Seattle-based producer Jake One (aka Jacob Dutton), is a legend in the hip-hop community. Drake, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, De La Soul, Brother Ali, 50 Cent, and Macklemore are just some of the names featured on his extensive music catalog. Jake, who has been in the scene for nearly two decades, has also worked with other up-and-coming local artists like Parisalexa and Travis Thompson. His output is often comprised of epic-yet-soulful compositions born from his own instrumentation and samples found on records from around the world. Talk to anyone in Seattle who loves hip-hop and Jake is at the top of their collaborative wish list. Ten years ago, he released his acclaimed solo album, White Van Music, and to celebrate the anniversary of the release, we caught up with the producer to talk about his love of music, how his career began, and why he continues to work with many new artists.
KEXP: When did you make your first beat?
Jake One: I think the first beat I made was probably sometime in ’91. A friend of mine figured out how to loop something — I think we looped a Sly Stone record or something like that — but yeah, that was the first beat I ever made.
What drew you to layering sounds with drum machines and samples?
I’m first generation hip-hop. It first came out when I was a kid, so I was fascinated by it early on. I want to say the year when I was a freshman in high school, I’d just learned what sampling was. I didn’t know that’s how all the beats were being made. So, I started getting into that. Like, “Oh, you can take this James Brown record and you can put it with this one?” I just had no idea. So, producing was just the next step from that. We started buying records or taking our parents records. My dad had a pretty good record collection. So, I just went upstairs and stole some of his stuff for a while and we just started putting things together by trial and error. Sometimes it was really not that different than what I do however many years later now.
When you hear a new sample, what about it makes you go, “Oh, wow, that could be really great!”
I listen for different things. Most of the records I buy I’m really just buying them as a collector at this point. I just enjoy having all this music and it’s what I’ve loved doing all these years. Sometimes I’ll hear something and it will just strike me. And sometimes I’ll hear something I think is going to be perfect to make a beat with and I just don’t put it together the right way. And there are other ones when the first time I hear it I don’t really catch what is special about it but I might just like the sounds they use, synth sounds or vocals and I’ll just mentally file that away and then when I start making tracks I’ll start going through old things. It’s kind of just what fits in the best at that time. There are certain things that I look back that I’ve sampled more than others. I’m sure there’s certain kind of chords that I’m drawn to. And samples without loud drums — I usually like to mess with those because I can make them my own with my drum programming on top of it.
How has your music changed amidst an ever-evolving hip-hop landscape?
I think I’ve relatively stayed current through all these phases on some level and there’s always been something out there that I like, which is the important thing for me. So, I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work on a big scale for damn near 15 years now. I just think about what I was trying to do when I started in the early 2000s and I’m not trying to do the same thing anymore at all.
Oh yeah, for sure. It might be subtle, but in my mind, it seems drastic. Just that now I do a lot of records that I don’t even sample that I’m playing on is a huge difference. These last three or four years, I got more into co-producing with younger producers. So, I’m really the one doing the music and not the drums. That’s been a gigantic shift for me. And I still do beats on occasion when people want that sound but I’m also smart enough to realize I can’t do what they do as good as they can do it. But I also have something that they don’t have at the same time.
What is that thing, if I may ask?
Well, for instance, the song we did on Future’s album, “Lookin Exotic,” which was on HNDRXX last year or the year before. His 808 is definitely very, you know, what I guess people call “trap.” But it’s soulful, it has singing in it. It has actual instruments. It’s not just, like, some bells and an 808 bottom. There’s a lot more to it. And a lot of the stuff I do in that world, I’m just bringing that ear I have for records and samples to that. Even if I’m not sampling, I’m just making my own thing that’s inspired by my experience. I can’t even help doing it. It’s just the way I think at this point, I’ve been doing it for so long.
How has the way you listen to music changed over the last few years?
I don’t really like the way I listen to music anymore because I feel like there’s just so much out there that I don’t really give anything that much time. In the early days, you had I don’t know how many albums come out a year back then, it might have been 10-15. And you had to soak those up. Now it’s like we’re getting that each week and a lot of stuff just gets lost in the cracks. There are songs that have been out for a while and I’m like, “How did I not know about this? I really like it!” And it will be because I was paying attention to something else that I didn’t even like because it was the hot thing, or whatever. Now, I’ll just play records at home and not really just sit there and listen to them but I’ll be doing something else. Or, I’ll listen in the car. I think a lot of the stuff I come up with comes from just driving around in the car and listening to music.
You seem to have an eye on helping the younger music generations, whether that means dropping a free instrumental album or releasing your Snare Jordan drum kits or reaching out to local rappers like Travis Thompson. What inspires you to connect with younger generations?
Well, I think hip-hop is young people’s music. So, if you’re constantly doing the same thing over and over with the same people, you’re not going to be inspired. I love being around the young producers and rappers because they’re still excited by it. And that rubs off on me for sure. At a certain point, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much that I don’t really know what I want to do sometimes beside just make something that makes me happy. So, you kind of lose track of the initial joy of just being able to do this. I met Travis really early and there was just something about his energy. Parisalexa is another one. She’s really good and she’s just ready to work.
It’s funny, some of these guys I think of as being young and they’re old now! They might have been young once upon a time — I might have met them when they were 18 and now they’re 30. So, it’s trippy seeing that happen and it’s cool at the same time. But, yeah, I think if you’re working in any genre and you’re not paying attention to what the new waves are, you’re going to lose it. People aren’t going to want to hear your shit. Even if you’re great at whatever it is you do, you always got to be involved in it at some level, even if it’s small. I feel like I add something every year or six months, a slightly different way to do it.
You’ve also worked with many of the established greats, from Dr. Dre to Drake to 50 Cent and Brother Ali. Is there something that all these artists have in common, creatively?
I think the thing that my favorite artists I’ve worked with have are just the things you can’t teach, which is just presence, voice, clear vision of what they’re doing. It’s obviously a lot easier to have a vision with what you’re doing after you’ve had some success with it. But I think it’s more that than anything. I’m also big on just how people sound. I think the voice is more important to me a lot of times than what somebody’s saying - that’s just me and how I listen to music. Some people are purely lyrics-driven, but I’m just not one of them.
But I’ve seen even the people from here who’ve made it big and they definitely had something that was just great, whatever it is, that they could own. Seattle has always had a problem — and this is true in every city — with guys who are just following the trends, fake versions of whatever’s hot each year. Like, if when I met someone and they were trying to be a G Unit rapper in the early 2000s and then they wanted to be like Wiz Khalifa and they had dreads and they’re high all the time and now they’re popping pills and making 808 music, they’re not really going to find it that way. People are successes because they have a thing that’s theirs, that’s genuine. Sometimes it takes time for people to find that, you know?
As a producer, your role is largely supportive. What do you enjoy about this?
I just like making music. I don’t really enjoy going to the studio and hanging out with people all the time or even being part of that scene. Most of the records I’ve been on, I wasn’t even there for the record. The only time I’m really there for everything is with my own group because it’s just more important to me. A lot of times I’m just not going to be that guy in the studio trying to sell the dream. And sometimes that hurts me. I could be doing more if I was in those rooms selling myself but that’s just not who I am, so I kind of just have to rely on the music being good enough. It’s not going to be because I’m somebody’s friend, that’s never really been me.
It’s been about 10 years since your solo record, White Van Music, which captured such a strong cross-section of hip-hop in the early 2000s. Are there any plans for a new solo album?
I don’t know, man. It’s a lot of work to bring all of those people together. There was definitely a point when I was trying to do it and it’s really difficult being here [in Seattle] and a lot of the artists I’m trying to work with aren’t here. I’m kind of relying on them to get things done. And they might even owe me a favor or stuff like that but it just became too much of a headache. And then you can’t really tour it at all, so it’s kind of limiting what you can do. I’ll definitely put out some more beat projects. When it’s my group, I can make all the decisions.
What has making music taught you about yourself?
That’s a hard one because I think it changes over time. When I started, I think for sure I definitely didn’t have anywhere near as much confidence in who I was as a person or knowing what I was doing was good, or any of that. But as time goes on and enough people tell you that you got it, you grow into that. You’re creating from that perspective, which is dope. But it also doesn’t last. I think everybody has their doubts. Because then you’re chasing your past success, which I think is the hardest thing — to keep this shit going. That’s what I feel has been the hardest challenge, you feel like, “Oh, if I could just get one record on the radio, then man this would be everything.” And then you do it and you’re like, “Oh, damn. That’s over and I got to do it again!” And it’s hard but music has made me more firm in who I am.
White Van Music is available via Rhymesayers.