By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Watching Jim Jones play chess with some of his homies feels like a cross between GZA's Liquid Swords video and a Madden tournament. Popping and locking in between moves and pulls of his blunt, Jones talks major shit. He tosses captive pieces with reckless abandon—a pity, because the chess pieces are a carefully crafted Egyptian version, complete with a pharaoh for a king and pyramids for rooks.
Jones has never really been known for being delicate. Since mushing their way onto the late-1990s rap scene behind Cam'ron, the Diplomats—and Jones in particular—have ensured that their brand is associated with brute knucklehead antics. The tough-guy BS aside, though, Jones has proven to be quite the opportunistic businessman.
"Yeah, we do that," Jones says in regard to the violence and thuggery that often follows his crew around. "But we're not just some goons. From jump, I was always looking to beat these people at their own game. That was how my directing came about. Everyone thought I was just being a nuisance, but I was just soaking up game, peeping budgets and the inner workings of all this shit. And when we secured the Roc-a-Fella deal, and we got those budgets, I put myself in a position to be a director."
Although he was playing the behind-the-scenes role early, he's now a full-fledged TV star. With the wild success of VH1's Love & Hip Hop, based on Jones's longtime girlfriend/fiancée, Chrissy Lampkin, and her friends' struggle to find love in the rap world, Jones's stock continues to rise.
"That was my show," Jones explains, a hint of intensity bubbling up under his too-stoned-to-care facade. "VH1 had been wanting to do a reality joint with me for a minute, but I wasn't really with it. I'm careful about maintaining that mystique in the public eye. People can get real tired of you real fast if you're not careful."
So why do the show? "Well, when some shit my girl was working on fell through, I took another meeting with VH1 and structured the show around Chrissy," Jones says. "It was a good balance. . . . We touched the female demographic for sure, and men watch that shit. . . . [The season two premiere] had the highest ratings in over two years at VH1. Plus, it's leverage for the next project, you feel me? I say next project, 'cause I don't think we're going to do a season three. Ha."
Jones understands the delicate balance between high visibility and oversaturation. At one point, he and Cam'ron had Koch (E1), Sony, Warner Bros., and Universal pushing their Diplomat brand, and the group's logo went from being a T-shirt graphic floating around in Harlem on some skinny teen's chest to something marketed by the majors.
"The movement," as Jones and his cohorts referred to it, netted them a platinum plaque for Cam'ron's third album and a gold plaque or two for other Diplomat-related projects.
Taking a cue from Dame Dash, Jones delved into film as well, releasing two autobiographical documentaries (A Day in the Fast Life, This Is Jim Jones) and making a cameo in Righteous Kill.
"Oh, yeah, I definitely caught the movie bug," exclaims Jones as he tosses a bishop off the board, a childish gleam in his red eyes. "I love having multiple hustles, and film is just that. I have a short film due out in late spring called Vampire Life. I think it's going to surprise a lot of people. It's like an urban Twilight mixed with a little bit of Streets Is Watching. We got special effects popping. . . . It's going to surprise people."
Jones is done playing chess for now. He's posted on a makeshift stage that is being built along with a slew of renovations here in his Manhattan recording studio (where Katy B, of all people, was recently spotted). He's got one Air Jordan off and the other on, and he looks more than a little smoked out. As soon as the questions start, though, he starts dispensing his two cents on various topics with astonishing clarity.
"I can do that because I own a sneaker store," Jones answers in regard to why he keeps his highly coveted Js strewn about haphazardly. "But you know . . . I've been like this since high school, since Cardinal Hayes. [At] Cardinal Hayes, there was a bunch of dweebs. I was, like, the flyest kid up there till I got kicked out. I'm from Harlem; we supposed to cop a new pair of kicks twice a month. In Harlem, niggas will have no cash in their pockets, but I bet they're laced."
Jones pauses to reflect on his answer and sample a blunt handed to him by a friend. "You know what, though?" he adds, putting on his role-model fitted for a second. "That's cool and all,… but it's important to prioritize. You shouldn't cop something foreign until you at least got your moms a crib. It's a cliché, but at least get her out the projects. It's all about building equity. Sneakers and cars don't really build that."
Not exactly what you'd expect to hear from a guy who revels in being a "goon" and who "talks tough 'cause" he "does tough things." His music might encourage you to splurge on bottles and Maseratis, but in the flesh, Jones just wants to see his constituents build their own wave and surf it to economic security.
"To me, it's about creating your own world that you want to live in," says Jones as he puts his Jordans back on and heads to the vocal booth. Vampire Life—the name of the mixtape he dropped last year—"is my life. It's that nightlife; it's the way some individuals live when you wake up to the moon and go to sleep to the sun.
"Hip-hop is dead, and it came back as a vampire."
Jim Jones plays at Gramercy Theatre on February 29.