When you ask 32-year-old Justin Derington to cite some of his biggest musical influences, he’ll rattle off names like Tom Petty, Kurt Cobain, and Stevie Wonder. Those artists have inspired generations of musicians, of course, but when you consider that Derington is a hip-hop artist, who performs under the nom de rap JLD or Just a Little Different, they make an unlikely collection of inspirations.
“I don’t take as much influence from rap music, but somehow [when I write], it all comes back to hip-hop,” Derington said. “If I had to name a rap musician, I’d say Kanye West. He’s prolific, and he speaks from an emotional perspective, which you don’t hear a lot in rap music.”
JLD raps from a highly personal perspective, too. The streamlined, insanely catchy rhymes in songs like “Chevy (My First Car),” “It’s My Day Off,” and “Dance Floor Addict” chronicle Derington’s life growing up in the north-central Texas town of Hillsboro, where he hung out in white and African-American neighborhoods listening to the victories and defeats, the romances and heartbreaks of a working-class burg. Derington has carried a notebook around with him everywhere for as he long as he can remember, he said, jotting down quotes and scraps of observation.
“Hillsboro is a melting-pot kind of town, but it’s still pretty segregated,” he said. “After living there awhile, I learned how to mix with all different kinds of people. I knew professionals and drug dealers. That’s something I’ll always take with me.”
He recorded and released his first album in high school with a former Waco production trio known as Strange Fruit Project. In 2002 he moved to Fort Worth to look for a job, worked for Foot Locker for seven years, had a daughter with his girlfriend at the time, and then, feeling he needed to start taking his music more seriously, moved to Austin, where he was homeless for a long spell while still performing. (His daughter remained with his ex-girlfriend.) His brother Pete eventually returned from overseas military service and became his business manager. Eventually, Derington found some career traction –– he played an unsanctioned South by Southwest show with the popular Austin hip-hop collective The League of Extraordinary G’z. That’s where he was spotted by the Georgia rapper Rittz, who asked him to open for him on a national tour that included gigs in New York City, Chicago, and Detroit.
Derington returned to Fort Worth in 2013, where his daughter and many of his friends were. He stayed at other people’s places on the Near Southside and performed gigs at Lola’s Saloon with the backup trio of bassist Chris Evans (The Hanna Barbarians), drummer Mark McCreight (A Bird, A Sparrow), and multi-instrumentalist Bryce Braden, a childhood friend from Hillsboro. He was subsisting on a series of odd jobs in the Fort until the middle of last year, when he decided he needed a stable day job and a stable home while he wrote and performed. He now lives in Cleburne, where he works by day at a car dealership. He sees his daughter regularly when he comes back to Fort Worth.
“I was always dead set that I had to be a musician,” he said. “But then I turned 30 and thought, ‘I need to re-evaluate some things.’ I needed balance in my life, some stability.”
Though Derington now has a reliable paycheck and his own place, he’s far from abandoning music. On Thursday, March 19, he’ll play a 40-minute set in Austin with Braden, Evans, and McCreight as part of a sanctioned SXSW showcase. The upcoming gig is especially exciting for him, because he feel his live performances are stronger than they’ve ever been, with his new collaborators. He’s about to release a new EP, Fifty Shades of J, and support it with a small string of Southern dates. This summer he plans to record a full-length with his backup trio to be released in the fall. Derington chalks up a lot of his current momentum to working with his new bandmates, who are all rock- rather than rap-based. It all goes back to his life philosophy of mixing up styles, influences, and people.
“Hip-hop can be uncreative as a scene,” he lamented. “My relationships with Chris, Bryce, and Mark have opened doors for me I never could have opened [as a traditional rapper]. We’re looking forward to making a big impact in the next year.” l