Jean Grae is not a female emcee. She’s not a “femcee” either. She’s a badass emcee.
Oh, and an animator…and a comedian….and a screenwriter…and a podcaster. In all reality she’s one of the most prolific people we’ve ever talked to.
Whatever it is that Jean is doing at any given moment in time, she does it without the help of the mainstream marketing machine. She does things on her terms, and releases them when she wants to (even if that means you need to give up your day job to attempt to keep up with her insane volume of output).
She’s worked with heavy hitters like Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Wale, Immortal Technique, and Jay Electronica. She’s at the top of a lot of people’s “Most underrated lyricist ever” lists (mine included). There’s no shortage of credentials here.
Her music choices are eclectic to say the least, with a style that varies with each release while retaining an overall essence and her sense of humor on and off the mic is simply un-fuck-wittable.
All these things made Jean the perfect choice for our next Indie Spotlight interview, so here it is, for your reading pleasure.
If I were to show your music to someone that had never heard you before, do you have a few tracks in mind that you feel best showcase your style & abilities?
I think now I do. I would go with something super duper lyrical wordplay from like one of the Gotham Downs – “Fuckery Level 3000” or “76%”, “You and Me and Everyone We Know”, or “Love Song”, and I would go…. “Taco Day”.
Speaking of Gotham Down, I know you produced the entirety of it. Do you find it easier to rap over your own beats or to get them from others?
Either way, I think in always kind of developing relationships with producers. It’s always really kind of become family and it becomes more than just a working relationship. Unless I’m doing a feature for someone I don’t really know, I like to be able to understand where the person is coming from and if we bond on a musical level then that makes it even better. I’d say it’s about even.
And I never know what kind of beat I’m gonna make, I never know what’s gonna happen, so it’s always once the beat is there you kind of let the track talk to you and tell you what to do.
So you’re definitely not the type of emcee that just emails a verse in.
No, and I never have any extra rhymes sitting over anywhere. Like, I don’t have a rhyme book. I write specifically for songs and that’s kind of it.
I think that’s part of why your music works so well, it sounds very organic.
I know your parents were both extremely talented jazz musicians. How did that affect your outlook on the structure of music and your taste as far as production goes?
I think just being raised in a very musical household, it’s kind of like growing up living in Oz, knowing that there is no wizard.
You see behind the curtain and you’re fine with it, you’re like “Okay, I see how everything works.” Just being able to see things a little differently and hear things differently, and understanding why certain songs or chords or certain rhythms make you feel a certain way is a very different way of looking at music.
So you didn’t come into the rap game with any disillusionment. It wasn’t an Almost Famous type of situation where you thought it was gonna be crazy glitz and glamour, and then it was just bullshit.
(Laughs) No, I grew up in a household where my mom started and ran her own label and managed my dad.
I grew up with ASCAP checks and counting out money and making press kits and going to distributors. It was fun and I never really expected anything else.
Did that have an influence on you kind of staying away from those mainstream music machines that would try to change who you are as a musician?
No I think I’m just generally like that as a person. I’m cool and I can adapt to situations, but generally I’m kind of like…I just kind of want to do what I want to do.
Because I feel like I have the ability to do that, and I think I’ve never been one to kind of take advantage of or think that my freedom isn’t absolutely there. Just in general, not in music. I think music kind of followed the pattern of my life.
I just read an article that kind of posed the theory of quantity over quality which is kind of counter-intuitive, it said you make faster progress in quality when you’re putting out a higher quantity. Do you think there’s any truth to that, or do you adhere to any of that when making music?
Um, no. I think it entirely depends on the person. You know, there’s times when I feel like I want to be busy with a whole bunch of stuff and I’m able to crank out doing four albums at once, and writing this TV show, and doing animation.
I think it absolutely depends on who’s creating the art, and people create in different ways. If it’s someone who needs 10 years of space between albums, then that’s just how they work. I just tend to work differently and I think everyone has to be aware of which way they really present the most dynamic work and what works for them, and then not be pressured by any standard.
If you can put out three albums a week then go for it, but definitely be aware and be like “Okay, I can make the decision that this is quality to me, this is what I believe quality is.”
Yeah, not everybody can be E-40…
Right, absolutely not (laughs). Although I’d like to be someday. Sometimes I stare in the mirror and then I’m sad…
I think you could totally be an E-40 type character.
I try, I try to wear the glasses, and then that helps.
You just need a crazy ad-lib, like E-40’s “ughhhh”
Interesting you bring that up, I’ve always wanted a good ad-lib, like I love people who have catchy ad-libs, and I never figured out and did one so I just left it alone and started doing harmonies instead.
That’s crazy to me because you’re such a funny and creative person, so I’d figure you’d have the most badass ad-lib of all time.
I usually have this one track that goes the whole way through, but I always wanted kind of like a catchphrase…never came up with one.
You should just have different ones every time. You should just be like “PONIES!” in between lines.
[Laughs] You know what, and now that you brought it up I promise to use “ponies” in the next one.
If you use ponies in a song I’ll probably lose my shit.
I absolutely will. I have a habit sometimes of sneaking words in really quietly, or putting sneaky things in places where they shouldn’t be.
Like hiding the word “meow” in Kweli’s video, I may have done that. Or, I did an ad for Sprite and I was supposed to rhyme “lime n'” and there’s no way I couldn’t not rhyme it with “hymen,” so I had to whisper it really quietly.
So I do that sometimes. But I’ll say “ponies” loud.
So now every track you release from here on out I’m going to have a stethoscope up to the speakers.
You have to! There’s a lot of hidden stuff.
I need to hear that Sprite ad, that’s fucking incredible. What do you think is the biggest benefit of remaining independent?
Um, I don’t’ like people telling me what to do, just in general. I work really fast, I have a very, very active imagination and for me I don’t’ like…I don’t generally play by rules.
I just kind of… I’m the person that’s like “Yeah, there’s no spoon”, and I’m not going to keep that information to myself. I’m gonna be like, “Hey guys, so you know there’s no spoon right? Okay, so we can all act accordingly.”
It’s the freedom to be able to do that – to release things whenever you want to. You don’t have to be a part of that system. I don’t have to be a part of your club, what I want to do is build another club across the street. I don’t want to get in.
Can I be in the club?
You absolutely can, there’s ponies, there’s a pool…and apparently other things that start with p. [Laughs]
So have you and Keanu Reeves been contacted by the spoon industry? Have they tried to silence you?
No, they haven’t, and you would think they would because I was sponsored by the spork industry for many, many years.
I never knew that.
They’re stronger, and a more violent community because they have the prongs. So you know…
They’re a very versatile crew as well.
They are, they are – and numbered. They outnumber the spoons.
See, I never knew any of this. Nardwuar can suck it (editor’s note, that’s a joke, we love Nardwuar). I got some secret Jean Grae info.
[Laughs] You’re doing well!
What do you think is the next logical step in the business side of hip hop? It seems like since the advent of the internet it’s become incredibly easy to pave your own way and get noticed as long as you have a quality product. Do you see that happening completely or do you see something really cool that we don’t even know about yet?
I think people are becoming more aware that you can kind of make your own rules. I think technology has really helped people to understand this fact that you know – look for the next thing, don’t look for what’s going on right now.
You have to be one step ahead of the game, so I think finally people are starting to pay attention to that and I think things that come in packages are working.
Bit torrents are taking off now and anything that comes in bundles or packages – it’s always been whatever’s exclusive and limited is great to people, and I think artists are finally catching on to what works out marketing-wise, which is a big deal.
Totally, and I love that more artists are doing the crowd funding thing and really involving the fans. It’s really dope.
Now as much as you could just absolutely rip someone’s face off lyrically, you also have this incredible sense of humor and you don’t seem to take yourself too seriously. Do you think that’s crucial to having longevity in this industry, or is that just your own personal style?
It’s just kind of my personal thing. I generally don’t take anything personally, I’m not really an ego-based-driven person and I tend to kind of see whether it’s the general humor or the dark humor in things.
Speaking of sense of humor, I know you’re working on the web series Life With Jeannie and you’ve been doing some standup and some other comedic writing as well, do you have a favorite comedian?
Uhhhh…where will I go with this? I’ll go Carlin, Pryor, Hedberg, and currently Louis CK.
I think we just became best friends.
Are we totally best friends now?
Good, I should hope so. I’d hope you’d agree with that list, it’s a really good list.
It’s a fucking solid list. It’s pretty much my list.
Good, I’m happy about this! Otherwise I’d just hang up the phone and be like “I don’t know who the fuck you are and I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
Can you tell us anything about the podcast that you have going on?
The podcast actually was called The White Hot Room and I got about three episodes in and it was absolutely amazing. I was having a really great time, and then sometimes what happens is people go on to get other jobs at other places and then they’re like “Oh, hey, this doesn’t exist anymore.”
But the good news is that I’ve gotten a place at Union Hall and we’re actually going to start doing this live, and the first one is going to be Valentine’s Day which is also going to be the second episode of Life With Jeannie, so we’re going to show that episode and do White Hot Room live, and I can’t tell you who the guest is going to be, because it’s really good.
Can you tell me where this is happening so I can sell everything I own and fly there?
It is Union Hall in Brooklyn.
I actually started going to Union Hall because John Hodgman, a friend of mine, does Secret Society there and invited me to do a bunch of Secret Society nights, and I had such a good time and kept coming back and got to know everyone and I was like “I would love to have a resident night somewhere in New York.” This is clearly the next logical step for me. I thankfully hooked up with the right people – huge shout out to Marianne Ways – and I’m super excited.
You should totally sell everything.
I’m going to walk out of this room, gather up all my things, put them on eBay, and buy a ticket.
So you know how to live then, that’s exactly how you’re supposed to do that. Not Craigslist…I’m glad you chose eBay. Maybe Etsy.
If I choose Craigslist I’m probably going to have to deliver it and might get propositioned sexually in some way…Craigslist is like a no man’s land.
It really is…It’s scary. I found my last and current apartment on there, and I used to be really addicted to reading “missed connections” and then I stopped. It just had to stop because it was too much. I was doing it too much.
Those are incredible.
They’re really, really great and it’s weird because I’m like “Why can’t it ever be me?” and sometimes you’re like “It’s totally me!” It’s not you. Stop it.
I have to ask, is Jean Grey your favorite comic character, and if not, who is?
That’s a great question and actually recently that’s a really good question for me. Actually my favorite is Deadpool.
That makes so much sense.
Doesn’t it though? If I went back in time I would probably have taken that as a name.
What’s become really cool is, and thank you to social media, just being in contact with a lot of illustrators who I’ve kind of become cool with, like Jamie McKelvie who does Young Avengers. Someone who’s a good friend of mine is Mike Hawthorne and he did a sketch of me as an assassin after he heard Pharoahe Monch’s song with me and sent me this amazing picture and I was like, “Holy crap, he draws Deadpool!” So the other day he was like, “I sent you something, I know the issue’s coming out tomorrow but I sent you some secret Deadpool pages”, I was like “This is the best thing ever! Mike, do me a favor, can you draw me making out with Deadpool?” And he’s like “Yes” and I was like “Fuck yeah! Thank you!”
That’s crazy because Tech actually just hooked up with Rob Prior who designed all the new Avengers costumes for the movie and does a crazy amount of comic work and photo-realistic paintings. We should do a Tech N9ne, Jean Grae, and Deadpool comic.
Let’s have a conversation about this! I like where this is going.
I’m a huge comic book head, I’ve done Comic Con for the past 2 years now, but it’s really dope to me that these are the people that I’m organically drawn to and are drawn to me – even if it’s just social media. So that means I’m doing something right.
I think social media has kind of expedited the law of attraction.
Yeah, and if you’re good at it you’re good at it and if you’re not then…
I’ve seen a few interviews where you say you’re a big fan of 80s pop culture…what was your favorite things about the 80s?
Um…the 80s (laughs). I really liked Cracked. I’m currently wearing a Yamaha Fazer sweatshirt which I’m pretty sure is why I’m so date-able right now. And, I don’t know, everything music-wise, fashion-wise, I like synthesizers…except –Oh! I can tell you my most non-favorite thing about the 80s!
I hate whoever gave Stevie Wonder a bunch of fucking synthesizers. I love Stevie, I adore him. I can’t tell you how much – and then synthesizers happened and…Stevie Wonder made some really just inexcusable music.
Even the music for “Happy Birthday”, “Martin Luther King”, it’s so bad. It’s horrible. It’s like a Casio demo song. He basically made Casio demo songs.
Okay, I have a deal for you then. Since you’re going to say “Pony” in a song, if I ever invent a time machine, I’m going to skip past Hitler and all the bullshit and I’m just going to take synthesizers away from Stevie Wonder.
You know what? Yeah. Please. I would really, really appreciate it. It hasn’t been cool since. Ever since they gave him synthesizers, it hasn’t been cool since then. What’s the last great Stevie Wonder song you loved?
Yeah, that’s messed up.
Wow, yeah, you’re right actually. I’ve never given that a lot of thought but you’re completely right.
And it’s not like he goes on stage and plays anything from his synthesizer period. They give him a piano cause nobody wants to hear the synthesizer songs, Stevie!
That’s very true.
He’s been making music since the 80s! He’s not doing any of those songs, except when they bring him on to do “Wild Wild West” and that’s just…don’t do that.
So that brings me to my next question, and please don’t use Stevie Wonder as your answer…what annoys you the most?
Stupidity. And not necessarily stupidity. I guess ignorance by choice.
If you don’t have access to any of the information and you just weren’t educated on how to educate yourself, okay. But absolute just “Fuck it, I’m not going to learn anything else.” I have a huge, huge problem with that. It angers me very, very much.
It makes me a little bit sick.
Yeah, it’s not cool. It’s definitely higher on the list than Stevie Wonder’s synthesizers.
I’m glad because…granted, they’re almost equal problems at this point.
They are, they are, but I still have to put it higher than that because I have to encounter it every day.
I’m going to ask you a nice and light easy question. What do you think happens when we die?
I don’t know. My hope and what I feel is that it’s far less confining than being you know, kind of just in this physical body all the time. And not to say that doesn’t stop you from doing great things, but – it’s a little confining. Sometimes you want to be all the places at once and then you gotta put a lot of training in to do that. Bleh, I don’t have the time.
But I think it’s a place where your energy is kind of, I don’t know, appreciated by the universe is a good way to say it?
That’d be cool. Like going from an individual expression of consciousness to like…all of them?
Yes, that’d be cool. I believe in the infinite consciousness and energy and sometimes this world can feel a little confining – and I don’t like limits and boundaries cause I don’t believe in them. So, yeah, sometimes I get a little annoyed with physical boundaries, so my feeling is that that doesn’t exist after this form.
Cool. I have to admit for a second after I asked you that question I felt like James Lipton.
[Laughs] This has been a very good interview, I appreciate you! We got to talk about music, we haven’t talked about my lady parts once, so thank you!
You’re very welcome. You’re very easy to talk to and I don’t think I’d ever ask anyone I’ve never talked to before about their lady parts. I guess my mom did a good job.
Yeah. It’s…it’s rude.
It is kind of rude!
So now that we’ve allowed Jean Grae to display her awesomeness to you guys in print form, make sure to cop her new project jeannie. and let her display her awesomeness to your ears.