By Tris Wykes
Jacob Armstrong faces long odds pursuing his musical dream. Given what he’s overcome during the past five years, however, the 2016 Lebanon High graduate is more than willing to invest in his passion.
Entering the 2015 season, Armstrong was one of the Upper Valley’s better high school soccer players. The Raiders were loaded with future college players and would eventually reach the state semifinals, but their senior striker suffered a broken ankle during a preseason scrimmage with visiting Hartford.
“Jake’s comfort level with the ball might have been the highest I’ve ever seen in my 27 years,” said longtime Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone, who recalls butting heads with Armstrong before coming to appreciate his independence and strong will. “He realizes there are more ways to get someplace than on the path everyone else is walking.”
Johnstone told his seniors they’d only play the opening 15 minutes against Hartford and the opponent who took Armstrong down was one of his former club teammates. The afternoon was a mix of pain, disbelief and denial for a teenager who lived for his sport.
“If I could be outside, then I was there with a soccer ball,” said Armstrong, who had played on the varsity since he was a freshman. “My life changed at the point where it was taken away from me.”
Minus a physical outlet, Armstrong turned more often to creating music via computer. His first foray hadn’t been promising, but sometimes it’s failure, not success, that ignites a creative spark. In this case, it was being assigned a sixth-grade project in the Seminary Hill School computer lab, using the program Garage Band.
“I failed,” Armstrong, now 22, recalled with a chuckle. “I only created seven measures or something. But I was inspired and came home to work on my own computer.”
Armstrong considered music a hobby during his school days, opening up about it to friends during his senior year and creating beats for them to use in freestyle raps.
“No one was taking it seriously, including me,” he said.
Armstrong followed a girlfriend to West Texas A&M and later spent a semester at the University of Vermont. In 2017, symptoms including insomnia, back pain and intense itching led to him being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer originating in white blood cells.
Photos of him during chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant process in late 2019 that essentially rebuilt his immune system show a pale, gaunt figure hardly resembling the athlete of a few years prior.
“It makes you nauseous and want to stay in bed,” said Armstrong, who was treated at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and is in remission. “I would get bored and make beats to take my mind off everything for a while.”
One of Armstrong’s friends had previously slapped him with an artist nickname that stuck: J-Danks. “Dank” in modern slang means “excellent” and also has connotations to marijuana’s moist and pungent qualities.
Armstrong credits the plant’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for helping him recover from cancer and allowing his sound-making to become more focused and prodigious.
Armstrong, who has a medical marijuana card issued by the state of New Hampshire, said he was able to avoid using prescription drugs that often came with debilitating side effects.
“My mom would blend a THC brownie into a protein shake for me to drink instead of taking a handful of pills,” he said. “Within an hour, I’d regain my appetite and energy and even be willing to go for walks.”
While spending the last year regaining his health and weight, Armstrong found his producing interest increasing. He said he spends up to 20 hours per week stringing notes into beats as short as a few measures or as long as four minutes.
A meme he created and recently posted to Twitter shows a producer’s brain packed with thoughts about structure, theme, bridges, intros, outros, prehooks and melodies.
Tools in the computer programs Armstrong uses allow him to chose the key in which he wants to create, then add drumbeats and sound from virtually any instrument imaginable, along with amplifiers and effects.
Armstrong describes his style as “melodic trap”, a spinoff of hip-hop music that features mostly drumbeats. He spends significant time online, researching trending styles and emerging sounds, riding a wave of creativity that swells and breaks almost by the minute.
“It always seems like a new beat can’t be done until you hear the next one,” Armstrong said. “It’s about getting comfortable with your sound and what you’re good at and sticking to it. You take what’s been done and what’s new and put them together.”
Armstrong can’t read music, hasn’t studied its theory and admits he “can’t play a note unless I have my computer”. And yet, there’s a whole world of sound creation populated by artists with his same, narrow background.
The hope for beat makers and producers is that their internet uploads catch the eye and ear of that necessary someone. The target can be a recording artist or producer or someone constructing a commercial or television show.
Creators utilize licensing agreements to protect their sound snippets, although for now, Armstrong is more concerned with getting his beats exposure, not cashing in.
“Some people I engage with are from India, London and all over the U.S.,” he said. “It’s really cool that when people have to stay inside anyways, they have figured out how to work and collaborate through the internet.”
So what’s the difference between a beat maker and a producer? In Armstrong’s mind, not much. He’s unwilling to allow what he considers divisive terminology to place the former on a lower level.
“Some producers are afraid of change and can’t comprehend that people can make hit records with a laptop in their bedrooms,” Armstrong said. “I consider that to be as much a producer as someone using hardware and instruments in a studio.”
Armstrong said he’s done with college and feels higher education isn’t a good bet for someone like him. He described his college music professors as “out of touch with popular sound and equipment” and believes he can learn as much on YouTube as in any classroom.
“For someone like me, it’s just not necessary to go deep in debt for a degree that won’t guarantee a job,” said Armstrong, who’s worked at the city of Lebanon pool and as a youth soccer coach but who is currently sharing a Wilder, Vt., house with his mother while he and his immune system ride out the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think I’ve actually chosen the less-risky path. I’ll work any regular job to sustain myself and then use my other hours to network and create music.”
To see Armstrong’s social media links and hear his music, click on https://linktr.ee/Jdanks
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