Soundcheck Winner: Justin Ruff “The Ruff Draft”
He has the vocal ability to cool the mood.
Swarmed in an R&B aesthetic with hints of jazz rhythms, Justin Ruff provides audio pleasure that pulls you in, gets your hips swaying and vibing in the relaxation of his delivery.
Ladies, just think of a fusion between Prince, Maxwell and D’Angelo packaged in a 25-year-old gentleman from Cincinnati, Ohio.
It was the aforementioned sensibilities that scored Justin the Soundcheck crown. Describing himself as a young guy with an old-soul, the now-Chicago resident bridges the eras of old and new school R&B soul and adds texture to the sound with his use of scatting and relative storytelling.
“It kind of caught people off guard a bit,” Justin laughs. “People saw me taking a Katy Perry song and completely flipping it out with a R&B soul vibe and scat…I don’t know if people were as receptive to that [in the beginning].”
That didn’t last long. Justin’s fan base increased as more people saw him on the local scene performing at various open mic competitions and even on ABC’s Windy City Live!
Now, a familiar voice and artist on Chicago’s airwaves, Ruff has released his debut EP, The Ruff Draft, and talks to us about his artistry and finally sharing his music with the masses.
JET: When did you fall in love with music?
Justin Ruff: My mother is a singer, and I really looked up to her and watched her from a young age through now. That kind of pushed me to get involved in music. I attended a performance arts high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, and got exposed to a great deal of jazz music, which really made me interested in singing. I love jazz and the way it feels and sounds. So I took that and fused it to where I am today with the R&B soul – the music I was brought up listening to. The combination is really what excites me about music.
JET: Do you remember the first song that solidified your decision to make music your career?
Justin Ruff: My mother played a lot of Anita Baker in the household. I remember her favorite song, which became my favorite song from hearing it and watching her perform. It was Anita Baker’s ‘Been So Long.’ When she does that scat thing at the end…it just feels so good, you know!
JET: Your style is sensual with a mix of Prince and D’Angelo. Then you toss in the jazzy scat as mentioned. When did you become comfortable with your vocal delivery?
Justin Ruff: Probably when I first moved to Chicago. Singing was definitely what I wanted to do, but it was just getting comfortable with it and stepping out in the forefront and actually doing it. So I started doing background singing for local artists. Then my best friend from Cincinnati said, ‘You should really think about doing this solo.’ I got comfortable when I first moved here in 2010 and did open mics around the city and got my feet wet. From there, I started doing stuff with Columbia College. The love shown from the college and students there and people that would come out to the shows was just very overwhelming. I had people coming up and saying, ‘Wow, this is cool what you’re doing. We’ve never heard it from this perspective before.’ I think that’s what gave me the push to keep going and do it full-time.
JET: Cool. Coming from Ohio, what moves did you make to even get people to recognize your talent and add you to their set?
Justin Ruff: It was really just getting out there and doing it. Once I made the decision that this was what I was going to do, I would find any open mic and anybody that was looking for a background singer. I just looked for any opportunity to get my voice heard being that I was kind of, as I look at it, coming into somebody else’s territory (laughs) and trying to do my own thing. It was also befriending a lot of people, and from that, I would get calls. So, yeah, just being nice to people.
JET: You’ve had competition experience before. How has that further aided in shaping your artistry?
Justin Ruff: It’s given me thick skin. I’m so grateful for it, because it’s allowed me to be comfortable with who I am as an artist. Whether it’s that stage or an intimate performance down to a studio session, I’m just very comfortable and unapologetic about it. With the jazzy element and R&B fusion, all of that is what makes Justin Ruff, and I’ve just embraced it.
JET: Your project, Ruff Draft, is out now on iTunes and Amazon. Can you talk a bit about its context and creative process?
Justin Ruff: The Ruff Draft is just really giving the music to the people for the first time and diving in with who I am as an artist. I know I’ve done a lot of cover songs, competitions and things like that. Now you’re getting to hear Justin full out. One of the main things I wanted to make sure with this project is that you heard the mesh of Old Skool and New Skool – the old school vocals with mainstream records. I’ve got an old soul, but I love a lot of today’s music. A lot of people don’t know that I wake up in the morning and turn on Future and Drake (laughs). I enjoy that type of music. I’ve always been really good at bringing my own perspective to it, and I really wanted to do that with this record. We’re pretty much paying homage to the singers I grew up listening to – Prince, D’Angelo, Maxwell, El DeBarge, Anita Baker and all those great artists and influences.
JET: With this being your debut, what made you say, ‘okay, it’s time’?
Justin Ruff: Right now, R&B music is taking a shift for the better. Looking at some of the award shows and hearing different artists who put out great R&B projects in 2015, I definitely said, ‘I want to be a part of this wave.’ Especially for a male R&B artist, I feel like now is the perfect time. I’ve been working on this project for almost two years trying to get it right, and it just feels like the right time.
JET: Earlier, we mentioned the sensuality in your sound. What was your journey with becoming comfortable with your vulnerabilities and even delivering edgy content?
Justin Ruff: It was tough, because most guys don’t really like touching on the whole feeling thing (laughs). But I knew what I wanted my music to do. With Ruff Draft, I thought about all the artists I listened to growing up, and one of the things that really spoke to me about their music is that you can feel it. It came from an organic place, and I definitely wanted to have music that could do that and stand the test of time. I knew I would have to touch on that side. You have to come from a real place when you want to touch people like that.
If you’ll be in the Windy City this month, you can catch Justin live and in person January 29 at the House of Blues.
Keep up with this artist here!