How does one go from “never been shit, never had shit, never knew shit” to being hailed as one of the brightest emerging talents in all of hip-hop? For J.I.D, real name Destin Route, it all started with a self-taught Master’s in Hip-Hop from Pontiac University.
After his promising football career was cut short due to serious injury, 22-year-old Destin Route was stripped of a college degree he all but formally earned and faced the grim realities of homelessness. Fueled by deep burning ambition, he chose a new direction for his life from the front seat of a run down Pontiac that also served as his library and home. Welcome to J.I.D’s remarkable story, presented in greater depth than ever before.
Note: if you’d like to learn more about his incredible journey, we catalogued and analyzed every single interview J.I.D has EVER given for easy reference. We also used our research to create a comprehensive playlist of J.I.D’s musical influences and inspirations. Check them out!
“It never really mattered to me trying to get somewhere fast, because if you get somewhere fast you probably won’t stay there too long.” – J.I.D (2015)
In 2012, everything seemed to be falling apart for 22-year-old Destin Route. Hours away from graduating with a degree from Hampton University in Virginia, his parents received a phone call that he was being kicked out of school. In 2011, just a year earlier, Route had lost a full-ride athletic scholarship to an old injury, and now even his degree was being taken from him. In the face of these trials, he wasted no time searching for a new direction. Inspired by two friends from Hampton, he took aim at a career in music.
Route set the decision in ink with a ‘carpe diem’ neck tat the same day. It was far from his first tattoo, which he got at just 13-years-old, but it was the last straw for his father who immediately put his son out on the street. Stripped of scholarship, degree, and home, Route was left with only his Pontiac G6. The old car became his bed, library, and office as he made plans to rearrange the fate he appeared to be stuck with.
From a young age, Route stood out among his six older siblings as ‘Jiddery’ to his grandmother. One neck tat later, the nickname evolved into J.I.D; fitting for the high energy, rapid fire delivery he would come to develop. Over the course of the next seven years, J.I.D went from living and studying in his Pontiac to being recognized by his label head J. Cole as “the closest thing to me.” It was well-deserved recognition a long time coming.
Photo credit: Complex Magazine (2018)
First, It Was Football
“They saying, “What you wanna be JID? What you wanna be kid? / A doctor, a lawyer, exploring the coral reef shit? / A football player, a track sprinter, I know you run fast / Oh you gon’ be a rapper with your dumbass” – J.I.D, ‘Despacito Too’ (2018)
Growing up in Zone 6, the same East Atlanta neighborhood as legendary trap rapper Gucci Mane, meant that J.I.D was no stranger to the world that the former famously represents on wax. On “Slick Talk,” J.I.D describes an environment from his youth that exposed kids to the risk of shootings and stabbings at teen gatherings; leaving him with a tendency to dislike parties even now that he’s older. On “151 Rum” that world manifests on a deeply personal level when he describes the trauma of seeing his friend take a stray bullet to the head right in front of his eyes.
“Standing next to Lil Tay when that bullet hit him / Shit, I miss him, I wish that that bullet missed him but it didn’t / And since I been living with it like a sickness” – J.I.D, ‘151 Rum’ (2018)
His hyper-sensitivity to his surroundings meant he learned quickly from the successes and mistakes of others, especially his six older siblings. Seeing one brother playing football in the NFL while he saw another arrested and jailed, as he describes on “General,” showed him first hand that there were better ways to move.
“When I grew up, drug dealers and people who was doing illegal stuff to get money, I never saw it as a glorified thing. It was always means to a better way to feed your family. I just never fucked with the over-glorification, but with more of the struggle.” – J.I.D (2018)
Before he had ever considered a career in music, he was using his natural athletic talent to stay out of trouble by following his brother’s example pursuing an NFL career. A dislocated hip injury in his senior year at Stephenson High School left a doctor telling him that he’d never play football again, and the University of Georgia pulled a full scholarship opportunity off the table. With the same attitude that would get him kicked out by his father years later, his response was to get a tattoo of a football with the words “laugh out loud” and take his football career to Hampton instead. There he majored in entrepreneurship and, never one to knock ambition, was considering studying as a lawyer.
As a popular collegiate athlete, J.I.D lived like a rockstar during his time at Hampton. His first pseudo-mixtape, James Hall Mixtape, was recorded in an on-campus dorm studio in 2011. The tape caught the attention of an ambitious pair of Hampton students who were also from Atlanta: Jonny Venus and Doctur Dot, better known by the name of their rap duo, EARTHGANG. J.I.D first met the duo when he walked in on them at the studio recording over one of his own songs from the mixtape. A promotional Twitter account for the James Hall Mixtape even tweeted a shout-out to EARTHGANG, recognizing the work that the pair were already putting in around the university as early as 2010.
— James Hall Mixtape (@JH_MixTapeV2) March 11, 2010
The football team’s cipher-like mixtape may have been the silver lining of an athletic career cut short. J.I.D’s old hip injury betrayed him again just six games into his sophomore season, putting him out of football for good. Without the motivation of a promising football career that had kept him relatively out of trouble in Atlanta, he began losing his steely focus, messing around and landing himself in trouble. The result was the loss of his school and home.
J.I.D has been extremely reluctant to discuss the details of his expulsion in interviews, not wanting to mention the university by name, and even referring to the statute of limitations. However, honesty often speaks through art.
“Mommy went dumb when she got that call, I had got caught / Kicked out of college for tongues, n***as be talking / I wasn’t even on camera, just hit the lick with some amateurs / Glad we did that, now I’m flying to Los Angeles” – J.I.D, ‘General’ (2017)
Without a sport to drive him, a degree to reach for, or even a bed to sleep in, J.I.D and his faithful Pontiac needed a new destination. He had never doubted that he was going to do something great, but it seemed the universe couldn’t make up its mind which path he would follow. It was time to take the Pontiac off-road.
Photo from The Never Story mini-doc (2017)
J.I.D Enrolls in Pontiac University
“I was kicked out of school, I was living in my car. I was super afraid of the mediocrity, but I wanted to do something creative. I remember my pops said ‘I knew you were gonna fuck up.’ Getting through that mindset of hearing that, I gotta fight through that every day when I’m writing a verse. I was fueled by the doubt.” – J.I.D (2018)
J.I.D spent two weeks sleeping in the Pontiac plotting his next moves. He knew that to truly transform into something respective of his trauma he needed to study with an intensity that matched the last decade he had spent pursuing a professional athletic career. He needed to take that same mentality and work ethic and push it to limits like he never had before.
While living life out of the five-seater, he meticulously went over the diverse palette of music that he absorbed as the youngest of seven children; an age difference that spanned generational boundaries. His mother shared with him her love of older fireside R&B like Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly and the Family Stone and his brothers got him into the battle rapping legends of Smack DVD’s. J.I.D still takes a lot of his slang and particulars from the way that battle rappers talk.
Starting with YouTube videos and moving to the family CD’s, he studied local Atlanta legends like OutKast and Goodie Mob, and classic hip-hop stars like Tupac and Soulja Slim. But he always gravitated more towards the styles and sounds of East coast emcees like Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z, and the Wu-Tang Clan. He focused vividly on the writing and lyricism, and since his car’s CD player was the most reliable way for him to access music, he put extra emphasis on the cohesiveness of full projects.
“I always seen like the people who have these hits or have these songs and then get forgotten about and nobody cares about em… I never wanted to be that so I always tried to base my whole image on being an album artist, a touring artist, but not just a person known for singles.” – J.I.D (2018)
Beyond the sounds of classic hip-hop, above all else, he studied great writing. But J.I.D’s most influential songwriters aren’t any of the rap legends typically cited by hip-hop artists. The group he highly-credits with getting him through homelessness is the Swedish electro-alt rock band, Little Dragon. Lead singer Yukimi Nagano tops the list of artists he wants to write and create with, along with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. Singing along to Arctic Monkeys and Frank Ocean lead to the discovery of a unique R&B voice that’s equal parts arena rock and bump-and-grind. It took a little bit of everything to build J.I.D; general education requirements, upper-level studies, and extensive mastery of his specialization.
Education has always been something that J.I.D valued, and he brought that approach into his study. The work he turned around and put into a new career with little to no support, the intensity and seriousness that he puts into studying and the results of those efforts should have earned him another degree and beyond to replace the one he lost. The combination of unrivaled attention to detail, extreme sensitivity to his surroundings, and the grind mentality of a professional athlete was the perfect recipe to build a legendary artist, but one ingredient was missing. He couldn’t do it alone.
Photo credit: Spillage Village promotional shot (2016)
J.I.D Finds a Home in Spillage Village
“Knowing what I know, I got to pray, I got to hope, I got to say I’m gonna make it out, yeah / Going with the flow, I got a plant inside my hands, I’m on my knees, I got to pray to God, yeah / And I don’t see no other way, I gotta make it out, yeah / Can’t live like this another day, I gotta make it out” – J.I.D, ‘Willow Tree’ (2016)
While J.I.D was grinding out of his Pontiac, EARTHGANG, the Atlanta rap duo J.I.D had previously met at Hampton, was putting in work and had three mixtapes already under their belt: The Better Party (2010), Mad Men (2011), and Good News (2011). Back in Atlanta they also had a house and a makeshift recording studio, two things that J.I.D desperately needed. A few weeks of relative isolation and study put J.I.D’s mental in the right place to get to work, and he knew his friends from Hampton would take him with open arms.
Armed with a new focus and a refreshed head, J.I.D already knew Dot and Venus could more than match his fire. The three emcees have consistently spoken about the respect and competitive drive within their circle that pushes them past complacency to continuously excel. Even much later in the game, J.I.D still holds EARTHGANG far above many of the other creative minds he’s worked with.
Living with Dot and Venus, J.I.D learned how to record and engineer himself from established presets. His daily grind would be to wake up, roll up, and record for hours in the home studio donated to the group by Los Angeles Laker Devin Ebanks, who shared a manager with EARTHGANG.
The crew worked nightly odd jobs at call centers and delivering pizza to keep the lights on, always prioritizing their recording time and equipment above all else. J.I.D’s hypersensitivity to the environment turned every experience, feeling, conversation, and moment into a writing opportunity. He filled notebooks with potential tracks, verses, and pieces of creative genius from his surroundings. But when it came to recording he preferred to be alone; maybe in some way getting back into the headspace of his brush with homelessness.
“A whole bunch of weird shit was going on in my life, before the past three-four years. I still got the same feelings, I still go through the same things, but it’s transitioning to a better spot. I’m 100% in a better place, but mentally I keep the hunger about myself. I keep that chip on my shoulder so it can be expressed through my music.” – J.I.D (2017)
Within the same year of being kicked out of school, J.I.D would release his first official mixtape, Route of All Evil. The 13-track tape contained only one feature from EARTHGANG and two features from unknown local artists. Right off the bat, J.I.D wouldn’t be prone to clout chasing shortcuts. He put in the time and the work and he knew he had a product to show for it.
The next year he followed up with his second mixtape and an increasingly refined project, Para Tu, that began to see the makings of something special cooking up in East Atlanta. Along with EARTHGANG’s first full-length album, Shallow Graves For Toys, released the same year, both projects featured two more Hampton University connections, JordxnBryant and Hollywood JB, as well as the stunning voice of Atlanta-native Mereba. These collaborations marked the concrete musical origins of Spillage Village and the beginning of J.I.D dropping pizza deliveries and call centers for stages and studios.
In 2014 the group of artists listed above officially formed Spillage Village and dropped the first of three annual projects, Bears Like This. The second project in the series, Bears Like This Too, featured a late addition to the roster, 6LACK. The two hit it off instantly, hopping on a track together the same day they met, completing a vital piece of that SpillVille soul. The albums would be recognized for a sound distinct from the expected trap music coming out of Atlanta; shaped by the studies and minds of J.I.D and EARTHGANG, Spillage Village was digging in the roots of new growth in the South.
J.I.D and the rest of the collective quickly built a local following with electrifying live show performances, spitting bars over their raw instrumentals rather than rapping segments and ad-libs over the top of their completed tracks. In those early years, he was forced to rap through the pain of his wisdom tooth, often biting himself in the mouth and spitting up blood during shows because he couldn’t afford to have it removed. Even after making enough for the procedure he still keeps his wisdom teeth with him on tour out of superstition of ever losing the magic of the shows that got him so far.
“The performing thing, that’s how we got to where we at. That’s my favorite part of being an artist; even before we had phones and shit like that people were performing in front of people, dating back prolly like to Africa and whatever the fuck, way before then. That’s the most expressive connection I feel.” – J.I.D (2017)
The live performances and trend-skewing music caught enough attention to land EARTHGANG a spot opening for TDE’s Ab-Soul on tour in 2014. Always a pair to spread the love, they brought J.I.D along to perform their collaborative song, “Exactly.”
On tour he made two very important connections. The first came when J. Cole attended a show and J.I.D’s piece of the performance first caught his attention. The second was a regular smoke sesh partnership with Cole’s childhood friend and producer, Cedric Brown. The tour and connections were the beginning of his climb out of obscurity and the end of his struggle with destiny.
Photo Credit: Forbes (2019)
Never Had Shit
“Life, you feel me, is not really flashy, it’s not about being the most richest whatever, it’s about coming from something and trying to obtain. It’s all about progression type shit.” – J.I.D (2017)
His next project finally began to gather J.I.D some well deserved press attention alongside the quiet ear of J. Cole. The February 2015 mixtape DiCaprio was named after one of J.I.D’s favorite actors and kindred spirit, Leonardo DiCaprio. At the age of seven or eight he was first introduced to Leo on the silver screen through the Lasse Hallström classic, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). Young J.I.D was blown away by the acting talent and compelling story of the film and a creative spark was ignited within.
Long before putting his energy into music, J.I.D actually intended to put his creative energy into writing screenplays for films: a dream he still plans to put into motion in 2020 with a sports-comedy screenplay written with EARTHGANG that he calls “Any Given Sunday meets Step Brothers.” He’s already begun making moves in the film industry by scoring the Black Lives Matter movement-inspired film The Hate You Give with original music.
Leo in particular resonated with J.I.D because he felt like throughout their lives both the actor and himself weren’t being properly recognized for their incredible work. He saw the dedication that Leornado gave to his craft and it inspired him to match every aspect of his own life with the same dedication. For over a decade, that dedication went unrecognized; no Oscar for Leo and no record deal for J.I.D. That is until J.I.D’s mentality finally collided with just the right person who could recognize its value and help him use it to elevate his natural talent to super stardom.
“The first thing is how gifted he was with putting his words together. The thing that solidified it was when I saw his worth ethic and his hunger. A lot of people want it, but they not willing to put in the work. He’s not one of those people. His potential is GOAT status.” – J. Cole (2018)
While on the road for the 2014 Forest Hills Drive Tour, Cole unexpectedly pulled up to the Spillage Village house in East Atlanta to kick back and listen to music. The casual nature of the meeting spurred an organically growing friendship. After the interaction, J.I.D and Cole continued to exchange music over emails and in 2016 Cole and Dreamville rapper Bas even provided vocals for “Can’t Call It” on the third Spillage Village installation, Bears Like This Too Much Too.
The natural friendship and mutual respect between Cole and J.I.D is likely why when the label offers started arriving J.I.D chose Cole and Dreamville over an offer from Coach K and Quality Control Music, the label that’s home to the Migos and Lil Yachty. On February 20, 2017 it was formally announced that J.I.D was the latest artist signed to Dreamville.
Accepting the offer came after an informal interview where J.I.D and Earthgang paid a visit to Cole’s North Carolina home. The first thing the Spillage Village founders had to do upon arrival was to write a song on the spot. That track eventually became “D/vision,” on J.I.D’s Dreamville debut, The Never Story; a conceptual album that detailed his journey and his struggle with being broke all his life and never getting the chance he deserved to follow through on the goals he had worked to achieve.
“They say your first project is like everything you’ve been working on your whole life before. N***a was just broke as fuck bruh. N***as was tryna god damn feed yourself. N***as was tryna god damn, just make something happen… That shit just came from a real ass place bro. Everybody ain’t rich and shit like that.” – J.I.D (2018)
Upon signing to Dreamville, J.I.D was ready to go. In fact, his Dreamville debut was already an almost completely finished project, albeit self-recorded on the wrong side of the mic.
Photo Credit: Nate C. Concert (2019)
Always Been a Dreamer
“Never had a real dollar to my name, bruh, shit been lame, bruh / I ain’t even in this shit for the fame, bruh, it’s the pain, bruh / Most of the n***as I came up with, haven’t came up / And doin’ the same stuff, but I haven’t came up, this really ain’t none / n***as thinking that they fucking with JID, y’all got the game fucked up” – J.I.D, ‘Never’ (2017)
An official label contract did nothing to shake J.I.D’s hunger. His daily recording process ensured that he already had ample ammunition to fire away a classic debut album. In the style of Route of All Evil, for The Never Story he similarly turned down the opportunity for clout chasing features and big money production, sticking with tracks he had already recorded himself in the Spillage Village studio and artists who had pursued this moment alongside him. If he was going to tell his story on wax he was going to tell it with the people who were there.
The album’s intro, “Doo Wop,” opens on the same hallowed vocals found in the Para Tu opener, “Gustav’s Revenge Pt 1:” “Everyone’s a star, everyday’s the move / Everywhere you are, is for you.” For J.I.D nothing has changed with a label contract. He’s always had the mentality and the moves of a star and he’s always capitalized on every moment. Finally the moment had arrived that matched the size of the artist’s own ferocity and nothing out of his control could take it from him this time.
Right off the bat he bore his background and troubles on “General,” “Never,” and “D/vision” blasting away with the strength of his technical abilities and lyricism, painting a picture both relatable and outstanding in his circumstances. Cuts like “EdEddnEddy” and “Underwear” demonstrate an emphasis on songwriting with humor that goes beyond clever punchline bars into complex wordplay that sets up jokes as themes and motifs across the whole track.
“Hereditary” was the first real glance into R&B.I.D. The track broke the ground for him to dive further into a singing voice we can thank Arctic Monkeys and Frank Ocean for bringing out of the rapper. Originally written as a song for SZA, J.I.D lays the framework for a particularly sensitive side that explores toxic relationships from the inside out.
The Never Story closes on “LAUDER,” a track named after a friend that he lost too soon, a melancholy reminder of the environment J.I.D’s story is birthed in. Another star of the debut is his Pontiac, immortalized forever far beyond its natural lifespan by J.I.D’s use of the car and one-time home as a symbol of everything that he’s come from; highlighting his lowest points as a stark contrast for where he’s headed.
The Never Story and Dreamville cosign earned him enough attention to be named to the XXL Magazine Freshman Class of 2018 where he let loose with what he does best, bodying the competition on his freestyle and cypher. Even Ski Mask Tha Slump God admitted they had to take a break so he could have an opportunity to come back with some better material after hearing J.I.D spit.
“Ridin in this coup terrified, twelve tryna petrify a n***a with petty crimes / How you feel about me don’t matter like black lives / Nothing even matters dog, I heard that when I was five / That’s around the same time my big brother showed me his nine and let me hold it / Literally what I call a nine to five” – J.I.D, XXL Freshman Freestyle (2018)
The recognition he was finally receiving for his work came at the perfect time for J.I.D to follow up with the sequel to his DiCaprio mixtape. While the first mixtape likened his situation to the slights of Leonardo’s career, he now felt that his rising position was his Oscar moment, and like Leonardo’s climate change speech, J.I.D would use his recognition to make a statement. DiCaprio 2 was all about honoring the career as a performing artist that had gotten him so far. It harnessed the kind of energy that brings a crowd to nearly crashing through the floor of a venue.
DiCaprio 2 was the result of energy transmuted into the rapper from touring with EARTHGANG for the Never Had Sh!t Tour. Cuts like “Slick Talk” and “151 Rum” maintained the seriousness of growing up in an environment where kids could be shot or stabbed just walking home from school or hanging out on weekends, and the R&B cuts “Workin Out,” “Tiiied,” and “Skrawberries” kept with the trend of exploring toxic relationships while taking his vocals to the next level. “Off da Zoinkys” and “Just da Other Day” infused his long-time producer Christo’s beats with ideas about what works live and how crowds respond to certain things at a show.
His first two albums showcased an arsenal of tools assembled by strife and struggle and brought to life by the sheer uncontrollable force of a man who absolutely refuses to break. You can lead a GOAT to water, but you can’t make it drink. J.I.D’s staying power is owed to seeing how far one can fall and climb back out. He’s not a rapper making music, he’s an artist studying a craft, sturdy enough to dig his feet into the earth and make a step at a time, but also malleable enough to understand evolution and growth through experience and study are tools just as important to the climb.
Photo Credit: The Source (2017)
J.I.D’s Route to the Top
“I feel like everything I drop is going to be just another piece of my story. My shit, I can see it. When I listen to music, I always see it. I always get a picture of the music. So this is just like another splat of my story and my painting… I’m just putting it together.” – J.I.D (2018)
In early January, J. Cole famously assembled the Avengers of the hip-hop industry for a massive 10 day recording session at Tree Sound Studios in J.I.D’s hometown of Atlanta. The involvement of around 70 artists and producers was the most ambitious collaborative effort in hip-hop history and the result, Revenge of the Dreamers III, quickly climbed to the top of the charts.
Second only to Cole in his contribution, J.I.D deserves significant recognition for his verses on seven of the seventeen total tracks. The album also introduced the world to Zoink Gang, a new supergroup made up of J.I.D, EARTHGANG, Buddy, Smino, and Guapdad 4000. For an artist who prefers to record alone to come out of such a massive collaboration with so much work sticking to the board and plans to form an entirely new group is a nod to his ability to not only adjust as needed under pressure, but thrive in it.
J.I.D’s most repeated interview cut is his tendency for absorbing his environment and sensitivity to his surroundings. We saw on “Somebody” how just standing in a studio hall listening to Dame Dash give a motivational speech behind a closed door could become a whole song. With the lessons and experiences he’s absorbed from the Dreamers recording sessions we could hear similar bits of wisdom for several albums into the future, possibly including a conversation he once sat in on between Cole and Kendrick Lamar.
“I was standing in the hall, we was listening to Dame / He was schooling some n***as, putting them up on some game / I’m ear hustling, hoping my n***as doing the same / Shit, that he saying, my brain strain, combust into flames / He dropped gems ’bout life and getting up in the game / Or getting fucked in the game and how it’s really kinda tough to complain” – J.I.D, ‘Somebody’ (2017)
This is the type of ammo and mental developed working on a number one album with 70 of the biggest names in the industry that he is now taking going into his next major project, a collaborative album with renowned and well-respected old-head producer, NO I.D. With his last two albums being primarily written and recorded before his Dreamville journey, we have yet to see his further study and experience fully take effect. A struggle with writer’s block since the passing of his grandmother on August 8 received the understanding and compassion of thousands of fans, but if J.I.D has embodied anything, it’s a fiery ability to fight those low moments.
J.I.D is coming for the top and nothing is out of reach. There’s no ceiling too high for him to shatter when he moves with the precision and practice that he’s shown so far. Life may have pushed back against the degree and athletic career that he earned, but this time around he built his own expectations, set failure on his own terms instead of on someone else’s, and pulled himself up. Pay attention closely because this star wasn’t born in the sky, it was carefully molded, prepared, and refined with a singular goal. A goal that will be achieved without needing any affirmation but his own.
Photo Credit: HotNewHipHop (2019)
Connect with the Journalist and Fan
Follow Brandon Hill on Twitter, @HooplaHill for music news and more. Let me know what you thought of the feature and what you think about J.I.D. Did I miss anything that you feel is a vital piece of the story? Share some music you think I might like or stay tuned for more content.