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States Pop Quiz #38: J. Cole

J. Cole describes himself as 'living proof' the American dream still exists

As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series. 

J. Cole describes himself as 'living proof' the American dream still exists. The North Carolina artist started rapping at 12, signed to Roc Nation in 2009 and is now, at 29, one of the USA's biggest hip hop stars.

 Plus, the MC just released what could be one of the most important tracks of 2014. Called "Be Free", the song is a tribute to black teenager Michael Brown – who was shot, while unarmed, by police in Missouri. It samples audio of Brown's friend Dorin Johnson describing the shooting and is a powerful call for change.

Cole took our Pop Quiz back in July at London’s Wireless Festival. Taking a halftime break to go and watch Outkast, our conversation swung from falling in love on the school bus to stop-and-search culture. 

Which living American do you most admire and why?

Muhammad Ali. He's the true definition of believing in yourself enough to tell the world how great you are. It's something that's hard to accomplish in today's world where there's fear constantly pumped into you.

Which living American do you most despise and why?

I don't despise anyone.

Anyone you find uninspiring?

I find people on super-negative, trashy reality shows really uninspiring - like Basketball Wives. I don't despise any of those people personally because I don't know them but I despise what that shit represents, the drama and the negativity associated with it.

Whose face should be on the $100 bill?

First of all, we need somebody black. So, first in line would obviously be Martin Luther King because he did so much for America. He stood for so much and died for what he believed in.

What is your favorite quote about America?

'America, fuck yeah!' from Team America.

What three words that define the States today?

I know the three words Americans think define the states. They're the three words used by DJ Khaled: 'We the best'. I don't know whether it's necessarily true though.

Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?

Nervous Wreck, he's a rapper and producer from a group called Bomb Shelter. He's like my older brother. He let me come to the studio at his crib when I was 14 years old. Last time I spoke to him was about three weeks ago. He's getting married in September so we talked about his wedding.

When and where are you the most happy?

When I'm writing an amazing song, a song that I know is special and I'm excited about.

What high school clique were you in?

The only clique I've ever belonged to was the basketball team. But it wasn't until my 11th Grade year. I had a growth spurt which helped me get on the team. Before then I was this 5ft 8 kid with a high-pitched voice, waiting for puberty to hit.

What food reminds you of home?

Great mac and cheese. If it's Southern cooked, it's got to be real cheesy and just really bad for you. It can never be the cheap Kraft shit you can microwave.

What's the best road trip you've ever been on?

Me and my homeboys were thirsty to get to South Beach, Miami for Memorial Day weekend, but we didn't have money for a plane ticket. We said 'fuck it' and drove all the way from New York City, four of us in this little Honda Civic - everyone was tall by the way, we all play basketball. It's like a 20-hour drive. It was worth it because we were so hype we didn't care how long it was.

What about the way back?

The way back was fucking terrible. It was the exact opposite of the way there.

Where did you first fall in love?

There was this Vietnamese girl Yen Win. She was an exchange student at school when I was in 3rd or 4th Grade. I was in love with her. I thought she was feeling me but I wasn't sure. She wrote me this crazy note on the last day of school - like four or five pages - that just confirmed everything I was thinking.

What would make you leave America forever?

Blatant government oppression. I don't think it ever would happen but if it did then I would get the fuck out. It's the only thing that would make me think about leaving.  Right now we’re fighting subtle oppression: the mass incarceration of young black males. 

What noise reminds you of the States?

Taxi cabs in New York City. Brakes and horns.

What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?

I was born in Frankfurt, Germany and I have no clue what it smells like. But I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina and fresh cut grass always gives me a distinct visual of home. It reminds me of growing up playing Little League Football.

Ultimate American film?

Forrest Gump: you've got the Vietnam war, you've got the hippy movement, you've got the ultimate underdog story.

Ultimate American album?

The Miseducation of Lauren Hill and Outkast's The Love Below. All of the great American genres are represented on both albums, from jazz to blues to rock'n'roll and hip hop.

Most overrated US tourist attraction?

The Empire State building. Just because you take an elevator to the top and look down and that's it, there's nothing to it. Even with the Statue of Liberty you can walk up it and you've got to take a ferry to get there. The Empire State's too easy.

Favourite slang phrase?

'Nahmtalmbout'. Like 'you know what I'm talking about?' but said really lazily. It's very specific to the South so reminds me of home.


What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?

World Star Hip Hop. I hate it, but once I get on it I can't stop watching it. If I click on one video then I'm there for three hours.

What law would you change or reinvent?

Drug laws in general. There's a bunch of fucked up drug policies that lock a lot of people up. If you legalise drugs and put the same money you put into enforcing drug laws into treating addiction then you wouldn't have a drug problem. You should treat it as a sickness instead of punishing people.

Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse?

In the very centre. All the way in the Midwest, in the cornfields. I feel like that's the least possible place shit's going to happen. No coasts, no cities... you're gonna have to really come and find me!

When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?

I was driving in my car in Times Square. I had my hat down a little bit because I knew people were going to see me.  A cop comes up, knocks on my window and is like 'can you pull over for me'. He says he's pulled me over because my tints are too dark on my front window but my tints aren't dark at all. All I'm imagining is him asking me to get out of the car and people pulling out their camera phones and ending up on World Star the next day. It worked out for the better with a ticket, but it was still bullshit. It was just ‘stop and search’, tints was an excuse.

If you could change one thing about the US what would it be?

I think democracy needs an update. On paper it's amazing: what the majority say should be the law should be the law. But we live in an age where public opinion is absolutely affected by media. There's a bias attached to every publication and that bias is controlled by somebody's money. Money affects public opinion, which then affects law.

Which fictional American do you most identify with?

Martin Lawrence in Martin. In my happiest life I see myself being him. He's a hardworking dude, he loves his girl and he's got a great sense of humour.

If you lost it all tomorrow what would you do the day after?

I'd take one day off to breathe and cry and laugh and appreciate the fact I had it, then I'd start over.

What will America look like in 2050?

I hope we're more humble: actively pursuing how to be better and how to treat each other better. I hope we've figured out a government system that doesn't have such a bottom. I hope we're more spiritually aware and more truly equal on an economic level.

Does the American dream still exist?

Absolutely, but it's just not exclusive to America anymore. It's the world's dream now.


Kate Lloyd @katelloud