One of the most frequently used phrases in hip-hop is “on my grind.” Usually it’s just code for rappers who are caught up in the never-ending paper chase. How else could we explain rappers using minstrel tones to describe how low their chain hangs? It seems rare if not damn near impossible to find artists who do it for the love of their craft. Let’s not kid ourselves: Money is always an issue. But at what point is the price too high?
The Juggaknots have been in hip-hop for more than a decade. They come from the mid-’90s Rawkus era, when artists made their name by pressing twelve-inches at Fat Beats. The group — Buddy Slim, Queen Herawin and Breeze Brewin’ — has remarkably kept the Juggaknots name alive with only one official release, 1996’s Clear Blue Skies, and a bunch of twelve-inch singles. However brief and sporadic their presence in hip-hop has been, the Juggaknots have left an imprint in the underground scene.
But unlike the rappers living in the mini-mansions we see in Cribs the Juggaknots live a more modest lifestyle as New York City public teachers. Hip-hop may be their first love, but clearly reality has set in for the Juggaknots: You have to ensure the future before you can see tomorrow. Working a nine-to-five and delivering one of the best hip-hop releases of the year in Use Your Confusion, the Jugganots are truly on they grind.
Give us a brief rundown — a little Juggaknots history. How did it all start for you guys?
B-Slim: In the beginning, I was rhyming by myself, working on joints, doing the beats, writing the rhymes — just perfecting the craft. After a while, Brewin started stepping up and repping crazy on the beats as well as the rhymes, so we kinda morphed into a group: Brewin, Slim, Suga Shadow, and my man DJ Essens. Herawin was always down from the giddy up; she just happened to be the youngest one, so we were reluctant to send her out to the wolves so early. Little did we know she was already putting it down with her own outfit while rhyming on other people’s joints as well. So it was good to see her out their making her own strides, defining herself as her own entity.
After those early days, I started shopping my tracks and got positive feedback from many R&B artists. I also signed a publishing deal with Midnight Songs, which boasted an impressive initial roster that included writers like Andrea Martin; Angie Stone; Tony, Toni, Tony; and D’Angelo. Initially, I never thought my music would cater to R&B, but I always tried to mess with samples with a lot of melody and soul at the time it was getting me a lot of work. I did tracks with Father MC, Billy Lawrence, Terri and Monica (“Hey Sistas”), Buddy Guy (Jason Lyric’s soundtrack, only the cassette has the full version), Horace Brown. Basically I was the little yardy rebel kid hanging out at Uptown, watching Puffy start his takeover, trying to get my little shit off. I always had Juggaknots up my sleeve the whole time, doing R&B tracks just waiting for the time and the right opportunity.
After doing work with Billy Lawrence, I approached the people at East/West with this idea of a hip-hop group. I thought we hit the jackpot, with East/West already boasting an impressive roster themselves: Brand Nubian, Pete Rock and CL, Busta, Lyte. A dream deferred: It didn’t pan out at East/West. They was lacking the vision, us not knowing ourselves, management not able to define us. Everyone agreed that it was good music but at the time they didn’t know how to market it. In steps Bobbito, who we had known for a li’l while now. He stepped to us with an idea to put the music out anyways. We said, “Why not? It’s just gonna sit here on the shelf.” We had intentions to take the stuff some where else, but Bob’s idea sounded interesting. So we went for it. We put out our first offering in 1996, shortly after our deal fell through with East/West. We re-released it in 2003 with all the works, while also putting out various singles on our own label imprint Matic Records through Fat beats. We also released a mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement that’s a brief summary. I’m sure Herawin and Brewin will fill in the blanks.
Breeze: It’s like Slim said. We pretty much got into this in chronological order. It started with Slim on all levels, and cats just tagged along.
Herawin: B-Slim started the beautiful madness. To put it as short as possible, Slim started rhyming, deejaying, producing tracks, the whole nine, and Breeze soon followed after, rhyming also. Watching my brothers create and hearing what they were doing motivated me to do what I do now. It was all a developmental process. It didn’t happen overnight. Slim definitely planted the seed, though.
You got started back in the mid-’90s. What are some of your favorite memories of that era?
Breeze: Just seeing the whole thing pop off; so many cats hit the scene at the same time. There was just a lot of good energy. I remember nights outside the Nuyorican Cafe where the show would let out at around midnight or 1 and cats wouldn’t finish rhyming until 3 in front of the joint. Niggas was just beasts in the cypha. There was mad styles — thug, party, lyrical, political — with space and respectful reception for all. It was real cool for a cat that really enjoys this shit. Showcases would pop out of the woodworks on some musical shit. It was ill.
Herawin: Good hip-hop.
B-Slim: Rocksteady, it was the first time we really got a chance to perform live at a big event, and the people got to see who these kids were making these songs. We also got a chance to interact with different people and get their feedback on songs. I also remember I think a Fat Beat party where we performed with Company Flow. It was my first time seeing them live; it was a great show.
What is the biggest change in hip-hop from when y’all started?
Breeze: Independence. Everybody starts with independence, doin’ your thing in your room, zoning out on the train or in science class, whatever. I was rhyming for about three or four months before even my brother or sister knew it. I feel kinda bad for those cats who get into it just for business’s sake. I respect the biz, now more than ever, but it was all about mental masturbation at first. You don’t want nobody around for that shit, but it serves its purpose. Then you build with your crew, real peoples, and in our case, family. Somewhere along the way you opt for the big time. Especially in regards to the idea of hip-hop when we started: Niggas had to get signed. You wasn’t really doing it until you was part of the bigger systems for that big-time exposure. That ain’t the case today. You can get at the world. It’s nothing, and you can pretty much handle that with a small, tight semi-independent squad and the right technology set up.
Herawin: Probably an oversaturated market with a lot of the same sound in regards to hip-hop, as opposed to a time earlier where the music was more original, creative and respected for the craft.
B-Slim: Obviously, the influence of hip-hop from a variety of places that really at least mainstream didn’t give as much exposure to. I think it’s a great thing: North, South, East, West. It’s like cooking; everyone prepares their food a little different depending on where you might come from. Hip-hop is the same way. It’s good and bad, media and companies tend to drift to whatever is new, not necessarily better, leaving little wiggle room for New York artists. It has flipped so much now, New York radio sounds like the rest of the country. You gotta fight for airtime in your own backyard, but having stronger active markets in other parts of the country can only help to expand hip-hop and its many forms of expression.
Many artists claim they don’t listen to hip-hop music anymore. Are you still fans of the music?
Breeze: I’m definitely a hip-hop fan, but I’m a fan of the all-encompassing, damn near boundaryless hip-hop that coincided with my come-up. Prince Paul sampling whatever and making it fit. I’m not really a fan of the formula shit. I’m not gonna say that that wasn’t always the case. Boom-bap goes a long way. It gets you where you need to go. But now, I’m looking for the scenic route a little bit. Hip-hop is the perfect place for the mind to wander. I’m sure some cats don’t listen to a joint unless it has a chopped-and-screwed chorus. Some cats don’t like nothing if it don’t have eighth notes hi-hats. I’m trying to dig multiple sides of it. That has led me to a broadening of the mind. It started from hip-hop, now I like all sorts of music. At the end of the day, I hear hip-hop in everything.
Herawin: Of course, if we weren’t fans, we wouldn’t be doing it.
B-Slim: I’m not really as devoted as I used to be. That could be ’cause I’m older now and my musical tastes might have gotten more sophisticated, but I’ll always be a b-boy. I’m a throwback. I like my hip-hop with a little edge to it. I think the edge is coming back. I feel good about hip-hop this year especially, with all this music coming out this year: Juggs album, an X-clan album, Jay-Z, Gnarls Barkley, Sadat X. It’s kind of like we’re getting back to basics, getting back into ourselves and defining the music that makes you you, as opposed to a lot a music today that seems to come with the same formula. Hip-hop is growing every day musically, stylistically, globally. And monetarily, time will tell.
What other genres and influences shape your music?
Breeze: I really like rock shit. But it’s only some shit that I might want to sample, from Zeppelin to Queens of the Stone Age, to the Killers, to Mars Volta. Other than that, there’s nothing like some old soul shit.
Herawin: All kinds of music influence us. It could be jazz, reggae, rock, R&B, old soul or funk music. Anything that sounds good is going to catch my attention, regardless of the genre.
B-Slim: For me, reggae, blues, soul music always intrigues me, and rock. It takes all kinds with this hip-hop music.
I’m a New York City public school baby, and I heard all of you are teachers in New York. What do you think of the current state of the school system in New York?
Breeze: It’s improving. I have the vantage point of my school. It was a war zone a couple of years back, but they are actually asking the teachers for some input. Some of the bureaucracy is straight ridiculous. The extended day (ninth period) is a waste of time if they do not infuse a more technology-based curriculum for the kids. By the end of the day, they are fried. Trick them and put the work on Myspace with quizzes as pop-ups.
Herawin: Breeze and Slim are more in the New York City school system, but I also deal with students who are coming from those school settings and were unable to manage there. I think there are a lot of issues within the city school system that work against our kids more than for them and their success.
B-Slim: On a rubric, I would say it’s a three. We still got a ways two go. They say there is all this money, but sometimes I question where it is going, of course. Some of it is going to my salary and my other comrades’ salaries, but I just don’t see it when I see students without supplies or have to sometimes buy expensive supplies to compete, and if you don’t have the means you get left behind. No pun intended.
What made you decide to become teachers?
Breeze: I worked with kids before this in the group home. I thought it would be cool to be able to do more building and less barking. If this hip-hop don’t feed the kids, I’m more than happy just teaching. Some days work be on some pay-per-view shit. These kids are hilarious. But sometimes I see how deep they are in the hole, and it’s some nobody’s-smiling shit. These kids need skills, for them and for society on the whole. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but when you see it for yourself, that shit is real. You’re putting a skill in the hand of some of these kids.
Herawin: My mom is a teacher. For me, she exposed me to it as an opportunity for a job as far as working with kids. Later on, I decided to go full force and do what was needed in order to teach full time.
B-Slim: For me, it’s bills, bills, bills.
Do your students know you are artists?
Breeze: Nah. It could too easily be a distraction for the learning process. I gotta keep the game face on. At times I want them thinking I don’t like them, ’cause they work toward approval. If they knew I got nothing but love for them, they wouldn’t do shit to earn it.
Herawin: My students don’t know. But there was a situation where a kid in the school knew about the group, but he wasn’t in my class. At that time, I wasn’t teaching yet.
B-Slim: I tell Brewin all the time: “It’s a shame your students only know you as Clark Kent, if they only knew they were being taught by Superman a.k.a. Brewin the Beast.”
Based on you experience, what effect does hip-hop have on this current generation of kids?
Breeze: It’s what it was for us: the good, the bad and the ugly. There’s probably more of the bad, because that’s what the mass media chooses to focus on, and kids aren’t naturally the shrewd consumers that true music fans should aspire to be. However, when they hear some good shit, you’d be surprised at how they gravitate to it. The Kanye phenomenon was a good example. That was some slick shit, and it forced the kids to expand their thoughts a little. That had them opening up to Common, Consequence, et cetera. I try to put my kids onto some other cats that I think would help expand their tastes. I don’t know how they would respond to “Self-Destruction,” or “We’re all in the Same Gang,” but ain’t nobody putting out those records to test. I’ve seen with even some of the wildest kids, they want to be safe and entertained. They are not totally desensitized. See them respond to that “Up in the Sky” joint by T.I. and realize there’s still a heart that hip-hop can help motivate.
Herawin: It has a huge effect. The kids walk around spitting verses from artists they like or maybe even their own thing. Its part of their culture and who they are. Hip-hop is bigger than just music; it is a culture and way of life.
B-Slim: Hip-hop is the sole motivation for some. I taught a hip-hop curriculum one year. My background is special education so the school I was in lacked a special ed cluster. So my principal allowed me to create this curriculum. The students responded so well; it was hands-on, tactile, it had history, we basically tried to touch all the hip-hop elements and learn through them. It was a great success; I hope to develop it further so other teachers can implement it in their classrooms
I feel the decline of hip-hop music can be paralleled to the marginalization of the female emcee. On Use Your Confusion, Herawin has big role in shaping the album, and hearing a female emcee on record is such a fresh dimension, especially nowadays. What are your thoughts on the current role of women in hip-hop?
Breeze: They are not represented enough. However, it’s getting to the point where the cream’s going to rise. I think women got to just go for theirs. That’s the approach that we take. Herawin’s held to the standards of an emcee, period.
Herawin: I think that the more women out there doing it, the better of course. It’s still very limited as to the female representation that is out there. However, the more that young girls see women doing something within the business, the more motivated they may be to get involved and participate. There have been studies done that have shown in the classroom there were times that boys raise their hands to answer questions more often that the girls do. This seemed to be the result of the girls not feeling comfortable for a number of reasons, basically nervous to voice opinion. But that isn’t to say that they weren’t right or that their point wouldn’t have been valid. The more comfortable an environment we can create for other girls by letting them know it’s a positive thing to get out there and show their ability, the better. Men dominate the field, but that isn’t to say the women aren’t as nice. We just need more out there doing it.
B-Slim: Women have had it had rough in hip-hop these last few years: Kim getting locked up, Foxy allegedly losing her voice, plus I think it got oversaturated — a lot of companies were just putting out a lot females. I think just to capitalize on a pretty face or a shapely figure — that’s no problem, just try to have a little substance with it also. Historically, women in hip-hop have always had their own strong identity and purpose, not just focusing on the physical attributes but what they had to say as an alternative or to offer another perspective. I think that’s why Herawin has fit in nicely: She has her own things to say, her own ideas she wants to convey, so in turn it expands our music and audience while offering a perspective that we might not be able to see from a woman’s point of view — not only in the music but in our decision-making process as well, when it comes down to decisions in the group.
Clear Blue Skies was re-released back in 2003 and received such a positive response from fans and critics. Did that motivate y’all to get back into the studio or was another project always in the works? And did you expect such a positive response?
Breeze: The response was great, and we’re thankful. It definitely had us fiending to finish the next album. But we was always in the lab to different degrees. We fuck with this hip-hop. We just had to be creative in finding time amidst a sometimes hectic life schedule. The re-release helped us to close that chapter. We did work between then and this project — twelve-inches and collabos — but all in all it did make us want to get a collection of new music out there.
Herawin: Another project was definitely in the works regardless, but it is nice to follow up with this album. It’s also a great feeling to have fans still anticipating the new material. That’s loyalty. It’s appreciated.
B-Slim: We have always been grateful and surprised by the staying power of our music; it just inspires us to make more music and to push ourselves.
Use Your Confusion and is very visual, both through the lyrics and production. Is that something you consciously attempted to create?
Breeze: The visuals is something we always try to focus on. There ain’t many blank bars in there. The joints ain’t as dark as the last joint’s, with humor filling some of that space. But overall, I think that the joints, beats and rhymes cover a lot of various topics. That was definitely by design.
Herawin: We were very conscious and focused on wanting to do certain things with this album. It is very visual. Breeze is a great storyteller. He paints the picture well. I came through and added my element to complement him and bring a balance from another perspective.
B-Slim: I think that is just something that develops over time. We’ve always tried to connect lyrics with the music to try to convey what we are trying to say.
I noticed you have Slick Rick on your album. How were guys able to get him in the studio?
Breeze: That’s a question for Slim, who was the catalyst in getting that off.
B-Slim: Just being relentless in courting him to come aboard and prove to him that we weren’t crumbs.
What can we expect from the album? For y’all, what would make it a successful release?
Breeze: Cats dig it. We entertainers, so we aim to entertain. If that be the case, we would like to be compensated. That dough just going to end up going towards making more music. I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to do straight music. However, it can’t really look like too much of a gamble. I got mouths to feed. That’s my first priority. If music can do that, that’s success.
Herawin: You can expect good, quality music that you will enjoy listening to again and again. It would be a successful release to see it get the attention and recognition that I think it deserves. It needs to make noise, to have people pick it up, play it and hear it in the streets. It deserves to do well.
B-Slim: I’ve said this in other interviews: if we hustle hard, follow through with all that, we say sky’s the limit. If I hear Juggs music in the streets, cars, coming out people’s homes, on people’s iPods and such, just etching ourselves more into the fabric that we call contemporary, relevant, music, I think it’s a mission accomplished.