Brothers, John and Joel have been playing instruments and studying music for over 15 years. But, their trajectory to becoming a production team hasn't been as linear as you'd think. John, a former middle school English teacher, went to college on a [marching] band scholarship. Joel, studied engineering in college, and went on to become a mechanical engineer. Though both of them started on different career paths, they soon realized that music, specifically production, is what they wanted to do. The gigs and the calls kept coming in, so John and Joel collectively decided that they were going to keep their jobs until they were stable enough to make the transition into music. But, it wasn’t too much longer that both of them would be laid off – at the same, no less - forcing them to go head first into music, production. Something both attribute to God's plan for their lives. I sat down with 42*North for a conversation discussing their faith, the influence and legacy of neo-soul, the future of Christian Hip-Hop, and more. Here’s our conversation:
How’d the name 42*North come about?
John: About four years ago, we were with our brother, Wes Pendleton, working on music, and he pushed us to create a name. So, 42 North is actually a highway in Jersey that goes into Philly. Growing up, our Dad sang in a choir and he was always going to Philly on 42 North. So, when I thought about a name that identified us, 42 North made sense – “from Jersey to Philly." Our experience with Philly was through music, especially coming up during the golden era of the neo-soul movement. That was hugely influential for us.
Can y’all talk about that era and it’s influence?
Joel: I think neo-soul, and it's sound still has its own niche. It’s not as prevalent or as popular as it used to be, but it’s coming back as like a “cool” influence on pop culture. Like, Pop music has elements of soul, neo-soul. Current rap, sampled into it, and R&B of course – it is soul music. So, I don’t really see it coming back as it used to be. Right now I think it’s kind of the cool sample-y type of thing that you always insert into Pop music.
As far influences go, who are some of the people y’all look to?
John: For me, personally, I was in [marching] band, so that’s kind of what I did growing up. But I was always a fan of rap. My parents really didn’t favor us listening to rap [laughs] or secular stuff, so I was introduced to Cross Movement, Christian Hip-Hop (CHH), and that was critical in building me up, theologically and musically. And then when I started playing bass toward the end of High School, I started getting into Tye Tribbett’s stuff, specifically his Life album. Earth, Wind, and Fire’s The Way of The World was huge for me – it was like a “yo, I’m going to play bass now" moment for me. Me and my brother –would just shed – literally – we would be in our friend’s shed, playing to neo-soul songs. Well, at least trying [laughs]. That was the first thing we were playing, even before church music. Power 99’s The Come Up Show was huge for me, too.
Joel: Yeah – it’s kind of the same for me, but more neo-soul and R&B stuff. Musiq Soulchild, Eric Roberson, and Dwele were like the three dudes that I would just have on repeat. I learned all the Dwele songs on the Rhodes, all the neo-soul chords, it’s kind of like the basis for how I started fiddling with the piano.
John: Jazz was also big influence for me – a lot straight ahead stuff. But, Fusion was huge for me when I started playing bass. As funny as it sounds funny, but Acid Jazz was a big influence for me – like Jamiroquai, those bass lines were incredible. My introduction to them was Space Cowboy, learning how to carry those bass lines taught me a lot.
As a production duo, who are some of the artists y’all have worked with?
John: We got our start on production almost four years ago, when our friend Wes kind of found us. It’s funny, we met at his church and he said, “I knew y’all weren’t ‘church musicians’” [laughs]. It’s like he could just hear it. He gave us our start with a guy he developed as well – Tragic Hero. That was like the first thing cats heard on SoundCloud. Then from there he introduced us to a guy named Wit Shahbazian. After that we started working more in the current CHH genre with guys like Andy Mineo, Social Club, Dre Murray, Alex Faith…
Joel: Taelor Gray, Christon Gray – there are a lot of the current guys in CHH that we got plugged into. The only guys from the older generation we kind of work with are Da Truth and Ambassador – but we just mainly toured with them.
John: Yeah – we toured with them for like two years. That’s before we started really pursuing production.
What made you all make the transition to production?
John: A lot of circumstances, but it kind of just made sense to shift gears. We still travel, but our mindset is kind of that we only want to play with artists that we’ve made music for, mainly because we feel more comfortable reinterpreting the music ourselves since we had a hand in producing it.
We’ve been fortunate enough to not have to search for artists, and just push out projects. - Joel McNeil
Is there something you all look for in an artist?
John: Well [laughs] they definitely have to pass the test of credibility with the homie, Wes – just in terms of them fitting our brand. And our sound – which is soul, alternative, hip-hop kind of music, so people that can fit that mold. But, I don’t think we discriminate with who we’ll work with, though.
Joel: It’s more of a personable thing. We’ve been fortunate enough to not have to search for artists, and just push out projects. We just kind of meet people, get along with them, and then find out they're artists.
How important is the relationship between you all, the producers, and the artist in the collaboration process?
Joel: Very important. It’s like… everybody’s in the studio for a session; it’s kind of weird if you can’t really vibe with them. You don’t know what they like, or what they’re looking for. You’re just fiddling around ‘til you appease them. You’re like feeling them looking over your shoulder, like, “hmm, do I like that? Do I hate it?” When you have a relationship, it’s easier to say, “you shouldn’t do this,” or make suggestions about how certain chord progressions fit their voice, or what their fan base will like.
John: The trust element is big. When an artist doesn’t trust you, or they’re acting like they don’t trust you, it makes production harder because you can’t be free and do what you do...
Joel: And ultimately, it’s just not fun [laughs]. It’s usually not worth the money, working with someone you don’t want to work with, and you’re going to hear that in the music.
As a production team, you all have produced outside of Hip-Hop as well. Does the process change based on the genre you're producing?
John: For me, there are different elements that can stand throughout genres. Elements of vibing and grooving come natural to us. So if we're making an alternative record, we're vibing, and looking to see what fits. But, having the mindset of the sonic qualities of a genre informs how we'll go about making a track.
Joel: It's always a little spontaneous, but the sonic quality of a genre let's us know how far we can go. Finding that pocket, whether it's alternative, Hip-Hop, Pop... finding that pocket is critical, then you can build on it. And for me, that's the hardest thing - finding that pocket. Finding the space to lock in the drums with those first sounds, or locking in that sample - that's the hardest part. Once you get that, the rest of the beat is easy.
I want to change gears a bit, and talk the faith element of the music you all produce. In terms of music being a unifying force, do you think Christian Hip-Hop can be a vehicle to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ? Especially to those that may not find church appealing.
John: I think the genre has spread the gospel, but I think as of late, it can be more effective if we have more unity. I think CHH is a microcosm of the larger faith community. As Christians, we’re pretty divided as well. There’s been more unity because of real persecution becoming a reality, and I think the Lord uses those situations to bring people together. CHH is kind of unsettled on how ministry should look.
And also, I think people forget that God even gave us grace for our differences – but it’s how we handle those differences, you know? That mentality should flow into the art – before you go and crucify someone and the way they do something, we should be open to the reality of this may be the way God is using this person.
Joel: Yeah, and let’s not just use our efforts to throw stones. Let’s not waste time making our separation further. Let’s use it to unite and do the work of the things we actually agree on.
God gave us grace for our differences - John McNeil
Often times producers don't have the chance to speak directly to the listener in the same way the artist does, but they have a strong influence in shaping the sound, and feel of a song. What do you all want listeners to take away from the music that y'all produce?
Joel: First, we want to inspire people musically. We want people to hear that something was actually put into making a song -- that there was real feeling, and time put into the music. You know? We want people to feel that this is real music.
John: Authenticity. God's been blessing us to be able to work with people that've allowed us to be ourselves, and not make us do things we don't want to do. You don't want people to hear that you're not having fun. We want people to feel that authenticity.
You can follow 42*North Music on Instagram and Twitter: @42NorthMusic