Working with J. Cole, an interview with Director Scott Lazer

By Sean Titone Cover Photo by Jonathan Cooper

January 6, 2016

Last year was a banner year for platinum selling hip-hop artist and Fayetteville native J. Cole and, as the years go by, it will be seen as a major milestone in his already fruitful career. In the final three weeks of December 2014, Cole released his now landmark album 2014 Forest Hills Drive (named after the address of his childhood home) with little notice and no radio singles. He built up anticipation partly by getting the word out on a micro level and by hosting small parties in cities across the country with lucky fans and industry insiders. It certainly wasn’t orthodox, yet 2014 Forest Hills Drive ended up becoming the highest-selling hip-hop album of 2014, selling over half a million copies in a short period of time.  

Former Charlotte resident, director Scott Lazer (who moved to Los Angeles almost two years ago) had the good fortune and serendipity to be there with his camera every step of the way, and he captured the buildup to the album’s release and subsequent tour. The entirety of his filming culminates with the premiere of the concert film/documentary J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, airing on HBO January 9 at 10pm (ET). The film centers on a powerful hometown show in Fayetteville, NC and it illustrates how Cole’s upbringing guided him to where he is today. HBO has additionally released four webisodes online that play in chronological order and showcase Cole’s whirlwind 2015, serving as the perfect build up to the film. Full of insight, humor, emotion and drama, the webisodes provide intimate access to Cole that was previously unavailable, and they deliver a nuanced look into this talented musician for fans and newcomers alike.

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CLTure recently had a chance to chat with Lazer about Homecoming and the corresponding short film series, and he filled us in on what it was like to work so closely and intimately with Cole.

“I started working with Cole when I was in L.A. the summer before last and I cut a little promo for him for one of his tours and one thing led to another. Then we cut this album trailer for his last album, a 7-minute long film that another cinematographer shot and I cut, and Cole and his entire team really liked it so they asked if I could shoot, and I had some experience shooting but not a lot, but I said, yeah sure, I can shoot. And they brought me out on the road, and that’s what ended up being the first episode.” Lazer said. “Aside from the concert special and a few moments in the third webisode, it was literally just me, a camera, a microphone and my laptop.”

Any music documentary aficionado knows that the best films of this genre are the ones that offer complete, unfiltered access to their subjects. In Episode 2 “Ain’t Nothin’ Like That,” we see Cole alone in the back of his tour bus, 40 minutes before a show. He’s working on new beats, illustrating his tireless work ethic. It’s also a prime example of the type of access Lazer had while shooting.

“We couldn’t have put more people in that room,” Lazer said. “Not only would we not have fit, but it would have thrown the dynamic off.  I think part of what makes all of the short films so interesting is that I went at them from a very curious perspective. I was a fan of J. Cole’s going into this project…there were things that I genuinely wanted to know about his process and the people around him…they were willing to give themselves to me in a very earnest way, because I was genuinely interested.”

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It’s fortuitous that this project landed at HBO once filming was complete, because the format of the webisodes and their buildup to Homecoming is similar to one of HBO’s most popular and longest-running series. As Lazer put it, “…the format is similar to HBO’s boxing 24/7 series which I always watched growing up as a kid and loved. I thought they were so cool how you got to see the boxers in training camp getting ready for the fight and then you tune in for the main event on the day of the fight. So it was the same concept, it was finding a way to organize them in a way that made sense, so each episode has a very clear purpose.”

Lazer describes Homecoming as part behind-the-scenes, part concert documentary with roughly one hour of beautiful concert material and 30 minutes of documentary content. “It was cool, I basically jumped in a car with Cole the night before the show in Fayetteville and we just drove around Fayetteville, and he gave us this really incredible interview. We drove around for maybe an hour and a half, two hours, and he was just talking about where he is, where he sees himself, what the place means to him, how important the show is, all the things that are sort of related to that show…it makes sense why this place was so influential to Cole. And it also made sense why it was such great inspiration for this project. And I think the audience is able to connect some of the things that he’s talking about in his songs through our film and our interviewing of all these different people who live in Fayetteville,” Lazer noted.

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Photo credit: Vlad Sepetov

After working on this project for all of 2015, Lazer is grateful and proud that he had the opportunity to document it. “I was just glad to be able to catch that period on film, because it was a transformational year for Cole. Like he went from doing the Theater at Madison Square Garden on his last tour to selling out the actual Garden in a matter of minutes. So there was clearly a different level for him on this project.”

He continued, “I’m sure there will be a biopic made about J. Cole at some point, but that was not what we were trying to do with this at all. It was a critical time in his career and that was the angle we wanted to take, so I definitely feel incredibly fortunate that they trusted me to be around, that they were so generous and open with me and that they were so supportive and encouraging of the project.”

It’s clearly a fertile time for the North Carolina hip-hop scene and, after leading the way, J. Cole is ready to pay it forward to the next group of up-and-coming rappers (Dreamville, Cole’s label, just signed Charlotte rapper Lute). But for now, it’s Cole’s time to shine and reflect on an amazing 2015, and Lazer’s short films and concert film provide the perfect vehicle for that.

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