COVER STORY

The BARD & the Breakbeat

Mal Jones remains Duval’s main MC, hip hop ambassador, educator and freestyle history-maker

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The house numbers suddenly vanish. At least it appears that way. The trail has gone cold. Springfield is a neighborhood with a mild, albeit endearing, personality disorder. One restored home with fresh paint and Tibetan prayer flags waving above houseplants on the porch sits adjacent to the vacant, splintering wooden skeleton of a historic home. Mal Jones lives either between or behind (or above?) two. On this sluggish Saturday afternoon, Google Maps promised a drive time of 18 minutes from Lakewood. But now, thanks to Jones’ ghost house address, Google stops cold.

I text him. “Where the hell is your place?”

“LOL. One sec,” he fires back. “Come to black iron gate.”

On the chest-high gate, the elusive address is clearly displayed in adhesive metallic numbers. A decal on the wrought-iron metal reads “Beware of Dog.”

Jones walks up, smiling, sporting his signature flat cap, a light-blue shirt emblazoned with the words “Brooklyn,” brown baggies and sneakers. After we shake hands, he laughs and leads me to his home of two months, a modest, two-story place hidden in the backyard of a house I’d driven past, and doubled back around to scope out, twice.

“You couldn’t find it, could you?” He chuckles. “It seems like no one can. I must have found the right place.”

Then he leads the way inside.
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The Florida Folk Festival doesn’t exactly scream “hip hop.” Since 1953, the festival has been held each year during Memorial Day Weekend at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs. There’s a nice blur between performer and audience member; a woman you thought was simply a spectator will suddenly strap on a 12-string acoustic and step onstage. The festival prides itself on its diversity of music, culture and heritage indigenous to the Sunshine State. In the parking areas, you’ll see more “Steal Your Face” stickers than “Trump/Pence,” as the prominent vibe remains unrepentant old hippies and hardcore conservationists who’ve spent decades protecting Florida’s delicate ecosystem. Many performances are peppered with cautionary updates and accomplishments regarding the state’s wetlands. The Suwannee River flows a few hundred yards from the performance area. Festival-goers slosh past “No Swimming” signs, submerging themselves in the tannin-rich water for a reprieve from the afternoon heat. More than 300 performances are spread out over roughly a dozen stages and performance areas, with each act slotted a 30-minute set. In a matter of hours, you can catch Sopchoppy-based singer-songwriter Frank Lindamood intoning murder ballads with incomparable intensity, enjoy a set by St. Augustine bluesman Willie Brown, and see a demonstration of traditional Seminole doll-making while noshing on some of the tribe’s fry bread.

For all the strains of clawhammer banjo, Irish fiddles, even diddley bows encompassing myriad Floridian music and history, there is one homegrown style of music and tradition that has been scarce amid the rustic settings—hip hop. Until now.

The unmistakable sounds of a languid groove rumble outward from the Folklife Area stage. Jones and a preteen boy are onstage, smiling and trading freestyle rhymes. The boy is Jones’ 12-year-old apprentice, Amari Murrell, who holds the mic intently and stares straight ahead, concentrating on generating rhymes. The boy’s skills are undeniable; Jones grins with pride. Roughly 40 people watch from metal folding chairs, a good turnout for a performance. A few video cameras on tripods aim at the stage; some folks raise smartphones high. Both Murrell and Jones have family in the audience, including Jones’ son, Jabari. This is Jones’ third year at the festival; he’ll perform three times over the weekend.

Jones fires up a loop of a five-note, hypnotic bass pattern and leads a call-and-response.

“I said, oh yeah! I said all right! Lemme hear y’all make some noise!” The crowd cheers. “We are making history right here!”

Jones is making history.

In 2013, he became the first hip hop artist in the state to be labeled a “Folk Artist” by The Florida Folklife Program. Now Jones runs a state-funded apprenticeship program to teach freestyle rapping. Murrell is his second apprentice. After Jones and Murrell answer a few questions, Jabari steps on stage. The three riff through another successful performance far from hip hop’s urban origins, planting new musical seeds near the banks of the Swanee.

At his dad’s urging, Jabari breaks into some impressive beatboxing while Murrell freestyles:

“Of course I got the crowd / surrounding me … well, my parents raised me and are proud of me / they’re the ones that put their crown on me / and now I never look down these memories / ’cause when my parents raised me they said unleash the keys / ’cause on the streets / I unleash the heat.”

Minutes after the crew clears their set, two cowboy-hat-wearing characters appear onstage. Inside in one plastic bin are six pillowcases, each containing a different, indigenous, nonvenomous Florida snake. The crowd thins and drifts away. In just 30 minutes, Mal Jones has again proved that he is one tough act to follow.
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Jones kicks off his shoes and toes them toward the welcome mat inside the front door. “You can leave your flip-flops on; I don’t mind.” Air-conditioning blasts full force on the first floor, but the upstairs studio is a reminder that heat rises. A small plastic fan whirs quietly on the windowsill, its breeze swirling threads of smoke from an incense stick inside the screen. Jones’ studio is small, monastic even, with just enough space for his workstation, where he records music and edits videos, and two seats. Drawings of superheroes and framed stories about him (including two previous Folio Weekly stories) hang on the walls.

“Since ’92, when I first moved to Jacksonville, I’ve lived on the Westside,” he says of his recent move to Springfield, adding with a laugh, “so I guess you could say I’ve been waiting to move here for 25 years.”

It’s three weeks after the festival. He wasn’t bragging during the raucous performance: He’s making—and made—history. Hip hop had never been considered a folk art in Florida. Then a few years ago, whether through Jones’ reputation as a hip hop artist, producer, savvy self-promoter, educator and documentarian, or a combination thereof, Blaine Wade of the Florida Folklife Program became aware of Jones. “Blaine had contacted Adonnica Toler from the Ritz Theatre and she told him about me and what I’ve been doing around town.”

Intrigued by Jones’ art and ethic, Wade researched and documented what he was doing. “He saw that I’m with a mic, in a crowd, making up the music as I go along … the community is involved,” says Jones. Upon learning that the rapper has a family history with the form, Wade “officially” documented Jones as a “Folk Artist.” Jones is honored by this distinction; he is now both the first hip hop artist to ever perform in the festival’s 60-plus years and the first to be archived in the Florida Folklife Program. “Look, the reality is that hip hop has always been a folk art,” says Jones. “But now that the state of Florida has recognized me as the first? Making history.”

The festival was an interesting challenge for Jones. “It’s really white,” he says with a laugh. “But any time I’m breaking new ground, I not only expect but want challenges. That’s why it’s called ‘new ground’ because that is what I’m stepping into. That’s really when I’m most comfortable.” In a few years, Jones has disproved misconceptions about freestyle rap and won over the crowds. Each year he draws a larger audience. Not only is he breaking new ground, he’s closing a gap in the lineup.

“The reality is, whenever I do perform there, all of the kids run over to my show and they’ll say, ‘Oh! This is fun after all!’ And when I see that, I definitely know that I’m supposed to be there.”

Jones is also mentoring kids, passing on his skills and experiences as a hip hop artist. Another benefit of his state-recognized accomplishments is the title of Florida Folk Art Master in the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program. In 2013, he met apprentice Amari Murrell at One Spark, when then-nine-year-old Murrell rapped onstage. “He got on that mic and it was like, boom!” says Jones. As a mentor, Jones teaches Murrell about writing and creating spontaneous rhymes, guided by positivity, community and tradition. “I established this [apprenticeship] in 2013 and now this will keep hip hop as a Florida folk tradition, forever.
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Mal rhymes with “All”—not “Al.” Jamal Abdullah Jones was born in the Bronx in 1976 to Jamal and Barbara Jones. Along with his twin sister, Jamila, Jones’ family included another set of twin girls and four older brothers. While the Bronx is universally recognized as the birthplace of hip hop, Jones’ earliest music influences came from his poet-trumpeter father’s life as a jazz artist. Jamal Jones Sr. gigged regularly with jazz heavyweights in NYC, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Barry Harris. “I used to go on the weekends to Barry’s house with my dad and watch them jam out,” says Jones. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Jones’ paternal grandmother housed many musicians who would have jam sessions in her basement. Family stories were filled with jazz figures. “We were always around these legendary people but they were like family, too,” says Jones. “It was awesome to see this stuff as a kid.”

Mal was just six years old when his father died from a brain tumor at the age of 35. The reverence that Jones feels for his father is clear.

“It was my interest in what my father left behind that inspired me to keep going with it.” In 1975, Jamal Jones Sr. published Black Views, a collection of poetry inspired by the Civil Rights struggle and the African-American community. “When I was a little kid, he’d have me come up onstage when he was performing and do these little excerpts from Shakespeare,” says Jones, chuckling. “So I’d go up and say, ‘To be, or not to be: That is the question.’ And then the band would start up the next tune.”

On some level, Jones’ entire creative path has helped him continue, even develop, his relationship with his late father. When his grandmother, Loretta, passed away in 2016, he inherited a collection of his dad’s essays. “By that time in my life, I was well into being an artist,” says Jones. “But when I read my father’s essays, about the culture of his time, about jazz and the appropriation of jazz and how the radio had wiped it off the airwaves with rock and roll … he gave great importance to those things, in the same way that I take things very seriously in my role today as a musician.”

Both father and son mixed politics and the arts in their own ways and both were protective of the aesthetic: the father with jazz, the son with hip hop.

“I always felt like he was going through the same experiences and ideas as an artist, like I am, when he was going through life,” says Jones. People who knew his father have often remarked on the similarity of their characters. “And to see it and read it in his papers and essays … my intuition was right on the money.”
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Lyricist Live is Mal Jones’ inspiration, passion and calling—a campaign for community-based verse and beats. At the First Wednesday Art Walk on May 4, 2011, Jones kicked off the inaugural Lyricist Live at the corner of Adams and Ocean streets. The simple premise is, in Jones’ words, “proven to work.”

Lyricist Live is an old-school, freestyle battle or “cypher,” a group set pivoting on unity where anyone can grab a mic, rap and pass the mic; a fluid circle of MCs, rapping together.

“It’s based on the Golden Era of hip hop and it’s at Art Walk, right?” asks Jones. “So the idea has always been that my cypher is a living piece of artwork that shows you what birthed all of these great rappers and writers that came before.”

While it’s straight-up, hip hop word-duel—where verbally taunting opponents is part and parcel—Jones is strict about no foul language, no bad vibes and sure as hell no violence. “I’m on year six with this and we’ve never had any trouble,” he says. “Hip hop isn’t violent just because some people who like hip hop might be violent.” Every month since, the crowd has grown; now you’ll find dozens waiting their turn, or just watching and dancing. The only mainstays are Jones and DJ Shotgun, the latter spinning the sonics and beats fueling the rhymes. "A lot of DJs have quit on me over the years and he has stuck with me at least for the last two," says Jones, of DJ Shotgun. "I've got to give the man the respect where it's due!" Jones has taken to moving the event around Downtown. He prefers to hold it earlier in the evening and it’s always open to the public.

“This is the thing: Hip hop is more about community than the rapper. That’s how and why it’s survived and why it will always survive,” he says. “That’s what’s real.”

Jones’ cypher exemplifies Duval County’s hip hop underground, a scene that is vibrant, fresh and progressive. While smaller venues like Rain Dogs and Nighthawks bring in similarly minded and forward-thinking touring artists, there’s a sense of cohesion and unity among local artists. The collective includes Jones’ regular collaborator Willie Evans Jr., along with folks like Paten Locke, Mr. Al Pete, GeeXella and DJ 3CLOPS I (aka club owner-promoter Ian Ranne); together they have created a formidable scene that’s more about the cerebral and trippy, 420-beats than bragging about bling. Jones considers himself a forerunner of the local scene. “There’s not one hip hop artist in Jacksonville who says they remember when I first showed up—because I started before all of them.”

Lyricist Live is totally self-funded by Jones. He brings in his sound system and prints fliers and blasts invites on social media. He’s autonomous financially, but has now launched a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/supporting-the-lyricist-live) trying to raise $3,000 to upgrade the PA.

“Lyricist Live—my cypher—is based on this circular, street freestyle that is essentially a tool cleaning up the bad rap that hip hop was having. A cypher is people coming together and working together. We give everybody this opportunity. Rap, listen, be inspired, come back, and it will keep on circulating.”
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From Sept. 25 to 29 last year, Jones and local visual artist Overstreet Ducasse were invited to Bristol, England to perform and exhibit under the auspices of the JAXBRS program. The pairing seemed natural: Both Jones and Ducasse are mercurial artists who are part of the local creative community circles and comfortable traveling outside on their respective trajectories. “The whole experience came about last year from my writing a poem during the 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare that I wrote for the Cummer Museum,” Jones explains. “It was really an ode to my father. It’s not like I’m really this great Shakespeare fan. But since it was dedicated to my father, I really had to go in depth with what I was doing with that poem.” After hearing the poem, “Hip Hop Shakes,” Cultural Council Executive Director Tony Allegretti told Jones about the inaugural pilot program. Soon Jones and Overstreet were flying across the Atlantic, making history as the first artistic ambassadors from Jacksonville to its sister city, Bristol.

At the welcome center, Jones set up his mic and speaker system while Ducasse created a pop-up gallery of his paintings. As Jones played beats and freestyled outside, local rappers stopped by and soon joined in. Duval meets Bristol.

“It’s a proven thing—rappers see the mic and then ‘boom!’ It’s on.”

Jones is in the process of editing his films of the experience into a documentary.

Within weeks of the trip, Jones made history again while creating the documentary’s soundtrack. Nadia Ramoutar, then a film teacher at Art Institute of Jacksonville, introduced him to Khiry Hines, aka Off Beat Ninja. Hines’ school assignment was to help Jones finish the film. “This kid was like me: He makes beats and hip hop, he’s a visual artist and a videographer.” During the May Art Walk, themed “Imaginature,” the trio of Jones, Off Beat Ninja and Amari performed with the Jacksonville Symphony at Hemming Park, with Ninja creating beats and grooves using sampled sounds of the symphony, as master and apprentice freestyled.

It was another first. In its nearly 70 years of existence, the symphony had never worked with a hip hop artist. Until Jones stepped in.
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When Jones was 10, his mother, Barbara, relocated the family from East Orange, New Jersey, where they’d moved after his father’s death, to Fort Lauderdale. Jones still has family in the NYC area.

“I’ve kept my accent because I was always talking to New Yorkers: in my family, to relatives on the phone; every summer my mom would send me back up to the city.”

Through his Bronx DNA and his older brother Christopher, aka Smokey D, who was a peer of hip hop’s founders, Jones has a direct, apostolic hip hop lineage. “When we were in New York, Smokey was right in the epicenter. He’d be passing out fliers for DJ Kool Herc,” says Jones, of the protean DJ who created the “break,” the isolation of the hook or beat of a song, the forerunner of sampling. Smokey also wrote rhymes and lyrics and performed in local clubs. Just as his father influenced Jones with poetry and improvised jazz, brother Smokey expanded his younger sibling’s artistic awareness and worldview with freestyle rhymes and breakbeats.

When Jones was 16, the family moved to Jacksonville. “When we were in Fort Lauderdale, we were extremely poor,” he says. “My mother did the best she could and did an amazing job. It was a thing where we really didn’t know that we were poor.”

He was fully checked in to the early ’90s Duval hip hop scene with rap artists like Assault & Battery (“The first real Jacksonville hip hop group that had publicity.”) In the ’90s, the group’s leader, Waxwell, took Jones under his wing and they formed the gangsta-style group East Unit. “Lyricism was still important even though we were talking about gangsterism and the street life.” Other rappers from this era Jones cites as early influences include Zaiche, who made a “pivotal” impression on him, along with his “allies,” rappers Jawad Mills and Poppa Fonk.

Jones describes himself as a “hybrid,” growing up in the North and South to the sounds of both rap and rock. “Before the Internet, I was the kid who would get all of the mixtapes and all of the clothes, and bring them back down here from New York,” he laughs.

As a teen, he was hooked on writing “crazy, scientifical” rhymes. “That’s why my name was ‘Molecule’ back then—because I was droppin’ so much science,” he says. “But I couldn’t spell it ‘M-a-l-e-c-l-u-e’ because that was too confusing.”

After graduating from Robert E. Lee High School, Jones’ plan was to go to college. “As soon as I graduated from high school,” says Jones, “my mother passed away and I had to be a man.”

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jones leaned even harder into words and music. That era saw a boom in hip hop, with progressive, positive-tip artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets, and a kind of spiritually reborn Beastie Boys offset by hardcore, gangsta rappers like Schoolly D, Tupac Shakur, Mobb Deep and N.W.A. Jones touched on all forms of the genre. “You have to understand that as I grew up, I literally watched and heard hip hop move from New York to the West Coast, through the Midwest and then down to the South and stay here.”

But his hip hop flashpoint remains New York City.

“When I first heard Big Daddy Kane, that really turned me on to the technicalities of rhyme,” says Jones. “All of those Golden Era Poets who were telling a story.” Kane, along with peers like KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Eric B. and Rakim, were ramping up the East Coast hip hop scene. Moving far beyond a party, feel-good vibe, these NYC artists were street journalists, issuing direct updates on what was happening on the streets, with no filter. “I was a comic book writer at the time, writing these elaborate stories. Then I heard all of these great MCs telling their stories and I saw the bridge between what they were doing and what I was doing. Because I could say amazing things in a rhyme that would make the action come to life.”
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The now-40-year-old Jones is regularly invited to speak to college students about hip hop and writing, including at a recent intercultural film series at Florida State College at Jacksonville. In addition, he’s taught younger kids at S.P. Livingston Elementary, Tiger Academy and Tristan’s Acceleration Academy. His vehicle is freestyle with Lyricist Live-style ground rules: no cursing, but much creativity and positivity. “They have to use their vocabulary as fluently and improvisationally as they can,” he explains. “It helps them with quicker thinking and that helps with their people skills and then it really becomes a community thing. And once they’re in that creative zone, I can teach them about things, like Shakespeare.”

Jones leans toward his workstation and fires up a video. JEA asked him to create a video for their “Power Pals” program, a five-week course to teach elementary students about electrical safety. “I took the bullet points of those five weeks and made this,” he says. “I made this song and in two minutes, the kids got it and understood the program.” In the video, Jones seems to have as much fun as the children, rapping (“We are the JEA Power Pals / and you’ve got be safe now …”), and mugging for the camera. When the two minutes are up, Jones smiles. “That’s that Electric Company stuff right there.”
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It’s no surprise that Jabari, 12, has joined forces with Murrell as a beatbox-MC combo: Amari and Jabari.

“A lot of what I do is inspired by him,” says Jones of his son. For Jabari’s eighth birthday, Jones created a song and video, “The Proudest Dad Ever!” and uploaded it on YouTube. The music, produced by Jacksonville-bred hip hop artist Batsauce, features a soundscape of breakbeats and cascading, ethereal
sonics, as Jones raps about his love for his son and how the relationship has
transformed him.

The Bronx neighborhood that gave the world hip hop also gave us Mal Jones. Through his father, a brother, siblings and an uncle, he developed reverence for music and words and for the power when the two are combined.

Now, as a mentor and father, he is passing that tradition on to the next generation. Label it cypher or folk tradition, apprentice or collaborator, Jones is intent on widening his circle, whether on the sidewalk or in the classroom, and he’s inviting you in.

“Hip hop is a music of the downtrodden and I grew up in that environment, but it’s really for everybody. You know hip hop literally started to stop gang violence and to literally change the environment, which in turn changes our reality, all through rhymes and metaphor.”

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