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Recently we sat down with one of our absolute favorite rappers, Jean Grae. Since starting out in the 90’s with the group Natural Resource, Jean has made music that is consistently smart, personal, and funny. Thus, she was a perfect choice for us to talk to, and she far exceeded our already sky-high expectations
The interview, Part 1 of which is below, covers a wide range of topics dealing with Jean’s whole career. We’ve rarely seen an artist so thoughtful about her own work, and we’re proud to bring you this transcript.
Topics covered in Part 1 include: writing break-up songs; why “Big Pimpin'” is really a sad, honest tune; ultraviolence; how a bad Jamie Foxx routine can inspire great music; what’s so good about Jay and Em; and spiders in trucker hats
RG: First off, welcome to Rap Genius headquarters.
JG: Yay! It’s so crazy, but behind the camera, there’s so much shit going on, you don’t even know. Oh my God, I don’t even know how you let that happen. It’s nuts.
RG: We try not to talk about it.
JG: Shootings. There was two shootings since we got here.
RG: So, I’m with Jean Grae.
JG: Hello. It’s good to be here.
RG: I wanted to start — because of your jacket, mostly, which you guys can’t see but has all the lyrics to one of her songs on the back of it — asking about “U&Me”.
JG: Oh! Well, we just met, so maybe we should give that some time.
RG: But also about the song [called “U&Me&EveryoneWeKnow”].
It has two sides to it. On one hand, it’s a serious, mature break-up song. And on the other hand, it’s this rap song full of wordplay and puns and really elaborate stuff on that side of things. How do you ensure that one side of that doesn’t overshadow the other? How do you keep those two things in balance?
JG: I think that kind of alludes to relationships in general as well — trying to keep a balance between two things. “U&Me” was a really interesting song for me to write. I really thought that everything was done for the album. I was in Puerto Rico, and I got this beat from M-Phazes. Everyone else was recording out there. We’d been out there for like three days, and I hadn’t done anything. I mean, I’d done a lot of swimming and suntanning, so that was good. But people were getting work done, and I was like, ‘Ah shit. I really gotta try.’
So I put this beat on about maybe ten o’clock in the morning. I write, normally, really quickly. I was like, this should be a breeze. It’s a real simple melody. I’ll be able to do this. I sat there, I wrote something, and I was like, this is shitty, shitty fucking garbage, and I suck. And I walked away. I was like, okay, I’m going to go make some breakfast and go cook. I cooked for everybody and I came back and I sat down, and I tried to write it again — this was like four hours later. And I wrote something else that was just shitty. More shitty shit. I gave up again and walked away, and was like, no, I really, really want to write to this beat. This beat is my baby. Something in those chords definitely spoke to me, and I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t want someone else to have it. It was one of those beats that if someone had it later, you’d be like, ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ And I sat there for the next six hours. It’s the longest song ever — and the shortest song — I’ve ever written, and I wanted to approach it correctly and I wanted to be witty about it.
RG: It’s just one long verse.
JG: It’s one long verse, and writing it in that way was also different for me. Not breaking it up, and even doing the hook [which is just the title repeated]. I’ve never done anything that simple, but it didn’t feel like it had to be any more difficult. So it was a lot. It was the one song I’ve ever really, really struggled with.
I have no idea how I made it balance out. It took hours. It’s my favorite song of mine. It’s the first song that I’ve had on repeat, ever, of mine.
RG: There’s one other thing about it. Like I said, it’s a breakup song — a mature one, a serious one. That and the “Blame Game” freestyle are both on that same general topic. You don’t really hear rap songs about that. Rap is a fantastic means to express that kind of stuff, but you don’t hear it. It’s in some ways uncharted territory, if I can be a little dramatic about it. Did you feel, when you were writing those songs, like, oh, I’m doing something new here?
JG: Not for me. I’ve definitely touched on subject of breakups and relationships, especially as early as going back to “Lovesong,” [from her first album] which was really, really personal. Even in other songs, in “P.S.” [I was] addressing relationships and breakups and how you deal with it. Coming out of writing stuff for Cake or Death, which is all dealing in that topic, [“Blame Game”] was right on the same note. Doing “Blame Game” was sort of a lead-in, like, ‘Let me just throw this in there so you guys can see where it’s going.’
RG: On that same topic, a lot of your songs are really personal. “Take Me” deals with serious, near-suicidal depression, and “Live 4 U” really struck me. It’s a song about your mother and a tribute to her. But in the middle of it, there’s this incredible part where you talk about your shortcomings, and then you wonder if she wouldn’t have been happier being someone else’s mother. That is just such a scary thought, and such a powerful thought to verbalize, and then on top of it to put it in a song, in a public format like that. Could you talk a little bit about being so open and so personal in songs, especially in a genre like rap where people spend their whole careers trying to essentially appear invulnerable?
JG: It definitely changed in the past few years. I think the state of being vulnerable at all [began to happen] with Kanye’s earlier stuff, which really started approaching that and being honest. There was also a time where I feel like maybe [being invulnerable] was a little too forced. Like, maybe you don’t always have to do that.
I was just listening before I left the house to Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” verse. That, to me, it’s a serious commitment-phobe verse. It was a really honest, vulnerable — [saying], ‘Nope! What, I’m not gonna do that!’ So there’s definitely songs where it’s hidden, but it has been out there. But no one necessarily noticed because of the way it’s presented.
My stuff has always been super, super honest and open. Maybe to a fault, at certain points. When I was little younger and didn’t really know how to deal with the responsibility of presenting that, I would be really, really harsh. I think now I understand how to present it and how to go into those areas without being a douche, for lack of a better word [laughs].
You know, you put someone else’s business out there, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be damaging to them or to you. ‘Cause if you’re saying it, it should be a form of therapy. There should be a resolution to it at some point. It’s not just saying it to fucking say it or to be like, ‘This is all me,’ and then you don’t do anything with it and you don’t learn from it.
RG: You brought up Jay[-Z] a second ago, and I wanted to ask you about him and your relationship to him. Obviously, you’re a fan, but it in some ways goes beyond that. You’ve freestyled over a bunch of his work, you’ve done answer songs to his. Why is he a touchstone for you, as opposed to Biggie or Rakim or any other person on that legendary level? What about his work in particular makes you want to, as you’ve said, “get high [and] analyze” it?
JG: I think, coming out of Natural Resource [the group Jean was in during the mid-90’s, rapping as “What? What?”], when I was realizing that I wanted to do something different, and I finally realized, if I’m going to be doing this thing, then I gotta figure out what my voice is. And his particular tone, and being very conversational, it was something that struck me. I hadn’t really heard anyone who just felt like they were just talking. Playing with phrases and words in the middle of it, but it still just felt like a conversation. It was something that really inspired me and my first song when I came out of that group — first song that I wrote solo for myself — was “Keep Livin’”. When you find something that inspired you, I think there’s a lot of times where I took a little bit too much. Then I found a way to be able to be like, okay, this is my voice, this is the way I’ll be able to talk to people. It was a really interesting time for me because I was still super-heavy into lyrical shit, and I do love Biggie and I’ve done a couple of Biggie covers for totally different reasons. But yeah, that’s really what struck me.
RG: Another touchstone, if I’m reading it right, is Slim Shady LP-era Eminem. What’s your relationship to that work? There are similarities in style and approach, you’ve freestyled over beats from that era, and you’ve even shouted it out in lyrics — the whole “One sleeve up like Slim Shady’s gear” line.
What’s your relationship to that era of his career, of him first being on a national stage like that?
JG: I was a huge, huge fan. Once again, it was coming out of that group, finding a way to discuss my own issues and shortcomings and with saying, I want to talk to people but I don’t want to lose the sensibility of myself and the jokiness, ‘cause I think that could kind of go out the window.
It was a great, refreshing time to hear someone be honest and vulnerable in a completely different way. Everything that was going on at the time was a great inspiration to [understand that] you don’t have to not be yourself. You can be multi-faceted and go back in and, even if it’s taboo to talk about it, and shock factor, it’s okay, you can go ahead and do that. I felt like that was unheard of for women to say things that had shock value unless it was sexual. Also, I’m a huge fan of words and rhythm placement, and I haven’t heard anyone do that that well in a while.
RG: Sure. And he’s obsessive about that stuff.
JG: [Whispers] Which is a good thing. I like that.
RG: Obviously, one thing that connects that era Eminem with you is violence. But not just violence — a very particular kind of cartoon-y…
RG: Yeah, ultraviolence. This is a real part of your style, the cinematic ultraviolence thing. Why use that? Does it have something to do with comic books or movies?
JG: I’m insane [laughs]. That’s probably why. I’m a fan of ultraviolent movies and things like that, and gore and blood — and, yes, comic books.
Because we weren’t doing videos — and if we did, we were doing videos for, like, three dollars — I had to develop my style as being super, super visual. Like, if I can’t make it so that you can see it, I have to tell it so that you can see it. So painting a picture in that way made it seem more real to me.
Thank you for noticing that! It is so nice to have an actual conversation [laughs] about songs. I appreciate this.
RG: Thank you! Speaking of songs, for me, one of your crowning achievements, if I can use that kind of language, is “Taco Day,” and I wanted to ask about it. How do you create a character who does such awful things [the song’s narrator is the perpetrator of a Columbine-like school shooting], but remains vulnerable and remains sympathetic, and then how do you telescope all of that into six or seven minutes?
JG: I think we’re all people who do really fucked up things out of trying to be as good as we possibly can. Even if it’s just going on in our heads at the time, [we’ll imagine doing bad things]. With that, it’s really easy for me to create characters, to go into personification and to step in someone else’s shoes. I’m a huge fan of character development when it’s done correctly, whether it be in sitcoms, movies…
I’m the person who’ll complain. Like, I walked out of [the movie] Safe House. We were about half an hour in. Now, it’s filmed in Cape Town [South Africa, where Jean was born] — I get to see Cape Town! And Ryan Reynolds is in it, with his shirt off a lot, and I was like, this is great. And through that, I was like, I can’t fucking stand this. I was like, did they just start in the middle of the movie? I don’t understand. There’s zero character development. I don’t care what happens to Denzel. I don’t care what happens to Ryan Reynolds. Nobody developed a character. They’re not telling the story right. At this mark, this should happen; at this mark, this should happen. I was done with it.
I feel the same way about writing in songs as you would anything else. [DJ Mr.] Len [on whose album “Taco Day” appears] gave me the beat months before. I’d been sitting with it for a while. Like I normally do, on the day of the session, I was like, “Yeah! What, I totally wrote it.” And I was like, oh shit, I gotta write this fucking song.
Nobody said make it nine minutes, but there’s no other way I could possibly tell the story. So “Taco Day” was written in a couple of hours, and I actually wasn’t done by the time I got to the studio. So when we would have breaks or we would finish a verse, I’d be like, hold on. And I’d be on the floor in the booth, writing the rest of it. So there’s so many things that I would go back and do differently, had I allowed myself the time. But maybe the rush added to the character a little bit.
RG: Right. Because she’s operating in this “I decide to do something and I do it” mindstate.
JG: And there’s a definite backstory behind it and I wanted it to have motivation. I didn’t want it to just be, hey, some kid goes into school and shoots up the school because — you know what, maybe now that could happen without a backstory, but I don’t feel like it’s just something that occurs just out of fucking nowhere. So I wanted to try and dissect things instead of just saying, that’s fucking horrible, and people have no reason behind it.
RG: Just in passing there, you mentioned Cape Town. Obviously, you were born in South Africa. On one of your tunes [a freestyle over Dr. Dre’s “Light Speed”], you talk about being “Manhattan-raised, African-born”. And then there’s the song “Block Party”. You said something in there that really caught my attention, which was, you compared the territorialism of identifying with “the block” — the block you live on, and I’m going to live and die for my block — with the dynamic that allowed for the colonization of Africa, that allowed people to come in and effectively colonize and rule almost an entire continent. Did being from South Africa but growing up here in Manhattan allow you to see those kind of similarities? I mean, that’s a pretty unusual comparison to point out.
JG: I think because of my parents’ careers and their lifestyle [Jean’s parents are singer Sathima Bea Benjamin and pianist Abdullah “Dollar Brand” Ibrahim] and their choice to self-exile [from South Africa in 1976], I was very lucky in a lot of ways to be able to see so much. It wasn’t just being an immigrant. It was then being able to keep traveling as they were traveling. So I got to see a lot of the world — a lot of Europe and Australia and places — when I was really young, and I know that most of us are not afforded that luxury. The thing about “Block Party” was, okay, I can understand that and I can understand maybe you can’t necessarily go to Germany tomorrow. But we are in New York City and there are trains and there are boroughs and you can go see something. There’s so many amazing things in this city to see that could broaden your perspective.
What made me write that song was, I saw a Jamie Foxx standup, and he had just come back from South Africa, Cape Town specifically. This is the 90’s, 2000, something like that.
But his standup was, you know, I got off the plane, he was like, and it was just a smell and it was horrible, blah blah blah. And it went into such of a terrible depiction of Africa. I was like, why would you do that? ‘Cause I just came from Cape Town, and when I got off the plane, I was like, oh my God, it smells amazing.
So it was more anger at people who are afforded the luxury of travel don’t come back and teach people around them. Especially those who have the ability to have an audience and don’t take that responsibility. I thought definitely a lot of rappers — like, you guys are traveling all over the world. How are you either a. not learning anything from those travels, and b. coming back and just not telling people about it?
RG: And still acting like Zone 6 Atlanta or whatever is the only thing on Earth.
JG: That was insane to me. And still is.
RG: On a slightly lighter note, on the last EP you introduced the hipster spider. I was just wondering what he’s been up to. How’s he doing?
JG: The hipster arachnid? The hipster arachnid…This is what happens to me. This is why I’m insane. When I wrote it, when I wrote that line, I stopped. I have a creating character problem. So immediately, hipster arachnid became this entire character. I was like, we gotta do a short on him, or something.
In my mind, he’s a giant spider, but he’s got glasses on and a stupid fucking hat, and he wears ironic t-shirts — he tries to, but he’s got a lot of legs. So he goes around Williamsburg at night, and he spins intricate fucking webs. He rips off, like, Picasso and stuff. And then he walks away, and then comes back the next day when people are looking at it, and people will be like, “That’s amazing!”, and he’ll be like, [disaffected hipster sigh] “Whatever. I’m over it. I mean, it was cool last night.” He’s kind of a dick.
But that’s what happens when I stumble on lines like that. It never just stops at that line, because I’m insane.
See Part 2 of this interview here