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[See Part 1 of our in-depth chat with Jean here]
RG: Any chance at all of telling us who the masked names on “Billy Killer” are?
JG: Umm…yeah! Who did we bleep out? Well, “Billy Killer” was about my ex.
RG: It was mostly industry names that you bleeped out.
JG: It was only one name. It was too close to the deal at the time. It was Chuck [Wilson] from Babygrande. Hi Chuck. What’s up? [Laughs]
RG: We won’t get into that — you had your back and forth with them. [note: Jean’s deal with Babygrande Records went badly, and the label ended up releasing several albums’ worth of her recordings with beats that Jean did not okay, records she has denounced publicly and still has not listened to]
RG: You’ve toured recently with one of my other favorite rappers, Invincible. I was wondering — any more plans for tours or maybe recording collaborations?
JG: Definitely. What’s really weird is that Invincible and I have never done a song. It’s a little weird — we just haven’t yet. But it’s definitely something that’s going to happen. That’s family. I’ve known Invincible since — I don’t remember how old I was, but I think she was like 17, 18. So yeah, we’ll definitely do a record together.
RG: I look forward to it. Can you talk for a second about your fascination with Fight Club? You reference it in tons of your songs. There are plenty of movies where things explode, and the whole unknown doppelganger story’s been done a couple times. Why that movie in particular?
JG: I’m a huge fan of the author [Chuck Palahniuk]. I’d read the book, but I first saw Fight Club when I used to smoke a lot of weed. I also was selling weed at the time. I just wasn’t very good at it, ‘cause I didn’t really like to go out and sell weed. I’d be like, “Come over.” [laughs] And I would smoke it with them, and when they left, I’d be like, well, I’m not high anymore — I gotta smoke the rest of the weed.
So my first time seeing Fight Club — I didn’t see it in theaters — I was really, really high. It was one of those things when you’re really, really high and you’re like, [stoned voice] “This is the greatest thing! What?”
Then I watched it again when I was not really, really high, and I was like, no, this is still really fucking good. As much as I liked the book, I really liked the way that they approached it in the movie. I thought it was insanely smart, and I thought it was brilliant acting. And I think there’s always a part — even in a creative life — where you’re like, sometimes I just don’t want to be here anymore. What if I was doing something completely different? What if I was everything that I really, really wanted to be and acted how I really wanted to act? How would the world react to that? That was always the thought for me.
Me, luckily, I go into rap, and it gets to be my Tyler Durden. I get to be who I want to be, say what I want to say, act how I want to act, and I don’t have to blow the world up — which I would if I could. But I relate very, very much. Then just personally, the idea of, it’s only until you let go of everything that you’re ready to do anything has been crazy and really, really true for me in the past few years.
RG: That ties into something else I wanted to ask, which is about the Cake or Death record.
JG: [Whispers] Segue
RG: Just because you’ve mentioned previously that that was the album you would’ve made if you’d known you were allowed to make it, right?
JG: And also if I’d known that I could make it.
RG: The tagline for it is, “What kind of superhero will you be?” What’s the idea behind that?
JG: Cake or Death started out as Prom Night, which was the record I started about five years ago. A couple of songs that I started with were songs like “Super Jean” and “Stick Up Dance”. I loved it, and it felt right at the moment, and I had no idea where the rest of that fucking album was going. I was like, these songs are great, [but] at this point, it’s just going to sound like a compilation of songs. I have no idea how to do this. I really, really struggled. I recorded a lot of songs and working with a lot of people I really wanted to work with, and it just wasn’t right.
And then I left it alone for a while. I walked away and went through a bunch of life, which I think was absolutely necessary. Sometimes you need to fucking step away. I didn’t have anything to write about anymore. I went through a bunch of relationships, and there was definitely choices for my sanity, for my health, for just my own life in general, for people around me. [There were] really important decisions in that time that I found that I had to make. At a certain point, it was either, you could be dead — is that what you want to happen in the situation? Or are you going to get up out of it and say, I’m going to change everything tomorrow? It doesn’t matter what I lose, what I could possibly lose. I need to finish this, I need to finish my life. I’m not done yet.
There was a point in it when I was like, I don’t want to rap anymore, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’ll just go find something else to do.
RG: Did that coincide with your retirement announcement? [In 2008, Grae posted a MySpace message that to many read as a goodbye to rap]
JG: Yeah. And it wasn’t my anger at the [record] industry, it wasn’t any of that. Because I was like, really? I’ve been angry at the industry a long fucking time [laughs]. Why would I pick now? I was pissed off at y’all in the fucking 90’s. Why would I do that?
It was, I’ve done this for this many years. Why can’t I move on and do something else? Just because fans want another record — that’s great, but you’re not living my life. Why would I continue to do this without the understanding of, I can do this, I can finish it, and I can also do other things at the same time? Completely be able to multi-task it, completely be able to live out my life as a grown-up, because that’s what grown-ups have to do.
RG: Be a person and an artist.
JG: Be a person and an artist, and as multi-faceted as I want to be to live out all of those things. If I want to write, write. If I want to cook, cook. Whatever it is. And the decision to do that was really an open door to writing the album the way I wanted to, and being completely honest about it.
As much dark shit as I write, whether it’s “Taco Day” [her song about a school shooting — see Part 1 of our interview for her thoughts on that song] or something super-violent, Cake or Death took on a tone where I discussed all the things that were absolutely personal and horrible and heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, but then had to find a resolution to it. Like I said, it’s great to just talk about it; and then what? What are you going to do after that? I didn’t want it to be an album where it just addressed that and left the listener nowhere. I’m trying to take you to a point where I just found salvation in the form of myself. It’s a “you gotta save yourself” record, and nobody else is going to do it.
The slogan is about being the superhero who goes through all that shit and, at the end, you gotta get the fuck up and put your oxygen mask on and try to save some other people. Because I think you could go either way. You could go through all that shit and still turn into a terrible fucking person. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that.
So, all of that being said, it starts off horribly uncomfortable and scary, and ends up on a really good note, I hope. I try to be as inspirational as I can. It’s not religious or anything else. So we’ve added the visuals and the idea is that it jumps around linear time. Kind of, your past is your present is your future is your everything else. We start in “Assassins”, from Pharoahe [Monch]’s album, and jump a little bit ahead to the future. I’ve become this assassin who, from the song, loses it and starts to have no remorse for anything. I get the opportunity to come back and say, I didn’t do it right. I wanted to be a superhero, but this is just fucking all wrong. So I get the opportunity to go back and do things again.
It’s the idea of, if you had that time machine, if you had a way to go back, what would you do different? And if you could do anything different, is the outcome really going to change who you are or what you could do or the world around you, or are you just destined to be who you’re supposed to be? So that’s the whole idea behind it. God, that was a long fucking answer! Shit! I’m exhausted! [laughs]
RG: About the climate in which you’re releasing this record — something jumped out at me when I was thinking about it. I know you’re a Louis C.K. fan. The show that he did maybe 5-6 years ago, Lucky Louie, was great, but it didn’t go over well — it barely lasted a season. Now he has Louie, that is also genre-hopping and strange and personal, and has done extremely well. Do you think maybe that means that there’s more room in the culture for work that has those kinds of qualities, like maybe yours?
JG: That’s such a good question! Such a good reference! I’m so excited. Can I just come here every day?
RG: Fine with me!
JG: I was a huge fan of Lucky Louie, but it was one of those shows where I watched the first episode and I was like, yup, this is getting cancelled. This is not going to go over well. It’s way ahead of its time.
RG: And shockingly realistic.
JG: And shockingly real. It was so intimate, and I think it really scared people. The other show that was around that time was The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s series — another really, really realistic…it was so uncomfortable that I would walk away and be like, I can’t even watch this part. Oh my God.
No, I don’t think people were ready for it at that time. Exactly what you said. I think everything happens — without sounding ridiculously cliche — when it’s supposed to. I know there’s a lot of [people saying] “Oh, Jean — she totally missed her time,” and I was like, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think I would have been able to do this kind of work, and I don’t think anybody was open enough to hear it. No matter what age the fans are, even if it’s fans who have grown up with me, at that point weren’t ready to deal with that kind of shit, and there wasn’t really a vehicle, as much as technology has grown, for me to be able to take it into my own hands so much. That also has changed a lot, in terms of social media and me getting to present myself as a brand and a personality outside of everything else. That really, really helps people.
Or it doesn’t, and they realize, “I don’t get it.” And I’m like, well, that’s good, because this is clearly not for you. Great! We’re all on board. You may go now.
RG: In “#8,” you beg off being called “elitist”. You say, “hardly elitist, I know the struggle”. I talked to Soul Khan about this when I interviewed him, about an artist’s relationship with some of his or her more elitist, purist fans. Like, Soul Khan told me about when he used to work at Fat Beats, and there were people who were proud of not having bought a record since [Mobb Deep’s 1995 album] The Infamous. I was wondering about your relationship to these kinds of purist fans.
JG: Look, I don’t fucking care. Listen to whatever you listen to, or don’t listen to it. My issue is that those — a lot of times, not for all of them — are the fans who judge their artists by thinking, you’re going to have the same musical tastes as I do, which is absolutely fucking insane. You just can’t expect anyone to do exactly what you want them to do, or you made up in your mind that just because they make this kind of music that you are such a purist about.
So yeah, I’ve had some arguments where people question, why’d you do the song with Lil B? I’m like, look, basically, because I have always done what the fuck I wanted to do, so it has nothing to do with anything. And number two, it’s not your fucking business. If you don’t want to listen to it, that’s cool. There is a lot of music. You may go listen to something else. And if you choose to not listen to me anymore, then trust me, this music was probably not for you in the first place. Judgemental anything, I don’t really get down with.
RG: What about the book? You’ve been working on a book — what’s up with that?
JG: The book started out as “The State of Eh” on my blog. I was inspired to start writing down all these chapters. It then started going into the form of, I am tired of everybody going, “Why don’t you have your own show? How is this not a show?” I was like, it is! It’s the Jean Grae show all the fucking time. You’re on it right now. You’re just making a cameo appearance.
So it has taken more of the focus of the show, which is Life With Jeannie. And because I’m such a fan of things like Louie or Curb [Your Enthusiam], I didn’t want to do a reality show. I wanted to tell these stories in an honest way that we hadn’t seen from somebody that looks like me, and also in a very New York kind of way. It’s something that’s definitely missing. So I’m really focussing on doing it as the show right now. I actually have to get home to finish scripting the pilot.
RG: Wow! You heard it here first.
JG: I sat down yesterday and went in to start restructuring it. I worked on the [video] treatment for “U&Me…,” and realized how hard it is to go in and write dialogue the way I like it, and edit the way I like it. I’m trying to make it smart and funny and well-done, and I’m writing it all my goddamn self. So that’s fun.
But yeah, the book is now the show, which will then be the book.
RG: Excellent. One last thing. You were maybe the very first rapper to be publicly supportive of Rap Genius. We put up “CaseBasket”…
JG: This is true! What else do I get? [Note: On her arrival at Rap Genius headquarters, we gave Jean an RG t-shirt as well as a copy of actress Alison Arngrim’s memoir, a nod to this lyric of hers] Can I just start taking stuff?
RG: We put up the song and you responded almost immediately. So can you say a little something about Rap Genius, what it is, and how it relates to your work?
JG: I was wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully surprised. I get my lyrics posted up a lot of places, and 120 times out of 50 times, they are fucked up and wrong. So I went to the site, because I usually go when people post it up. And not only were they correct — maybe like one or two thing [wrong] — but the explanation was there. And not only was the explanation there for different sections, but it was right!
It was like having a string of fucking terrible, horrible dates, and then you go on a date with someone, and they understand all your fucking jokes, and you’re like, oh my God, you get me. And that’s what it felt like. I was like, you guys get me. Thank you. Thank you. Sometimes my shit needs explaining, because it’s really dense, and there’s a lot. And there was reactions that I got even from [her friend and PR rep] Guy [Routte, who joined her at this interview], who was like, “You said that? I didn’t even know that you said that!” So you guys help me out immensely and I love the job that you’re doing, and I think it’s important.