For "Studios Sessions," we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
There are those who are "day 1's" and then, there's Juro "Mez" Davis. The 34-year-old has engineered music for 15 years and has helped turn Cole's raw talent into musical masterpieces well before The Warm Up mixtape. This makes him one of the few people who can speak to the evolution of Cole's studio prowess.
"In 2009, it wasn't as much writing [in the studio]. It was more of conservation of time. [None of the studio time] was being paid for, as far as I remember. It was all favors," Mez remembers.
In this special edition of Studio Sessions that celebrates the upcoming 10th anniversary of J. Cole's The Warm Up, Mez recalls staying up in the studio for days to finish the mixtape, Cole's mindset during that time, and the lost songs from those sessions that are better than the songs that made The Warm Up.
Great session, derrick is an ill engineer and a pleasure to work with, but I miss Mez! it doesn't feel the same!— J. Cole (@JColeNC) March 26, 2009
How involved was J. Cole in the mixing process of The Warm Up?
Cole was always very involved with things. He always pretty much knew what he wanted. He always had a vision. Eventually, he would just fall asleep trying to make that deadline (laughs). He just fell asleep in the studio. It's hard to remember because I was up three nights in a row. But, they either went to sleep or went home and came right back. We also switched studios at some point. We went from this studio Allido to this studio called KMA.
What do you remember about the making of The Warm Up?
I was recording, mixing, and mastering. I remember I stayed up for three days (laughs). We had to turn it in at a certain time, I don’t remember why. I think we set the deadline. I stayed up two days, I remember, finishing all of the mixing and mastering. Then, on the third day, we went to this studio called KMA. I was so tired that I looked at one of the engineers like, 'I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.' My assistant at the time, this guy named Koby Hass, he did all the clean versions of [the] songs for me. That was pretty memorable because it was traumatizing (laughs). Not for real, but it was a particular experience that sticks out.
What is different about J. Cole's recording process now than his process in 2009?
In 2009, it wasn't as much writing [in the studio]. It was more of conservation of time. Nothing was being paid for, as far as I remember. It was all favors. He had a deal with The Warm Up, but I don't know how that was working for the studio time. It seemed more like favored studio time than anything. Now, we just go in and work on whatever. Back then, it was like, 'There's a song. I wrote it. We have to do the song and put it together.' He also doesn't drink anymore, either (laughs). He used to drink in the studio often.
When did you come into the recording process for The Warm Up?
I was around before The Warm Up. From what I remember, The Warm Up came after Cole got the deal with JAY-Z. We were already working. So, prior to that, we were working on songs... We had Mark Pitts, who wasn't J. Cole's manager yet, who had JAY-Z's interest. Our team felt [like] we needed to make this song and that song to finish the deal. 'Lights Please' was already done. A bunch of songs were already done. 'Lost Ones' was done the same time as 'Lights Please'... There were three or four more songs around that time that were amazing that I thought was going to be [on] the album. Still, to this day, I think, 'Damn, what if that would've been the album?'
I saw that J. Cole’s 'Water Break' freestyle on the 'Green Lantern' show was originally recorded on Kanye West’s 'We Major' beat. Were there other songs or verses that were originally recorded on other people’s beats?
Cole has a vault of things, just to let you know (laughs). There’s a lot of stuff. For instance, I think 'Wet Dreamz' was from around The Warm Up times. If not, then it was around the time of the first album. It was definitely a while back. There are still songs that aren’t out that were recorded around The Warm Up time that are, honestly, just as good and better than some of the stuff that has come out.
Mixing tracks off The Warm Up late night. God bless Mez for being a soldier!— J. Cole (@JColeNC) April 22, 2009
You said y'all moved from Alldio studios to KMA. Why?
We just ran out of studio time. I think we were in there too long and had to get the fuck out. We didn’t have a budget at the time. I don’t even think we were booking studios. It was favors, more than anything.
What can you remember about J. Cole’s mindset when recording that mixtape?
The mindset was more or less, 'We have to make something happen.' It was definitely, ‘We’re not secure here. This isn’t a given yet.’ I remember, at least to me, we weren’t there yet. It seemed like that for them -- they wanted to make sure they were solidified. Then, it was to make sure the album came out and got a buzz. We had no buzz at the time. Nobody knew about him. All it was, was JAY-Z signing him that gave him a big boost.
What song took the longest to mix?
I'd have to look at the list. I remember the one Elite did, 'Heartache.' That one was pretty difficult. I'd have to look at the rest to be like, 'That one was a motherfucker.' I remember being in the studio working on ['Heartache'] for a long time. I do remember Elite came to me years later and was like, 'Man, I just listened to the unmixed version and I was like, wow, this was so much worse' (laughs). People love their demos and they don't want it to be different.
The Warm Up came out June 15, 2009 and...
I forgot that. On the release party for The Warm Up, we were at the club. My birthday is June 15. I think Drake’s Thank Me Later came out on June 15 the following year. So, [Elite] or Cole might text me on my birthday and be like, ‘Happy Thank Me Later day’ (laughs). We did ‘Happy Warm Up day’ the year before. I remember I got to the party late and I had mad people with me. It was packed. There was no way to get this many people in, we didn’t have pull like that back then. Even though it was Cole’s release party, I had like 10-15 people with me. I didn’t actually go to The Warm Up release party because of that (laughs).
After 10 years, when you look back, what would you say is your greatest contribution to The Warm Up?
That’s hard to say because there’s a lot of contributions. There was a lot of scrambling for studio time when we needed it. I would say being around to record, mix, and get everything done.
More from Keith Nelson, Jr.: