Coming up in a time where the underground was purposely brash and pretentious (i.e. some emcees thought making money equated to selling out), J-Live turned Hip Hop on its axis as something new altogether. He made it cool to be smart (boasting “I got Allah’s street knowledge plus a college degree”), he was lyrical while being comprehensible, he was witty and he just seemed to have the time of his life representing the culture with his earliest work.
J-Live’s debut The Best Part featured production from DJ Premier, Prince Paul, Pete Rock and a new at the time 88 Keys. The album was shelved, bootlegged, and finally released in 2001, as he surprisingly bounced back just a year later with the equally potent All Of The Above. Bridging the gap between the ages, J-Live’s True School concept pays respect to his influences while simultaneously remaining relevant making music that feels good in this modern age. On the road promoting his brand new LP Around The Sun, J graciously took time to speak with me regarding his legacy as a veteran who’s still in demand and what it means to represent the Nation Of Gods & Earths (Five Percenters) in Hip Hop, along with other tidbits.
As a bonus I’ve made a mix of 15 songs for newcomers and old fans alike to enjoy. As a long time supporter, it was an honor to speak with one of my favorite acts.
To start, what can people expect from the new album Around The Sun?
The meaning behind it is continued growth. I have a sort of niche and a style and I’m not really trying to deviate from that so much as let it evolve as I grow. They can expect what they’ve expected from the last few albums, really dope Hip Hop, ill flows, I’m dropping jewels along with great beats. It’s just a good album to ride out to and play the whole thing non-stop.
When you came out with The Best Part and All Of The Above, you had so many creative ideas. Where was all of the creative energy coming from at that time?
“Braggin’ Writes” came about because the break was so perfect and there was nothing to do with it. I didn’t want to just loop it so I just decided to go back and forth on double turntables with it. “Stir Of Echoes” was inspired by the movie and just the concept as a whole. “Them That’s Not” was a story that evolved out of an old song, and when the beat switched up like that I wanted to progress like that with the beat.
On this album there’s a couple of moments like that, there’s a song called “Eight Minutes” that’s kind of a play on Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show “ [“Six minutes Doug E. Fresh, you’re on”], but it’s talking about how the light you’re getting from the sun is eight minutes old. The song “Not Listening” plays on the idea that rappers aint got nothing to say and it’s hard to garner attention, but I wanted to flip it in a creative way that was playful with the crowd and that’s been going great on the road.
As a NBA player progresses, it becomes less about athletic ability and more about knowing the game and trying to win. Jordan’s not dunking all over you as much as he’s killing you with the mid-range, I haven’t been as concerned with inventing a new style as much as polishing mine and making sure the lyrics have that much more weight behind them.
What have the challenges been of going 100% indie with Mortier Music?
I’ve been 100% indie since the whole thing with [my original labels] Payday/London flopped, it’s just that rather than being in association with another label, I’m taking on that role as the label. It’s been a great challenge, I know the ropes pretty well but I’m still building my team as far as people I can depend on and the best practices for the things I like to do along with maintaining a certain schedule to stay on.
With each project life gets in the way. I would have dropped an album every year if not twice a year in some instances, but the last album was in 2011 which seems like eons ago in today’s times. I’m trying to evolve as far as the way the industry evolves. Things are more digital now, the news cycle is a lot shorter, access is a lot greater, applying those ethics into today’s market and atmosphere has been the biggest challenge.
How has would you say Hip Hop and the business changed since the days when you first came out, especially in the internet age?
It’s a double edged sword being that the playing field is a lot more level, but there’s a lot more competition for people’s attention. Coming up, it took so much to make a record, if you wanted to have a DJ spin your breaks at the show, once upon a time you had to press up instrumentals on vinyl or go ahead and make temporary dub plates. If not that, you had to be creative with recreating the production method on stage. Now you got Serato, you can pretty much bounce your instrumental and you’re good to go.
In that same way, people can publish themselves now. They’re not depending on a label like the big and successful labels that have a machine and marketing dollars behind them to stand out. Anybody can do this, but you really gotta do it well if you want to make your mark.
You’re based out of Atlanta now, what is the Hip Hop scene like there compared to your home town of New York?
It’s pretty dope. I’ve lived in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York and it seems like everywhere I go you can find that niche of indie artists that are doing their thing. It transcends where you are, coming up in New York there were so many different venues like Wetlands, Tramps and S.O.B’s which is still there, fast forward today there’s spots like LPR.
In Atlanta you have a similar kind of vibe where there’s always something going on with likeminded artists. Beyond Hip Hop and music people move to Atlanta whether it economically makes more sense or they have family there already. On the music scene it’s a real cool sample size of the whole country, cats are there from Cali, Detroit, Florida, the Carolinas, Boston and New York. Atlanta’s indie scene doesn’t sound like Atlanta per se, as opposed to being Atlanta Hip Hop it’s Hip Hop in Atlanta.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about the Five Percent Nation. As a member, how did you discover this way of life?
When I was going to college at SUNY Albany, a lot of the brothers that I was getting with were just studying life and that happened to be the culture that we gravitated towards. There were about 16 of us at the time, we say many are called but the chosen are few and about four or five out of that group really stuck with it and adopted this culture as a lifestyle and a philosophy. It’s been great for me, it’s helped me keep my life balanced and in order.
Five Percenter ideologies have been found in your album titles. How does that relate to Around The Sun?
The lessons talk about how fast the planet rotates while it’s revolving. All of the text in my album titles are somewhere in the lessons, from The Best Part where they say the babies are the best part and you take the best part for yourself. All Of The Above is caused by the son of man, fast and pray to see the hereafter [the meaning behind the album title The Hear After].
With Around The Sun, I’m trying to find the phrase or term within the lesson to keep the consistency that reflects what I want the album to be about. The album’s about growth and example of continuing to shine the way you’ve been shining and move the way you’ve been moving. Every time you make it another year, you’re basically taking another trip around the sun.
There have been a ton of Hip Hop acts in the NGE. If you could name a few songs that would explain the culture to an outsider, what would they be?
“Wake Up” by Brand Nubian. “The Ghetto” by Eric B & Rakim. “One to 31” by J-Live because that goes into lessons specifically as it pertains to me individually, there’s a ton of Poor Righteous Teachers stuff and I’d throw some King Sun in there.
How do you personally define knowledge of self?
It’s pretty simple, it’s literally that. If you’re studying yourself, you’re pretty much made of the same stuff as the universe. To know the universe is to know yourself and vice versa, as above so below. Whether you’re talking about an electron circling around or you’re talking about the earth revolving and the sun on its path, or just the way the universe works, you can apply these governing forces of nature to yourself and life around you.
If you can acquire enough knowledge or the right knowledge to get yourself grounded, the peace that comes with that makes you rather formidable in my opinion. Nobody knows you better than you, nobody can tell your story better than you can, the more you know about yourself is the more you accept and understand. You say “I’m not gonna lie to myself or the next man about who I am. I know what I can and cant do, I know what knowledge I can and cant acquire.” It’s really just about getting your shit together and putting your priorities in order so that you can really thrive.
What were your thoughts on Jay-Z rocking the pendant?
I don’t really think much of it. He has the Universal flag on, I don’t really rock gold like that but I have a wooden one [laughs]. If someone sees me rocking it and they do a double take because they saw Jay-Z wearing it, if they want answers about it I’m definitely a credible source. That man can wear what he wants when he wants. As far as somebody having questions for him, the backlash and controversy is because that flag has meant something before he wore it and it’ll mean something after he wears it.
Whether he’s wearing it or not, that doesn’t change the meaning behind the Universal flag, the sun, moon and stars or that 7 and a crescent just because he’s rocking it. Now if he can answer those questions then great, more power to him. But at the very least it might just mean that he’s been influenced by somebody who can answer those questions, and you might want to do the same.
You’ve entered into DJ’ing with your series Hot vs. Dope, what has been the concept behind that?
Hot vs. Dope is just about advocating good music, breaking the barriers and trying to blur the lines between indie and commercial. A lot of times people feel they need to ride for one style of Hip Hop, I come from an era where you would pretty much hear all the different flavors at the same time.
On the late night mix shows like Red Alert and Marley Marl, it wasn’t about just playing trap music, conscious music, gangsta music, West coast or Southern music, it was just about playing dope shit. All of that can be dope or wack depending on how that artist comes off on that one particular song. If you lose those rules and try to unlearn those conditions, you end up exposing yourself to some great stuff.
If you say “I’m willing to listen to an artist I never heard of on a label I never heard of on the off chance that I might like it”, you open your mind up. Part of a DJ’s job is to break records and play not just what you’re dying to hear and what you’re gonna beat him in the head about playing, but to play what you didn’t even know you wanted to hear until you’re moving to it.
What would you say keeps you inspired after all this time?
The fans. If they weren’t clamoring for more music and telling me how the music I’ve made so far has effected them or inspired them to make music or get through life the way I listen to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and The Roots, then I probably would have stopped by now. But it’s a beautiful thing to give back the way that something’s been given to you, and Hip Hop shaped and guided my worldview as the soundtrack to my life. The fact that I can do that for somebody else is really what keeps me going.
As a O.G. in the game, Who are you checking for today out of the younger generation?
That’s kind of a blurred line. When you say the younger generation, I’ve been in it so long that you could be talking about Homeboy Sandman even though he’s around my age [laughs], you could be talking about Oddisee even though I’ve been working with him for years. I’m digging what Michael Christmas is doing, I’m checking for TiRon and I actually have a crop of cats that I’m bringing up. One is named Rome Supreme, the other is So Severe, I think people will be pleasantly surprised to hear them once they start to discover them.
Also there’s J. Nolan.
That’s my dude right there. That’s what I mean when I say the lines are blurred, he’s been making consistent records since 2009 and people are still just starting to discover him. I’m just trying to help that along. I’m literally walking Rome and So Severe through how it’s done, on some mentorship. With J. Nolan it’s like “I see what you’re doing, let me help you along”, but he’s gonna be great regardless of whether he gets help from me or not.
There’s never been a shortage of dope artists. As far as who I’m checking for I want to throw Masta Ace in there because I grew up on his stuff and not only is he consistently making music, he’s so damn relevant in the now. If you’ve never heard “The Symphony” and he was a brand new artist to you, he’d still hop into your favorites. I got so much respect for him.
Going back to the skits on The Best Part, in 2014 what do you think it takes to be a great MC?
Proliferation. You gotta be prolific, constant and consistently hitting cats. You cant really rest on your laurels at all, you have to push the envelope. The beautiful thing about that question on that album was people took it from different perspectives. Some people were thinking sales and fame, some people were thinking talent and some people were thinking about the live show. Depending on the angle you’re approaching it from, there’s so many different ways to answer that question. I would just say be consistently great, continue to grow and let people see the growth as you do it.