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How She Do

Gritty MC Jean Grae Destroys All Doubters When She Wields Her Pen

CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME: Jean Grae makes cinematic hip-hop on an indie budget.

By Tom Breihan | Posted 1/12/2005

Jean Grae performs at the Ottobar Jan. 14 with Diverse, Ogun, and Tislam.

“I think consumers have this skewed point of view on exactly how much money [I make],” says the South Africa-born, New York-based rapper Tsidi Ibrahim, who performs under the name Jean Grae. “I read a [web] post the other day that said that an artist like Jean Grae, they’re living comfortably, they make like $70,000 a year. I was like, ‘Wow. I want that Jean Grae to pay my bills.’”

Grae began her career in the mid-’90s in the Natural Resource crew under the name What? What?, and since then she’s watched a number of her late-’90s underground peers—Eminem, Mos Def, Talib Kweli—go on to stardom while she struggles to make a living, unable to realize her biggest ambitions.

“It’s very difficult to have a lot of ideas and to want to do things, but not be able to bring them to fruition because of your financial state,” she says over the phone from New York on the eve of her first headlining tour. “It is very frustrating.”

A lack of talent hasn’t held Grae back. This Week (Babygrande), her 2004 sophomore album, shows her to be a sharp, versatile MC with a quick, conversational delivery and a gift for twisty, off-kilter rhyme schemes and dense, vivid images. She can rip a vicious battle verse with the best of them: “Mangle your face up worse than the makeup that’s on Tammy Faye’s pillow whenever she wakes up,” she raps on “You Don’t Want It.” She shines brightest on open-hearted confessionals like the album-closing “Don’t Rush Me,” speaking clearly and honestly about her hopes and anxieties: “I know I’m not in last place/ But it’s hard to work through it with this masked face/ And masking tape over the window keeps the cold out/ And every time I lay down my back breaks because it’s old now.”

Grae wears her frustrations on her sleeve, in her lyrics and interviews. “I’m trying to bridge the gap between the listener and the artist a little bit,” she says. “I can never relate to you guys unless you can be able to relate to me as well.”

And partly because of this openness with her own anxiety, Grae has developed a cinematic eye for apocalyptic scenarios; Hollywood should option her lyrics. “Taco Day,” off DJ Mr. Len’s 2001 Pity the Fool, is told from the point of view of a berserk high-school shooter. And in “Summer in the City (Lovin’ It)”, from Washington producer Sharkey’s 2004 Sharkey’s Machine, Grae describes the destruction of New York City: “Holland Tunnel, the roof caved in, no survivors/ Harlem riots, stores Molotoved, the radio pirate.”

“A lot of [my lyrics] are stuff that I can see going on, that I can actually visualize in my head,” she says. “It’s difficult to not be able to bring a creative idea to its point where you can actually visually see it, so the only way that I have to do it is through words. If I can’t make the movies, then I have to say the movies.”

But Grae wants to make the movies, which is impossible on an indie-rap budget. “I’m looking to have the ability to play on the same level as major-label artists, which does require a certain amount of finances behind your promotion and your marketing and your budget,” she says. “In terms of still being able to have my creative control, it’s always difficult to find that when you’re dealing with a big corporation.”

Grae may get her chance yet. Her reputation has grown steadily since the release of her 2002 debut, Attack of the Attacking Things. In the past year, she’s collaborated with the Roots and Talib Kweli, while This Week includes contributions from rising producers such as 9th Wonder and Midi Mafia. And now she’s embarking on her first headlining tour, bringing her to Baltimore for the first time.

“We’re really trying to put something special together for this tour,” she says. “I’m excited. I got up at 7 this morning because I really couldn’t sleep, I just had so many ideas. We’re definitely going to be stepping our show game up—not that people weren’t enjoying it [before]. We definitely don’t do a short show. I think if you came out and paid your money you should be able to see the show that you paid for.”

In the meantime, Grae supports herself in part by doing voice-over work for advertisements and video games; she played the female lead in the 2002 Rockstar game State of Emergency. “I’m much more comfortable behind a microphone or in front of a camera, so it’s sort of a way to act, even if it’s not exactly acting,” she says.

Grae’s best work may be yet to come. For all her lyrical dexterity, neither of Grae’s albums deviates much from traditional New York hip-hop, but Grae is hoping to branch out into new musical styles. “Now that I’ve done the 16-bar and the eight-bar hooks and I’ve worked with a lot of people I wanted to work with, I just want to experiment and try some new things,” she says. “I don’t want to be afraid to do something because I feel like that’s not what I’m supposed to do, and I need to do something that makes me feel like I’m having fun doing this again.”

And when discussing plans for her next album, Grae doesn’t mention any rappers. “My spectrum is broad,” she says. “I’m a very big Björk fan. I’m hoping to reach out to a lot of people with the next album. The Bomb Squad, definitely. I’m trying to play around with sounds and think of people that were influential in me loving a new sound of music, people who brought a new sound and weren’t afraid to experiment.”

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