J-Live: Twice Around

J-Live has long been a major presence is the underground Hip-Hop community. His immaculately produced, energetic debut The Best Part to many, is on the same plane as Black Star and Nia. His follow-up: the mellow, Jazz-inspired, All of the Above reached many more listeners through major media endorsements. Three years, a few EP’s, and a new label later, J-Live returns with There Here After.

AllHipHop.com wanted to explore J-Live’s mind and career as we look at the recently released album, the criticism of his work and choices, plus disect some of his smartest concept raps. If you don’t know J-Live, you will after this…

AllHipHop.com: Penalty Records is often remembered for harder edge groups like Capone-N-Noreaga, and Lord Finesse for a minute. Last year, when Penalty signed The Beatnuts, Juju told us that if Milk Me wasn’t pushed right, they weren’t going to continue to record. That record didn’t do well. That being said, what attracted you to Penalty?

J-Live: The thing about Penalty that I like, is the staff. They are there for you, they know your record. I was looking for the balance of not being on an indie that isn’t able to do what I need them to do at this point in my career, but at the same time, not be on a major that’s not gonna respect what I’ve done in my career. Penalty is good for that. On top of that, they have a strong international identity. I really feel like if I go back overseas, I wanna be able to go to countries where the record is pushed like it is in the States. I know they aren’t as concerned with first day/first week [sales] as pushing the record all year round. That’s comforting too. With my records, it’s more of a campaign that gets stronger as the record is out.

AllHipHop.com: A common criticism after All of the Above was that it was too laid-back. You addressed that with your two EP’s since, but more recently, you’ve got this record, “Harder” on the album. How much did the criticism get you?

J-Live: I think the thing with All of the Above is that it was very much a Jazz-themed album. I think it sorta took on a life of its own with the direction. It was just me and two producers – DJ Spinna, and Joe Money. People looked at that as the meat and potatoes of what I did. Lyrically, yeah. But, beatswise and stylewise – there was a theme to that record. Even the cover art took on an impersonation of a John Coltrane record. Other records will be doing other things. Yeah, there’s songs like “Harder,” but there’s also songs like “Coming Home,” but there’s still that balance. Sometimes I laid back, sometimes I’m pretty rah-rah with it. I don’t put too much thought to it. One of the criticisms was that it was too long. [laughs] Everybody’s gonna have an opinion.

AllHipHop.com: My favorite moment on The Here After is “The Listening” with Kola Rock. Her verse is incredible…

J-Live: Thank you! She’s nice man, that’s all I can say. That’s my earth, right there.

AllHipHop.com: Ah, I figured as much…

J-Live: She is a very talented lyricist. She was also on “I’m a Rapper” [on the last album]. If I can get her music out there like that, we gonna plug on. How many people get to share something like that? It’s a beautiful thing.

AllHipHop.com: James Poyser also co-produced that song with you. What was that experience like?

J-Live: It was incredible. The time I spent in Philly – I was so impressed with the tight-knit music community. I met James and [he immediately suggested we work together]. I spend half my time in the car with the kids, playing his music – be it, Bilal, Erykah, Jill, or Musiq. I brought some beats to him, and he took them to new directions.

AllHipHop.com: You make reference to wearing glasses and still being dope. It’s a little thing, but I thought about the greats – Large Professor, Grand Puba, DMC – and how today’s MC’s can’t wear glasses. Do you think that’s because deep down, rappers aren’t supposed to be smart anymore in the mainstream?

J-Live: [laughs] I was truly just havin’ fun with it. I wear glasses ‘cause I’m blind as a bat. [laughs] It has no reflection of my intellect whatsoever. If I put contacts in, I’m not gonna grow stupid. But… it just so happens. The song’s called “Audio Visual,” I was just playin’ with lines. But yeah, people respect different things. People might respect you ‘cause you hard, or you got something to say – you teaching them. And, me – I just try to find that balance.

AllHipHop.com: “Brooklyn Public Part One” is an interesting record too. You’re talking about our busted urban school-systems in the same sort of vivid detail that Kool G Rap had on “Train Robbery” or Ghostface in “Run.” Why now?

J-Live: It was important, because when I was promoting All of the Above, Coup D’Etat really made a point of milking the fact that I was a former city teacher. It was true, but I feel I got too much props for it ‘cause I’m doing music fulltime now and if you gonna focus on the fact that I taught, you need to look to the teachers that are still in the classrooms – and give them just as much props. Whatever the case, on tour, people ask me what it was like teaching – so that was me painting a picture of how it was like and what it’s still like. After I left the school I was at in Bushwick, the principal left too. From what I hear, the school’s taken a turn for the worse. Right now, for my daughter, we looking at a school district. It’s crazy, looking at the stats, and seeing how in the Black communities, the reading levels just drop. Sometimes it’s due to the property tax aspect of it, sometimes it’s not enough parental involvement, and sometimes it’s because the system’s set up in such a way where if you don’t have the resources, you can’t do what you need to do. It was a song important for the times – like “Satisfied?” was for All of the Above. I didn’t want a political song. I wanted a song to show how I was affected by 9/11.

AllHipHop.com: What’s part two?

J-Live: I only called it part one was because in the third verse, I started going off on different kids – it describes the specific problems with them and their characteristics – I plan on continuing to do that. I didn’t want the song to be too long, so I’m just gonna split it up into two parts. [laughs] I may put it out on 45, like the way James Brown did part one and part two. If I don’t say anything else, I know part one said what I wanted to say.

AllHipHop.com: Ed O.G. told me one time that he’s got an audience that wants him to do thirty records with DJ Premier. I feel like that’s a common-plague in the underground: we align great MC’s with these producers that we grew up with. The Best Part had one of the best debut lineups, ever.

J-Live: The Best Part had Prince Paul, Premier, Pete Rock, Spinna, 88 Keys, Grap-Luva. I know what you mean by that…

AllHipHop.com: Non-Phixion’s The Future Is Now is the only thing that comes to mind that sort of backing…

J-Live: Yeah, they had almost the same thing as Illmatic.

AllHipHop.com: But as you release an album with lesser-known producers, or self-producer, has that been a conflict?

J-Live: Nah, I just felt like personally, you usually want to have a big name or two on your record. That’s just how people get down. If you a reputed producer, people will trust that it’s dope and pick it up. Or, they wanna hear that combination. In working with names, some of those people have the most professional, and easiest to work with, and most enlightening – like a Premier or Prince Paul. Then you have other instances where, you know you working with a person because of their rep, but their work-ethic or their effort in giving you something good doesn’t much up with that. In my experience, I want to work with producers that are dope. I want to work with producers that I haven’t worked with before. I’m not looking for names as much as dope beats and good people. Working with Oddisee kinda came naturally. He made “Aaw Yeah” from scratch, and came up with the hook. He didn’t just make the beat, he produced the record. People say, “Dre don’t make his own beats.” Maybe so, but he produces them, ‘cause you know a Dre beat when you hear it. Being in Philly at the time, vibing with Hezekiah, seeing his direction at the time. I did half the record myself to get my rep going as a qualified producer – not just an MC.

AllHipHop.com: My favorite record you ever wrote was “The 4th 3rd” on All of the Above. That record’s meant different things at different times – but the last verse is real confusing whether you end up with the girl or not. What’s behind that song?

J-Live: Aw, thank you. On The Best Part, I had a song called “Get The Third,” and I said, “You can get the third – eye, or the leg, or the finger, preferred” The first verse was about a woman I related to mentally. The second verse was about a relationship with a woman that was all physical. The last verse was about a woman that I lost my trust in, so I gave her the third finger – the middle finger.

After that record was out, I was in a relationship with a woman who was very deeply religious. Me being a Five Percenter, on that level, it didn’t work. It wasn’t a good idea. But it happened to be one of the most fulfilling relationships that I’d ever been in. I looked at like, “Aiight, this is a whole ‘nother category right here.” This is the fourth third – an improper fraction. Here’s three thirds – but here’s a four third that’s on some whole other s**t. [laughs]

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