* A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of XXL magazine *
MOURN YOU ‘TIL I JOIN YOU
The troubled life and tragic death of 2Pac’s favorite producer, Johnny J
One night in June 2008, the rap producer Johnny J went on a double date at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with his friend, the independent film producer Earnie Hooks. The table ordered a bottle of wine. But Johnny, who had his troubles with alcohol, drank only a little more than a glass. “We didn’t even finish the whole bottle,” Hooks remembers. Johnny was in a good mood that night, and before departing, he left two glasses of wine on the table in memory of his friend Tupac Shakur. He then drove off in his Range Rover with his wife.
Later that night, Johnny J was arrested for drunk driving, his third DUI, and pleaded no contest to the felony charge; California’s limit is 0.08, one of the nation’s lowest.
On October 3, 2008, with his release from prison only two months away, Johnny J died from injuries sustained after he fell at least 14 feet at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The state’s coroner’s report ruled Johnny’s death a suicide, listing the official cause of death as “multiple blunt head and chest trauma. He left behind a wife, Capucine, and three children.
Johnny J was a pioneer of the West Coast sound, 2Pac’s favorite producer and the producer of Pac’s magnum opus, the four-million-selling 1996 double album All Eyez on Me. But his death went little noticed in the public sphere—and remains, for some, a source of mystery. His wife has said that in the moments before Johnny killed himself, he called her to tell her he was going to commit suicide. That isn’t sufficient for some of his older friends.
“Family members are asking me to do an investigation on his death because they don’t think it was a suicide,” says Jackson’s first manager, “Fila” Al Davis.
“I’m still convinced that it wasn’t a suicide,” adds the DJ and rapper King Scratch, a friend from high school. “It’s almost like a Tupac and Biggie type thing—no one knows.”
Born Johnny Lee Jackson Jr., Johnny J grew up on 103rd and Budlong in South Central, Los Angeles, the oldest of three children. His father, John Sr., was a mechanic by trade who worked for the naval shipyards and now works for the U.S. Defense Department; his mom Lidia taught at a bilingual school. Johnny was spoiled as a kid. His family bought him a drum machine, built a home studio, and even made a break-dancing floor out of tile for him to practice on. His first car was a yellow Camaro.
Johnny attended Washington Preparatory High School at a time when hip hop was exploding on the West Coast; artists such as Yo-Yo, WC and Sir Jinx of Da Lench Mob were schoolmates. His big break happened soon after graduation when he produced “Knockin’ Boots” for his friend from Washington Prep, a rapper named Candell “Candyman” Manson. The song went platinum and reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in summer 1990, pushing Candyman’s debut album, Ain’t No Shame in My Game, into gold status.
Such achievements proved tough to match. “After the success of Candyman, there were time periods where the music business was a roller-coaster ride,” Johnny said in a 2006 interview with Fatal Hussein on the hip-hop website pjbutta.com “I kinda survived through it and stayed true to the streets and kept doing demos…That kept me alive, kept me going.” In February 1994, he released a solo album, I Gotta Be Me, that tanked. A few months earlier, however, he’d met the man who would change his life.
In late 1993, Big Syke, a member of 2Pac’s group Thug Life introduced Johnny to ‘Pac. They quickly gelled, recording “Pour Out a Little Liquor,” for the Above the Rim soundtrack, and “Death Around the Corner,” which would appear on Me Against the World. The partnership was briefly derailed when Tupac was sent to prison in February 1995. But after his release in October 1995, the pair reunited at Can-Am Studios in L.A where they knocked out seven, sometimes eight tracks a day. “Tupac felt very secure with him in the studio,” says the producer Ronnie King, who played keyboards at those fabled sessions.
2Pac and Johnny J recorder more than a hundred songs together—11 of them, including “How Do U Want It” and “All About U” ended up on All Eyez on Me; the rest composed the bulk of 2Pac’s posthumous work. Tupac’s stepbrother, Mopreme Shakur, says the two bonded partly because both were workaholics. “Pac had a lot of energy, and so did Johnny,” he says. “’Pac loved it. Whatever Pac requested, Johnny could do. If ‘Pac said, ‘I want a slow, sad beat with strings, bass and guitar strings,’ Johnny could hook something up. It was a perfect fit.”
Not everything was so perfect, though. Just as Johnny was becoming one of the most successful producers in the music industry, his personal life began falling apart.
Around 1994, Johnny grew estranged from many of his close friends and family. Some blame his wife, Capucine Jackson, for creating the rift. “I think she didn’t want us around. Why? I don’t know,” says King Scratch. “He had all his numbers changed. All of his real homeboys and family, he kicked them to the curb.”
XXL spoke to Capucine Jackson during the summer of 2009. After a 30-minute conversation during which she asked most of the questions, she declined an interview. At the time, Jackson was rumored to be working on a book and documentary. Neither has materialized. Capucine, who recently launched a gospel singing career under the name Coppe Cantrell, did not respond to queries following our first conversation.
Much of Johnny’s anger, at least toward his family, was rooted in the discovery that he was adopted. Throughout his life, rumors had swirled because of his skin complexion: He didn’t look like either of his adoptive parents, who are African-American and Mexican, respectively. When Johnny finally learned the truth, from a male cousin, he was irate. Johnny was in his mid-20s. The Jacksons never planned on telling him.
“No one knew,” says his sister Nickie Jackson. “It was mainly because of the situation with his [adoptive] parents, and my father didn’t want Johnny to be hurt.”
Born in Juarez, Mexico, Johnny was adopted by the Jackson family when he was one week old. He once told his former publicist Phyllis Pollack that he was sold for $40. But there were even more difficult circumstances surrounding his adoption. “This came out of Johnny’s [adoptive] mother’s mouth,” says Fila Al, “his sister, brother, father, they were like, ‘Let me tell you what the real deal is.’ They said, ‘Johnny’s mother and father, they were brother and sister over in Mexico.’ So the Jacksons cared enough to take him from that situation.” In 2009, XXL independently confirmed this with a family member. But in June 2011, Nickie denied it. “I don’t think so,” she said after a short pause. “I heard that too. When Johnny passed, that question was asked, and my mom said, ‘No, they were not brother and sister.’”
Nickie said she would double-check with their mother, Lidia. She called back the next day. “I spoke to my mom, and she said that they were not brother and sister,” she said. “His father was also his uncle. It was [his birth mother’s] sister’s husband. It was a brother-in-law.”
After the revelation, Johnny’s relationship with his adoptive family worsened. He would still drop by the house, but sometimes he’d leave curse-filled messages on their voice mail. At other times, he just ignored them. “I saw him once and was like, ‘Hey Johnny,’” says his cousin Kimberly Davidson. “He was like, ‘Who are you? Do I know you?’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He totally erased us out of his mind.”
Earnie Hooks adds: “Johnny always said that if anything ever happened to him, not to invite [his family] to the funeral.”
Johnny was also upset over his career. Obviously, Tupac’s death, in 1996, was a terrible blow. And in the years following, the rap legend’s aura cast a long shadow over Johnny’s work—in terms of both individuation and expectations. “It felt like I was standing next to ‘Pac when I was in the room with Johnny,” says Inglewood rapper Shade Sheist. “When I was in there with him, I felt I was 2Pac and that it would be a smash hit just because it was Johnny J on production.”
Johnny founded his own label, Klock Work Entertainment, in 1997. But by the end of the decade, the West Coast’s influence had faded and Jackson’s sample-heavy, post-G-funk sound was dated. “We were trying to bridge a little of the West Coast production with the down-South style, but it didn’t take off,” says Ronnie King. “I think Johnny had a sound that he loved. He wanted to keep the integrity of that sound alive. I think he did it a lot for ‘Pac.”
Johnny did production work for Tatyana Ali and Lil’ Eazy E, but both of their albums were eventually shelved. In early 2007, he formed Streetlife/Klock Work Records with Pablito Vasquez and former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. Once that situation imploded, Johnny grew withdrawn. “He felt like a lot of people took advantage of his generosity and coolness,” says his longtime engineer Ian Boxill. “He didn’t know who to trust.”
In prison, Johnny was housed in the Trustee Dorm with approximately 80 other inmates and worked in the laundry room. There were certain codes he had to follow, such as not using the upstairs toilet because it was for Mexican-mafia-affiliated gang members—the notorious racial tension in Los Angeles between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans is exacerbated in prison. “Dee,” a man who claims to have been in the Trustee Dorm, says that, while Johnny avoided problems with gangs, he was depressed. “He would lay in bed and zone out,” Dee says. “I was like, ‘Let’s play cards, let’s hang out, eat something.’ But he was stressing.” Johnny still communicated with the outside world, even calling his engineer Ian Boxill on September 13, the anniversary of Pac’s death.
According to the coroner’s report, Johnny was the only inmate working on the second tier on the afternoon of October 3, 2008. He asked a supervisor for permission to make a phone call from a prisoner personnel office. This is reportedly when Johnny called Capucine and told her he was going to kill himself. She called the prison to warn someone, she says. After Johnny hung up, two custody assistants witnessed him leave the office, walk to the balcony, climb the metal rails and jump.
The coroner’s report stated that there was no indication of foul play. Still, speculation ran rampant. The most popular theory was that the was murdered by Mexican gang members. “My opinion is that he was murdered because he was Mexican and was around Blacks all his life,” says an old friend, Scotty D. “In county jail, you have to choose. You can’t just roll with the brothers if you are Mexican.”
Dee, from Trustee Dorm, says Johnny wasn’t murdered. “Hell, no,” he says. “He committed suicide.” Further complicating matters, the Jackson family was initially told that Johnny hung himself.
Johnny’s funeral was another ordeal. A shouting match ensued between the Jackson family and Capucine Jackson’s family after a member of her family called Jackson an orphan. The feud even carried over into the comments section of a Johnny J post made on the hip-hop blog Cocaine Blunts.
Johnny’s family has yet to recover. Nickie cries when she talks about him. “It’s just so hard,” she says. “People that weren’t in our family didn’t know him the way we knew him. We shared a bedroom together—me, him and my little brother. I never had anyone close to me die. It’s so hard to get over it. It’s been almost three years, and I still can’t get over it. It never stopped my parents’ love for him. I had to be the one who called my parents and tell them that Johnny was dead. We didn’t care that he was adopted. It hurts so much to know that he’s not here.”