J-Live: The Best Kept Secret

posted July 03, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 7 comments

In the early 2000s, J-Live was stride-for-stride with Black Star and Common in bringing the early classic Hip Hop components out to combat the mainstream. Thanks to a different plateau of labels, and maybe an endorsement or two, Justice Allah remains comfortable in the independent marketplace while his peers soared onto mainstream success.

The last five years have not helped matters. Whereas 2001's The Best Part and 2002's All Of The Above appeared to be as strong as an opening pair of albums as any contemporary emcee could possibly deliver, a jumbled handful of EPs and jumbled Penalty Records' return to the game, 2005's The Hereafter weren't in line. Returning to Brooklyn after a stint living in Philadelphia, J-Live isn't quick to admit that any of the last five years were professionally taxing. Instead, within the complex verses, the emcee, deejay and producer chronicles a divorce, financial struggles and a renewed vow to his craft on Then What Happened? [click to read].

Listeners can find out what actually transpired in J-Live's life in the last three moons. What J-Live tells HipHopDX is that he was aware of criticism, to a point. Fresh off of a personally-touching South African tour, gearing up for domestic spot dates and a high-praised album finding new fans, Justice prevails.

HipHopDX: To what extent was it difficult to come out and really expose whats been going on in your life recently?
J-Live:
I dont know if expose is the right word. Its sort of therapeutic to write and spit about it. Its sort of a good way to clear the air. I imagine the first thing that comes to mind is The Last Third.

DX: When you were recording The Best Part
[click to read] doing Get The 3rd, did you ever imagine this would become a three or four part series?
J-Live:
Nah. Not at all. Had it not been for the specific experience behind The 4th 3rd, I wouldnt have named it that. No, I wasnt going for [EPMDs] Jane part one, two and three or anything like that.

DX: Even mentioning EPMD, on The Understanding you say that Slick Rick, KRS-One and EPMD were role-models that helped father you. I can certainly relate to that with my own select emcees. In your own career, have you had the opportunity to know your impact to that sort of extent?
J-Live:
I get it on occasion, when Im at shows talking to fans, whether Im selling merch, signing stuff, talking or just hanging out. I get it in some interviews. I get a lot of love on MySpace. For me, its very important and very much appreciated because, especially staying on topic with The Last Third, I kinda look to artists like Stevie Wonder in that regard. Every relationship Ive ever been in, theres a Stevie song that sums it up or is very helpful in terms of insight. Conversely, with matters of social injustice and things of that nature, you can look to a Bob Marley or a Peter Tosh. Not just singers and songwriters, but lyricists and beautiful people I look to, to inspire me, not just in music, but in life. To get that kind of feedback from fans, to have people really tell me that they appreciate The 4th 3rdsomebody once told me that Timeless helped them through a suicidal period. Ive heard people say that theyve used All Of The Above everyday for a two-hour commute. Stuff like that is pretty much the greatest form of a compliment I can get that Im affecting people the way my favorite music has affected me.

DX: You use metaphor well. You told me that Nights Like These is a song about your discovering knowledge of self, which is something I never realized, despite being a favorite. In The Last Third, you reference athletic and judicial terms to discuss divorce. Were metaphors a way for you to deal with tougher issues more comfortably?
J-Live:
Its like I say in the song, Even now, writin this, usin coded language / More so to save face than try to hide the anguish. You know what Im sayin? To put the sordid details out there like that would be inappropriate, but I think by using artistic language and figurative language youre able to tell a story that people can relate to beyond the specifics, cause I know Im not the only person thats going through this personally, and conversely, I know Im not the only one goin through the situation as it is, so I have to be respectful of that, you know what I mean? Its a combination of both. Theres other songs like [Kool G Rap & DJ Polos] Truly Yours or [Ghostface Killahs] Wildflower or Get The 3rd that are just specifically venting; thats not the song Im trying to make. Thats really how it comes out. Even with Like This Anna, there is a reason for playing with words the way that I do. I try to make it relatable, on a grander scale, beyond subject matter itself, but with metaphors.

DX: The first two albums were received so very strongly. With The Hereafter [click to read], I saw a lot of criticism with that album that was not so favorable. Then What Happened broke back to the first two in progression. Were you aware of the criticism in making this album?
J-Live:
My ears are wide open. I hear everything. Some of it I take seriously; some of it I take with a grain of salt. Some of it is me having a closer perspective. You take it all in. Every now and then I might Google myself to see what theyre saying on the message boards.

DX: Were there specific things that applied from the progression of The Hereafter to Then What Happened?
J-Live:
The Hereafter, there are so many things that I wouldve done different, had I had the opportunity not then, but after, looking back on it. There was a lot of different things about the way that record was developed that I put into practice that I would not continue to put into practice. Sampling strictly from Rykos catalogue sort of limited the authenticity of the samples. Their catalogue, while it has some gems in it and I did the most with it and definitely didnt put out a record that I didnt want to put out, there wasnt a lot of 70s Soul, a lot of Jazz, or 60s Rock to really draw from, so it sort of handcuffed the producers that I enlisted, including myself. There was some songs that, rather than keep the original samples, I went back and had interpolations made or replayed things sort of fear of clearance than out of art. It was definitely a learning experience with a lot of stuff I wouldnt have done. Now I still stand by that record. For the people who say it sucked, I would still beg to differ, but there are definitely things I took from that process and made sure not to repeat with Then What Happened. Its sort of like the title.

The thing I would like to speak on is the attack on my ability as a producer or a beatmaker. That was heard. Im not even gonna really dispute that my beats on The Hereafter left something to be desired, but at the same time, I sincerely hope that people dont look to the fact that I didnt do any beats on [Then What Happened] as a result of that. I definitely draw a line of demarcation between [production and beat-making]. Production is more than just making a beat and production is more than just beat-making. Thats not to take anything away from somebody. On every album, I always say, beat by and produced by as two different things.

DX: On some Brooklyn stuff, what was it like for you to work with Evil Dee?
J-Live:
Oh, it was dope. On the EP Reveal The Secret that came out before this, Feel Like Spittin was Mr. Walt [Evil Dees brother and Beatminerz partner]. I got both of them on there. I did a joint with them on [Da Beatminerz] album called Oh, so I was real happy, on some Brooklyn shit, and on some dope producer shit as well. Me being with [DJ] Spinna, thats pretty much my permanent Brooklyn fixture right there.

DX: With a slower pace of late for you releasing projects, I really enjoyed The Last Sunshine on Pigeon Johns album [click to read]. That song was so complex, and very cool bi-coastal material. Tell me about that record
J-Live:
[Laughs] Thats pretty much all Pigeon John [click to read], man. He set me up with a template. He told me about the song when we were on tour. It was me, him and Living Legends, maybe a few years back. So wed been planning to do a song together for a while. When the time came, he hit me up like, Yo, I got this. The joint is ready. RJD2 did the track. Im gonna send it to you. He did and basically he had the hook idea, I laid the verse, and he took the reigns. The rough [draft] of the RJD2 beat was basically just the samples in the beat. To see all he did with it after I sent the verses was a beautiful thing. I love it when it goes down like that.

DX: To me, aside from The Grey Album, its as close as Ive heard to a Beatles Hip Hop record
J-Live:
Yeah! [Laughs] I think people are scared to sample The Beatles. If I could, Id have a whole Abbey Road album. [Laughs]

DX: I cant say the last time a Hip Hop outro meant anything to me. You Out There appeared to be some sort of catharsis for you. You say some interesting things about your career and your future. What were you trying to leave the audience with?
J-Live:
I mention in the liner notes, or at least I think I did I wrote them pretty quick, but one of the things that was important in picking that beat from Nicolay [click to read] was I wanted to be like when you leave the movie theater, and you open the door and the light hits you. Youre disoriented for a bit, but theres that mix of the visual disorientation with, I just came out of a really dope movie. A good movie transforms a theater into a vacuum where youre in the setting of the movie, engrossed in it. So that feeling, when you open that door is, Okay, back to the real world. And your first taste of the real world is just a bright-ass light, which is subliminally somewhat positive. Thats what I was looking for. With the intro and cover art being so negative, I wanted the outro to be positive.

DX: You had mentioned to me South African fans memorizing freestyles of yours from 1996. Worldwide, you have a cult following thats growing. I look at El-P and Talib Kweli and Mos Def now. Do you think had you started with a bigger label like Rawkus or Stones Throw you would be in a different place today?
J-Live:
I think if my record wouldve came out the way it was supposed to come out my career wouldve been different. Whether it was Rawkus or Payday or [anyone]. Had Payday not split from London, had Universal not taken it over and left me [unemployed], Im sure it wouldve probably been different. See, I dont know though. Even back then Payday was reluctant to spend major label money on my project. When things were pushed over, and I was sort of shuffled around the Universal Group, it was apparent that nobody there was really gonna spend a lot of money on my project. So to say had [I] been on an official major label, things would be different, I dont know. [Chuckles] I know The Best Part, with the lineup it had (DJ Premier, 88 Keys, Prince Paul, Pete Rock), but if there wouldnt have been a video for it, and there wouldnt have been payola goin on, who knows?

I know I was this close to signing to Rawkus at the time. It wasnt my decision to make, but things turned out different. Theres no sensitive vapors or anything like that cause its been so long. Were talking about something that wouldve happened 10 years ago. Theres been plenty of opportunities to sign to a major since then, but I think the fact that I just kind of ended up independent speaks to the way people treat this music like its disposable. Im trying to avoid those sort of pitfalls, where you do something slowly but surely as opposed to just taking off and falling flat. By no means am I trying to say that my successes and failures are a result of anything more than my business savvy or lack thereof. I dont think that my genre of music is an excuse of where I am versus where I want to be. I think that there are plenty of people in my genre that are gleaming examples as to why there is a market for this kind of music, and its a sign of inspiration, a sign of competition and a sign of hope.

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