By William Ketchum III
ï»¿HipHopSite: How would you describe your sound?
J-Live: A lot of people throw the phrase “Old school” to describe my shit, but to me, it’s more about not sounding like everything that’s out at the time. For lack of a better term, they call it “Old school,” when it’s really just not following whatever the new trends might be. When everybody got all over the core trinity sound, and just started running through the same voices, I wasn’t doing that. The fact that I wasn’t doing that, it didn’t sound new to other people. When rap was really, really, really went gangsta, ask where it was before. People that weren’t necessarily gangsta started jumping on the bandwagon-I didn’t do that. For that to be the new thing, if I wasn’t new, then what was it? It’s just being original-I think people mix up the two things.
I can only say I’m old school as far as my ethics and how I do this, but not in terms of how my music sounds. I continue to do things that have never been done before, so how can that be old school? There was never a record like “Them That’s Not” before, never a record like “One For The Griot” and “All In Together Now.” There was never anything remotely close to “Bragging Rights,” even as simple as it was, with two turntables and a mic. What I do isn’t styled in the way back, it’s just original, and usually you have to talk to the elders to get those kinds of ethics.
HipHopSite: How difficult is it to make stuff that’s so against the norm, and keep it relevant to what people are listening to?
J-Live: I try to let my music grow in the same direction that I’m growing. The best part came out when I was in college, it was recorded and written while I was in school. All of The Above was me becoming a family man. During the time that I was writing that, I was working in public schools, so it was a more mature album. And now, The Hear After, you’re talking about somebody who is in full-blown family mode, who has had some success with his career, who is looking back on things and just trying to make his mark. The next album will be reflective on the success from this one, and what I’m able to do in terms of turning into more of a hip-hop businessperson than just an artist.
Everything is going in the direction of my life, so that’s what keeps it relevant. People can relate to me, people doing what I’m trying to do: making music that people can vibe with physically and mentally. Struggling with what we as people have to go through every day – not just the real, real lows, or the real, real highs, but all that shit in the middle that people tend to forget matters when they turn the mic on. It’s always been important to me to do something that hasn’t done. There are so many things that haven’t been done creatively, because it won’t get done until it comes out of you. But if you spend your time trying to sound relevant, or sound what things are sounding like now, then you’re going to start to repeat what’s already been said. And that’s not what I’m into.
HipHopSite: You said that you’ve experienced success with your last album. It almost seems like nowadays, platinum is a standard.
J-Live: I think there are different standards for different weight classes. I only say that to say that standards in terms of what you’re selling. On the outside looking in, for people who don’t know that much about the industry, they think, “If you go gold, or go platinum, that measures if you’re successful.” But the fact of the matter is, if you go gold and spend platinum, you’re not putting out another record. If you go platinum and spend diamond, you aren’t putting out another record. Perversely, if I go wood and spend aluminum, I’m doing all right for myself (laughs). You didn’t even crack 100,000 records (sold), but you spent such that when you crack 20,000, you’ve already made back what you need to make back. So in terms of being able to make my living off this, feed my family off of this, tourâ€”I don’t have millions and millions of fans, but the hundreds of thousands of fans that I have feel stronger about my shit than they do the four or five platinum CDs that may be in their rotation right now. They relate to me, they know what I’m going through. They’re happy that someone’s still making the kind of music that people may not invest a lot of money into, but once you have it, you can invest a lot of time into it because it’s good quality shit.
People talk about success, but we haven’t really spent like that to be worried about going gold or platinum. For the budgets they’ve put in, people have been happy with what they’ve gotten out. On that level, that’s the success I’m talking about. The people who have heard it feel like it’s one of the best albums of the year, and they’re dying for more people to hear it. Not everybody can say that about their platinum record. There’s a lot of records that go platinum, and the next album goes wood, because even though a lot of people bought it, they didn’t necessarily like it, they just got sucked into that marketing machine. I make good, quality music, so it’s slowly developing to the point that maybe this record will go gold, and maybe the next one will go gold and a half or something. But it won’t be because I tried to alter what I do; it’ll be more about people recognizing what I’ve been doing.
HipHopSite: You spoke of different weight classes. In hip-hop music right now, it’s almost like you have two groups of fans: you’ve got the underground fans who just shun off commercial shit, and you have the people who just sort of love commercial shit, and don’t know about underground shit. Do you see the industry as A)a lot of dope underground shit, and mostly wack commercial shit, B)the other way around, or C)a medium between the two?
J-Live: I think there’s definitely a medium. You’ve got to establish a couple of things before you answer that. First of all, “underground” has more to do with your budget than your style of music. It has a lot more to do with the ability to get your record over ground and on the airwaves than with which snare or high hat you use, or what you’re talking about. Amongst the underground, you’ve got a lot of bullshit records out there only because dude put it out himself. Amongst commercial, you’ve got bullshit that’s only out there because they sound like somebody that sold and (the label) is trying to do it again. Conversely, you have a lot of good commercial shit, that even if it’s ignorant, but that might be fun to listen to for one month. But it’s fun for that month (laughs). A lot of people would jump on Mike Jones, but that’s a whole genre of hip-hop right there from the south, that people from the north have been fronting on for years. It’s just taken that long to blow. You can lump all this independent stuff from the northeast and say the same thing. It has its cult following, and Def Junkies out there selling out shows, and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world on a mass level understands what they were talking about. It’s only a matter of time before Sway is doing an exposÃ© on El-P (laughs).
Conversely, I’d like to say that my fans have similar tastes to me. If you listen to me DJ, you’re going to hear some Ying Yang Twins, and you’re going to hear some Jugganauts. You’re going to hear something you’ve never heard before, and you’re going to hear the same song you heard on the way to the club. That’s more about dope and wack; I think people really need to let that go. Around the late 90s and the early 00s, people got way too involved with the inner workings of the music industry, because so much information was put out there about what it means to be an A&R, what ASCAP is about. So many artists shout out their labels more than they do their families. The average, everyday listener is under the impression that they’re well-versed on how this shit works, and because of that, it becomes part of their appeal for the music. It gives them a familiarity with an industry that they really have no idea about, except for the little bit that gets shout out on the video shows and on the radio.
The bottom line is if you listen to a record, and you feel like hearing it again. That’s what’s going to determine if you turn your radio on or off, if you go to the store to pick up a CD, if you go pick up the next album before you hear it. I stress this in every interview I get. If it’s dope, it’s dope. If it’s wack, it’s wack. When I DJ, the only people who aren’t going to be happy are the two polar ends of the spectrum that you described (laughs), and it’s not as big as you think. Program directors may be on one end, and mom-and-pop record store subscribers might be on the other. But there’s a whole world out there that knows what the hell they’re listening to, and knows why, and knows when. One minute they want to hear DangerDoom, and another minute they want to hear Mike Jones. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s called being well-versed. This is the only genre that I know of that calls for you to take sides to such an extent, and it really doesn’t, it’s just a perception about how people are thinking. I think it perpetuates itself. (child starts talking in the background, J-Live talks back) I’m on the phone right now. Go tell Mommy. Daddy’s doing an interview right now.
HipHopSite: How old is your daughter?
J-Live: One’s five, one’s two, and my boy is nine months.
HipHopSite: How do they affect your music?
J-Live: It affects how frequently I’m able to make music, and how loud I’m able to play music (laughs). It definitely has an influence on my subject matter, because when I talk about my struggle in this industry, they’re a direct effect of that. What I’m willing to do, what I’m not willing to do, how often I stay on the road, how often I have to pass up shows for less money because it’s not worth leaving the house now, or how I have to take a show for less money because I need to take care of the house.
It keeps things in perspective, and I think that’s part of what the new album is about. Growing up in college, messing around with girls, it was always in the back of my mind, this longing to be a family man. That’s my nature, that’s what I wanted for myself. Now that it’s like that, this is what you were talking about. This is what you were looking down the road for. This is your chance to step up for your kids after your mom held it down for you so long. This is having a clean slate and defining what a father is, because my father wasn’t around. It definitely affects my music. Nowadays, songs like “Weather the Storm,” “After” and “Harder,” you can hear it in there. You’re listening to a father talking.
HipHopSite: All right, let’s switch gears. What is this “fool-proof plan” on the Knicks making the Eastern Conference semi-finals?
J-Live: I really feel that cats are sleeping on what Isaiah’s been doing. I think that if we just stay patient, there will be a lot of room in a couple of years. If you look at the way the team is structured right now, there’s a lot of youth, and a lot of deadwood is on its way out. Even the people that are there right nowâ€”Rose, Williams, and to a lesser degree, Taylorâ€”can teach guys coming in, along with Larry Brown, what defense is about. It hurt my heart when Nazr Muhammed left, and I’m glad he got his ring, because I like him as a player. I think the way things are right now, there’s just a couple pieces missing, and rather than trying to replace and refurbish throughout the course of the season, use what you have and teach. Develop Ariza so he can play the 2 and the 3, develop Lee so he can play the 3 and the 4. Teach Nate Robinson more about how to be a point guard, let Steph and Brown do their thing to wherever it’s going to be. People hate on Isaiah all the time, from getting rid of Van Horn to getting rid of Kurt Thomas, but personally, I think they have some pieces there where they can really do some damage, so I’m looking forward to the season.
HipHopSite: I sort of see the Knicks as that Portland squad back in the day, that had a lovely squad, but just couldn’t win.
J-Live: It’s important to keep New York involved from a marketing perspective for the NBA, and because that’s where I’m from (laughs). We ain’t really won since ’73, so it’s not like we’re trying to build on a dynastyâ€”we’re trying to start one. Somebody brought it to my attention that there’s only seven or eight teams that have won the championship in the past 20-something years. Once you get past the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Spurs, Rockets, that’s like 10-15 years worth of championships. That’s kind of foul. New York can definitely get a piece of that over time. We’ll see about Jerome James; I don’t think there’s any reason that he can’t be more productive than he was if he stays out of foul trouble. I think they’ve got the right coach, and there’s a little bit of a log jam at guard and power forward. I want to see Channing Frye be a real center, not just an oversized power forward. And I think they should move Lee to 3, just from what I’ve seen in summer leaguesâ€”I didn’t get to see the gamesâ€”but he looks like he could play 3 if he wanted to. There’s always that New York pressure, but I think that if cats just relax a little bit, they’ll really see something build.
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