Born in London, England, in his youth, Cole learned to play the oboe and piano, and attended the Royal College of Music. He also played piano on BBC Television's Young Musician of the Year programme.
He later discovered computers and turntables, and ended up working as a sound engineer for the drum and bass label, SOUR. Cole is regarded as one of the innovators of the 2-step or UK garage sound, popular during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Several of his tracks are on the UKG CD series Pure Garage. Cole once stated, "London is a multicultural city... it's like a melting pot of young people, and that's reflected in the music of UK Garage". However, his roots lie in drum and bass, the format in which he created many of his early records. He moved towards a 2Step sound and experimented with various pseudonyms, such as Mat-Lock, eventually settling on M. J. Cole.
Cole produced a song called "Sincere" in 1998, that he composed in his bedroom with a sampler and an Amiga. One of the twenty test pressings of "Sincere" was received by Pete Tong, who started playing the tune on his national radio show. Cole signed on Gilles Peterson's Talkin' Loud label, where he produced his first album.
His debut album was the Mercury Music Prize nominated Sincere (2000), and he followed up this with the less successful Cut to the Chase (2003). In 2002 he selected tracks for a compilation album for the Back to Mine series, which focused on tracks suited to post-club relaxation.
In December 2009, he was a guest on Private Passions, the biographical music discussion programme on BBC Radio 3. Since then, he produced "Something in the Water" on Example's second studio album Won't Go Quietly (2010) and also remixed his 2014 single "Stay with Me".
The song "Lava" was played in the 'SIMplicity' advertisement, from O2; this song will be included in his new album.
He is currently releasing new material on his own record label, Prolific Recordings, and well as making remixes for various artists like Lana Del Rey, Wretch 32, and Above & Beyond.