J-Live Speaks As Emcee, Deejay & Producer, Explains Bridging Gap Between Masta Ace And TiRon
The Brooklyn veteran speaks about his new Triple Threat album "Said Person Of That Ability," as the onetime DJ Premier and Prince Paul collaborator nods to Tanya Morgan, YC The Cynic and Masta Ace.
J-Live is an army, better yet a navy - or at least Hip Hop’s one man equivalent to an ill Big Three running Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense. The Brooklyn, New York veteran lyricist has embraced emceeing, deejaying and producing throughout his 16-year career, using his standout Rap endeavors and the name of his imprint -- Triple Threat Productions -- to showcase, if only subtly, his creative trifecta. J-Live the emcee dominates the shine. J-Live the producer and DJ J Live are often overshadowed.
Now, with his fifth solo project and Triple Threat’s first full length release, Said Person of That Ability, Justice is making it a point to push all three to the forefront...individually.
In this lengthy interview, HipHopDX spoke to J-Live the emcee, J Live the producer and DJ J-Live, discussing their latest project, S.P.T.A., how they all work together, and what surprises them about Hip Hop.
HipHopDX: One of my favorite joints on Said Person of That Ability is the closing track, “Half A Glass.”
J-Live: That was pretty much me by myself as an emcee.
DX: “I appreciate the slow and steady climb / One fan and one rhyme at a time.” That line right there summarizes your career over the past 16 years, aptly. You’re coming from "Unsigned Hype" in The Source, crazy buzz at an early age to, at one point, to having to shelve one of the greatest albums no one heard with The Best Part. It feels like a tragic bootlegging incident...
J-Live: [Laughs] I wouldn’t necessarily paint such an ill picture. You’ve got to put it in perspective. I don’t really like to spend too much time talking about what happened with The Best Part, but I’ll say this: there were a lot of records that were shelved and never heard. Mine was sort of a jailbreak in the sense that people eventually got to put their ears on it and it really was the catalyst for my career. So, I can’t really complain that much.
DX: I think that’s the illest part of your story because your next four albums after that, I guess excluding The Hear After, were all critically acclaimed and arguably garnered you more independent success than you might’ve seen otherwise.
J-Live: Yeah, All Of The Above was probably my best selling record. Then What Happened was probably my strongest record to date and it’s good to say that my last record was my strongest. The EP, [Always Will Be] was my first solo venture as a producer. I can’t complain. That song, “Half A Glass” is about perspective. It’s about recognizing that as much as you may want for yourself as far as your career goes, you’ve got to take it in stride and realize that you’ve got a ways to go but you’ve come a long way as well.
DX: You did an interview in 2001 with MVRemix.com and they asked you if “the glass was half full or half empty,” and you said, “I like to think that the glass is 60% full. It’s cool around half, I try to be accurate.” Is that still the case? On your song, “Half A Glass,” you say you’re just happy to have a glass.
J-Live: On the one hand you can say, “Okay, how come he isn’t more critically acclaimed? How come the notoriety isn’t what it could be for an artist who’s career’s as old or as long?” On the other hand, it’s hard to tell just how big I’ve gotten. Sometimes it shocks me. I was joking with my friend the other day. So many people say I’m underrated, but how underrated am I really if that’s what everybody is saying? That’s sort of what “Half A Glass” is about, especially in the first verse where you have somebody gushing over the music and giving the kind of feedback to let you know the people are listening. And at the same time, they want more for you. [Laughs] Which is dope. I just try to be grounded in reality. Everyone wants to try to hit the home run straight out the gate. I might not break Roger Maris’ record, but I might break Cal Ripken, Jr.’s record.
DX: As an emcee, you’ve always been extremely meticulous. Your songwriting and storytelling is what resonates most as a listener. And even with that, as a listener, there’s plenty that listeners still don’t catch. Like on “Don’t Play” where you keep the same rhyming words on the first and third verse, but they’re spit in reverse order. Or the shifting pace on “Them That’s Not.” Who’s the most meticulous in this group? Is the emcee more meticulous than the producer? Than the deejay?
J-Live: It would have to be the emcee. The producer is more behind the scenes. His job is more than just making beats. That’s the moral of the story on this record. He fell back and only did two tracks even though this is his coming out as far as exposure. He’s been behind the scenes for years, so when he’s not making the beats he’s picking the beats. Even when he’s not picking the beats, he makes the whole album himself. The producer is more than just a beat maker. The producer is the one who makes the record. In that sense, he’s the most meticulous.
The deejay, it takes this dude so many takes to lay down the cuts. He’ll just go back over it over and over until it sounds exactly the way he wants it to sound. From all those years he’s practiced; from all of those hours of session work as far as whenever there’s scratches on the record.
My thing sort of comes more naturally. I grew up listening to De La Soul, and artists like that, where a record on first listen was great. But the more you got to know it, the more you started appreciating little things about it that weren’t necessarily apparent. A lot of these cats with their punchlines or their puns or their “metaphors” or whatever, once you get it, you got it and that’s it. It’s talent in one sense, but it doesn’t have staying power. The reason we still listen to a lot of these Native Tongue records; a lot of these Wu-Tang [Clan] records; a lot of these Ice Cube records is because there are jewels and nuggets in there that you pick up later in life as you grow. But then there’s also little things that you catch as you get more familiar with a record. I’m still listening to some of the stuff that the deejay did on this record that I never would’ve caught unless I listened to the record for a while. It’s going to take people a while to get. That’s sort of that Kool Keith school of thought or even that Chuck D school of thought.
DX: How do you guys work together to pick producers? Looking at the album, you have some previous collaborators showing up. RJD2 is back from the Pigeon John joint you two did (“The Last Sunshine”). Nicolay is on here again. Diamond D is on here again. But you also have a few new producers that are new collaborations. Audible Doctor...
J-Live: This is my first time working with Audible Doctor. This is my first time working with Illastrate. Marco Polo, I’ve worked with before. “Practice” [off of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s, Return Of The Magnificent] was originally written to a Marco Polo beat, from the rhymes to the hook. Marco was originally a little skeptical about the concept. I was like, “Yo, that’s cool. I’ll spit something else to it. But seeing as how there’s an Allen Iverson reference, I let Jazzy Jeff hear it and he was like, “Man, just send me the acapella.” [Laughs] So, basically if you listen to the Reveal The Secret EP, both versions are on there. Obviously, with the Return Of The Magnificent album, the Jeff version is the one that’s more known. But Marco Polo actually did the original.
DX: Word up. I didn’t know that.
J-Live: That’s a little bit of Hip Hop trivia. [Laughs]
DX: Is the producer competitive with the other producers on the album?
J-Live: Yeah, actually that’s sort of what this is about. He’s been the unsung hero behind the scenes for a long time, sort of like [the Miami Heat’s] Erik Spoelstra all these years before he got the head coaching job. Doing the whole Always Will Be was one thing for him, so he got the EP under his belt. Doing All Of The Above was another thing. Doing a couple gems here and there, but he was sort of pissed about not having any beats on And Then What Happened. But like I said, it’s not like he wasn’t involved. It was like he oversaw the project. With S.P.T.A., it’s like, “Okay, you want to get your hands dirty? Fine.” Not only did he produce a few beats for it, but he picked them all. If it didn’t go down the way it went down this time, we definitely would have broke up. [Laughs]
DX: The deejay’s been making his name spinning parties all over the world at this point. He spun at a party in Paris recently called, “Rappers Are DJs, Too!”
J-Live: As far as the deejay’s concerned, he’s still a little salty because he didn’t feel like he got full credit and production credit for “Braggin‘ Writes” way back in 1995. Every now and then, we’ll do a show and he’ll play more of a background. Lately, what’s been happening is I’ll do a set and then he’ll come in and close it out where he’ll do his routine. He hasn’t gotten enough credit because, for every deejaying gig he does, there’s ten shows. He feels like he wanted to definitely make his mark on this album so he can get a little more shine and more gigs as a deejay.
DX: Is arguably his ceiling higher than the producer and the emcee? The way the deejay game is now, there are a lot of celebrities and deejays of all types deejaying gigs based off of broader name recognition.
J-Live: Yeah, there’s celebrity deejays out there, but the bottom line is that you’re either hiring a deejay for a name to draw a crowd or your hiring somebody for their skill. He’s pretty much the best of both worlds in that regard. The beauty of it is, he’s been so consistent lately with the mixtapes that it’s really helping with our exposure. He put out a few mixtapes. He put out a mixtape where he pretty much just played the best songs of the year called Do The Knowledge. So, it’s a fickle sort of thing when you talk about the deejay world because there’s deejays that can maneuver on, “Okay, I’m famous and I know music so why don’t I start deejaying?” And then you’ve got cats that are like, “I’ve been doing this for years. I know things and I have hand skills.” This is sort of the nature of the world right now as far as what are you looking for in a deejay.
DX: How does he feel about direct competition from lesser talented people because of technology and a changing landscape?
J-Live: I don’t know if it’s necessarily because of technology. Technology makes it easier but that’s a double edge sword with all things. When it comes to making beats, you don’t have to invest in two-inch reels anymore. Everything is pretty much hard drives. You can get by with having an ill computer. It makes it easier, but when the playing field is more level, if it’s a meritocracy, the brightest will still shine through. I’m not here to kick dirt on somebody that’s getting theirs because of their name recognition. It’s just a matter of hoping that at some point name recognition has something to do with having skills.
DX: Does he still believe it’s a meritocracy?
J-Live: That’s sort of an idealist mind state. I would say yes, in the sense that. Even when it doesn’t seem that way, you still have to put in work to get what you want. Talent alone doesn’t do it. Work alone doesn’t do it. Name alone doesn’t do it because if your name gets your foot in the door and you don’t kick the door open, that’s on you. If your talent gets you noticed but you don’t work hard enough to capitalize on it, that’s on you. And if you work hard enough to get noticed and get your name up but you don’t have the skills to back it up when you get the chance to shine, that’s on you. In that sense, it is a meritocracy. Obviously there’s politics and a sociology involved so we’ll just leave it at that.
DX: What has the deejay learned from Jazzy Jeff, who’s frequently credited as one of the greatest deejays of all time? How has working with him influenced his skills?
J-Live: He’s learned from everybody he’s worked with. I like to call Jeff one of the most humble legends I know, as far as being so down to earth and so accessible as far as the work we’ve done together. I could say that about a few cats. Jeff was that dude. As far as [transformer scratches] go, as far as just being sharp to this day -- he’s a prime example of somebody that doesn’t rest on their laurels and say, “I’m Jazzy Jeff of this old school group.” No. He says, “I’m Jazzy Jeff, one of the sharpest dudes to rock a party tomorrow.” [Laughs]
That’s part of what I mean when I say it is a meritocracy. You have your reputation built off the respect that you earned from all of the work that you put in. I can say the same for cats like DJ Spinna, or cats coming up now, like Oddisee who’s real prolific with the beats but also a sick emcee in his own right. Homeboy Sandman’s getting his own, so it’s not just necessarily the old school artists that you grow with and learn from. What’s sort of paying off now, for me at least, after being 15 plus years in the game, it’s like what I said on “Watch Sun Watch,” “I was here when you got here / I’ll be here when you’re gone.” I can run off so many names of cats that have come and gone throughout my career and so many names of cats now that are here and you know they ain’t going nowhere and were here then and you know ain’t going nowhere. So it sort of teaches you how to separate the game from the truth.
DX: How did the YC The Cynic collaboration happen?
J-Live: That’s my dude right there! I was doing an Haitian benefit in New York after the earthquake and he was one of the openers. He spit this one verse in particular to get your attention and then just followed it up with three or four more verses and [it was ill]. We’ve been cool ever since and he’s definitely in the plans as far as Triple Threat Productions. I don’t want to limit him and say he reminds me of myself, but I see a lot of myself at that age in him as far as what he’s doing.
DX: This is Triple Threat's first fresh full-length release. How is the process different from previous releases?
J-Live: We’re still a production company and we’re still working with a distributor between Fat Beats [Records] and In Grooves. But the difference is we are the imprint. We are the label. Which means, the buck stops here. All of the marketing dollars, all of the investment is from us as opposed to being from 7Heads [Records] while they were doing management or from BBE [Records]. Triple Threat has always been the brand and the name next to J-Live for the past 12 or 13 years, but it’s finally official. It’s been a long time coming. It’s like the old saying, “Life gets in the way.” I was going to put And Then What Happened out by myself but family issues got in the way. I was going to put The Hear After out by myself but the chips didn’t really fall that way. With S.P.T.A., it could’ve been the same thing but it was like no more. This is enough to get things started because I realized that I don’t just have a responsibility to me, as far as J-Live the artist, but we have plans and lofty goals to be a home and a haven for a lot of talented cats that would not have the means to put things out the way that we can.
DX: You rocked with a live band at the Show And Prove Super Bowl during the opening night of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. How does the producer and the deejay feel about the live band rocking with you on stage now?
J-Live: They were psyched! The producer was psyched we’re doing songs that he picked and songs that he made. The whole project is pretty much his baby. The deejay was psyched because -- since we didn’t do “Braggin’ Writes” -- he got to sit back and enjoy it. Plus, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, doing “Braggin‘ Writes” all these years kind of wears on him. He’s got a project that’s coming out that’s just him, a mic and the turntables. To be able to sit back and watch a show and not having to do “Braggin‘ Writes” without people breaking out the riot gear and a pitchfork was pretty cool. [Laughs] Plus the band, The Chronicles -- based out of Albany, [New York] -- I actually met them through my deejay when I was in school [SUNY Albany]. They are official. That Brooklyn Bowl show, we had just a couple days to practice and they were pretty much good to go. You saw how tight they were that night. You’d think that we’d been performing together for some time but that was only a couple weeks in the making.
DX: I want to ask the next question to the three of you individually. You guys have been prolific at this point in regards to releases, performances and sheer activity. What still inspires each of you? Where do you find inspiration?
J-Live: The deejay is primarily inspired by the crowd, getting to travel the world. You can pretty much see it in his eyes on stage whether he’s spinning or doing a show. Having control of things like that and bringing joy to the people as a performer and knowing that this is something he’s been preparing for since he was 12 years old ruining his mother’s stereo learning how to scratch.
As for me, rhyming, what inspires me the most is the feedback that I get on an individual basis when people say that the music that I’m writing has an affect on them. Or even the artists that come up to me and say they grew up listening to me and I’m like, “Well I’m a fan of yours now so things have come 360 [degrees].” The emcee in me, having the most stature, is embracing that role as a Hip Hop elder or looking forward to that.
The producer in me is just inspired by the music in general -- the good stuff and the horrible stuff. The good stuff that gets overshadowed. The good stuff that gets it’s proper shine. And the horrible stuff that gets so much attention even if it’s for being horrible. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you’re like, “Ew, this stinks. Smell this.” [Laughs] I try to say, “Advocate dope.” A lot of this stuff out here is like the Boogie Man -- it’ll disappear if you ignore it. The words “wack” and “dope” are subjective, but there’s a general consensus amongst the Hip Hop community as far as ethics go; as far as the creativity; as far as the ignorance quotient. It’s cool to be ignorant in doses. But when it’s that pervasive it’s like, where’s the balance? The producer in me is inspired by the opportunity to fight the good fight.
DX: You did an interview in 2005 with RapReviews.com with Adam Bernard, and you made what I thought was a pretty interesting statement. You said: “The Jay-Z’s of the world have the good fortune of so much suffering.” I thought that was apropos and it really spoke to that time. The interview was in 2005 and Trap music was dominating...
J-Live: My point in that sense -- and my perspective has changed to a degree -- is that you really can’t deny anybody that is speaking from their own personal experiences. For everyone that does that and has the talent to shine through has that combination of talent, hustle and exposure. For every one that does that there are so many followers. Cats that might have lived through some things and want to advocate those things that they’ve lived through like it was a choice as opposed to people that celebrate that they’ve made the most of it and have come through. I would say it still rings true to this day. It’s ironic because, between 2005 and now, I’ve had the advantage of suffering though some things on a personal note. Through great suffering comes great music. That’s one way to do it. It’s not necessary. I’d like to think that you can make great music through peace time as well as war times. [Laughs] “It be’s like that sometimes,” as my grandmother would say.
DX: To be fair, you did an interview in 2009 with DJ Sav One on TheUndergroundComeUp.com, and when asked how you felt about current artists ,you said: “I hear so much good music I can’t really focus on the wackness enough to complain anymore.”
J-Live: Exactly! There’s no shortage of dope music. Especially if people are reading this right now, they’re reading it off of HipHopDX. You guys are like a vessel. I don’t want to say Underground Railroad, but definitely a wonderful channel and a great medium that exposes you to a lot of good stuff. That’s part of how the Internet has leveled the playing field, but at the same time, with so many people out there, it’s up to your ear to weed out what’s worth listening to and what’s worth the attention. But there’s no shortage of stuff out there. You don’t even hear people complaining about stuff as much because it’s like, “If you’re going to complain about that, expose yourself to this.” I’m sort of honored to be a part of it in this particular era. I was honored to be a part of it in the mid-'90s. I was honored to be a part of it when the albums were finally falling in the early-2000s. And I’m honored to be a part of it now when so many people that not only enjoy my new music, but feel like they grew up on my old music.
DX: To link the two comments, the country certainly is in a very different place than it was in 2005.
J-Live: Of course! We were only halfway though [George W.] Bush!
DX: In your mind, or in the minds of each of you -- is there a correlation between those two statements? “The Jay-Z’s of the world have the good fortune of so much suffering” and “[You] hear so much good music I can’t really focus on the wackness...” You look at the unemployment levels or people losing their homes or people dealing with a change in health care...
J-Live: Yeah, it’s rough out there. It’s rough out there for everybody. It really does put your feet to the fire from an artist perspective. A lot of us are like that Tanya Morgan song, “No Plan B.” A lot of us face that choice everyday like, “Am I going to be a starving artist or am I going to make this work or am I going to put this down and go to work or am I going to struggle through balancing them out.” For all of the guest lists that take place, it’s gotta be balanced by going and copping the music when you’re at the merchandise table or going home and copping it on iTunes. As the atmosphere continues to change politically, economically and industrially -- as far as people letting the record stores going by the wayside and people having to go to the electronics stores to get their music, the Best Buy’s, etc. It’s good once you get in there, but it cuts out the middle class. It makes it hard for the tweeners. It’s either get fat or starve. In a world like that, we all have our own individual struggles and the music needs to reflect that. I think on S.P.T.A., it certainly does. That’s sort of what the title is about, Said Person of That Ability: the ability to use this music to express more than just shit talk. The ability to say, “I’ve got something say. I’ve got something to prove. If I have something to contribute to the conversation, this is my opportunity to let it be heard.” As far as being a teacher through music; as far as leading people through music; as far as showing people how to rock as a deejay. It’s like what Mos Def calls it, “Life in marvelous times.” There’s a balance. You’ve got to appreciate what can come of this.
The fact that we have a Black President and there’s been unprecedented blockage in Congress. You want to act like that’s a coincidence? Come on. If you were duped into the idea that our President was some sort of savior, well congratulations and welcome to reality. But at the same time, look at the options out there. We’re speaking the day after the Republican debate. I was watching closely. The minute the word poverty came up, it became an issue of race. The minute welfare came up, it became an issue of blacks and latinos. You can look at that two ways. You can look at it that it’s obviously skewed against people of color in this country. Or you can look at it that the word association between “minority” and “poverty” does a disservice to the white people that are struggling in this world, as if they’re not the majority of people on welfare. It’s okay to be poor and White when you’re old and talking about Medicare. But when you’re young and talking about Medicaid, that means you’re poor and Black because Black people are the ones having too many babies out there. It’s such an ignorant slant on the suffering we all have to face.
DX: That’s what lingers longest after listening to S.P.T.A.: a sense of overcoming, having a positive outlook and staying diligent. It does relate to individual situations in a broad sense. I think that’s what resonates most with your entire catalog.
J-Live: That’s the purpose. As an emcee, I’ve done my fair amount of shit talk. I’ve done my fair amount of I’m doper than you and here’s why and here’s how. Part of the “here’s why and here’s how” is I got something to say and I ain’t afraid to say it. You’ve got songs like “Sidewalk,” for example. We weren’t all on those streets. Some of us were on the sidewalk. You can be from New York and not have a criminal record. You don’t necessarily have to know your way around a gun to claim your hood. The idea that you do is preposterous. As a world traveler, you see it a lot. People will be like, “Oh, you taught in Brooklyn. Man, how was that?” Yeah it’s rough at times, but there’s a lot of good kids out there that are basically, like Larry Brown says, “playing the game the right way.”
DX: You use a lot of similes. You speak in a lot of metaphors; sports metaphors for example.
J-Live: That’s sort of my niche. In college, my nickname was “Squint” and it’s because, I wasn’t really a weed smoker, but I’d say shit and people would think I was high. [Laughs]
DX: This question is for each you. With everything you’ve seen and everything you’ve created as you traveled the word; and with everything that you’ve experienced and aired out on wax, for the producer, the emcee and the deejay, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
J-Live: From the deejay, what surprises him the most is there was so much concern with the advance of technology that the hand skills would be taken out of the picture. It’s just an example of how skills will always prevail as far as technology enhancing people’s creativity. The people that really apply it are taking things to new heights as far as turntablism, mixtapes and putting music together and presenting it. We always say that deejaying is about selection and presentation. You’ve got to know the music to be able to pick it and you’ve got to play the music to be able to say, “Not only did I pick the right song, but I played it at the right time after the right track.” I think the fact that a lot of people would say that technology makes it easier for any old body to try to deejay, it also makes it easier for people that are craftsman to take it to that next level. That never ceases to surprise him.
As a producer, what continues to surprise him about Hip Hop is: one, you never run out of samples. [Laughs] No matter how much you think you know; no matter how many records you think you have, there’s always that track that hits you like, “What the hell is that?!” At the same time, even if you did run out of samples -- which is impossible -- people will take the same stuff and see it from a completely different angle. You can observe the same song, treat it differently, see it differently, and make something completely different out of it. That’s sort of like what we say about the difference between a producer and a beat maker. You can give two different people the same musicians, the same studio, the same sheet music and they’ll come out with two different renditions of the same song. That’s what a producer is. A producer is responsible for the rendition.
As an emcee, just the fact that there are so many cats out there that push the envelope musically. This whole battle culture as far as the cats that take it past how many fat mama and gear jokes in a span of 30 seconds and take it to really breaking you down. The emcee’s emcees. The respect amongst peers. Take an artist like Masta Ace. Even if you weren't familiar with his resume, and saw his show for the first time now, you'd be a fan. And there are relatively new artists like TiRon, that long time Hip Hop heads can appreciate for his craftsmanship and approach to the art. There’s cats that, whether you know them or not are pushing the envelope of this music, lyrically, regardless of what you’re complaining about. That never surprises me and always surprises me at the same time.