J Hollins workin' it, underground

A wildly successful local artist who isn’t drooling at the chance of being signed and going major? That’s J Hollins.

The R&B crooner, formerly an artist on the Universal music label, has been there, and now considers himself a champion of the underground. “What’s garnering my fans right now is the non-watered down taste of what I do; musically, my sound, what I write about–that’s what draws people to it. I’ve put too much work in to relinquish control,” said J Hollins, who describes his sound as a fusion of house, techno and blues.

DJs on WPWR-FM/Power 92.3 and WGCI-FM/107.5 have declared his latest single, the sultry "When Was the Last Time," a hit song, and it has remained on the top 10 college charts for weeks. A second single, "So Chicago," is getting airplay on Latin station La Kalle. Power 92.3 and Kiss FM have sponsored listening parties for his latest album "Untitled"–a gesture normally reserved for major artists.

J Hollins (short for Jerome Hollins) is co-owner of and has released his albums on Block Bleeders Entertainment. But 10 years ago, he was signed to Mary J. Blige’s Mary J. Blige Entertainment after she saw his trio, Laid Back, perform at a local club. The group was whisked to New York, where A&Rs pressured them into developing a commercial sound that was good for radio. But their promotions budget ran out, and they were shipped to another subsidiary–Urban Essentials in Atlanta.

It wasn’t long before things fell apart, and a 20-year-old Hollins returned to Chicago determined to take his career into his own hands. In November 2005, he released his first album, "The Chronicles," on iTunes, CD Baby and Rhapsody, and was surprised when thousands of people bought copies. The album has sold 50,000 copies so far.

“I didn’t expect it to take off like it took off because of the horror stories you hear about the Chicago area, and being an independent artist here,” Hollins said. He took a similar route with "Untitled," released on June 17, a collection of songs about the subtleties of love and relationships.

The album has sold 1,000 copies to date. Major labels have again cast an eye in Hollins’ direction–and he is considering–but for now he is a fixture on the underground: a mix of club DJs, urban and suburban, Black, Asian and white fans who want more than what radio is playing. “I have a fearlessness, a total and complete fearlessness in the way that I make my music, and I’ve learned not to do what everyone else is doing. What’s out there is what’s out there. I can’t give you a bunch of what’s already out there. I can only give you me,” Hollins said.

Leila Noelliste can be reached via e-mail at lnoelliste@chicagodefender.com.

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