Jonsin zips around Homestead
Miami Speedway in his modified
Porsche 911 GTRS
Janell Jonsin (left), Jim
Jonsin and Kevin Buckley
at Café Martorano
truffle oil and
Jim Jonsin went from being a skateboarding kid hanging out on the streets and beaches of South Florida, to being one of the most sought-after R&B and hip-hop producers in the nation. Today he works with the likes of J-Lo and Prince behind the scenes at American Idol, collaborates with Rihanna and Ne-Yo, and has produced hits for Usher, Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Kelly Rowland and Pitbull, among others. He even runs his own car racing team.
10 AM: Circle House Studios, North Miami Beach
Jonsin pulls into the parking lot of Circle House Studios in one of his most cherished possessions, a mint-condition 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500. He’s a little sweaty (there’s no AC in the car) but, it seems, riding in style is worth it. He’s got a slightly pigeon-toed athleticism to his gait and looks as if he’d be at home on a skateboard, with long shorts, Vans sneakers and an oversize tee. We’re here to meet with Kelly Rowland as she determines the direction of her next album. Jonsin produced and cowrote Rowland’s current hit, “Motivation,” an almost minimalist, but unabashedly sexy, slow jam that went to number one on the Billboard R&B charts. “I’m gonna go through some new tracks, play some stuff I think she might like,” he says. Rowland shows up and it’s big hugs and kisses, talk of Jonsin’s newborn baby girl, Scarlett, and his mom. “She makes the best brownies ever. Oh, my gosh,” says Kelly.
As a South Florida teen, Jonsin bounced between his disco-loving mom and his rock ’n’ roll dad. “I lived in a black neighborhood in Riviera Beach and a white neighborhood in Boca. I was a surfer-slash-skateboarder who did hip-hop and hung around Mexican and black kids and 2 Live Crew.” As a teenager, his rapper name was Jealous J. “I used to wear glittery Hammer pants,” he chuckles. Rowland begs to see a photo, all of which have mysteriously gone missing. Jonsin runs through some hooks, and Rowland launches into variations with a startling vocal athleticism that fills the room. “Why do artists come to you?” I ask. “For a hit,” he answers with a smirk. Kelly gives him a high-five. But then he refines the answer. “It’s really to take great people and put them in one room, even if they hate each other, and make magic. I’m just good with people. I might play the right line. Someone else might. It’s finding the right team.” After a few more samples, they hug good-bye. Kelly’s off to pack for London and another stint of judging The X Factor in the UK, and Jim and I head to Homestead.
2 PM: Homestead Miami Speedway
There’s a pervasive smell of burnt rubber while Ferraris, Corvettes and Porsches roar by on the serpentine track. Jonsin’s in the pit area and already decked out in a fire suit, driving shoes and a special undershirt cooled by tubes of water. His Porsche 911 GTRS is 500 pounds lighter than the already badass street-legal version, and 50 horses stronger. Out on the track, Jonsin will reach speeds of 160 mph. “Racing cars cures anxiety. It’s the closest thing to meditation for me. It requires total focus,” he says. Jonsin and his Rebel Rock Racing team, which competes in Cup Car racing and includes Marius Avemarg and professional skateboarder Bucky Lasek, are preparing for a race in one week. Out on the track, Jonsin is noticeably faster and more nimble than most of the cars, but there’s another Porsche nipping at his heels. They’re mere feet apart, holding slightly different lines, their engines barking into high-pitched whines as they downshift through turns and shoot out into straight-aways. Once he’s back in the pit, I ask him what makes a good driver. “The ability to find the edge of the car, finding its limits,” Jonsin says. But it’s also about his own limits. “In an actual race, you’re inches away from other cars at crazy speeds. That’s when you can tell greatness. That’s what I’m working on.”
9:30 PM: Café Martorano, Fort Lauderdale
Jonsin and his wife Janell’s party of 16 sit down to a mighty feast. There’s something charmingly boyish about his crew. No one wears ties to work, and you get the sense that they’ve cracked many a joke at each other’s expense. Among the crowd is songwriter Steve McEwan, who cowrote Eminem’s “Space Bound,” and Kevin Buckley, the guy who helped introduce Jonsin to racing. To my surprise, proprietor Steve Martorano, a celeb in his own right, is actually behind the line cooking.
The party downs meatballs, calamari, Philly cheesesteaks and pappardelle layered with prosciutto and slathered in truffle oil. Jonsin’s going on about racing with Buckley and stops gesticulating only to eat, then he’s off again, looking for a moment like a music conductor as he waves his hands. Tomorrow Jonsin’s in the studio with Ne-Yo, then it’s off to race at Daytona. He has a record label for artist development with Atlantic Records, and he’s currently working with B.o.B and Mary J. Blige. On top of that, there’s American Idol and various racing business ventures. “I don’t feel busy,” says Jonsin. “I felt busy when I used to fix cars and lay tile floors. That was busy.”