ABOVE: JON BELLION. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEXTER FINDLEY
“This isn’t a shot at Rihanna or anything, but every single song on my album is better than ‘The Monster,'” says 23-year-old Jon Bellion of the Eminem duet with the Bajan pop superstar that hit the top of charts last year. He’s entitled to his opinion. He co-wrote it. Despite having his first placed song turn into a global smash, unlike many songwriters, Bellion, an articulate, sensitive Long Islander who dropped out of Five Towns college (alumni include Adam Levine and Wyclef Jean) after one year, didn’t leverage his writing skills to pen hits for a host of other pop wannabes. Instead, he returned to his home studio, found Jesus, and was inspired to create a new album, The Definition, which skillfully weaves chunky hip-hop beats and lush instrumentation with Bellion’s light, almost folksy voice and intelligent, street-smart lyrics.
The first single, “Carry Your Throne,” is accompanied by a cinematic video full of snarling dogs, soldiers charging to war, and contemplative scenes in a church. Not your average round-the-way urban music short. It’s more impressive when you discover that the video, along with the new album, is completely self- funded. In a move out of the U2 playbook, Bellion is giving away his entire new album away as a free download. Unlike Bono and co., though, Bellion doesn’t have Apple to finance his altruistic endeavors.
JEFF VASISHTA: It wasn’t that long ago people used to make money by actually selling their music.
JON BELLION: One of the advantages of writing songs for people has meant that I can be in the driver’s seat financially, do high-caliber videos and put the album out for free. You can look at it two ways. Either I’m crazy for doing it for free, or maybe my taste level is so high that I’m putting out an incredible album for free that rivals if not betters everything that people are asking for money for.
VASISHTA: You initially got signed to a publishing deal through (songwriter and former American Idol judge) Kara DioGuardi. How did that come about?
BELLION: When I dropped out of college, I was working at a catering hall for a year, and I had a mixtape that was out there circulating. Somehow it wound up with this intern, Matt, at Warner Bros. He flipped out when he heard it about it and took it to Kara [an executive] who called me and said, “I can sign your whole crew. The guy doing the beats, the singer, the rapper, everyone.” When I told her it was all me, she said, “I want to meet you in my office tomorrow!” I ended up signing my publishing deal through her and for 18 months just focused on the craft of music making. A year later, I got my first placement, which was “Monster.”
VASISHTA: Didn’t you also write “Trumpets” for Jason Derulo?
BELLION: Yeah, I met Jason briefly in the studio and played him some of my own solo stuff. This was way back. I guess he was working on a project, and his label scrapped it, and he was looking for songs. He kept my number and called me out of the blue and asked me if I had anything. “Trumpets” was one of those songs. I knew the drums were dope and it could work for someone else, but it was just a bit poppy for me. After my experience with “Monster,” I had to tell him that I wanted 90 percent of the publishing. He was cool with it, he liked it so much.
VASISHTA: Why, what happened with “Monster”?
BELLION: When you get a song placed with two of the top stars in the world, like Rihanna and Eminem, especially as a new writer, they’re gonna take a huge chunk of your publishing. That’s just the way the business is. I’m not complaining. It got my foot in the door and during the success of “Monster” I put out my second mix tape, “The Separation” and it sold 100,000 within the first week from my website alone.
VASISHTA: You sum up your approach to the music business on “Preoccupied.”
BELLION. Yeah, “Wu Tang raised me, but death can’t change me. But you should ask Rihanna if my pen game’s crazy… When it comes to publishing, fuck you, pay me.” VASISHTA: I also like the lyrics to “Immigrant,” when you talk about an affair you had in London.
BELLION: It’s a true story. I was dating someone who’s a British singer and is actually pretty popular. I met her at a chateau in France when I was at an ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) writing retreat and we went back to London. We broke up. I have a steady girlfriend now who’s great, so I won’t go into too many details.
VASISHTA: How did the success of “Monster” change things for you?
BELLION: I wrote “Monster” and thought that it would solve a lot of my problems, that I’d have money in the bank, but I felt no different. I was still searching for something. I look at artists from Madonna to Kanye, and there’s constant reinvention and search for validation from the public. The public doesn’t give a shit about anybody. They don’t care. Look what Michael Jackson’s done—but at the end of the day, the public is more concerned about being on time for work. But many artists are constantly searching and trying to prove themselves. We may wake up as millionaires but have no family, no roots, no grounding. That’s why I recently became a devout Christian. I’m fascinated by Jesus and pray to him every day.
VASISHTA: Really? How has that influenced what you do?
BELLION: It’s freed me up. I came to the realization that I’m a child of God and that’s my identity. If this all goes tomorrow I don’t have the proverbial rug under me that can be pulled out. I’m taken care of and there’s someone who loves me.
VASISHTA I find it pretty amazing that without a hit single of your own and without the album being out there that your “Beautiful Mind” tour has sold out. What’s your secret?
BELLION: The Internet is funny thing, man! I’ve only done three shows. The first was at SOB’s in New York, then I opened one show for Kanye and I just did a show at the University of Toronto and now we have a whole tour of 500-700 people venues.
VASISHTA: So is it all through social media? How do you keep up a heavy online presence if you’re constantly working in the studio?
BELLION: I control my Twitter and Instagram, which isn’t too hard, but I have my homie Dexter, who’s a photographer, follow me around and send me a bunch of pictures. That’s the responsibility you have as a new artist. I have to kiss babies and shake hands. I have to do the whole political thing.
VASISHTA: Your drum programming and production stand out as very strong. Who are the producers that you look up to?
BELLION: One of my favorite producers in the whole world is J-Dilla, who’s no longer with us.
VASISHTA: I interviewed him once.
BELLION: Get outta here! Really? That guy’s a legend in hip-hop.
VASISHTA: Yeah, it was quite a few years ago obviously. I went to Detroit one Christmas to interview his rap group, Slum Village and ended up hanging out with him in his basement.
BELLION: Records everywhere?
VASISHTA: Yeah, exactly. He was working on a beat at the time, using a Curtis Mayfield sample, I think.
BELLION: The Definition is me imaging is J-Dilla made a Pixar movie. That’s how I wanted this album to sound. Imagine The Incredibles or Finding Nemo with those lovable, colorful lush musical landscapes over J-Dilla hip-hop beats. That’s my sound.
THE DEFINITION IS AVAILABLE FOR FREE TO DOWNLOAD AT JON BELLION’S WEBSITE.