This is: Justice Der
azz and hip-hop music have gone hand-in-hand for decades. Dating back to artists like Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest, a new class of artists (like Matt Quentin, FloFilz, and L’Indeces) have made names for themselves by intersecting the two genres. Fans of these artists have affectionately referred to this fusion sound as “chillhop,” “jazzhop,” and a whole host of other descriptors.
Standing at the zenith of this musical genre is one of our favorite up-and-coming artists, Justice Der. The Saskatoon native first rose to fame on YouTube due to his tasteful, jazz-inspired arrangements of artists like Frank Ocean and Kanye West. He started playing electric guitar around ten years ago, and has greatly popularized the instrument among the current generation of RnB fans. Justice is an expert at reinterpreting melody lines in a way that allows for the instruments to sing for themselves.
Justice has since moved to Toronto to study music, and has formed an alt-indie duo with his friend Rachel Bobbit. He is also a core member of the band Call More, which he created with Rachel and Marley Pitch (whom he met on the Frank Ocean subreddit). Justice has expressed interest in branching out from guitar-focused music and experimenting with alternative forms of production. Check out our interview with him below, where we talk about his recent release Racing Games and more.
Justice Der's cover of "Redbone" by Childish Gambino
Where did the name Justice Der come from?
Yeah, Justice is actually my real name. My parents were originally going to go for Justin but thought it was too common of a name, so they landed on Justice instead.
How did you get into music?
Music was definitely going on in my family. My sister has always been a piano player and she’s played classical piano since I was born, basically. We’ve had a piano in our house pretty much my entire life, so I think I picked up a lot there, like subconsciously. And my dad isn't a musician, but he's really into music listening. He was kind of an audiophile growing up; like he had a lot of stereo equipment and stuff. Him and his brother were really into that shit. So, yeah, my dad is always playing blues - a lot of guitar music like that, and then a lot of soul and R&B stuff, stuff like Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke and all sorts of rock as well. So I think that was like my early, early musical influence.
I didn't get into guitar until I was 11 or 12; at first I was like “I'm going to do sports.” I didn't think I'd ever get into music, but then I kind of came around to it in the era of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I liked playing basketball with friends. And then I was like, “damn, like, what is... what's the next step here?” And I think really the next step was getting into the guitar.
My mom's dad (so my maternal grandfather) - he has always been into guitars and he actually built guitars when he was younger. So there was a guitar case that was just in my parents' closet. My dad was like, “start on this.” And then in like a month or two, I got an electric and it went pretty fast from there. I just got super into, and it was a done deal. Honestly, for the first 10 years of my life, I didn't really consider music or see value in it. And then I just came around, and it all clicked pretty fast.
Sometimes, it just doesn't click. I think my sister kind of felt that way a lot of the time about classical - like she really got tired of it - but she actually got into jazz as she got into her later teens, and got me into jazz in my early teens. That was also really important for me, because I think we both were into the genre genuinely rather than like “we're going to this program” or something like that. It was a big moment for me. We jammed a lot and learned a lot of songs and played a lot of gigs together. It really got me thinking about doing music as a career. So, yeah, getting back to the family thing, I think my sister was a big influence on me.
Justice Der's Racing Games (Full EP)
Let’s talk about your latest release, Racing Games. What’s the story behind the release? What was it like to work on it and release it during the pandemic?
I guess it’s the first project I went into thinking like conceptually. I guess it's interesting. Like concept albums are a bit different when they’re all instrumental, because there are more like lyrical things obviously I was trying to nail down.
I definitely thought about a specific time in my life when I was working on it. That time was like my early childhood - in those first 10 years of my life when I wasn't thinking about music, I played a lot of GameCube. I played a lot of racing games growing up, and it’s still a huge nostalgic thing for me. So I kind of tried to tap into that. I tried to conjure those feelings with the music - the feeling of playing split screen Mario Kart or like all those games on the GameCube with my friends when I was like five. That was definitely where I felt inspired.
Honestly I was like… I want to make a project this year, but I just couldn't do it. I felt like I didn't have, like, that reason to or like that that concept to build around it. So early childhood nostalgia, those were definitely big inspirations for that project.
I started it pre-covid and I did some live tracking with my friends in Toronto, but I actually left Toronto at the start of Covid and finished it by myself. So that definitely changed. But the vision made sense, and the mixing of it like that was all pretty solitary. I pushed it all back (the release for it and everything) because of Covid and also because of the Black Lives Matter stuff; like I just didn't want to take up space on social media at that point. I just don't like taking up space on social media in general. I keep that pretty minimal. But yeah, I guess Covid made it a bit more solitary towards the end, and it pushed back the release, but probably made me overthink the mixes a little more because I was just sitting with it and didn't have much else to think about. So yeah. But overall it was, it was pretty unaffected. Like I feel like it came out the way I wanted it to be, and that's the important part.
We listened to your other original releases (When This Plane Goes Down and Crooked Tree). The production work you do in your band is clearly very different in style from your solo-work, with the former sounding more dream/bedroom-pop like and the latter being more jazz-inspired neo-soul. Where are you hoping to take your sound, and what can we expect from your next few releases?
Recently, I've been working a lot with other artists. I've been focusing a lot on production and trying to incorporate my guitar sound into my production and just do shit that's not guitar based at all. So I think a lot of what I'm going to release in the next little while is more collaborative stuff. But in terms of my next few solo releases, I'm not sure. I've definitely been toying with more electronic sounds, more like futuristic sounds. Artists like James Blake come to mind. But yeah, I'm always trying to not subscribe to one genre.
Adding onto that, are you interested in being a professional guitarist, or are you interested in broader production work as a whole?
I'm interested in doing both for sure. But production is a huge interest of mine. I feel like it's a pretty noble role, and it’s difficult to take the back seat and serve an artist. But it still requires so much creative energy and creative input, so I’m pretty drawn to that. And I want to get more into songwriting as well and doing some of that myself. But really, I just want to try new, exciting things cause I've been doing, just like straight up guitar stuff for a while. And yeah, I want to take it further for sure.
Did you write any of the songs for When This Plane Goes Down?
Yeah I did. I guess all the music was written by me, and then I actually did lyrics and melodies on “Iris Road” and “Beneath our Feet.” Most of the other lyrics and melodies were by Rachel. But yeah, that album definitely got me into songwriting and like taking it seriously. It’s something I've been doing for quite a few years, but that release was when I felt like I was starting to tighten it up and develop a legitimate interest for it. And that's something I want to work on more moving forward.
Justice Der's cover of Drake's "Passionfruit"
You became famous on YouTube for your arrangements of Frank Ocean, Daniel Caesar, and other similar musicians. Do you have a background in music theory / are you classically trained? What’s your process look like when you’re arranging an existing song?
I somewhat do, yes. I went to Humber College starting in 2017 for music. I feel like that was largely when I got my feet really wet with music theory. I did a bit throughout high school, but I wasn't studying classical really or anything. Most of the theory I picked up was from like, listening to and playing jazz and stuff. My formal training started more so in college, and it definitely helped me flesh out my arranging style.
The guitar arrangement style that I did on YouTube and in the past few years… I started that like way, way back before I was posting much online. I played a lot of house shows in Saskatoon. I did a lot of busking gigs. And, you know, I just played like two, three hours, of guitar loop arrangements of whatever songs I was listening to. So I think my arrangement style kind of came into its own, way before the YouTube stuff. The summer when Blonde came out is when I felt really inspired and compelled to make content and to make visuals. And I feel like that's kind of where my YouTube started. It was like the mixing of that sound I had going, that arrangement style. And then like some inspiration from Blonde, I guess.
Any favorite artists or albums or songs or anything like that that you are listening to you right now, listening to right now?
Yeah, literally right before we got on this call, I was listening to the new Madlib album. I got through the first few tracks. And he collaborated with Four Tet on it. I guess it's pretty... it's pretty interesting instrumental hip hop. So I was just listening to that. Also, Jai Paul - really been into Jai-Paul since Covid started. And Madvillainy.
Any performances that left an impression on you?
Yeah, for sure. A couple of summers ago, I saw Kamasi Washington. That's a live show that sticks with you. I mean I've been all through The Epic and and all through Harmony of Difference and like seen all his live YouTube shit. But then you see him live, and obviously live is always better. But then they always flip the songs, you know, in a way I hadn't heard in any of the live versions or any other album version ,which was huge for me. And it's just, you know, the sun was setting over the river in Saskatoon and stuff. And like, as the set progressed, it eventually got dark when they came out for the encore and shit like that. That concert was just like a moment, I think I'll remember that one forever.
And Shabazz Palaces opened for him too, which was sick. Super, super loud. Super bassy. But yeah, that was a great night. And I saw Alex G last November at the Opera House in Toronto, and that was a huge show for me in terms of like rock band shows. It was just, you know, there's moshing, it was loud as shit as well. And yeah, it just felt like our version of watching Nirvana or something. And I was there with like ten friends. So it was just yeah, that's a good one as well.
I saw Daniel Caesar too at Danforth Music Hall, his first show after touring the U.S. and Canada for the first time. That show definitely had a certain energy to it - it was kind of like he just completed his victory lap and like everyone there was celebrating. Yeah, that one was cool too.
What gear and software do you currently use? What’s your dream setup?
I'm currently using Ableton, that's my software for recording. It was Reaper for a long time, but I switched to Ableton last year (I think) and I've been enjoying it since then. I think it's the right DAW for me. It really clicks with my workflow, especially as I’m getting more into production. It's helpful for that stuff. Reaper is good for recording live elements and being really minimal and not distracting, but Ableton is really engaging for production and has a lot of good sounds and plugins and stuff. So yeah, I use Ableton and I'm using a Fender Blues Junior right now with a couple guitars. I have the American Pro Telecaster, and then I have a Strat from 2010. I also have a bunch of Fender Jazz Bass, and that's pretty much most of it. I have a couple of keyboards and a drum machine here, but the main things are the guitars, I guess.
What skills do you think amateur guitar players should try to focus on?
Try to focus on playing your own type of style, and focus on music that isn't based around guitar. A lot of what I was doing early on was like emulating singers and obviously like playing vocal melodies on the guitar, like arranging them. And I tried to emulate a lot of Miles Davis, too, like when I first got into jazz. He was probably my primary (and still continues to be) one of my primary jazz influences. So, yeah, I mean, you have to emulate to some degree, but try to find your own thing and listen to music that isn't based around your instrument.
For you what distinguishes a unique, quality work of music?
I think you can definitely tell when an artist is doing music just for or clout. So I think that's what that's what separates bad music from decent and amazing music. Like you can tell when someone is really fully just put on. But great music, it's... I don't know if I can answer that right now, but I do think that it's like an emotional kind of thing.
I guess you forget about the technical elements and it just comes together and creates something special? The sum of the parts is something far beyond just all the parts separately or something like that. It's super mysterious and that's why I'm so into it.
Advice for up and coming musicians?
Something I wish I would have done earlier was like listening to stuff. I mean, I listen to songs and learn them by ear and stuff, but like doing that to a higher degree earlier on... I think would have helped me out a bit, I guess. Ask yourself why you're doing it and see if you're doing it for the right reasons; you're not going to make great music if you're in for the clout, you know? It takes a long time to develop your own sound so you have to stay persistent.