“For underground metaphors…”, quote these three words near an educated hip hop head, and he’ll be sure to add “You can scrape an inch below the turf. For what it’s worth, My style’s been developed in the core of the Earth.” Here we have the opening bars of J-Live‘s “Braggin Writes” from 1995, his monumental track that instantly established him as a lyrical force to be reckoned with.
Since then he has continued to bless the world with a continuous output of shows and records, all emanating that ‘Liveness’; a sharp and intellectual outlook on the self and the world he participates in. On one of his tracks he warns “You can become a jack of all trades but mastering none,” but this is certainly not the case for J-Live. An emcee, producer and DJ at once, he embodies the quintessential hip hop artist. I had the honor to have a pleasant chat with him during his recent visit to Amsterdam and questioned him about the life that J-Live lives.
*fiddles nervously with the microphone*
Get comfortable. You know DJ Sinista? He DJ’s in his socks. That’s how he practices at home so when he goes on stage he takes off his shoes [laughs]
Would be cool if you take it a step further, get your goldfish out..
[laughs] Some incense..
Let’s kick things off on a light note, where do you live these days? How’s life?
I live in Atlanta. I’m from New York but I’ve been in Atlanta now for eight years, that’s where the mother of my three kids is from. Life is good, I can’t complain. My new album is out now, it’s called His Own Self. An I-put-it-out-on-my-own-kinda-thing, I did the beats myself, pretty much everything from soup to nuts and I put out a video for a song called “Pay It Forward.” It was kinda like an EP that turned into a full album and it was cool, just to get some music out for the Spring. Now I’m working for something for the Fall, you know?
Did you also thematically connect it to the time of the year?
Yeah, it sounds like a Spring/Summer album. If you listen to the beats, the production is very light…
Makes me think of Oddisee, who also likes to work thematically.
That’s my dude right there! His last album is amazing, but all of his stuff is great. But for my album, it started in the Winter with plans of putting it out in the Spring and I was sitting on half of the beats for a while. Some where possible collaborations with other people, and half of the beats were specific to the songs I was making at that time. So I think it came together pretty well. I was very happy with it. Mixed it myself, mastered it myself, designed the cover art… So it was kind of like a running joke with the whole thing, the album being called His Own Self and even the front cover – the logo is my own signature, so I did the title in the same way.
So it’s personal to the bare bones?
Yeah, but it wasn’t so much as I produced the whole thing as much as. Each song was just a different aspect of where I am in my life right now. I suppose like, speaking outward, I’m speaking inward.
So less political issues, more introspection?
Kind of, but there’s one song on the album called “I Am A Man (American Justice)” that specifically speaks on the rash of police brutality in America.
I have a question about that, because it’s such a dominant topic. Do you think the dominance of that topic -police brutality- shows the situation has deteriorated, or just that the spotlight has been redirected towards the issue, and people run with it through social media?
I think it’s more an issue of the spotlight. I think it’s more an issue of social media’s ability to give people a voice and allow people to come together and help them organize and mobilize. I think it’s very similar to what we saw a couple of years ago with the Arab Spring. As far as things coming to a head, and getting just more and more.. intolerable. People are more and more aware of what’s going on. It’s being an issue as far as anyone can remember. It’s been consistent before civil rights, before segregation, before reconstruction, you know, it goes as far back as slavery. It’s a societal issue, it’s institutionalized, it is…
[interjects] It’s also a mood of the time, right? I don’t wanna say the 90s were more positive, but judging from here in the Netherlands there is a sense of disillusionment. We’re more advanced with technology but some issues of inequality are as prevalent as ever!
Right. And I think art, as far as music is concerned, has the ability to reflect these times, and report on these times. I think with hip hop, art and politics and social issues go hand in hand, because hip hop was music of the voiceless. Hip hop was music of the poor. I mean, if you go back and look at Russia historically they would talk about… how Stalin would censor certain artists and remove things from the equation, and it is because the art would inspire the people to act. So I think in the same way you would see the deterioation of social issues and hip hop, as business took over. As hip hop became more commercially viable, the people that stand a profit from the music, don’t want social issues attached to it. Because then it becomes less about business and more about art and social issues.
And it would frighten the sponsors also…
Right, so you see kind of a cycle to where it’s becoming more and more… ahh, I don’t wanna say, ‘abundant’ because it has always been present, but it’s becoming more and more… acceptable in the business when you look at artists like J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Where they can pretty much talk about whatever they want and it’s still commercially viable. It’s a reflection on how the youth, how somehow throughout this big phase of materialism through the music, the youth has come out of it with still that sense of “we need to have a voice we need to be able to say things.”
It’s weird right, because I think we live in an age of exponential population growth, and I think a lot of aspects of society, they grow with that. Like, for instance, I could dedicate my life to complain about horrible music, dumb music…
But it’s a matter of perspective because I could also choose to focus on a different side, on a growing number of people wanting to connect, expand and spread positivity.
I think we learn to pick our battles. On my last album Around The Sun I had a song called “Not Listening” and it was the first song I had written after a long period of writer’s block, because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach my voice. And it was just a matter of “I don’t want to complain about all this stuff that I’m hearing, but at the same time all the stuff that I’m hearing is putting me in a place where I’m not sure where I fit.” So, what I ended up writing was a song where I was like, “Okay, I used to talk about wack rappers, I’m not worried about wack rappers, wack rap is now popular, people make a lot of money being wack on purpose.” Even a lot of artists that we know are dope, they put out songs where they are being wack on purpose because they know that it sells.
Sometimes the lyrics are good for commercial standards but then there’s the cliched chorus again as well as the conventional song structure…[interrupts] Exactly! But I digress, so the song I was saying, I am not gonna talk about wack rappers so much as if yeah dope, but you have nothing to say, it’s the same difference. So it’s like “When you are not saying shit, then I’m not listening.” After getting that song off my chest I was able to write songs like “Money Matters” and after getting that off my chest, I was able to write songs like “I Am A Man” for the new album, you know what I mean? So it’s like, there’s a progression. I think we’re just in a time right now where things are coming back around. It’s like Q-Tip said: “Things go in cycles.” So you are starting to hear the youth use their voice for more than just youthful things. They’re starting to recognize their volume and their significance and using it for things that are important. And it’s like “you can have fun at the same time.” We need that balance.
“Why would I focus on the things that I don’t like if there’s so much that I do like I can focus on?“
It’s something you learn through your own youth, for every person, it’s a process.
Yeah, for sure. But I say all that and have to say I think that it’s a very good time in hip hop right now. And I think the complainers have less to talk about because, I mean, even if there was more to talk about, you find that it’s wasteful – why would I focus on the things that I don’t like if there’s so much that I do like I can focus on? Paying forward so to speak.
Another question that I have is about your livelihood as an artist. When I came here by train I listened to your three last albums, Around The Sun, Said Person of That Ability and Then What Happened. On the latter you talk a lot about your rupture with your record label that screwed you over basically [J-Live hums acknowledgingly]. Also, there is some anger in that album…
Yeah, for sure. “Be No Slave”, and songs like that.
I’m just curious, seven years later, can you make a living off record sales?
Yeah! Well, there’s different revenue streams as an artist, you have to be mindful of all of them. There’s publishing, there’s record sales, there are features, there’s shows, and there’s merchandise… And then if you learn it and experience it such as myself, there is learning events, speaking events, things of that nature. There’s an author named Seth Godin, he talks a lot about marketing in today’s area, society, and how, whereas before; everyone was trying to appeal to the masses, like a bell curve so to speak. Everyone wanted to be in the center mass. Whereas now the fringe is so wide spanning, there’s a niche for everything. So there might be five million fans of a pop artist. That pop artist becomes rich of those five million fans. There might be… ten thousand J-Live fans that I make my living off. But, they are dedicated and concentrated to what I do. They follow and support me to what I do, to the point of that’s all I need.
And your energy reflects to them, right?
Exactly. The purpose is to grow your fanbase obviously, but you don’t have to grow it by trying to appeal to the masses as so much as just focussing on your niche. I think that’s what’s some people lose sight of when they compare themselves to pop artists. Your tribe might not be massive, but your tribe is still powerful. You connect to those people that say “I love J-Live, he’s always talking about something, but he’s not corny with it. He’s very creative, and his beats are specifically boom bap and remind me of what I loved about hip hop when I was growing up.”
Or, you know, for these kids that didn’t grow up in the nineties but, because of the twenty years cycle, they sound a lot like the nineties and they listen to a lot of nineties music and hear my stuff, and are like “Okay yeah, I can relate to J-Live in that way.” For me to try to go outside of myself and try to do something different… Sure, you might throw some stuff up the wall that might stick, but I’m very good at being myself. I’ve been myself for a long time and it’s worked for me.
How did you, as you’re telling, become yourself? Did you have a happy childhood?
Yes. My momma raised me on her own, I went to a good school, which is called Central Park East. From little school to high school on I listened to a lot of hip hop. It’s funny when you look on iTunes: my influences just says “De La Soul.” It’s more than them, of course. It’s De La Soul, Tribe, EPMD, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim… that’s pretty much my wheelhouse. Redman obviously… But I mean, as a DJ growing up I was exposed to all of this music. If you look at my record collection, it’s mostly 12″ singles and half of that is double. So it’s just a lot of hip hop at that time that not only did it help me, hone my craft as an emcee, but you know, artists as Boogie Down Productions and Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian – they helped to shape my world view. My philosophy from a boy to a man. So I have to thank hip hop for a lot of that, as far as my education is concerned.
I realized the same thing in the last ten years. Before then, I didn’t really listen to hip hop. I always listened to electronic music but then my brother started listening to Westcoast rap. I found the lyrics to be pretty wacky, but I thought the beats were awesome. Then my taste deepened, connected to the realisation that my progress in life was magnetic for the rap artists that came to me. I also had a strong phase where I listened to your music and one song in particular, “Timeless” – a great song for me to reflect, to see things in a bigger perspective. The song really helped me to break free from a period that I was overly worried with myself.
Yeah you see, that’s what I’m talking about because that means a lot to me. For you to say that you went from listening to electronic music to Westcoast rap and deeper into hip hop and found a song like “Timeless,” and that you can relate to it as far as your life is concerned, being introspective and looking inward… That means a lot to me because that was the purpose of that song, me looking inward towards my own.
Like, you know, it’s beyond hip hop, I can say the same thing about Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sade, Roberta Flack, all of these artists that you listen to them and they have more to offer than just music, they’re giving you their mind and philosophy. Bob Marley for example. You hear all of this music, it’s like you get to know a person. You know a lot of times the relationship between a fan and an artist can be a little bit… imbalanced? Because sometimes the artist just wants to relax and keep things to himself, and the fan really wants to just take this oppurtunity to embrace the artist and to get to know him. As an artist you have to realize you have these people at a disadvantage because they’re strangers to you. But you shared your life with them and they know you very well – to some degree.
Sometimes as an artist you just have to embrace and except that and humble yourself and appreciate it for what it is. So, wjether somebody is a drunk and beligerent fanboy or whatever, or quote unquote “groupie” or just expressing to you that “Your music has touched me personally and thank you”, you gotta make room for that. It means a lot.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from your mother?
My mother is an inspiration because she taught me first and foremost that you can never learn too much. Knowledge is infinite, and there’s always room for improvement. That lesson also translates to that you can figure out anything if you put your mind to it and study it. My personal philosophy is, as a Five Percenter, The Nation of Gods and Earths. That is the school of thought that I am enrolled in. I don’t call it a religion; a lot of people mistake it for a religion or a belief system where it’s…
[interrupts] But it emerged from certain strands of Islam, right?
Well, it’s rooted in Islam, derived from Islam, and Islam at its core is a religion and a belief system. But what the Five Percent Nation is, while it derived from Islam, it specifically is not a religion or a theology. We study practices and aspects of Islam as a culture, as opposed to a religion. Which means that, we’ve removed the theology from it. So it makes it very different. It won’t say ‘better’ or ‘worse’, just ‘very different’, you know, out of respect. So, when I say “That’s my philosophy”, what it means is, “This is the means by which i digest things, this is how I break things down.” Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding. So, as opposed to looking at Islam as a religion, you might look at it as an acronym and say: “I Study, Learn And Manifest.” So, going back to what my mother told me, if you can read you can do anything, it’s like, “Whatever you want to put your mind to.”
How did I learn, how did I become a DJ? I studied it, I learned it, going to the hand motions, going to the hand-eye-coördination, the hand-ear-coördination, buying records every day and putting in the time to actually do it and just watch people do it, and then you start to understand it! So, Knowledge, Wisdom & Understanding. From doing it, you see how it’s done. As you do it all the time you become powerful with it, to the point where the people that you listened to are now the people listening to you. That’s just the growth and development that comes from the philosophical. Philosphers I’ve studied over the years are people like James Allen. And lately I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Greene. He wrote books like “48 Laws Of Power”, “Mastery”, amongst others. Really good stuff, because what he does: he is a historian, he speaks to a lot of different time periods around the world, and applies them to modern day business thinking.
So it’s very pragmatic, right?
Yes, pragmatic and just insightful to how the world works and how people attempt to manipulate each other, and analyze how they’re being manipulated. In fact, he wrote “48 Laws Of Power” and then collaborated with 50 Cent to write the Fiftieth Law, about how that book applies to hip hop and the industry. So it’s very interesting. See, why I am tripping right now, there’s a blurred line because you can talk about Nietzsche, you can talk about all of these different people, but some of the modern day philsophers are just authors that have ideas.
Yeah, where does the author start and the philosopher end?
It’s a categorization, the same as with ‘music’ and ‘art’.
Yeah. So like Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, whoever, if you’re talking about different historical figures. So, you hear a lot of Five Percenters say: “I am a student of life.” Like, I’ve been listening to a lot of Amanda Palmer lately. She’s a singer and she’s actually married to an author named Neil Gaiman, who wrote a book called “Coraline.” He writes fiction and different things, but just from being put on to some of his speeches and different projects that he’s done, they have a lot to offer as a couple as far as what the creative process is like. Amanda Palmer is very good in speaking about her experience with the way the music industry has changed, and how she connects to her fans, and how sometimes we give things and sometimes we ask for things, you know what I mean? I’ve also been reading a lot of Napoleon Hill, the guy that wrote ‘Think and Grow Rich’. There’s journalist who writes a lot about nutrition that is called Michael Pollock. He has a book called ‘The Food rules, another one called ‘The Defense of Food’. I mean, you try to learn from everybody. I hope that answers the question. [chuckles]
Oh! And Phil Jackson, (famous basketball coach) he’s a good philosopher.
You are from New York, does that imply you’re a New York Knicks fan?
Yes. In fact, growing up, I remember watching Knicks games…
You also went to the stadium?
Not so much, but I went to a couple games when I was little.
Probably unforgettable, right?
Oh yeah. But more so when I was late high school or early college, I would get to go to games with producers I was working with, and I would see like Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Gerald Wilkins, Rod Strickland, Trent Tucker… those teams. I think I went to a Bernard King (famous Knicks player from the mid-eighties) game when I was very young, but I don’t remember that one very well. And I’m pretty sure I saw NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving at Madison Square Garden when I was very young but I don’t remember that very well.
[grins] ‘Must’ve seen it!’
Yeah, but growing up, watching on tv, all the Knicks games with commentary by Marv Albert, and Clyde Frazier… Frazier had such a vocabulary, he was always rhyming. Like ‘swishing and dishing’, ‘posting and toasting’, you know everything was a rhyme with him. And he’d always had like he wouldn’t call a player ‘short’, he would say he’s a ‘precocious neophyte’… [chuckles] He wouldn’t say a guy was ‘scrappy’, he would say he was ‘pugnacious.’ So for getting that vocabulary that’s where I started writing my first rhymes.
“I’m pugnacious, bodacious……”
It was like Clyde Frazier helped me as a rapper and he helped me with my SATs, my standardized tests going to college. Clyde Frazier was one of my heroes growing up.
Coming back to artists that influenced you: which contemporary artists and not hip hop per se, do you admire nowadays?
Let me see. The three in my rotation right now are Oddisee’s The Good Fight, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I like J.Cole’s latest album. And outside of hip hop, there’s more old stuff. I do get into new stuff, but not so close that I can name things like that, but I’m always hearing good things.
Late pass, but I recently found that jazz fusion album titled Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love by Sa-Ra, who also contributed to the last Kendrick Lamar project. Really good stuff.
Yeah, Sa-Ra Is cool like that, and Adrian Younge is also cool like that. And then Younge did that album with DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9″, under the moniker PRhyme, that was good too. Who else, what’s his name, he plays the piano, he had kinda like a fusion jazz and hip hop album with Mos Def and Erykah BAdu and everybody… what’s his name again?
Ah! Robert Glasper!
Yes! Thank you, that was another one of those brain freezes. I am also a big The Roots fan. So yeah, there’s always beautiful stuff out there. The stuff they play in here is cool, I could listen to this in the hotel lobby all day. [Reacts to the Bossa Nova music playing in the hotel lobby where the interview takes place]
It’s pretty cool, they started pretty cheesy..
It comes and goes. Like Little Dragon, Sands of Gold, stuff like that.
It’s crazy how popular Little Dragon has become. I liked them five years ago and suddenly saw them featured in a Snoop Dogg internet show.
I like Phantogram as well. They are working a lot with Big Boi now. But they’re from upstate New York, I’ve known them since just coming up, they’re huge now. Which is good to see.
Another question I have pertains to your family. How do you manage to blend your family life with your artistry?
I’m fortunate that their mother is very very president in their life. So I moved to Atlanta to stay close to the kids and I keep them to the summers and the off-days, and see them during the school week. But it’s just like any other job, but it just happens to be the kind of job where sometimes you are called on to go out of town a lot. I always say “When I’m gone I’m very gone, when I’m home, I’m very home.” I take them to school, and keep them for the summer, for example.
“When I have the kids in the car, I’ll more likely play D’Angelo, but after I dropped them off at school, I put some Kendrick Lamar on“
Do they like your music?
They do, actually! It’s funny now, my daughter is getting old enough to where her friends know my music. So it’s been kinda cool. I don’t play it for them as much, because it’s like you are playing yourself…
[chuckles] Yeah, it’s like, “Hey kids, come listen to some good music! ‘For underground metaphors….'”
There’s a lot of grown content. It’s funny I say, as a kid I might have cursed a lot but I didn’t curse around grown ups… So as a grown up, I might curse a lot, but I don’t curse around kids.
That’s a nice one!
So I was talking to my son, I said “I don’t know if you and your friends curse, that’s your business, just don’t curse around grown ups.” For that same reason I don’t curse around kids, I don’t play a lot of music with them where there’s curses in it. So like, I have the kids in the car, I’ll more likely to play D’Angelo and after I dropped the kids off at school, I put some Kendrick Lamar on.
Do they sometimes listen to music that you find repulsive?
Oh yeah! Oooh yeah…
It reminds me of that Large Professor video, do you remember that video where he acts like a doctor, you see a little girl…
“I see the same song over again,” [imitates dull low-pitched voice] “Going hard, do that shit, get that b*tch”.. And then Large Pro comes with a lot of old classic hip hop records and just starts to educate.
I remember that video. But yeah, my daughters and son know all of the songs that I hate for them to know. But it’s okay because I have to think back to when I was twelve, eleven, what was I listening to? I was listening to Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane… So there was songs like “Hey Young World”, and then there was songs like “Treat Her Like a Prostitute.” There was songs like “Young Gifted and Black” and songs like “Pimpin Ain’t Easy.” My daughters will hear songs,they run that same gambit, you know. And I know they might listen to some Nicki Minaj, listen to some Lil’ Wayne – my oldest daughter is a big Drake fan. But it’s not like those songs are influencing them, as kids. I’m an influence to them as kids. So songs are just songs. They like the beat, they like the rhythym, they think it’s clever and whatever…
I think that’s a beautiful attitude, because you could compare it to parents who get hysterical when kids listen to that kind of stuff, trying to shield them for it while they will get that influence nonetheless..
The good thing about it: I can tell them what I don’t like about a song and they can understand it. They can tell me what they like about a song and I can understand it. Sometimes my kids might listen to a song and have the same exact reaction that I would have, like “This is ridiculous”, or “What the hell is this, what is he even saying…” [laughs] So, that’s cool. I’m very very proud of them, for that.
Well that’s about it! Really loved talking to you, got tons of material, just by you being honest and talkative – appreciate it.
So if they windle it down there will be like three questions, and we’ll be like ‘arghh..’ [laughs]
This was my third interview by the way, the first guy was Phaorahe Monch, big inspiration, and after that Homeboy Sandman.
Ah yeah, Monch, that’s my dude! So Pharaohe Monch, Sandman, and then me? I’m in good company!