Jim Jones is splayed across a leather sofa at New York’s Empire Studio, eyes half-mast, the hint of a wry grin creasing his face. His head bops almost imperceptibly to the refrains of “Pop Champagne,” the first single off his forthcoming album on Sony/Columbia, Pray for Reign. Empire, incidentally, is his: a recent two-million dollar construction with a view like that of its landmark namesake. By all appearances, Jim Jones is immersed in his own private world. Suddenly his eyes widen alarmedly, and he bolts to the engineer’s desk, shouting “That’s not right!” Apparently he’s detected a sonic flaw in the record. The vignette is a microcosm of the man: under a veneer of calm and unflappability burns one of this generation’s fiercest spirits.
“Role model is a touchy title,” Jones says pointedly. “For me to have survived the things I’ve been through and be making all legal money, that forces me to be a role model by default, whether I’m an angel or not. If I can set an example for people as far as my integrity, my work ethic, my accomplishments, then good. I want people to achieve what I have, to do such things and even more. I feel like Obama.” Interesting analogy. But what outsiders may wave off as industry braggadocio applies in earnest to Jim Jones. The mastermind behind the Diplomats, owner of 2006’s biggest single “We Fly High (Ballin’)” a constant cultural force—“ I changed the whole esthetic for the world; skulls was last year’s fashion superfad, and it’s all because of me—” Jim Jones has shown an uncanny ability to evolve and differentiate himself in a game cluttered with idle thinkers and stenciled careers.
“I always wanted to be big, fly, like James Bond when I was younger,” he reveals. “Just someone who could win in every direction. The real cool dude who could beat you up and take your girl, and shoot a good jump shot, and swim good, or cook, whatever was necessary. I always like a challenge, and it’s cool to be different. I wasn’t really after fame, but I wanted famous people to know me. People need to understand that they’re dealing with a monster when it comes to my brain capacity. I been had the game in my head since I’m nine years old. This was all premeditated. The very informed dreams that I had when I was younger, I’ve turned into a blueprint. That’s how I always win: I fill a void that people aren’t worried about.”
Words as likely to arch an eyebrow than earn an approving nod. But there’s no arguing his track record, and there’s no overlooking the voids he’s currently exploring. Pray For Reign, which drops early 2009, is just the beginning. Jones has put the finishing touches on his life’s documentary. Birthed by award-winning producer Marc Levin (SLAM), director Ben Solomon, and executive producer Damon Dash— whom Jones lured out of retirement to tackle his many projects—the film follows the Bronx-born, Harlem-bred impresario from dimly-lit streetcorners to lavishly appointed executive offices. The film’s last setting will be Park City, Utah, for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
“When somebody else is watching from the outside, they’re able to paint a picture that you can’t from just living your life,” Jones asserts. “It showed me so much I’ve done and accomplished, personally and professionally. It’s a great tool for others, it’s intriguing, it’s exciting, it’s a little more than I expected to be honest.
“There’s really no way to explain Harlem,” he continues, “but we can tell you about the things that go on there: the stories, the history, the events. But it’s getting cold out there in New York, I haven’t seen Harlem look like that in years. I don’t think the youngsters share the same impressions I had; with my hard work, I’ve built a business in this game. I’ve created jobs for individuals coming up under me, and hopefully in turn they’ll do the same for others. Most people don’t do it like that; they try to get it all for themselves. They don’t realize if you spread love and help others get it you’re gonna feel that much better and be that much richer.” Just when you had Jim Jones pegged as a slave to his hubris, he surprises you with humility, and an astutely long view.
Part of this view entails Jones’ foray into the theater. He’ll be starring in the Hip-Hop Monologues, essentially a one-man show set to the music of Pray For Reign.
Jones likens the play to this generation’s West Side Story, and his role is all-encompassing; while the album contributors play peripheral parts, the spotlight is wholly Jim’s. Initially, the idea sprang from Jones’ exasperation at typical album release protocol: a listening session, held for alleged tastemakers, to introduce the music. Unsurprisingly, Jim wanted, pardon the pun, a bigger stage to break Pray for Reign, his most complete and explosive album to date. Producers include No I.D., Ryan Leslie, Harlem beatmaker Ron Browz, and Byrd Gang’s own Chink Santana. Guest spots come from Ludacris, Juelz Santana, and other members of the Byrd Gang.
“This album has been blessed with good producers and people in my camp who helped me; these weren’t all my musical ideas, this is like a painting, a mosaic that everybody played a part of,” Jim notes. “We all share the same vision —to win— and to make some incredible music: the music that we came up to, that taught us how to hustle, that made us want to do things that wasn’t right, that inspired us to do good. I’m going to shock a lot of people who don’t think I can make this type of music. I been through a lot of hurt and I can feel people’s pain. I’m very genuine in my music, and if I’m not talking about real life and my lifestyle I can’t get a song done. People can see a little of themselves in me.”
New Yorkers, meanwhile, should expect to see a lot more of Jones. Speaking of a bigger stage, straightforward performances of Pray for Reign simply won’t suffice. As of December 1st, he’ll be heading a weekly residency at the famed Mercury Lounge, fronting the eclectic Irish rock band Republic of Loose. Whimsically and affectionately dubbed “the Irish OutKast,” Republic of Loose has a global legion of fans. With Jones as their exuberant frontman, the band will reinterpret and reconstitute Reign live.
But lest the rest of the world feel slighted, Jim Jones will be baring more than his soul with yet another concurrent project. He’s preparing a workout DVD, coolly titled 60 Sets in 60 Minutes. Jones, who dons diamonds more often than he does shirts, explains and illustrates how he maintains his sculpted physique. Emphasizing a grueling workout despite an unforgiving schedule, 60 Sets in 60 Minutes features Jim’s personal narration, along with appearances from Damon Dash and Juelz Santana.
Elsewhere, look for a second Jim Jones film endeavor, this a “mockumentary” entitled the Byrd Gang Blasphemy. Intertwining verisimilar content with jarring, dramatic episodes, the Blasphemy is an intoxicating, surreal sojourn though urban hardship. “I wanted to do a movie about my album, something like the Streets is Watching, and I wanted to do a Byrd Gang movie,” Jim stresses. “We follow artists around to see where they’re from. The film utilizes three different cameras, documenting life from people’s point of view and also a 60 Minutes-type interview segment, hosted by Angie Martinez. For example, in the midst of the documentary portion you’ll see a home invasion, hence mockumentary. It’s like a musical Pulp Fiction with a little bit of The Blair Witch Project. People aren’t going to understand what they’re watching.”
There again, the intricacy and intrigue that is Jim Jones. While others are stuck serving the same processed, provincial view of life, Jones is widening the lens. Let’s not forget that Jones is a recurring participant on Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit. He’s also on the board of directors for the Entertainers 4 Education Alliance, with whom he’s performing the annual Stay in School concert on October 28th. “We use music for educational purposes, giving inner city youth the incentive to work in the music industry,” Jim says proudly. “Education is important for society, a way out for kids who stick to it and graduate. They can go to college and get to see something different than their hood. If you’re that smart and know what education really does for you, you can go to any college in America. You can earn a free life.”
And what of Jones’ life thus far? What to expect next from the man determined to “stay two, three steps ahead so people got to catch up with me”?
“I’m planting seeds now to leave as a template for other artists,” he maintains. “I would love to run for mayor of New York. I got Dame, he could write all my speeches. We gotta nail this when it comes to the speeches and debates.” He turns to Dash, who’s been holding court at Empire. “You think we could pull that off in 5 years?” Dame looks at him soberly and replies: “We should be able to. I don’t see why not,” and promptly starts rattling off the logistics involved in a campaign. Jim is engrossed; the interview is over. Jim Jones has found his next challenge.