Only one artist has three features on Undisputed, the new compilation of rising talent from Def Jam, and he happens to be in high school.
Bernard Jabs, of Tifton, GA, is 17 years old but he’s already cracked the 100,000 streaming mark several times on SoundCloud. He opened for Pusha T on The Daytona Tour Part 2. He’s living the dream he’s had since he was a child.
“I knew all this was going to happen, because I planned it all out,” he tells Billboard. “Since I was five, I’ve always wanted to be a rapper. So I worked on my craft constantly. I knew I had to make something out of this and there’s still more to do.”
For Coldhearted — his debut solo EP, which released on Friday (March 15) — Jabs drops bars about trust issues and self-confidence, but still makes time for the occasional flex. Drawing on a rocky past relationship, Coldhearted is a welcoming introduction to one of Def Jam’s newest and brightest MCs.
Billboard spoke with Bernard Jabs about his debut EP, signing with Def Jam, balancing his senior year of high school with the music industry and touring with Pusha T. Check out the conversation below.
On the opener for Coldhearted, “Stupid,” you compare yourself to Eazy E in 1986 and Jim Jones in 2006. What’s your favorite era of hip-hop?
Probably the ‘Stay Fly” era. Wayne was on his Dipset shit and the mixtapes were crazy. Everyone had their own style and was just going stupid. That really molded me — that era really made me want to rap. There wasn’t a rapper in that time that wasn’t cool. If you had a hit or song that was just bumping, you were good in my eyes.
How do you feel about this current era?
I love it. This is my second-favorite era because I’m in it, you know what I’m saying? I can’t be bitter about it. I listen to all these new guys. I’m a kid, still in high school, so I can’t avoid it. While I’m thinking about my own music, I’m listening to everything else, too. If I don’t like something, I’m going to say I don’t like it. But everything is an inspiration at the end of the day.
How are you balancing your last year of high school with the music industry?
I’m a senior and only taking two classes at my high school right now, [two] 45-minute blocks. I get to school at like 8:00 AM and I leave by like 9:30 AM, so it’s really not a problem for me. My teachers are pretty cool, so if I have to take a trip I can just miss school. I doubled up last year because I knew this would happen. I didn’t want to have to catch up on my academics.
Did you ever feel like dropping out to focus on the music?
Hell no. My momma wasn’t having that. She was not having that shit at all. I had to work on my music all throughout high school. There was no way around it. It was either work on my music in high school or work on it in college.
What went through your mind when you signed with Def Jam? What do you think the label was missing that you could bring?
I was really just saying how cool it was to be able to do that. I wasn’t really thinking about it too big like, ‘oh my God! It’s Def Jam!’ I knew this would fall into place. As far as what I’m bringing, it’s something new because Def Jam already has a Justin Bieber, a Rihanna, G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye West. But nobody is really breaking. There’s no young kids or young cat, you know what I mean?
There’s nobody bringing that new energy over there at Def Jam and I feel like if anybody should do that, or have the ability to do that, it’s me. They have the connects and a good foundation. There are legends over there.
Seems like they’re cashing in on you since you have three different placements on Undisputed.
You dig? Uh huh, yessir!
How does it feel to have the most features on Undisputed?
It was really just work to me. On the next project, I’m trying to have more because that’s how I go and get it. I really love making music with anybody. Everybody that was in there I was ready to work with. If I didn’t get on a song with everybody in there I damn sure asked to be. [Laughs.] I wasn’t playing.
How did the recording process for Coldhearted compare to Undisputed?
It’s pretty much the same thing. Every time I’m in the studio, I’m inspired. If I’m in the car on the way to the studio and nothing happens that day, but I’m in the studio, I’m going to come up with something. Just the energy and the vibes in the studio always has me tuned into the songs that I’m going to make.
[But] when I was working on Undisputed, I had to come up with something quick because the other artists were coming up with stuff quick and I couldn’t look like I was slowing down. It was kind of a competition. But when I record by myself, I’m in my own zone.
How important is it to connect with your fans, like when you shared snippets from Coldhearted?
I know how to work the internet. The internet is not a hard thing to get. This reception that I’m getting on the internet is what I should be getting if I’m doing my job right. If you don’t connect with your fans, how would your music get out? You have the SoundCloud page, posting shit on there, hoping you get 100 or more plays? No, you have to talk to people, and I think that’s how you can tell if somebody is inspired or not. You have to be built for social media, too. Anybody can call my shit trash; you just have to eat that.
You got a positive reception after your opening set for Pusha T at Terminal 5 and probably made some new fans. What was it like getting that reception? What gems did you take away from Push?
Yeah, man, I was living in it. In a situation like that, you really have to produce. If you don’t produce, the crowd won’t fuck with you. But it did mean a lot to me to see them react to me the way they did. Pusha knows how to rap, and I know how to rap. If the crowd didn’t like the music, I knew they’d respect me off the pure art of rapping I was showing. I knew if they didn’t like one thing they’ll like the other.
One gem I took away from Pusha was understanding you don’t have to jump around in the crowd to get people’s attention. I fuck with his stage design and lighting, shit like that. I feel like he executes everything well. Pusha is a legend, man. That was an experience.
With such a fiery start to your career, what’s going through your mind right now?
That I still have to go to school today and the whole week after. But what’s going through my mind is doing what I have to do at school, to come home and keep making music. I’m going to promote the tape as I should online and get these streams up. I got to build the team and take over Georgia before I graduate. I’m back to the drawing board and putting a timeline on all this because it has to happen this year. I know it will happen this year.