In Conversation: Akron Beatmaker Jay Levison’s Journey to a Life Without Limitation

When I get on the phone with Jay Levison (stylized JLVSN) he’s sitting in his Brooklyn apartment with Chris CRNZA who’s chopping beats alongside him throughout our conversation. It’s a commonality at JLVSN’s crib, which has become a watch tower for a Justice League-like assembly of artists who bring their set of skills to a place where “everyone can enjoy themselves, listen to music and take a night off.” One of the most humble, amicable, and well spirited people I’ve met, JLVSN is constantly surrounded by a group of like minded artists that influence his passion. Originally from Akron, Ohio, after completing his undergraduate degree in philosophy JLVSN moved to New York City in pursuit of a postgraduate degree and new life experiences outside of his hometown. Since relocating and fostering a new home in Bushwick, JLVSN obtained his Masters while orchestrating soulful beats for his super team of rap friends to spit over.

I first met JLVSN through another talented producer, Nephew Hesh, at Pink Siifu’s Ensley release party back in 2018 where artists maassai, The Afr0dite, MAVI, AKAI SOLO and MIKE also graced the stage. Coincidentally it was my first time meeting Hesh after following him on twitter, he introduced me to JLVSN before the show started over a round of beers. After that night at H0L0 in Ridgewood, I began tapping into JLVSN’s sparkling scarlet soul sounds on tracks like “Stephanie Mills” with Immobiliare’s Left Lane Didon and Jay NiCE. I quickly stumbled across a collection of songs he produced for The God Fahim and Jay NiCE on Strictly 4 My Dumperz. JLVSN’s gift is in his ability to marry vocal samples with dancing percussions and expanding woodwinds to create a sedated yet entrancing melody that matches the energy of the bar heavy tracks his collaborators are known for.

A few months after the release party JLVSN started throwing a series of shows he curated in Brooklyn. “Bars and Rec” being the first featured Psych Ward (DapZini, Pro Zay, BlkWlf and Chris CRNZA) and Immobiliare ripping rhymes on stage. Those shows transitioned to performances in his basement, a space big enough for intimate gatherings for those wanting to see their favorite artists and producers cook up. He’s hosted impressive shows from AKAI’s Like Hajime release show earlier this year that had performances by Bstfrnd, iblss, Keiyaa, Theravada and Doof, all the way to the Infinite Wisdom Jah Monte Tour, which featured  tenthevillian, Jay Bel, and Rome Streetz rocking the small room of hip hop faithfuls. His willingness to open his home to the public so people can be together to share music and memories tells you everything you need to know about JLVSN.

This year the young beatmaker has continued creating music and releasing projects in spite of his inability to host shows due to COVID. He continued his work on Tha Shoulder series with Left Lane Didon, adding Season 3, Episodes 91011 and 12 to the duo’s long line of collaborative projects. Tony Tone and Pro Zay also linked up for an EP entirely produced by JLVSN titled South Got Something to Bake. We’re met with 15 minutes of the yin and yang gritty onslaught of quotes from Pro Zay at the open of “No Smoke Zone” followed by the pensive vocal tone and relaxed flow of Tony Tone on “Caskets”.  He also continued his work with Jay NiCE on a project released in August, FLY ART,  which added Roc Marciano, RU$H, and Willie The Kid to the list of artists to spar over a JLVSN beat. Future releases with JLVSN and the members of Psych Ward, Doof, S!lence, and ESCEE are currently in the works showing early signs that next year will be just as productive.

The inspiration I felt during conversations with JLVSN in the past got me interested in sharing that with those who have yet to meet him. Peep our interview below, which was edited lightly for content and clarity, where we discuss being a part of and building the music scene, his academic studies, and his transition to New York from Akron.

GSC: As a New Yorker by way of Ohio. In regards to music and in general what was growing up like for you?

JLVSN: When I was real young I would go over to my grandma’s. She had a piano at her house. So we were always around music and instruments in that sense. I took guitar lessons, I started playing guitar around 8 or 9 and I continued that into middle school and early high school before I stopped doing it. But that introduced me to using Garageband, playing music and recording with friends. Fast forward to like 18 or 19 I had friends who rapped and made beats, and they were like “Yo, you should do this and make beats because you know how to use Garageband”. So I picked it up and it was a lot of fun. It went from something I was doing for my friends to something I did for myself.

GSC: Were you part of a band?

JLVSN: It was more a neighborhood thing. There was a kid in the area who had a drum set, another kid who sang and played keyboard. I was messing around with the guitar. It was a band, but not something that materialized further, you know?

GSC:  Your grandmother was the one who introduced you to finding that talent with music?

JLVSN: My family in general. One side of my family is more artistic than the other. My granny, her husband was a sculptor, his uncle was a sculptor. He actually has stuff in the Smithsonian and shit which is crazy. And my great grandfather had a nephew whose original birth name was Jay Levison, which is my producer tag. Jay Levison changed his name to Jay Livingston and he wrote the music behind Que Sera Sera and Silver Bells. I’m not on that type of shit, I could never do that, but that’s where I got the name.

GSC: Did your family tell you about that? How did you find this out?

JLVSN: Yeah, family legacy shit. That side of the family was really big on legacy. I know where they came from and where they dispersed to in the United States. And the types of occupations they had.

GSC: That’s really dope. When I was talking to iblss, we spoke a lot about knowing where you came from having a lot to do with understanding where you’re going.

JLVSN: That’s really true, that’s something you start to explore when you get older. You realize the significance of things and maybe when you were a kid it was burdensome to hear the same stories over and over. And now that I’m older, living life and things are relevant to what I’m doing, it gives some guidance on how to live my life.

GSC: So you started working on producing during college years?

JLVSN: Yeah. When I was in undergrad in Ohio and then went to grad school here in New York.

GSC:  Do you still make stuff with those friends who were helping you when you first started?

JLVSN: Not so much. Not that we wouldn’t work together, when I see them we do make stuff. Just not as much as it once was because we were around each other every day. I had an apartment where everyone came through.

GSC: How did it transition from them asking you to do it, to developing the motivation to do it on your own and improve?

JLVSN: I started using Garageband, and then I bought Logic. And then I torrented Ableton. But originally I’m on Garageband and it went from I’m trying to do it. To me, up all night doing it having hella fun. So it happened because it was a lot of fun. And I would still play guitar in high school and after, but not as much as when I was younger and it was more important to me. But I’ve had this mode where something is fulfilling to me  and I do that a lot. It’s something I just fell into when I first started producing. Living in that mode. It dies away and comes back from time to time but that’s how I really propelled into it.

GSC: Right, so the more you continue to do it, the more fun it is, and the easier it is to learn. Where was the point where you started to realize what you’re doing is working?

JLVSN: Feedback from the people around me has helped. Then there’s moments when I feel it, but I still struggle with owning it fully. Because I’ll make something that doesn’t resonate with me but other people fuck with it. Or I’ll make something that really resonates with me but not other artists so it doesn’t get put out.  I couldn’t put a date on it, I might wake up tomorrow and be like ‘can I make beats?’ But then there’s those moments when I’m like yeah I can do this, and the moments when you question that are probably the moments you get better.

GSC: You studied philosophy in grad school, but remind me of the specific focus you studied within philosophy.

JLVSN: I focused on anarchism and Marxism as political philosophies and took a lot of courses on aesthetics and philosophy of art.

GSC: Was your transition to New York solely based on grad school or was there a plan in undergrad to make it to the city?

JLVSN: There wasn’t a plan. CUNY where I went to grad school was the best program that I got into. The other program that was offering me money was in Ohio in the sticks. So I either stay in Ohio and probably move back to Akron. Or I would go here. It was different because I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t develop a cohort of people for like two years but I have now.

GSC: You’re a perfect person to be talking to now for that reason too. I’ve been in San Antonio for over a year now. It’s weird adjusting to a place you’ve never been. I always wanted to know how that transition was for you. I wanted to ask about your apartment in Brooklyn, is that the first place you moved to when you came?

JLVSN: It’s the only place I’ve lived in New York. I like it. I have a lot of records and a lot of books. I like having a backyard. And being able to hold space for shows is important for me too.

GSC: Right. That’s perfect because I wanted to get into that, but first I want to know more about cultivating a group of people in New York. While you were in school was producing still a main focus for you or did it take a backseat to studying?

JLVSN: The nice thing about how I was doing school as a Master’s student instead of a Ph.D was I didn’t have to teach. So classes were one day a week and I’m only taking two or three classes a semester, so I was able to parse out my time between school work and producing. It didn’t take a backseat, I just had to balance that. But as far as meeting people, with the music scene in New York I was able to meet like minded people who are some of my best friends. So it’s good to be able to develop that organically out of this scene. But to speak on Texas, shoutout PNTHN they’re in Texas but, I don’t know how to replicate that for another city. Especially with COVID.

GSC:  Last winter I was really looking forward to finding any music scene here. Rap or otherwise. But as the winter ended, COVID started and there were no shows. So I’m hoping that finding a community like that will help me adjust more quickly.

JLVSN: It definitely will. Especially with this platform you have doing interviews, it will.

GSC: How did you start doing shows at your crib? The first time I met you was at a show for the Ensley release. Were you already doing shows at your crib before that?

JLVSN: Nah, the first one was October 2019. It just started because Doof lives in my neighborhood and we were just talking about it. There’s enough space to do a show and my roommates were down with it. Doof is friends with bstfrnd, and he had a PA system that’s still in my basement. So we just started doing them every month until COVID.

GSC: I pulled up to New York during the Like Hajime release, and I didn’t put two and two together until I was a block away that the address was the address to your apartment.

JLVSN: I remember that.

GSC: And after that I started to see more videos on twitter of performances in your basement, how were those?

JLVSN: A lot of fun, I’m really grateful. Everyone performing are artists I enjoy, so I get to see a bunch of artists who I enjoy live in my house. I don’t even have to go anywhere. And bstfrnd and Doof were instrumental in organizing everything and taking charge in setting it up. We’d have like 40-50 people in the basement, really intimate that was fire. We had one in our backyard for Halloween, with a live band. I’m looking to do it again but who knows with COVID ramping up.

GSC: You also put together a few “Bars and Rec” shows. Not at your house, but how did you start curating your friends for performances and getting people together to enjoy music?

JLVSN: You know what’s funny? I had no intention of doing any of that. I didn’t really feel instrumental in all these happenings. But it started with my old roommate. His name is Kanin, he was the sound guy at this new venue The Well. And they had open nights where no one was using the space, and he set up the schedule so he started letting us do shows for free to utilize the space. He’s another person who encouraged me to keep making beats. My friend Frozen and Stack Skrilla helped me with setting that up. Just knowing different people that do things and coming together to do it. Those were really fun.

GSC: You have a central part in my mind influence wise with a lot that goes on within this scene. You’re such a humble person I don’t think you recognize it. I wanted to ask about some of your relationships within music starting with Nephew Hesh.

JLVSN: I don’t think I’m as influential as you might feel I am, but I really appreciate that. With Hesh he hit me up off the strength of some beats I did. And we just started talking. He was moving to New York at the time and I had moved to New York without knowing anyone so I told him, if you ever want to chill any time just hit me up. We don’t see each other much, just on some New York shit. That’s the bro, he’s a fire ass beatmaker, I wish I could do the things he does.

GSC: I met you both at the same time at H0L0, my first time seeing MAVI perform. He produces a lot for him.

JLVSN: Me, Hesh and MAVI kicked it together after that show in my basement and we ended up recording a song that day in the basement. It’s somewhere on YouTube (wisefool).

GSC: You already mentioned your friendship with Doof, there’s a project with him, yourself, and ESCEE on the way correct?

JLVSN: They got some beats in mind. Something’s brewing there type shit. Those are the bros, we live in the same neighborhood so I go over to their cribs and kick it a lot. Smoke and just make beats, play games. I beat ESCEE in 2K, that’s my God given talent.

GSC: I keep hearing that from different people.

JLVSN: I’m a nomadic 2K player. I don’t even own a Playstation but if you bring your Playstation over to my crib I’ll beat you on your own console.

GSC: Similar question for Left Lane Didon how did that relationship start? The music you have with him is some of the first music I heard from you after meeting you, and you’re still collaborating on Tha Shoulder series with him among other things.

JLVSN: That’s my bro. I was working with Fahim and he was going to Harlem one day. I had a lot of shit with him already, so I rolled up to Harlem and Jay NiCE was there. Actually, before meeting him I had a song with Tha God Fahim and Jay NiCE was on it and I was like, ‘this dude is nice’, so I hit him up and started asking if I could send him beats. But that day in Harlem there was a pop-up shop and that’s where I met Left Lane. I sent him maybe 5 or 6 email packs and he used every beat I sent. Beats I wasn’t expecting him to get on. He used every piece of the Buffalo. That’s where Tha Shoulder came from.

GSC: There was a project with DapZini, another friend, but I can’t find it anymore.

JLVSN: He dropped that and then took it back down because he’s going to do a different type of release. But myself, Dap and CRZNA have some shit coming and it’s gas. Just like Doof and ESCEE they’re people whose music inspires me and we just kick it on some organic shit. CRZNA is next to me right now making a beat and once I get off the phone I already know I’m going to make something. It won’t be as anywhere close to this though *laughs*.

GSC: You’ve been a part of a few projects this year, a lot has happened this year that I want to touch on with you but I wanted to mention South Got Something to Bake. Tony Tone is one of my favorite artist’s and I didn’t expect that project at all. I know you’ve had a relationship with Pro Zay but how did that collaboration come about?

JLVSN: I met Pro Zay through Dap and CRZNA when he came to New York. And he came a second time and needed a place to stay so he crashed on my couch and we made a tape called Fish Weight. I met Tony and PNTHN through Pro Zay and linked with them when they came to New York. Tony asked for beats and that became South Got Something to Bake. I really like that tape because it showcases a lot of things I’m trying to get better at beat wise.

GSC: What are some of those things? A few times you mentioned not liking what you were making, trying to get away from loops and different things you wanted to overcome.

JLVSN: I just feel like sometimes I have to do more, whatever that means in relation to the moment. It means different things at different times. Maybe it’s just a self critical thing, but I also feel like I wouldn’t get better if I didn’t feel that way. It’s not like I’m never satisfied but trying to do more. Getting better at incorporating more things like drums, and I feel like I’ve been able to do that too. When I first started making beats I wasn’t doing loops but I started working with more people by doing loops, so I just try not to get stuck.

(South Got Something to Bake and Fly Art album cover artwork)

GSC: I wanted to know more about your relationship with S!lence.

JLVSN: S!lence is my roommate now, I moved upstairs and he lives in the basement. That’s the bro. We have a few songs on his projects and we have a tape that’s coming called Mushroom Soup. I met S!lence through DFNS. And we were just kickin it, I started playing beats and he got a beat. Again, similar minded people who you meet and you become close organically even though you met through a music situation.

GSC: You also produced for Jay NiCE a few times this year on his project FLY ART and FAMILI OBI that he did with RU$H.

JLVSN: FLY ART is completely produced by me and I have a couple beats on FAMILI OBI. Jay NiCE is just another person I met through things happening, working with Fahim. Just another cool dude, I wouldn’t have a Roc Marci feature if it wasn’t for him. Which I’m really grateful for because I love Roc’s music. I love Jay’s music, Willie The Kid, it’s wild to be listening to these artists and then have them rap on my beats.

GSC: There’s a few artist’s people might say that about for you, is there an accomplishment that stands out to you?

JLVSN: I didn’t know I was going to have that first Mach song I got. I woke up and had hella DM’s from my friends linking me, and I did a little Tiger Woods fist bump. I had sent Tha God Fahim a beat pack two days before and two days later I woke up to people telling me Mach rapped over my beat.

GSC: Back toward the beginning of the year during the protests centered around George Floyd and police brutality New York was crazy with the looting and the people organizing. I saw you were out there, and you were giving out food and waters. Can you tell me how that was?

JLVSN: During the first few weeks it felt like there was a real radical stance where people were attempting to take on the state and these institutions that are structured on racism, exploitation and domination. So I go outside to do this shit because it’s what needed to be done, and not to be overly political but Lenin said, ‘Sometimes history happens in a few weeks’. Things felt like we were moving towards that, so I was outside doing mutual aid, distributing snacks and waters to the community. And after a few weeks things lost that more radical edge. Not completely, but people hugging police and things like that.

GSC: Did you feel like anything was changing in those first few days after things ignited, even in a small way?

JLVSN: I couldn’t speak one way or another. I know abolitionist discourses became more prominent but they also became distanced from it the very moment of their flowering. It’s also uncoordinated because the people I went with were similar ideologically but we might not be similar ideologically with another group that shows up. But I will say that the first week was really intense, and it was a more radical approach than it was 2 months in. Which is how things tend to happen. Occupy Wall Street went that same way.

GSC: You’re right, it’s meant to happen that way. The foundation of those radical changes are diluted quickly to weaken the movement and disband the strength in number with in-fighting and disorganization.

JLVSN: That was the thing that troubled me in school when learning Marxist theory. Like this is cool but how do we envision this in the physical world? In the time Marx is writing you can envision alternatives to capitalism and mobilize people against it. Now it’s harder to envision those alternatives, especially living in the imperial core of the US compared to countries that have implemented socialist governments. It’s a difficult question to address, it’s going to develop in real time probably.

GSC: Not to directly compare but what you do with throwing shows I feel like is a small way of addressing that. Organizing people for the purpose of listening to music, even if it just stays there, that puts you in an active leader role in the community gathering like minded people for a common purpose. Especially if the sentiment of the music echoes that radical change.

JLVSN: I’m grateful to be able to hold space for that reason. Everyone can enjoy themselves, listen to music and take a night off. People being together is good shit.

GSC: Are there any songs that inspire you to make the kind of music you make?

JLVSN: There’s one beat that gives me that feeling fucking that I want to replicate with my own beats. J’s Day Theme #3 from a Madlib tape. Not that I want to replicate the song but if I can replicate that feeling for myself on my own shit then I did it. Inspiration changes a lot. Growing up in Akron we’re listening to Wiz Khalifa, Kid Cudi, Chip Tha Ripper, Currensy smoking mad weed in high school. Then that developed to listening to a lot of Madlib and Knxwledge, and moving to New York things that I got into making were the things that inspired me.

GSC: What are you listening to now?

JLVSN: I’ve been listening to a lot of KA, Roc Marci, Liv.e, Keiyaa, Georgia Anne Muldrow shit.

GSC: Do you get inspiration from movies?

JLVSN: I like watching movies, I’ll put it on in the background while I’m making beats. A movie I do like, State of Siege directed by Costa Gravas, a political movie about this group that kidnaps a senator for this far right government in Argentina. It’s hard as fuck. He made a movie called Z that was also really good.

GSC: Everyone who knows you, knows Greycat. I don’t have a question, I just need her to be mentioned.

JLVSN: That’s my child, everyone who meets her loves her. She’s a good cat. She’s a pivotal part of the things that get made at the crib.

GSC: Can you take me through the hustle of selling beats? You put out a lot of projects this year whether it was placements of projects you fully produced.

JLVSN: After stuff drops people hit me up and that’s nice because I don’t have to do the work. Sometimes I’ll post about it. But a lot of the beats people listen to are stuff I made with my friends, and after that stuff comes out I get people who hear it and hit me up for beats.

GSC: What made you go after your Masters? It’s another thing that sets you apart in my opinion. It’s not something a lot of people can say having a Masters degree and some of these placements you have, I saw you tweet that before. Rare humble flex from Jay Levison.

JLVSN: That’s funny, I got my Master’s degree because I got my undergrad degree in philosophy and creative writing, there was nothing else for me to do. I wanted to move on. Not that I didn’t like Akron but I was there my whole life. I got accepted to CUNY and school was always something I could do. It’s not like I’m smart, I’ll tell you that. I may go back to school, I’ve been thinking about it. But there is a thing in academics with elitism, and I don’t want to approach it in this way that’s cut off from the real world. I want to live life so whatever I do produce academically is more organic than an in house argument that gets published in an academic polemic. That’s stupid to me. But I like reading, I need to write more. If I can make a career out of music or that I’m good.

GSC: Reading is something you do often, I’ve borrowed your books before. What are you reading?

JLVSN: For a minute I was on a political kick, Marxist stuff, Gramsci, this dude Levinas. He was a French prisoner of war during WWII. I found this book he wrote called Difficult Freedom. Levinas thought consciousness constituted a relationship with another person that is for the other person. Oppose to consuming another person the way ego does with the rest of the natural world.[1] [2] [3]  His description of Judaism was there is no transcendence. God is in the ethical relationship. And I was recently at my grandfather’s house in Florida reading this book that was resonating with me surrounded by pictures and articles of my grandpa and the work he did for the Jewish community in Akron. It lined up with how he lived his life.

GSC: You mentioned wanting to write more while pursuing music resonated with me. I have a strong interest in making music but I’m learning it’s a greater interest for expressing myself. Is that how you feel?

JLVSN: It is man. I think you should keep doing this online magazine, because it’s a good outlet to develop that muscle. Struggling with that is part of being an artist. Don’t be afraid to try other creative types of work. I used to write stories. Don’t be afraid to try that or anything creative.

GSC: I’ve seen you say you want to get away, somewhere in South America just being able to live life. My dream is to have an RV, own a crop of land to plant food and weed and make money from home and do creative stuff like this. What’s your vision?

JLVSN: I would like to be out this shit. I do love New York but somewhere on a beach, out the country. Somewhere warm, where I can smoke weed. Live life, there’s no reason to limit myself. There’s no reason for anyone to limit themselves.

Follow JLVSN on Twitter, Instagram and keep up with his music on Soundcloud.

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