CJ Miles Believes Writing Hip-Hop Music Is Like Finding Basketball Again

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Inside of a backpack tucked neatly in a locker at the Air Canada Centre sits a dark blue moleskin notebook. On any given page may be a wall of hand-written text, a more structured block, or a simple couplet. The writing sprays in all directions and is always scribbled, a messy hand betraying the urgency of a mind swiftly navigating its way from each idea to the next.

“I think so fast, I have to get it out,” C.J. Miles, the owner of the notebook, says. “Some days I have to have a pen and paper, and then some days it’s on a phone. It’s weird. It’s a feeling.”

The notebook, or one like it, can be found in Miles’ possession dating back years now. A restless sleeper and unrelenting thinker as a child, Miles found some solace and calm in writing through his experiences sometime after coming to the NBA right out of high school. There are quiet, empty hours to fill in a job that requires large swaths of travel, and not all of them can be spent in the gym honing one of the deadliest long-range shots in basketball.

And so Miles writes.

“On the plane, on the road, in the hotel. I mean, there’s been days even on the bus, the bus ride on the way to the game,” Miles says. “It’s like a release to me. It helps me narrow my focus. It’s something that keeps me sane, you know?”

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Originally, Miles wrote prose, not necessarily with structure or intent but purely as an outlet and a means of being able to reflect on how he thought and felt going through situations in the past. He still writes that way sometimes. Now, though, at least some of what he writes will be channeled into music and poetry, with a greater emphasis placed on rhyme schemes. C.J. Miles, or Mas Fresco (More Fresh), isn’t just a writer, but a rapper.

Always a big music fan, influenced mostly by the so-called Golden Era of late-90s hip-hop, Miles found himself unable to relate to some of what he was hearing, and so it seemed a logical step to put his written words over a beat. This gave him another hobby, and another outlet in a profession where so much time is spent on the road.

It didn’t take long into his first session trying to record some of his writing to realize it was the right choice for him.

“The first time I went to the studio, it was like finding basketball again,” Miles says. “Like, the first time I heard myself through the speaker, it was like the first three I made or the first dunk I made. I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ and ever since then it’s been an amazing part of my life.”

He now spends downtime searching through jazz records for samples, sometimes picking up new vinyl based solely on the cover, and trading texts and emails with his beat-makers to prepare for his next recording session. It was about four years ago that his first official project, No Camping, showed up on Soundcloud.

New tracks have intermittently shown up since, though Miles keeps their releases mostly to himself and his 183 Soundcloud followers. He has 29 tracks in total, most of them surprisingly good, surprising not because Miles isn’t talented but because of the bar set by a host of other hoopers-turned-rapper.

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The fact that he’s a basketball player first is freeing for Miles, who chooses not to promote his music heavily or even talk about it much. A straw poll of several teammates revealed only one player who was vaguely aware, thanks to being asked in an AMA, that Miles rapped. Miles’ goals with his music aren’t commercial, something he feels frees him to speak more authentically than some others may be able to.

“I think that’s the great thing about me not really having to be an actual rapper,” Miles says. “I get to do it the way I wanna do it. I don’t think about that when I make music. I make music solely for whatever I’m feeling at the moment. I feel like if you like it, you like it, if you don’t, that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t really like it.’ I’m like, that’s cool. I don’t like everything. Nobody’s gonna like everything. That doesn’t bother me.”

Miles’ perspective about rap is laid plain in his best song, “Gameplan.” His aim is to be as honest as he can, and if he can influence someone the way that artists like Jay-Z, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000, and The Roots influenced him when he was younger, then he’s happy.

From “Gameplan:”

My creative process is really quite simple, fool: To use the dopest beats and always tell the f*cking truth. Sometimes I’m doing sh*t just to say it in the booth, like spending 15 racks up in Flight Club, just for me to go and get drunk and scuff ‘em up.

For the son of a preacher, my flow is so absurd. These are my monkey bars, they hang on every word. And hopefully I touch a kid with a dream, who wants to be the best at whatever he wants to be, and he believes he can do it because of the words I speak.

“It’s an outlet,” Miles says. “I just take it as, you know, it’s fun. That’s the biggest thing for me: I like to do it. It’s entertaining to me, but I don’t do it to entertain anyone else. And if it entertains you, then that’s great, fantastic, I’m happy that it did that for you. That’s the dream. You hope someone relates to it. I hope that I can do that for someone because people did that for me, the artists that I liked.”

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Miles also believes the authentic approach he takes has helped him avoid the slack that other athlete-musicians sometimes receive. That only extends so far – at home, he’s liable to get teased a little bit by his wife, Lauren, who will sing the hook of “Mo Betta,” another of Miles’ best tracks.

Originally a two-verse poem, Miles’ producer – also named C.J. (The Great) – played him the song and Miles found a seamless fit. The track draws from Denzel Washington’s 1990 musical drama Mo’ Better Blues, in which he ultimately begs one of his two girlfriends to save his life. (Spoiler: It leads to a happy ending where the couple have a child named … Miles.)

The song is about Lauren and is, understandably, the most heartfelt of Miles’ tracks, conveying a depth that’s sometimes missing in the genre.

“She loves it,” Miles says. “She makes fun of the hook all the time. She always sings it to mess with me. It was about my wife. Yeah, she sings the hook, like she thinks it’s funny. But at the same time, if you really, really listen to a lot of the metaphors and things, it’s a real thing. I felt like there’s not a lot of hip-hop, like real hip-hop, that women like and that men like that’s not vulgar, that’s not, you know? So I tried to hit that line of speaking about somebody, like, for real. Not about a girl that you met or wanted to go try to meet. I wanted to speak on a real thing, but in a way where a guy didn’t feel soft for listening to it and a girl didn’t feel like she had to put on shoulder pads to be able to take it. I have a lot of songs that I’ve been able to do it, and I think that’s solely because of my wife. Because I’ve been able to actually live it. It’s a hard thing to describe.”

Lauren is currently pregnant, which, coupled with a move to Toronto, has given Miles plenty to write about of late. It’s been over a year since he put out a new track, and the next one will probably have to wait until the offseason – the season is when he writes and searches music, and the downtime of summer allows for recording.

Still, the next song is never far from his mind, his notebook never far from reach.

“It’s an art for me,” Miles says. “And it’s a timing and inspiration thing the same way. Things going on in my life, that’s how I vent, that’s how I get stuff out. There’s a lot of things, actually, that’s been on my mind lately, so I’ve been jotting them, back into it. Because you know, with a baby coming and the move, I’m starting to find a different inspiration and different space. Hopefully this summer I’ll be able to get back and actually put another full project together. I’ve been itching to it.”