J-live, also known as Justice Allah, has traveled a long road since first appearing in the Source’s "Unsigned Hype" in 1995. Back then it really meant something; he followed a line of honorees that included Biggie, Common, and Mobb Deep. A pure product of New York — he was born and raised in the city but now lives in Atlanta — J-Live was embraced by producers including DJ Premier, Prince Paul, and Pete Rock. More than a decade later, and after a career as a middle school teacher, a slalom between labels, and learning to be a father, J-live keeps the story going with a fourth album, Then What Happened?
Has it been musically inspiring for you to be down in Atlanta?
Nothing is gonna as inspiring as New York, because it’s my point of reference. But I don’t take my physical location too seriously, so I’m making the best of it.
Then What Happened? is due on BBE Records on May 27. How do you describe this chapter in your career?
This is my first album from the perspective of an elder. I got cats coming up now telling me they use to listen to my shit back in high school and I’m the reason they got into this. It makes me feel old, but if having three kids doesn’t make me feel old, then whatever. Hip-hop is something I’m gonna be doing on a regular basis, no matter what happens in my life. No matter what kind of bullshit I’m going through, I’ll always have this outlet to express myself.
Now that you are four albums deep, how do you approach your recording process?
It’s seasonal for me. There are periods where I’m in the studio everyday, recording, writing rhymes. But other times, I can go a month or two just sitting on ideas, working on things, and living life. It hits you when it’s time to go back in the studio.
Do you feel a growing maturity in your content?
Well, when you go through what I went through industry-wise and family-wise, you can’t just put out the same old records. You gotta make it genuine and authentic to what’s going on. That’s why the cover art is the way it is and the intro track is the way it is. I say, “Visually it’s me knocked out but musically this is me getting up off the ground.” That sums up the whole record right there.
On “Be No Slave,” you have a lot of advice to give about labels and record deals.
There is nothing wrong with being on a major label and getting notoriety however you can, but if that’s the case and you’re not getting serious investment, what’s the point? It’s gonna be a waste of time. At the end of the day, if they can’t do more for you than you can do for yourself, then you shouldn’t sell yourself away.
Who did the production on the album?
Everybody but me. I produced some of the songs, but I didn’t make any of the beats this time. I got Jazzy Jeff, Da Beatminers, Oddyssee, Numark, and DJ Spinna. We sort of had our hands tied, because we could only sample from a certain catalog. We made the best with what we had. I’m proud of the end product, but I need to redeem myself in terms of my own production in the future.
Having performed all over the world, how do you measure hip-hop abroad?
I was just in South Africa. If hip-hop fans from Johannesburg came to New York, they’d be disappointed. They’re so deep into it. My DJ would play “Rapture” and turn to me like, “Yo, is KRS here?” Everybody was jumping like KRS was actually performing the song right there. At one of the spots we did, everyone knew every word to every song I did. Could you imagine that? That’s a very serious aphrodisiac for an MC when you’re on stage and girls are singing your lyrics. I was in heaven.
I’ve been to certain places and it feels like they’re studying, doing their hip-hop homework and shit. In South Africa, these motherfuckers were listening to it at the same time we were listening to it. And the MCs out there are so sick, rhyming in English, Afrikaan, and Zulu.
What other differences did you witness out there?
As soon as I came back from South Africa I heard about this motherfucking Sean Bell verdict, and I’m about to put pen to pad on the shit soon. I was taken aback, man. I literally had just got back from South Africa right after Freedom Day, a national holiday that celebrates Nelson Mandela’s election as president, and after visiting the Hector Pietersen Memorial, an iconic figure of the Apartheid struggle. Over here, we can’t even get justice for an innocent victim getting shot fifty times. Situations like this make it very difficult to harbor anything but resentment toward the people that are policing us. It’s one more name on the list: Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell.
What do you learn from it?
Well, it’s a feeling of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness comes from an experiment done where they put a rat in a cage and if the rat goes somewhere, they’ll shock it so it learns not to go there. Then, they do another experiment where they just shock it at random intervals no matter where he goes. After a while he doesn’t even move anymore and still gets zapped. He learns that no matter where he goes, he’ll get shocked.
Learned helplessness is not just an experiment but also a condition that is developed among people. We need to educate our people on their rights. What you have the right to do when encountered by the police. What don’t you have the right to do. And aside from your rights, what is in your best interest? How you maintain your dignity and sanity as well as your security with these people that are not only an authority by law but also dominance by force?
As a Five Percenter, does your faith affect your music?
Well, we teach Islam as a culture not a religion. It’s not a religion by any means. When you hear Nations of God and Earths, you think it’s a religion because of the world “God.” Belief is based on trust, and trust is based on knowledge. The knowledge I have is the basis for my action, so this culture has been hand-in-hand with my life since I was nineteen. Insofar as the culture affecting my music, it heavily does. It’s even sometimes painfully evident how much it’s in me. The same way it was there for Brand Nubian, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers — the list goes on and on. I try to do the best I can to lead by example as an individual and as a member of this Nation.
Did your career as a middle school teacher make you reflect on your music and its effect on youth?
It helped me direct my message, like having a nozzle for the hose. I saw exactly who rappers are talking to. That’s how songs like “Do That Shit” came about. No innuendo, no talking out the side of my mouth like an old-timer. I’m gonna grab you by the shoulder and tell you this. You can pass on this information or you can pass on this information. The choice is yours.
Do you remember how hip-hop affected you when you were a kid?
It was a complete part of my environment. I went to school on 106th and Madison, so my view from class was the Great Wall, and the graf was already incredible back then. That’s where I had recess. I grew up on 96th Street, which back then was considered the border between downtown and the hood. You looked downtown it was Different Strokes and when you looked uptown it was Good Times. I was always a ‘tweener, downtown treating me like uptown and uptown treating me like downtown. Hip-hop was my way of breaking through. It’s always been a part of my life.