[Part 2 of 2] Here is the second part of the interview with Jean Grae …
Prefix Magazine: I want to talk about how you developed as an artist and as an emcee. You did the Alvin Ailey thing at a young age, you can sing, and you come from a musical family. What pulled you toward hip-hop?
Jean Grae: I have no idea. I wish I had an answer for that every time. Being in New York and being around hip-hop and so many emcees, you can’t help but be involved in it somehow. And there were so many crazy-talented people coming up around the same time.
I loved writing more than anything. If I could take myself out of the spotlight and just be able to write and be behind the scenes, I would. But I guess there was something in me that wanted to be like, “I can do this too.” A lot of times when I do things, it’s almost to prove to myself that I am able to. It was more of a test for myself.
PM: Were there any initial songs or artists that inspired you or helped focus you or shape some of your interests?
Jean Grae: Writing-wise, G. Rap and Pharaoh. Just people who broke the rules and would say something incredible and make you hit rewind and had the ability to of play with language. When you write it it’s one thing, but you can play with it even more when it’s spoken. Those two were very big for me.
PM: Did you have any early mentors?
Jean Grae: My mom. I remember her doing her press kits and taking me around to the pressing plants to press up her own records and start her own label, to be independent and make the music she wanted to do.
PM: Were she and your father really supportive of you doing hip-hop?
Jean Grae: They pretty much knew that it was gonna be something creative and it was gonna be something in music. They’re definitely just proud of me for sticking to my guns and not following a formula — I guess following in their footsteps, in a way of speaking.
PM: Are you gonna do any collaborations with them?
Jean Grae: I think, yeah, in the future. The same thing I was talking about before — just wanting to come into my own and establish myself. I wanted it to be a thing where we could both bring our own thing to the table. I think I’m getting closer to that point, but I’m probably not ready just yet.
PM: Going back to those early years, what was your experience in the West Village like, working with emcees and poets including Mos and Kweli. Have you all stayed connected?
Jean Grae: Definitely. It was how Natural Resource formed: the underground scene of New York at the time; the amount of places that were open even club-wise; being able to see shows. New York is a big place and it’s a small place. If you don’t know someone, it’s only one degree of separation away. People were moving at their own pace and doing their own things.
Everybody stills knows each other. Kweli and I have been talking about working together; we were supposed to do something on the Reflection Eternal album. It actually took until about last year for it to actually come about. Everybody’s still kinda down with each other.
PM: Do you feel confident about distribution?
Jean Grae: Yeah, definitely much further than what we could do with Attack, because it was hardly anywhere. I have faith in Koch.
PM: Do you feel like you had the financial support to do things you wanted to do on the record?
Jean Grae: I don’t think we’re completely there yet. There are definitely things that could have been a lot bigger. I figure at this moment everything is kind of a stepping stone. There’s always gonna be time to do bigger and better things.
PM: How are you feeling about the record?
Jean Grae: Really good. It’s definitely a step. By next month, I’ll probably be doing something else, and the month after that I’ll be into something else. I think it’s a great reflection of where my head’s been for the past year and a half. You don’t want to do the thing where you keep recording being like, “We can do something better.” I think all albums should reflect who you are in the moment.
PM: I know Midi Mafia and 9th Wonder are doing some production. Who else?
Jean Grae: Midi Mafia, 9th, Phantom of the Beat. A lot of these people are doing real big records right now. Phantom is “Magic Stick and “Apollo Kids.” We met along time ago, in ’98 or ‘99. We were just talking about how we’re glad we only worked together now. We’ve been talking about it for years and neither of us was really ready to do what we wanted to do.
A lot of unknown kids are producing. Real new kids coming up that we chanced upon. They deserved to get heard because they have some incredible stuff. I know I don’t have exactly all the resources in the world. If we can work together and make beautiful music, I don’t really care how big your name is or how much money you get for other stuff. If we can make something happen and it works, and it’s beautiful, that’s what we try to do.
PM: I know you’re trying to establish yourself with this album. Are there any guests, or is the focus just on you?
Jean Grae: We were going to do guests but — I guess we started a “no guest appearances” thing with the first album — so we thought, Let’s keep the theme going. There are two: Tracee from the Jazzyfatnastees and Block Mcloud for Brooklyn Academy. No emceeing full verses. It’s kind of a test to myself; I want to be able to hold it down myself.
PM: What are the strongest songs on This Week?
Jean Grae: “PS.” Definitely.
PM: What’s it song about?
Jean Grae: It’s me, and about the difference from the first two albums, which would be sort of holding a grudge and having more of a negative outlook on things and realizing that when you get older it doesn’t pay to keep those feelings. I’m sorry for things I’ve done in the past. They are real people names. I figured rap is a way of talk therapy. It’s been working.
PM: What are your thoughts on the state of hip hop right now?
Jean Grae: It depends on what day it is. It depends on what video channel I’m watching. I think I was real disillusioned in general just with the music business, since it’s not about music. It’s so cold and emotionless. And it’s all about marketing and the formula. Can you do this for a single? You can’t do this single. It’s not right.
A lot of it changed: the trip to North Carolina working with 9th; definitely the Okayplayer tour and seeing how open people can be. You realize it’s not really the consumer: They’re ready, if you give them something else, if you give them a choice. It took a little bit of disillusionment out of it.