A Homegrown Thing: An Interview With Big Jerm

Photo by Jordan Beckham.

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Wiz Khalifa, “Visions”

The house that Jerry Jones built was rocking. His ‘Boys weren’t in the Super Bowl, but fans from all over had come to blow dough at his casino: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The loudest cheers came from fans of Pittsburgh and Green Bay, who bobbed their heads as each team’s fight song blared out from a thousand speakers. “Black and yellow // black and yellow… green and yellow // green and yellow.” Different songs, same tune. 

The original was Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a smash hit from late 2010 that Lil Wayne remixed and released as “Green and Yellow” in support of his team, the Green Bay Packers. Unlike Wiz, who released the song as a tribute to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Wayne placed football at the heart of the track. He name dropped star players like Aaron Rodgers (“Money green, yellow broad / Aaron Rodgers, MVP Award”) and Clay Matthews (“long hair don’t care, Clay Matthews”) and dismissed Steeler stars like Ben Roethlisberger (“they call him Big Ben, but he weak tho / we in Dallas, but we Lambeau leap ho”). Weezy is hardly seen as a prophet, but his words rang true on Super Bowl Sunday. Rodgers threw 3 TDs and led the Packers to an emphatic win, 31-25. 

Two weeks later, in the middle of February 2011, “Black and Yellow” peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Wiz Khalifa’s reign on top didn’t last long–Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga leapfrogged him the following week–but it was a big moment for an artist and a city that came up the hard way. 

Some of that success can be credited to Big Jerm, Wiz’s longtime producer and collaborator. They initially connected through the skateboarding scene in 2007. But Wiz started out in 2005, trading intern duties for studio time at ID Labs in Pittsburgh. Founded the year prior by producer E. Dan, ID Labs served as one of the few hubs for hip-hop in the city. Jerm joined as an intern in 2008 and quickly became one of Wiz’s main engineers for project after project, like Flight School and Deal or No Deal.

The culminating moment came in 2010 with the release of Kush & Orange Juice, a laid-back arrangement that some believe to be the greatest blog era mixtape. It scored Wiz a deal with Atlantic Records, and created hype  for his major label debut, Rolling Papers. Bankrolled by the label, Wiz branched out from his city to record music for the album. The Norwegian duo Stargate — mainstays in the Rihanna and Beyonce catalogue — produced the singles “Black and Yellow” and “Roll Up”. Then for the third single “On My Level”, Wiz headed down to Miami to link up with Jim Jonsin, the man behind the boards for multi-platinum singles like “Lollipop” by Lil’ Wayne and “Whatever You Like” by T.I.

Rebuke from fans came swiftly. On the IGNBoards.com forum, a fan started a thread on February 11th with the message “Wiz Khalifa has officially sold out, smh.” Responses rolled in: “It was bound to happen man. Its pretty sad when it does.” The Billboard review of “Roll Up” was favorable but clear-eyed, calling it “a noticeable change from Wiz Khalifa’s previous releases”. Even Urban Dictionary got in a lick, with user MarineBro posting a definition that got over 1000 upvotes, “Wiz Khalifa (n): Once was a pretty good rapper, but sold out and now makes shitty radio music.”

Little did fans know that the man himself felt like he was drifting away from his core in late 2010. After shuttling between Miami and LA, Wiz asked Atlantic to put him up back home for some sessions at ID Labs. In the conversation that follows, edited slightly for clarity, Big Jerm recalls those sessions, and working on the track that would become the 4th single in March 2011, “The Race”. He looks back on the ten year anniversary of Rolling Papers, calling the 2010-2011 stretch the “most fun” he had at ID Labs with Wiz and Mac Miller coming up focused and free in a city on the rise.

Akash Pandey: Is it true that you crossed paths with Wiz through skateboarding?

Big Jerm: Yeah, actually, I started skateboarding in like 1997. It was all I cared about for years. Then around now actually, like springtime Senior year, I started making beats very randomly. Somebody gave me Fruity Loops and I just became obsessed with it. And then I got sponsored for skating that year to a shop called One Up in Pittsburgh. That intersects with Wiz because at one point the skate shop moved into Time Bomb which was a hip hop clothing store that sold LRG and mixtapes and stuff. This was probably ‘05, maybe ‘06. 

From there I got in touch with Boaz, the first real rapper I worked with, and Wiz heard that because everything was [being produced] at ID Labs. Then I met him with his original manager Chad Glick at Time Bomb and gave him a beat CD. For “Gettin It” on Prince of the City 2, I had to drop off the beat stems to E. Dan to mix the song. We talked a little bit but it wasn’t anything major and then for the next one, Flight School, in ‘08, I started interning at ID Labs. One of the engineers was kind of flaky and Wiz started hitting me up to record him.

Did you feel, from the jump, that Wiz was about to take over the city?

When I met him, he was already known in the city, like he signed to Warner, but he always had a vision. That was the main thing with him. I could always kind of see it and even when he first decided to rap, he always knew he was going to do something. That was important, especially in Pittsburgh. It’s like he was the first person to really do anything like that.

That contributed to him becoming as big as he’s become? That vision, that plan.

100%. Things like, you know, the Taylor Gang thing. He started [that] pretty early because he knew you have to connect with your fans and make people feel like they’re a part of your career. Even Kush & Orange Juice. He was talking about that for like a year before it came out and I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then we’re sequencing the album and doing the skits and stuff and it was like, oh yeah he saw this the whole way.

I saw you said somewhere that Wiz had envisioned Kush & Orange Juice (2010) as ‘chill, laid back shit’ and then Cabin Fever (2011) as more high-energy, hard-hitting. So if you think back on that era, you know 2010 and 2011, what do you think his vision was for Rolling Papers?

I think his vision got distorted a little bit just because there was the label involved. Kush & OJ was like, freedom, he just did what he wanted to do. It’s not a negative thing, but Atlantic is like a factory. They have their producers they want you to work with and there might even be a hook already. Wiz didn’t do this because he always liked to write, but sometimes [Atlantic] would bring whole songs, and then you just plug in, you know, your voice. They had their little system and I do think that took away from the vision a little bit, but you kind of have to play that game when you’re on a major label.

So when you heard “Black and Yellow,” which is Stargate-produced but it’s still repping for the city, how did you react to that?

When I first heard it, it sounded like a big record obviously, but I didn’t know if it was too Pittsburgh oriented for other people to really get it. It was crazy when it really caught on. And that year, the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, so it was like perfect timing.

That 2010-2011 timeframe is when you guys were doing Kush & OJ, Cabin Fever, Rolling Papers but also all the stuff for Mac [Miller]. Best Day Ever, Blue Slide Park and K.I.D.S. How wild was the energy at ID Labs around that time?

Yeah, it kind of all came out of nowhere, because I had met Mac in early 2009 [when] he was like 16. He hit me up on Myspace; that’s how long ago that was. Like I said, ID Labs was kind of the spot for rap, and they both went to the same high school. 

Mac and Wiz?

Yeah, and Kush & Orange Juice was like Spring [2010] and then K.I.D.S came out in August. It was kind of wild for all of us.

Were you in the studio all the time?

Yeah, definitely. I mean I was still recording other people too, pretty much any rapper in Pittsburgh I was recording at that point. So I remember days where I was at the studio 24 hours a day. I would record other people earlier in the day and then maybe Mac or Wiz would come at night and then I ended up being there from noon to noon. So yeah, definitely busy at that time but it was cool.

So, going back to Rolling Papers. The first two singles are Stargate, and then there’s “On My Level,” which is Jim Jonsin. And then the fourth single is “The Race”. Did you feel like you had something to prove? What was the vibe for that track?

Wiz had done “Black and Yellow” pretty early in the process not too long after Kush & OJ came out. Maybe like late spring, early summer [2010]? And then I know he went to Miami with Jim Jonsin, I want to say like June or July. Then he brought me to LA. We went for like two weeks and Atlantic was setting all this shit up. That was like August, and then in September, he told Atlantic, “I want to go to Pittsburgh and work with my people,” and that’s when “The Race” happened.

It was all so new to me, I don’t think we really set out like there was something to prove. We were all comfortable there. There probably was more pressure, but at the time I was treating it like we’re at the studio like we always were. E. Dan started with the chords and I don’t know if you can picture it. The “Kid Frankie” video takes you through the whole studio. You’ll see Wiz pulls up and comes into the front room. It was such a small studio, it’s kind of crazy all the stuff we did there. But yeah anyway, when E. Dan was in the back, he played the chords and then I went in the front and did the drums. It kind of came together and Wiz was writing as Dan was playing the chords. Then I think he came in and added some more stuff after all the vocals were done. 

It’s interesting you mentioned being comfortable because like you can kind of tell on the song. It’s got that breezy feel to it. I was in college, late college around that time and it was a tokers’ anthem, so chill, so laid back. Do you remember Wiz seeming happy to be back home and making that kind of track?

Definitely. He always was confident but I think he had more confidence because all these other things were going well. All his friends were around and there’d be times where he came to the studio at like seven or eight pm. Then he’d go to the strip club at like midnight, and everything closes in Pittsburgh at two so he’d come back at like 2:30. I think it was that comfort level of being able to move around the studio but also the city. 

You mentioned he told Atlantic ‘I need to go back home and work with my crew at ID Labs.’ Did you get a sense from him that he was feeling pulled away from Pittsburgh or that his vibe was going too mainstream?

Yeah, I did feel like that honestly. I mean he never said anything to me but like, with “Roll Up”, I always felt like that wasn’t the best choice for the second single. It did well but I think it was too poppy for people. It caught people off guard if you remember back then. And the overall album… I think people look back on it more fondly than they did it when it first came out.

What do you make of that narrative that he was selling out or like leaving Pittsburgh behind?

Um, it was more so the fans. They had a preconceived notion, like that’s what they thought he would do anyway. It’s like ‘he’s just cashing in now’ but they don’t really understand the behind-the-scenes. With Atlantic, some of that isn’t his choice. It’s how it is if you’re on a major label. They’re gonna push some things on you and you kind of have to put up with it to a point.

Right, for sure, but I mean, kudos to him for pulling back and realizing I gotta go back [to Pittsburgh]. I think “The Race” holds up as one of the best tracks on the album for that reason.

I mean I agree. Not even because it was us, it’s just that was his sound. He’s been working with E. Dan since I want to say ‘04. They had a comfort level and then I came in a little later but I spent a lot of time with him at that point too. So yeah I think he needed that. And the album would have been a lot different if he didn’t come back. I definitely appreciated [that] when I knew he had all these other pressures like, you know, he could have worked with any producer. He wanted to come back and he still always does. I just sent him beats last week. It’s the same thing.

There’s that “Going Back to Cali” nod at the very end of “The Race”. Was that his idea? How did that come together?

Yeah I’m sure it was his idea. Some of those details, I don’t know. My memory is bad [laughs]. But yeah, he added that later now that I think of it. That was September when we did those initial sessions, but then he moved to LA in early 2011. He had a little condo in Hollywood. And I remember finishing up some stuff for Rolling Papers there too, so I think he did tack on some things at the end of songs there. The bonus songs on the 10 year [anniversary release], like the Nipsey verse [on “Hopes and Dreams”], he did that then before the album came out. I actually forgot about it and then Will [Dzombak, Wiz’s manager] hit me up about it a few weeks ago. Like ‘can you find this?’ and I was like, yeah, I’m sure I have it somewhere. Luckily I did. Sometimes those drives die, it was 10 years ago you know?

Yeah. One more track I wanted to bring up that sounds a little like “The Race” but was on Mac Miller’s Best Day Ever is “Keep Floatin’.” Was that meant for Rolling Papers? What’s the story behind that song?

Yeah, it definitely was. That sample, I don’t know if you remember, Gang Starr sampled it too. It’s the group War from the ’70s. They’re more known for funk, but [“Deliver the Word”] is a slow song. And yeah, I always liked the Gang Starr song and I had the loop. I would always make little beats and have it, but it never was like a fully fleshed out thing. That September [2010], I was in the front room messing with it and Wiz overheard it. He did the hook in those “Race” sessions and then nothing happened to it. At least six months later, Mac heard it and he wanted to get Wiz on that project. I was like ‘I have this hook’ so that would be an easy way to do it. You know what I mean? And it was just sitting there, so I I texted Wiz and he was cool with it. So then Mac filled in his parts.

Yeah, and it’s kind of the album closer for Best Day Ever, because there’s “BDE Bonus”, the second version which is the actual closer, but–

That was the original version, actually. The intro one [“Best Day Ever”] E. Dan did on his own separately and played it for Mac and Mac liked that.

The original is an Earth, Wind, and Fire sample right?

Yeah, that was actually another one that sat around. I remember I used to live in Oakland by the University of Pittsburgh in like ‘04 or something. I sampled it off the shittiest turntable. Nobody ever heard it and then I was messing with it one day [in 2011] and Mac heard it and that was it. It’s one of those things, being in a room with somebody, where it just comes together. We weren’t really thinking too hard but yeah, that was the best kind of stuff we did, and that’s the original version. 

Do you feel like that era, 2010 to 2011, was the most fun you had at ID Labs or like peak ID Labs?

Yeah, I do actually because for one thing there was not much money involved at the time. Or like I wasn’t thinking about that. Obviously you want to make money, but that’s not like the only goal. It was more like we were having fun and seeing where things went. And you can’t recreate that. It was more natural and there was a certain magic at that original ID Labs. I don’t know, I can’t even put my finger on it but it was just some sort of magic there. And that’s not to take away from the newer spot, which we opened in 2013. 

I don’t have anything to do with ID Labs anymore, no issues or anything, I just wanted to do my own thing. But yeah, with the new one, we can never recreate whatever we did at the old one. So yeah, I definitely look back fondly on that time period. It was more innocent before anybody had anything and everybody was still in Pittsburgh. It was more like a homegrown thing.

There’s something I want to ask you about that you mentioned on a podcast in 2018, before you moved to Atlanta. You said part of what prompted your move was the fact that people in Pittsburgh don’t really support each other. What did you mean by that? 

There’s a lot of hater jealousy stuff. In Atlanta, it’s like the older guys help the younger guys. Like Gucci will help the younger dudes or whatever. In Pittsburgh, I’m not talking about Wiz, more like random people, but people see somebody else coming up and it’s not like, ‘maybe like we could work together.’ It’s more like fuck that dude or ‘he’s doing more than me’ and it’s kind of weird. 

You see Wiz as a counterexample to that?

You know Wiz got hated on but he never did that. When he was coming up he would always do songs with Pittsburgh people and even to this day, the people around him are mostly Pittsburgh people. Even in LA. It’s like he brought people out there and still works with us and [producers] like Sledgren. But yeah when he was coming up, there were people who hated on him. In Pittsburgh, it’s like they won’t respect it until they see you do it elsewhere. So it’s like he had to pop off. It was kind of the mentality, because it’s the Midwest, a smaller town. It’s not real unless it’s happening somewhere else, if that makes sense.

Interesting. It’s like in this small city you can make it, but can you make it there?

Basically, yeah.

What do you think is the legacy of Rolling Papers when you look back on it?

I think of that whole year. Kush & Orange Juice, then you know, everything changing for him. Going on a pretty big fall tour, Drake reaching out, the combination of all that stuff. There are definitely things about the album, mostly on Atlantic, that I would change. Like, you know, there’s like no samples on the album. And that’s what I’m into. I mean it doesn’t have to be samples, but shying away from it purely for financial reasons. It’s kind of, I don’t know, for hip-hop, there should always be a place for it. So there were those kinds of things, but generally, he was able to get his sound out there and still make it marketable. It was the culmination of all those things he had been working on. And then the other side of it was the rap star world of dealing with labels, but also getting to work with bigger producers. 

So it was cool to see him go big, even though it might not be your favorite release from that era?

Exactly. I was happy for him. I mean from recording in his mom’s house to him doing huge shows and seeing him on TV with “Black and Yellow” going crazy. I was just happy for him, more than anything.