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."