Mourn You ‘Til I Join You: 2Pac’s Favorite Producer, Johnny J [Feature From Sept. 2011 Issue]
*THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARS IN THE SEPTEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF XXL.
In June 2008, the producer Johnny Lee Jackson Jr., referred to by many as Johnny “J,” attended a late dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with his wife, Capucine, and another couple. The table ordered a bottle of wine, and the conversation flowed. “He was in a good mood that night,” says Earnie Hooks, an independent film producer. Hooks says Jackson drank a glass and a half of wine. “We didn’t even finish the whole bottle,” he says. Before departing, Jackson filled two glasses of wine and left them on the table in memory of his friend Tupac Shakur. He then drove off in his Range Rover.
Later that night, Jackson was arrested for drunk driving. (California’s legal drinking limit is 0.08, one of the nation’s lowest.) It was his third DUI. He pleaded no contest to the felony charge and was sent to prison. On October 3, 2008, Jackson died from injuries sustained after he fell at least 14 feet at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The state coroner’s report listed the official cause of death as “multiple blunt head and chest trauma” and ruled it a suicide. Jackson’s release from prison was only two months away. He left behind three children.
Jackson was a pioneer of the West Coast rap sound, 2Pac’s favorite producer and the primary architect of his magnum opus, the four-million-selling 1996 double album All Eyez on Me. But his death went little noticed in the public sphere—and remains, for some, a source of mystery. His wife has said that he killed himself and that he called her to tell her he was going to do it moments before he did. That isn’t sufficient for some of his oldest friends. “I’m still convinced that it wasn’t a suicide,” says the DJ and rapper LaMont “King Scratch” Burnett, a friend from high school. “It’s almost a Tupac and Biggie type thing. No one knows.”
Johnny “J” grew up on 103rd and Budlong in South Central, Los Angeles, the oldest of three children. His father, John Sr., was a mechanic by trade who worked for the naval shipyards and now works for the U.S. Defense Department. His mother, Lidia, was a bilingual school teacher. He was spoiled as a kid. His parents bought him a souped-up yellow Camaro and a drum machine and made a break-dancing floor out of tile for him, and his aunt and uncle helped him build a makeshift studio.
Johnny’s interest in hip-hop escalated while he was at Washington Preparatory High School. He played on the drum line and hit it off with the aspiring rapper Candell “Candyman” Manson; future artists such as Yo-Yo, WC and Sir Jinx, of Da Lench Mob, also attended Washington Prep around that time, in the mid-1980s. Soon after high school, Johnny got his big break, producing “Knockin’ Boots” for Candyman. The song went platinum and reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in summer 1990, pushing Candyman’s debut album, Ain’t No Shame in My Game, into gold status.
Such success proved tough to match. “After the success of Candyman, there were time periods where the music business was a roller-coaster ride,” Johnny said in a 2006 interview with Fatal Hussein on the hip-hop website pjbutta.com. “I kinda survived through it and stayed true to the streets and kept doing demos… That kept me alive, kept me going.” In February 1994, he released a solo album, I Gotta Be Me, that tanked. Things, however, would soon get better. A few months earlier, he’d met the man who would change his life.
In late 1993, Big Syke, a member of 2Pac’s group Thug Life introduced Johnny to ’Pac. They quickly gelled, recording “Pour Out a Little Liquor,” for the Above the Rim soundtrack, and “Death Around the Corner,” which would appear on Me Against the World. The partnership was derailed, though, when Tupac was sent to prison in February 1995. After his release that October, the pair reunited at Can-Am Studios in L.A. “We were doing seven or eight tracks a day,” says the producer Ronnie King, who played keyboards at those fabled sessions. “Tupac felt very secure with him in the studio.”
2Pac and Johnny J recorded more than a hundred songs together—11 of them, including “How Do U Want It” and “All About U,” ended up on All Eyez on Me; the rest composed the bulk of 2Pac’s posthumous work. Tupac’s stepbrother, Mopreme Shakur, says the two bonded partly because both were workaholics. “’Pac had a lot of energy, and so did Johnny,” he says. “?’Pac loved it. Whatever ’Pac requested, Johnny could do. If ’Pac said, ‘I want a slow, sad beat with strings, bass and guitar strings,’ Johnny could hook something up. It was a perfect fit.”
Not everything was so perfect, though. Just as Johnny was becoming one of the most successful producers in the music industry, his personal life was crumbling.
Around 1994, Johnny grew estranged from many of his close friends and family. Some blame his wife, Capucine Jackson, for creating the rift. “I think she didn’t want us around. Why? I didn’t know,” says King Scratch. “He had all his numbers changed. All of his real homeboys and family, he kicked them to the curb.”
XXL spoke with Capucine Jackson during the summer of 2009. After a 30-minute conversation during which she asked most of the questions, she declined an interview. “I can’t violate my contract,” she said. At the time, Jackson was rumored to be working on a book and documentary. Neither has materialized. “I’m still grieving,” she said. “I don’t want to relive it over and over.” Capucine recently launched a gospel singing career. She goes by Coppe Cantrell. She did not respond to recent queries.
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