Defining Jon Bellion
Marking his third full-length, The Definition is available as a free download via JonBellion.com – but don’t let the lack of a price tag fool you into thinking this isn’t a quality collection of tunes. Rather, Bellion says, “I don’t want to ask anybody to pay for an album until I made one of the greatest albums for free.”
The 23-year-old, who manages to come across as down-to-earth while still displaying the confidence required of a rapper, has the skills to back up his claims. You might have heard one of the songs he’s co-written without realizing it. Bellion is behind the chorus Rihanna sings on Eminem’s “The Monster.” He also co-wrote and produced Jason Derulo’s “Trumpets.”
Now, with September’s release of The Definition and his first headline tour that began last week, it’s Bellion’s chance to take the spotlight.
One thing to take note of about the LP – you won’t find an 808 sound in the entire album, which combines pop, hip hop, rap and soul.
“I know that might not mean something to people now but in five years they’re going to look back on this album and say, ‘OK, that’s the album that inspired me to move away from the generic, down-the-middle sound,’” Bellion says. “Not one 808 sound – not a hi-hat, not a snare, nothing was used in this album.”
He adds, “It’s a testament to what I’m trying to do. … I’m not going for, ‘How loud can the 808 be so it rattles somebody’s trunk?’” … When I listened to Timbaland for the first time, that’s the feeling I want people to get when they listen to my beats for the first time.”
You were born and raised in Long Island. Do you still call New York home?
Yes, I do actually. … It’s funny, a lot of people think I bought a house or have this crazy crib in Los Angeles. I basically made an apartment in my parents’ basement (laughs). I like being around my family and my friends. A lot of my homies live super close to where I grew up. … So I kinda just got the bottom half of the house. A lot of people are like, “Wow, you really must be living the life” but it’s like, yeah, I still live in my parents’ basement. It’s all good. (laughs)
It’s really important to keep your family and friends close to stay grounded.
Oh yeah, without a doubt. … It’s funny, I bring a lot of friends to meetings and stuff and they really, I mean, they don’t get it. They don’t know who I’m meeting. It’s nice – they put it in a really good, realistic perspective for me.
How old were you when you first started making music?
I’ve been making beats for super long time. My brother brought home a keyboard that made beats when I was probably, I wanna say, [in] sixth grade. I didn’t have a hard drive or a CD burner for the keyboard so I used to record them to a tape recorder and bring the tape recorder into school. I used to play beats in the lunch room and people used to rap over them. … About four or five years ago I kind of just gave singing a shot and it kind of worked out so it’s all moving along pretty nicely.
Let’s talk about your new album, The Definition.
J Dilla is one of my favorite producers ever. So the goal of this album really was to make it like J Dilla made a Pixar movie … with very vibrant, very colorful backdrops and [where] everything kind of pops. So it’s got like gritty hip hop rhythms and gritty influences but it’s still super Pixar and super digestible and colorful. That’s really where I was approaching the album’s standpoint from.
You mention J Dilla in a few of the tracks. For example, “Preoccupied,” where you’re talking about Wu Tang, Death Cab For Cutie and Paul Simon and all these different influences.
I wanted “Preoccupied” to really drive that home. It’s like it’s Dilla in the pocket but it’s still really Paul Simon. Or like, Wu Tang raised me but I grew up and started branching out and Death Cab kind of changed where I was musically. I’m kind of just a product of this weird Internet, instant gratification, musical generation. So I feel like I’m the next new sound, the next by-product of Kanye and Pharrell and Band Of Horses and all those things together … I’m like the bastard stepchild of it all.
The Definition opens with “Munny Right.” You’ve said the song is about your feelings regarding success when you began creating the album and the last track, “Luxury,” describes your perspective on success towards the end of recording the album. What was the time span for writing the album?
The whole album took I’d say about 11 months top to bottom to create. I was just in different places. I made some records in France, I made some records in Los Angeles, some in New York, while I was simultaneously writing for other people. Whenever I had a couple days off to work on my own stuff, I would put on Pixar movies … I see music kind of in colors, like images in my head of how I want to approach soundscapes and things like that. I used to literally just run “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and all of these movies and I would try to make [the music] as aggressive as possible but still be super Pixar. I don’t even know if that makes sense. But a lot of the sounds and the feel of this album is like I said, Dilla meets Pixar.
[After watching] Pixar movies for like six hours and I’d go in to the studio and then kind of create what I saw – the richness and the full colors. It’s crazy to see the way my niece is engaged in Pixar movies. It’s really because it’s so pleasing. … Adults love it but kids also love it because it’s clever and it’s bright and it’s new and it’s futuristic – that’s kind of where I wanted to take it. All Pixar movies are so digestible … and they look beautiful. The goal [was] if I could translate that to an album I think it would end up being something super game changing. Something that is over the top spectacular.
In the song “Luxury” there’s a line that says, “We won’t let your soul drown in luxury.” Was it a concern for you to not let it all go to your head?
I guess you could quote me on this – I do believe I have one of the most important albums coming out, whether it’s free or not. Right now I think The Definition is important for the culture of music, period. That’s just how I feel. But at the same time I also understand that this whole thing is just – it’s making music. Big freaking deal. We put so much into what we’re doing and we make artists like myself and other artists into these gods of people and really we’re just normal people. … One example is Robin Williams – it’s like, how happy could the money make you? It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You have no idea what people are going through. And the day I start to find that my car or my pool or house or I don’t even know, my shag rug, starts to be my happiness. I’ll be chasing things that will never truly make me happy. God is the only thing that’s going to be here. He was here before we came to this earth and when we leave this earth. So that’s what you need to stick as close as possible to — a relationship with something much bigger than yourself, something that created you.
Me living in my parents’ house is a classic example how of I don’t want to lose my soul in luxury. I want to be around my family. My parents aren’t going to be here forever. I’m not going to be here forever. Family, God, all those things come way before this music stuff. … I used to think if I make it to this position I’ll be so happy. [But] I’m still stressed, I’ve still got problems. The No. 1s, “Trumpets” being on the radio, climbing the charts – nothing changes. I still get anxiety, I still get ego problems, I still get jealous of other people. I’m a normal human being. So I refuse to let any success or my public image be any different than who I really am. Or how I really feel.
Can you talk more about the decision to release the album as a free download?
A lot of people actually said I was crazy, “You wouldn’t be up for a Grammy if you put out a free album” and blah blah blah. It’s funny because there are two sides to it. The first side would be, “Wow, Jon Bellion is an idiot for putting all this music out for free – he’s not making any money. Blah blah blah blah.” But for me, it’s [that] I don’t want to ask anybody to pay for an album until I made one of the greatest albums ever for free. So it’s not that Jon Bellion’s an idiot, it’s just that his taste level is just that high. It’s just that I’m giving you that much more. I’m giving you three full length feature videos and an amazingly mixed, mastered and incredibly culturally pushing record. … So imagine what I would be asking for $1.29 for a single or something like that.
My first two albums I didn’t think were good enough to start claiming that I had one of the best albums of the past couple years. I have a realistic mind frame about it. Translations Through Speakers and The Separation were really good, they were creatively great but they weren’t as sharp, the ideas weren’t as honed and as crafted as The Definition. Like what artist would say that? If you watch [the] “Dead Man Walking” video and then you watch “Carry Your Throne,” it’s like you’re going to tell me that there’s no difference creatively or maturity level or anything? I really feel that this album is exactly what I’ve been needing to create. It just so happens that the Internet is just so accessible that [fans have] gotten to grow with me creatively. But The Definition is really who I am. I would play this for Kanye, I would play this for J. And if they didn’t like it, I could care less because I know how amazing it is.
“The Beautiful Mind” tour starts Oct. 2. Looking through our past records, you haven’t done a lot of touring before.
No, actually. I’ve only had three shows. One was at SOB’s [in New York] which we sold out in I think a day and a half, which was amazing and it was my first show – crazy! And then my second show was being an opener for Kanye West at Wireless Festival on the main stage. And the third show was just recently at the University of Toronto.
The feedback’s been amazing. I have an eight-piece band of a bunch of dudes that I grew up with back in my college years. I would always tell them if I went on tour I’d take them with me. So we’ve been practicing, rehearsing like crazy. So it’s not just some DJ spinning a record and that’s the tour. It’s a live band, it’s a real experience. … I’m just excited to see the fans. I’ve never been on a tour so it’s crazy to headline, like the first time I travel the country. I’m blessed that these kids are coming along for the ride with me, that they believe in what I do. It’s humbling. It’s super cool.
Are you guys taking a tour bus out on the road?
Yeah, I think it’s like a Sprinter, a 15-foot Mercedes Sprinter or something like that. I’m not too sure. My manager [is handling that]. At this point I don’t [care]. I’ll drive a bike cross country. (laughs) I’ll do what I have to do.
Upcoming dates for Jon Bellion:
Oct. 10 – Houston, Texas, Fitzgerald’s – Downstairs
Oct. 11 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Oct. 13 – Scottsdale, Ariz., Pub Rock
Oct. 14 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour
Oct. 15 – San Diego, Calif., Club 5th Avenue
Oct. 17 – San Francisco, Calif., Bottom Of The Hill
Oct. 21 – Portland, Ore., Roseland Theater
Oct. 22 – Seattle, Wash., Vera Project
Oct. 24 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Kilby Court
Oct. 25 – Denver, Colo., Cervantes’ Other Side
Oct. 26 – Omaha, Neb., The Waiting Room
Oct. 28 – Minneapolis, Minn., 7th Street Entry
Oct. 29 – Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave Eagles Club
Oct. 30 – Chicago, Ill., Subterranean
Nov. 1 – Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Grog Shop
Nov. 2 – Toronto, Ontario, Adelaide Hall
Nov. 4 – New York, N.Y., HighLine Ballroom
Visit JonBellion.com for more information & to download The Definition.