We had the good fortune of connecting with Javy “JJ” Caballero and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Javy “JJ”, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I am an aspiring hip hop artist first. That’s what I’ve been working my towards for most of my adolescent and adult life. Not only am I an artist, I come from the DIY punk school of thought in which you learn all aspects of your craft, from inception to distribution. I just have a natural distaste for authority, so any job I’ve had growing up I always left because I was tired of being told to do that thing that I was paid to do. All of this combined naturally pushed me to starting a business. The first two I started failed, and it was a very bitter pill to swallow. I took a ton of lessons from there and got some side gigs to hold me over while I thought about the next one. On top of organizing my aspiring career in hip hop, I’ve now organized the my efforts to starting a fashion/lifestyle brand called Gang Signs. It’s progressed rather fast since the pandemic hit and forced me to run with the idea full steam. But the idea with Gang Signs is that shoes, fashion, style all have their place in hip hop culture and I’ve always placed interest and learned about this stuff growing up. Culture always has a way of molding a unifying look, and I love the aspect of unity in all of this.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I have always loved music. We grew up living with my grandma and grandpa, my uncle and aunts lived there too so we were all real close. My uncle grew up playing his guitar as loud as his amps would go along with Billy Idol, Faith No More, and Red Hot Chili Peppers records. That’s where my love stems from. So at ten I taught myself what I could about the guitar! I soaked everything in that I could get my hands on. Luckily the advent of the internet as we know it today started up when I started high school. Naturally I started a pop punk band. We lasted together playing tons of shows around town for a good 5 to 6 years. I was aimless for a while in college. Along with writing tunes, and gigging on my own when I could – I was waiting tables and partying my little nalgas (butt) off. I also had an interest in recording my music and kept up with learning how to do that by asking for equipment every Christmas and figuring it out with blogs and watching videos of musicians in the studio. I switched my major when I learned about the commercial music degree that just started up at the University of Texas at El Paso where I was sparsely attending. While there I worked for my dad a bit, he is an electrical contractor, as a shop boy who would deliver material, dig, pull wire, eat shit basically. By chance, he had taken a job wiring what would become Clap Of Thunder Studios (RIP) which was owned by Gabe Gonzalez and Jim Ward of the bands Sparta and Sleepercar. I took a leap of faith and got the courage to introduce myself to the building owner who in turn introduced me to Gabe and Jim. In a way I forced my way into the perfect internship. Gabe is an amazing mentor. He learned at Full Sail and on the road with bands like At The Drive-In, TSOL, touring in Sparta with bands like The Deftones and Incubus. So while unwittingly giving me game on how to work hard and make a name for yourself by persisting, he taught me so much more technical know how than I could learn by just reading a book. I still send him every mix of every tune I release just before I send it out because his ear is like no other. Jim gave me the gift of friendship and taught me a lot about the real work it takes to be DIY. I’d learned a ton as well through out the years of playing and throwing tons of punk shows in my local scene. But I learned at a different level from Jim. He also hired me at his venue and coffee shop so that helped my pockets! Being an intern is not the most abundant gig. But I did this, and eventually assisted on a bunch of records, I produced a friends EP, and I even had the chance to play a few shows with my mentors! I’d also like to point out that I was working through this in my early twenties. I also quit school while doing this and went back around 26, while my life took a spiral towards some crap events. To be very honest, I got two DWIs about 6 months apart in 2015 and 2016. In Texas, it’s very grueling. The state does a great job of making you feel like you’re real bad, but the truth of the matter was that I had taken a deep turn in to alcoholism. It took a while but I got through probation and kicked the drinking habit for good. Everyday is something new but programs like AA helped a ton. I also found a way out of the service industry and had different jobs. I had found motivation in finding myself. I still snuck out and played gigs and such, but I also had to stay home a lot and really beef up on hip hop beats and rhyming and singing. That isolation was really key in learning to respect and love myself. From then to now I co-owned a studio for a while, but dissolved the partnership to my better judgement. I had also started a graphic design, marketing freelance business and couldn’t make the two fit while still working on my own music. I went back to jobs, became a substitute teacher for a while. Then the pandemic hit and sent my world in to a bit more isolation. It also jump started this idea I had of sneaker reselling, vintage fashion reselling, all to curate my own personal brand. Gang Signs was born and is steadily growing. I’ve also taken to streaming DJ sets and production work on YouTube and Twitch! I feel like I’m back at 15 years old learning how to promote all my creative stuff on the internet again! Technology has been key to me being able to start my business as fast as I could, out of necessity. Since Gang Signs is hip hop fashion culture it is also easy to combine my personal brand as an artist with my business brand. It took a winding road to get where I am and I expect the same for the road ahead. My advice is to take the road for as wild a ride as you can without doing permanent damage to yourself. I still suffer from some anxiety and trauma from doing the jail/probation thing, but I’ve taken proper steps to manage my mental health. I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences for anything, they not only give me some cool stories to tell, they have taught me that we really have no idea what’s really going on and that’s the most liberating thing!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Having toured here with bands and come with family I’ve become very simple in planning my itinerary. I like to do one big thing every day and get back to where I need to be right away, and chill. I’m a Cowboys fan and every time I’ve hit a tail gate and a game it’s been magical for me! I’m from El Paso, and am of Mexican descent so tacos are a must anywhere I tour. Revolver Taco Lounge on Main Street is the bees knees in the DFW area! I have to stop every time I pass through. Also, every-time on my way out of the city I hit up Merit Coffee for their house blend. Black coffee, can’t beat it.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would love to first of all shout out my partner who has been incredibly supportive while I find my footing. My family has also been a huge part of any success I have received, they constantly cheer me on no matter what. Jimmy Aranda, my dude who is also an artist in his own right (check out the Dead Electrics) has taken to being a main component of my team, and has provided me with knowledge, gigs, and an unrivaled friendship. Gabe Gonzalez, my mentor who is a producer and musician and has been a driving force in the bands Sparta and Sleepercar. Family and friends are the bedrock of why I do what I do.
Images by JJ Caballero