J. Cruz Is a Father of the Year Honoree

Fatherly honors the radio DJ for promoting children's literature (and joy) through rap.

by David Browne
J. Cruz next to a "Father of the Year Awards" logo

The Father Of The Year Awards celebrate both influencers and unsung heroes who have made a major contribution to fatherhood, kids, and communities.

J. Cruz didn’t plan on being a bannerman in the battle for children’s literacy. The Los Angeles DJ, who holds down the morning shift at Power 106 (“#1 for Hip Hop”), simply needed some fun on-air material. When the 36-year-old learned that he and his fiancée were expecting their first child, he realized he would need a clever and creative way to make the big change in his life part of his show. Ignoring it just seemed impossible.

“How could I talk about it and not just say, ‘Hey, I’m having a son,’” Cruz remembers wondering. “We wanted to create some content out of it.”

Stopping into a Barnes & Noble in search of children’s books for his family’s imminent arrival, Cruz came upon Anna Dewdney’s 2005 book Llama Llama Red Pajama, the nursery-rhyme tale of a young llama freaked out after his mother says goodnight and leaves him alone in his bedroom. As he was paging through it, Cruz, who grew up on N.W.A. and other ’80s and ’90s hip hop acts, realized how easily the story could be translated to rap. “I’m imagining a beat in my head and thinking, ‘This will work.’”

Last year, Cruz began asking guests who visited his show — Migos, Ludacris, DJ Khaled, D.R.A.M., and Jeezy — to freestyle the book on the air, with Cruz cuing beats behind them. Some were surprised by the request, but all went along with it. Each rapper took a slightly different approach to reading the book aloud — fast, slow, smooth, rough — so the segments became not only the coolest rereading of a children’s book ever, but a masterclass in how to spit rhymes. The whole thing blew up when Ludacris, now known as that guy from Fast and Furious, put a masterful, playful take on the book and the video took off on YouTube. Sales of the book spiked (over 32,000 copies this year), and Cruz began hearing from teachers who were using the videos to encourage their students to read.

“It’s amazing,” Cruz says. “One mother wrote to me and said, ‘My son has trouble reading, but we read along with Ludacris every night.’ Hip hop can teach people through music. It’s dope.”

For the DJ, who grew up in a particularly rough part of the San Fernando Valley and battled a stutter as a child, the Llama Llama Red Pajama phenom reminded him of his own struggles and what it took to overcome them. “I had trouble reading when I was a kid and I was embarrassed by that,” says Cruz. “I was made fun of and I was shy. It really did something to my confidence, and I don’t want people to feel that way. I don’t want that for my son, either. So maybe this helps in a little way. Reading is something you need to do every day.”

And what does his son Cameron, now seven months, make of it? “He smiles and dances,” says Cruz.