Underground Report (Sick Jacken & M-Team)
Although hes a veteran in the Hip Hop game (forming the group Psycho Realm with brother Big Duke in the late '80s), Sick Jacken is only today finding his niche in the realm of solo artistry. A significant portion of his soul-searching can be witnessed in his latest compilation, Stray Bullets, in which Jacken enlists artists that compliment him in such exuberant fashion (Planet Asia, Killah Priest, Immortal Technique and B-Real among others) that one would not associate him with a rapper in search of anything. Hailing from the city of angels, rapper/producer Sick Jacken whose talent is showcased on two tracks of Soul Assassins' Intermission - sits down with HipHopDX to discuss his artistic growth process (readying him for his first solo release), Big Dukes production and chorus assist on Stray Bullets, and his upcoming Spanish Hip Hop record with Universal Records.
HipHopDX: Lets start with Stray Bullets. What was your intention with this one?
Sick Jacken: The idea behind Stray Bullets is pretty much songs that I did with artists who are stray away from my group. So stray bullets being that metaphor for a collection of those songs.
DX: All of the features you chose blend seamlessly with your content, your flow, and voice especially. This is notable with Planet Asia, Murs, Immortal Technique. What do you look for in an artist when choosing collabos?
Sick Jacken: Something in the artist that I think is similar to what I do; if an artist is pretty much in the same lane or even if hes not in the same lane and I think I can blend good with that artist It usually works out that way, its people pretty much that are around the crew, the camp, that I admire their work. Usually on all the Psycho Realm stuff, its just us, we never have any features. Projects like this is kind of fun for me because I get to work with the artist.
DX: How did you link up with Canadas Swollen Members on Sinister?
Sick Jacken: We went on a tour with them in Japan, we went on the Tribal Tour [via] Tribal Street Wear. We picked up with those guys out there. We did a song for one of their compilations, and they reached out to me - I think it was about a year or two later - to do a chorus for a song that they had for the record Black Magic.
DX: Is Paid Dues a description of a rappers struggle in the Hip Hop game?
Sick Jacken: Paid Dues is exactly that. It came about because we were supposed to do something for the Paid Dues Festival thats going on this summer. Getting in the studio was supposed to be me and Murs [click to read], Supernatural came through, laid the hook. And thats exactly what the song is talking about pretty much the struggle of somebody whos trying to come up, paying their dues and still kind of having to pay dues and pay dues and pay dues. When does it end?
DX: What did you want to do differently with Stray Bullets from the Legend of the Mask and the Assassin?
Sick Jacken: The Legend of the Mask and the Assassin was a full concept record. The idea behind that was to kind of create this conspiracy theory world and bring everybody into that world and create kind of this environment with sound. Stray Bullets compilation was more of just a trip to music; I put clips of us from our live shows talking to the crowds; I put clips of us in the studio. So it was just pretty much the audience travelling through the studio and through the shows and what we do on the music side of things without really any particular concept.
DX: Is your brother, Big Duke, involved in artistic creation of your material?
Sick Jacken: He pretty much is behind the scenes. On Stray Bullets actually is the first time me and him worked on a song since we did our last album. We recorded our last pieces of music in 1999 when he got shot; we put out our last album together in 2003 which was the War Story Book II. And since then we havent worked on any music until Stray Bullets. He produced Metal Range and he co-wrote the chorus with me. And from that, me, him and B-Real [click to read] B-Real was the original member for the first album we put out in 97 were talking about doing another Psycho Realm record together. So hes gonna me more involved from now on.
DX: I read a while back that you wanted to do a Spanish album on which you wanted your brothers involvement. Is that still happening?
Sick Jacken: I still want to do a Spanish Hip Hop record. Its not necessarily gonna be blended with Latin beats and stuff like that which is what everybody tends to go to. Im pretty much keeping the same formula that we do with English stuff; its gonna be some raw Hip Hop, its just gonna be in a different language. Its gonna sound way different than what anybody heard in the Spanish Hip Hop market. Theres two songs that are on the Legends of the Mask and the Assassin record that are in all Spanish and its pretty much gonna go that route. I still want to do the record, Im just waiting on Universal to get their paperwork together and come at me with the right deal.
DX: Describe briefly the difference Hip Hop can be conveyed in English versus the way its conveyed in Spanish.
Sick Jacken: Theres a big difference because the language flows different. Theres different accents, theres different slang, theres different culture behind [it]. Theres a lot thats different but theres a way to convey it where its still in the same realm to what you do. I see a lot of people when they do Spanish, its almost like theyre trying to translate it to the English stuff. and I go about it that way. I pretty much do it from scratch. To me its easy because Im fluent in both languages and Spanish was my first language.
DX: Is one language easier to write in than the other?
Sick Jacken: For me, its easy both ways.
DX: What is the difference in vision between Psycho Realm and Sick Jacken?
Sick Jacken: Psycho Realm consists of both my brothers element and my element. There was a certain structure to how we did things; there were certain concepts behind it, there was certain procedure. And my stuff, I think Im still exploring and trying to find what Im gonna do as a solo artist. Thats why I did the record with [DJ] Muggs [click to read], I did this compilation. Im still kind of going through the motions and trying to figure out what I want to do as a solo artist. I still havent put out a solo record so Im trying to find myself right now.
DX: Are you finding yourself the more that you create?
Sick Jacken: Yeah. thats exactly how you do it. its going through the motions being in the studio, writing songs, seeing what works, what doesnt. Once you find your soundWith Psycho Realm stuff, we recorded maybe an album or two before we put out our first album. It wasnt until I started producing all the songs that we kind of found our sound and realized what we wanted to do.
DX: Youre part of the Soul Assassins collective and a member of Psycho Realm. B-Real was also part of the group at one point with whom youre still affiliated presently. Will you please clarify your membership or role - with each collective for those unfamiliar?
Sick Jacken: We came in to be affiliated with the Soul Assassins family in 93 when we met B-Real and he signed us to his production company. So B-Real is the one that kind of brought us to the Soul Assassins camp and weve been part of the family ever since. From 93 on our role has always been like anybody else in the Soul Assassins to do our thing, be the best that we can be and bring the crew as high as possible. B-Real is always gonna be affiliated - I just got off tour with B-Real right now. Me and him are gonna be working on a record together. I just did a song with his Smoke n Mirrors [click to read] solo record that came out in February. He just did a track with me on Stray Bullets, The Sickside. Me and him are constantly working together. Thats somebody that taught us a lot when we came in the game and Im always gonna look at him as that, Im always gonna have that respect for him.
DX: You were recently involved in the Sneaker Pimps Tour. Tell us about it.
Sick Jacken: Its a show that Muggs did, invited us to come down to. Its a party where they show off all the fly kicks. And they have art, music and the sneaker culture all at one.
DX: Are you serious about the sneaker game?
Sick Jacken: Yeah; I mean not as much as others. I like to make sure my shoes are clean; and updated.
DX: Do you prefer any specific colors?
Sick Jacken: I like the dark colors, I like black. I like white shoes. but I dont get too crazy with the colors I dont go neon or anything.
DX: [Laughs] Thank you.
Jason Hamza Perez is a prime example of an individual who refuses to be confined within one realm of identity, be that fatherhood, rapper, Muslim, community worker, media personality, and soon enough, game and comic book creator alongside his brother and second member of the M-Team collective, Suliman Perez. Jason caught our eye not in the most conventional way through the latest album release (My Enemys Enemy) or a PR buzz; rather, it is Jason Perez story of artistry and individual perseverance presented through the multi-faceted PBS documentary, the New Muslim Cool that sealed the deal. Last Poets Felipe Luciano presented the film with M-Team at Harlems screening on the weekend of Brooklyns Hip Hop Fest while HipHopDX caught up with Jason to discuss My Enemys Enemy, the New Muslim Cool, and the intersection between Puerto Rico and Islam.
HipHopDX: The New York Times reviewed the New Muslim Cool, stating that the film is an opportunity to access a closer view of human decency. What is it about your journey that generates human decency?
Jason Hamza Perez: Not looking at people like theyre Latinos, like theyre white and black looking at people as human beings.  A lot of people be banging on the Jews, banging on theres oppression going on. In Medina, when the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, made a treaty with the Jews, the Jews broke the treaty and fought against the Muslims, they betrayed their treaty. And the leader of the Jews died; and they were bringing his body to the funeral and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stood up for his funeral and began to cry. And the companions were like Why are you crying for that Jew? He fought against us. Prophet Muhamad (PBUH) said isnt his soul the soul of a human being? Sometimes Muslims be trippin on the outward, on peoples beards, on how they look, but were abandoning the true characteristics of Islam.
DX: The review also brought my attention to another phrase: spiritual music Muslim-inspired Hip Hop. I have two questions. Firstly, is there a market for spiritual Hip Hop? Secondly, what constitutes Muslim-inspired Hip Hop?
Jason Hamza Perez: I wouldnt give it those lables; I would just say its Hip Hop. And Hip Hop back in the days had spirituality and consciousness in it; its not like its something new. A lot of them dont know the origins of Hip Hop, and thats what Hip Hop had in the beginning; so a lot of this is bringing it back to original Hip Hop that spoke a message to the people. One of the first original Hip Hop crews is The Last Poets and they had Muslims in there; and they had Puerto Rican, Felipe Luciano not only was he a member of The Last Poets, hes one of the founding members of The Young Lords Puerto Rican liberation movement.
DX: A notion of multiple identities arises in the New Muslim Cool youre a Puerto Rican convert to Islam who is a devout believer, father, rapper, community worker and now a media personality. Society attempts to box people in to single identities because it is easier to categorize in that way. How do you circumvent that?
Jason Hamza Perez: As people, we need to define ourselves and not let other people define us. And thats what gives a bad image to Islam we allow the media to define who we are. And since were not doing work, we have to react to everything other people do. So if they do a cartoon about the Prophet (PBUH), everybody has to react. And the reason why people are doing stuff like that is because were not really showing who the Prophet was. As Muslims, people want to go to the mosque and then just leave. Theyre not speaking out against injustices and theyre not even taking care of their neighbors.
DX: Why did PBS pick up the documentary?
Jason Hamza Perez: Latino PBS picked it up because Im Puerto Rican and its a story thats really not familiar with America. Theres over 70,000 Latino Mulims in the United States but a lot of people may not know that. I think its just a Muslim story. I was a single father so single parents can relate to that; and theres a growing population of single fathers. And Im Boricua so the whole Latinos can relate to that part. And the whole situation with me being rated by the F.B.I., the people who are activists and fight for freedom of speech, they claim that. so you have different groups of people who are not even Muslim who are feeling like the film is theirs because of different layers to it.
DX: As a family man, how do you handle the hectic life involving a rap career, and now, television?
Jason Hamza Perez: My family has never seen me perform; I dont do shows where I live. Thats another reason why I live in Pittsburgh. My wife and my kids, they never seen me on stage. I like to keep my family separate from my business; I want my family to see me as a husband and as a father not really as a rapper.
DX: Is that something youd recommend to rappers who have family lives and such obligations?
Jason Hamza Perez: I definitely would man. If I could be like Ghostface Killah [click to read] from the beginning wearing a mask and no one would see my face? Thats how I would like to rap.
DX: Ive heard a similar approach from other rappers.
Jason Hamza Perez: Being on stage involves a lot of spiritual diseases like arrogance and showing off and conceidedness. That stuff Im always checking myself with. and I have brothers that travel with me, they always check me and make sure I stay humble.
DX: What types of venues does the MTeam performs in?
Jason Hamza Perez: We perform at majority at independent/activist Hip Hop type of venus and a lot of on the west coast they have a Muslim Hip Hop movement so theres usually more shows on the west coast. And throughout different parts of the country you have Muslims who are using entertainment as a form of socializing.
DX: Activist Hip Hop. What is the message behind your activism?
Jason Hamza Perez: With activism and with revolutionaries, before you speak out against any oppression of any government or any system, you have to first make sure that you speak about the corruption of yourself. We have songs that deal with purification of the heart and the struggle and the jihad against the self. Then we have some songs that talk about stuff thats going on over in the Middle East, and the stuff thats going on right here in the prison system and streets of America.
DX: What are the key issues the MTeam explores on My Enemys Enemy?
Jason Hamza Perez: We came up with a real hard core album in 2004 and we wanted to switch it up a bit as far as artistically. So we tried new things on My Enemys Enemy. We switched some of our concepts and stuff like that to give our audience is a lot more wider than just Muslims. The 2004 album had a lot of mixure with Arabic words and Spanish words so the Latinos can understand some things but couldnt understand the Arabic words; and the people who speak Arabic couldnt understand the Spanish words. So we made the next album more universal for everyone to understand.
DX: What is it about Hip Hop that gravitates you to it, whether as a drug dealer at one time or a husband and Muslim at present?
Jason Hamza Perez: Living on 30th Street in Brooklyn; I walked down the street, I saw my cousin break dancing. I saw his shoe laces outside his sneakers. And the graffiti around where I live and the graffiti I would see on the trains, that stuff really caught into me and I was break dancing at the age of four. Ive been involved with many different aspects of Hip Hop, not just rhyming. Ive done a lot of graffiti, the break dancing, its more than just emceeing.
DX: Why did you choose to live in Pittsburgh?
Jason Hamza Perez: Number one, the first mosque ever established in United States was in Pittsburgh; also cause of living conditions. Its real cheap to buy property.
DX: Was it difficult to leave New York?
Jason Hamza Perez: I left New York to go to Puerto Rico; that was a decision from my family I was young. Then we moved to [New England]. Then we moved back and forth from Puerto Rico to Massacusetts. I missed New York a lot, thats where my family was. But I didnt live too far away from New York so it was okay.
DX: Hows the Puerto Rican Hip Hop community reaction to your Muslim life-style?
Jason Hamza Perez: Its good, man. We have an M-Team branch in Puerto Rico; we have an M-Team artist, his name is named Correa Copto; hes doing his thing in the island. Were supporting him; hes a Muslim brother that lives in the island and hes got real conscious lyrics.
DX: Is there a disconnect between lifestyles or do cultural similarities overshadow those differences?
Jason Hamza Perez: Theres culture similarities. If you look at the places where the Europeans went, they always destroyed the peoples culture and language. In my country we speak Spanish, in South America they speak Spanish and Portuguese but wherever the Muslims went, they didnt wipe out the peoples culture. So being Muslim doesnt conflict with my Puerto Rican culture besides eating pork. I still listen to Salsa music; I still go to family gatherings it doesnt really affect me being Puerto Rican