AUSTIN, Texas - When Bryan “SL” Jones unleashes his adept rhymes and liquid beats at Vino’s Brewpub in Little Rock on Sunday, it will be only his second performance in the city he labels home, despite being born in Flint, Mich., and living in Atlanta.
Skinny and smooth cheeked, Jones says he’s 23, although, according to court documents, he was born in 1979. He has been performing just shy of two years, and the 10-city release party for his newest EP, Way of Life No Hobby, will be his first headlining tour. But to hear him tell it, Jones has been rapping forever: “It’s like playing basketball. I always did it for fun. Me and my homies, or you and your cousins, you’re just sitting in the lunchroom at school, maybe you beat on the table.”
Jones grew up listening to chopped-and-screwed, a style of rap where songs have been slowed and remixed for emphasis and repetition. Screw (named for a Texas DJ) was the direct precursor to trap, an Atlanta-birthed style, characterized by sweeping bass, tinny, mechanical hi-hats and lyrics about living in the “trap”- notorious urban neighborhoods. In January, Jones released a seven-track mix-tape called Trapper’s Delight.
Jones is difficult to pin down. He says as a kid he was always in transition, shuffling from town to town in reaction to whatever was going on in his family - who was working, who was sick, who could provide the most stable environment. He claims to have attended 13 different schools, in Arkansas, where his mom and stepfather live; in Michigan, where his grandmother lived, and in Maryland, where his aunt lives. Sometimes he spent childhood summers in Atlanta with his uncle. In his early teens, he was awarded a scholarship to a summer art program in Flint. But he moved back to Little Rock, and his art school days were over. He says he has been in and out of Little Rock the most, at times living in the neighborhood he calls “the war zone,” around 23rd and Wolfe streets. He refers to “23” often in his songs.
“You have people who are actors, and they play roles. … It’s the exact opposite. Rappers get credit for how real they are,” Jones says.
He leans forward, elbows flush against the table, in a tucked-away corner of the Austin Convention Center, headquarters for the recent South by Southwest arts festival, where Jones played.
His grin gleams gold, and his eyes are shadowed by an over sized baseball cap. He tells the same stories in all his interviews, about the youth mentor who advised him to “find something you love so much you would do it for free,” and how that led him to think of music as a career; how once, in a Little Rock barber shop, he overheard two men arguing about the identity of “SL Jones”and never realizing that one of them was cutting his hair. (The “SL” stands for “second letter,” since his legal name, Bryan, starts with a “B.”)
To hear Jones tell it, he’s on the wrong side of a federal investigation, the ladies come easy, his “homies” are dead or locked away, and his doodles are inked on flesh all over Little Rock. Whether he speaks truth or hype, his stories help sell his music, and his charm disarms his audience.
The federal investigation bit, at least, is verifiable. Northern Georgia court records show that in May 2011, Bryan Charles Jones was charged with “conspiracy to commit access device fraud.” He possessed a skimmer, or device that memorizes credit card information, which other defendants then used to obtain access to goods and services. Bryan Charles Jones was sentenced to three years probation and 100 hours of community service. According to a form posted on Jones’ Facebook page, he completed his community service on Feb. 6.
According to Jones, the judge was lenient with him: “He told me, whatever it is you’re here for, I see a decent person in front of me, and I don’t know how you made it out … because basically, every time I see this story, it’s always a disaster. ... So you need to just keep doing what you’re doing. ... If I send you to jail, you’re going to come out worse.” His probation officer cleared the travel to Austin and for the tour.
In the song “D.A.R.E.,” Jones raps, “Me and God got an understanding. I’m gon’ do me, and he’s gon’ forgive me for it.” He says his lyrics walk the line“between glamorization and documentation. When I speak on it, I speak from the perspective of the kid who’s going through it, how you feel when you’re doing it. When you’re doing it, you’re not thinking, this is a terrible thing, you’re just in it. When you remove yourself, that’s when it horrifies you.”
Jones says he met Killer Mike, an Atlanta rapper associated with the group Outkast, several years ago. “He would come pick me up, and we’d ride around the city. He was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to take you on tour with me’ … and I was like, ‘all right.’ And then one day, he just called me and was like ‘Yo, come on.’ And he took me to 25 cities with him. So I got to see the whole country that way.” Sometimes Jones would hop onstage and rap a verse with Killer Mike, but mostly he was along for the networking.
His next break came in 2010. At AC3, an annual hip hop festival in Atlanta, he met a Brooklyn-based executive for a boutique entertainment marketing firm. Daniel Friedman is only 27, but he knows rap history. He talks about the days when mix-tapes were analog, sold on folding tables or handed out for free up and down Manhattan’s Canal Street. (Now mix-tapes are often digital downloads, hosted by hip-hop distribution sites.) Friedman wanted a side gig managing artists. He signed Jones.
“I’m the kind of person who spends a lot of time looking for new rap music,” Friedman says. “Even though [Jones] hadn’t necessarily emerged as his own writer yet, I knew he was a talented dude. I was familiar with him through Killer Mike.”
Friedman has managed to generate a lot of buzz for Jones.There have been blog and magazine interviews, a TV spot on MTV Hive, music video shoots, and six sets in Austin during South by Southwest. He takes his protege’s posturing in stride. He was nonplussed when Jones called with the news that he was on probation. “It wasn’t something I was expecting or preparing for, but it’s just something that you have to deal with, and you have to figure out the best way to maneuver within the situation,” Friedman says.
In the song “S.L.A.B,” Jones raps: “They say we’re separate but equal/ you get good morning and a warning/ I go straight to jail/ they wouldn’t give us heaven/that’s why we raising hell.” But this time, at least, Jones did get a warning, and he’s making music like his life and freedom depend on it. Because he knows they do.
Other performers: 607, Pepperboy and Lo Thraxx
7:30 p.m. Sunday, Vino’s Brewpub, 923 W. Seventh St., Little Rock
Weekend, Pages 36 on 04/18/2013
Print Headline: SL Jones back in LR on his first headlining tour