ATLANTA — Just like every superhero has a theme song, many rap greats have their own trademark ad libs. But producers also need something distinct to identify their beats.
Over the years, Jermaine Dupri, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland and Pharrell have made their involvement on tracks they produced blatantly known by performing on them. Meanwhile, cuts by Alchemist and David Banner have featured recordings of someone saying their name as soon as the song comes on. James Lackey — or JLack, as people who have danced or sang along to Lloyd's hit "Get It Shawty" know him — is taking a similar approach.
"I had to put the mark on it at first, man," he said of the red-hot single he produced. "Because nobody really knows [me], you know?"
JLack, sitting in front of the boards at his own Hitland Studio, talked about how his trademark introduction on the songs he produces — "This is a JLack track, man" — came about. He came up with the intro at "a place called D&S," he said. "It was like my first studio, and we would go in there and just be silly, making music."
Talking to JLack about his music, it's obvious he's a little shy and just getting used to his newfound fame. After all, he's used to letting his older brother take the spotlight. You might have heard of him: a guy by the name of Usher Raymond.
"Escape my brother's shadow? I don't think about it," JLack said. "I just live life. That's my brother, that's my family, and that's what it is. I don't even call him 'Usher.' I call him 'Big Time,' 'cause that's what I used to call him as a kid. I don't even look at him as a big superstar. That's my brother, I see him every day."
Usher is equally proud of his brother. When talking to the singer, he speaks of JLack with a gleam in his eye.
"I'm so proud of him," Usher said of his brother, who had a hand in pulling a practical joke on him on "Punk'd." "JLack has his own individuality. A lot of celebrity brothers or family members always fall in the shadows. But he is different. I remember when he first started on his first Casio, we were actually over in the house and before you know it, he had transformed his entire bedroom into a studio. That let me know that he was just dedicated and likely to succeed. All it would take is the right motivation.
"I'm like, 'OK. I have this huge studio over here,' " Usher continued. "I hope he don't come over here and break anything, but if he does it would be all well.' " JLack's Hitland is actually located at Usher's house in Atlanta.
"JLack is on the move," Usher continued. "I'm gonna tell y'all, you better watch out. It's going to be a major invasion this year."
Usher gave his brother his first big break with his 2004 LP, Confessions. JLack produced the album's intro and started really honing his craft while on tour with his brother.
"Well, at that time, my producing game wasn't really up," JLack said. "I would travel with him, go onstage, and at the end [of each concert,] he would introduce me. Me just traveling around and just going onstage, it's a big experience and it helps me musically, because I meet all the producers that he worked with too, like Jermaine Dupri, Dre & Vidal, they're my dudes right there. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis."
When he's home in ATL, JLack doesn't act like most 22-year-olds. He rarely goes out, usually sticking around Hitland, which is peppered with his touch to make it feel like home. Pictures of models cover the walls, serving as inspiration to the producer. There are also figurines lined up on the console. For JLack, staying in the studio is easy. Not only does he love what he does, but he's fortunate enough to be working on one of the most-anticipated albums of the year: Usher's yet-untitled follow-up to Confessions, which has sold more than 9 million copies in the U.S. (see "Usher Finds 'Magic' With Jermaine Dupri On New Songs").
"He definitely likes all the music that I make," JLack said about producing for Usher. "And he'll trust me. I'm just like, 'Dude, this is the new, hot thing. I'm telling you. Just trust me. Get in there, do it and see how it is.' If you don't like it, you don't like it. Most of the time it has to be banging for him to get up in there in the booth.
"My brother hears everything that goes on down here," JLack said. "He don't really let stuff out, to tell you the truth. He keeps it all. But it's all good, 'cause that's the way it's supposed to be done: family first."
Luckily for Murder Inc. recording artist Lloyd, JLack was able to hand over a few beats to him for his album Street Love: "Hazel" and the aforementioned "Get It Shawty" (see "Shawty's Story: Lloyd Says He Stole From Usher, Loves John Mayer").
"I go to clubs every now and then ... but [mostly] I go to lounges," JLack said. "And they play a lot of dance music, like lobby music or whatever. I'll bring that energy back up in [the studio] and use the type of sounds they use — a little light sound, crazy snares — and just try to put it all together.
"What kind of makes 'Get It Shawty' is really the arrangement of the music and the sequencing," he continued. "That's what makes it kind of crazy to me 'cause a lot of the music isn't really sequenced like that if you really listen to it."
The response for the song has been so strong that JLack says he's been getting calls from Rihanna and Chris Brown about working on their new albums.
"It's definitely a good experience right now," he smiled. "I'm really having a good time right now."
JLack says he might put out a rap record in the future, but he really sees himself as a producer. He definitely has no aspirations of being a singer like Usher.
"Well, first of all, I didn't want to follow in his footprints because I can't sing," he laughed. "As a young kid, I started out with saxophone, then I played drums. My father played drums, so I played drums. By the time I got to like 15, I started playing keys. And then I combined that all together and just started composing beats and using different sounds. If you listen to my music, every sound has its own pocket and its own feeling."
"JLack surprised me with his talent," said Jonnetta Patton, Usher and JLack's mother. "He began creating beats while Usher and I were on the road working. One day he played a beat for us and we both were shocked. He has grown as a producer and has determination and the work ethic to be named among the very successful producers one day. I'm his #1 fan."