Mr. J is a person just like you, but he's got better things to do

Close to the edge

Thirty-year-old David Johnson has released three acclaimed CD mixtapes under the name Mr. J. His flow is solid and his tracks are hard, yet catchy enough to be radio-ready. What really sets Johnson apart in the world of rap is that he defines himself as straight edge. Every Saturday, Mr. J performs at the Bullfrog Bar & Grill in Redford from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. "That way, if people still wanted to do other things after the show, they still have time to," he says.

Metro Times: My own initial encounter with the straight-edge movement was attending punk shows in South Florida in the early 1980s. That scene was 99 percent white, and all about hardcore punk rock. I see that at least one of the trappings remains, the giant "X" on the hands, which I believe came from getting entry to shows from the door guy?

David Johnson: Yes, that's how the whole "X" on the hands started — to let the club know that underage kids can get into the show but not buy alcohol. Funny thing, that method is still being used in clubs to this day.

MT: Were you aware of those hardcore origins for straight edge?

Johnson: Yes, of course. I did my homework and was amazed at how straight edge grew, from such small origins to a worldwide spread. I like to think that good people are helping now to get the lifestyle out there.

I've been straight edge my entire life. I never tried poison — not drugs, not cigarettes, not alcohol, not liquor. And I never will; I come from a Christian household. Poison was never in our house. I see the way it changes people for the worse and thought to myself, "I want no part of that." So I decided to walk the straight line.

MT: What does the straight-edge movement mean to you today, and what response have you gotten from that community?

Johnson: Even though straight edge is a lifestyle, I treat it like a religion. I'm very faithful to it, and I will never let anybody stray me from it. I've even lost friends who felt that they couldn't be themselves around me. I respect everyone, but if people can't respect my beliefs, then it's their loss.

Hip-hop has always given me a voice to express what I want. Things I maybe couldn't say in normal conversations with people, but if you put a good beat behind it, it can grab their attention. I have a song called "Porn and Pro Tools" off Sleep Is Forbidden. Most people use music to create a certain mood with their lover, that's what I talk about in that song.

MT: What is Sleep Is Forbidden all about?

Johnson: It's about setting a target and going after it, not letting anything or anyone stop your hopes and dreams.

MT: What can you tell me about getting started, when you first began to turn poems into raps?

Johnson: I think it was around 11th or 12th grade, when I started writing more raps and less poems. My writing became more serious in rap form because now I can tell more in- depth stories about myself and things around me. Once you put music behind the words, it's a win-win.

MT: Are there any other artists you're really excited about now?

Johnson: I like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, K-Os — he's from Toronto — and J Cole. These are my go-to guys for my hip-hop fix.

MT: How do you think your music meshes, or doesn't, with the local hip-hop community?

Johnson: Oh, it does. Hip-hop is based off skills and passion. I have those elements. I know I'm different but that's what makes people say, "OK, let's hear what this guy is about to say."

MT: Do you have a general personal philosophy as regards to your music?

Johnson: I try to make music in the purest form. I want to always be honest, upright, and mean what I say. I want people to hear my music and say, "Wow, I get it." It's OK to be yourself and not always follow the crowd.

MT: What would you most like to do that you haven't?

Johnson: Either perform at the Palace of Auburn Hills, sky dive, or battle rap Eminem (laughs). Not sure which one would be worse for me.

Catch Mr. J at the Bullfrog Bar & Grill every Saturday, 6-8 p.m.; 15414 Telegraph Road; 313-533-4477; no cover.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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