[Part 1 of 2] The Native Tongues may have unofficially been reinstated on the superb remix to N.E.R.D.’s “She Wants to Move,” but they have forsaken the gender diversity of their celebrated heyday. If there was one woman, an unparalleled emcee, to balance out the eclectic crew it would be the criminally overlooked Jean Grae. Plotting hip-hop domination since her early teens, the Capetown, South Africa-born, New York-bred emcee is ready to move into the spotlight, or at least out of the dank, dark underground.
The scion of the inimitable South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and accomplished South African jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, Jean Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim) first found success at age thirteen as the youngest member of the Alvin Ailey II dance company. A few years later, after quick stint studying vocal arts at Manhattan’s La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts, the inspiration for the ‘80s sitcom “Fame,” Grae assumed her first rap name, What? What?, and joined rap group Natural Resource. They conquered the college radio charts in 1996 with “Negro League Baseball,” a critical allegory on the music industry, only to disband in 1999.
Jean Grae, the solo artist, was born soon after and crowned the cameo queen by the underground hip-hop community, appearing on offerings by artists including Apani, Mr. Len, Truth Enola, Masta Ace and the High & Mighty. She dropped her first album, Attack of the Attacking Things, in 2002 and an EP, The Bootleg of the Bootleg, a year later to satiate the hip-hop hungry masses. But despite write-ups in prominent publications, she’s still the long-suffering, currency-deprived poster child for the futility of artistic integrity.
Or so we thought. Grae recently spoke with Prefix about her new album, This Week, her least favorite interview questions, her protracted pursuit of hip-hop stardom and her new found optimism. Amicable and open, Grae’s responses were laden with remarkable wit, humor and maturity. It seems that she, like fellow unrecognized rap renegade Skillz, is not mad anymore. She shared her triumph over disillusionment and cynicism amidst between far too humble reflections on her already-exceptional career. Fresh from a slew of Roots guest appearances/plugs and boasting an album constructed by a roster of it-producers, Jean Grae’s anticipating a big-time career move.
Prefix Magazine: I wanted to start off with a different question. What question are you tired of journalists asking you?
Jean Grae: What is it like to be a female emcee?
Jean Grae: I have never been a male. This being my only experience, it’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s kind of like, “So what is it like being black.” And I generally don’t get a lot of questions talking about the music.
PM: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Okayplayer tour and compilation experience. What effect has that had on you musically and performance-wise, and what kind of impact do you think it will have on your career?
Jean Grae: It was incredible to get on the road and just be out there with so many talented people. It’s not just getting out there and performing; it’s having a live band and hearing your music replayed. It just gives it a totally different feel, a totally different emotion. And beyond that it’s the Roots. How cool is that?
PM: You’re part of that family now?
Jean Grae: Yeah, I’ve know both Tariq (Trotter, aka Black Thought) and Ahmir (Thompson, aka ?uestlove) for a pretty long time. When I was still in Natural Resource, I was actually introduced to both of them by my former partner Ocean. We’ve known each other for a while. I guess when the time is right for people to work together, it’s right.
PM: What seemed to make the time right if you had known them for so long?
Jean Grae: Lord knows. I am glad it was only now. I don’t think I would have been mentally ready to do it before. Just years of cataloging and recording and just getting to know myself better as an artist, and being able to step on stage. One person’s persona is strong, but when you have eight strong personalities onstage, you got to hold your own against that. I don’t think I would have been ready before now.
PM: In terms of the increased exposure with the Okayplayer Tour, has that helped you out with this upcoming album?
Jean Grae: I hope so. It’s real easy to see stuff and read stuff, but that doesn’t mean it all ties in together. I think the buzz on the name Jean Grae has been bigger than the music, and I purposely didn’t do a lot of images behind it. I didn’t want it to be about the image or what I look like. It’s really interesting when people come up after a show and be like, “I’d heard your name and I heard of you, but I have ever heard any of your music.” It’s great to actually widen the fan base.
PM: You’ve been a favorite of critics for a while and had a buzz before. How does this buzz feel different, if it does feel different, than the buzz you have had in the past?
Jean Grae: There’s a little pressure, following up with a sophomore project, and a feeling like it’s not gonna be the same thing as it was last time. Any artist should grow and evolve, and the second album shouldn’t sound like the same record.
You definitely don’t want to get the buzz, because critics and people are looking for the next best thing. “She’s bad ass; she’s female! We love her!,” and they haven’t even heard the music. My job right now would be to have a reason behind having such a buzz. Having a buzz is great, but if you can’t back it up it doesn’t mean anything.
PM: I know in the past you’ve self-produced tracks. I remember reading that you started producing around the same time you started writing. Who’s producing on this next album?
Jean Grae: I actually didn’t do any tracks on the album. The past year and a half, I wanted to concentrate a lot on writing. There are a lot of things that I can go back and learn and listen to. I listen to Attack and Bootleg and be like, That was cool. But that was me at that moment, and I want to get better. I want to improve, and the only way for me to do that is to keep writing. But I definitely want to come back to making beats — probably this year. It was nice to have a little break from it, you know; just clear my mind and start over with a clean slate.
PM: Do you have the same aspirations behind the boards as you do in front of the mike?
Jean Grae: Yeah I do. I think more so behind the boards. I’m definitely not someone who likes being in the spotlight that much. If I had the choice of being behind the scenes or being behind the boards or being in the studio as opposed to being on stage, it would definitely be behind the boards.
Jean Grae: I’m much more comfortable. I like the creative process more than anything else. It’s not exactly equal to showcasing for me.
PM: Are you nervous when you perform?
Jean Grae: I always get butterflies before I go on. If I can get past the first ten seconds and get past the nervousness, then I’m fine, and then I black out.
PM: I know that some of the criticism that you have received in the past has been related to production. What’s your response to that? Has there been an effort to do some things to assuage those concerns?
Jean Grae: Honestly, I don’t pick beats because I think it’s gonna be a hit. I pick beats because they make me feel something and they make me want to write. Nobody else is making the music except for me. Either you feel it or you don’t.
PM: Most of the time you hear the beat first and then you write?
Jean Grae: Yeah.
PM: I interviewed this Staten Island producer who is just sort of coming up, Stoni, a female producer, a few weeks ago. She was talking about all of the hurdles to making it as a producer. It seems as if there may be even more resistance to female producers than female emcees.
Jean Grae: I haven’t really come across too many female producers. For me, I’m not gonna use a beat just because a girl made it. If I can find a hotter beat, it’s about finding a hotter beat. It’s interesting.
I wish there were more women behind the boards. I know when I was starting out, I definitely wanted to know everything that there was to possibly know, just so I wouldn’t have to wait on anyone. It’s hard explaining to people the vision that you have inside your head. So, if I could write the rhymes, make the beat, record the session and engineer it, that would be ideal.
If there are a whole lot of female producers with some really hot beats, it’s undeniable. You can’t deny something that makes you feel something. Let’s get them more equipment. Get online. I’m for downloading, but I definitely don’t think it’s cool to have lukewarm shit. With emceeing or making tracks, you gotta be the best at what you do, regardless of your gender.
PM: I’m just trying to figure out for a while why there are so few women involved in performing hip-hop. Have you interacted with many major label female emcees?
Jean Grae: No, not at all. In general, and definitely not in terms of gender, there is kind of line between what’s considered commercial and what’s considered underground. Sadly, it’s not really about music for a lot of people anymore; it’s not really about having the respect for someone as an emcee or as a producer and being like, “Yeah, I would really love to work with you. I love your stuff.”
I think in the past year or so, we’re starting to break down a lot of those lines and seeing a lot of collaborations between up-and-comers and people who [have made it and are reaching back to lend a hand]. But it is difficult. Even to get in touch with people who you want to work with. It’s hard to go through managers, and first question is, “What money are you talking?” I would love to collaborate with a lot of people, but it’s a little difficult.
PM: Who are some of the top people you would want to collaborate with?
Jean Grae: I’m a very big Ghostface fan. We all know Jay-Z’s not retiring. We need Lauryn Hill back. I’d love to do something. Just sort of do unexpected things. Get Eminem and Bjork on the same song.
PM: On the subject of Lauryn Hill, I know that you can sing.
Jean Grae: I’m not Lauryn Hill.
PM: Was vocal arts what you did at La Gaurdia High School for Performing Arts in Manhattan?
Jean Grae: I was actually a vocal major.