At age 18, J-Kwon is hardly old enough to be drinking or going to clubs — and that’s what his huge debut hit, “Tipsy,” is all about.
But to hear the St. Louis-born rapper tell it, he’s lived a life that would be too gritty for some adults to handle.
Put out on the streets by his mother when he was 13 because he wanted to rhyme instead of go to school, he spent some time homeless, living on the streets and selling drugs while trying to pursue his dream of being a famous rapper.
“I would sleep in the White Castle (restaurant) if I had to,” J-Kwon told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “Same shoes, same pants for a month, but you know it’s going to get better later.”
Things certainly have gotten better — his debut album, “Hood Hop,” will debut on next week’s Billboard album charts at No. 7, with more than 125,000 copies sold. In addition, his infectious party song “Tipsy” has reached No. 2 on the charts and still has steam.
“I think I’m pretty blessed,” says J-Kwon, born Jerrell Jones.
It wasn’t always that way. Though he describes his relationship with his mother now as “beautiful,” a few years ago she gave him a choice: Go to school or leave home.
He chose to leave. “I was focused on music, my group, and crack,” he says. “You could put a rat in a maze, and he might not go through it the first week, but after that, he’ll go through the maze.”
J-Kwon declined to talk further about his life in the drug trade, but he relied on it to help him survive on the streets as he worked on making demos. His music reflected his life at the time — he calls it “street music.
“I definitely was making evil music. I had some good music ... but that point in time, I was definitely making battle music,” he says.
During his mid-teens, he was befriended by a promoter in St. Louis who led him to the hot production duo The Track Boyz. They immediately decided to produce his debut, which was later optioned by Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label.
'Cocky and charismatic'
“His rapping, I liked it, but it was his personality, how he sold himself to me that really got me,” says Hot Boyz producer Mark Williams. “He was cocky and charismatic. He had a little bit of everything in him and he wasn’t scared.”
Williams says J-Kwon has an edge other teens lack.
“Most other 17 or 18 year olds are worried about going to college. 'Kwon was homeless; 'Kwon was in the street, so he didn’t have the comfort that other 17-year-olds had.”
J-Kwon also had responsibilities that other teens don’t have — he’s a father of at least one child. Though he makes references to his “kids” in an interview, when pressed later for details, he says simply: “I don’t even want to get into my kids.”
But clearly, his precarious position in the streets, plus his fatherly responsibilities, made him feel even more pressure to succeed.
“When I got with The Track Boyz, I was like, I need to make hits now,” he says.
He got one his first time out with “Tipsy,” which flew up the charts with its catchy foot-stomp and hand-clap beat and call out hook, which says “everybody in the club gettin tipsy!”
But given that J-Kwon just recently turned 18, the song — which talks about getting a fake ID and drinking excessively — has raised some eyebrows.
J-Kwon can’t understand why the song should upset anyone. “If I was 23, I could do Budweiser commericials and all that and it would be good. I don’t understand it.”
So far, any criticism that the song might have received hasn’t impeded its success. The humorous video is getting heavy airplay on MTV and BET and has made J-Kwon an instant celebrity.
His sudden affluence and fame hasn’t been an easy adjustment for J-Kwon, though.
“He’s having a hard time, but he’s learning,” says Williams. “(He went) from being homeless to not being known to blowing up and having a lot of money in his pocket.”
Not like he’s had much of a chance to spend it, though. “I don’t even have time to spend with my kids,” he says.
He’s also worried about misconceptions that may arise from “Tipsy.” Despite its drinking theme, the video brings to mind the mischeviousness of a young Will Smith — something J-Kwon is definitely not.
“People think you’re a joke when you’re really not, and people misconfuse,” he says.
Still, J-Kwon has few complaints about his new rap star status. The best part about it?
“It’s legal, you understand, it’s very very legal,” he says, adding: “Most of the time it’s legal.”