Q&A with J-Live
J-Live had a couple of hit singles ("Hush the Crowd," "Braggin' Writes") in the mid-90s. His long-delayed first full-length, The Best Part (Seven Heads), is the most engrossing underground rap album since MF Doom's Operation: Doomsday. J-Live has made believers out of many a naysaying crowd with his mic and DJ skills (he can cut and rhyme simultaneously), but writing might actually be his strongest suit. On The Best Part and the new All of the Above (Coup D'Etat), he weighs in on rap culture's big issues in a way De La Soul or Big Daddy Kane might if they were young today. Forthright, grounded and wittily on-point, his offstage demeanor is gentle and kind.
This interview took place at Buffa's diner in Soho. Toni, who joins our conversation, is a waitress well known to me from when New York Press had its offices in the nearby Puck Bldg.
Let's get a quick bio.
Grew up in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, 96th St. Went to school up in Albany, then moved to Brooklyn. I stayed in Bed-Stuy for a minute. I was teaching in Brownsville, took a year off to try and put a record out, it didn't come out. Then I was teaching in Bushwick, now I'm taking another year off, trying to put another record out.
So "Braggin' Writes" came out while you were in college?
Albany is only three hours away, so after the record dropped and it got really successful, we'd do shows in the States and even overseas on the weekends. I'd be in Japan performing and then studying for midterms on the way home.
When The Best Part was just a bunch of bootlegged tracks [the original release was shelved during the Polygram merger], it joined a long list of legendary "lost" rap albums.
You have to consider the most tragic example to be the album we don't even know about. Mike Tyson used to say that the greatest boxer on Earth is someone you're never going to see, because he's either in jail or just going through something now where he can't apply his talent. That kind of thing happens every day. I know a lot of MCs who don't have the opportunity to put their stuff on record?but a situation like mine, the only thing that was missing was the official release. Everybody heard the record, everybody loved the record. That was the best part. That's part of why I called it The Best Part.
Where did you go to high school?
Central Park East, up on 106th and Madison. You know that building with the Graffiti Wall of Fame? There was an alternative school there at the time. My classes were like 15 people, 20 at the most. We called our teachers by their first names. It was like Sarah Lawrence College, but a high school. A handful of kids there went to Sarah Lawrence and were like, "It's just like high school!"
And after college you taught seventh- and eighth-grade English in Brooklyn. What was that like?
It's middle school. They're too old to be young and too young to be old. They got hormones popping all over the place. Especially seventh grade?in the beginning of the year, the boys are like, "Eww, girls." And by the end of the year they're like, "Aha, girls." So you watch the transformation from September to June. It's ill. For me it's the best year to teach because you get to give them whatever the teachers missed in elementary school. You make sure they have it and are prepared for high school. I loved it. When I get older I'd like to teach high school and get kids ready for college, but right now, only being 26, I don't want to go into a high school classroom and have students who are anywhere near my age, because I relate to them that much. Especially with the music. It'd be kind of hard for a high school kid to see me as a grown-ass man. I watch cartoons, still, so right now I'm cool with teaching junior high school.
I wondered if hearing the way high school kids talk about hiphop influenced the skit with the hecklers on All of the Above.
I watched a lot of The Muppet Show back in the day, so that's just something I wanted to do. When I was teaching it was all about Dragonball Z, Pokemon. I like Dragonball Z, but for the most part the cartoons they have now are nothing like we had. I feel for them. It's the same with the music. Like, "This is what you have to listen to? You poor thing!"
How did it play out, you being an MC English teacher?
It's the same thing onstage or in a classroom. You have to have a plan, you have to have a show. You have to be able to freestyle. You have to be the master of the ceremony in the classroom, and you have to teach onstage.
Did they have any idea of your place in hiphop?
You gotta understand that ages 12-18 are pretty much locked in by the commercial market?"Rap City" and the Hot 97s of the world. And I have yet to break into those markets. So they're not up on me like that. I wouldn't tell them I was an MC until the end of the year. I would DJ their parties and stuff, so they knew I was up on things. We'd teach poetry and I'd bring in rap lyrics. They'd try to write rap lyrics and turn them in, and I'd have to be like, "Noooo." So being able to relate to them in that sense, where every little thing that they try and snap on, I know where it's from and can teach them about it. That was a beautiful thing. But I was in the Source two years before they started reading the Source.
I wonder what they'd think. Your style is modern, but you use those swinging mid-tempos that kids today think are played out.
There's what's out now, and there's what influenced us over the years. I consider myself a combination of the two. I didn't coin the phrase "True School," but I'm kind of dominating it right now. When you hear the ethics and the integrity and the craftsmanship of the older stuff, and yet you also hear how hiphop is relevant today?that's what I try to do. Making stuff that's timeless. You rarely see me with a punchline that refers to a current event. Because five years from now, when you play it, it's not going to make any sense. So I try to focus on what is true and will be true. Or on issues that are important now and will be important later, so the music has some staying power.
I think a lot of rappers who love old-school spend too much energy complaining about the mainstream or wishing it away, and?they get caught up in trying to recreate it instead of applying the essence of it to what's new. That's just as dangerous. People talk about the split between commercial and underground: you have people who are out the gate trying to be commercial, and you also have people trying to be so underground that you can barely understand what they're saying. It's a waste of talent in both cases. If you just did what you wanted to do in the first place, and marketed yourself after you went through the creative process, you might end up making the next commercial sound.
I don't hear as many new ideas in independent-label rap as I did in the 90s. Do you think that's just because the mainstream finally got better?
Partially, yeah. The mainstream plucked the best of the underground and ran with it: the Commons, the Mos Defs, the Roots. It's the same way with class warfare. They kind of cheat the middle class, so there's only high class and low class. That's kind of what's going on in hiphop. People are advocating this split between commercial and underground, when there's really just dope hiphop and wack hiphop. They say, "Well, wack hiphop is just rap." No, it's wack hiphop. Bad art isn't just painting. It's bad art.
The machinery of the music industry is geared against artists trying to just make a living.
We had to ask ourselves, myself and my management, "Do you want to go into that machine, or do you want to go off the beaten path?" That's what I decided to do. I'd rather sell records myself and make more off of them than get 12 to 16 points from a major label and take two years to recoup.
Toni: I'm eavesdropping because my son is the scratcher for Cannibal Ox.
Your son's a DJ?
That's dope! Let me see if I have a record for him?
What's his name?
Toni: DJ Cip One, on Def Jux.
So he knows Vast?
Toni: Vast is always in my house, are you kidding me? Vast and Vordul, they're like my other sons.
I saw Vast in Pittsburgh a couple months ago. I see Vast all the time.
Toni: Are you doing S.O.B.'s with them?
Um, I'd like to, can you ask them?
Toni: Those kids are my kids! They made the top-20 singles in Spin, God bless them.
They're blowing up right now. That's another example of hiphop's middle class, right there.
Toni: I'm a hiphop mom. Blockhead from Aesop Rock, I was serving him for years, never knew he makes Aesop's beats. It's a small world. [Walks away rapping lines from Cannibal Ox's "Iron Galaxy"] "And if there's crack in the basement/Crackheads stand adjacent."
Bye Toni! Wow.
How do you feel about performing to the downtown crowd?
The underground audience isn't just middle class, lately, but suburban. I've always been a lot more popular in the L.E.S. than in Harlem, even though I'm from closer to Harlem. That's just the way it is. I'm not mad about that. It's not like I could say, "Don't listen to my record," or something stupid. I'm not Timbaland. I love it. I have my core fanbase and I recognize them. I thank them for keeping me around for this long, and when I make music I keep them in mind first. But I really need for my students to hear my music on Hot 97 and to see it on B.E.T. Not so much for the commercial success, but because they need that contrast in the market right now. If everything is so blatantly ignorant, and hiphop shapes your worldview?because that's the kind of music that it is? I grew up on BDP and Brand Nubian, they're growing up on what they're growing up on. If there's no contrast, then they're going to suffer.
Do you think that hiphop has, on the whole, made America a better or a worse place for black people?
That kind of question is the reason the album is called All of the Above. You can't really take a question like that and break it down into a positive or a negative. Hiphop has been a hindrance, and it's given a lot of people opportunity. It's more like what people decide to do with hiphop. My grandma used to say, "You can't fight ignorance." If you shoot an ignorant person they'll be dead and ignorant. Put 'em through school, they'll be educated and ignorant. Love 'em, they'll be loved and ignorant. If you approach hiphop in an ignorant fashion, you're going to put something out that's ignorant. That's what happens when you ignore the obvious. If it's obvious that you have to give everyone respect regardless of their background, and if it's obvious that you have to treat women the way you want your sisters or your daughters to be treated, and if it's obvious that you have a beautiful music that can be self-contained in its business?if all these are obvious and you ignore them, that's ignore-ance. That's all ignorance is.
Last question: What are you listening to these days?
Everything from Masekela to, um, Masta Killa.
Did you really just make that up?
No, I'd been thinking about that for a while. I've actually been listening to my own album a lot. I just like it.
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