Wed:04-27-05 Interview: Jean Grae Story by Jamin Warren
The term "femcee" is pretty offensive: It's unfortunate that any female who holds court on the mic gets relegated to the "Other," that place to acknowledge achievement while still waving the gender stick. So it's a shame that someone as talented as Jean Grae has to deal with pronunciations of "a female emcee" as opposed to an all-around amazing artist.
After several aborted attempts and Jack Frost's vindictive hand, I was finally able to catch up with Grae at her Brooklyn abode. Fresh off tour and prepping for another trip to North Carolina, she waxes on her homeland, This Week, and her fans.
Pitchfork: So let's start at the beginning: You were born in South Africa. How'd you make the transition here?
Jean Grae: I swam. I was very young and it was very far and I was very tired.
Pitchfork: Those transatlantic currents are pretty strong.
JG: I was actually three months old, so there wasn't so much of a transition.
Pitchfork: Why'd your parents come to the States?
JG: It was 1976, year of the Soweto riots. They wanted to start over, start a new life. But I was conceived there so they intentionally made it so that wherever they were, their children would be born in South Africa.
Pitchfork: So you're a dual citizen?
JG: They don't have that anymore, so I got my American citizenship when I was 10 or so. But I wish it were possible since I don't really want my American passport right now. So I've been thinking about changing it with my fiancé. He's from Jamaica. So I just want to take mine and he can take his and we can get the fuck out of here.
Pitchfork: Have you been back?
JG: I've made about six or seven trips since I was little. About a year-and-a-half ago, my fiancé and I went there. It was my first time as an adult and being able to appreciate the experience and see family.
Pitchfork: Any plans to play in South Africa?
JG: We're trying to plan something at the end of the year. I mean, there are some places where you want to get money, but it's not really about the money. We'd like to get out and do two shows to bring the music there. Kids can't get to the venues, and even if they could, they can't pay for it. So you want do something for at least a month.
Pitchfork: And so you attended high school at La Guardia . How did that affect you musically?
JG: I think I knew I was always going to be around music. And I actually thought I would be dancing, not a vocal major. Looking back on it, that kind of training-- learning classical and music theory-- opened my ear to a lot of other things. We were mixing the album and there was one bassline that just wasn't right. And no one else heard it except me. So after an hour of listening, they were like, "Jean, you're right. We gotta shift the whole song over." So that helped out, but other than that, it was just high school.
I actually read some of your stuff on the website. You guys are kinda harsh, so I'm kinda honored you're interviewing me, since you don't need it at all.
Pitchfork: We're just try to be honest.
JG: Well, you know my relationship per the whole Oliver Wang situation. I think you're entitled to say whatever you want, but at the same time, I think artists are entitled to their songs. I'm very vocal and I understand that not everybody's gonna like me; it's not for everyone. But it was more about the way you do things than what you say.
Pitchfork: OK, here's a loaded question. Do you feel any responsibility as a female emcee?
JG: I think everybody has a responsibility to themselves. If at the end of the day, you can rest and feel OK with yourself, that's fine. Personally, I don't do certain things. I read articles and they'll pit me against Lil' Kim like I'm going to smash them down. I never said any of that; I never said I didn't like Kim or Foxy . I think the media places a slant on it: "Yeah, she's so badass! She's gonna beat them all up! She keeps her clothes on!" I mean, that's just me. I don't feel the need to do all that. That's just not how I am. But if you're comfortable doing that, that's fine. I just happen to be doing some other shit. I feel the responsibility in that I want my mom to look at magazine articles and not be like "What have you done?"
Pitchfork: The name Jean Grae...you read a lot of comic books, I assume?
JG: I had an older brother who was six years older. We had a comic-book store six blocks away. So we went all the time. I wasn't into My Little Pony. We'd play X-Men.
Pitchfork: Tell about your first group.
JG: There was a group before that, but we won't talk about that. Then there was Ground Zero. I had recently told people that I rhymed and I met this kid named Rhythm. He brought some beats and we started recording about five songs. I don't know if I really wanted to be in a group, but it was an opportunity to record. So then we sent it to The Source for the "Unsigned Hype" and they picked us. But by the time that happened, I was already in Natural Resource. Being that young and early in the game, getting your name out like that is crazy.
Pitchfork: For the album, how was working with 9th Wonder?
JG: When the album started, we had no idea where we where going. I usually have a pretty good idea, but so much was going on with the tour and so forth. We had gone on the Winter Break Okayplayer tour and we opened my set remaking "Threat". Then I heard Little Brother was going to be on the tour and I hadn't really listened to their stuff, but once we met, everybody clicked. 9th wasn't on tour until the fourth date, so Pooh and Phonte came up to be my back-up dancers in the meantime. When we finally had a show with 9th, he'd said he'd come on stage and we'd do the whole intro like off album.
So we started talking and I was like, "We gotta do something for the album." We went down to North Carolina and did two tracks. After finishing "Don't Rush Me", it was amazing. I didn't tell him where to do the drops or anything and it worked perfectly-- very easy. I didn't write anything before getting down there and he didn't have any pre-made beats, so we just kept working. It reminded me of what it was like when I lived it a house with twelve emcees back in the day. Other than that, he smells kinda funny.
Pitchfork: How would you describe it?
Pitchfork: And working with Midi Mafia?
JG: Like I was saying about the house I lived in, when I was with Natural Resource, it was like the "Real World" for rap. There were 10 people but others were in and out since we had a studio. When I moved out, Swift moved in and I'd heard a lot about him and vice versa. This is like 1999 or so, but we had never formally met. So we linked up again at the ho use when we did "Black Girl Pain" for Kweli's album. It wasn't like I went out to get Midi Mafia; everybody who worked on the album was connected somehow. And they were good enough to not charge a million dollars a beat.
Pitchfork: What's the deal with the Jeanius EP?
JG: The Jeanius album is still gonna drop; we're trying to recreate the same formula. I won't write anything and we'll just work from scratch. The EP wasn't mixed; there were not song titles. But once it was out, we realized there was a demand for it. Right now, it still needs a home.
Pitchfork: I had a bootleg from a friend, but there were no track titles or anything.
JG: Yeah, I looked on the web and someone had posted titles for everything. How you gonna just name an album? People were complaining: "We can't find any song titles for this?!" That's because we didn't put the album out! "Candles in the Rain"? What track is that?
Pitchfork: For your last tour with Diverse, I heard there wasn't any equipment at the venues
JG: Yeah, we didn't have a name for the tour yet, but it came after the first few dates. We called it the "No Turntables Tour." None of the promoters felt comfortable supplying us with turntables...or hotels or transportation. But you can't complain, because you just need to get out there.
Pitchfork: Audiences change a lot so do ever find yourself critical of the people who listen to your music?
JG: No. I think it's widening now. But to be blatant about it, it's underground rap and there aren't too many black people in the house. And not to push blame, it's music you have to look for, so if it's not presented to you, I can't complain that you're not there. There weren't a lot of girls either, especially black girls. So as a black woman on stage, it's weird to wonder where the rest of them are. But I see it changing a bit. I wanted a mixed audience. And a lot of women came out for the last tour, a lot of black women too, which was surprising.
Pitchfork: Where do you think This Week puts you?
JG: It was a really good picture of everything that was going on at the moment. Things were all over the place and I had to find a way to make them work. You're Monday is not going to be like Saturday; the emotions are going to be different. I think coming off the darkness of The Bootleg was a change.
Age, too. Being older and being more comfortable my person and becoming a more well-rounded person. There were some things I wasn't ready to say on Attack like "P.S." Retrospect helped, resolving grudges, saying sorry. Now that I've done that, I can move along and play some other shit. So age helps...and liquor too.
Pitchfork: What's next?
JG: I got this Phoenix joint. But I also got Threeve in the pipes too. And then there's The Generals project.
JG: Just ignore everything you know about hip-hop, ok?
10. "I think she's referring to me:" In response to Reply # 0
>JG: Yeah, I looked on the web and someone had posted titles >for everything. How you gonna just name an album? People were >complaining: "We can't find any song titles for this?!" That's >because we didn't put the album out!