Feature Stories

J. Rhodes, Dallas' Best-Kept Production Secret, Wants to Build the Next Motown

As Justin Rhodes' mother dragged him through the doors of a poetry class at Fair Park, her then 8-year-old son was less than thrilled. At that age, Rhodes would have much preferred shooting hoops with his friends over learning the art of meter and rhyme. But there he was, about to be neck-deep in limericks and haikus. All seemed lost. That is, until he turned the corner to see the cute girl from school was also in his class. Encouraged by the overwhelming desire to profess his elementary school love, one pentameter at a time, he went back to poetry class the following week. The girl was gone, but a creative spark had been ignited within the young boy that would not only keep him in class, but also become a lifelong passion.

Fast-forward more than 20 years and that young man, now known professionally as J. Rhodes, has snagged a Billboard award, a Dove Music award, a Stellar award for his production work on Lecrae's Anomaly - which was nominated for a Grammy Award - he scored songs for a major motion picture about Dallas' Carter High School and has written a book about how to do it all — and that was just this year alone. But Rhodes' success didn't happen overnight, nor has it always been strictly on the production end.

According to Rhodes, he's always been a writer, and as such, he began his music career as an artist. Growing up in Oak Cliff, he and his cousins would perform impromptu concerts for the older members of the family in exchange for candy money. And that only furthered his drive to create. (Because, let's face it, nothing is more motivating than the promise of sugar.) Rhodes' casual writing took on a whole new form once he got to high school, by which time he had amassed countless stacks of lyrics and poetry. It was then that he and a couple of friends started making mixtapes. "We actually used to have blank cassette tapes and two radios," he remembers. "One radio would record our vocals and the other radio would play our instrumentals and we would swap them."

By the time he went off to the University of North Texas to study computer science, most of Rhodes' musical cohorts had either gone off to other schools or weren't in the game anymore. So during his sophomore year he picked up a couple of beat machines and began to dabble in production, more out of necessity than anything else, and others took notice — so much so that Rhodes was able to begin selling his musical sketches to other aspiring artists for extra cash. By his senior year, Rhodes decided to leave behind computer science to pursue music full time. “I don’t regret going there (UNT), but I went there to find my passion and I did," he says.

It wasn't until Rhodes was contacted by high school friend and business partner, Rosalinda Ruiz, around 2007, that Rhodes took another leap into his musical career. Upon Ruiz's suggestion, Rhodes joined her, as well as another partner, Brandon Williams, to found The 808 Studio. Ruiz handled the management, while Rhodes and Williams tackled the producing. For a while, things looked promising. "A lot of stuff came out of The 808, like A.Dd+ and 80's Baby," he remembers. "I don’t say this boastfully, but we were kind of a catalyst for Dallas music."

The synergy that was The 808's founding trio was short-lived though, as disagreements over the direction of the project came to a head and the founders went their separate ways. Rhodes looks at this part of his life as a learning experience: "What I learned from The 808 was that you can’t get anywhere trying to build other peoples' dreams," Rhodes says. "I realized if I wanted to help anybody, I had to help myself." And that's just what he did.

Following the disbandment of The 808 Studio, Rhodes went all-in on honing his production skills, taking on every beat battle he could find. In 2010 he made his way to Los Angeles for the ASCAP Beat Battle, which he dominated. Around the same time, another local producer, Grammy winner Symbolyc One, was hot off working on Kanye West's "Power" and Rhodes' talents caught his eye. "S1 reached out and wanted me to join his team," Rhodes recalls. "So, we started working and I started learning a lot. I mean, you go from making songs in a music group to making songs because we’re sending them to Kanye West; I had to work 10 times as hard and it made me a 10 times better producer." 

Since joining S1's production team, Rhodes résumé has grown to include the Game, Talib Kweli, Ab-Soul, Slim Thug, Rhymefest and Rhapsody, just to name a few. Things seemed to come full circle for Rhodes when another former UNT student by the name of Lecrae fell in love with some of his beats. "When I was a freshman at UNT, where I learned to make music, I would run into this guy who worked in the cafeteria. That guy was Lecrae," Rhodes says. "I ran into him at South By Southwest in 2013 and started working on the beat a few months later." That beat, filled with African drums and tribal chants, would become the mold for Lecrae's award-winning "Welcome to America," an ode to the blatant injustices that plague our land of the free and home of the brave, off of his 2015 release Anomaly.

The Lecrae album soon garnered a slew of awards, as well as the Grammy nomination, but Rhodes has used those successes to focus on developing other local talent under the auspices of Vintage Rhodes, his own production brand. “I could’ve sat down and been so happy about the Lecrae success, but you’ve got to plan ahead in this industry," Rhodes added. "So, while we were celebrating the Lecrae thing, I was making another opportunity behind the scenes.” He's worked with local artists like That Kid Cam, Lou CharLe$, Cassie Holt and That Boy Sterling, and even found the time to write an educational guide book for aspiring producers called These Beats Ain't Free.

As Rhodes sees it, there's no question that Dallas has the talent to be a big mover. The problem, though, is making sure his home city has the resources to get that talent out into the world. "Even when talent blows up, it rarely stays in Dallas," Rhodes says with a sigh. "Like Erykah Badu or Justus and The D.O.C., they had to go out to LA or New York — that’s just the belief about how it has to be done. I want to change that." His dream is to make Vintage Rhodes into a "new Motown."

"I was born and raised here," Rhodes says. "I didn’t leave to go to Atlanta in 2005 when everyone was going because I love Dallas that much. And I'm not going anywhere."