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For Ajani Jones, Chicago’s Music Community Is All Fam

Written by on November 16, 2023

Chicago hip-hop and R&B artist Ajani Jones hopes to bring the local arts community together through live music, especially at his recent headlining show at Lincoln Hall. 

Ahead of his Nov. 9 performance, Jones sat down with Vocalo host Nudia Hernandez to discuss his musical journey, and his motivation to unite artists through live music.

For his first headlining show at Lincoln Hall, Chicago’s Ajani Jones wanted to share the spotlight with his friends and collaborators: Wic Whitney, Kweku Collins and DJ Mochi, all artists with ties to Chicagoland, joined him onstage to perform solo sets, with a couple collaborative moments. Jones was the organizer and curator behind the event, with hopes to give Chicago artists a chance to bring their craft to the public in a supportive communal environment.

“I think events like this, whether it be a show or a sponsored event, it brings the community together,” Jones remarked. “That’s the goal of this show.”

Chicago artist Ajani Jones stopped by the Vocalo studio to discuss his Lincoln Hall headlining show and new music in the works. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Although he’s become a prominent voice in the local scene, Jones didn’t originally set out to pursue music. While attending college in Iowa, he studied subjects across the board, from physical therapy to sports journalism, but ultimately decided to leave school and return to Chicago — both out of boredom, and because of his experience with racism and policing.

“I think it’s interesting being from Chicago, a place that’s highly segregated… I dealt with cops before, but it was on a different level being in Iowa,” Jones reflected. “Really experiencing what it was like to drive while Black… and being frisked and stuff like that. It happened way more in Iowa than it did [in Chicago]. It was a different dynamic, for sure.”

Since Jones returned to the city, he has found a love for writing and performing music. His sound blends primarily hip-hop and R&B, though he often turns to all kinds of music — from jazz to punk rock — for inspiration. When writing, Jones revealed he often starts with a theme, allowing it to guide his creative process.

“I don’t listen to hip-hop a lot of times when I’m going through that process, because I don’t want to be inspired by other people’s flows and lyrics and cadences,” Jones noted. “I like to go to different genres that blend together well, and it helps me in my craft when I get to the studio later.”

Ajani Jones smiles in front of the Sentrock mural outside of the Vocalo studio. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

In addition to his solo music, Jones revealed a new project in the works with his band WILDË, featured on his track “Soul Tie.” He sees his collaborators as not just fellow artists, but as friends, emphasizing the importance of building community within the music industry. The group released their newest single, “Losing Sleep,” on Nov. 10.

Looking ahead, Jones shared he also has a new solo album in the works. He explained his Lincoln Hall show would be his last in Chicago for a while, as he plans to expand his performances to out-of-state venues and keep working on new releases.

Nudia Hernandez: Vocalo Radio, Chicago’s only urban alternative! Nudia in the afternoon here with you. We have a special guest in the building … we have Ajani Jones in here with us. Hello!

Ajani Jones: Hello! How you doing?

NH: I’m chillin’! How are you?

AJ: I feel amazing.

NH: I’m so happy you could come in, because we love talking about music events that are happening all over the city. You’ve got one coming up. It’s this Thursday, November 9, Audiotree presents you, Wic Whitney … Kweku Collins and DJ Mochi. Doors 7 p.m., show starts at 8, 18+ at Lincoln Hall. Lincoln Hall, it’s a big venue.

AJ: I’m so excited.

NH: And I heard… I thought maybe you were just on the lineup, but you’re actually … helping putting it on, right? 

AJ: Yeah. 

NH: How’s that been? Because putting on events is difficult, especially concerts. It’s a lot of work. 

AJ: It’s a doozy. It’s been… I really wanted to challenge myself. I’ve done Schubas, sold that out before, I’ve done Sub-t and done well there. I call this like a leveling up, of sorts. Just bringing people out. I know I can bring people out, but I want to bring people together with this one. I’m excited.

NH: Has this made you look into putting on more contracts of your own? Are you like, “Next time, I’mma just show up… and let everyone else do all this work.”

AJ: You know what? I think with good preparation, you could put on a show, a really good show. I’ve seen people like Solo Sam do it with his food-slash-music events. Melomakesmusic, Vic Mensa is doing it. I think events like this, whether it be a show or a sponsored event, it brings the community together. So that’s the goal of this show.

NH: And then with the lineup, are these all your people and you just send out texts? You’re like, “Hey, you want to do this?” Is that how it goes? 

AJ: Literally that! 

NH: Because Wic is on that song, “Morgan Park.” I love that song, I was listening to it this morning on the way to work. Definitely has a nice Chicago vibe. And so you are from the South Side, right? 

AJ: Yeah. 

NH: Now … you went off to college, and a lot of people do. They’ll sometimes leave for college. Did you think, or was the plan always to come back to Chicago? Or did you think, “I end up where I end up after college,” you know?

AJ: You know what, the plan was to come back to the city, but it wasn’t to do music, at first. 

NH: Oh, really? 

AJ: I was … into a bunch of different stuff. Psychology, physical therapy. I even wanted to do journalism, sports journalism in college. But it just kind of all kind of got boring to me, I’m gonna be honest with you!

NH: That’s the problem with being a creative, you get bored very easily. 

AJ: Oh, my goodness. I couldn’t stand myself! I had to get back.

NH: I did want to talk to you about this, because I was reading online that… you’ve opened up a little bit that when you went to school in Iowa… you faced a lot of racism out there. And that’s kind of what made you be like, “I’m going back to Chicago,” right?

AJ: Yeah… I think it’s interesting being from Chicago, a place that’s highly segregated, and I dealt with cops before, but it was on a different level being in Iowa. And the dynamic switched for me, like really experiencing what it was like to drive while Black. I experienced that in Iowa, and being frisked and stuff like that. It happened way more in Iowa than it did here. It was a different dynamic, for sure.

NH: Was it the culmination of events, like the fact that it happened so often? Or was there one incident where you’re like, “Yeah, I’m not doing this anymore.”

AJ: I think it was that and realizing that they had me on the — the police, they tag your license plate if they catch you enough times, if they pull you over enough. They had me on that list. And when I figured that out, I was like, “Oh, I’m out of here.” I had a little ’99 beat up Cavalier that I was driving around. I was like, “This is not worth it. Take my car! I’m going home.”

NH: I love that you opened up about that. Because, I mean, Chicago, look, there’s a lot of things happening in Chicago. But it is a very diverse place, I will say that. Like when I moved here, I was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so cultured.” I didn’t even know there was this many Mexicans here! You don’t even know the joy, when I started trying the tacos out here! I was like, “Yes!” 

AJ: Shout out Pilsen. 

NH: Shout out! You know what, real quick, shout out to Pilsen. Shout out to everyone making those corn tortillas! So Chicago is home for you. And then coming back here, and of course getting back into music and doing shows. What are your pre-rituals? Do you have like, some people like it to be quiet and silent and meditate, some people like to rage before What do you like to do before a show?

AJ: Usually I have about three things that I do. So I do start with a meditation. And then I go out, I run out and I go get a really big bag, if I can find it, of the berry Lifesavers.

NH: Okay, I thought you meant money. I was like, “Okay, get a big bag!”

AJ: That too, if possible! The third thing we do is then I have everyone come down to the green room, everyone that’s a part of the show, and then we take a shot. And then we take a picture. So that’s what we’ll be doing in Lincoln Hall this week. I’m super excited to get everyone in the room, because there’s so many moving parts to do this.

Ajani Jones and Nudia Hernandez sat down to discuss “Soul Ties” and more on Vocalo. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: Again, we’re so excited to see it, because we always love talking about all the things happening in Chicago, because there are so many. You’ll have things on your calendar be like, what is… there’s 10 events going on this day, and it’ll be like a Tuesday in December.

AJ: You know how crazy Halloween was! That was insane. 

NH: You know what, just walk down the street and run into something, you’ll run into some event. So I was looking at your catalog, and of course, we played “Morgan Park.” And looking like you have features. One of my favorite artists in Chicago is Brittney Carter. How do your features come along? Because you do have some great people in your songs. Is it all fam, or is it people you’re fans of?

AJ: That, generally like, I become fans of them. And then I’m making an effort to be friends with them. Because that’s what Chicago community is supposed to be. So Brittney Carter, specifically, I heard of her and I was like, “Yo, I have to get her on a song.” But we became good friends. And it was a blessing to be able to do music with her. Same thing with Wic and Kweku Collins. So yeah, it’s all fam when I do features, we just trade records.

NH: I love that. And I put this, noted it down. J. Cole recently said on Lil Yachty’s podcast that he doesn’t charge for his features anymore. Once you reach a certain level of bread, I think you just do it for the love, and he’s there. So I was wondering, for you, if you could get any feature on your songs, and they wouldn’t charge you, who would you want to get on a track?

AJ: That’s a really good question. Wow. Can I give you a tie? I have like two people.

NH: You can give me a couple!

AJ: So off the top, I’m going André 3000. 

NH: Wow. I mean, yeah.

AJ: I know I stand a chance of being murdered on my own song, but I’m taking that chance!

NH: If it’s to anyone, why not André?

AJ: Him or Isaiah Rashad because the record would sound perfect. He’s also almost a Chicago native. I know he be out here a lot. So I think he will fit in just fine.

NH: I love that. And then now you’re manifesting it! So if you ever come back and you have these features, I’m gonna be like, “Remember this interview when you said this?”

AJ: I’m getting one! If anything, I’m gonna try to get 3000 to play clarinet for me, something.

NH: That’s sick. Get him to be a part of your eight-piece band! I was looking, of course, at your streams and some of the songs that your fans love to listen to. And I see your most recent single “Soul Tie,” people obviously love the song. And people, I feel like, 2023, soul ties is a big thing. What was the inspiration for that? Because it is a trending saying, right now.

AJ: And it’s interesting, too, because I felt like I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t made one at the time. I was like, “Oh, ‘Soul Ties,’ for real? Nobody’s made that song?” Initially, when I went about writing the song, I was looking up different soulmates, because there isn’t just one soulmate, one type of soulmate. There’s over eight of them. So you got…

NH: Okay, break it down. Break it down for me! 

AJ: I’m not gonna give you all of them. 

NH: Let me get my crystals out! Let me get my crystals out.

AJ: Yeah, you got that Rose Quartz sitting around somewhere. 

NH: So there’s eight different types? 

AJ: There’s at least eight different types. You have romantic, and then you have soul ties, and you have… it’s slipping my mind.

NH: Is there like a non-platonic, or is there a platonic one?

AJ: There are non-romantic ones. There are people who are in your life, but they’re not here to stay, people that you learn lessons from, all different types. So your best friend is a soulmate, it doesn’t have to be romantic. So the premise of the song came around that, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, a soul tie is a type of soulmate.” And I feel like we all have soul ties that surround us every day. It can be people you work with, you spend most of your time with them. If you connect with them, they could be a soul tie. I was trying to put that message out.

NH: I love it. And I was seeing, I was like, “Okay, I’m doing the math, the math is mathing.” Your last album was put out in 2019. So I’m like, if the math is mathing, are we expecting, are you working on some new material for a new project?

AJ: Yes, absolutely. Next year, I’m gonna drop an album. I actually was gonna drop one last year, but I scrapped it. I call it COVID remnants, it was still rubbing off on me a little bit, but we out of here! I’m excited because this will be my last show in the city for a while. I’m trying to do out of state shows. Until then, you won’t see me in Chicago until the album comes out.

NH: Okay! I like it. Because sometimes you need to just keep it all to yourself. Where’s inspiration for this material coming from? Do you live your life and you go through things to get inspired? Or where does most of your inspiration come from, is it personal? 

AJ: Yeah, that’s a great question. A lot of times, I put myself into a headspace of coming up with a theme. When that theme comes along, I put myself in the studio for long hours. After a while, I can’t rap about nothing but the studio because I’m not living life. So I go out with friends, I try to get a little bit of inspiration. And I don’t listen to hip-hop, a lot of times when I’m going through that process. Because I don’t want to be inspired by other people’s flows and lyrics and cadences. I like to go to different genres that blend together well, and it helps me in my craft when I get to the studio later. I’m not doing stuff that you’ve heard before, I’m doing stuff that sounds good to me that I’ve tried to innovate on my own.

Ajani Jones notes he gets influences from all kinds of music when writing, from jazz to punk rock. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: Do you listen to things besides hip-hop? Or do you just kind of stay away from music a little bit?

AJ: I listen to a lot of music still. Jazz, a lot of R&B. I’ve been on a… 

NH: I mean, R&B is on fire right now. 

AJ: I’ve been on a super Alex Isley kick right now.

NH: Oh, yeah. We love Alex. You know, quick shout out to Alex Isley. 

AJ: Yes! She’s the best.

NH: Yeah, we play a lot of her

AJ: Descended from greatness! I’m also listening to a lot, I still listen to old school punk rock, to be honest with you. Like Green Day, Linkin Park, I still listen to that stuff because it’s close to my heart. And I had a little bit of emo going on in high school. 

NH: No, I had Converse, and you couldn’t tell me. I thought I was a rebel. I was like, “I’m so hard with my torn-up jeans and my Converse,” right? 

AJ: And your Docs! 

NH: Right? And we thought we were it. We were like, “This is punk. We are punk rock.” I love that! I love that you bring inspiration from different types of music. Speaking of hip-hop and rap and R&B, I was gonna say, do you consider yourself a singer? Or a rapper that sings? Because you do kind of, you hum on your tracks, you know?

AJ: Shout out Kid Cudi! 

NH: You be humming on your tracks! So I was wondering, do you consider yourself just a rapper/songwriter?

AJ: Nah, you know what? I wouldn’t call myself a singer, though. Because, to sing… like, when I’m on stage on Thursday, I’m gonna have autotune. I always say, T-Pain can really sing. He sounds good with the auto tune, but he could really sing. I’m not like that. But I feel like I can hold a little note, if it’s just a couple notes. If that makes sense!

NH: A little Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do!

AJ: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So. Leave the rest!

NH: I love that! Again, if you’re just tuning in, Ajani Jones in here with us. November 9, AudioTree Presents he, Wic Whitney… Kweku Collins, DJ Mochi. Doors are at 7 show starts at 8. 18+ over at Lincoln Hall. Is this your first time? It’s your first time performing at Lincoln Hall?

AJ: As a headliner, yes. I opened for Machinedrum there a couple years ago. Shout out to them! But no, yeah, this essentially is my first real headliner set there.

NH: Amazing! Well, thank you for stopping by Vocalowe’re going to be looking out for that new music coming out next year, right?

AJ: Yes. And be on the lookout for a group that I started called WILDË, the band I made “Soul Tie” with. We are dropping a song the day after the show. So at 11 p.m. on Thursday, [Nov. 10,] there will be a new song out, with me on it. So look out!

Interview and audio production by Nudia Hernandez

Written introduction by Blake Hall

Photos by Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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