IN CONVERSATION: Jay Cinema Talks Yonkers, Def Jam Fight for NY, and His Excellent New Jedos Produced EP Hell of a Life

Jay Cinema might be living a hell of a life right now, but he didn’t always have such a rosy disposition about his raps. In fact, rapping could not have been further from his mind when he was growing up. Despite being a fifteen minute drive from Manhattan’s northern border, Yonkers could not have felt further away from NYC to a young Jay Cinema. His hometown seemed to lack the sense of community that he saw below the Harlem River, both in its lack of afterschool sports and music programs and the general populous’ individualistic mentality. He was desperate both for a sense of camaraderie and an outlet to express himself and ultimately found both, like many a youngin in the early 2010s, on the internet. Jay became a student of rap after finding out about the Odd Future and Pro Era collectives whose stories were a lot closer to his own than the mainstream rap he heard growing up. They showed an emotional vulnerability that helped a young Jay Cinema open up himself, first as a poet before realizing that he should just rap. Jay credits his neighbors  illuminate frm MCK and the 90s K1Ds as being the first to tell him to get on the mic, something he admits he might have never tried had it not been for their encouragement and recording set up.

If you want to know how Jay Cinema is doing lately just listen to his latest tape, regardless of whenever he happens to have dropped last. Many rappers say that their raps are their therapy but few seem to take that quite as literally as Jay. On his first tape Better Days Ahead Jay felt downtrodden about where his life was at but optimistic about the start of his rap journey, as the title suggests. From there he ripped off a series of stellar tapes where he tapped in with one producer for the duration of the tape, with 2020s Jacob Barlow produced Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace and Brwnsounds produced BrwnCinema, and 2021s WilfMerson produced What You Need Ain’t What You Want! and the FROwNS produced JayFROwNS. Each tape seemed to come out of the organic community building that Jay had been looking for since he was young in Yonkers, born out of either mutual connections or mutual adoration of one another’s work, if not both. I can see why so many want to collaborate with him because nothing seems to excite Jay Cinema more than hyping up the people he works with. He called each of his friends, the Italian producer pis.i, Huston rapper SeFu and Charlotte rapper June, generation-defining talents, saying he was honored he even had the chance to work with them. He even went as far as to say that Antoine Sand blew him out of the water bars wise on “What Can I Say”, the opener from his new EP Hell of a Life, which cracked me up at the lengths he’ll go to hype up the homies. When I asked him about his track with June “Don’t Forget” from their collaborative tape GROOVE getting written about by Pitchfork, he was appreciative of their support, but seemed infinitely more hyped about getting to work with UK based animator David Swordbearer on the video than he was that the video got written about by Pitchfork. I really don’t think that I’ve talked with an artist who comes off so genuinely humble and appreciative for the people in his life. Clearly the best part of rapping for Jay is getting to work with people he respects who help him get a little better with every bar and every verse. 

Jay’s most recent tape, Hell of a Life which was fully produced by Australian beatsmith Jedos, exemplifies everything Jay Cinema is about. He continues to bring his patented heart-on-his-sleeve bars, though Jay is a great deal happier on Hell of a Life than he has been on other projects. He first connected with Jedos thanks first to a mutual connection with Brwnsounds and then a mutual appreciation of one another’s work. Hell of a Life is a celebration of the rap community that Jay and his friends have been able to create for themselves, and the joy that community has brought into each of their lives. I asked Jay towards the end of the interview if he had any artists that he really wanted to work with, a question he immediately said he was dreading answering for fear of forgetting someone he loved. Jay did first list several artists he wants to work with including Insyt and qontinue in Canada, and Mosiah Ade in Virginia. While he also admitted he’d obviously love to work with his idols like MIKE and Mavi, Jay said he more than anything wanted to work with anyone and everyone who saw themselves as still building towards that kind of stature, people who also saw themselves and their art as works in progress. It always ends up being about the journey, not the destination, anyway, and Jay could not be more appreciative of the road his young rap career has brought him on already, and the people who’ve joined him on the path. 

I had the chance to talk with Jay about growing up in Yonkers, falling in love with rap playing Def Jam Fight for New York, and putting together his excellent new EP, Hell of a Life.

GSC: What’s your name? What is your artistry of choice? Where do you come from?

Jay Cinema: My mother named me Jared, but I call myself Jay Cinema. My artistry is primarily hip hop. I come from Yonkers, New York and I currently live in Harlem. 

GSC: What are your earliest music memories? Who was playing music around you growing up and what were they playing?

JC:  That’s a hilarious question because as a kid I did not give a fuck about music. Back then I was more of a video game person truthfully. If you asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be as a grown up I would have told you I wanna be a videogame tester. But you know, music was of course always around the home. I lived primarily with my mother growing up, and she listened to r&b and definitely had a love for hip hop, but she was more of a mainstream fan. I think that’s kind of what threw me off. Honestly, I didn’t really care for mainstream hip hop growing up during the early and mid 2000s. I would sometimes stay at my grandmother’s and she would play her soul music. The Temptations, The Isleys, all that stuff, which I love. But for me personally, what got me into hip hop was around 2011-12 ish when I heard Tyler the Creator and Odd Future for the first time. That was just perfect for me, a twelve year old rebellious youth. Joey Badass too, the whole group that was considered back then the new era of hip hop. Those guys were closer to my age, I could relate to what they were talking about. I related to their experiences as someone young going through depression and all that. Those guys showed me how I could express my feelings better than anyone else in my life. I didn’t understand my feelings until I heard you know, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, till I heard The Underachievers, Flatbush Zombies. They all got me into hip hop and just opened a whole new world for me. 

GSC: That was such a fun time to be a rap music fan. Did you have a go to blog or forum back then that you were getting all your music from or just kind of finding it everywhere?

JC: People might not believe me or remember but RapGenius was legit a great community back in the day, I hate how Genius fell off. Yeah, I fucking hate it now but back in the day Rap Genius’ forums were a great spot to find music man. I remember just going on the forums and seeing who these people are talking about. Who is Denzel Curry, who is Chance to Rapper. I was definitely on KanyeToThe a whole lot as well. I wasn’t a blogger person, it was more of the forums for me. People talking to people, and figuring out who are the people talking about.

GSC: What was it like growing up in Yonkers? People are starting to recognize that Westchester has a rap scene of its own, were there any local musicians you loved growing up? How did the city shape you as a person and musician?

JC: Compared to the city now it was more, more… well I guess I should say less not more, we just had so much less. There’s not a lot of support systems out there. No after school activities, there was no music stuff, no sports, all I did was go to school and go home or go to the park for like three hours, there was nothing that really just kept us interested and kept us going. There wasn’t that sense of community you seem to get growing up in New York City. In Yonkers, everybody is out for themselves honestly. That molded me of course, I know how to maneuver in all kinds of different places. As a musician, I always felt isolated in Westchester. Even growing up once I got into my music, my taste was different. Everybody back then was on the Lil’ Wayne’s, the Drake’s but I’m like, hey, what about Earl Sweatshirt? I mention Domo Genesis and they’re like, What are you talking about? 

GSC: Were there any local rappers, either in Yonkers or the greater NYC area, who had a strong influence on you as a youth? Sounds like you might have been getting more influence from the internet than from the community.

JC: There’s this one group out in Yonkers. They’re called MCK, specifically two of them. My main homie illuminate frm MCK and the 90s K1Ds. Those two specifically were massively influential in my life as far as rap goes. I found out about them through a mutual friend, and I was like, wait a minute, these are guys who were doing something similar to what I enjoy, and they’re right around the corner. Without those two I probably would not be doing music at all. They were a little older than me and had a studio at the crib and I was like “Oh damn! We’re doing it, we’re doing all that. Right here right now.” Those two are still Yonkers locals, and without them there will be no Jay Cinema. I don’t know when or even if I would have got the balls to record myself without them. There are some great artists coming out of Yonkers now too, I love what Velly Velz and them are doing.

GSC: Do you have a moment when you remember thinking “I need to rap and record myself?”

JC:  I feel like I’ve had multiple different moments like that. The first one, I know I’ve said growing up I didn’t care about music, but I remember specifically having a copy of Def Jam Fight for New York. I remember being bugged out, like wow, these are real rappers. My Mom would point ones out and explain like oh, that’s Method Man, that’s Snoop Dogg. I’d be like Mom, how do you know these video game characters? That was hilariously my initial peek into music. Another pivotal moment for me was in high school before rapping. I was a poet, doing more spoken word poetry. That felt like a big leap of faith for me because that was the first time I expressed myself in public like that. I’ll say the thing that made me want to just go all in, was freshman year at Iona I was still doing poetry but was burnt out and thought why not just write bars? I met some dude who makes some wack ass beats, nah just playing shout out my dude Jason, he had the vision and he believed in me. We found a studio in 2018 and from then on I was rapping. I realized I loved rapping. I suck at this but I love it and I wanna do it as much as I can.

GSC: You seem to be very well situated in the modern era of the New York City rap underground that started with the slums collective and a few others and is now a deep and active scene. What do you find inspiring about the local New York City scene today?

JC: The vulnerability, the honesty, the truthfulness. Like I said earlier, I was very heavily inspired by Pro Era and Odd Future but at the end of the day, their world was not exactly mine. I couldn’t 100% fully connect with Odd Future and Pro Era. When it came to the slums scene, all those guys were my age, that was a key difference. Those are my peers, age wise, so they were much more so speaking my language. Those guys were really the first people I found a genuine connection, real life connection, which I got going to shows. I remember the first time meeting MIKE and a few others after a show thinking like, damn, this is my first time interacting with an actual artist in person. These are people who I go home and listen to, and at this moment now I’m having a real genuine conversation with them. That made me even more inspired to make music, knowing there was this amazing community of artists right around the corner who were making shit I was excited about, I just wanted to be a part of it as soon as I knew about it all.

GSC: You talked about first recording music in 2018 and the first tape that I saw of yours online was the 2020 tape Better Days Ahead. What happened between 2018 and when that tape dropped?

JC: I had a project before Better Days Ahead but I don’t resonate with it anymore so I took it offline. I dropped it on my 20th birthday and it was just for fun, where Better Days Ahead was my first serious project. I put funds and a whole lot of care into it. I remember I had to get a lot off my chest during that time. I honestly felt like a rapper for the first time at that time period. I was going to the studio Brooklyn with Wavy Bagels and everything just felt official, everything before that was fun and games but this was official. I was meeting producers and trying to network with people in the scene, it was the culmination of my earliest attempts at really taking myself seriously on the mic.

GSC: Listening back on that record, do any tracks in particular standout? 

JC: When I think on that record if anything I think about how there’s a lot I didn’t do for that project. That project is not mixed at all. That’s just studio mp3s, there’s no wav files and all that, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. The only standouts are “In the Storm” produced by Yanna Monteiro, she killed the beat for that one, and “Doesn’t Make Sense” with Sean May now known as June. That was my first collaboration with another rapper period, so that was a big for me. Still consider him a friend to this day, family at this point. And the last song “Shoulder to Cry On” produced by my very, very close friend Pis.i (pronounced peazy). Pis.i I found through YouTube, he was a YouTube Type Beat guy, and he lives in fucking Italy. It doesn’t even make sense we ever met and now we’ve been boys for years so shout out to Pis.i. Looking back at the tape it’s those early memories that make me happy, knowing that was just the start of something great.

GSC: So after that first project, you built some great momentum with the series of collaborative tapes where you’d really lean in with one producer for either an EP or an LP. One with Jacob Barlow and the one with brwnsounds both and 2020. How did those come about?

JC:  It was spontaneous, honestly, for both of those projects. They both hit me up to work. I remember Jacob Barlow sent me two beats a little after Better Days Ahead dropped. He contacted me and he’s like, Yo, I heard your tape on Bandcamp, can I send beats to you? I said of course, I need beats. I was first starting off and I didn’t have shit. He sent me two beats and I recorded on them and sent them to him. He liked it and was like I wanna make an EP and I was like why not? Those first two songs never came out which is hilarious, but I never would have thought Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace would have ended up being what was for both of our lives. It was definitely life changing for me and him. I love Jacob Barlow too, he’s a really good dude. The funny thing about the internet shit though is we’ve never had an actual in person conversation, just DMs and emails and exchanges on the internet, but we make good music together.

GSC: Similarly, how did the tape with brwnsounds come together?

JC: My man Brwn, known today as my cousin Charles. The power of the internet, man. I met Brown through a group chat, I remember he just got randomly added one day because we needed new members. He’s not in it anymore though. It’s kind of embarrassing to say it now but I was flexing on him at the time. I saw who he was fucking with on his profile and said check my profile dawg, look who follows me. Now looking back, it’s very trashy, and I’d hate if those artists found out I was bragging about that because I’d never get over the embarrassment, but hey Brwn did want to lock in so it led to something positive in the end. He just started sending me beats and I resonated with those beats a lot. It was a very creative time in my life, going to the studio every week. Every time I had bread I’d record. To this day I consider BrwnCinema my best project, if not just for what it did for me and the doors it helped open up. 

GSC: I love “Rayn_” with WilfMerson off that tape.

JC: That was funny, so I met him through mutual friends and he said to hit him up if I needed any kind of help. So initially I hit him up to help master the project, and he heard the beat for “Rayn_” and was like can I hop on that and I’m like fuck it why not? He killed that and then hit me up saying “By the way I make beats too!” Which is how our tape together What You Need Ain’t What You Want! happened, just keeping the energy going. I can’t believe I have a tape with that dude, all the way over in the UK. He’s crazy young too, he’s like 19 or 20 now. Glad I got to work with him at the beginning of his journey, I can’t imagine what he’ll be doing down the road.

GSC: What about your collaborative tape with FROwNS? Was that similarly organic? 

JC: The first scenes with that project were started in 2020, it was similarly organic where he sent me beats and we talked about doing a tape. That’s when I moved to Harlem, which was a big shift for me in my life. So all this time, on the project, I was still living in Yonkers, but this time I moved to Harlem. I was always in Brooklyn doing shows and going to shows and I was outgrowing Yonkers, it was time. I stay with my pops in Harlem now and he got me a MacBook Pro. I realized, I got this and I can do all this shit from home now. JayFROwNS was a test run for me in that regard, it was the first project I recorded by myself right there, with a handful of songs still recorded at Wavy Bagel’s studio. I appreciated Frowns patience with me at that time as I figured it all out and I think the project came out great despite it being the first time I recorded like that.

GSC: Last year you had a track with June from your collaborative tape together that got recognized by Pitchfork. What was it like getting recognized by that kind of publication?

JC:  It was so fucking random. That song “Don’t Forget” if you would have told me that song was gonna be the song to get us on Pitchfork I wouldn’t have believed you. I remember June sent me the beat, a Pis.i beat, he asked if I wanted to hop on, and I am pretty sure I wrote that verse and like 10-20 minutes, did one or two takes and definitely didn’t think anything too seriously of it. Then I remember I was at work one day, and I checked my phone on a break and saw one text from someone like “yo, you’re on Pitchfork!” I’m like there is no way I am on Pitchfork! Only one person said something at first, I figured if I was on Pitchfork everybody would be in my DMs, and then he sent me the link. It was definitely a major milestone and I appreciate that writer taking the time to write thoughtfully about the track, but I try not to put too much stock into it. Shout out to Dave Swordbearer who did the animation for that video, though, I love that dude’s work. He is another UK person and another amazing producer. I know I keep bringing it up but I get so hyped with the community of people I get to work with, I can’t believe I get to work with these talented ass dudes from a whole other country. 

GSC: June fka Shawn May, how did you first start working with him? Where is he in Carolina, by the way?

JC: He’s in Charlotte. 

GSC: I used to live in Raleigh. So I’m a big, big Carolina guy.

JC: My mother lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina currently. Shoutout North Carolina, great state overall. With June, I remember I met him June 2020. 2020 was a pivotal creative moment for both of us I think. Some rap page was like, “Hey, want to be in a group chat with other artists?” and June was one of the other artists in that group chat. This is during the Better Days Ahead period. I had the song “Doesn’t Make Sense” and I wanted another artist on the song who never got back to me. I just dropped it in that group chat like anybody want to hop on this? June was like, I’ll do it. And then he did it, and I loved it. He then came to New York, because Mavi had a show in New York and that’s how we met in person and I realized we really did have a lot in common, we’ve been close ever since.

GSC: Last year’s Out of The Loop was the first time in a while that you’ve worked with different producers on a tape, a trend that continued with the Smile! B4 The Summer’s Over EP. Why did you want a range of producers on those two projects?

JC: So Out of The Loop was recorded during a difficult transitional period of my life. I had a lot of writer’s block,  a lot of family problems, personal problems, money problems. It was me having a lot of questions about myself and my growth as a person, I was not progressing how I wanted to be in many aspects of life. So I poured all that into Out of The Loop.

GSC: It feels like you get a lot out of recording because that record ends with a moment of catharsis on “Chillout”.

JC: That’s what music is for me. The music is learning about myself, music is understanding what I am tryna say. I have a problem opening up honestly outside of my music. It might be funny I say that because my art is a lot about opening up, but my music is therapy, not to be cliche. Everyone has said it, but for me it’s very, very true. I can’t afford therapy. I desperately need therapy, but I can’t afford it. So who else can I go to besides myself? And my own subconsciousness.

GSC: You sound freshly rejuvenated on Smile! B4 The Summers Over to boot.

JC:  Absolutely. That tape is about me expressing the highs like never before. I realized I don’t express my happiness, my prouder moments, enough in my music. A lot of people think like, damn, this dude is depressed all the 24/7 you know, and it’s like, not really! I do smile sometimes. It was really made spur of the moment though, a collection of loosies from over the years to hype up our second JuneCinema tape Groove

GSC: Jumping into Hell of a Life, how did you and Jedos connect and how did you know you needed to work together?

JC: Him and brwnsounds are part of the same collective, or at least they were, I am not sure if it is still active. Jedos messaged me saying he had a beat for me and SeFu who I couldn’t think any more highly of, a generational talent. So I got on the beat and it ended up being “Hell of a Life”. It was just a really good period in my life. I just started my relationship with my current girlfriend, I had a great visit with my mom. Just a good mindset period for me. So I sent “Hell of a Life” right back to him and he was like shit! That was fast and sent me four more beats, two of which ended up on this tape. So again, just friends of friends collaborating organically.

GSC: I love that opening track. “What Can I Say” and that beachy beat. What went through your head when you heard it?

JC: Well, What can I say? Is what I thought, like, quite literally. I remember when I heard the beat, it was just like, Damn, what can I say that I haven’t already. I was feeling kind of stagnated with my work realizing I need to progress as a songwriter. I was frustrated at the time but I realized I still had plenty to say, I just needed to recenter and recalibrate. It was Jedos’ idea to get Antoine Sands on too, and I was so glad he thought of it because Sands is a phenomenal rapper. He killed me on that if anything, I gotta give him that one, he bodied me on that track.

GSC: What have you learned about yourself since you started rapping? How do you feel you’ve changed as an artist and a person?

JC: Rapping got me out of my shell. I’m an extremely introverted person. I like being to myself, but hip hop rap is all about collaboration. It is difficult for me to express myself with others so rap helps me express myself. As I mentioned earlier, this is my therapy. So every verse I write every verse I record, that’s me learning and shedding just another part of me. I’ve learned how strong I am. I’ve learned how weak I am. I’ve learned how confident I am. I learned how sad I am. I learned I feel a lot of things often at the same time, and I’ve been blessed to work with so many people I am lucky to call friends who can help me air all this shit out. Especially as a black male in America growing up we’re taught to hide those emotions. We’re taught to repress certain feelings and certain thoughts. So I am grateful to the people I’ve worked with who’ve been cool and supportive as I shed all that, verse by verse and track by track. 

GSC: Outside of the lo-fi lyrically focused raps there are a million thriving scenes in NYC rap right now. Who are some of your favorites outside of the lo-fi scene?

JC: Bizzy Banks, Shawny Bin Laden is one of one, RXKNephew is wild.  Kenzo B, Ice Spice, women are running hip hop right now. It’s the most beautiful thing to see especially considering how hip hop has treated women throughout the years. Shout to the Yonkers artists too Velly Vellz and them are killing it. Vayda in Atlanta I am extremely hyped on at the moment. 

GSC: What is something outside of music that brings you joy that might surprise some people?

JC: That is really a tough question, because truthfully, there’s nothing else that brings me this much joy. The natural world is the thing that comes close. We take the simple things for granted. There’s nothing like going to a park and just being able to breathe the air or sitting next to a tree. I’m a fucking hippie, I just love being outside. But even then I am listening to music too! I love reading though, so maybe that counts.

GSC: Have you read anything good lately?
JC:  Right now I’m reading The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.  I read his prior book Black Skin White Mass. I am more on that kind of non-fiction shit at the moment. I loved DMX’s autobiography too, rest in peace to a true Westcester legend.

Follow Jay on Twitter and Insta! All his music is available for purchase on BandCamp. Photo at the top provided by Caleb Callahan.

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