Thirty-year-old David Johnson has released three acclaimed CD mixtapes under the name Mr. J. His flow is solid and his tracks are hard, yet catchy enough to be radio-ready. What really sets Johnson apart in the world of rap is that he defines himself as straight edge. Every Saturday, Mr. J performs at the Bullfrog Bar & Grill in Redford from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. "That way, if people still wanted to do other things after the show, they still have time to," he says.
Metro Times: My own initial encounter with the straight-edge movement was attending punk shows in South Florida in the early 1980s. That scene was 99 percent white, and all about hardcore punk rock. I see that at least one of the trappings remains, the giant "X" on the hands, which I believe came from getting entry to shows from the door guy?
David Johnson: Yes, that's how the whole "X" on the hands started — to let the club know that underage kids can get into the show but not buy alcohol. Funny thing, that method is still being used in clubs to this day.
MT: Were you aware of those hardcore origins for straight edge?
Johnson: Yes, of course. I did my homework and was amazed at how straight edge grew, from such small origins to a worldwide spread. I like to think that good people are helping now to get the lifestyle out there.
I've been straight edge my entire life. I never tried poison — not drugs, not cigarettes, not alcohol, not liquor. And I never will; I come from a Christian household. Poison was never in our house. I see the way it changes people for the worse and thought to myself, "I want no part of that." So I decided to walk the straight line.
MT: What does the straight-edge movement mean to you today, and what response have you gotten from that community?
Johnson: Even though straight edge is a lifestyle, I treat it like a religion. I'm very faithful to it, and I will never let anybody stray me from it. I've even lost friends who felt that they couldn't be themselves around me. I respect everyone, but if people can't respect my beliefs, then it's their loss.
Hip-hop has always given me a voice to express what I want. Things I maybe couldn't say in normal conversations with people, but if you put a good beat behind it, it can grab their attention. I have a song called "Porn and Pro Tools" off Sleep Is Forbidden. Most people use music to create a certain mood with their lover, that's what I talk about in that song.
MT: What is Sleep Is Forbidden all about?
Johnson: It's about setting a target and going after it, not letting anything or anyone stop your hopes and dreams.
MT: What can you tell me about getting started, when you first began to turn poems into raps?
Johnson: I think it was around 11th or 12th grade, when I started writing more raps and less poems. My writing became more serious in rap form because now I can tell more in- depth stories about myself and things around me. Once you put music behind the words, it's a win-win.
MT: Are there any other artists you're really excited about now?
Johnson: I like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, K-Os — he's from Toronto — and J Cole. These are my go-to guys for my hip-hop fix.
MT: How do you think your music meshes, or doesn't, with the local hip-hop community?
Johnson: Oh, it does. Hip-hop is based off skills and passion. I have those elements. I know I'm different but that's what makes people say, "OK, let's hear what this guy is about to say."
MT: Do you have a general personal philosophy as regards to your music?
Johnson: I try to make music in the purest form. I want to always be honest, upright, and mean what I say. I want people to hear my music and say, "Wow, I get it." It's OK to be yourself and not always follow the crowd.
MT: What would you most like to do that you haven't?
Johnson: Either perform at the Palace of Auburn Hills, sky dive, or battle rap Eminem (laughs). Not sure which one would be worse for me.
Catch Mr. J at the Bullfrog Bar & Grill every Saturday, 6-8 p.m.; 15414 Telegraph Road; 313-533-4477; no cover.