Exclusive Interview: Cozz – “I’m real chilled, but when I get on stage I perform like it’s my show!”
We catch up with DreamVille's youngest prospect, Cozz, on J. Cole's '2014 Forest Hills Drive' tour...
Cozz is settling into tour life nicely. Until last year the South Central, L.A. native had only ventured as far as Las Vegas and Arizona. Today we find him laid back on leather couch, enjoying his rider in a cavernous room backstage of Manchester’s M.E.N Arena. Since signing to J. Cole’s DreamVille imprint and releasing his debut project (he doesn’t want to use the ‘a’ word prematurely) Cozz & Effect last year, this has become his life. Cole found his own success performing night after night in front of fans anxious to see his own mentor Jay Z, and rather than relying on blogs and social media to get music in front of prospective fans, the DreamVille crew are following the same blueprint; getting onto stages night after night, and making real life connections.
“I’m getting a lot of fans doing this,” admits Cozz. “If I just have ten people f*ck with me in a show that’s dope. Because that’s ten people who look me up and maybe spread it to their homies. So this is very important, it’s exposure.” Tonight will be the biggest audience Cozz has played to so far, but he isn’t fazed. Despite being only an hour away from stage time, there is never a crack in his coolness. “I’m real chilled, but when I get on stage I perform like it’s my show, I don’t give a f*ck how short my set is, I’m going to try and win as many people over as I can.” It wasn’t always quite this way though, Cozz has been thrown in at the deep end and has proven himself to be a fast learner: “My first time ever performing was last year [supporting Cole]. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just went on stage and started yelling,” he recalls. “But now I’m getting the hang. I want to interact with everybody in some type of way. So I always make sure I’m like ‘Left side, let me hear you say…’ I’m picking up my skills but that’s from me watching Cole, watching Bas, whoever else I’m opening for.”
A rap career was never the plan for the 21-year-old. A competitive streak that runs in his family was the catalyst for his rise as an MC. “I met a nigga in high school at sixteen that rapped,” he recalls. “I don’t know how seriously he was taking it, but he was pretty good. So for me I was like ‘Yo, if this motherf*cker can do it, I can do it too.’” Cozz started writing verses every night, with a focus on outdoing his friend at school the following day. “We’d go to poetry club and they would let us spit – mind you, I grew up in the hood, but my mom sent me to this all white high school, so it’s like me in there spitting raps to the rest of the class. It wasn’t poetry, I was literally just spitting raps in front of the class, but I didn’t give a f*ck!”
Despite being a very deep-thinking and intelligent young man, when Cozz graduated High School he found that further education wasn’t for him, and after too many days of falling asleep in class, decided to take his hobby seriously and pursue rap full time. While hustling a bit of weed and working a regular job on the side, he would book studio sessions every other day when he could afford to, and drove around in his busted Ford Explorer playing the results. “The homies would come inside or some females, and I would just play my shit, and they’d be like ‘Oh who that, this is kinda hard?’ And I’d be like ‘That’s my shit’. They’d be like ‘That’s crazy bro, you should take it seriously man.’” It was around this time that Cozz would record a demo that would form the foundation for Cozz & Effect. Created between a small team – himself, his boy Anthony ‘Tone’ George who was doing an internship at Interscope and now co-manages him, and producer Meez who did most of the production on the project – the demo comprised fan favourites ‘Dreams’, ‘Cody Macc’, ‘Come Get It’ and ‘LSN’. Tone got the tape to Interscope A&R Tunji Balogun who introduced the Cozz to director John Merizalde who would shoot the self-funded video for ‘Dreams’. ‘Dreams’ would be the video that changed his life. “That’s when everything happened,” he reflects. “When I dropped ‘Dreams’, that one song, I had meetings with different labels and different artists and shit like that. I met Cole, when most of my shit was already done. The project was like 80% done.”
Now the youngest member of the DreamVille crew, Cozz is learning a lot about life as a professional rapper, while having the freedom that he needs creatively. “Before I was just raw with it, whereas now I see how it works in a professional level,” he explains. “I’m gaining experience of the game without being all the way on there. I’m signed and everything but I’m not up there, up there, which is what I’m trying to work to do. I’m seeing what I need to do and I’m seeing how professionals work. [On the creative side] they just let me do me. Cozz & Effect [was almost complete] before I even met with them and they f*cked with it heavy. They’ll give me feedback just saying if I make something but they let me do me. That’s a big part of why I signed with them, I just wanted full creative creative control; I don’t want nobody telling me what singles to make, I just wanted to do me, and they allowed me to do that.”
Back in November last year as he did the promo rounds for his own album, J. Cole couldn’t help gushing about the newly released project: “Cozz just dropped Cozz & Effect which is a classic,” he told us. “Once I finished my album I started listening to his shit even more, because I had time and I was just really proud that he would come with something that strong first.” A few days later we’d hear 2014 Forest Hills Drive for the first time. On ‘Notes To Self’ Cole reiterates these feelings before proclaiming; “We don’t give a f*ck what it sold, I don’t even know what that shit sold to tell you the truth man. And, I’m proud of you and your homeboys. It’s going to be great to watch y’all grow. I’m appreciating watching y’all grow more that we did! I get to relive it all again and actually appreciate it this time.” It’s a major look on what is considered by many to be Cole’s finest work to date, particularly when considering the monster success that the album went on to achieve both commercially and critically. Cozz heard the shoutout at the same time as the rest of us – Cole had been as secretive with the record with his own signees as he had the rest of the world. “People were Tweeting me like ‘Yo, that’s dope, you got a shout out on Cole’s album.’ I’m like ‘Really! What the f*ck?’ so I’m going through all the songs like ‘Yo when does he shout me out?’ And then it gets to the last one and you gotta listen to him talking and shit. I went from being a fan of Cole in 9th grade, to him shouting me out on his best album that he has out, that’s f*cking dope man, that’s crazy!”
They say actions speak louder than words, and this certainly rings true for what Cozz has taken from watching his mentor. In his time on the road with J. Cole he’s learned more through observation than conversation. “What I’ve learned from Cole is be yourself and work hard,” he says. “When he gets up, he goes straight to the back of the room and makes beats or writes some shit. And that inspires me because he made it. He’s at the top of his game right now and he’s still working like he’s not there. So for me watching that I’m like you’ve just got to stay hungry, when you get to a certain point do not be content with where you’re at. Just keep pushing.” He also sees his own competitive edge reflected in Cole. “A week after I first met him, we met again at a hookah spot to talk and shit, and he was like ‘Yeah you not going to beat me on a track.’ and I’m like ‘We gon’ see bruh!’ So we the same way, he gets that. So I know when we actually work and get in the studio we’re going to be going at it!”
As he prepares to take to the stage in front of the biggest audience of his life so far, Cozz considers what he wants from the onlookers. “I just want people to listen. Some people hear some shit but they don’t really listen and catch the vibe. It might take a couple of times, but just listen and just understand that it’s a story, and it’s meaningful to me,” he pauses. “Even the dumb songs, even my fun songs, if you listen to what I’m saying – I’m telling a story in some type of way. I wanted to make it as diverse as possible; I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to show my fun side, because I am young and I do turn up. I wanted to give people that and I want to show them that I have a fun side. I just wanted to show them all sides of me and just take in that I’m the new nigga that’s ready to f*ck shit up!”
Words by Grant Brydon