Looking back on this interview, I realized it was one of the first face-to-face interviews I had ever done. That, however, wasn’t the part that scared me. I remember being extremely nervous because I respected Jean Grae’s artistry so much, I didn’t want to say something stupid.
I don’t know what it is about her music, but I’ve always found a personal level of connection to her songs. I think this hit me when I heard her on Talib Kweli’s “Black Girl Pain” spitting about the boroughs in Cape Town, South Africa – the same boroughs my family lives. Maybe it was a sense of familiarity and comfort in the same story that had me connected Jean Grae, but whatever it was, I was nervous.
What started out as a 15-minute interview ended up being a 30-minute chat. Literally, a chat. So breaking out this interview reminds me of what a great artist she is and I’m happy to wish her a happy birth WEEK.
This interview is credited to Pound Magazine and was conducted by myself in 2010.
Pound Magazine : 10/28/2010
There’s nothing greater than an MC with character, humor, and skills. Jean Grae is just that; a skilled emcee and someone you want to instantly be friends with. After hours cooped up in a car on their way to Toronto, Jean was hardly grumpy – but as she stated freely, it may have the alcohol getting her by. Her crew quietly crept up on us, but once in the spot, made themselves comfortable. It became evident that as much as business was business, Jean Grae was all for fun while doing it.
The South African born, New York raised rapper can attest to the fact that to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you came from. Being the daughter of esteemed jazz musicians, Grae studied vocal performance prior to spitting vocals on 12-inch singles and producing beats for rappers in the 1990s. Grae worked under the monikers What? What? and Run Run Shaw in the front of the mic and behind the scenes up until 1998 when she abandoned the past and adopted the moniker Jean Grae. However, it was only in 2002 that Jean Grae made her recognizable debut with Attack of the Attacking Things, followed up with This Week in 2004. Jean has arguably worked with some of the greatest ‘underground’ and mainstream artists and producers in hip-hop, but has simultaneously developed professional and personal relationships with these artists that has further shaped her career. After a messy and ugly divorce from Babygrande Records, Jean Grae signed to long-time friend Kweli’s label Blacksmith Records in 2005, off of which her critically acclaimed 2008 album Jeanius (produced entirely by 9th Wonder) was released. However, things had come to a halt prior to that release, when Grae announced a musical retirement on her MySpace in early 2008. After a long and bitter relationship with her previous label that was without a doubt heard and felt in her music, this declaration could very well be noted as understandable. Thankfully, however, that announcement only made this emcee more aware of how hungry she really was.
Jean isn’t your average media-hyped female emcee. She doesn’t insist on selling her body, she isn’t the token-girl in a crew and she will not let anybody tell her to act ‘lady-like,’ not to say that this is a problem, it just isn’t her steeze. It’s refreshing to a female emcee who kicks back in a hoodie and the bare minimum of makeup on her face, as she was the day of our interview. To see a female emcee so comfortable with herself, and who is so blatantly confident without having to sell her body or a dolled-up version of herself is almost a rarity in today’s industry, and almost intimidating at the same time. Not to say Jean isn’t feminine or sexy, but she does it on her own watch. That’s a theme that’s been carried throughout Grae’s career and personal life – everything is done to her satisfaction, on her own time. The truth is that Jeannie is an emcee with complete control over her work and has her hand in every aspect of her career.
Jean Grae has taken to different avenues to promote her music, such as the controversial 2008 Craig’s listening where she advertised the sale of 16-bars for U.S$800 post-‘retirement.’ Whether that idea was encouraged or frowned upon in the hip-hop community, it was surely to be understood that Jeannie is about business and doesn’t need help to figure out what she wants. Taking her career to Twitter, Grae doesn’t shy away from stepping out and speaking her mind, for better or for worse. Admittedly, she says ‘As exciting as my life is sometimes…. I’m really quite the lame-o.’ Though often portrayed as a dark character who’s habitually facing tribulations in her previous musical endeavors, Jean Grae actually has a quirky, crazy and sarcastic persona that connects to her fans and as explained to Pound, she is finally in a place to understand a balance between hardship and happiness.
Jean Grey, the X-Men character, has the capabilities of manipulating life and matter to her own pleasure. She’s able to defy obstacle and rejoice in triumphs, and hip-hop’s own Jean Grae embodies those characteristics. Jean Grae is an emcee who knows who she is, where she comes from, and where she wants to be, with or without your approval.
[Pound Magazine]: I just wanted to start off by going way background…
[Jean Grae]: Oh No!!! [laughs]
[Pound]: No, it’s good stuff!! You were born in South Africa and despite being raised in New York, you still have a strong connection to the culture and your heritage. Whether your shouting out the South African people in a song or whether you rap an entire verse about the areas in Cape Town like on Talib Kweli’s ‘Black Girl Pain,’ why is it so important for you to hold on to that culture?
[JG]: You know, it was important to my parents. For my brother and me, it was to know who you are and to be proud of it and to be a citizen of the world, definitely. But also for understanding where you come from and always be proud of it, and always have the responsibility of feelings like you represent a bunch of people and don’t be out there doing stupid shit, because you make everybody look bad.
[Pound]: Moving on to New York, you were able to grow up in the come-ups of hip-hop and the golden era of hip-hop. Would you say that hip-hop chose you or you choose hip-hop?
[JG]: I don’t think anyone chose it just because you were around the scene and the area. But thank you for putting in that way because people normally ask, “So, how did you find yourself immersed in it,” but there really was no choice. It was the early 90’s and the late 80’s in New York, in the Village or in Brooklyn or whatever, and it was just naturally happening. I had no idea or intent of being a rapper, I didn’t know that at all. It was just constantly around and it was the vibe of the city, it was beautiful…before Giuliani! Haha!
[Pound]: You’re one of the few artist who understand the importance of competition within the rap game, especially amongst female emcees. You know why it’s important to have the Trinas, the Lil’ Kims, and even the Nicki Minajs that are now coming out, but do you think this is why you’ve never been involved in any of the beef or never picked up a pen an written a diss record…
[JG]: …yeah, I’ve picked up a pen and written diss record… I just you know, say ‘Yeah, I got that out,’ and just leave it there. I had an ex-boyfriend who once told me “You know what your problem is? You’re angry because no one will battle you. You just wanna battle all the time, but no one will do!” And I thought that might be a good point – maybe I have some pent-up aggression, but I’m just not the kind of person to throw the punch. It has been interesting… not to say there aren’t people who don’t like me, but nobody has said anything. They should be scared now; I got years of pent-up aggression…
[Pound]: Another reason why they may be “nervous” is that you’re signed to Blacksmith Records, founded by Talib Kweli and Corey Smyth. How did your relationship with these two guys help your career, moreover, how has it also formed you as an artist on a personal level?
[JG]: I’ve know Kweli and Corey – I guess Kweli about 4 or 5 years before Cory – but I guess we were about 12-13 years old… I know, which is like 3 years! Shoot, which is 20 years… I was making beats around that time and I was writing, but nobody really knew who I was, and I used to take beats over there. Kweli used to call while he was at boarding school and he used to write these elaborate rhymes…he’d call, and it’d be like 5 minutes into the rhyme, and I’d walk away and do stuff for 10 minutes and come back, and he’d still be going! I was like “This guy is insane!” But it’s always been more family than anything else. We’ve really grown into a relationship where we can hugely respect each other’s creativity. We work very differently and have different strengths and weaknesses, and always, of course it’s a healthy competition. You wanna be around people who make you want to be better. After they come out the blue and you’re like ‘F*ck you for saying that, what you just say?’ – ‘Shut up, I hate you!’
[Pound]: Haha, I hear you. Going back to the ‘past’, in 2005 you were going to release an album called Prom Night based on the fact hat you said your prom night sucked, which is super unfortunate…but it was never finished. How did Prom Night progress into Cake or Death? What’s the concept of this new album?
[JG]: It’s the first album that’s taken me more time… you know. Jeanius took 4 days, Attack of the Attacking Things probably took a week, This Week probably took a couple weeks, and this album took 5 years! I started recording and I didn’t really know where I was going. I started out with the concept from Prom Night first and recording around that, and then my personal life began to take different turns. It was really focused on relationships – you know, got married…got engaged while I was married…. it’s on the album! But having hit 30, it was really just thinking ‘What is exactly that I want to do with my life?’ Not so much being over rap, but just being like ‘I’ve done this for half my life – actually half my life,’ and being like I wanna find something else to do – like, did I wanna be a mom or a wife, or work on other things. I was sort of reaching that point where you start really questioning those things of what direction you want your life to take, and the songs started developing out of that. Cake or Death is kind of a play on a few thing; the domestic side, the party girl or it’s you know, the pressure to get married and your mom being like ‘So what’s up with the kids…?’ and you’re like ‘C’mon man!’ It’s about trying to find a balance in all of this, trying to find a balance of a grown woman. Then it also came from what kind of music I was doing – things before have been pretty dark, just because you know, I write dark sh*t. And reality took a different turn, I was like ‘Okay, I want to change my life, I want to change certain things in different ways,’ and kind of balancing that, and being like this is gonna be a moment where [people think] ‘Why the hell is Mary J. Blige happy, we wanna hear Mary Pain!’ There’s gotta be a way to deliver that from both sides of the coin, and being like ‘It’s okay if I’m feeling happy.’
[Pound]: Do you think that the new crew that’s on the production – Nottz, RJD2, Ski Beatz – are bringing something new to this album?
[JG]: I’ve been wanting to work with Nottz for a while. When I started thinking about this project I was getting a bunch of beat CDs and I was listening to them thinking ‘This is someone who’s trying to sound like Nottz or ‘This is someone trying to sound like Ski Beatz,’ It was like ‘why wouldn’t I just go to the actual masters of those sounds?’ We ended up just really loving working together. I have a really special bond with producers, like 9th or Krysis…. and we always end up like ‘That was a great song, let’s just do an album!’ So, yeah, of course this is the best of them. They really did [bring something new], because they were able to step back and say ‘Just go, just go with it, we know whatever you’re gonna do with it is exactly what we wanted to hear.’
[Pound]: On a lighter side of things, let’s talk about your Twitter account. Despite being hilariously funny, in my opinion, it’s one of the most effective marketing tools you’ve had yet. Would you agree with that?
[JG]: I definitely would. I think for me, it was really interesting [to see the] perception of Jean Grae. The only way I had it before was ‘I don’t wanna listen to that hippy backpack music!’ You couldn’t even get people to listen, and I’d think ‘Really? How’d you get that just looking at a picture?,’ but Twitter has been great.
[Pound]: Another social networking tool you’ve used is Craig’s List where you were selling 16 bars for US $800… what was the purpose of that? Is that offer still on the table? Christmas is around the corner….
[JG]: [Laughs] No, it’s not! That offer is not on the table! I thought that for like 5 minutes, I didn’t realize I would actually get flack for it. I thought this is my job, this is what I do so what’s wrong with my offering my services? That’s how I make money – I record and do a 16 or something and I charge people money for it. So, why not just open call? And in addition, my MySpace had been going so well and I though there was really talented people out there and I’m like ‘Hey, why don’t we work together?’ I mean, I’m not doing it for free, but if you got it, let’s discuss the concepts and the beats and it could be fun. It worked in both ways and it was pretty lucrative.
[Pound]: Who is Jean Grae in 2010 and what can we except from you in the new year.
[JG]: I’m absolutely out of my mind, which is fine – I’m fine with knowing it, and I think that’s when things get okay. It’s like ‘Ok, I’m a crazy person, how can I make this work for me?’ [laughs] I’ve definitely learned the ability to multi-task better and think smarter – smarter marketing and smarter moves, and not have to work harder but just work harder. Expect the unexpected!