Jor’del Downz is Sudbury’s hip-hop and RnB heavyweight; indexing samples and conjuring beats in his home studio, making them come to life. When he’s not carefully constructing tracks, trimming and cleaning them like a bonsai tree, he’s spitting bars or singing with RnB vocal mastery. Clearly trained and effortlessly skilled, his voice is what caught my attention initially. Tracks like “No Good for Me” are a prime example of his blues influence, while “Don’t Be Mad” slaps with his original hip-hop style. Underrated and precise are the best ways to describe Jor’del Downz. Born visually impared, he has managed to master the limited music production tools available to visually impared artists, never ceasing to release top shelf compositions. He has built a resume of features and collaborations, and has opened for some huge names in the global hip-hop community. Readers looking to collaborate should explore the beats offered on his website (see below), and take advantage of the opportunity to work with this visionary.
Between night shifts I managed to meet Jor’del online to conduct this interview. He is a man with an easy demeanor, talking in a deep voice and wording his responses with thought. He has a very broad appreciation for life, acknowledging inspiration from many aspects of life and taking in the opportunities and music Sudbury provided him. We connected a bit late, I was still wiping sleep from my eyes and laughed when Jor’del explained that he too had just woken up, saying, “Woke up late, had to down a coffee”.
Smol: What’s your favourite food?
JD: I like a lot of food so it’s pretty hard to say, but I think a good go-to for me would be chicken wings. I like a lot of stir-fries and stuff like that.
Smol: Do you like to cook or would you rather order in?
JD: I’m learning how to cook. For the longest time I would just put box food stuff in the oven, but now I’m learning to cook and it’s a pretty cool experience. Being blind, it’s all about timing, too. You've got to put this in the pot for a certain amount of time and stuff like that. I’ve got measuring cups and all this stuff and you have to be very precise.
Smol: Do you have a favourite childhood memory?
JD: I played a lot of video games when I was a kid. With only a limited amount of sight I could only play certain games, so I just kind of stuck to fighting games. You know, like, Mortal Kombat mostly, but then I would kind of expand a little bit into wrestling games even though they’re a bit harder to see, but I still managed to play those. Mortal Kombat, you know, usually my character is on the left, and I can see colours and stuff so I can tell which side I’m on regardless, so if a character jumps over me I know, OK I’m on the right side now.
Smol: Do you have a favourite song?
JD: I love music way too much to have a favourite song.
Smol: If you had to describe yourself with 3 words what would they be?
JD: That’s a pretty hard question to ask [laughs] I guess I try to be a kind of cool, laidback kind of person. You know? I’m one of those people who really likes to be precise with a lot of things. But yeah, it’s hard for me to use 3 words; I’ll just end up babbling on [laughs].
Smol: When did you start learning to play music? Did you take vocal lessons?
JD: I took vocal lessons in high school. Actually, I grew up in a family of singers, well, not necessarily a family of singers but there is a lot of music around my family. I’m the youngest of three, and my older sister, she sang, my grandmother used to sing in the church, I have an aunt that plays piano. You know? So it was always there. Up from elementary to high school, I learned the drums so I know my way around a drum kit. But eventually I wanted to try other things and that’s when I started taking vocal lessons. I was kind of always singing when I was a kid, even years before I took vocal lessons, so the singing was always there. I took a year of guitar lessons. I actually picked the guitar back up recently; it’s always good to expand horizons. So yeah, I’ve always had music around me.
When I was 15, I would just screw around with things. I had one of those old ghetto blaster things with a karaoke machine, you know, recording like that, and I would attempt to rap at that age [laughs]. Then, when I turned 21, I just started recording demos and I had a desktop by then. I guess the beat-making came in like 2011. I got a keyboard and learned how to use some recording software on my desktop computer. When you’re blind you have to use software on the computer where everything is read to you, so all you have to do is listen and then you can just, like, type away. I was lucky enough to find this software, it’s very compatible with the talking software I use that reads everything on the screen. I managed to use that, and I got a whole bunch of plug-ins, and I just started making beats like that.
A very good friend of mine, until this day, I’d always ask Quince, “How do I do this? How do I level this? How do I EQ that?”, because he was big into it as well and he was a lot more advanced at it than I was. It’s always good having someone by your side like who is willing to answer all your questions and things like that. I got a lot of help from him in the beginning, with making beats and stuff. I would just make a beat everyday whether it would sound good or not [laughs]. It was cool. I still make beats to this day, obviously, but every once and a while I’ll go back to my 2011 beats. I kept the good ones, just to see how much I’ve evolved from that. It’s really cool.
Some of my old beats even sold, you know? Years later but they still sold. Like, oh my God, I was 20 years old when I made that [laughs]. I sell my beats on my website, there’s a section where you can buy beats. Downzmusic.com! I like hearing other people over my beats. It’s really cool when somebody, like an artist, gets a beat from you that you really like. Just anticipating that, waiting to hear how that sounds because you’re thinking, “Oh man, this is a really cool combination! I can’t wait to hear what this artist does with this beat!”
Smol: You were only 15 when you started to rap? It’s been a long time since then.
JD: Yeah, everybody in my family wants to sing, but I wanted to do something different. So I would rap!
Smol: What inspires your music?
JD: I guess various things. I guess there are certain parts of life that really inspire me, you know? I love the process of creating something, creating music, I just like creating. Like in high school, I took woodworking classes and stuff like that, and I thought it was so cool. I wasn’t the best at it, but I managed to make a couple of things. I was like, “This is awesome!” I did ceramics, I got to make little cups and mugs. I just like making stuff. I’m just that kind of person; I find it really cool, creating things.
Musically, there are a lot of things that inspire me. I guess I like very weird stuff sometimes, you know? Sometimes I would sample things that other people wouldn’t sample. Sometimes when I’m making hip-hop beats there are things in there that come from rock, or come from metal. I listen to various genres of music so I always keep an open mind. I have a laptop now, and I have various sounds on it. It’s almost like I have unlimited options, you know?
Right now I like the combination of boom-bap and trap. There’s a producer by the name of Ill Mind and that’s probably the first time I heard the term ‘boom-trap’. I was like, “I can really do something with this!” Then I let it be for a little bit and one day I got a sample together and I started screwing around with some 808s and I made the beat like that. And before I was about to save the beat and be done with it, I just had this spur-of-the-moment idea that I would change the 808s to these grimy, New York boom-bap sounds. Then I was like, “OK, I can continue going with this.” I liked how these heavy drums went with this beat, it was so perfect. No more 808 hi-hats, no claps, nothing, I just went to my boom-bap drums and changed everything. Ever since, I’ve just been making that my focus.
I just recently made a boom-trap beat for an artist I work with by the name of DeadBoy Crypt. That was a pretty cool one, it’s a nice laid back kind of beat, but yeah, there’s no trap drums it just has that trap feel but with boom-bap.
Smol: Tell us about Sudbury. What’s the music scene like up there? How has growing up in Sudbury shaped you as an artist?
JD: The music scene, the hip-hop scene to be more specific – it’s very small. It’s very small up here. There are some hip-hop artists but it’s not like Toronto, where there are a whole bunch of them. There’s maybe one or two venues we perform at, and I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with venues because COVID destroyed the whole freaking planet basically [laughs]. But when you grow up in Sudbury you’re exposed to all genres of music really. For me, there was a lot of rock. In my household there was mostly RnB, and slowly hip-hop came in. My sister and her friends, they were all hip-hop heads, so I eventually got to hear hip-hop off of them. A couple of them would give me or buy me CDs so that’s when I started listening to, you know, Nas, Big Pun, DMX, and all of that stuff. Snoop Dogg was the very first hip-hop artist that I ever heard. But you hear everything. If I wasn’t listening to Eminem or 50 Cent, it was Our Lady Peace or ACDC, you know?
You hear different genres of music all throughout Sudbury really. It’s very diverse, I’m actually very grateful to be exposed to so many genres of music. I believe that has helped shape how I view music. One person might only listen to one genre of music, and that’s it, but I can’t be that person. I love music too much.If there’s one genre that I avoid it’s probably like crazy opera or classical [laughs] stuff like that.
Smol: Is everyone in the Sudbury hip-hop scene really tight?
JD: You end up seeing a lot of the same people [laughs] because it is a small scene. I guess it gets hard sometimes. I remember hearing grumblings like, “I don’t want to go to the show and see the same people perform all the time!” That’s what makes it really hard. There’s only so much you can really do, you just gotta keep going, you just keep doing what you’re
Smol: What venues support the hip-hop scene up there?
JD: I’m not sure if they’re open anymore, but Asylum was a really good place for a lot of the hardcore bands, punk bands, and hip-hop artists; that was a good place for them to perform. It was a basement venue, pretty spacious. The Townhouse, I performed there a lot. That’s a venue right downtown and usually that’s where there were bigger shows, and then bigger venues would be like The Grand, the nightclub. I performed there once, that was probably the biggest show that I’ve done in Sudbury. That was when I opened for Obie Trice in January 2016. Getting to be a long time ago [laughs].
Smol: Yeah, I’ve read that you have opened for some pretty big acts!
JD: Yeah, I guess I did, eh? [laughs]
Smol: You opened for Fetty Wap?
JD: Yeah, I was a guest artist at that show. I went up there with Mike Major and did a song with him that we had recorded a couple of months back and then I was kind of the hype man for the rest of his set, so that was pretty cool.
Smol: Live music has been pretty much dead because of COVID. Did you miss live shows?
JD: Yeah, once this COVID thing got started, there were these online shows and it would just switch from person to person performing in their own house and it was weird. Right away I missed performing in front of a crowd, you know? Performing in your house, when you’re used to the crowd feeding off your performance and it’s just dead silence, except for just you there, it’s weird. It’s very weird.
I remember watching – because I’m a bit of a wrestling fan – when they would do these empty arena shows and it was the same thing. I was waiting for the crowd to cheer or boo or stuff like that, and people would cut a promo and there would just be these couple seconds of just dead silence and I would be like, “Holy shit, this is so weird.”
Smol: What is it about performing live that you love?
JD: Just the energy. The energy when there is a crowd there, you know? The loud music, when you’re performing, you’re getting into it and that’s – I just really like performing. I don’t really know how to describe it. I just like performing when there’s a crowd there because they feed off it and then it gets me going and it makes me feel more comfortable.
Smol: What kind of feedback do you get after a show?
JD: People will come up to me and they’ll be like, “Hey, that was awesome!”, and, you know, “You did great!” When I’m coming off stage I can get bombarded with compliments, when I’m coming off stage or just sitting at the merch booth, that’s always really cool. I’ll ask them sometimes, “Which songs did you like?” You know? I always like to know stuff like that; I like to know what’s going through the fan’s head. It’s really good feedback. There haven’t been a lot of times that I got bad reviews, I mean, everyone gets a bad review every now and then but you just gotta keep going. But yeah, it’s great.
I tell Jor’del about discovering him via a video on YouTube of him performing at River & Sky, a camping/music festival in Ontario. We talk about that experience and he recalls performing outdoors and his appreciation for having a crowd and feeling the breeze as he was spitting rhymes. “I thought it was really cool, I really like doing shows outside!”
Smol: What are some of your favourite Canadian artists?
JD: Favourite Canadian artists? I like Billy Talent; I’m really big on Billy Talent. I got their new album actually, I just haven’t checked it out yet, but I heard some stuff from the radio. The Trews is another one. I remember listening to a lot of Kardinal Offishall when I was a little bit younger. Kardinal is really good. And I’m collaborating; I’m helping with producing on DeadBoy Crypt’s album. And I’m working with a couple of other artists, Iknonamus, Rootz K, but that’s pretty much it. I’m keeping a smaller list of names to work with so I can still make time for myself.
Smol: What’s your recording process like?
JD: It’s usually an idea, and then I’ll go off that idea, I’ll make a beat or a skeleton beat and come back to it later. Maybe write a couple of lyrics, it’s very random. Sometimes I’ll just write some lyrics down and then write the beat later. I’ll just kind of let it flow.
Smol: Your album, The Getaway, focuses on an RnB singing style, and other releases focus more on rap. What influenced your decision to experiment with your sound like that?
JD: I guess that’s just how I’ve always wanted to do things. When I first started off I just wanted to rap.Then, once I put out Win Or Die, I just did whatever I felt like. I didn’t have a theme to it, I just did a bit of the rapping and there were a couple of songs with singing. Then, I wanted to expand on the ideas I had for Win Or Die and I guess when 2019 came around I started working on The Getaway and I just wanted to do RnB because I remembered doing shows and I would sing a lot of hooks for people and I got a pretty good response. A lot of the responses I got at the time were actually better than what I got from when I was just spitting bars! And it kind of opened my eyes to how much potential I had as an RnB artist. So, once I put out The Getaway, a producer who I had befriended before I recorded The Getaway, he had wanted me to record another EP with him. I sent him a couple of tracks where I was rapping and he was like, “No, no, I don’t want to do that. I want you to sing!”[laughs]. And this is a guy who makes hip-hop beats and stuff like that. I just thought to myself, “Ok I can make this work again.”
And that’s how the project, The Scorpion, was born. That’s probably the project I was most proud of because it was just so unique and he has a really unique sound and I kind of went off of that. It was just great, it was great recording it. It was a collective that was produced by a man, his name is James Stang. He was like, “I want to get five artists together and do this series called The Five Deadly Venoms.” It was based off an old 70’s movie where they had the frog, the centipede, the snake, the lizard, and the scorpion. So these five artists, they all had to play this character for the project, which was really cool. So I did the scorpion, Iknonamus was the snake, Rootz K was the centipede… it’s kind of funny, this other artist, he calls himself Kaka, he was the lizard, and then another artist, D.nd, was the frog. We did one show and we had our costumes and stuff. We all went up there and picked two songs to perform and it actually went very well. On the same day, I believe, all five EPs came out. Five artists, five EPs and five songs on each EP. It was an awesome experience.
Smol: Damn, we need more of that in music these days!
JD: Yeah, The Scorpion is my favourite project that I’ve done. It worked out very well for him (James Stang). He is retired from music now but when I speak to him I’ll always bring it up [laughs] that was really cool.
Smol: Any plans for 2022?
JD: I’m always looking for shows, it’s very hard to get a show nowadays. There have been some songs that I’ve been holding onto forever that I would like to release, but I don’t want to give a release date yet. I have a couple of ideas circling around in my head and I just have to sit down and sort out those ideas, add a couple of finishing touches to the songs that I’ve been holding onto, and just go from there. I’m a perfectionist with things like that. I really like to make sure that everything is good, to the best of my abilities. I was able to upgrade my recording studio a little bit and I’m very excited to test out the new gear.
Smol: What’s one tip you’d give to someone just starting out with making beats and recording music?
JD: Just keep recording. Be consistent. The only way you can really get better is if you keep at what you’re doing. I mean, don’t be afraid to try new things, and that’s cool, but if it doesn’t work there are still things that you’ll be good at. I’m always the person trying to get advice and I find it hard to give advice [laughs].
Smol: What are the difficulties and opportunities of being a Canadian artist these days?
JD: I think the obvious one is that it’s not as easy to get out there as a Canadian artist as it seems to be for an American artist. You have to fight a little harder, try a little harder. It always seems to be easier over the border, but maybe it isn’t, I don’t know because I don’t live there, but it seems that way to me. Living in Sudbury makes it a bit harder. I remember hearing stories of people being shocked when they heard, like, “Woah, they have a scene up there? It’s not just a ghost town?” [laughs] Well, yeah, there are people up there and there’s a music scene.
Smol: If you could book one huge artist to play in Sudbury, who would it be?
JD: I guess TechNine was already in Sudbury, so I guess… Well, I kind of have a list. I think Anderson Paak, but I don’t think he’d be very popular here in Sudbury. Eminem is a big one, but, you know? I think Cypress Hill would be really cool. That’s a random one that just popped into my head.
Smol: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be?
JD: I’d like to do shows all over the world. I think it would be cool to do a big show in New York, I think it would be cool to take a trip over the pond and do a show in the UK. LA, even Australia, I can’t just pick one!
Smol: How can fans support you right now?
JD: Go to my bandcamp, that’s downzmusic.bandcamp.com. Purchase your copy of The Getaway, there’s also In Downz We Trust Vol. 1 and 2 on there, you can get The Scorpion on iTunes, etc, get your copies there. I have a purchase order on Downzmusic.com, that’s where you can support me. Hopefully I’ll have something new out this year!
You can listen to Jor’del Downz and support him on…