Jermaine Lamarr Cole is more popularly known to the world as the highly respected hip hop artist J-Cole, was born on January 28, 1985, at an American military base in Frankfurt, West Germany to an African-American father who served in the U.S. Army and a white American woman who was a postal worker for the United States Postal Service.
Cole’s father, unfortunately, didn’t stick around with his family, forcing Cole’s mother to later move him and his older brother Zach back to the United States, to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to be exact, when Cole was just eight months old. But even with a fractured nuclear family unit, J. Cole still emerged as the influential creative inspiration that he is today, with a background story just as interesting.
Straight Out of Fayetteville, North Carolina
- Cole has described growing up in a multi-ethnic environment, but when asked about his biracial identity he has said:
“I can identify with white people because I know my mother, her side of the family, who I love. But at the end of the day, [I’ve] never felt white. I can identify [with white people], but never have I felt like I’m one of them. I identify more with what I look like.”
J-Cole had an affinity for both basketball and music while he was still young and musically at the time, he was a first-chair violinist for the Terry Sanford Orchestra until 2003.
J-Cole began rapping at the age of 12. But the year 2000, J-Cole started considering it as a potential profession, especially after his mother purchased him an ASR-X musical sampler as a Christmas gift.
This toughing gift led Cole to put extra emphasis on expanding his production skills, later beginning initial production under the pseudonym Therapist. But this got switched when later realized that “Therapist” could be misread as “The Rapist” with both containing the same letter. Cole collaborated with local group Bomm Sheltuh as a rapper and producer.
Education was a strong area of focus for J-Cole, graduating from high school, and accepting a scholarship to St. John’s University. First, J majored in computer science but converted that over to communication and business after he saw first-hand how lonely the life of a computer science professor could end up being.
While attending St. John’s University, Cole was the president of Haraya, a pan-African student coalition, was roommates with a future writer for Complex Damien Scott, and graduated magna cum laude in 2007, with a 3.8 GPA.
Cole officially received his degree eight years later during a homecoming concert in 2015, where he revealed that he had owed money for a library book, and therefore the university held back from granting him his degree.
Cole worked several part-time jobs in Fayetteville, North Carolina, such as a kangaroo mascot at a skating rink, a newspaper ad salesman, a bill collector, and a file clerk.
Hip Hop on His Mind
Musical inspiration for J-Cole came from Canibus, Nas, Tupac, and Eminem. In the early days, Cole and his cousin worked on their rhyming, wordplay, and how to incorporate storytelling within their lyrics. At age 14, J-Cole had filled out countless notebooks that were overflowing with song ideas. However, he was unable to produce beats further than sampling at the time.
Cole’s production talent grew to the point that he was able to create an entire CD’s worth of instrumentals and made the trip over Jay-Z’s Roc the Mic Studio, aiming to play it for Jay Z while he was creating the American Gangster album. Cole waited for over three hours but was dismissed by Jay Z. All was not lost because Cole used those beats he made as the basis for his debut mixtape, The Come Up.
J-Cole and Jay-Z would meet again, this time it would be to agree on Cole becoming the next J in the building at Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label. J-Cole signed his record deal with Roc Nation on February 24, 2000 after he turned 24-years-old, with his close friend and business partner Ibrahim Hamad.
From Mixtapes to Roc Nation
- Cole dropped his second mixtape, The Warm Up, on June 15, 2009, and appeared on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3 the same year on the track “A Star Is Born.” To make 2009 even bigger, Cole was featured on both Wale’s debut album, Attention Deficit, and Wale’s mixtape Back to the Feature.
The next year and decade began first thing in January of 2010 with Cole, label mate Jay Electronica and Mos Def hopping on the classic Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek’s single, “Just Begun.” The guest appearances didn’t stop there. J also hopped on B.o.B’s mixtape on May 25, 2010, and on the song “Gladiators” produced by the prolific sound master The Alchemist.
J-Cole was everywhere in 2010, including XXL Magazine’s 2010 version of their famed Top Ten Freshmen list. He started a college tour between March 19, 2010, to April 30, 2010, hitting up popular college institutions such as Rutgers University and Syracuse University.
On March 31, 2010, J-Cole got up on stage and performed a new song called “Who Dat” and officially released the song as a single on April 30, 2010.
Cole contributed a featured verse on Young Chris’ song “Still The Hottest” and made the same good gesture for Miguel’s debut single “All I Want Is You.”
The celebration was in order for the anniversary of the release of The Warm Up mixtape, which led to J. Cole releasing a freestyle called “The Last Stretch” on June 15, 2010.
Six days later, on June 21, J. Cole premiered his music video for the very first single of his career“Who Dat” on the BET program 106 & Park and continued to fan the flames for the fire that he had been sparking all along. In August 2010, Cole received the UMA Male Artist of the year award due to the critically-acclaimed The Warm Up mixtape and record deal with Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation.
J-Cole albums may not saturate the audio landscape every year. But when he does a drop these entries in his collection they are treated like events:
- Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)
- Born Sinner (2013)
- 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
- 4 Your Eyez Only (2016)
- KOD (2018)
- The Fall Off (due in 2020)
J-Cole has also had his fair share of hit singles to go with the critical acclaim that he has continuously garnered:
- “Work Out” (2x Platinum)
- “Can’t Get Enough” featuring Trey Songz (Platinum)
- “Power Trip” featuring Miguel (Platinum)
- “Crooked Smile” with TLC (Platinum)
- “Wet Dreamz” (Platinum)
- “No Role Modelz” (Platinum)
- “Déjà Vu” (2x Platinum)
- “Neighbors” (2x Platinum)
- “KOD” (2x Platinum)
- “ATM” (Platinum)
- “Tribe” with Bas (Gold)
- “Off Deez” with JID (God)
- “Shea Butter Baby” with Ari Lennox (Gold)
- “Middle Child” (5x Platinum)
- “Down Bad” with JID, Bas & EarthGang featuring Young Nudy (Gold)
The awards that J-Cole has amassed are already growing at a rapid rate:
- BET Hip Hop Awards: Best Mixtape for Fright Night Lights (2011), Impact Track for “Crooked Smile” featuring TLC (2013), Best Live Performer (2015), Album of the Year for 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2015), Impact Track for “Love Yourz” (2016), Lyricist of the Year (2019), Sweet 16: Best Featured Verse for “A Lot” with 21 Savage (2019), and Impact Track for “Middle Child” (2019)
- Billboard Music Awards: Top Rap Album for 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2015)
- Grammy Awards: Best Rap Song for “A Lot” with 21 Savage (2020)
- Soul Train Music Awards: Best New Artist (2012), Best Hip Hop Song of the Year for “Power Trip” featuring Miguel (2013), and Best Collaboration for “Power Trip” featuring Miguel
Handling His Business
Don’t think for a minute that J-Cole only used his communications skills and ignored his business side when he graduated from St. John’s University with a focus on communications on business. Cole has more than dug deep into business and entrepreneurship in addition to being a creative:
J-Cole began his own record label in early 2007 with current label president Ibrahim Hamad while working on The Come Up mixtape with current label president Ibrahim Hamad. Dreamville Records is currently distributed by Interscope Records, with artists that include: J-Cole, Omen, Bas, Cozz, Lute, Ari Lennox, JID, and duo EarthGang, as well as in-house producers Elite, Ron Gilmore, Cedric Brown, and Meez.
The Dreamville Foundation
J-Cole established The Dreamville Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in October 2011, designed to bridge the gap between opportunity and urban youth in Fayetteville, North Carolina. With volunteers, the Foundation conducts an annual “Back To School Supply Giveaway” to provide supplies to grade school kids and other philanthropic efforts.
The Dreamville Foundation also established a book club for young men, sponsored “The Nobody’s Perfect Writing Contest and Mother’s Day Brunch” for students, along with an annual weekend of Fayetteville community events called the “Dreamville Weekend.”
- Cole has minor shares of the digital streaming platform Tidal, along with other artists like stakeholders Usher, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Madonna, Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Nicki Minaj.
- Cole’s Dreamville Festival was announced on April 27, 2018, featuring local music, culture, food, and art. It is set up in a way that integrates up-and-coming talent with nationally known artists, with the intention of being a festival that attendees can look forward to every year.
- Cole has a multi-year footwear and apparel partnership with Puma as an ambassador for the brand in February of 2020. Cole is involved in the product creation, marketing campaigns, and cultural guidance to raise Puma’s profile and popularity in the footwear space.
Back to Basics
J-Cole talked about his love of music and basketball with The Players Tribute, and spoke about intentionally moving back to the room he rented in Jamaica, Queens in New York City to get that feeling of hunger again to zap him into the levels of creativity he was challenging himself to return to:
“For the next three months I would wake up in that old, familiar room, putting myself through morning writing drills before heading off to Electric Lady Studios with a short term plan to finish the ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ album before the arrival of my first child.”
Aside from being the rap star that represents for everyday men and women without focusing on materialism, J-Cole is also a husband to his wife Melissa Heholt, who he actually attended St. John’s University with. She works as the Executive Director of his Dreamville Foundation.
- Cole and Melissa are also parents to two children that will inherit the legacy that J-Cole continues to let unfold. One of the most amazing things about J-Cole is his dedication to bettering himself. Many rappers, and human beings as a whole, fixate on their past, younger days when they had less responsibilities and were able to live for the moment. J-Cole has set an example as not just an artist, but as a dedicated husband and father that it is cool to grow up.
In J-Cole’s world, handling your responsibilities to those that you love doesn’t have to be reduced to something corny. He still makes time to advance his art, support the blight of disenfranchised black people in his community and beyond, and work directly with youth, providing opportunities for them to be able to see hope come into focus, and not just a revolving door of poverty and limited options that could send them to jail.
As a black man with a white mother, J-Cole has seen the racial divide from a front row vantage point, and has had the ability to nurture his prospective to stimulate unity, important conversations around disparity and stigmas, and he has done it all without compromising his morals, ethics, and authenticity. It also doesn’t hurt that his rapping skill level can still deliver above and beyond many of the lyricists that have come before and after him because of colorful wordplay, honest remarks, and a dedication to improving his craft.