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Tour Tales | Ron Gilmore Jr. talks pre-fame J. Cole shows and Rihanna’s rockstar stories

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Gilmore Jr. discusses how ‘Friday Night Lights’ changed J. Cole’s live shows, how Rihanna impressed him on “The Loud Tour” in 2011, Ari Lennox and more. Read here.

J. Cole Getty Images/Scott Dudelson

Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’

Ron Gilmore Jr. is as inextricable to J. Cole’s live show as almost anyone, playing the piano keys to bring his songs life since fall of 2010. Over the last decade, he’s been able to see the artist transform into a larger-than-life figure, as well as the growing pains of such a growth.

“It’s wild because I’ve seen him transition from being a person who was close to the music to being a person who is now looking at the whole show — the lights, videos, and all of that,” Gilmore said.

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Gilmore Jr. discusses what he learned on the “Shea Butter Baby Tour” with Ari Lennox, how Friday Night Lights changed J. Cole’s live shows, and how Rihanna impressed him on The Loud Tour in 2011. Read below.

What do you remember about your first show performing with J. Cole?

We were rehearsing during my birthday (Oct. 4)...I just remember taking a tour bus and going to this gymnasium. I remember we all had to set up our own stuff because we only had two crew members. We had a monitor mixer and somebody who mixed Front of House. On the bus, it was me, Cole, Man Man, DJ Dummy, RJ — who was doing the accounting shit — and Mike Shaw. Also my man Brandon and someone else. That was it. I remember thinking, “Don’t mess up” (laughs). It wasn’t a lot of people, but it felt like a bigger situation. At that point in my career, I was doing the Lauryn Hill thing and I was coming off of being in Africa and Brazil with her. Those were huge shows. I felt like [the Cole show] was a bigger situation even though it was in a gymnasium because of the circumstances around it. We were opening up for another band [We Are The Kings].

That show was in October 2010, a month before Friday Night Lights would drop. So, what songs did you have to learn to play?

The set was a bunch of freestyles over other beats and some original songs. I think he had “Lights Please.” I remember doing the one where he raps over “Dead Presidents.” Also, he did the song “Ladies.” They sent me the song the night before rehearsals and it was 17 songs. “Who Dat” wasn’t out yet.

What was his live show like early on?

At that point, it was very new. It was just flying by [the] seat of your pants. However creative we could be with the limited resources we had — me and another keyboard player — we would do that. Cole was involved and doing the show was fun to him. It’s wild because I’ve seen him transition from being a person who was close to the music to being a person who is now looking at the whole show — the lights, videos, and all of that.

How did the release of Friday Night Lights change his shows?

Look it up. Look at when Friday Night Lights dropped and then look at when the next J. Cole show was in Boulder, CO. What I remember was the show had a capacity of about 600. Before that, we had been doing the gymnasiums where there were not that many people. It was maybe 300 people at the most. We get Colorado and I ate an edible or something, but I was high as fuck (laughs). I was just panicking about how thin the air was. But, I remember what really snapped me out of it was walking into the place, setting up and all of these people were there. We sold out that show and they knew all the words.

He did a show on November 16, 2010 at Belly Up Aspen.

I think that may be it because I remember it was a show that wasn’t part of the BET Music Matters tour we were on. It was our own show. After [Friday Night Lights] came out, the shows were crazy. It was a whole other level and all of these kids knew the words to the songs from Friday Night Lights. I was like, “Oh shit!” From that moment on, the [shit] escalated quickly. Every year, it would escalate from there.

What was it like opening up for Rihanna on the Loud Tour in 2011?

Amazing. That was one of the best tours of my life. The scheduling was great and the ease of the show; we didn’t have to do much. Also, being around Rihanna and her team was cool. She’s one of the coolest women I’ve ever been around. She’s ultra successful, but really down to earth. They really treated us well on that tour and everybody was welcoming. We would go on their bus to chill. It was a very family type atmosphere.

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J. cole on Loud Tour 2011

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What was Rihanna’s personality like?

When you talk about being a rockstar, I ain’t seen no one do I like she and all her people does it. The Lauryn Hill gang I was with before are some of the craziest motherfuckers to ever go on tour with (laughs). At that point, I hadn’t ever seen a woman who was young, go out, do what they do, have a great fucking time every night, and then do the show like it ain’t nothing. That show was crazy, too. She had to do a lot (laughs). Just the costume changes alone were a lot. I was like, “Damn, she has to change clothes a lot.” She would kill her show and then live her best life. I was always enamored by that. That was fucking G’d up.

What are some fun things you would do on the road with Cole?

We would go out to malls. We’d go out to casinos. We used to do wild shit. Some tour buses have sliding doors and we would play a game where you’d have to press the sliding door button and you’d have to run from the bunk area to the back, touch the wall, and run back into the main lounge before the doors closed (laughs). We all did his stupid shit. There were moments like that, that you can’t get back. The thing is, it’s not that we did wild and crazy shit, it was that we were turned [up] everywhere. Cole don’t do drugs and shit. At the time, he was drinking, so we would go out and drink and shit. I think what I like about Cole the most was he was like a homie and he liked to go out. I think that’s what bothers him about fame and shit now because he can’t go out and be an unknown rapper anymore. He can’t just go out and enjoy himself.

His performance of “Be Free” on “The David Letterman Show” in 2014 is still one of the best talk show performances. How did the decision come to do that song instead of a single?

He already had “Be Free” and at the time that Mike Brown shit was fresh. The atmosphere was like we could go on there and do the deal, get a band and promote songs. Or we could go and do some meaningful ass shit. He already had that verse about Obama and we were like, “Do that verse on this” and he did it. That was memorable.

What’s the most memorable show you’ve done with Cole?

It was when we did the “Dollar and a Dream” show in Toronto [on June 26, 2013]. It was pandemonium. There were thousands of people waiting all day trying to get into the show and it’s first-come, first-serve. You had to wait until the show opened up and there was a limited amount tickets out. This shit was fucking pandemonium. The venue could hold 500 people. The ventilation for the air or something wasn’t working and it was hot. It was burning up in that place... There was fog everywhere. My keys and keyboard had condensation on them. We got to about mid-show and everybody’s sweating. My pants are wet because of sweat. It was getting serious out there. I turned to Dummy and he took off his hat and poured water on his head (laughs). It was so crazy it was like hysteria. It was the wildest show ever.

You toured with Ari Lennox and Baby Rose on the “Shea Butter Baby Tour.” What did you learn on that tour?

That was my first tour with me putting up the money to do it myself and I got a crash course on how much touring costs. It wasn’t glamorous. We had a car because our bus situation fell through. We would fly to the city that was far away, and then drive the rest of the way. That was sort of crazy. It was cool to drive through the country.

What was the best show on the tour?

Santa Cruz, CA. I went onstage and it was the best reception I ever had. I had females [I was] fucking with after the show. It was nice (laughs). I knew I was going to be doing songs people didn’t know at all, so I had to think about how to keep a crowd of people who didn’t know me to be interested in me. It was a crash course. It was my first time having to go on tour, have my own story, and not hide behind an artist. It was a crash course in learning how I could interact with people in [a] live setting when the spotlight was on. I wanted to put together something meaningful. Since I was going to be the opener and the only dude, I wanted to promote the imagery of strong African masculinity that’s also creative and vulnerable. I wanted to be as vulnerable as I can be in those moments.

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