King of the Hill

Photo by Byron Israel

Growing up in Tacoma taught Will Jordan to calibrate his ambitions to suit his priorities. After going mercenary for global superstars in LA, the singer-songwriter-erstwhile hitmaker is back home and making his presence felt.

Cast in stark white concrete nine stories high, St. Joseph’s Hospital has loomed over Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood since the building was completed in 1974. Bertrand Goldberg, the famed Chicago architect, built it in his signature style, resembling towering alien vertebrae or a giant displaced molar, its undulating lobes dotted by columns of ovular windows. To this day St. Joseph’s articulates Goldberg’s vision of the future—practical, elegant, surprising—and remains one of the region’s busiest hospitals. If it were located anyplace else, it would be an icon of modern design. Instead St. Joe’s is overshadowed by Hilltop’s reputation as one of the bleakest neighborhoods in Washington state.

“That building has always reminded me of a space station,” says Will Jordan on a bright Tuesday morning. We’re driving around Hilltop, cruising through Jordan’s childhood. St. Joseph’s stands near the corner of S. 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, not far from the house he was raised in. “I’d come up here and look down at the city, all the lights at night, these big radio towers, and think about a space station, spaceships coming in to land, maybe take me away.”

Jordan found his own ticket out of Hilltop—a real one, no science fiction necessary. On the strength of his musical talent, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter-rapper-multi-instrumentalist-producer has traveled well beyond his modest roots, all the way to Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, the Grammys. He found pop success early, in someone else’s name, then endured years of back-and-forth hustle between Tacoma and LA, coached by benefactors, writing songs for placement—songs for hitmakers to make into hits. Though he never fully relocated, he kept one foot out the door until recently, when he traded the well-oiled Hollywood machinery for his own independent operation right here in Tacoma.

Jordan is almost always writing, recording and releasing music, with dozens of singles on SoundCloud dating back to 2013. Lots of self-produced solo stuff, and, more recently, collaborations, like his turn on “Plastic Heaven,” the waltzing lead single from Andrew Joslyn’s Awake at the Bottom of the Ocean album. Last October he rapped over Croatian electro-pop badgirl Ronna Riva’s “Soul Stealer.”

This fall he’ll unveil his latest project, a package of eight songs and accompanying high-concept videos he’s calling Deep Sleep. The title holds several meanings for him: the archetypal dark night of the soul; the nurturing succor of sleep; the state of a troubled, exhausted world that can’t seem to wake up despite its blaring alarm. This, Jordan says, is his shot at rousing the masses. It’s not meant to blast him into superstardom; he doesn’t believe in that narrative. It’s simply another step in the process.

“There’s no such thing as a big break,” Jordan says. “It’s a bunch of really small chips and cuts and cracks and creases and folds that create your masterpiece.” Which is not to say that Jordan lacks ambition, but that he’s learned to calibrate his ambition to suit his priorities.

This is part of Will Jordan’s magnetism: The self-awareness apparent in his music is further pronounced in the man. Narrating from the passenger seat, he’s a calm presence, quiet but attentive, and generous with his enthusiasms and appraisals. As young as he is, he’s lived a lot of life and gathered a lot of wisdom, which he shares humbly. Tacoma bestows him default outsider status, which he mitigates with colossal musical chops. Jordan is simultaneously an underdog and a hero.

Check out the video for “In My Feelings,” the first single from Deep Sleep. The storyline is based on his life—his first job as a grocery store clerk smashed up against his current role as Tacoma’s hometown R&B star—and it plays out like a very believable fairy tale. With a sticky hook, ticking drums, chiming synths and gooey layers of vocal reverb, the song itself slots alongside the of-the-moment progressive soul music of Solange, Jidenna, Frank Ocean, Anderson .Paak. Jordan’s voice comes from the classic-Motown school, strong but vulnerable, simultaneously smooth in delivery and chapped with emotion. Like all of the songs on Deep Sleep—and like so few songs coming out of the SoundCloud underground right now—it combines that intangible quality called vibe with the foundation of an unforgettable vocal melody. Through years in the studio and mentors in the industry, Jordan has fully honed his skills, and they’re undeniable.

“I don’t have anything else to do,” he says. “I’m raising my daughter, and I plan, and I do shows. But I know that everything that I’ve tried to do, better things have happened than I could’ve imagined. So I try to think big because I don’t want to sell myself short.”

For most of his young life, Jordan’s whole world consisted of three Hilltop blocks. He lived at 19th and Ash Streets, in a white brick house with a fireplace shared by six siblings and his parents, who raised them in a Christian home with conservative Southern principles. His mom was a teacher and his father a pastor, respiratory therapist at St. Joseph’s, landscaper—both providers willing to work several jobs and long hours to support the family. Stanley Elementary was across 19th Street, and across from Stanley was his father’s church, the tiny New Direction Church of God by Faith.

In 1989, the year Jordan was born, a dozen off-duty Army Rangers from Ft. Lewis engaged in a 30-minute gun battle with a well-armed faction of the Hilltop Crips a few blocks from his house, a clash known as the Ash Street Shootout. More than 300 rounds were fired but nobody was killed. The story gained national attention and was a pivotal point in the ongoing evolution of Hilltop.

Growing up, Jordan heard stories that he believed were urban legends, like the van that rolled through the neighborhood with a 40-caliber machine gun, or “chopper,” mounted to a milk crate and aimed out the open door, blasting into houses indiscriminately. As he got older he met people who were actually there. Jordan witnessed some pretty scary stuff himself, like “meetings,” or open-air drug deals, at nearby parks, or kids firing guns into the air at school dances to set everyone running, or the time when his family was leaving for church on a Sunday morning and his mom encountered their next-door neighbors sitting on their stoop.

“She said, ‘You guys need to be at church,’ and they kind of just laughed it off,” Jordan recalls. “We got back from church and found out that a drive-by came through and shot up the entire house.”

And yet, thanks to strong, supportive parents, he thrived.

“We didn’t know anything was wrong because that’s where we were, that’s what it was, that was life,” he says. “Anybody who survived that, it kind of gave you a sense of pride to know that we didn’t even know we were going through anything. And now I’m not scared of anything.”

At age six, Jordan joined the band at his father’s church, first playing drums and, soon, writing songs. As he grew up, he watched his parents struggle to stay solvent, keep the lights on, relocate to a better part of Tacoma. He passed through the public school system, bused to better schools in “nicer” neighborhoods, eventually ending up Curtis High School in the tony University Place neighborhood. There he joined the drum corps and met some of the friends he keeps close to this day. When his friend Devon got his driver’s license, the two of them would spend hours “adventuring”—driving around in Devon’s Thunderbird and checking out scenic parts of Tacoma and Seattle that they never knew existed. Jordan says they were the Black version of Superbad: “We weren’t cool but for some reason we were confident.” There was more to life than Hilltop, and Jordan longed to know it.

One city landmark still stands out: A few blocks west of St. Joseph’s, M.L.K. runs into Division Street; beyond Division M.L.K. is named K Street. Jordan tells me that this line—Division—was the red line, separating the historically Black Hilltop neighborhood from the historically white North End. As we drive across Division, the transition is glaring, from the scrubby trees, chain-link fences and low-slung houses of Hilltop to the leafy lanes and stately homes of the North End. Jordan says he’s still reluctant to go into North End grocery stores.

All through high school, Jordan made beats in his bedroom, singing and rapping himself and partnering on songs with other young rappers and singers. A chance encounter brought him into Platinum Reign, a long-standing recording studio not far from Hilltop, and the access to better equipment revved his creative engine. He took naturally to audio engineering and production. After graduation, he hooked up with another singer-songwriter-producer named Clemm Rishad and the pair formed a duo called the Writers Block. They spent as much time as they could in Platinum Reign, working after hours, writing and recording demos they performed at small shows around town. Eventually they got a manager. That manager had friends at Beluga Heights, a record label in LA that was home to pop-radio hitmakers like Sean Kingston and Jason Derulo. Beluga Heights brought a demo of a Writers Block song to Nicki Minaj; she immediately loved it. Her Rihanna-abetted version of Jordan and Rishad’s song “Fly” went multi-platinum. They found out about the placement by reading the liner notes to Minaj’s CD. Jordan was 22 at the time.

A back-and-forth life between Tacoma and LA followed. Jordan was straddling two worlds. One took place inside LA’s velvet rope, the other inside an unassuming recording studio in rainy, run-down Tacoma. The weekend of Minaj’s 2012 Grammy nomination, Jordan was at a label meeting, negotiating the terms of his songwriter’s contract, when he got a phone call from his then-wife, the mother of his daughter. She told him the landlord had come over to collect rent money that neither of them had.

“It was like, I’m here for Grammy weekend, and I don’t have anything,” Jordan says. “Every time there was a big opportunity or a monumental moment, I never had money. If I had money, my career was going slow. It was always one or the other.”

A fan of fantasy, sci-fi and anime, he likened his existence to The Chronicles of Narnia. Tacoma was the real world and Los Angeles was Narnia; in Tacoma he was a peasant and in LA a king. The discord sharpened his awareness of his mission. By fall of 2013 he’d taken the last of his label meetings, as a songwriter and potential artist, and doubled down on his life in Tacoma.

“The music climate is narrow, so if you don’t fit into a certain box, it’s tough to get signed,” says Tommy Rotem, Beluga Heights A&R rep and Jordan’s main mentor in LA. “The major labels didn’t see the vision of what Will was doing. He writes from an honest place—it’s weird to say, but that’s rare—and if it happens to be a great pop song, that’s great. But you can’t cheat the system.”

Instead Jordan reoriented the system around his experience. From elementary school to high school to Beverly Hills, he’d expanded his world considerably and gained serious perspective. “Every grade or every school I saw nicer things. But the most important part of seeing those nicer things is that it didn’t necessarily mean that people were happier. I met a lot of people with a lot of money that were miserable. People who had no limits, so they could do whatever they wanted. It made me grateful for the limits I had, that helped me find happiness and joy through other means. Because money makes you more of who you are, I want to become the person I want to be without it.”

Jordan has been imparting that perspective, along with his prodigious technical knowhow, accumulated from years in the studio practicing alongside accomplished hitmakers, to the next generation of Tacoma musicians. “They have access and they have the materials and resources, but there’s no direction,” he says. “For us, we didn’t have access. We didn’t have materials and resources, but we had direction. Combining those things could be amazing.”

Jordan’s doing his part. After years of mentoring kids—professionally at charter schools, the YMCA and Metro Parks Tacoma and more casually at Platinum Reign—he’s learned that nurturing talent is its own reward. “It’s not complicated! I can make somebody a songwriter in 45 minutes if you give me YouTube and a notepad,” he laughs.

Ultimately he’d like to funnel his and his friends’ music into a cohesive regional sound. A Tacoma sound. And he’d like to start a school in Hilltop, an arts academy, and launch a hedge fund to pay for it, and generally bring more resources—lunch programs, scholarships, job training—to a place that not only needs them but will welcome them, benefit from them. This place that has so little but has given him so much.

And then I drop him off at Platinum Reign and he goes to work.