Growing up in the small Northern California town Sebastopol, Jeremy Namkung PZ ’09 only had exposure to the rap songs played on the radio and Bay Area underground music.
Though he lacked exposure to a rich hip-hop culture, he made up for it in bounds when he hit Claremont. Namkung now looks back on a decade-long career as a musician under the stage name J.Lately. His album “Winnebago,” released Friday, March 12, is his newest musical pursuit.
Attending Pitzer College changed everything for Namkung. There, he met people from around the world and was quickly exposed to a diverse array of all genres of music — but it was rap that enticed him. He learned not only technically about different styles and sounds, but also culturally and historically.
Being near Los Angeles expanded Namkung’s relationship with music even further. On weekends, he would attend shows and go to record stores, album signings and releases from some of his favorite artists.
“It was just so cool to be able to immerse myself more within the music scene than I was able to do prior,” Namkung said.
He fully immersed himself in the music scene by starting to perform on his own as a solo rapper, a member of a hip-hop jazz group Atypical Vibe and in the 5Cs’ Hip-Hop Orchestra. Performing at Pitzer was Namkung’s way of testing the waters of a potential music career — and he fell in love.
“Some of my fondest memories are the shows we were throwing at the Grove House,” he said. “[There’s] like three to five hundred people crammed out there on a hot April night. It’s 10 o’clock at night, and there’s kegs, and there’s music … I love live performing, and I think it really started while I was there.”
Although Namkung learned about his love for music while at Pitzer, the thought that it would become his full-time career never crossed his mind. After graduating, Namkung became a teacher in Oakland, and his passion for music was confined to his spare time.
During that period of time, however, Namkung received an opportunity to tour with one of his future producers, Trey C. Namkung would teach until 3:30 p.m., hop in his car, drive to his tour destination, do three shows in a row and then drive straight home.
Although Namkung said he barely slept during those weekends, he felt energized after every performance — and it was then that he realized he needed to pursue music professionally. Even if it was risky, he said it was better to go down having tried.
“It was so much more personally energizing and refreshing to be on tour and be making music and have my day focused [and] have my business be about my passion,” Namkung said. “Then I also got to continue to see these people respond well to me. And it was kind of like, ‘Oh shit,’ they seem to like it. I love it — maybe I could do this.”
“Winnebago,” released ten years after his career began, represents Namkung’s feelings of needing to escape the confines of big cities and his own mental constraints. The title track and album title, a name of an RV, are a memorial to the album’s creation — a process marred and restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finding himself trapped at home, the feeling of confinement became more physical than ever. The first song put to paper, the spirit of the album’s title track became the through-line to the album: a yearning to escape on one’s own terms.
“It’s a metaphor for freedom and self-direction, like being in control of the direction you’re going. Kind of like being behind the wheel of your Winnebago,” Namkung said. “… It’s very much about being able to be yourself and feel at home while also feeling free.”
Being stuck at home also changed his creative process. Usually, Namkung would be touring and performing at shows while writing, but during the pandemic, he could only focus on his album.
“I was stuck at home, and I do like having things to do. I’m somebody who likes being active, who likes being on the road and touring, and when I didn’t have that, this album kind of became that escape for me,” he said.
These changes in his creative process are reflected in the album’s musicality and style.
Namkung realized that he originally fell in love with traditional boom bap hip-hop, but as time passed, he started to broaden his listening practices.
“It was one of my producer friends who actually told me, ‘You’re not really making the music that you listen to anymore, you’re making the music you fell in love with. Your listening tastes have changed, but the way you’re producing hasn’t necessarily changed,’” he said.
Namkung realized he was stuck in his comfort zone, even as he was becoming more exploratory in his listening.
“‘Winnebago’ [is] kind of a mishmash of sounds that don’t necessarily fit together, but do [fit] when you hear them all together,” Namkung said.
The “mishmashed” nature of his songs, Namkung said, is also a representation of his personality: He is a mixed-race person, he played sports throughout school and was “cool” but also a nerd and a rule-follower at heart.
“I’ve just always kind of felt like I was in the middle somewhere, and I have a foot in multiple worlds or a hand in multiple bags,” he said. “So I think my music, at its best, is a representation of that. My best songs [have] a drum pattern that you wouldn’t usually hear with this sample, but they go together beautifully.”
“Winnebago” is also being released at a point in Namkung’s career where he’s witnessed a jump in popularity. He’s seen his engagement numbers jump on online platforms and received more opportunities to tour, which he attributes to improvement in his craft and an increased sense of confidence.
“I feel like now I’ve put in the work and the hours and the blood and sweat and tears, and I’ve actually seen some of the rewards come back from it,” Namkung said. “It is kind of feeling like I finally am beginning to get closer to really honing in on who I am as an artist.”
At the end of the day, Namkung hopes that his audience can feel comfortable with themselves when they listen to his music.
“Even if a track makes you sad, that’s an important feeling to feel too in the long term to get your happiness. If there are things that you need to deal with, hopefully my music helps you deal with those things. And I just want my music to do some good in people’s lives,” Namkung said.