Denmark Vesey's Plantation

A place to discuss whatever comes to mind.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Jean Grae: One Of The Best You've Never Heard

Jean Grae - Rich in ability, poor in bank account
story by Ronnie Reese

Last summer, Talib Kweli had this to say about Jean Grae: "She makes me think of Lauryn Hill, just more fierce. Lauryn is one of the best MCs ever, but she didn't have a love for MCing. If Lauryn had a love for MCing, she'd be like Jean Grae."

Respected by peers and critics alike, hers is an oft-told story: Formerly What? What?, now Jean Grae. Born Tsidi Ibrahim in South Africa, the birthplace of her parents, self-exiled jazz musicians. Her mother, a schoolteacher and singer, her father, African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. Moved to the United States as an infant, later becoming the youngest member of Alvin Ailey's second company at age 13. Attended the LaGuardia School of the Arts and Performing Arts in Manhattan, famous for being the model for television's "Fame," itself famous for introducing Irene Cara to the world as "Coco." Began running the streets of the West Village and learning culture in her mid-teens, dipping in and out of two early crews before going solo in 1999. Appeared on anything and everything prior to recording her 2002 debut, Attack of the Attacking Things, followed by the preposterous Bootleg of the Bootleg EP a year later.

After touring with the Roots in the spring of 2004, Grae - who has also produced records under the playful aliases Run Run Shaw and Nasain Nahmeen - went to work on her second full-length, This Week, released last October. With as much effort as she's put in over the past few years, it's hard to believe that Jean Grae is poor, but she is, and will usually be the first to admit it. Near-poverty is a reality for a lot of struggling rappers, something the general public is largely unaware of. Says Grae, "I was reading some Web site the other day about how artists like Jean Grae can still live comfortably making $70,000 a year, and I was like, ' this the other Jean Grae?...because I want to make $70,000 a year!'"

The yin to Grae's open bar-hopping, fried bologna-eating yang is an exceptional handle on her craft. She's arguably one of the best lyricists in recent history, rapping from a wellspring of experience and education, fueled in part by personal battles and industry frustrations in what has been a prolific career to date. When asked about an infamous onslaught written to a popular hip-hop Web site, where she unmasked the "old thugs club" mentality prevalent in the rap business, she replies, "I think it's definitely a situation where you don't want to get beat by a girl...whether you're in the first grade or in your thirties. They [men] will definitely give each other a chance before they'll let a girl in, unless you're willing to play by their rules."

Seems rather catty for a bunch of dudes. "I want a chance to play," Grae continues, "I just want a chance to play on my own terms." This independence and refusal to compromise, while admirable, may be the reason why she has yet to experience the fruits of labor one would expect a person with such immense talent would already have. "It's not like I'm choosing to go left," she explains. "I just don't know how to do the formula. I honestly don't know. If I could do it, I probably would be, but I just don't know how."

What Grae does understand is that you don't necessarily need rapping ability to succeed in hip-hop, but she is cursed with having too much of that unnecessary ability to do anything about it. "I definitely understand that it's easier to love celebrity and love the life," she states. "That's sort of an illusion of what your life could be, and that's what sells...that's what drives. If I were living a different lifestyle, I might be talking about that. Since I'm not, I have to talk about what I know."

Jay-Z once admitted, "I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars," but Grae doesn't have that option. Her mother would kill her. Furthermore, she says, "It's difficult when you're not in a category people can put you in. Why do I have to be in a category? Listen to it and enjoy it without having to put a label on it. There is no label, it's just me.

"Can I be me? Is that okay?"

It is okay, for some. Grae is blessed with a loyal following. To her disadvantage, however, is the fact that broke rappers are often "supported" by even broker fans. The situation is noticeably apparent while on independent tours, where she finds that due to a lack of promotion, there is no demand for her music in certain places. Part of being an artist is being able to share - to present your art to an audience, yet there has to be a demand for it. At times, the lack of support can be a tough sight.

"It's definitely a struggle to balance the marketing and promotion," Grae says. "If you have enough money behind you, it doesn't really matter what you sound like. I could put out a record of me farting and burping, with a 10 million dollar budget, and it would sell. I'm thankful to be able to sell records without actual promotion, or without video or radio play," she continues. "To be thought of as important and the semi-recognition I do get makes it worth it, but I think the perception of it is really not what we're going through and sometimes it's difficult to get that across."

Then there's the girl thing. At a seasoned 28, Grae has the skills and potential to become the best female emcee rap has ever seen, even if she's not quite ready to burn belly shirts and spit vagina monologues. "Don't categorize me as a female emcee, although beyond that, I am still a female," she affirms. "I want the shoes." Grae's demure, engaging and engaged, happily in love with fiancé and manager Colin Afflick, and staying wary of how she and other female rappers are portrayed. "On photo matter how many times you ask for exclusive sneakers and no bathing suits, bathing suits somehow always end up on the rack," she explains. "It makes no difference what magazine it is.

"Every now and then," Grae reveals, "I wish I had gotten into this a long time ago, when it wasn't so much about these labels and categories, and we were afforded the luxury of versatility and definitely had a lot more control. It got to the point in the mid-'90s where [record] companies began to realize exactly how much money they could make off of this music. They tried with disco and alternative, but it stuck with rap."

Grae also might simply be so good that gaining commercial acceptance will always be a struggle. On her Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, where Grae raps her own lyrics over popular Jay-Z and Scarface instrumentals, as well as Nas and Mobb Deep classics, her lyrical abundance is often too much for the mainstream production. The EP includes seminal tracks from an early clique, Natural Resources, where ironically, Grae displays an innocent, more accessible style better suited for album sales. What she has become since then is a freak of the industry, a rap scholar falling somewhere among MC Lyte, early Eminem and some kid in a Bushwick cypher with a blunt behind his ear. It's a worthwhile mix, no doubt, just not one people are paying to hear. Although "if someone would send me that $70,000 I made last year," Grae suggests, "that would really help."


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