Toronto emcee and curator, Just John, has a new 9-track LP titled, “Renaissance Boy” that blueprints his journey to opening his own gallery space and sheds light on his Scarborough upbringing.
How did you get started making music. Did you grow up in a musical household?
Since an early age I knew I was going to be an entertainer of some sort. I came from an extremely soccer orientated family and I played goalkeeper, when our team was up by at least 4 goals I say, I would start fooling around and break dancing in my goalkeeping box making the parents from both teams crack up from the sidelines. My dad wasn’t too happy about that but my mom knew that she had to put me in an art camp instead of Rep. soccer like my two brothers.
Putting me in art school wouldn’t happen until I was in high school. I went to Wexford Collegiate School For The Arts in Scarborough. It was there when I started to try out other forms of art like dance, singing and drama. Wex was one of the few art schools in the city and it was an inclusive atmosphere that encouraged people to display their crafts and just embrace themselves kinda felt like a mini justice league of creative people everyone had some sort of talent to share and it was apart of their identity it was what made them unique.
I started making music three years ago, motivated to share my stories and thoughts. I was coming off a being in a dance crew for a couple years so the transition from dancer to rapper wasn’t the smoothest, it threw off a lot of my friends actually and the majority were vocal about their skepticism. But nevertheless I spent a while telling my story through my body and now I wanted to try out telling my story through song so I began recording and started making raps about raps, got a credit card and maxed it out buying studio equipment for a closet studio I set up in my apartment.
I had a background in poetry so I already liked making words rhyme and I felt god blessed me with some flow, some which my dancing background help season but it was finding my sound that was really difficult. I started out trying to rap like my idols but I quickly realized there’s only one Lupe Fiasco and no room for another. So I started focusing on who is Just John, what’s my legacy and why should people take the time of day to listen. Those questions still help me find me my essence as an artist and it still helps me guide me to create a brand that will be satisfying to my listeners now and can reach the generations to come.
How does your family feel about your musical pursuits – Do they wish that you would follow a traditional career path?
My family I feel for the most part are supportive. They know at the end of the day I’m going to do what I want and go for what I want. My mother doesn’t like the inconsistency an artists career entails but I think that’s what keeps me intrigued, driven and hungry more than anything…it’s a different grind everyday. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer so bad, she still does because I won some public speech contest in grade 7 but I rather use the public speaking for rapping.
What’s the story behind the name Just John?
To me, the word “Just” represents self-empowerment, strength in identity and being able to stand strong behind my beliefs. This reciprocates in my music which is very honest and discusses my real life experiences. We’re creatives living in a slash society where we a lot of the time we have to do more than one thing just to survive or they’re just a lot of different things that spark our interests. “John” is my birth name and it’s an ownership of self and allowing myself to be vulnerable with who I am.
Toronto is known for being at the forefront of Hip-hop music these days. How do you feel about Toronto’s growing music scene?
It’s an exciting time for Toronto’s music scene I feel the talent has always been here but now thanks to the couple of break out artists like Drake, The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, Jazz Cartier the city has a spotlight on us more than ever. The notorious screwface capital stigma is disappearing and being from Toronto and bumping Toronto artists is now becoming the norm.
Now that we made it through this pigeon hole for music quote “industry success” end quote, new heights are being reached by Toronto artists and it doesn’t feel like only one act can reach these heights anymore, there’s space for many artists from round our way to join the conversation. I believe now is the time to spread our wings further and show how diverse we really are and how many different sounds and stories are coming from this city and are being cultivated in Toronto in order for us to really cement our mark as a musical hub like Atlanta and Chicago have gone on doing in the past couple of years. It’s our time now. We’re the most diverse city in Toronto our music scene is just as diverse as our restaurants we just have to shed light on it.
Do you find that there is a lot of support amongst the artist?
I feel like the artists that I keep company with have a really strong support system. When I’m not making music I’m the curator at Blank Canvas Gallery on Dundas West and Bloor. It’s an art house where we hold various showcases, art shows, music showcases, open mics, poetry shows, pretty much anything that’s a display of creative expression. I feel like the artists that are coming through Blank Canvas have a very genuine way and approach of hearing new music from the city and sharing it. There’s something really special happening in Blank Canvas Gallery, a foundation is being laid out to help be a conduit for the renaissance happening in the city right now. It’s cool to have a safe place where artists can come together politic, collaborate and vibe every time I leave the gallery I’m inspired to come harder with my music.
You mention that you’re just an “Inner City Kid” trying to find your way out. This sentiment resonated with me instantly because we are all searching for something. Do you think that you found your way through music?
“Music to me is an escape, I lose myself, rediscover myself and reinvent myself.”
“Inner City Kids” to me was an anthem for seeking purpose in life especially being in a metropolis like Toronto that doesn’t wait for no one, finding what you really desire can be an ordeal. I started making that song when I was coming home on a night bus from downtown back to Scarborough, I was walking down Eglinton with the street lights blaring in my eyes guiding my direction, I was analyzing the two lives I was living being a scarborough kid but having all these seeds planted in the downtown core and how those two worlds align. My Scarborough friends all thought I lived downtown or would call me the hipster kid when I came by so I championed the Inner City Kid term as being one of my aliases.
Downtown helped me stay out of trouble, it gave me perspective, something to do and helped me see that I can do more than just hang in the same spots and fuck the same girls in Scarborough, so I made Inner City Kids to give me guidance on my journey to the unknown.The music provides clarity because I’m telling these stories that are reflections of my life and my ideals, I’m able to share my perspective and it’s fun, it’s a therapy, it’s an experience to me that’s what art is all about, perspective, more light.
What do you think makes you and your type of music unique from other artists?
I’m sharing another perspective coming out of Scarborough, which I’m getting more and more excited about because I’m not the only one like me that’s from here, there’s a lot of kids just like me that feel like outcasts, have no outlets to express themselves or positive example from their ends to look to and I want to be that to my listeners, an reference point that having nothing is what you make it, your flaws is what makes you special and to live a life of good vibes.
The music I make is always coming from an honest place, it’s solely based around how I feel, I don’t know how to be anyone else but myself and that’s one of my main initiatives.
The music at times can be totally different then what I might have released prior but when something is different you can’t really categorize it, it sort of is free to reign in it’s own space. I’m not one dimensional and art is ever-changing just like life is constantly changing I’m always seeking inspiration from everything around me which finds me constantly experimenting with my sound to see what I can develop from my influences and inspirations. The music is introspective and through my experiences it leaves a blueprint of how to build yourself and build dreams to be tangible.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment to date?
I think at this time in my career it was when my record ‘Mediocre’ got the feature on Complex. I always dreamed to be on publications like Complex since I started rapping, it was all about the culture of it and creating the history. I was the kid with the eyes glued to the monitor scrolling through the pages to find out the new artists they were posting about each day. I guess it made me feel like anything was attainable in this rap game, it was cool to know that I’m creating my own space in the conversation. We worked mad hard on that record.
My engineer had mixed and mastered about 10 different versions before we decided on one. Tired by the ninth mix I almost released a version of the record that I didn’t completely love but I was out of money so I couldn’t really do anything about it. I performed the record rough at a couple open mics before dropping the track and I liked the way it reciprocated, it encouraged me to hold out on releasing it, not be fickle with the final product and I kept tweaking it until I was happy. Then we got the premiere! It opened a lot of new ears to me which I’m still grateful for. This record was also a testimony to overall trusting myself and my sound.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Myself. I’ve grown to become a perfectionist which delays me from releasing new music all the time. But I have so many projects in mind so this music has to come out homie.
Words by Mo Topping – Photos by Jaden Alexander Shabazz.