Jean Grae: Grae’s Autonomy

In the race to bring New York back, who is to say that a woman can’t do it? For three independent albums, Jean Grae has won over fans with candor, creativity, and a work ethic that rivals the last days of Tupac Shakur. This year she’s planning at least three releases, and don’t even ask her about lost tapes.

Signed to Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith imprint, Jean Grae has Warner Brothers backing, and no corporate pressures to change. As a woman, she has constantly been compared to competition within her gender. However, with gripping reality in her raps, personal verses, and A-list production, is anything really separating Jean from the so-called top artists?

As a part of Women’s Month, AllHipHop.com looks at one of the strongest MCs touching a mic today, who just happens to be a woman. This Cinderella story hasn’t even reached its ball yet, which just might be Prom Night, one of the albums Jean will deliver this year. In the meantime, she isn’t exactly washing her step-sisters’ dishes, but Jean just may cook you up some lasagna.

Jean Grae: Jake Paine. Is that your real name?

AllHipHop.com: Indeed it is.

Jean Grae: You should be a porn star with a name like that. Do you do porn?

AllHipHop.com: No, sadly, I don’t; maybe one day though. It’s a cool name till people meet me and see I don’t live up to it. [Both laugh] So what is the best part about being a woman in Hip-Hop?

Jean Grae: [Sighs] Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that. Right now, I guess it’s a lot easier to…I don’t really have that much competition. The bad part is that they took the Grammy category out; the good part is that they took the Grammy category out.

AllHipHop.com: Why do you say that?

Jean Grae: I don’t know, I think it would kind of make it mean more. I wouldn’t just be winning in “The Best Female” category. I’ve never really thought about that, ‘cause everybody asks the opposite – “What’s the worst part of being a woman?” I really don’t know; I couldn’t tell you. Also, there’s so many topics that just haven’t been thought about or approached. Being able to see something from another point of view is interesting, and I just don’t think that there’s a voice for that. I don’t understand why everybody only thinks you’ve got five topics to rap about.

AllHipHop.com: As you’ve gone from the debut in “underground” to the national scale on a major label, do you think the expectations of you, based on gender, have changed at all?

Jean Grae: Um…no. I think I got stuck for the first time with this album, kinda worrying, especially being with Warner [Brothers] right now, and worrying about peoples’ expectations of me. I kinda got stuck recording for a while, and I didn’t know what direction to go in, I didn’t know what to do. I’m hard on myself enough, so I’ve kind of tried to block out everybody else’s expectations of me ‘cause I’m dealing with my own expectations of myself. I really don’t think about it at all, and I probably wouldn’t get up and do anything if I had to worry about that all day.

Depending on what I wear on stage or how I wear my hair, the reactions change. I’m like, “That’s funny, ‘cause I don’t rap any differently, so why the hell should you care?” After a show a while ago, this girl came up to me [and said], “Oh, you’re wearing your hair long now.” I said, “Excuse me? Did you like the show?” She said, “Yeah, it was great,” and I said, “Then why the f**k would you say that? Who cares?” I think expectations as far as my style have changed. I was 17-18 years old [when my last style was formed], I would hope so. There’s some days where I feel like a tom-boy still, but I’m a grown-ass woman, what is the problem?

AllHipHop.com: Listening to your music, whether “Love Song” or “P.S.,” you get very personal. When you’re writing or recording, are there moments where you decide some things are just too personal to let out?

Jean Grae: It has [happened] – especially a song [“Forgive Me”] on the Jeanius album, dealing with abortion. I had tried to write the song at least five or six times over the years. A couple of times I’d finish the second verse or even the whole song and say, “I’m not ready to do this yet,” and I think it was just a time where I was comfortable enough with myself to do it. 9th [Wonder] definitely put me in a place where I felt comfortable doing it. Yeah, especially with stuff that’s really, really personal and it’s true – like “P.S.” happened because I was at a place in my life where I was very used to holding grudges against people. It kind of came at a time where I needed to let some things go. It was one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written. Yeah, it was a way to get everything out. A lot of times it’s talk-therapy for me. I always know when it’s time to say something and when it’s not.

AllHipHop.com: Going back to “P.S.,” when you reached out to these people from your past on the song, did you hear back from any of them?

Jean Grae: I actually did. My ex from the first one actually wrote me back. The girl that I was talking about actually wrote me back. I hung out with them after that. It was really interesting, and I actually don’t think it was something that I could’ve said in person first. It was a lot easier to talk about it after the fact. Yeah, it actually did work.

AllHipHop.com: It was rumored that Attack of the Attacking Things cost 18 dollars to make. Is that really true?

Jean Grae: That is true. Attack of the Attacking Things actually cost about 18 dollars – included Chinese food, cigarettes, ‘cause it was pretty much just me, in my bedroom, with Pro Tools.

AllHipHop.com: So even with Evil Dee, who’s got his own studio, those things were still recorded in your bedroom?

Jean Grae: No, wait! That was that included in it – my trip to Evil Dee’s house, train-fare there and back. [“Love Song”] was the only second song that I did not record at home; that was four dollars [of the 18 dollar budget]. It was fun. I had a really good time making that album.

AllHipHop.com: It’s out of print now, and getting serious money on eBay. How do you look back on that time in your life?

Jean Grae: Every album is interesting for me because it’s so personal. It’s kind of like snapshots. I can definitely tell exactly how I was feeling at that time ‘cause I’m f**kin’ sayin’ it. I had just broken up with that person that I was living with. It was my first time being back on my own. It was very interesting. I think it was New Years, and everybody was like, “Come on, come out,” and I said, “Nah, I’m not coming out. I’m gonna stay home and record for New Years.” I mostly just stayed in the house and made beats and kept recording. I’d just gotten Pro Tools; I was figuring that out. I was doing engineering sessions in the house. It was a real liberating time. I think at that point, I felt like I was learning so much. It was overwhelming. It was nice to be recognized. When I listen to it now, I sound really young.

AllHipHop.com: I don’t know if you own the masters, but seeing as it’s out of print, would you ever re-release it?

Jean Grae: I do own it. And… originally, the idea was to have that, ‘cause it’s called “The Dirty Mixes”…I would finally have it mixed, well. Sadly, the computer that had all the Pro Tools sessions crashed, and all the sessions are gone. If we actually have to digitally remaster everything, it would only be two tracks. I kinda still want to do it. I can’t tell you everything. It will be coming back out.

AllHipHop.com: I heard this record of yours called “You Told Me,” a collaboration with 9th Wonder. It’s so warm and happy. When looking back at records like “Don’t Rush Me” or “Keep Living,” do you think you’re a happier person now than you were in the past?

Jean Grae: I’m just like everybody else. Some days are dark, and some days I feel really good about things. “You Told Me” is actually on The Phoenix album. It was just at a really good place. It’s written backwards, but forwards. I think it was a way for me to get out of the darkness by writing from the future. Trust me, I still like the dark stuff. I always need that s**t in my life, it’s great. Sometimes I listen to my s**t, and I’m like, “F**k, I’m depressing myself.” [Laughs] I’m not the most happy-go-lucky motherf**ker all the time, so it’s never gonna really be a happy, upbeat record the whole way through. I’m extremely moody. A lot of that is me saying, “God damn it, I’m depressing myself. I’m complaining a lot, and the complaining s**t isn’t helping, so I’m gonna do something about it.”

AllHipHop.com: Was your move with Blacksmith something that had been building on the low for some time?

Jean Grae: It wasn’t. I had no idea what the f**k I was gonna do after [Babygrande Records]. Corey [Smyth], who owns Blacksmith with [Talib] Kweli…we’ve all been friends for so long. He was always like, “Jean, we need to work together; I need to manage you.” I was always [responded], “Yeah…I don’t think so…uh.” We were always cool. With Kweli, I appreciate the fact that out of so many people that you know and someone who is actually successful at doing what they’re doing can look back and be like, “Yo, I totally didn’t forget about you.” The fact that they let me be crazy, work on my own time schedule, and let me have complete creative freedom is ridiculous, and I don’t know what kind of situation I would have been in, after Babygrande, had Blacksmith not been there. I’m really, really lucky.

AllHipHop.com: What does 2007 have in store for you on the music side?

Jean Grae: Jeanius is coming out first. We just decided on artwork. 9th and I both love to think of s**t like that, and we both could not come up with anything for like the past year. We decided on what we’re gonna do – it’s hilarious and also wrong. Enjoy that. The album after that is called Prom Night. I was going in so many different directions. The response from [a Warner Brothers] showcase let me know that whatever I want to do is great, fantastic, just give [them] the album. I was feeling stuck, I had writer’s block for like a year, and I think I just needed to have other experiences. I don’t think I was ready to write it. The best advice that I got was from [?uestlove] who said, “Just see everything before it’s done. Visualize the track listing, the sequencing, the videos, everything.” That really, really helped. I decided to go with everybody that I always wanted to work with. Nottz, Ski Beats, and Buckwild are producing. Like Nottz, this kid has a zillion beats on his computer. He was like, “Do you want me to just play 18, 20 of ‘em?” I said, “No, ‘cause I’m afraid I’m gonna f**kin’ miss something.” I sat there and listened to 300 beats. He said, “Yo, you are the only person besides Busta [Rhymes] who comes in and listens to everything.” We did like four joints. It was like that with Ski. Now, it’s ended up that I’ve picked so many beats that I have more than I need. So…yeah. There will probably be more than two albums this year. [Laughs] I told 9th that everything that didn’t make Jeanius should go on a follow-up called Idiot. This Week had a follow-up which was supposed to be Next Week There’s so many tracks that never made it, and I want to put them out. Phoenix is still coming this year. [Sighs] It’s gonna be a long year.

AllHipHop.com: You never worry about over-saturation?

Jean Grae: No. I get into periods where I either get writer’s block or I just record a ridiculous amount of s**t. So there’s so much back-catalog stuff to put out. I thinks there’s between six and eight ADAT [tapes] between Natural Resource and Attack of the Attacking Things. When it’s there, I like to make sure I record a whole bunch, just in case.

AllHipHop.com: What’s good on the acting front?

Jean Grae: I don’t know, I’ll see how it goes this year. I’m more interested in developing my own programs and going from there than going out trying to look for work. We get 9,000 ideas a day. There was a Jean Grae dating show, just me going on dates. Nobody else gets to date on the show, just me, and of course it never works out. There was a cooking show, which I definitely still want to do. I think there’s a huge market for it, but I don’t think there’s something that’s catered to a younger crowd. I don’t wanna f**kin’ watch [Food Network personality] Rachael Ray all day; I don’t want to eat food like that.

AllHipHop.com: She had like 30 Dollars a Day, in Hip-Hop, it could be more like 30 Dollars a Week…

Jean Grae: [Laughs] Exactly! Something that’s a little more realistic. I like to cook a lot. I have a lot dinner parties and friends over, because I kind of think we’ve lost that. Sitting down and watching TV is great, but nobody sits down and f**kin’ talks anymore. Community-wise, I really love doing s**t like that, whether it’s game night or just actin’ a damn fool. I love, I love cooking for people.

AllHipHop.com: What’s you’re A-dish?

Jean Grae: Everything.

AllHipHop.com: Let’s say your mother is on her way over for dinner tonight, what are you gonna make?

Jean Grae: Hmmm…she wanted my vegetarian lasagna again, she enjoys it. And I haven’t made that in a long time.

AllHipHop.com: I’m so sick and tired of people talking about bringing New York back, and who’s gonna do it. I was thinking that we’ve got an election coming up with our potential first president of color, or our first woman president. I’ll go on record saying I believe you have the ability to take New York over, biased or not. With three albums in the works, how does a woman bringing New York back sound to you?

Jean Grae: It feels good, it feels really good. I’ve never done that whole “I’m the Queen of New York” s**t. I’m like, “Hey, feel free to say it though. I’m not mad.” [Laughs] Yeah, f**k it, I can do it! It’s on! It’s on like Tron! [Laughs]

Related Stories