet that you looked for your mom’s approval. What do your parents think of your music career?

They’re fully supportive. I’m a momma’s boy, and I’m gonna say it everywhere. I’m sure most of us are. I really love my mom. She’s been there for me. She was the first one to get my Logic Pro [and] my first laptop so I could start music. She bought me a mike when I was 16. She’s been a full supporter. I would rap my first stuff to her. I was an introvert in high school, so I would rap my stuff to her.

She supported me through and through. It got to a point when I was in Iowa, and I was like, “I don’t want to do this no more.” My mom was like, “You know what, you’re really good at music. I believe if you put all your chips into it that you can make something with it.” She let me stay at her house, and I don’t—I’m not one that likes to lean on others. I wanted to leave as soon as possible. She said, “Stay as long as you need to to get on your feet,” and that’s what happened. Without her none of this would be possible.

You performed for her when you were in high school—what kind of feedback did she give you? How did she help you figure out how to become the musician you are now?

You know how moms, when you first start doing something as a hobby, they encourage you because they sort of have to—they want you to feel like you’re validated by them. I feel like she was doing that at first. I was a big fan of J. Cole at the time, and I was on some lyrical miracle-type shit. She was like, “I think you need to add a little more substance to what you’re saying. Talk about how we struggle, talk about how I grew up, talk about the city around you and how there’s a dividing line.” She said, “Work around the lyricism around that, and that will cultivate people, because it’s not enough people doing that in Chicago.”

Did you grow up in Auburn Gresham?

No, I grew up all over the south side. Like, 79th and Normal, 82nd and Marshfield. Riverdale. I went to school in Harvey. Any part of the south side you can name, I’ve lived there at one point.

How did you channel that experience into your music?

I feel like I represent. I represent those people. I tell a lot of stories similar to those situations with those people that grew up where I was from—like, playing basketball with crates. The streets that I was on was Ashland, Halsted, Vincennes; those are big streets that run through Chicago. Halsted goes all the way through the north side. I represent those people as well—those neighborhoods represent a certain lifestyle that not everybody in Chicago has lived.

I feel like that’s my advantage, being able to talk about that and not glorifyin’ it. You can make it fun, talkin’ about the good times of it. That’s why the nostalgia part of my music is so feel-good, because I really miss those times. I didn’t miss the death, I didn’t miss being poor, but those moments in time crystalized to define me as a man, and it shines through in my music.

What responsibilities do you have to people who’ve grown up in similar circumstances?

I believe my responsibility—and I’ve accepted this—is to inspire, and to continue to hustle and motivate. If you live what you preach, and you’re a genuine spirit and a genuine soul, then you can change lives.

Kid Cudi was an example of that for me. I was 15, and I was down-and-out and a loner—I didn’t smoke at the time, so I didn’t get that aspect. But he spoke to me in a way where it was like—he wasn’t where I was from, he was from the midwest, but he didn’t understand my lifestyle, he just understood the feeling of it. He inspired me, and as a kid who felt alone, I want to help other kids that feel alone, too; other kids that grew up in the hood that might not have been in the cool crowd, that might not have been popular growing up because they just weren’t understood, and they grew up a different way. I want to reach those people. And also the people that just want to do more with their lives.

When did you begin to find other people that could relate to or collaborate with?

When I was a junior in high school and I was making music on my laptop, I was a really big fan of Asap Rocky. I would go on forums, online, and just talk to people that love music. You know Reddit, the hip-hop page, HipHopHeads?


Those were the only people that understood me. Also I joined the speech team. I did poetry, and I went to states my first year doing it, and that helped me find the power in my voice. My voice has power when I really, really put myself into a verse I can make people go, “Whoa, who is this?” Speech helped me do that.

The speechies people—which they called the speechies, superlame, but it’s really cool, I love it to this day—the speechies, we were all similar in a certain way. We all have similar qualities, we all felt like outsiders. But we were the ones . . . who was winning prizes. Our basketball team’s pretty good, but the football team sucked, the baseball team sucked. We prided ourselves on that, being able to express ourselves with our words, and being able to move people who had never met us. Being able to move people to tears sometimes was beautiful for me.

Where did you begin to find other people to collaborate with on music? How’d you find those people?

It didn’t really happen until I got to Iowa. In high school I rapped, and there was a lot of other people that rapped, but I was more into poetry. I was focusing on wordplay and getting my words right. The flow I was still working on. I missed that wave—it was that 2012, 2013 wave where if you were rapping in high school.

I started organically at the University of Iowa. I met this dude named Trevor Riley, his other name is Shao Doja—he was on my last project. Every project that I work on, he’s on it, because me and him would just sit in his bedroom, record shitty vocals all day long, and talk about life, love, and what we wanted to express. And he’s my best friend to this day. We both moved back to Chicago at damn near the same time, and we’ve been working since.

When I moved back to Columbia, that’s when I met most of my team. I got involved with the open mikes here. BigMouth, those events have a lot of great people at them, people that are genuine and wanna network. I understood the importance of networking at that point because I had been at Columbia for a whole semester and hadn’t met one person because I didn’t go to any events. I was like, “Go to events, you’ll meet people.” And sure enough, I did.

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Let’s jump into Cocoons. It’s part of a series, you’ve got Dragonfly coming after that. When did you come up with this concept?

I was at the lake one day, and I was looking at dragonflies—you can be scared of them as a kid, ’cause they were so fast and big, they were the hugest insects I’d ever seen. I was like, “I don’t fuck with dragonflies.” But I kept watching them. I was at the lake by myself, on some weird shit, and I was just looking at them and I was like, “Yo, these are beautiful insects.”

I researched them; they don’t live that long, they live carefree, they move swiftly in the air. What interested me was how they came to be. They evolved into this beautiful thing, just like butterflies evolved. So for me it was, “What am I trying to do? I’m trying to grow, I’m trying to evolve as a human and as an artist, and I want to inspire other people to do the same.” ‘Cause with Trump as our president we need to do that more than ever. We should have been doing it—the urgency is there, we see the true colors of our country. It’s about growth and nothing else at this point, so that’s what I wanted to present.

The Cocoons part of it was “every path is growing.” Getting out of stereotypes, breaking away from things that people expect from you, breaking out of your own self-doubt, and improving your self esteem. And Dragonfly is blossoming into what you always knew you could be, realizing that, and putting that in front of everybody to see. “Look, this is what it is, this is how I did it, I manifested this, you can do it too.”

How does Cocoons help you get to where you want to be as an artist?

The entire experience of making it helped me do that, because it helped me learn more. Closed Sessions, they were telling me certain things, like, “You need to put in work, as much as possible. Come here as much as you can, be around us, and let us build as a family.” There was a point where I was at the studio every single day, just to be there, just to experience and grow with them. That experience helped me make the project smoother.

When I started, they asked me, “Oh, yeah, how much of the project do you have done?” I was like, “It’s 40 percent done.” I was lying. The project was, like, 20 percent done. I had, like, two or three songs that I liked. I had Dragonfly songs sort of figured out.

At a certain point it was like, “What do I want to do now? I want to make it all in house.” I was working with other people outside of the state—people in Rhode Island, Texas. It’s hard waiting on people to send you stuff. I don’t like to wait—I don’t like to rely on people. I went with Boathouse, Noah Sims, and Banks the Genius. And Pim [de Jonge], his producer name is Sebastian Kamae. He was this really dope intern that Closed Sessions had from Amsterdam. He was there for 30 days; he worked on “Bloom” and “Pyramids” with me. Those are two records that I made in 20 minutes.

What’s the one thing you want people to listen for that tells them something about you?

I want them to see that I can do a lot. I feel like this project explores my versatility as an artist. You have records like “Crystal Drops,” which is more bounce-y, a little bit more dumbed down, but speaking about knowledge and speaking about positivity. Then you have records like “Bloom,” where I’m singing about blossoming, being better, and spreading my wings. And you have songs like “Sage,” songs for the smokers and people that have lost others. That song is also about my uncles. I have three uncles that I grew up with; two of them are dead and one is in jail for armed robbery for the next seven years. Songs for them, and also for those people that have lost others. A lot of people, when they open their bottle they pour liquor on the ground; that’s what I thought of when I made that song, like, “This is for all the dead homies, for all the people that have lost their homies, and this is for those that need to smoke the pain away.” I know people that need that.