Jean Grae

Hip-Hop Core : Why have you changed your name of What What to the Jean Grae one ? And why did you choose this particular name inspired by the X-Men ? Does this idea come from Pumpkinhead ?

Jean Grae : After Natural Resource, well almost before the group split up, I just wanted a change. Nothing really deep about it. I was tired of being called "What?". The NORE song Superstar kinda killed it for me. Also, just wanting to make a clean start and re-introduce myself.

HHC : Are you still in contact with other Ground Zero and Natural Resource members (Ocean & DJ Aggie) ? What are they doing now ?

JG : Yes, no bad blood or anything. Rithm, from Ground Zero I haven't seen in years. I know he's doing well for himself though. I see Ocean often, Aggie once in a while. Everyone is doing well.

HHC : How did you meet Kimani ? I believe Internet has something to do with it…

JG : Actually no it didn't. Umm. I think we had met a few times before at shows and such. The underground is a small world you know.

HHC : What's the signification of your album cover, this Vishnu goddess ? Why did you make this choice ?

JG : She's purdy.

HHC : You were supposed to do a few shows with Cannibal Ox, I suppose you're very disappointed of their split, but have you still got some projects concerning shows ?

JG : Yes I do. We're still pulling together some stuff for this fall/winter to try and promote the EP. Nothing really confirmed, so I can't tell you exclusively yet, but I will be hopping on some tours.

HHC : You're from South Africa, right ? I think you were one of the first US hip-hoppers (with Mr. Len & Bobbito) to make shows in this country… Have you been there recently ? Do you know the hip hop scene of this country ?

JG : Myself and my fiancé were there from December of last year until earlier this year. It was his first time there, just a really beautiful experience in all. My first time there really, as an adult being able to see things in a different way and to experience it with him, made it even better. I have to say that I wasn't that well versed in all of the hip hop or Kwaito scene before hand, besides being there in 2000 and meeting a lot of talented kids, but we were definitely learning a lot in the short time we had there. Looking forward to going back, really being able to do something that will benefit the communities that desperately need help. As well as doing some work with collaborations between South African and American artists.

HHC : You wrote an article for, denouncing the ignorance and the narrow-minded vision that a lot of Americans have of Africa… Do you think things are changing ?

JG : No. I don't think it's an easy thing to do and not something that's going to happen overnight. But I think we are long past due for an awakening, on both ends.

HHC : I believe you tend to dislike women who, in music, have got feminist positions, isn't it ? You prefer being considered primarily as an artist and not as a woman doing hip hop. Can you tell us more about that ?

JG : No, I don't dislike women who have feminist opinions. I think it's a shame that people think that because you are female you must thereby be a feminist by default. I don't like being categorized as anything that I am not. I don't like being categorized for anything in general. I am a woman, I am a rapper, neither one of these automatically makes me a feminist. But more power to anyone who stands behind their ideas and beliefs, whatever that may be. I would rather not perform at "all female showcases" or participate in things that segregate me as an artist based on my gender. I'd like there to be no line between the requirements to be dope as a female emcee or as a male. If you like me, you like me because you think I have the skill to represent the art form. If not, then don't dislike me simply because I'm female. Also, never call me a femcee. That is so insulting. Mancee? We don't say that, do we? Why the separatist approach then?

HHC : Both your parents were musicians. Did they influence your musical point of view in any way ?

JG : Of course. The strength to be independent, as an individual, performer and composer. There always being music constantly around us, the fact they are both still actively pursuing their careers.

HHC : What gave you the will to write ?

JG : The pen.

HHC : On 'Swing Blades' I believe you say "another day with myself, another day without wealth/ there's got to be another way, I need help/ so I pray like I'm a Pentacostal, Sufi, Buddhist, Strict Agnostic/ hoping one will hit its target/ take another sip of hypnotic and lay my head on the pillow and dream erotic scenes/ of killers spilling endless rounds and all of them shooting at me." Could you explain this excerpt ?

JG : The rhyme was about going between being a pessimist in life who hasn't lost faith, to the point of trying to pray to every God from almost any religion just to try and make the waking life better. Only to still be plagued by visions of darkness and death in dreams.

HHC : When you were younger I believe you wanted to be a DJ. What are your favourite pieces in your collection ?

JG : Hmm. They are mostly in storage. I would say the Missa Luba recording, which I haven't been able to find again. It's a choir of African children singing gospel in their native language, really beautiful. I need to find that record, thanks for reminding me. Uh, a lot of my fathers early stuff that I think only deep jazz collectors have, lucky me. And, a lot of old rare Thelonious Monk gems.

HHC : Can you tell us a few words about Run Run Shaw… ?

JG : I produced under that name on a few records back in the Makin' Records days.

HHC : You're an emcee but you produce too… Which emcee (or singer) would you like to feature on one of your productions ?

JG : I have a random list. Ghostface, Chrissy Hynde, Anthony Hamilton, his voice is nutty. If I start naming more I'll just get angry, I can't afford anyone. Hahaha, people are expensive nowadays… Funny, when you're famous, people want to do things for free. I don't need it THEN. I need it NOW.

HHC : You seem to appreciate this type of production with dramatic strings and melancholic melodies like the kind of sound that was released in the middle of the 90's although at the moment what seems to be the most important are the drums : all the time, the same snares. Most producers seem to choose a kind of formula…How do you explain that ?

JG : Formulas work. Only more a certain amount of time though. I just prefer music that's not so cleaned up. Not everything has to sound so pristine, for certain things it works, but you don't need everything so polished up and shiny. That's just the way I like my music, some edge some grit. Too much polishing, you start taking all the emotion and life out of it.

HHC : I believe you've performed with Apani B Fly for a few shows, and you also were with her on some tracks like "Shut Da Fuck Up" (From the Beatminerz LP "Brace 4 Impak"). Is there any other collaboration in the works with Apani ? A full length project of you and Apani could come out as extraordinary…

JG : Yeah, don't we know it. We have a joint on her upcoming release "A Story To Tell", called "The Epidemic".. Yes, when we're both done doing all the busy album things we're doing, we will smack you all in the face with an album. Then you will all fall down and go ouch and say "Oh...oh wow." That's the plan.

HHC : According to me, the most outstanding collaborations you've done are those with Masta Ace, Mr Len, Da Beatminerz and The Herbaliser (I heard this track named Tea and Beer …) What relations do you maintain with all of them ?

JG : With The Herbaliser, we're planning to do some new songs for another album. I just worked with Ace again on his new album, Len will be back on the next LP as well as Beatminerz. So, everyone's still on board. Len just started his new label and is being all rap executive. That's not a word, I know. I'm really proud of him. Kice of Course, who's really, really fresh will be on his label, So look out for that please.

HHC : What about your links with Immortal Technique ?

JG : Besides that murder rap we are caught up in down in Tibet? Oh, you mean rap wise. Oh, well I met Teck at this small bar in my neighborhood where he demolished these little kids acting up onstage to the point where they were so embarrassed that they had to leave the club. One of my favorite hip hop moments of all time. Haha. I turned to Pumpkinhead and said "I have to meet him. That was great". Long story short, we hooked up, I got a couple joints I produced for him on Volume 1, he called me up and asked me to come through and do something on Volume 2 so of course I was down. Teck is my homey, I'm honored that he let me touch that song. I know it was an incredibly personal subject. Plainly, he's the man. Please buy Volume 2. It's fire. It makes fire go, " Oh shit, that's hot." It's important. Let the kids listen to it. Then stop listening to the CD and go pick up a book. Books are your friend.

HHC : Can you tell us a few words about your collaboration with Mr. Len on his solo LP ? Since your appearances on there, you're truly considered as one of the top lyricists.

JG : Blah, blah Lenny blah blah. Yeah Len is pretty talented. Yeah. So? No, really...we had been wanting to work together, so when we finally did, it was really good that it did not suck at all. Creatively our chemistry is incredible. That was kind of a tongue twister there huh. I don't ever have to say anything, he knows already what things should sound like, or what beats are right... And yeah.. He gets slept on too. I don't get it. Just a response to the critics on that album.. How could you not like "Force Fed"?? By Agents of know. Aww man, I could kill someone to that song. If Linkin Park came out with the same shit (which they pretty much did, like 2 years later) it would be genius. Len's a genius.

HHC : Can you tell us a few words about "The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP" that you've just released ? What's the goal of this short release ?

JG : Sort of a Version 1.5 album. An album to bridge the album. Actually no, it's an album to bridge the bridge between the actual LONG Bootleg and the next album. Get it? Just keep a buzz going, set up retail and audience to acknowledge the label change, yadda yadda.

HHC : For this new album, you've signed with Babygrande. Why? I've heard that the budget for your first album was really low, is this the unique reason of this change ?

JG : Bingo with the money thing.

HHC : Apart from 'Thank Ya', most of your tracks on "Attack of the Attacking Things" aren't very happy (which contrasts with the somewhat humorous title of the LP). Can we expect the same type of ambiance for your next LP ?

JG : Not at all, totally different album. Completely different perspective on a lot of things right now. I'm still dark though. No happy, dancy, frolic in the meadows tunes.

HHC : The reviews for your first solo LP were (logically) mostly positive. The second album is often considered to be the most difficult step in an artist's career. Most of the artists never recover from a bad second LP. Do you feel an important pressure ?

JG : Nah, hey most artists sell a lot of records for their albums, so it's not like the last one went double platinum and I have to measure up. No pressure in that way. Just the pressure I put on myself to be better and more versatile.

HHC : Who's gonna produce this album ? Nasain Nahmeen ? And who's gonna take the mic with you ?

JG : Can't really talk too much about it. Keeping it kind of mysterious for this one.

HHC : I've heard about many other projects such as an interactive CD, Brickface and Stucco (with Mr Len) and also a project with Murs from the Living Legends … What's up with all of this ?

JG : Yes, yes and yes. Future endeavors.

HHC : Only in this interview, we've been talking about you under 5 different names. Are these names reflections of the different aspects of your personality ? Is it only a way of blurring things ? Is it something else ?

JG : I just don't think I can pick one good name. I keep coming up with new ones, so I use them all over the place. Don't worry I got more aliases coming so you don't get bored. Production wise, I didn't want people liking stuff specifically because they knew it was me, or because it was good "for a girl". That was the main choice for the beat aliases. Just like the music, who cares who made it. People rely too much on putting a name on something, instead of just enjoying it for what it is.

HHC : What is your motto (if you've got one) ?

JG : Grow up. Not left.

HHC : Any last word ?

JG : Amalgamate. I've always loved that word. It feels nice to say. A-mallll-gaaa-mate. See?

Interview by Dext & Cobalt
October 2003

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