MANCHESTER — After serving a three-month prison sentence as part of a plea deal on drug-related charges, JonCarlo Cortese has learned life lessons from his past and turned it into a double-pronged business – a cannabis business in Maine and a hip-hop career based in Connecticut.
Better known by his stage name The Real Goonie Jay, Cortese is building a following of his hip hop work, with tens of thousands of listeners to his tracks on Spotify and Apple Music, with three albums and 10 singles available.
Born in Monterey, California, Cortese’s family moved to Connecticut when he was an infant, and he has lived most of his life in Manchester.
It was Manchester, he said, that gave him the life experience and exposure to cultural diversity that inspired him to become a rap artist.
Exposure to different cultures allowed Cortese to develop a taste for rap music, an art form he embraced at an early age.
“I realized I couldn’t hold a note well enough to sing, that was pretty accurate when I got into the rap thing,” he said. “I first started writing something down when I was nine years old, and by the time I was about ten I was mimicking pretty much everything I saw, whether it was on TV or things I wasn’t allowed to see on YouTube.
In 2013 and 2014, he made his first public appearances at fundraisers while he was at school.
After high school, he said, he sold cars and ran an illegal cannabis business on the side to fund his music career, which led to his arrest.
“I made a few mistakes and started doing things I wasn’t licensed to do. I cultivated, learned how to grow, pretty much everything I thought would one day put me in a position when weed was legalized to put me in a different position than everyone else.”
Cortese accepted a plea deal that reduced his felony charge to two misdemeanor charges; He served 90 days in prison.
“At the time, it was the most drastic, life-changing, worst thing I could have done,” he said. “I lived in a family house, four bedrooms. I would work at (a car dealership) any day. We found out that my girlfriend at the time was two weeks pregnant. I’m basically evicted from being completely stable to (being) slept in the car during her pregnancy, things like that.
Ironically, what Cortese was accused of is now part of his legitimate business in Maine.
“Currently, I’m a medical attendant in the state of Maine, so I commute back and forth regularly, and that’s where pretty much all of my business happens,” he said.
“What I really appreciate about the state of Maine is that despite that history and that earlier mistake, Maine was a lot more receptive to me. It was a $2,000 license fee. They come out, check and make sure, and check every now and then that everything is ok. We run 24 hour surveillance to make sure everything is on track and healthy too. We can’t give the customer or the consumer anything unless we go through testing.
“In Connecticut, someone like me who gets a similar license runs you close to five, six digits with current laws and current standing.”
Although he said he has no regrets about what happened in his life, he said: “I don’t think in any way that it wasn’t a mistake as far as my actions are concerned. That was illegal back then. You must face consequences if you break the law. That’s how I see things. Both as an artist and as a person, I would say in my personal situation that this was probably the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life.”
After being released from prison, Cortese said it was a struggle to get back on his feet. His daughter was born 4½ months later.
As he was developing his cannabis business and hip hop career, he and his girlfriend decided to end their relationship. He said he spends about five days a week with his daughter.
“My daughter is my first priority above all else,” he said.
He said he fell into a deep depression after getting out of prison.
“I wasn’t sure if I had hit rock bottom or not, both because of past mistakes and the daily uncertainty of whether or not I would be able to have my child,” he said. “Fortunately, I was able to climb out of there somehow. It’s hard to live in poverty when you’re not sure if you’re going to have dinner tonight or if you’re going to feed your kids.”
These life experiences influenced Cortese and his music.
His style is “I would say gritty” and depends on the moment.
He said his biggest influences are Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana.
“I actually met (Santana) a few months ago,” he said. ‘I’ve opened for him down in Waterbury. It changed my whole perspective because I thought something like this could happen.”
He said his influences also branch into other genres, including country. “I try to be a bit eclectic in terms of my catalogue, so I don’t pigeonhole myself.”
In the more than two years since he was released from prison, Cortese has been busy in the studio recording songs and more than 600 tracks.
“Everything is based on emotion,” said Chase Briley, one of Cortese’s co-producers. “We say, ‘Give us a feeling and give us a word, give us a colour.’ Then he assumes so. Whatever he’s feeling, we’re just trying to translate that into the music. It’s rough. it’s raw It’s lyrical. It’s authentic.”
Though his other business is cannabis, his music isn’t necessarily about his affiliation with marijuana.
“A lot of my music isn’t about cannabis and drugs and things like that,” he said. “One of my biggest songs is literally called ‘Pretty’ and it’s about finding someone who just makes you happy and is pretty in their own way. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Cortese said it’s been difficult breaking into the music world, but hopes as long as it continues like this to bring something positive to his audience and spend time with his daughter too.
“I want to continue to inspire and spread my message and ideas as far as I can spread them,” he said. “It was more helpful to me when people came up and said, ‘Hey, I never thought you would be able to do this or I never thought I could do this. You inspired me to do this.” Each of these stories really motivates me, whether it’s Connecticut or New York, it doesn’t matter where you hear these things. It makes me feel good about what I do.
“My daughter will be three in November,” he said. “I try to spend as much time as possible and watch her develop before she does her own thing. That’s my main inspiration for music, to make sure it’s good.”
Alex Klimkoski, his roommate and videographer, said: “It’s really amazing to see how he’s evolved in two years since I first met him or started working with him. To see what he has overcome with his daughter, he sees her almost every day. The perseverance he went through and the effort he put into achieving his dreams is very admirable and inspiring.”