Jean Grae Reveals "Gotham Down" Was 10 Years In The Making
Exclusive: Jean Grae uncovers why and how she released her new albums in such an untraditional way, and she asserts that "Cake Or Death" will not be the next "Detox."
Audio book narrator.
YouTube sitcom star.
Future talk show host.
Jean Grae doesn’t just have a lane for herself in the Rap game; she’s damn near got a whole highway. Jean, who was formerly a music business major at New York University before she realized she already knew what they were teaching her and dropped out, always conducts her work in a way that breaks the usual norms. This can be seen as clear as can be in her overwhelming flurry of activity in releasing new material online lately. She recently dropped her new Gotham Down trilogy of albums all in the space of one month, the first of which, cycle 1:Love In Infinity (Lo-Fi), was reviewed quite favorably on HipHopDX. Along with cycle 1:Love In Infinity (Lo-Fi), she also released cycle II: LEVIATHAN and cycle 3: The Artemis Epoch through only her Bandcamp website, with no physical release in stores and with little traditional promotion beforehand to publicize the trilogy’s arrival. Additionally, she included sneak previews of the albums that would come later in the series by including incomplete beats and raps on the previous albums. Finally, on the song “?” from cycle II: LEVIATHAN, she invited all of the fans listening to her music to come to her birthday party in New York City last year (November 25, 2013, for those who unfortunately couldn’t make it.)
This close, family-like interaction with her fans is typical for Jean, who can be found tweeting at her followers regularly on her account @JeanGreasy. As Jean says, she has always wanted this straight-to-fans, immediate release format, but the technology didn’t catch up with her vision for it until recently.
“I’ve been waiting like 20 years for this shit!” she noted during an exclusive conversation with HipHopDX. Seeing as how Jean will soon be “coming for everybody’s job,” as she says in explaining her ever-expanding artistic résumé, we decided to catch up with her a short while ago to hear about her recent and future moves while our journalists still, thankfully, are securely employed.
Jean Grae Denies Reports Of Her 2008 “Retirement”
HipHopDX: In 2008, you wrote a MySpace blog that seemed to imply you were retiring from the industry. In an interview shortly thereafter with the Village Voice, you cited disillusion with the music industry as a reason for your suggested retirement. Was the recent way you released your Gotham Down albums an attempt to rectify some of the problems you saw?
Jean Grae: Everyone gets mad about their fucking job. I wanted to do other things, and I think at that point it was kinda like, “This has been half of my life already.” So I don’t see why it was a big deal why I should not want to do something else. And who at any point hasn’t been… You don’t fucking love your job all the time. But every single thing I read was either angry at the industry or disenchanted or disappointed, and I was like, “You guys haven’t even asked me any questions.” And I thought that was really unfair.
DX: So your untraditional method of dropping this new material wasn’t necessarily an attempt to address any problems in the recording industry that led to that 2008 MySpace post?
Jean Grae: No, I just wanted to put out some music. And Bandcamp is a great place to put out music any way you want to. It’s really user friendly, easy, and money comes directly to you. I can see everyone buying stuff, and I wanted to see a lot more community-based and interactive stuff, since I’m so present on social media. It felt right to be able to do that interaction with fans. It just seemed like the best idea. I didn’t have to wait, and I didn’t have to submit the release date for it or wait for someone to tell me to do anything, because I just don’t like doing it that way. So I basically did it because I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do, because I don’t like anyone doing that. And I wanted to put out music when I wanted.
DX: Do you envision releasing upcoming material in this new way in the next few months and years?
Jean Grae: I’m always gonna just keep trying new stuff, because I like to break through boundaries and just try new things. And either it works, or it doesn’t. I’m not ever gonna really run out of ideas. So it’s kind of test runs and testing a product [laughs]. And there’s not a blueprint for my lane. It’s just not been seen or done before. So nothing is really off limits. The only thing that’s off limits is whatever I don’t do.
How Technology Has Changed Jean Grae’s Release Schedule
DX: Artists have been experimenting lately with how to release albums. Did those types of innovative releases give you an idea for how you did your own albums?
Jean Grae: The way I did it is just the way that felt right to me. Especially doing stuff on the weekends is interesting, because I think people aren’t at their jobs, so I kind of get to really go direct to fans before everyone gets back to work on Monday. So it’s my way of giving the fans the weekend to enjoy it, and be like, “No, this is really going to you guys first.”
DX: Did your vision for how you would release the new albums shape at all the musical content that went on the albums, or send you in certain creative directions?
Jean Grae: No. Gotham Down has been a story I’ve wanted to tell in a way for years, and I started it about 10 years ago. And I think that in itself is just something that hasn’t been done. Who the fuck starts a story and keeps it going for fucking 10 years? Basically, it’s the fact that there aren’t any rules and I’m not signed to a major label. It’s basically nobody telling me what to do, and I’m like, “Well, then I can do whatever I want.” An album can have one song that’s an hour long, or 20 songs that are 30 seconds long. It doesn’t matter. You can do whatever you want. So it’s just really taking advantage of the fact that the technology is there to allow us to be able to do those things.
DX: Are you planning any upcoming shows to support the album?
Jean Grae: Not really, because here’s my problem. I’ve done so much material now that I would actually probably need a little bit of time off to go back and learn everything, because there are so many words [laughs]. And I think I’d like to probably prep something for April and maybe do a couple shows here and there. But right now, if I were to go and do that, it would be a terrible, terrible show, unless I was just gonna read the whole thing off the paper. And I could do that, but it’s not very fun. So I think once everything gets really planned out…and it would probably be a really long show too.
DX: As you expand the number of roles you play as a professional, going from rapper to actor to audio book narrator and so on, do you see yourself running into any resistance from people who want to pigeonhole you into the traditional idea of what a rapper is supposed to be?
Jean Grae: I don’t know if it’s resistance. I was expecting confusion, and I think that’s coming in the form of people being like, “Are you okay? Are you alright?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine.” But they say, “Well, you’re doing a lot, so why don’t you take the time off to take care of yourself?” But I’m taking care of myself. I’m really tired because I’ve actually been sick this past week. So it’s just me trying to get over that, and if I was perfectly well I could do this all day. Every day. It’s not draining me. The only thing is if I go into projects that are really emotionally draining, like this album. But beyond that…I think my friends know, and they get it. So this is about half of the stuff. And I’ll try to make it through the other half of the stuff before the year is over.
DX: So you’ve only released half of the new material you have?
Jean Grae: Well, I do everything pretty much in real time, so none of that is really created. But this is half of the jobs I’m gonna do. Nobody has seen anything yet. You have no idea. I’m coming for everybody’s job.
Jean Grae On The Improv Feel Of “Life With Jeannie”
DX: Speaking of new jobs, you’ve recently released an original sitcom called “Life With Jeannie” that you write, produce, direct, and star in. Was it intentional that in the first episode of “Life With Jeannie” your profession as a rapper was barely referenced at all?
Jean Grae: No, because that’s actually what real life is like. It’s funny, I was talking to 9th Wonder, and he called and he was like, “Let me tell you why I really love [“Life With Jeannie”]. Because I know you, and it’s true, this is what our real life is like. It’s not Rap; it’s you calling me and telling me these stories.” He said, “Yo, that whole thing sounded exactly like something you have called me and told me before.” I think people think that a lot of it is rap, rap, rap, and then we’re in the studio, and then it’s time for the Rap show. In reality Rap takes up a very, very, very, very minimal portion of my life. So it was really natural to write it like that. But it definitely is important to do it like that. There are gonna be episodes where it’s focusing on a show or a sound check or we’re on tour. But realistically, it’s a pretty minimal part of my life…I’m sorry, I’m really tired [laughs]. Does that answer your question? If I make it through today I’ll be fine, after the release of the new album jeannie. tonight.
DX: Was any of your acting improvised in “Life With Jeannie?” You come across as a very natural actress.
Jean Grae: It’s really interesting that a lot of people are asking me or just immediately stating that it’s super-improv, and that’s great! That makes me feel good, because no, it’s all script. But if it feels like improv and it feels free to people, then I feel like I’ve done a really good job. I wouldn’t want to write every episode as crazy as the first one was. Sometimes someone wouldn’t show up, and I had to be like, “Okay, now I’ve got to completely write them out of the scene,” which now changes the entire scene. There’s a scene between Fernanda [Meier] and myself in the kitchen, which is actually a really long scene. And I pretty much had to re-write the entire thing about five minutes before we started shooting it. We were just running out of time, and I was like, “This is not standard. No one should be re-writing the script in the scene.” But I generally have to write beforehand because rap-wise, it’s just me. Nobody else is involved. So having a cast, a crew and having to plan out shots is a different way of writing for me, which I actually don’t really have a problem with.
DX: How do you manage to appear so natural in front of the camera, when you haven’t had much formal acting experience?
Jean Grae: Being aware of the camera, but kind of forgetting that it’s there. And it’s interesting, because I’m writing for myself and I’m also writing for the most part for people that I know, with the exception of Cornell [L. McIntosh] and Darien [Sills-Evans], who were amazing and learned their lines in about 30 seconds. I have no idea how they did that. I feel comfortable enough to be able to do that, but no, I had had little acting before that and then this was it. So thank you, that’s a nice compliment.
DX: Do you see yourself following up on the acting route in the future, so that the public eventually comes to know you as an actor as much as a rapper?
Jean Grae: I actually have a couple of things coming up this year, and I’ve been getting a couple script offers, which is great. And once this season of “Life With Jeannie” is over, I’m going to start working on other acting roles, and I’m really excited about that. So yeah, maybe I can switch out rapper for actor, that’d be nice.
DX: Why is all of this branching out coming at this point in your career? Did you just have to wait until technology and social media caught up with what you wanted to do all along, or was it that...
Jean Grae: [Breaks in] There you go! Yep. I’m like, “Oh shit! Well, finally!” Godammit. I’ve been waiting like 20 years for this shit! It’s just me taking full advantage. I’m like, “God, it really took a long time for you guys to invent this stuff.” If I knew how to do it, I would have done that, but I am not skilled at doing that. So I was kind of at the mercy of waiting for technology. And now that it’s here, I’m like, “Well, now that I know that, I know that I can find new ways to work within it.” So it’s kind of like being inside of The Matrix and being Neo, and jumping in and being like, “I know kung fu.” I can look at the code and see things. That’s what it feels like. Any time you’re on the Internet you can immediately look up a how-to video on YouTube and you know how to do that. And if you guys don’t see this as The Matrix, I don’t understand. I’m gonna be Neo, but I’m really not trying to save you guys. I think everyone should go save themselves.
DX: Can you give us a sneak preview of what comes next in 2014 for you?
Jean Grae: “Life With Jeannie” is eight episodes to a season, so I’m really excited about that. I’m also doing a live, intimate, one-on-one talk show called “The White Hot Room” that’s gonna launch on Valentine’s Day at Union Hall in Brooklyn. At 8 PM we’re gonna do a live airing of the second episode of “Life With Jeannie” and then go directly into “The White Hot Room.” And my other album Cake Or Death is still coming, so I’m not Detox-ing everyone. But I wanted to spend time on that too. There’s a shit ton of video coming from all of the Gotham Down projects. Because I honestly don’t think that anything ever really gets old. I’m not subscribing to the whole attention span bit. I’m like, “Well, when I feel like doing the video for something I’m gonna do the video for something.” I can go back and do a video for something from Attack Of The Attacking Things. It doesn’t matter. It just didn’t have a visual before, and then it will. So there’s that. And then at the end of this year we’re actually gonna start filming my feature, so I’m very excited about that. And then randomly I’m doing comedy stuff. So yeah: everyone’s job.
Jean Grae photograph courtesy of Andres Tardio.