Justin Lyons idolizes Quincy Jones and eagerly awaits the day that skilled playing is one again a foundation of popular music. That's why you might be surprised to know that for the last five years, the 31-year-old guitarist from Dallas has been shredding not for an R&B group, but for Big Bang, one of the biggest K-pop boy bands in the world.
Big Bang's label, YG Entertainment, came across Lyons in their search for veteran R&B and soul musicians to back the band on tour. Lyons was gigging with Vivian Green, and had been recommended to YG by Gil Smith, music director for Lil Wayne. The company invited a timid Lyons to Japan for an audition.
“Everything outside of the U.S. is a little bit ahead, especially fashion in Japan,” Lyons says. “I went over there and everyone had colored hair and I’m like, ‘What is going on?' People was wearing mismatched socks, but they were owning it. I was like ‘Wow, I feel at home.’”
Lyons had always felt a bit like an odd man out as an artist. He displayed a gift for a music at a young age. At 5 he received his first guitar, and at 11 he assumed the role of music director at his church. Then the Mississippi Mass Choir asked him to play bass. (His mother declined because of his age.)
For a kid like Lyons, attending school at Booker T. Washington High School of Performing and Visual Arts seemed like the natural next step. But when the invitation came, Lyons demurred. He didn't want to isolate himself in the arts; he wanted to play basketball too.
"I really do thank my mom for not forcing me to go to Booker T., ‘cause I feel like I have the perfect balance of being a weirdo creative and being a regular person," he says.
This pragmatism continued into adulthood. He planned on getting married, having kids, and keeping a day job. In the interest of those goals he went to school for audio engineering and business management, which he thought would lead to stable and well-paying jobs. He ultimately got one working for the office of immigration.
"I never saw myself doing major tours," he says, "‘cause you gotta be in a certain circle, you know?"
After school, Lyons gigged with a band called Knnext 4 for a while, but when he got laid off from his job in 2009 he quit playing music for a whole year. He'd only gotten back into music for a couple years — after receiving a call from Jesse Boykins III to play bass — when YG took notice. Lyons quickly went from playing for intimate club crowds to packed arenas.
“I think the most people I’d ever played for was 600 people, so to now go from playing for 600 people in the audience to 80,000 people ... Dude, I was not ready for it," says Lyons, who is now Big Bang's assistant musical director after being mentored by Smith.
"Going to the meetings, and seeing everything written on chalkboards, and papers everywhere on what the wardrobe is gonna look like, when the lights are gonna come down ... it was mind blowing," Lyons says.
But he's learned more than how to put on a show while working with Big Bang. He's also learned about the importance of discipline and humility to achieving a cohesive sound and look. It's the main difference he observes between American bands and the ones he's worked with in Korea and Japan, such as Big Bang and 2NE1.
“Their respect level as a culture is so different than over here. I come home, I notice it in everyday human interaction. We have a hard time respecting our brothers and sisters," he says. "‘Cause [over there] it’s like, ‘This is what I want to happen. You be this, you be this, and y’all come together.' And it’s like, ‘Cool. You’re the boss.'"
As far as Lyons' aesthetic contribution to the group, he grew his hair out into blonde dreads that hang over his sunglasses and tattooed the lion's share of his toned muscles.
But despite his gratitude for his experience with Big Bang, he's already busy planning the next phase of his career. As we chat in his West Dallas recording studio, Lyons Den, he's busy rescheduling appointments because an offer just came in to play with the rapper Raury at Coachella.
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It's a big step, but even bigger is the release of his first solo EP. He'd been encouraged to release his own music by ex-girlfriend Chrisette Michele, a fellow R&B performer who gained recognition on TV One's R&B Divas: Los Angeles, on which Lyons also appeared. At first, Lyons was hesitant to follow her advice.
“I worked with an artist before, and he told me my music was too mature," Lyons says. "But then I was like, ‘You know what. This is what I want to express.’ I’m going down the right path. Just do it.”
On February 10 he released Lost, Pt. 1, which details the fallout of a breakup over five tracks of soft, soul-inflected jazz. And even if that sound isn't going to draw half the plays of a Big Bang hit like "Fantastic Baby," which is currently sitting pretty at over 287 million on YouTube, Lyons has confidence that his preferred style is slowly but surely on its way back in.
“You can see how this generation is changing," he says. "The Raurys, Kendricks, and J. Coles are wanting that instrumentation back again. I think in another one to two years, it’s gonna be back to the Quincy Jones era of music.”