Living Out Loud

After surviving a difficult beginning, J-Live gives hope to hip-hop

"When you're in a classroom, you have to have that same kind of stage presence," he says. "It helps to have a certain amount of charisma, in the same way that you have to be prepared as an MC. You need to have your lesson plans ready. You have to know how to freestyle when a kid asks you a question that you weren't expecting. Some of the greatest MCs are also great teachers. They go together quite naturally."

When his career began to gain momentum, J-Live resigned his teaching position in order to pursue music. During his time as an educator, he didn't tell his students that he rapped. MTV helped him reveal the secret last year: The network sent a camera crew along on a visit to his old school.

"I wasn't the type to put them upon things, because I wanted them to focus on me being a teacher," he says. "Eventually, when things die down, I'll probably go back to it."

Street smarts: J-Live has built a reputation as one of New York's most articulate rappers.
Street smarts: J-Live has built a reputation as one of New York's most articulate rappers.

For the time being, J-Live is focusing on his rap career but cultivating a community-minded plan for the future.

"I'd like to develop after-school programs, like the Do Things for the Kids' foundation that Wes Jackson [producer for Seven Heads Entertainment, J-Live's management company] spearheaded. I'd like to develop a community center in whatever neighborhood I settle down in. But that's going to take a lot of resources and a lot of time. Right now I'm developing the means to get those resources."

In the meantime, J-Live gives listeners his own kind of brain food, an alternative to the pabulum so often peddled on commercial radio. Championing a style of rap that he calls "True School," he melds old-school hip-hop values with new technologies. It's an aesthetic that has its roots in edutainers such as KRS-One, the slanguistics of the Native Tongues posse and the beats of people like DJ Premier and the Large Professor. J-Live adheres to a code of respect for rap's pioneers. "It's about not biting — putting your head and soul into the music and not just doing something that will sell," he says. "[It's] putting messages in your music and not being afraid to be as articulate as you want. Too often you have to dumb things down for people to really have mass appeal. . . . I just want to clean up hip-hop, the way Lennox Lewis says he's cleaning up boxing."

J-Live's philosophy is evident throughout All of the Above. On the track "How Real It Is," he challenges kids to realize that "the illest weapon ain't your nine boy, it's your brain." Without ever sounding preachy, he emerges as one of the clear leaders of a new school of MCs who rock the crates like it's 1988 — one of hip-hop's peak years — while sounding unique, creative and fresh.

"I just want to have a group of albums that can be looked back on as a serious body of work and that are respected for years and years," he says.

What if listeners aren't ready for an outspoken rapper, one who's not afraid to challenge everything from hip-hop's stylistic status quo to the nearly canonized former mayor of New York?

"I always like what Elijah Muhammad said in X, Spike Lee's movie: The minute you give them an alternative, they'll make a decision on their own.' The people, once they hear J-Live, they will decide whether or not they want to hear it again."

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