Smooth Streetwise Storytelling: J. Sheon on Fusing R&B with Hip-Hop, Collaborating, and His Latest Album "The Alley"
Capturing the nostalgia and unparalleled finesse of 90's R&B and hip-hop while still achieving mainstream success in the modern music market is a challenge. J. Sheon lives up to this goal with the help of his friends. His first full-length self-titled album was nominated for Best New Artist for the Golden Melody Awards in 2017. His new album has the potential to gain him even more recognition. From sentimental love songs to stories of nightlife conquests and relationship woes, The Alley takes a familiar pop music formula and spreads out the net of inspiration to include G-Funk, trap, neo-soul, and even an acoustic take on the track "Ballad."
With no formal musical training, it was a natural attraction to R&B and hip-hop that led to J. Sheon's career as a singer/songwriter and rapper. He explained the roots of his fascination with that particular sound saying: "When I was in sixth grade, I got the chance to visit some of my relatives in the states. I just browsed through the radio channels. That's how I met the hip-hop sound. They were spitting on the radio and I liked that sound. So I went to the record store and tried to find a similar sound. That's how me and hip-hop got into it... I started by listening to some early hip-hop artists and groups, artists like Will Smith, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Warren G, Wu-Tang Clan, some old school R&B like Genuwine."
"The Alley - Intro" is a pitched down English spoken word bit that gives listeners a peek into the concept behind the album. Finding yourself in the alley is a good place to kick off the ride through J. Sheon's sophomore release. "For an album you have to put all of the perspectives together and then you try to make the sound connected track by track. It has to be related somehow. Even just the tone that you use or the bass you use, you try to maintain the similar vibe throughout the whole album. If it's not lyrically, then musically, it has to have a certain vibe throughout the whole album," he said.
Three different producers, RAZOR, Holly Liu, Steven Lai, grace the beats and heavily influence the songwriting process. "Some of the guys that I've worked with on this album, we know each other already. We hadn't worked together before. But we talked and I know that this particular person would be suitable for a certain project. I would just ask them, 'Do you wanna make a beat for this song? Maybe it suits you.' ...We just met up and made it happen," he said.
Combining styles is the name of the game for J. Sheon as he juggles both vibrant vocalization and apt rhyming skills. Going back and forth is a stylistic choice that he decides depending on the mood he is going for.
"I kind of just go with the flow. Maybe I rap over it and show it to the producer and he might have some comments like 'you can sing,' or maybe I sing over it and he says 'you can try to rap over it.' My producers are one of the reasons I change style on the same beat. I trust my producers, because we're not only musical partners and work partners, we also kick it and hang out on a daily basis so I trust him."
One-off singles and collaborations are part of J. Sheon's appeal to his fans and show off his range of talents on a diverse selection of beats and instrumentals, like this track from September 2019 with Taiwan's OG hip-hop spokesman MC Hot Dog, called "I Can't Fucking Sleep."
The latest single and music video for "Off You Go" features Morrison and Eve Ai personifying characters on the phone commenting on a dysfunctional relationship. The storytelling in the song stands out here as the different perspectives of the characters and vocal talents compliment each other well. "My fans focus on what story I am trying to tell and what perspective it's coming from. Lyrically, my music resonates with my fans," he said.
For The Alley, J.Sheon maintains the style and sound he is known for, while adding more of what he likes and channeling creative growth along the way. Comparing his debut self-titled album with his latest work, he explained: "Musically, it's more R&B than hip-hop. But it has some hip-hop attitude when it comes to writing the lyrics. Even some simple songs... One of the hit songs "Ballad" is an acoustic R&B track, but lyrically it has some hip-hop attitude lyrics-wise... We tried to make a more urban sounding album after the first one. We tried to strike the balance between the pop sounding tracks and the R&B sound. I think the last one is more balanced between pop and R&B, with a heavier focus on pop. This one, we tried to make it more urban sounding with hip-hop influence or R&B, a couple of the elements that I like, throwing them in there. Going with the flow, we searched for different beat makers... Most of the songs are collaborations on the last album."
Getting his start in the media sphere as a singer, cover artist, and vlogger means that fashion and image are part of the package. J. Sheon recognizes the importance of image, while taking a casual and laid back approach to his own style and influence.
"Originally, I was a fashion design student by mistake. I didn't stay that long, just one semester and then I transferred. Somehow I just like it, but I don't really dig into it. There's no specific brand that I think suits me. It depends on the look you're searching for, or the project you've been working on. I'm a big fan of Pharrel Williams. I like his style of fashion and his music."
As for his position in the burgeoning Taiwanese R&B scene he sees both sides of the coin, saying, "You benefit from Taiwan because you're from Taiwan and you know the people and you know the surroundings... It's easier to understand what people want, and it's easier for you to strike a balance between your music artistically and commercially with what people want in Taiwan. On the other side maybe it restricts you a little but, but you don't know it yet. Maybe in the future there will be other opportunities to expand our music to other countries maybe through collaboration..."
Even with certified success and popularity, J. Sheon recognizes the challenges that make him rise to the occasion without stifling the creative flow. He said, "... Taiwanese audiences, they get used to simple songs, like simple Mandarin songs that are easy to memorize, easy to sing, they've been listening to this kind of mandarin songs for 10-20 years. An R&B song is technically hard for them to sing, hard for them to catch up. There's no easy singing R&B, right? For the majority of the people it's hard to sing, it's hard to memorize, it's hard for them to sing the hook... That's one of the challenges. You want it to be soulful, you want it to be R&B sounding, and you want it to be easy to sing along to."
As the R&B sound gains traction for mainstream audiences in Taiwan and beyond, J. Sheon has a leg up over the competition that gives some clarity and a different perspective among his peers in the game. He explained his position relative to the new-comers in the scene saying, "I'm one of the guys that is deeply influenced by 90's R&B and hip-hop heavily influences my style. The majority of the new urban artists out in Taiwan, they didn't have the chance to go through the era, that background, so that's one of the differences. One of my producers says things like they describe my melody has a little 90's driven melody in a new age hip-hop beat... It came to me naturally. I grew up listening to this kind of music since I was a kid. So this may be the only thing that I can think of to naturally cover a song. It's not for a certain audience; it's just for myself. I wouldn't cover a song in a more rock and roll way because that's just not me. I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B, so naturally I combined these two things together."
The key to keeping it real during the songwriting process is simple. According to J.Sheon: "Talk to your friends. Asking for opinions always works. Don't just get stuck on one idea and don't move on because sometimes you could get stuck for a couple of days... you don't want that. If you want to finish fast, ask your friends... Maybe just ask them about their opinions whether it's song ideas or beats whatever... There's definitely a couple of the guys you can trust; just call them... I'm not a loner when it comes to songwriting."
A good example of this in action is "Feeling Good" from The Alley. J. Sheon elaborated saying, "One of my favorite tracks on the album is 'Feeling Good' featuring local rapper BCW. It's a west-coast track, with some new sounds thrown in there. A little G-Funk, a little YG, a little DJ Mustard. Cuz I've always been a fan of west coast hip-hop and didn't really have a chance to make tracks like that, especially in the Mandarin market in places like Taiwan, and now we get a chance to release the second album I was like 'Why not? Let's make a west coast track.' We have known each other for a long time. We just hang out. He's one of the people that I hang out with on a daily basis. This track... I would just hook him up, like do you wanna spit for a couple of bars on my album? And he sent me the lyrics, we get into a booth and record, simple as that. He knows what he's doing, so I didn't really have to teach him anything. We did talk about collaborating before for a little while, but not until this time have we had a chance to. I know he used to listen to west coast hip-hop as well so i was like 'this will suit you, just jump in.'"
Novel sources of inspiration are also something that J.Sheon has an easy time navigating. Utilizing the deluge of beats available online is part of the experimentation that leads to a sound that ends up fitting what he is looking for. "Right now we have places like YouTube and other apps that make getting beats quick and easy. I try to look for some online beats searching for inspiration. Maybe experimenting with some different songwriting ideas through YouTube beats. Most of the time, for me it's just practicing. Find some weird ass beat that you probably don't even like and try to write a melody on top of it. When it comes to writing raps, there's one hobby I got from my producer... I will keep switching beats for the same song. Maybe you pick up a couple of trap beats, you write on it, then you switch to an old school boom bap, or dancehall type of beat. It will affect your flow ultimately... because of the speed changes. That's one of the ways that you can figure out a different flow within the same ideas by switching beats, then switch back to the original beats," he said.
Focusing on the Mandarin music market, he aspires to collaborate with international artists and expand his scope of influence beyond Asia. Collaboration is an integral part of the creativity behind J. Sheon's sound. His favorite part of working with other artists and producers is "the creating process, because most of the people that I (have) collaborated with so far know how to write songs, so the creating process is one of the fun moments because you get to see how other people lay down their ideas and see how other people process different thoughts. We can grow together and learn more about people through the creative process... I really wanna collaborate with Ty Dolla$ one day. He's one of the guys that fuses R&B and hip-hop together and it fits perfectly well. And I saw a couple interviews with him, when he first came out. Some people coined him as a rapper, he was like 'I'm not a rapper. I just know how to spit.' I know deep down inside he's an R&B singer. He just expresses R&B in a different way... Ty Dolla$ and Drake are probably one of the few guys that really inspired me to heavily infuse these two genres together."
Setting goals for the future J.Sheon is ambitious, but cautious and mature about his position in the industry and his musical legacy. He reflected on his immediate goals professionally and creatively saying: "I just want my music to be able to set a new standard for R&B music in the Mandarin market in the future. My first album was 2017... These past two years, a lot of young cats started making R&B and started making hip-hop. I feel happy about it and hopefully my music can bring R&B and Mandrin music to let people get to know mandarin music a little more in the future. I do want to do that, not quite sure how. Maybe through collaboration, we're still figuring it out."
A work in progress with doors wide open is a good place to be in as an established artist with room to grow. J. Sheon is performing at Legacy in Taipei on May 24th for a Sunday afternoon show. To see him both serenade and rock the crowd, this is the perfect opportunity!