In a remarkably short period of time, Oreo Jones has rocketed to the apex of the Indianapolis hip-hop scene, capturing top honors as an emcee in NUVO's 2012 Best Of Indy poll - a feat he accomplished without a full-length album release under his belt. But that's about to change, as Jones and his label, Rad Summer, finish production work on his debut LP, Betty.
If you're familiar with Jones' work, it's probably through one of his humor-filled personas – perhaps you've seen him as the catatonically stoned host of the cooking show sendup "Let's Do Lunch," or the raging blonde-wigged party animal known as Black Fabio. With the release of Betty, Jones is set to reveal a more serious and personal side to his rapidly evolving artistic palette.
I received an advance copy of the Betty LP from Rad Summer over a week ago, and it's been on heavy rotation in my playlist ever since. After several repeat listens I'm convinced that Betty is the strongest locally produced hip-hop LP I've ever heard. The album finds Jones stepping forward as a remarkably mature writer, weaving thoughtful narratives, full of nuance and poetic turns of speech, all delivered with his booming, charismatic flow.
I met with Oreo Jones on a late summer evening at his downtown home in Indy's Old Northside neighborhood. It was my first encounter with the emcee and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. My editor had warned me that Jones might be tough to pin down – during a preliminary interview he'd insisted that he works days wearing the mouse suit at a local Chuck E. Cheese pizza joint (actually, Jones is a producer for an AM radio sports station.)
As I made my way to Jones' front door, the empty cans of PBR, overflowing ashtrays and discarded pizza boxes scattered across the front porch confirmed the hard-partying, wild-man image of the emcee I'd witnessed in his "Black Fabio" videos. Half expecting Jones to be too drunk or hungover to function during our interview, I was pleasantly surprised to find him to be one of the most polite, thoughtful and self-effacing individuals I've ever had the pleasure to meet.
Jones shares his large home with half a dozen or so friends, so we adjourned to his room to find a quiet place to talk. Aside from an old organ, a drum machine and a few crates of records, there wasn't much in the sparsely furnished space. Over the course of our conversation, I found this would be indicative of the central role music plays in Jones' life and his intense focus on his craft.
Starting in Warsaw
"I was waiting for that question," Jones replies with a laugh when I inquire into the meaning behind his artistic nom de plume. "It's not like black on the outside, white on the inside. I'm not the ambassador for mixed people." He states flatly, "It's not even about race. It's about me growing up. I'm a man of many different flavors and styles."
Conceptually, it's a perfect name for an artist whose music and life have been built on contrasts. Growing up, Jones split his time between the rural suburbia of his hometown, Warsaw, and frequent trips to the inner-city environs of Indianapolis to visit his father. Jones' experiences in both these cities would play a crucial role in his musical development, providing the yin and yang for his singular mix of indie influenced hip-hop.
"I'm from Warsaw. I lived there pretty much my whole life until I came to Indianapolis for college in 2005," Jones says, noting that the city's' punk rock scene provided his first major interaction with music. "It was a small-ass town, but there were a lot of shows. Basically we would just go to hardcore and punk shows every weekend."
Like many teenagers, adolescence was a rough period for Jones, and music provided an escape. "I was a fat, weirdo kid in high school. I was just a shadow, I was an outcast. I just used to get really fucked up and listen to music. I was just really awkward and really fat. (Laughs) I was a huge goofball."
After a failed attempt to join the school band, Jones turned to punk rock.
"I played the trombone in seventh grade. I was shitty about that. I wanted to play drums. But the music teacher said I'd 'look good with a trombone.' I never took that motherfucker home; I hated it. After that I was in a punk cover band called the Screaming Hemorrhoids. I was the vocalist. It was just a spoof for fun. I was listening to straight punk and hardcore at that time, like The Misfits and The Descendents."
I spoke with DJ B Qwyatt, who grew up with Jones in Warsaw. Even at a young age Jones had a larger than life personality.
"I met him in seventh grade. I heard about this kid who was supposed to be in a big fight at a storage unit. He was fighting this other dude who was a lot smaller than him. He was doing all these fake wrestling moves. It was really funny and I was like, 'Who is this kid?' That was my first experience with him and we started hanging out right after that. He was just a big, joking teddy bear. I can't remember anyone in all our time growing up that disliked Oreo."
The Indy Influence
Jones's frequent sojourns to Indianapolis would provide an equally strong musical influence.
"I really didn't grow up with my pops. He was born and raised in Indianapolis and he still lives here. He was a tenor sax player. Basically that's where my music side comes from."
Jones recalled a particularly esoteric performance by his dad, an event that no doubt influenced the young artist's burgeoning eccentricity.
"I remember my first time seeing him play. I was probably in junior high, I wasn't even a teenager yet. It was a Halloween show at the Stutz Building. He had an eight-piece band. I remember this Indian dude named Jumbo – he had hair down to his ass and he played the bongos. There was a dude reading poetry. There were girls singing and harmonizing. I thought it was the wildest shit ever. I was sitting in on the practice and I'll never forget the dude reading poetry. He was like 'She rolls a cigarette, I smoke a joint.' I remember it being really avant-garde and the weirdest shit I'd seen ever."
But it was his relationship with his cousin Julian that provided the crucial turning point in his musical journey.
"I would periodically come to Indy to visit my cousin Julian. He lived in the hood over by Clifton and MLK. I would visit him and be like, 'This place is crazy.' It was very different and everything was so foreign to me," Jones says. "Julian would literally pump hip-hop down my throat. He had tapes on deck like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Biggie, Tupac, Black Star and he would break that shit down to me. It was a whole new sound I had never heard. He's a huge influence on what I do today."
Julian – who converted to Islam and now goes by the name Kareem –fondly remembers musically guiding Jones through his formative years.
"Oreo would come down from Warsaw in the summer. I would keep him abreast of what was happening in hip-hop. He always said that he wanted to be a rapper and I said if you want to rhyme you got to write. So he got himself a little rhyme dictionary and a notepad. He would always come down and show me what he was working on."
Julian's influence stretched far beyond music; he helped shape Jones' self image and identity.
"I remember him being like 'This is who you are. You're black. This is your culture. This is what we listen to. This is our world.'" Jones recalls. "It took me a while to figure out who the fuck I was. I grew up in a suburban white world. I was one of three black kids in my senior graduating class. I really didn't understand that until I came to Indianapolis and started hanging out with my family."
Back in Warsaw, a high school public speaking class gave Jones his first opportunity to perform as a rapper.
"We had a poetry jam unit and I was like I'm going to try to write a rhyme. I had Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001 instrumental CD and I started writing rhymes to that album. I wrote about everyone in the class, it was real tongue-in-cheek and corny. But it just sounded very natural when I performed it."
Rapping and writing would quickly become an important part of Jones' life. "I'd always wanted to be a musician, and rapping was the easiest facet I could latch on to. It felt so natural. I'd write about whatever was on my mind, If I was pissed about something or bummed that someone said some racist shit to me. I feel like rhyming has helped me; it's been therapeutic in a way."
College life eventually brought Jones to Indianapolis permanently and his cousin Julian continued to play a key role in his artistic development.
"Julian was older than me and he was always rapping. I would show him my raps and he would critique them and tell me the right way to do it. I had the MTV Music Generator on the XBOX. I would just sit in my room and make beats off the XBOX. I'd take my XBOX to Julian's crib and play it and he would be rapping the whole time. I barely got a chance to chime in myself. It was a very important time in my life."
Julian was duly impressed with Jones' rapid progress as an emcee. "He developed a style that was impeccable. One year he just took off and I said 'man, you just went beyond what I'm doing."
It was fellow Warsaw native, Trent Elkins –better known as producer 90 lbs. – who would push Jones into the first phase of his recording career. Elkins' distinctive, synth-heavy beats have provided Jones with a fundamental element of his sound.
"My buddy Trent grew up with me in Warsaw. He started making beats in his apartment. We did this beat together with a sample from an old Moondog album. We recorded it in his apartment in some shitty closet, but it sounded dope. That was when Myspace was popping off and I put it up on my page. The next joint we did was an Elliot Smith sample; we called it 'Naptown Paddywagon.' At that point we were just having fun, I didn't have any notion that I would pursue it seriously."
Jones's recordings quickly attracted attention in the local Indianapolis music scene. One artist who took early notice of Jones' talent was Grey Granite.
"Grey was one of the first people to reach out to me. He let me play a song during one of his sets at the Melody Inn. It was just one song, but I was sweating my ass off. All my friends were there; it was really surreal. Grey's been an important part of my journey."
"It was a packed house. They wouldn't put him on the bill so I let him do a song," Grey Granite remembers. "He killed it. He was hype, [and] he didn't seem nervous at all. He's so comfortable with himself; it's really amazing. He can put on a blonde wig on and be ass naked, but his music is not a joke."
"He's comfortable with himself in a way that surpasses most other artists. He's a deep dude and a funny dude – he's all these different things. He gives you all these different sides as an artist. He's really intricate as a lyricist, but it doesn't come off that way. It just seems like he's having fun, but his music is deep and introspective."
At this point Jones started pursuing music seriously, releasing a well-received EP called The Delicious in 2010.
"When I first dropped The Delicious EP, I had the release party at the Casbah. It was packed, it was crazy. That's when I first realized I can go somewhere with this. I can do this for life."
Jones followed The Delicious with Oreo Jones and Friends in 2011. An all-star collaboration EP, Oreo Jones and Friends featured the cream of the Indianapolis indie rock scene, with guest contributions from members of Slothpop, Jookabox and We Are Hex.
"I wanted to do an EP collaborating with different artists and not make it sound like some kind of stupid rap metal shit," Jones says of the project. "Dodge from MOKB helped coordinate it. He'd listen to a track and say, 'This needs a girl's voice, how about Kristen [Newborn] from Slothpop?"
Around this time Jones began another project that would spread his name beyond the confines of the music scene.
"I decided I wanted to do a show or web-based series where I would make grilled cheese and talk to people."
From that simple idea, "Let's Do Lunch" was born in late 2010 – a pseudo-cooking show spotlighting Jones' peculiar sense of humor, while featuring a variety of guest spots from local scenesters.
"We filmed the first one in the kitchen here at this house and it blossomed from there. A friend of mine at IUPUI wanted to help out, [so] we started filming it at Cavanagh Hall in the com-tech lab. We filmed eight episodes with all kinds of different people, from Andy D to the dudes at the Melody Inn. We tell people to bring in whatever they want to cook and it literally takes like 15 minutes. We just go in and shoot like a motherfucker."
"It has gotten pretty big. I was at an intersection at Fountain Square recently and this dude pulled up on a motorcycle, a real badass burly dude and he looked at me and was like 'Hey, "Let's Do Lunch"."
A college internship working for DJ Action Jackson led to what is arguably the most successful venture in Jones' career thus far, Black Fabio.
"As silly as it sounds, I was Action Jackson's intern my senior year in college. I basically just did Facebook posts and helped him with his PR. Honestly, I really didn't do shit. One day he was like 'I'm starting a label up. Do you what to work on a project?' That was when Black Fabio started. It was just a fucking costume for Halloween and he was like 'We should call the album that. Let's call the group Black Fabio.' I said 'Okay, let's do it.' Then that shit grew into a mythical figure."
Released as a mixtape, Black Fabio features Jones and Jackson as a pair of blonde-coiffured matinee idols in a ridiculous lampoon of rap music's image-conscious excess. "I approached the whole concept as super-duper satire." Jones says, careful to distance himself from the more extreme aspects of the character. "Black Fabio is like a mythical trashy romance novel figure, just in it to win it. Black Fabio doesn't give a fuck; he brings a bag of McDonald's into the club and still comes home doubling up with girls. With Black Fabio it was the first time I could talk shit. To have this persona that didn't give a fuck."
Amongst the silliness, there is some seriously good music on the Black Fabio project, including the Aphex Twin/36 Mafia-sampling "Regge Miller," a dance-floor banger destined to become an Indianapolis hip-hop classic.
"It was a fun project, super tongue-in-cheek. We're doing a second one, Black Fabio 2: The Empire Strikes Black."
When he's not wearing his flowing blond Fabio wig, you might catch Jones sporting some equally unconventional attire. His unique aesthetic sensibility has become a big part of his appeal. That's what first attracted the attention of Ace One, a highly respected veteran of the Indy hip-hop scene.
"I remember when I met him. It was at a hip-hop summit at the MLK center. I kept seeing this kid walk around in purple Reeboks, with this early '90s Rally's jacket, and I mean Rally's like the restaurant. I'm like 'Who is this kid?'" Ace recalls, laughing. "Finally they called the name Oreo Jones to the stage and he gets up there and he just kills it. Since then he's been one of my favorites. I respect him as a person and an artist. He's totally awesome across the board – a super fun and an intelligent individual."
A Serious Turn
I observed his prodigious skill at a recent gig. It was a Saturday night gig at Locals Only. Jones seemed indifferent to the fact that the club was nearly empty. He performed with searing intensity, his eyes rolling back inside his head in a frenzied state – equal parts agony and ecstasy. Jones ran through several unreleased songs off his forthcoming Betty LP, and the growth in his lyrical development as a writer was immediately evident.
After the show I spoke with former Jookabox drummer David "Moose" Adamson, who is currently part of the Oreo Jones live show.
"I play a couple tom drums, a sampler with delay pedals and I do some backup vocals," Adamson said of his role with Jones. "I first met Oreo at the Broad Ripple Music Festival a couple years ago. I just thought he was one of the best hip-hop artists I'd heard."
He's impressed with Betty as well.
"I think it's awesome; it's the best representation of him yet. The other stuff he's done is very cool, but the LP is really solid all the way through. It really shows what he's capable of."
"I've been working on the Betty album for a long time. I was trying to figure out how I could express myself," Jones tells me while mentioning the LP's title is a reference to his recently deceased grandmother. "A lot of shit has happened to me over this past year, both good and bad. My grandma, who I was very close to, passed away. She was an important influence in my life. I lived at her house with my mom when I was younger. She wore a lot of hats. She was very stern, but she read to me a lot and played a pivotal part in me being a writer. I also lost a good friend. My laptop was stolen. I've been slandered. This record is basically a snapshot of this last year."
Black Fabio fans expecting an album full of club bangers should approach Jones's debut LP with caution. Throughout my interviews with the emcee, he seemed eager to assert himself as a serious hip-hop artist, and everyone I spoke with believes Betty will do that – including the other half of Black Fabio, DJ Action Jackson.
"People will be surprised by this album. It's very personal," Jackson says. "It's his first album and he's put a lot of deeply personal things on there. I hope people will be willing to see that side of him. I always joke with him that he's very sensitive, and he really is. It's that classic scenario of the party guy who is always telling jokes and laughing, but on the inside he's crying."
The evolution in Jones' sound took Rad Summer label representative Jay-P Gold by surprise.
"When we started the project, I was expecting a mainstream rap album. Something to bring Oreo to more radio-friendly audiences. What we got was a very personal album," Gold says, adding, "It's Oreo saying 'This is me, I'm not going to conform to what you want, I'm not going to be anything other than me.' You can hear that willfulness in his voice."
"I'm really excited about the album," Jones tells me." Musically it's all over the place There's a song about a slave called "House Nigga." There's a song about a vintage porn star. There's a song about harnessing your spiritual animal that I recorded with Jill from We Are Hex. I did two songs with her. She and I worked really well together; it's the first project she's done since the band broke up. I also did joints with Ko of Slothpop and Andy D too."
Jones's excitement is genuine, and it's easy to see why. The album is an artistic triumph from start to finish, and it's loaded with so many highlights and potential anthems, it's difficult to spotlight just one or two tracks.
But one song that really spoke to me was Jones' touching and enigmatic tribute to '50s teen pop sensation Franke Lymon. Buoyed by a puzzling yet poetic refrain "One plate at the China buffet / one day they gonna launch my coffin in outer space," "Frankie" burns its way into your soul with a series of memorable non-sequiturs like "Infinity in the fast lane / at the rate I'm going, damn, you couldn't pass me," "Throw a crack rock at a tank / I'm Gary Busey excited / I just don't know what to think" and "On my corpse there shouldn't be any jewelry, whoever's at the podium should rhyme in my eulogy."
"What Oreo does is unique and I truly believe in him. I would invest all I have in him, if I had anything," says emcee Freddie Bunz, a featured guest on the Betty.
Bunz' comment reflects a general consensus among everyone I spoke to –a sense that Betty will provide Jones with an opportunity to succeed beyond the Indianapolis scene.
Regardless of whether or not Betty is the breakout success everyone is expecting, It's clear that the emcee is dedicated to continuing his career in music, as Jones's parting words to me testified.
"Music is the only natural way for me to express myself, to understand people and get to know them. It has helped me express who I am. It's just a vital part of who I am."
The label: Rad Summer
The new Oreo Jones release will kick off a series of strong local and international releases from Indy-based label Rad Summer. I spoke with Jay-P Gold, Oreo Jones' manager and label rep, about the future of Rad Summer.
"We started as a promotion company in Bloomington with Action Jackson and the Philly-based DJ and producer Flufftronix. I'd been talking with Action Jackson about running a label under the Rad Summer banner and we sort of fell into it all last year," Gold says, adding "As a label, we're not pigeon-holed by genre. We're more about party music. That's the aesthetic we go for with Rad Summer: fun and forward-thinking music."
"I would like to see Rad Summer become a large independent record label relative to that of Mad Decent or XL Recordings," Gold continues. "XL set a benchmark for what an innovative independent label can accomplish, issuing compelling releases from M.I.A. to Bobby Womack. Twenty years from now, I'd like to be able to look back and say that about Rad Summer."
With such ambitious plans, I questioned if relocating to a more music-biz-friendly city was an option.
"Rad Summer is not an Indianapolis record label; we just happen to be based here," Gold says "But we're very supportive of the Indianapolis scene and we enjoy being part of it. All of us at the label are fairly well networked and have been active in music for it least ten years each. Through those connections we've been reaching out to artists we've gotten to know over the last several years. We now have artists based in Chicago, Brooklyn and Finland."
Gold stressed that the label is still very focused on local talent.
"We've got a dance rock band from Fountain Square we just signed called Party Lines. We're really excited about them, as it's our first live band foray. They have a sound somewhere between Jamiroquai and Chromeo. We're also putting out the new Andy D album. Indianapolis is home for both Action Jackson and myself. I think it would take a lot to make us leave our base in Indianapolis."