(Photo: Derek Reed)
I like laughing, I like women and (big shock here) I like rap music, so it should come as no surprise that I’m a Jean Grae fan. When I was in my (admittedly pretentious) “keep it real Hip Hop” phase about a decade ago, she was in my crop of underground favorites. Then Jeanius leaked a good three years before seeing a shelf date and I was really sold. Then after a bit of a hiatus Cookies Or Comas came out proving she was still here kicking ass and taking names. Then the “Kill Screen” video happened (more about that below), then three…no make that FOUR EPs happened between this past fall and winter. Oh yeah, a self written/directed sitcom and an audiobook on top of that.
Jean Grae recently took time to talk with me about her endless well of creativity, the status of her long anticipated next LP Cake Or Death and why although it should be self explanatory, it’s wrong for a producer to steal her music and take credit for creating it.
After bad dealings with Babygrande Records and then Blacksmith not being in business anymore, you’ve gone completely indie and made a bigger name for yourself with the help of social media. What has that transition been like?
It never really felt like much of a transition, I’ve always been as hands on with my projects as I am now. It’s kind of nice having technology catch up to what I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time. So it’s been really easy actually.
Doing everything on your own terms, what has been behind the sudden boost in productivity with you doing everything from directing your own videos to producing your own music and writing a web series?
It’s interesting that people are like “Oh wow, it’s cool that you’re starting to do all of this”. Even back in the Natural Resource days, from the inception of anything that I was working on I was super hands on making beats for everybody. Again, it’s just technology that’s allowed me to be as productive as I want to. You don’t have to go to a label and say “I need a deal” or wait for release dates or anything else. It’s pretty much the same way I’ve been operating, but now I’m able to release more product because I don’t have to wait for a middleman.
On the Herbaliser song “Generals” you played a bunch of different characters and lately you seem to be having a lot more fun with your delivery. Where does the creativity come from with you using your voice to do almost anything?
I’ve been doing voices for a super long time, I used to do a lot of voice-over work. But going back to the ’90s when Bad Seed did the song “Shit Is Hot”, we were playing around and using voices like Beavis and Butthead. I think it’s always been playful and “Generals” came about because we were sitting there listening to the track and Jake & Ollie (The Herbaliser) were like “This sounds like a posse track”. I figured “We don’t really have a posse but we do have me, so I’ll just make my own group” (laughs), and anything like that seems like the common sense thing to do. If I have skills I’ll just use them instead of waiting for someone else. I don’t like waiting for people.
I recently saw you comment about never using the same flow twice. Is that true?
That is absolutely true. I’m a very competitive person and a lot of rap has been driven by that and since nobody really challenges me, the best part of doing anything is to challenge yourself to see how you can do better. No matter what it is, I made a great poached egg yesterday but I want to try to make it better today. It’s always about trying to challenge yourself to evolve and get better on a different level.
I’ve watched the “Kill Screen” video frame by frame and slowed it down…
I’m so sorry (laughs).
With so many scenes cut and spliced together, can you tell me the plot or is that still a mystery?
Actually, what you gotta do is tie it into all of the albums. It’s a really long story that I started telling 10 years ago about this character who’s an assassin, and I like to do Easter eggs and puzzle pieces so people can put the story together on their own. So while that video may seem disjointed and you’re like “I don’t know what the hell is going on here”, if you go back and listen to everything from all of the Gotham Down cycles the entire story is explained. It’s always explained somewhere else, I just like people to look for the information. So I’m not gonna tell you where it is, but it’s on the Gotham Down cycles.
You’ve been singing in a lot of your music since way back in the day and a lot of your material is rooted in the details of your personal life. Could you ever see yourself going full on R&B for a project?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it R&B but I definitely enjoy the singing melodies and arrangements. I don’t know if I would put it in the R&B genre but maybe I’d do a project, and if I did it would have to be super throwback ’90s R&B or I’d just take it completely left field and invent some new type of shit that I haven’t thought of yet (laughs).
Between Twitter, your interest in improv, the Hellpit Faeries Christmas EP, and now writing your own sitcom with Life With Jeannie you have a very comedic personality. Do you aspire to break into comedy as a side profession?
I think from being super young it was kind of my first real dream. I started doing some stand up stuff almost two years ago and since then it’s just been great to work with people like John Hodgman, Hannibal Buress and Wyatt Cenac. I’ve been having a lot of fun realizing how close the worlds are together, and writing Life With Jeannie gives me a chance to expand on that in the way that I want to. I get to write the jokes that I want to see and really be a part of it, so yeah I guess it’s kind of an all encompassing thing.
You recently put out the State Of Eh audiobook. Would you ever consider publishing a memoir of your experiences as a musician and/or as a woman in Rap?
It probably wont be about being a woman in Rap. I need about 30 more years to tell everyone the whole story (laughs). There’s so many things, people have no idea about any of the behind the scenes stuff, I’ve had a really interesting life. I totally plan on writing a few books, but a memoir would have to wait because I feel like there’s going to be way more adventures. It would be silly to do it now.
You did the Jeanius album with 9th Wonder & Khrysis, is there any other producer you’d be interested in doing a whole project with?
I don’t know right now, I’ve made a lot of music recently and I’m trying to focus on other things. I have so much fun working together with 9th & Khrysis, I’d love to do something with Jon Brion.
Speaking of producers, are you at liberty to discuss the recent controversy with Cam from Justice League stealing your work?
I was just taught in kindergarten as I thought we all were taught to not steal. I kind of have really strong feelings about it, it just wasn’t cool. Then for him to have the nerve to come back like “Leave me alone”; dude you cant go steal someone’s bike with them saying “You stole my bike” and you’re like “Yeah, but oh my God leave me alone.” He’s crazy right now, just in general as a rule in life don’t steal shit, but especially don’t steal shit and then try to pass it off as your own. That’s even worse.
You had a role in the film Big Words and now you’re doing Life With Jeannie. What made you want to get into acting?
I had been talking for a long time with Neil Drumming who wrote and directed Big Words about the script he had been working on, he asked if I’d be down to read it. I loved the script and with him asking me to be in it, I was like “Absolutely”. Life With Jeannie was always something I really wanted to do and I’d never pick anyone else to be me unless we’re doing a super cool episode where we picked a couple of people. I never pick any new genre or job that I’m breaking into, it’s just a lot of things I’m really into and it’s like “I feel I can do this really well, so I should just go on ahead and do it.”
Being that you are such a creative person, is there anything you haven’t attempted yet that you’d still like to pursue?
Good question, I don’t know what’s left (laughs). My brother got the visual arts side of things, I’m not the greatest at that and I don’t want to step on his toes. At some point in the next five years I’d love to have a very small restaurant.
What can you tell me about the much talked about Cake Or Death?
Cake Or Death is done and it’s such an interesting project that I know when I get to releasing it I’m going to stay on that for a while. I wanted to do the other stories before getting into something like that, it’s a really heavy album and there’s so much to do visually. I kind of wanted to give myself room to finish this season of Life With Jeannie and then do videos from the Gotham Down and Jeannie projects, then settle into Cake Or Death as soon as Life With Jeannie ends to ride the year out with that.
It was kind of a great chess piece for me to keep and I think it’s interesting that people keep asking for Cake Or Death and focusing on the name. For all you guys know I could have put out Gotham Down Deluxe and called it Cake Or Death and no one would know. I’m giving myself room to move around and play around and then take a little bit of a rap vacation while still being able to work on it. But it’s around, I’m definitely not doing Detox (laughs), it’s totally coming out. It’s timeless music so it doesn’t really matter when it’s released.
You’re still considered a very niche artist who’s almost passed over by bigger outlets. What do you think it will take for you to receive your just due?
I think people maybe missed a bunch of things, it’s not necessarily that I got ignored by people. I definitely made a choice to be like “This is the kind of music I want to make and these are the kinds of things that I want to be involved in.” I understand what the formula is for making popular music and being that kind of an artist and I don’t necessarily want that. I understand how to hustle, grind and network to get in exactly where I want to be. I don’t think they’re ignoring me as much as it’s like “We’re both not going to play the same game” and that’s cool. I enjoy the freedom of being me and being able to do whatever I want.
For all things Jean Grae, hit up jeangrae.com and jeangrae.bandcamp.com