In the last 10 months, the public image of the New York Police Department and former mayor Rudy Giuliani have undergone makeovers as drastic as those performed on tawdry daytime talk shows, where delinquent reprobates turn into model citizens with the help of some cosmetic rehabilitation. This point is not lost on New York City rapper J-Live, who says that the public's memory of some of the NYPD's most controversial actions such as the shooting death of innocent African immigrant Amadou Diallo and the toilet-plunger sodomy of detained suspect Abner Louima, both of which occurred during the Giuliani years has become as hazy as now-familiar photographs of the city's beleaguered September skyline.
"Now it's all about NYPD caps and Pentagon bumper stickers/But yo, you're still a nigga/It ain't right them cops and them firemen died/That shit is real tragic, but it damn sure ain't magic/It won't make the brutality disappear/It won't pull equality from behind your ear," J-Live raps on "Satisfied?", the first single from his superb new record, All of the Above.
"People kind of forgot about all of the problems," he says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "After the tragedy, people were like, Amadou who? Abner who?' The fact that Abner Louima's case is overturned and those cops [who witnessed the attack] are looking to get their jobs back is another example that, in the wake of the tragedy, you have a lot of people that are just like Big up, America' but not being American in the sense that you can be critical about how the government represents you."
Political, powerful and just about to pounce on the world of independent hip-hop, J-Live has been hitting savvy heads with street-wizened insights for years. Since beginning his career as an MC in the mid-'90s, he's built a reputation as one of New York's most articulate rappers, albeit one virtually unknown outside of that city's thriving underground scene. Some may recognize his smooth staccato delivery from recordings by Handsome Boy Modeling School and J. Rawls, on which he's made cameo appearances. His much-bootlegged debut, The Best Part, has become a prize among more dedicated album seekers and crate completists. Unfortunately, a round of music industry shake-ups prevented the album from receiving a proper send-off. The story of The Best Part's erratic journey from the studio to record-store bins has become something of an urban folk legend, with some claiming that J-Live bootlegged the record himself.
"When the label [Payday/London] and the distributor parted ways, the record was shelved for quite some time," says J-Live, who released The Best Part on his own imprint, Triple Threat, late last year. "But because it was released to press, a lot of people decided to bootleg it because there was a high demand for it. It also got good reviews, so it took a few years to clear all the red tape." The situation "got on my nerves," he adds. "But if I was bitter, I might get jaded and frustrated to the point where I would stop doing it. I could never let that happen."
All of the Above, released this spring, had a smoother entry into the world and should serve as J-Live's formal introduction to a wider audience. Issued on independent imprint Coup d'Etat, the album lives up to the talent first hinted at back in 1995, when J-Live's "Longevity"/"Braggin' Writes" single led The Source to choose him as an Unsigned Hype Artist. (Previous Unsigned Hype alumni include DMX, Biggie Smalls and Common.) All of the Above, which pairs J-Live with DJ Spinna and producer A Touch of Jazz, illuminates his diversity as an MC. He also provides banging beats for a number of the disc's tracks.
J-Live's distinctiveness as an MC lies largely in his ability to tell a good story. The skill first crystallized on The Best Part, on which he used vivid details to tell the street tale "Wax Paper." On All of the Above, J-Live stretches out on a wide range of topics, from politics ("Satisfied?") to himself ("A Charmed Life"). "One for the Griot" details a man's salacious and strange encounter with two women, with J-Live playfully providing a few different endings for listeners to ponder. (He cites the "Choose Your Own Adventure" storybook series as an inspiration for the song.)
J-Live learned a little about narrative techniques while at the State University of New York at Albany, where he majored in English and business and graduated in 1998. "Having an English major gives you that much more exposure to the kind of work that will help you develop as a songwriter, whether it be poetry or prose," he says. "Looking at different writers in the way they approach literature, and also expanding your vocabulary and things of that nature, helps you in the way any education would help you in any career."
Education is a subject the rapper knows something about. Prior to releasing All of the Above, J-Live or Mr. Cadet, as he is known to his students taught junior high English in the Brownsville and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn. He draws parallels between his roles as a teacher and a hip-hop artist.
"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."
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."
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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."