Jean Grae: Re-Focused

By Jay Casteel  |  06/20/2007

The daughter of South African jazz musicians, Jean Grae has music in her blood, but after enduring ups band downs in the biz -- since 1996 when she joined a group called Natural Resource -- the lyrically talented female emcee struggled to find a home that would let her be who she wanted to be as an emcee.

After releasing three albums independently -- the last through Babygrande -- the rapper who got her name from X-Men character Jean Grey, said she almost gave up on her love for music, frustrated by industry politics. But, thanks to sessions with superproducer 9th Wonder, Jean refound her hunger for music, and managed to ink a deal with Warner Bros. Records through Talib Kweli's Blacksmith imprint, where she says she maintains the creative freedom she's always wanted and was unable to find anywhere else.

Today, existing in a space she says she's grateful to be in, Jean Grae speaks with BallerStatus about how she forged a relationship with Blacksmith from the start, how they put her at ease after she told them she would not compromise her music, her past situations, and what's to come in her near future.

It's your local neighborhood superhero Jean Grae. She's back, re-focused and ready to make her mark. You have a situation with Warner Bros. through Talib Kweli's Blacksmith label, so tell me how that came about.

Jean Grae: I kind of didn't have a plan after Babygrande [Records]. It was a one-off and I knew that and knew that I wasn't gonna stay with them. The first thing that everyone always told me when I left Natural Resource was that it was gonna be really, really easy for me to get a deal, but I really didn't believe that. No, it was nothing like that, not at all. I had tons of meetings with people... or it'd get right to the point where I'd think it was gonna be great and it'd completely fall through.

Corey (of Blacksmith) had always been talking about working together, but he was only doing management at that point. I was just like, you know, number one, I just don't work well when I have managers. It's so much easier for me to do sh** myself, when I know I don't have to go through someone else to go through someone else. I guess their take on the situation of what they were trying to do was appealing because it was "Hey, you have complete creative freedom to do whatever you wanna do." This is it. It's the job everyone wants. I just wanna do what I wanna do and have people pay me for it. I was concerned because I know it's Blacksmith, but it's going through Warner. I'm like, "You guys may say it's ok, but I doubt they will be that open to it."

I was concerned up until I did a Warner showcase, so it was Kweli and myself. The impression that I was getting was that I felt they were thinking I was gonna be the female version of Kweli. I wanted to make it really clear that "Yea, we work together and do songs together, but it's very, very different." It was a real industry sort of show where everybody just stands there. I didn't change up my set, I did what I usually do, which is yell at the audience and tell them this is what the f*** I need, and they loved it. It was the most reassuring thing to be like, "Oh ok, I can do what I wanna do and they will be behind it." I'm just blessed to have that sort of situation. If it was me going somewhere else, I'm sure it'd be a totally different situation. I also can always call Corey when I have ideas and he's either gonna be like "Jean, we can't do that, we'll go to jail" or "that's a f***ing fantastic idea" (laughs). You mentioned your first situations, which were kind of rough for you, so what was it that kept you driven to want to continuing doing music?

Jean Grae: I didn't wanna keep doing music at all (laughing). I was like, "This is bullsh**, why am I trying?" I think recording The Jeanius really came at a good time. I wanted to work with 9th [Wonder] and I was at a "I don't give a f*** anymore" point. The whole experience of doing it ... the work ethic, it seemed like being at a place when I was really, really hungry and happy about music, and working with someone excited about working on music like I used to be.

I had writer's block for like six months. When I got down there, I couldn't stop writing. That kind of brought it back for me. I was enjoying my music again. With your new deal now, what's it like being in the studio? What's the recording process like?

Jean Grae: My recording process is more like no recording process. I have no like "this is how I do it" other than I don't like just picking a beat from a beat CD and going in there and two track it. That doesn't work for me. For Nottz, Ski, 9th, Buck that I worked with so far, I go to their studio and be like, "Ok, let's zone out for a couple of days." That feels like we're making music. Other than that, I don't like wasting money on recording studios because I have Pro-Tools at home. I do my rough drafts there and go in and listen and finish the final. For the most part, I record in other people's studios and we keep those versions. How far along is your album now and what kind of things have you been doing?

Jean Grae: I'd say I have a couple of songs I wanna finish. One of the songs is on this beat that is crazy ridiculous that we pulled from beat CDs. We were listening to a CD, and really liked a few tracks that we are using, then we completely lost this producer'ss number (laughs). I went on Myspace, OkayPlayer, everywhere looking for this kid and nothing. I have to use this beat on my album, so I'm just gonna get ?uest to do it over. So he's gonna do it and put "inspired by" and hope he doesn't sue us. How do you feel your last album, This Week, was received?

Jean Grae: I think it did really well for the fact that there was no radio play, no videos, nothing. It was basically word of mouth. I'm lucky enough to have a great publicist that gets me in magazines and all kind of press. I think it did well for what it was. I didn't have any regrets and it was a learning experience.

It was the first time working on a project where I felt well-rounded as a person in general. Not everything was as dark as my other stuff. It was interesting, some people responded to it and the cover and were like, "Oh what's up with the drinking now and the two sex songs?" I was like, "When have I not talked about either drinking or bad relationships or..." A lot of times, people don't really listen, they just see the image of you. It was crazy, schools were calling me to come perform for kids and I'm like, "I'm not sure if you listened to my music." It's like what song could I do? The Columbine song? (laughing) There's probably one song I could do over and over for half an hour. Why is Jean Grae one of the few female artists that is well-respected by her peers such as Talib, 9th Wonder and all the other successful underground artists?

Jean Grae: I don't know ... the work ethic. I don't give a f***. I'm used to being the only female, so it's not a big deal for me. I've never commented anything on the angle like, "I'm A GIRL, check it, it's different." I rock, that's it. I just say, "Wanna do some rhymes together? Great. We'll work it out." There's something to say about longevity. Like the response this year has been "I"m glad you are still doing it." That's the point of no return, like it's longer to go back to the beginning, then to just see it through.

I think you have to get to a point where you say, "Failure is not an option" and like the more you tell me I can't do something, the more I'm gonna wanna prove you wrong. What's on your plate right now?

Jean Grae: The Genius album, the Prom Night album, The Pheonix album (which comes after Genius), all the left over music we have from This Week (which is called Next Week), the left overs from Genius (which is Idiot). It's gonna be a long year.