Jaren Jackson Jr. on the NBA’s Best Rappers, His Incredible Defense, and the Grizzlies Surge

From his home recording studio, the NBA unicorn shares some of his hip-hop tracks and explains why the Memphis Grizzlies, led by superstar point guard Ja Morant, are suddenly one of the best teams in the league.
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Courtesy of Jaren Jackson Jr.

There’s always been something unique about Jaren Jackson Jr. He’s not just an NBA unicorn – a seven-foot Goliath who can truly do everything on the basketball court, from guarding the best players every night to draining threes to putting it on the floor – he’s also eccentric in ways you’d never guess. A young man of his time, he says things like, “If it ain’t trendin’, it ain’t nothin’,” and he can often be seen in groovy outfits like a chore coat that reminds you of “Scooby Doo.”

Jackson Jr. is in the middle of a historic season for the fast-rising Memphis Grizzlies, that are in 3rd place in the Western Conference of the NBA.. The numbers are stunning: He had 52 blocks in January alone, the first player in franchise history with over 50 blocks, and became a league leader in the figure: 121 in 53 games. Over six games in January, he had 25 blocks and 9 steals–in the last 20 years, the list of names who’ve done that is slim (Ben Wallace, Joakim Noah, and Marcus Camby), and most of them became All-Defensive Team level players, or Defensive Player of the Year. He’s helped lead a defensive evolution for the youthful Grizzlies, who led the NBA in both blocks and steals in January.

Away from the court, Jackson Jr. is equally vivid. When our video call began, he showed me the second level of his home, which he’s transformed into a studio where he’s recorded over 100 hip-hop tracks. There, he told me about the NBA’s secret flock of undiscovered rappers, played me one of his songs titled “O.J. Simpson,” explained how he came back from injuries to become a budding star, and clued me in to what it’s like to play with Ja Marant.

GQ: So, you have a studio? You rap?

Jaren Jackson: Yeah, I rap, for sure. It’s the only thing I like doing in my free time. It’s just fun. I’ve been rapping for years. It ain’t new at this point [laughs].

What type of rapper would you say you are?

[Thinks very hard.] Ummmmmmmmm. Shoot. I’m not like, I don’t know, I punch in. I wouldn’t say I’m like Nas….

Nas?!

What I make, it’s not poetry, it’s more the vibe of it. The feel of it. I just make music you feel good to, stuff you can play to turn up, to chill, whatever. It’s more of a feel. It sounds good. I create more than I rap. I try to, sonically, please.

You know I have to hear something.

You wanna hear something? [smirks] Alright… [Yells toward a producer.] Yo, he wanna hear something!

Play me something that’s actually good.

I’ve been rapping since I was, probably, 14. I’ve been recording for the past five years. There’s a whole difference between recording and rapping. But, if you wanna rap? Lunch table with your friends? Kendrick Lamar? That’s rapping. Recording, stopping a line and moving it, creating different vibes and melodies, you can do a lot with these machines right here. I’m blessed to have it. But it’s definitely a difference in the craft. It’s something I do in my free time and I just got addicted to it.

You gonna play me these bars or you gonna give me these bars?

Oh, I’m gonna play something. Damn, what should I do bro? Which one? We have like a million of these…

Listen, if it’s good, I’ll even listen to two songs.

[Turns to producer] Yo! How many songs do you think I have?

Producer: Over 150, fasho.

What?! How do you have over 150 songs?

Yeah! We don’t always write them. If you think we’re coming in here writing, no. I get home, hop right in the booth. Quick. Forty-five minutes. You out. That’s a song. Heat up some food, lay down, play the song.

Courtesy of Jaren Jackson Jr.

How close is the studio to your crib?

I just walked upstairs. We’re in the crib. That’s the couch. That’s the living room. This is upstairs.

Besides you, who are the best rappers in the NBA?

Oh my god. In the league? That have released or have not released?

Let’s try released first.

Miles Bridges is the best rapper in the league. He’s breaking barriers. Hands down the best rapper in the league. It’s crazy. Dame [Damian Lillard] is a poet. He’s in his lane. He’s doing his thing, though, for sure. It’s great pure music. But Miles? Miles is making bangers.

He’s making real bangers.

Real bangers!

What about unreleased?

Marvin Bagley. He’s doing his thing. James Wiseman makes beats. I have a song to one of his beats. I have a song with Mo Bamba on here.

Who’s the best unknown rapper other than you in the NBA?

Jordan Poole is pretty good. He won’t tell you, though. He’ll never admit it. I bet you Aaron Gordon rap. I don’t even know why. I just have a feeling. I didn’t talk to him about that, but I bet he does.

He just looks like he wanna be a rapper.

Brandon Ingram! I’ve heard his stuff, Jaxson Hayes played me some of his stuff one time, he’s nice. I know KD and ‘Bron got songs, but they have to have songs, they’re GOATs.

[Producer enters the house/studio with Jaren Jackson’s song.]

What’s the song called?

“O.J. Simpson.”

Of course it is.

Hit that, Hit, that!!!

[At this point in the interview, a song called “O.J. Simpson” blares from the speakers surrounding Jaren Jackson Jr. The hook reminds me of a detective film drenched in noir, with horns that would make Detective Gadget moonwalk. It has nothing to do with Simpson. Rather, it’s a mirror of Jaren’s influences. The beat sounds like a droopy, Soundcloud, deep internet vibration in the vein of Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti and the late rapper Juice WRLD. If you took the trumpets and saxophones from a scene of Shinichirō Watanabe’s masterpiece “Cowboy Bebop'' (which Jaren enjoys as a big fan of anime) and infused them with vocals that sound like knock-off Pi’erre Bourne melodies, you’d get the gist of what the song is trying to accomplish. It’s absolutely disorienting in all the right and wrong ways. I feel like I’ve been transported to a different dimension for a few minutes, a twilight zone where the world is run by teenagers instead of adults. By the time he’s about to turn it off, we’re both elevated, evangelized, singing, “Ohhhh-jayyyy simpppppsonnnnn!” It was an experience, to say the least.]

Okay, this was hard.

I make songs that when you hear it the first time, you’re not supposed to get it completely. I do it on purpose. You’re supposed to hear it….and wonder! You’re supposed to like what you’re hearing, but wonder what you’re hearing at the same time so you have to run it back. At the same time, it sounds good. So you’re like dammnnn. If you listen to it enough, you’ll pick up what I’m saying. Like this one part… [Jackson plays the song again] Yeah, “Make you nervous, hit it from the back, I see a serpent!”... Like, a serpent on a girl’s back? Like a tattoo?

Uh huh.

Then it’s like, “Ballin’ like Bird, fell in love with the green, it ain’t a clover/On my nerves, All that talkin’ lame as fuck, don’t talk, just do work…” I just said that line, I thought it was fire.

As someone who’s heard it live, I can definitely confirm that I listened to the beat and thought “what did I just hear?” So, it’s doing what you are intending.

[Jackson smiles very wide.]

How long have you been this into music?

I’ve always been super into music. I’m always super tapped in. I’ve been listening to all types of rap since I was really young. I’ve heard it all, trust me. I started off with Lil’ Wayne and then just went from there and listened to pretty much everything. I have to listen to a lot of music just to operate: to shower, go to work out, it doesn’t matter what it is. I’m always listening to music, so I thought I should just make my own so I don’t get bored. Ever. If I ever get bored, I’ll make my own. That’s really why I keep makin’ them. If nobody’s gonna drop, I’mma drop.

Make sure I get copy of the album when it comes out.

It’s on the way!

Courtesy of Jaren Jackson Jr.

You should get on a track with Anthony Edwards.

He is good! I forgot about him! I really do my own thing, though. I’ve got my own homies. That’s how you really do it. You should put your own people on. But, maybe, in the future.

Who are your favorite rappers in Memphis?

Bagg is doin’ his thing. Gotti. Glock, I know he’s hurtin’ because of Dolph but you know how it is. Big 30. Shiesty. Free Shiesty, but that’ll be awhile. But I don’t care about all that. I care about me and my friends. If it ain’t trendin’ it ain’t nothin’.

Can you tell me what a “Block Panther” is? [Jackson filed a trademark for the nickname in 2o18, and it’s been catching on lately.]

It’s just like Black Panther. And I’m Black. So, it works, if you really wanna make it that. If the “e” is a “3” and the “L” is a “1” for my number. So it should look like: “B1ock Panth3r.”

That’s…creative.

Yeah! I fuck with it! It’s really cool! I never really thought I’d make a thing out of getting blocks, but I got a lot of blocks recently, so I was just thinking of it. And, my mom thought it was cool. So credit to my mom.

Have you thought about making your own block button with your face on it?

Ja was talking about putting my face on some Windex after the last game. That was hilarious. But my own block button? Shoot. I don’t need my own block button, I use that. I love the block button. But I should have a block button, huh? That’s pretty funny.

Just make sure I get my 10%.

[Winks.]

Is there an art to playing defense for you? How do you consider that side of the game?

Well, I don’t wanna get scored on. And I wanna win. It goes both ways. Guys in this league are really talented. You just wanna make it hard on them. It’s simple: I don’t wanna get scored on, and I don’t want our team to get scored on. It’s not even a psyche or whatever. I’m just really tapped in. I really just want to win the game at all costs. I will do whatever. If that means putting me on a guard? Cool. If that means I have all these blocked shots? Cool. If anything, I’ll overhelp and we’ll get burned like that. At least I’m doing that, instead of not doing anything.

How do you visualize defense, though? Is there something that puts you over the edge?

I watch a lot of opposing teams’ plays so I know what they’re doing. I also try to think like them. I’m not just a regular big. I shoot the same shots as the guys I’m blocking. I try to put myself in their head: When would I wanna shoot against me? When would I want to shoot this? I think like them and try to recreate it on defense. That’s all I do. The flaws are that it doesn’t work every time. You have to understand guys are gonna be good. If you’re guarding ‘Bron, Anthony Davis, KD, you can’t expect to go and block their shot every time. You’ll end up fouling them, you’re out the game, and you can’t play as hard. You have to just make it hard on them. If you get scored on, you get scored on. You just have to do your best. That’s your job, to do your best each time. You can’t expect to be a hero each time, it’s not realistic, it’s not how a game works and it’s how you get in trouble.

All of the numbers make the Grizzlies seem like a super team on defense. And a lot of that centers around you, especially when you switch onto other players. Is that a focus for y’all as a team? Or does it happen naturally?

We do talk about it, we know the stats. We’re trying to be good in all the coverages, no matter if we’re switching or not. If we’re switching, it helps keep the ball in front of us. It also depends on what type of team we’re playing. You have to have confidence in your bigs that they can switch on guards, and confidence that your guards can switch on bigs and the bigs can come to help. All that stuff. And we are. We trust each other. You’d be surprised where that trust comes from. And that’s why we’re locked in. That trust is built on something.

Do you think you can guard anybody in the NBA?

Yeah.

Straight like that?

Yeah, what else?! I’m tellin’ you man: When you stay in your own world, do your own thing and lock in, you can get your confidence from anything. From thin air. It doesn’t matter, you can have a bad day or a good day, you are a warrior! That’s how I’m gonna approach it until I’m done. And I’ll look back and be happy I approached it like that, because who wants to do it any other way? That’s the whole point and that’s what I think. I’ve guarded the best this year. I’m confident in my ability, I’ve earned respect in that way. I’ve got to be better, for sure. Luka gave me, like, 37 the other night. It’s not gonna be perfect every night. But how are you gonna respond?

Well, there is the opposite side of defense: somebody is eventually gonna catch you one time. What about when LeBron dunked on you? Does that get demoralizing at all?

Nahhhhh! It’s the league! Like, I’mma play 82 games a year and it not happen? I thought it was funny. I put it on when we got back home. I was sitting there with the homies and we put it on the TV. When we home, we always go to YouTube first. And the way my Youtube sorts, that was the first thing I saw when I got in the house [laughs]. We all had a discussion on whether it was a body or not.

Was it a body?

Uhhhhhhhhh [pouts]. I mean, it was [laughs]. I realized he was gonna dunk it, I was trying to go block it, but I literally realized at the last second that I wasn’t gonna get it, but it didn’t matter because I left the air already. Credit to him. I ain’t gon’ lie: that’s ‘Bron. Shoot. We won the game, though!

Courtesy of Jaren Jackson Jr.

Your good days are historic, on pace for some of the best defensive numbers in the NBA this century. What’s the difference this season?

The difference is I’m playing. I sat out for 10 months. I sat out pretty much all summer. I got hurt in the bubble and, basically, 75% of the next year. That’s a lot of time not hooping. And I came back late and for the playoffs, so I only had as much rhythm as I could get at that time. I just went out with it and tried to figure it out.

This is way better for me. I’m playing more games, with a lot better rhythm, and feeling better. I’m just thankful to be out there, man. I really did not enjoy not playing…I’m not dark subtweeting and talking about whatever online anymore. I’m just in a different vibe. If you look at what I used to tweet about or put on the ‘gram, I used to be lowkey, on the lowest key, annoyed. But, I’m in a much better place now. Trust God, man. Trust, God.

Do you think you should be more in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year?

Everybody is doing things to help their teams win, specifically. You never know what I would need to do on the Pacers or the Jazz. But, for my team: I have to switch onto guards, I have to block shots on ball and off ball, I have to protect the rim, jumpers, rotate fast to the corner and close out and catch guards driving full speed. There’s a lot of little things I have to do. I don’t know if everyone else has to do that on their teams, but it’s difficult. There’s all different jobs. I’m seven-feet tall, I’m not just switching on a guard, I’ll start on a guard. I’m the guy out there. That should tell you a lot about where I’m about. I wish what was required of me was only blocking shots. Trust me. If that’s all I had to do… [laughs]

When Ja Morant went down with an injury, the Grizzlies didn’t falter. And you were putting up some of the best offensive numbers of your career. Was it lonely to not have Ja or reaffirming to know you could still do it at a high level after being injured for so long?

It was definitely tough! I definitely missed Ja! It’s a lot he does on the court that we had to do to win games with guys in and out of the lineup. Even though he was on the bench being himself. It was like, man. I was realizing what he had on his shoulders when we were out. I gained a lot more respect for what it’s like playing without people. I definitely didn’t gain any more for 12, I already know what he’s about. But I loved stepping up to the moment, and being there when it was time. I knew what was required of me every game, I loved it, I relished it. We won 9 out of 10 games, lost two, then won 11 in a row, we were like 17-4 in the last 21 games or something. I loved that people tried to say we were better without Ja. There’s obviously no chance of that. It just proves how deep we are as a team, that’s all it shows.

What’s it been like to play with Ja while he’s on an all-world run?

Shoot, man. He’s dope. I’ve seen him in the dark working, so I knew exactly what he was gonna come out there and do. I probably couldn’t anticipate…nah, actually I could anticipate this! He’s tough. He’s the best point guard in the league. He is the best point guard in the league! No disrespect to anyone else, even the point guards who have rings. But, I’m saying. If we’re talking about right now? He’s the best point guard in the league. He is. He just is. I thought he was the best point guard in the league last year, but, you know, guys are still young. But he’s still young now and he’s really doing it. His reads are unreal, he’s able to read the game at a crazy level. He’s able to jump over anybody. And I get the best seat to watch. I’m really happy for him. It’s really dope to see your friends [win]. It’s special, we really ride for each other. I’m gonna be so happy to see him in the All Star Game. I don’t know why in the world anyone thought he wouldn’t be starting.

Do you think he’s the best player in the league?

He’s MVP right now. I know you guys like all those discussions and everything, but if he’s your MVP then we up right now! If he’s MVP, I’m pullin’ up to the crib and we goin’ crazy. I’m not even gonna ask him first, either. His gate code crazy, too. I don’t even know it, but I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I’m on his ass! MVP, even younger than D-Rose [Derrick Rose, who was 22 years and 191 days old when he won MVP]

The future of Memphis feels exciting: two 22-year-olds have led this team to become one of the best. Are we just scratching the surface with the Grizzlies?

We work hard! As long as we keep working, and God’s with us, then we got it man. Y’all better get tickets and come see the show…It’s a trending world, new music comin’ soon! Get ya taste up. Stay in the moment. Basketball is like a bad addiction for me, it’s like a bad rash. If I don’t have it, then I don’t have anything...this means everything to me. I don’t reflect much, but this means everything. I’m truly, truly blessed. I’m thankful for everything I have and everybody’s support. Please keep watching. We take all forms of love. And: respect is appreciated, but just know it’s not needed.