Jim-E Stack has come a long way. Born and raised in the culturally rich environs of San Francisco, the now Brooklyn-based artist born James Harmon Stack cut his musical teeth on the drums at a young age. His true love was playing jazz in both his high school band and local groups, but it wasn't until he entered the world of solo production at the tender age of 16 that he found the freedom necessary to write and record how he wanted. During 2008, he eagerly worked on hip-hop beats inspired by DJ Premier and J Dilla, coloring those sketches in Logic with bits of UK grime and Baltimore club sounds à la Blaqstarr and Karizma. Once he started sneaking into clubs in 2009, he uncovered the seeds of what would become the burgeoning producer we now know as Jim-E Stack, a journey which started with a set at SF's renowned 222 Hyde from Fade to Mind boss Kingdom. He tells the story as if it happened last night: "It was kind of an eye-opening experience, in that he played dance music, but also played hip-hop. It was never just one note, and I think actually seeing Kingdom do it—go through house and garage-y stuff into straight Young Money records—I was like, 'Woah.' I didn't really know that you could do that."
The young artist ran wild with the possibilities of freeform DJ sets and hybridized club music. After moving from the West Coast to New Orleans, where he enrolled at Loyola University to study music technology and production, Jim-E Stack made his first splash with a bass-loaded version of Nguzunguzu's "Mirage", a well-received remix that eventually landed him his first official release. 2011's Come Between EP was a bright and drum-focused offering that signaled the arrival of a viable production talent whose fresh perspective on club-ready music was lauded by DJs and tastemakers around the world. (BBC Radio 1 host Benji B went so far as to play the entire EP on his program for weeks before and after it was released.) It was an important moment for Stack, though it would also make for a serious obstacle in his creative journey's next step: the debut album.
After moving to New York in summer of 2012, James quickly made friends with Shlohmo and his Wedidit crew, frequented the Lit City Raves at 285 Kent, and started the slow process of writing his first full-length record. But he ran into the problem of feeling stuck in a DJ-specific format while wanting to approach his music from a much broader perspective. Thankfully, his new friends gave him some irreplaceable advice. "Shlohmo told me just to 'do you'," Stack remembers. "He talked about getting to a place like when you first started making music, where there's nothing to think about. You have no audience, no gigs. Nothing matters except what you like or don't like. You're just making it for yourself. And I just went with that."
Which brings us to Jim-E Stack's captivating Tell Me I Belong LP, 10 diverse tracks representing the culmination of their creator's musical experience thus far. Written across months and months of sketching, refining, and developing the best of 30 or so ideas, the album was equally fleshed out by looking forwards and backwards. As the producer puts it, "I'd be working on a track and think, 'Oh, that tom sound from that African record I bought in high school could sound cool in here.' And so I'd dig through these messy hard drives looking just for that sound." This gives Tell Me I Belong the kind of purpose and cohesiveness many debut outings lack. There's a tangible through-line that ties together the plaintive piano samples of opener "Somewheres", the stark rhythmic workouts of "Run" and "Out of Mind", and the body-moving, emotional resonance that songs like "Reassuring" and "Is It Me" offer in mass quantities. "Below"'s excitable beat may move with the skip of an experienced drummer, but it's the billowing synths and jittery organ chords that keep you stuck to the elastic groove. In every corner of Tell Me I Belong, you can hear an artist who reveres classic jazz musicians like John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, experimental pioneers like Steve Reich, and Detroit techno greats Omar-S and Robert Hood, but contemporary boundary pushers Arca, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Actress are no less inspiring for Stack.
The airy and understated "Wake" closes Jim-E Stack's debut album on a pensively optimistic tone, and—like quiet interlude "Everything to Say"—it reveals the undercurrents at work in Tell Me I Belong. "More so than anything, it's really on some personal shit," says James of the themes woven into his debut LP. "The time period between leaving San Francisco and moving to New York was a tough time for me, and the music is kind of a reflection of that, the feeling like you don't belong." The music may speak about a kind of alienation, but it also abundantly offers the chance of collective experiences in the form of hard-hitting, club-specific dancefloor jams. That fearless juxtaposition is the lifeforce of Tell Me I Belong. Jim-E Stack explains it best, saying, "This is music done in the most basic way it could be, for the purpose of writing it and making it as a reflection of me."