Turner Jackson's Red Plastic Cup is a case study in artistic development

By Dave Herrera | Aug. 12, 2016 | 5:15 p.m. 

Turner Jackson's Red Plastic Cup is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

If you haven’t heard it yet, brace yourself. All things being equal, the title track alone could easily give songs like “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake a serious run for feel-good hit of the summer.

If that statement seems tinged with hyperbole, give the song a listen and judge for yourself. 

Driven by the same kind of Nile Rodgers-like, disco-funk groove that propelled Daft Punk's “Get Lucky” a couple of summers ago, the song is instantly captivating.

It opens with Jackson delivering an indelible hook that then gives way to him giving a guided tour to the joyous kind of evening you hope never ends, “a great night, good friends and a whole lot of booze,” as he puts it.

The rest of the album is brimming with songs that are every bit as satisfying as “Red Plastic Cup,” so much so, that’s it’s challenging to pick a single favorite from the bunch.

Tunes like “Fool’s Gold,” “Luck of the Draw,” “Drunk Baby,” “The Man,” and “See You Again” evoke everything from Kool & the Gang to Prince, with shades of Outkast and the Knux swirled inand make it seriously hard to sit still and resist getting your groove on.

On this record, Jackson has carved out a distinctive sound that’s different from much of the music being made in the mainstream right now, and that, he says, is purposeful.

“In a world where people are saying the same thing,” says Jackson, sitting on the patio of Illegal Pete’s in downtown Denver one cool Sunday evening in late July, “the only person who’s probably going to get heard is the one who’s saying something different.”

This kind of thinking isn’t really new for Jackson. From his early days on the scene, with his innovative “freestyles are still free” campaign, in which he roamed around town rapping for anyone who would listen, he’s always kind of been doing his own thingand he kept after it until he finally made the album he wanted to make. 

With Red Plastic Cup, Jackson says he’s realized that goal.

“For years, I have been trying to make the music that I heard in my head,” he says. “It was like I did what I set out to do. When I made the record, I wanted to make a record that people would like, but that is true to me. I accomplished that, and I knew that when I listened to it the full way through.”

Jackson’s progression over the years could make a convincing case study for the concept of artistic development. Since making his debut a half-dozen years ago, Jackson has gradually edged forward artistically with each release. When he first emerged in Denver’s fertile and often overlooked hip-hop scene, Jackson was raw and unseasoned.

He’s come a long way since he first attracted attention in late 2010, when respected scene reporter Ru Johnson interviewed the fresh-faced, aspiring 21-year-old rapper for the city’s local alt-weekly (full disclosure: I was the music editor at that paper from 2003 to 2014).

Even then, though, from the tenacious way he set about making his mark in the scene after thatincluding things like being filmed after hours outside the offices of the paper delivering impromptu rapshis earnestness was unmistakable.

Turns out, this boundless determination was baked into his character long before he’d ever picked up a mic or recorded a single song.

Everything you need to know about Jackson’s tenacity can be learned from the image emblazoned on his arm. The tattoo, which was applied about a decade ago in Biloxi, Mississippi, shortly after Jackson enlisted in the Navy, features the likeness of Rock Lee, a character from an anime series called Naruto.

The storyline of the series centers on Naruto, the title character, and a group of fellow teenagers from his village who are all studying to become ninjas. Rock Lee is a peripheral character, a student, who, unlike his peers, is unskilled in the fighting techniques required to earn his status and become a ninja.

All the character really has going for him, according to Jackson, is his determinationand a tireless advocate in his trainer, a character named Might Guy, who recognized his tenacious spirit and continued to champion him specifically because of his iron will.

"What’s cool about Rock Lee, even when he’s down, if he gets knocked unconscioussay, he gets hypnotized and he’s asleephe’ll still get up and fight, by his sheer desire and will to win," says Jackson, his eyes widening as he relates a pivotal episode in which Lee endures a nearly perilous battle with an adversary named Gaara.

"That’s his special ability," Jackson goes on. "When I’m down, I always want to be able to get back up. That’s the selling factor of Rock Lee: He can’t be beaten. He literallyunless you kill himhe can’t be beaten. He just has a drive to not lose.

“I love epics and stories of how people came to be who they are,” adds Jackson, after relating the high points of the saga and explaining why he identifies with that particular character so readily.

Jackson, it turns out, has had many individuals in his life like Might Guynot to mention, he actually has a pretty interesting backstory of his own.

Warner “Turner” Jackson was born in 1988 in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, to Rev. Dr. Larron Jackson and Sandra Warren; he's the only child the couple had together.

The family ended up in Colorado after his dad concluded his professional football career in the mid '70s playing guard for the Denver Broncos and joined the pastoral staff at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Denver.

Jackson’s folks were together for about three years before he was born, but they ended up parting ways before he was a toddler. Until high school, he split his time between living with his mom in New York, where she went to work for the state, and in Delaware with his dad, who stayed active in the church and worked in community relations with various hospitals. 

From the stories he tells, Jackson was unruly growing up. Raised in Brooklyn until he was nine, he remembers getting in trouble early on, influenced by the older kids in his neighborhood. “I just had this infatuation with being in the streets,” Jackson recalls. “My mom couldn’t control me after a while, and so that’s why I went to go live with my dad.”

Jackson describes his dad, who played guard in the NFL, as a large man with an imposing presence. You’d think under his father’s watch, he would have snapped back in line. This was not the case, however, says Jackson, who admits that he had a knack for pushing his parents’ buttons.

He remembers one episode around the time he was eleven years old that clearly illustrates just how much he tested his father’s patience and how much of an actual handful he was back then.

Evidently, Jackson and his friends had been been giving the bus driver grief every day on their way to school. One day, their antagonism reached a boiling point, and Jackson ended up being suspended. Exasperated, his dad warned him that it better not happen again.

Naturally, Jackson found himself in hot water again not too long after that, but instead of owning up, he came up with an imaginative way to try to avoid the consequences.

“I went home, and I cut all the phone wires in the house, thinking that that would erase the messages, so he would never get the messages," recalls Jackson with a laugh. "He came home and went to his room and saw that the wires were cut, and then he went down to the office [and noticed that phone line was also severed]. He replaced all the wires and listened to the messages, and then he knew exactly why they were cut.”

Eventually, Jackson’s escapades exhausted his father’s patience, and he ended up moving back to New York again with his mom. The change of scenery didn’t change his behavior, though, and before long, his mom was also at wit’s end with his antics. One incident, in particular, pushed her over the edge.

He lived in a two-story house in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn with his mom, and he was often home by himself while she was at work. One afternoon, he took advantage of the situation and invited all the neighborhood kids over for a party, and they drained whatever liquor was in the house.

“My mom found out because the door was open when she came home, and the house was all messed up,” Jackson remembers. “I was down the street, passed out on the street. I had to go to the hospital and get my stomach pumped. It was real bad. There were, like, 15 kids in there. They were all gone when she came home.”

That episode resulted in Jackson later being placed in a group home. After running away from that facility twice, his mom let him move back home. Within two months of being back, however, Jackson started acting up again, and this time, his misbehaving ways led to a stint in juvenile detention.

That experience turned out to be a turning point in Jackson’s life.

Less than a month after being released, Jackson was warned by his caseworker that if he stayed in New York and got in trouble again, he risked being locked up until he turned 21. Alternately, he could move out of state and his record would be sealed.

Jackson’s parents made the decision for him, and the teenager moved back to Colorado to live with his dad. “My parents saved my life,” he says.

After attending Denver’s George Washington High School for a year and a half, Jackson moved with his father to Highlands Ranch, another suburb of the Mile High City, and that’s where his artistic side really began to flourish. “I wanted to sing and dance and be in the choir,” says Jackson, who was also a member of the speech and debate team.

After graduating from Mountain Vista High School, he joined the navy. “My dad was like, ‘Well, you can’t sit here and do nothing,” Jackson recalls. “If you’re here, you’re going to have to get a job and pay rent.’”

In the navy, Jacksonwhen he wasn’t sharpening his rap skills, freestyling alongside his fellow sailorsworked as an aerographer’s mate. A weatherman, essentially, he would take take observations of the clouds and the waves and any building weather conditions and then report his findings to a weather forecaster.

“I can tell what weather patterns are what,” he says now of his training, “but I don’t have the credentials anymore to go and get a job with the national weather service or anything.”

Jackson’s time in the military was influential, he says, because “it showed me that I could really get what I wanted. It just showed me that if you set your mind to do something, you can do it. You can get it. Like, there’s not anybody behind the curtain pulling the strings. You can do it.”

Fueled by this realization, Jackson returned to Colorado in 2009, where he completed his four-year enlistment at Buckley Air Force Base. By then, he’d already started working on his music, recording a pair of projects, The Reason: Vol. 1 in 2005 and Turner for President in 2008. At the same time, he was on the verge of starting a family of his own.

The demands of working full time and making music made it challenging for him to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time. So, just barely of age to drink, he ended up splitting with his then-fiancee (who later gave birth to Jackson’s son, who is seven years old now), and that’s when he seriously started devoting himself to his craft.

His first exposure to the Denver scene was interning for Fly magazine, distributing copies of the mag around town for the publishers, Brandon Eubanks and Yosef Assefa. That experience was key in terms of helping him make friends in the music community.

It's how he met Eubanks' step brother, Quincy Miller, from Live Wire Urban Radio, which led to him later meeting Whygee, a well regarded rapper, who befriended Jackson and served as an inspiration early on for the burgeoning artist. Whygee is one of the people who encouraged him to follow his own muse something he still strives to do to this day.

When he first starting making his own music, Jackson tapped into an odd, yet interesting, mixture of influences. While Wale is a rapper that he says inspired him as an MC early on, Jackson’s musicality and melodic sensibilities came from an entirely unexpected, and certainly orthodox, source.

“Television theme songs are some of my biggest influences,” Jackson reveals. “Like Family Matters, Step by Step, Boy Meets World and Living Single. Every time they would come on, I would sing the songs.”

As a performer, Jackson says his inherent love of being on stage came from watching his dad sermonize in church.

“I’m in love with the entertainment of people and communication,” says Jackson. “And that really comes from watching my dad preach.”

Jackson developed his stage presence, meanwhile, by studying other impassioned and charismatic artists from the scene, who displayed what true showmanship is all about.

“F.O.E. and Karma are the biggest influences on me on how people present what they’re rapping or doing,” says Jackson. “I was like, ‘That’s tight! There’s something to that.’ I took a lot of things from them, presentation wise. And because I was their little bro, they started introducing me to other people, and people started liking me.”

Jackson has worked with a parade of people from all facets of the Denver scene, and he has plenty of praise to pass around for the folks he’s worked with over the years. He loves to collaborate. In fact, if given the choice, Jackson says he'd rather create with other people than go it alone. 

“I’m not good at working by myself,” he explains. “So even if I had a studio at home, I wouldn’t make good music, I don’t think. That’s probably like ten years down the line, where I could be in the studio by myself and make music that is as good as I was making with somebody else.”

Jackson points to his latest album as a prime example. If it wasn’t for Ryan Conway of Conway Sound, he stresses, Red Plastic Cup wouldn’t have turned out the way it did. (Really, the same can be said for the countless other gems Jackson’s recorded over the years with Denver icons like Big J Beats, Qnox, DJ Dozen, Al Kelly and Kid Hum).

When he and Conway, a talented producer, who’s also worked with a wide array of Denver artists, started working together, they had instant chemistry, says Jackson. “I knew what I wanted to make when I went in there,” recalls Jackson. “And it just so happened that Ryan was a dude who could sit down, and I could talk to him and show him examples of things, and he could translate it into what I was trying to do.”

A few years before he got to that point, however, Jackson says another influential figure entered his life, and she’s the one who really helped cultivate his creativity.

Lulu Clair of Souls In Action has been managing the rapper now for almost four years. She signed on to oversee his career after seeing him perform at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, on a bill her team promoted featuring Tiron & Ayomari and Action Bronson. Jackson provided local support, and Clair was impressed enough by his performance that night that she offered to manage him shortly after that.

Her input has been instrumental, says Jackson. She believed in him from the very beginning and pushed him to progress as an artist. In an effort to help him increase his exposure to a broader audience, she's done everything from coordinating collaborations with artists in other genres to continually reinforcing his desire to experiment with other styles of music.

“Meeting LuLu and Souls in Action was a turning point of me doing things differently,” he says. “I wanted to do different stuff, but I didn’t have the access or the availability. I was very apprehensive to do it at first [branching out], because I thought people would make fun of me, because I was rapping on electronic music, and it would take away from my validity as a rapper itself.”

Instead, Jackson expanded his following. In addition to the backing of Clair, Jackson pushed forward with the support his crew, Welcome to the D.O.P.E. Game, an artistic collective (whose acronym stands for Don't Oppress Positive Energy) that he co-founded with celebrated videographer, Jeremy Pape (aka Konsquence). Fellow preacher’s kids, Jackson and Pape bonded immediately, and their shared passion for creating compelling art inspired them to establish a platform for their like minded friends to support each other.

The movement -- and Welcome to the D.O.P.E. Game definitely grew into a movement-- became even more focused and impactful under the direction of Marcus “Arrilius” Hayes, who passed away in February 2013. The influence of Hayes, who assumed leadership of the crew shortly after the collective changed its name from "The AV Club," was immense, says Jackson. Hayes embodied all the qualities that Jackson had yet to develop as a leader.

“I’m a better team player than I am an individual player,” Jackson reiterates. “At that time, I was developing what skills I had as a team player. Now, I’m a great leader of men, but before then, I wasn’t. I had to learn that stuff from Marcus.”

True to the mission of his D.O.P.E. Game crew and the spirit of Hayes, Jackson remains relentlessly positive, in both life and music.

Need a pick me up? Following Jackson on Twitter is an uplifting experience. A sampling of some of his recent tweets:

"Hey baby. It’s always happy hour when you smile for sixty minutes at a time. Do the things that make you positive and passionate,” reads one entry. “Hey baby. Love and friendship are what guide us. Family is important. They are who get us through the day and especially the night,” reads another, followed by, “Hey baby. It’s alright to enjoy yourself in the moment. Happy days are made of moments enjoyed. So take a moment to enjoy your day.”

And he’s continuing to progress musically, even since issuing Red Plastic Cup just this past spring.

His current record, recorded last fall, represents an era of his life that he’s since moved past. “That album is really about partying and being with chicks, and that’s a real time period in my life,” he says. “About five months ago -- about the time I put the record out -- that stuff started being way less important to me. And so my music is changing again to fit a little bit more adult life, where it’s not so much about that as is relationships.”

Indeed, the new songs he's shared sound like a sequel to cuts like “See You Again” from Red Plastic Cup. Although this album comes off as celebratory, it was actually spurred by heartbreak, he says. And at least two of the five new songs Jackson’s written for his next project find him sorting through the emotional aftermath. On “Walk of the Shameless,” for instance, Jackson delivers lines like this in the chorus: “I just want to make you a playlist/When you miss me, you’ll listen to it/Another feel-good song, ‘cause, yeah, I care.”

On “In the Cards,” meanwhile, he sings of how, “I was looking for love and all of that stuff/Might have found it once or twice, but none of it stuck/It left me broken hearted, and all of it hurt/Which is my inspiration for all of this work,” before conceding that, “I’m in love with my work/Don’t need no shorty,” so “love is not in the cards right now.”

The new tunes have a little less bounce than the songs on Red Plastic Cup, but they’re no less tuneful.

Even more impressive, Jackson’s able to pull the whole thing off live, thanks to the help of his band, guitarist Andy Nicolai, bassist Kyle Williams, drummer Sean Conlin, and vocalist Christina Lindell. While the musicians only played on two of the album’s nine tracks (Conway provided the instrumentation on the rest), they deftly bring the songs to life on stage. Exceptional players, they all know how to bring the party.

Considering their frontman, they couldn't be in better company when it comes to that.