Jean Grae is a picture-perfect representation of how possessing determination, passion, and a willingness to never compromise your integrity will bring rewards in due time. If proof is needed to believe such a claim, simply take a look at her career thus far.
Coming up as a member of the now defunct underground group Natural Resource, the Brooklyn native parlayed a successful run of below-the-radar guest appearances into an independently issued full-length in 2002, Attack of the Attacking Things, followed by 2003′s The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP. With both releases being critically acclaimed but commercially ignored, Jean strived through her unfortunate obscurity to join The Roots’ drummer ?uestlove’s Okayplayer family, provide standout verses on both Talib Kweli’s and The Roots’ latest albums, and recently drop another highly-respected disc, This Week, on Babygrande Records.
Through all of her trails and tribulations, though, Jean has remained steadfast in her motives, by never conforming to the pressures placed on female MCs, and always letting her super-lyrical skills do the talking. As media outlets now jump on her deserved bandwagon, through placements in popular magazines and long-overdue attention being shown her way, she remains grounded, ready for whatever the unpredictable recording industry might throw her way.
In this candid interview, Jean Grae speaks freely with HipHopSite.com about her life’s current issues.
HHS: This Week has been out for a while now, and you have done a great deal of press for it. How do you feel about how its been received?
Jean Grae: The reception has been incredible. Especially in New York, cuz it’s always nice to have your town be supportive of you. It’s been beautiful. I just found out yesterday actually, and I guess it’s a pre-nomination, like before they narrow it down to the top five, but I got pre-nominated for a Grammy. It’s for “Best Rap Solo Performance.” That’s a little crazy. [Laughs]
HHS: Damn, congratulations on that. Is that for an individual song, or for the whole album?
Jean Grae: It’s for an individual song, “You Don’t Want It.” I’m like the only person without a major deal on the list. We can’t turn our phone back on. I got nominated for a Grammy. So, I guess we’re doing something right.
HHS: Yeah, you’re definitely doing it right. Looking back on This Week, though, are there any parts of the album that you would change, or think you could make better?
Jean Grae: You know what? I always do that, like wonder is I could make stuff better after the fact, but at the end of the story, I always think of albums like they are snapshots of you. For that time. it’s a pretty good snapshot of where my head was at over the past couple of years. There are certain songs that I would have really liked to be in a big studio to work on, cuz I think some songs got lost.
HHS: Any specific songs?
Jean Grae: Well, the whole album. Like, to bring a much bigger sound out of it. Also, it would have been nice if I would have been allowed to be at the mastering.
HHS: You weren’t there for the mastering?
Jean Grae: No, they wouldn’t let me. I fought, but nothing. We had a reference copy, so that aspect of the album I would have changed. That’s pretty much it, cuz as long as people can enjoy it, then its fine.
HHS: I know with independent acts this is always tricky, but have there ever been any plans to shoot a video for the album? That would help get your music out to such a bigger audience.
Jean Grae: We are actually shooting a video real soon, for “You Don’t Want It.” It should be fun. This is my second video, but the first by myself. There is a very interesting concept for it. We had gone through a few treatments, and none of them were seeming to work. I was at the point where I was getting fed up, and I was ready to not even do a video. Then, I was brought the next treatment, and I was like, “Oh shit! They got it!” It’s gonna be interesting. We’re gonna try to break some new ground and do something different. On a budget, of course. [Laughs]
HHS: Are you looking to make that major label jump?
Jean Grae: It’s been interesting. You got to wait and feel out the situations. The Babygrande and Koch situation has been real interesting, though. I’m not gonna hold my tongue about it too much either, cuz it seems like either way, I’ve been fucked. No matter what I say. If I don’t say anything, I did something wrong, and if I do say something, I did something wrong. At this point, I just don’t care anymore.
HHS: We won’t dwell too much on that topic, though, because I’m sure you can’t give us everything right now.
Jean Grae: Thank you. I appreciate that. [Laughs]
HHS: It was very interesting to see you in the recent issue of THE SOURCE, in that spread with fellow female MCs Jacki-O and Remy Martin. How do you feel about how that piece was put together?
Jean Grae: It’s interesting. I had my mom over for dinner the other night, and we had this big conversation, actually, about Michael Jackson. Trust me, this makes sense. [Laughs] It was going back and forth with different people at the table, about whether he should be able to raise children, should he be convicted, and why is he such a freak. It’s interesting, cuz on like a much smaller scale, I know what it’s like to have a conversation with someone, and go through an interview. Pretty much however the medium wants to put it out there, and how they want to portray the situation, they will. You know, editing. You never really know what that person is like. I think THE SOURCE was interesting. It’s always a good look to be anywhere. The only bad press is no press, so I definitely do appreciate it. But, it was a very edited down piece. It was definitely not five questions in the interview.
HHS: So, they didn’t tell you how it would appear in print, like before the interview?
Jean Grae: No. [Laughs] It was quite a long conversation, and you think that you have talked about things that are relevant, and they pick out the irrelevant stuff.
HHS: As far as the pictures, what made you want to hit people with a more elegant look than what people are used to seeing?
Jean Grae: They had told me what the spot was gonna like, and they told everybody to bring some dressy clothes. That’s my kind of dressy look. I’m a girl. [Laughs] I had on slacks and a little business jacket.
HHS: I guess when you are sitting next to Remy and Jacki-O, looking very elegant in their outfits, it gives off that atmosphere for the whole spread. Speaking of them, how was the interaction with them?
Jean Grae: They were cool. Remy is definitely very down to Earth, and real cool people. I had a good time the day of the shoot. It was real interesting. It was sort of that kind of surreal moment.
HHS: Now, I feel, along with many others, that the work you did with 9th Wonder on Jeanius is some of your best work yet. It’s a shame that it had to leak out to the Internet so early. Are there still plans to release it officially?
Jean Grae: It will. We have plans to release it, with a follow-up.
HHS: The Phoenix? I had talked to 9th Wonder recently, and he told me that it is going to be called The Phoenix.
Jean Grae: God damn it! [Laughs] I didn’t know that the news was out on that. We actually decided on that one like half way through doing Jeanius, and a second follow-up, which I hope he didn’t say anything about.
HHS: No, he just mentioned The Phoenix.
Jean Grae: Ok, good. I’m screaming on him today. [Laughs] For those projects, I think we’ll pretty much do what we did for Jeanius. Like, just go in the studio and record it fast, cuz that seemed to work. When I find some time where he is free and I’m free, I’ll take that trip out to North Carolina again.
HHS: Now that your talent is being heard on a larger scale, are you being called on to do features and guest appearances these days?
Jean Grae: No. Nobody calls. [Sigh, then laughs]
HHS: I can’t believe that. Well, is there any one MC that you would love to work with, though?
Jean Grae: I say Ghostface all the time. I’m gonna get my Ghost track. I’m a fan. [Laughs]
HHS: Being that your career is at its highest point right now, what would you say has been the biggest highlight so far?
Jean Grae: I almost met Prince. Ahmir [?uestlove of The Roots], at the mastering of The Tipping Point, had asked me if I wanted to go with him to Prince’s Musicology show at Webster Hall. I was like, “Yes!” [Laughs] Who would say no? Anyway, we went into the Prince VIP section. We were freaking out. It was like Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Patti LaBelle all standing in the same room. Apparently, Ahmir had tried to introduce me, like, “Hey, this is my friend Je-,” and I had ran to the next room, cuz I couldn’t handle it. I came back, and we were sitting there, staring at Prince having a conversation with Stevie Wonder like two feet away from us, which is freaky. I made direct Prince eye contact, and he did the Prince eyes. [Laughs] I just didn’t have the strength to introduce, and possibly say something dumb. I mean, it was Prince! He’s very intimidating. I hope I get the chance again, cuz I’ll be ready. Another thing is I actually got to meet Roxanne Shante, which was incredible. So, I’m having a good time right now.
HHS: Finally, what would you say is the biggest misconception that people may have about Jean Grae?
Jean Grae: That I’m just a very angry person, which is definitely not true. I’ve heard people saying I’m whiny and I complain too much. It’s not like I’ve made whole albums where I’m like, “I hate this. I hate it!” I’m a normal person, and like any normal person, I go through my days of hating things or having a bad day in general. The only thing different about it is that I have a little bit of that public light on it, so everything you do is multiplied by about twenty. I’m pretty much a normal person who just happens to rhyme.
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