The dictionary has two definitions of the word Topaz. The first one is "a precious stone." The second is "a large tropical American hummingbird." Hip-hop artist Topaz Jones seems to be an amalgamation of both. The New York-based artist has been injecting live instrumentation into traditional hip-hop song structures to create his own brand of modern funk. Inspired by Outkast and driven by Parliament-Funkadelic bass lines, Topaz has displayed his progressive musical prowess recently on singles like "Toothache" and "Cotton Fields."
His debut LP, Arcade, was released in 2016 and now we're in 2018 and ready for new music. I caught up with Topaz Jones to discuss his exposure to the music industry as a child, his plans to achieve his musical goals, standing out in Hip-Hop, and how the current state of the music industry allows for experimentation in all forms. Read the full interview below.
OTW: How did you get into music?
Topaz Jones: I grew up with a dad who was a musician and a lot of other family members who were musicians as well. I had a very practical view of the music industry. A lot of the kids who I grew up around saw working in music as a lofty goal. I was fortunate enough to know what it looked like to work in the music industry and not necessarily have to be Michael Jackson to sustain a living off of it. I decided pretty early that a career in music was something that I wanted for myself. I started writing songs when I was around seven or eight years old but I really didn't feel a part of the music industry until 2014 when I put my first real mixtape out.
Did having prior knowledge of how the music industry worked gave you an advantage - or did it affect how you made music and connections?
It was a privilege because I already knew that there was a lot of hard work involved. I was very aware because my dad was a musician and I watched how dedicated he was to playing his guitar every day. His love and passion for the craft was always there. I try to apply that to everything I do in production and writing.
Did your 2016 debut project, Arcade, have the impact that you wanted?
The things you want never come to you dressed the way you expected. I put a lot of weight on that project because I graduated from school and I was trying to get out of having a day job. I definitely wanted it to do really well. I've always wanted to tour. Even to this day, I haven't been on a major tour yet. The only thing that I was disappointed about was that I didn't get to hit the road and play that music in front of a lot of people but as far as the response I got from it, I feel like people began to understand who I was as an artist. At that time, I was really happy with the way the project resonated. Personally, I felt as if I reached a new level of authenticity in my work.
What's the biggest priority for you at this stage of your career?
Trying to keep it pure. I'm trying to continue having fun and trying not to put so much pressure on myself. A lot of times, I'll start criticizing myself before I even finish expressing a thought and I've been trying to get better at allowing myself to create more freely and refine later. I've noticed a lot of the greats are expert refiners. I want to join that class of artists.
You have a unique sound within Hip-Hop. Did your sound come to you naturally or did you have to experiment a lot?
I always had a very strong musical compass. I would hear songs on the radio as a kid and know what I liked and didn't like about them. Similarly, I have to know what I like. It's not that I don't try all those other sounds; I've experimented with all of the sounds under the sun. But naturally, the things that call to me on an intrinsic level are the things that end up getting finished.
Hip-hop is in an interesting place right now. Where do you fit into it?
That's like the hardest thing in the world because there's so much happening right now. People are really pessimistic about music in general right now. I've been guilty of having that kind of elitism and having that "Oh it's not as good as it used to be" attitude but I think that excuse is wearing thin now. There are so many good things happening. There's so much experimentation. So many lanes are being created. There are so many lanes that it's hard to pigeonhole myself into any one of them. My ultimate goal would be to have my own lane and have other people fall into that lane. That would be the ideal scenario but there's a lot of stuff coming out right now. There's a revival of funk, soul, and things that were always a part of hip-hop but didn't have as much shine 5-10 years ago. Things are cyclical so I knew it would come back around.
What artists from the 90's or early 2000's do you think paved the way for your sound?
The Internet has really flattened time and space in a really cool way. My little cousin listens to Ray Charles and the "Rolex" song back to back (laughs). Back in the day, I would have had to buy a bunch of different CD's and spend a handful of money to get that experience. I think for me, the biggest precursor is Andre 3000 and Outkast. They were really my introduction to hip-hop. They were hugely successful commercially and responsible for the experimentation that led to new creative directions being accepted. Outkast, to me, were The Beatles of hip-hop.
In today's climate, being a musician isn't just about the music but it's also about your interaction with fans and building a community on social media. How do you balance those things?
The honest answer is that I really don't. I'm pretty terrible at social media (laughs). As of recently, I'm starting to get more followers on Instagram but my Twitter's pretty dead. I've tried so many times to be the life of the party on the internet and I think all that I'm doing is taking time away from the music. Without fail, the people who do all the talking on social media are great for what they're great for. A lot of people that I look up to are people that shy away from that and focus on creating great bodies of work. I aspire to be like those people and allow my work to speak for itself. If I have something cool to document, I'll give it a shot but I'm trying to put less weight on social media.
What made you drop your series of double EPs this year?
I was looking at the landscape and I realized that there's really no limitations anymore. We're tied to these ideas of what a release should be based on. We create physical metrics for products that aren't physical anymore. It's like why would I worry about the difference between an EP and an LP? The Pusha T album being 7 songs is the future. I'm ready to try things. We're currently in a singles market. I often do a lot of switch-ups to show my versatility when I make music so this is my newest way of showcasing that but with a rollout.
Can you tell us about your latest single, Cotton Fields?
Cotton Fields is probably one of the most personal songs I've made. It was one of the only songs that I produced 100% by myself so it was cool to prove to myself that I can make that kind of song. It was also one of the last things that I recorded at my childhood home in New Jersey so there's a lot of sentimental value attached to it. It's something that makes me feel really good and it's connected to a point and time in my life.
What's the rest of the year looking like for you?
We're about to shoot the Toothache video and do a lot more shows. Also working on the new record man. I feel like I'm in a vortex but it's a positive vortex. Hopefully, I dig myself out with something really nice and shiny to show the world.
How do you approach festival stages? How do you capture audiences in an overexposed environment?
I find that festival audiences are easier to please a lot of the time. Obviously, the best thing is when people come to see you and pay for a ticket. I'd like to believe that people go to music festivals to experience a lot of different music. I feel that when people who haven't heard of me before are exposed to my performance, I do a decent job of getting them to latch on. I look out in the audience and try to make as many personal connections with people as I can. I try to stare people in the eyes in a non-creepy way (laughs). I'm just trying to build my following and invite people into the world that I'm creating.
If people only had time to listen to one song of yours to understand who you are as an artist, what song would it be?
Damn, that's hard man (laughs). It's hard because there's the artist that I want to be, the artist that other people want me to be, and the artist that I actually am is somewhere in between. I would probably lean towards "Cotton Fields" or "Toothache." I think my fans would probably lean towards "Tropicana." Where I'm going musically is always changing. I'm never going to make an album that sounds like the last one so it's hard to pin me down and that's intentional.