Jean Grae Interview
On December 27th, I had the chance to live out a personal and professional dream of mine when I got to interview rapper legend Jean Grae. Besides from being an extremely genuine and nice person (sorry, does that ruin Style Wars for you?), I can also confirm her work from the “Cookies or Comas” mixtape: she’s funny as shit, and yes, does use the word “fuckery” in every day conversation. However, it was a dream not to be able to express my appreciation, but also being able to ask her the questions that I always wonder about when I approach rap music as a craft: how much of her work is inspiration, and how much comes from actively working on it? What idea comes first: words or rhythm? What do they know of music theory? Hopefully the interview below helps dispel some misconceptions around rap music being a “poor man’s music”, so to speak, because “anyone can rap”, but also it hopes give a window into something that we all, as rap fans, get too little information on: how a rap takes its final form on the record. Thus, my mission was to trace the development of the musical idea from its first conception, through to its editing in the studio, to its final manifestation on the CD. Thus, this interview touches on a little bit of everything. Rather than offer my analysis here, I want to present the interview in as raw a form as possible, and let you make of it for now what you will.
When you generate your rap, how much of what you come up with is inspiration, and how much of what you come up with initially do you have to shape and work on further?
It’s never reworking. There’s only one piece that ever took longer than an hour. I work best completely under pressure. The one song that didn’t work like that was ”you and me and everyone we know.” I try to write beforehand, but it just doesn’t work. I write usually directly before I record, and that’s it. I record a lot of stuff at home in my studio, or if we set a studio date…but yeah, I don’t have a really big process beforehand. My process beforehand is more I need to have a bunch of experiences in life. I never do first draft, second draft. I self-edit as I go along. I write really fast.
How did you, Mos Def, Pharoahe, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, all 4 extremely technically complicated and accomplished rappers, find each other, and come to have such close personal as well as professional relationships?
I think for myself and Kweli and Mos it was just generally New York. We just kind of knew each other, and it was the same time and era, and we just never stopped being friends…outside of all of the rapping, you’re friends first. Pharoahe I met years ago and I guess we really started to be friends a couple years when I started working with some partnerships with him, and when we started hanging out, we were like, “Oh shit, I know who you are!” I call it finding the other mutants – “Oh man, I know exactly how you think!” But in a good way. But people who see me writing and creatively generally come the same way…so that’s how I look at it. We do hang a lot, but mostly we are never coming up with amazing raps. When you write, and I think as frequently as all of us write, all of that hanging out and experiences is exactly what goes into the rhymes, not happenstance, not random – it’s your experiences, what you heard, where you’ve just been. It’s absolutely all in there.
If you had to compare yourself to another rapper, who’d you pick?
I think Pharoahe and myself…we’re really different, but technically we focus on the same thing. I think we approach it in different ways, we’re really meticulous about using rhythms and patterns and words…I’m more word focused, and I think he’s more kind of rhythmically focused, just phrasing-wise, there’s shit I don’t think I could come up with.
What is your compositional process? Do you have a schedule, or do you just write as it comes along?
I absolutely set up a schedule, but whether or not I’m sitting there writing music? Hahaha…sometimes it happens, but usually not. Something I wouldn’t have done before, I set aside time: “These are my hours when I’ll focus on this project or this project.” I can do a lot of organizing beforehand, but the writing seems like the smallest part to me. Sitting down and saying everything about the album is one thing…but it never happens until it’s the last second and I have to hand it in. My brain doesn’t get that spark until I’m under the gun.
When you start writing, do you start with words or music?
I don’t think that they’re different. I don’t separate the rhythm from the actual word. The word is exactly what is creating the timing…I guess I look at them as beats and notes in themselves. So I’m very conscious of what sort of patterns feel right…and you know it’s the best rhyme when you’re fucking the beat. You’re not competing, you’re not lying somewhere there, you’re getting in there, finding all the spaces where you’re supposed to be. It’s choosing the right words…the first idea, the one I always have and that takes the most time, is the opening line. And it all grows from there…there are people who are absolute masters at writing opening lines, that’s what you want, that’s how you know a song, that’s how it goes…Prodigy [from Mobb Deep]. Might be my favorite. There are so many fucking great ones…and when you find it, it’s absolutely an introduction for people who have never heard you before, it sets the tone for the song – it does so much, it’s a first impression. It happens really quickly – you can decide how many bars it will take – 1 bar, 4 bars, 8 bars – and once that goes, everything else finds its place.
So does the word suggest a rhythm?
Again, it doesn’t suggest, it is the rhythm. It suggests an emotion, whether you’re using triplets or whatever it is, I think certain patterns and certain syllables convey emotions, and that’s really my goal at the end of it. It’s not only using the right word, it’s selecting a word and usually one I haven’t used, words that draw emotions out of people. Words that are relatable are the most important things.
Do you have any favorite words? What kinds of words do you like?
I’ve always really liked words, and syllables are great. Words that feel good in your mouth! There’s a saying that, when we find one word that rhymes or a statement that rhymes, I know this is true for my friends and I, you can’t stop coming up with more words – we’ll just keep texting each other back and forth. I remember, talking to Pharoahe, finding out that we both have the same favorite word: it’s amalgamate, or amalgamation, is just an amazing word. I don’t write those kind of words down, but I’ll save them somewhere.
So you’re overarching guiding principle is the emotion you elicit in the listener?
I’d say so.
Is your approach top down or bottom up? For instance, it could be like making a hammer, where you start with a blueprint of a hammer and then put all the parts together until you have one? Or is it like legos, where you start with blocks, just start putting them together, and see where you end up?
It is more like the legos…I can’t visually see a whole puzzle, I’m not great at word searches. What I can do take the word search and make it something new. I work backwards, I work from the future. In my mind when I start with a song, I’m already at the video and accepting awards for the video. I can see the song and the video, it’s all done – what I have to do then is figure out how to go back and time and make the song. It’s like taking a giant ceramic pile. This is already a whole thing, I like this. I take the hammer, smash it, and then have to reconfigure it back into a whole picture. I need to know the innerworkings of it. I absolutely work backwards. When I start with an album, the album is already done. I know what I want it to sound like, I know what I want it to feel like, I just have to go figure out how to do it. I know what it looks like, I know how I want the videos to look – absolutely everything. It’s working from the future.
Based on that answer, and for you this question might not even have an answer, so I just want to hear whatever you have to say: Do you purposefully structure sentences to fall across the bar line to create a better flow, but I guess for you is the answer very case specific?
The rap has to make you feel a certain way. Whether it’s something like “Style Wars”, where it’s supposed to feel a little threatening, and unhinged, and energetic– and even if it’s something that’s the same tempo, you can’t go into “Love Thirst” threatening and unhinged because that would be fucking weird! Yeah, there are secrets that the general consumer doesn’t understand, that rhythms and chords all make you feel a certain way, words too. Even pop songs – hits are hits. These songs make you feel a certain way. I absolutely have finally come to understand that in music – I can play around as much as I want. There are songs I can go back to and listen to as an adult. Like, I heard Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” for the first time the other day, and this is kind of how I know people who appreciate music, like oh, you get it, and that song is fucking brilliant! Like fucking fireworks, are you kidding me? There’s a really deep technicality to making those kinds of songs so I think it’s going into that world understanding it, and when people are like, “This is underground, that is underground,” I’m like, well, a lot of people don’t actually know what they’re writing. If there’s a song I want to be an underground song, I know exactly how to write that. I’m not trying to sell it or license it. But if I want it to be in a specific kind of movie or TV show, then I’m going to include those words, those emotions, those feelings.
You went to La Guardia, a school for the performing arts. There, you learned music theory, both harmonic and rhythmic. Can you read music?
Yes, I can. I learned music when I was much younger, from my parents and I took a gang of piano lessons. I have my dad’s piano now since my parents moved, which is great, I was like, “I really need to go back in and play,” I play somewhat and play it by ear, and I just started going back into reading sheet music again. But it’s been a long time. I stopped doing formal training when I was younger, and really used to like going to places, like Carl Fisher, and picking up sheet music and learning how to play stuff. I love musicals, “Annie” for instance, I would get those books and really, really learn how to play those songs. I think there’s a certain amount of technicality that’s great, but I think mine also just came a lot of genes. It was just kind of innate feeling of knowing things, and then going into music theory class and being like, “oh, that’s what that’s called! I totally know how to do that!” They just gave it a name. That’s kind of how I’ve approached most of myself when I go to learn, I’m like I have ADHD, and this is a lot of money, thank you for telling me these 3 things I needed to know, now I’m going to go do that.
In 1989, you would have been 13 years old, around your time at La Guardia. At that time the big rappers were Kane, Rakim, and KRS-One, all technically accomplished rappers that moved things forward and influenced a lot of the trends today, such as Rakim’s internal rhyming. Did you hear them?
Yes. I especially loved Kane. I loved his “aggressiveness” – not necessarily that he would rap fast, but that his delivery was so forceful. Some others would be people like Cool Keith – he wasn’t even trying to rhyme!
What’s your notation scheme?
I don’t write as much by hand anymore, but when I do, it’s usually in slashes, for instance for a double beat it gets a double slash, but I also tend to space them on the page. I have to be super neat about it. Computers have been great for me because I write so much more and it looks like so much less and when you go back in, you’re like oh shit, that is not 16 bars, that’s 64 bars! So I need to relax. And because 64 ars on a note pad looks very very different.
So you know all that theory, counting bars and so on?
Yes, it’s really important for me.
In most public discussion of rap, that all usually gets glossed over. If you’ve never tried to rap, it is really difficult!
There are nuances and subtleties, and it is fucking difficult…you do have to learn how to count bars, and for some people, it’s just a term, saying “bars”… you know, like a hot 16. It’s absolutely necessary, and some people won’t even recognize it that much.
There’s this conception that “anyone can rap” because all you need is a voice, and a brain, and a microphone, and there’s this conception that rappers, since they don’t go to a formal educational musical setting to learn to rap, that rap is somewhat of “a poor man’s music”.
There is that conception out there, and again, I’d like to thank you. Not enough people recognize it.
Would you ever teach people to rap?
I think you can teach people to write, but I don’t think you can teach people to rap.
So you don’t notate your rhymes in “traditional” music notation?
No, I think I probably do that more so in my head. You know there’s times when I go back. Say when you’re going back and doing the ad libs, and you’ve already got the verse down, it would be easier to go in if you wrote it down and if you’re doubling something with pro tools, a lot of people go in and do one ad lib, and they’re like let me throw in another one on top of it. So it’s to go back in and say in bold, “These are things I’m going to emphasize.” These words are the words that need emphasis, or syllables…I probably focus more on nailing the ad libs. To me, it’s accents…the words that you should be getting right. Usually it’s the first time I’m hearing it, and if I did this right, then here is where I go in and figure out what needs to be accented.
What kind of experience have you had with “classical” poetry, such as reading Shakespeare?
Before I started rapping a loud for people, I was definitely doing poetry readings of my own written poetry for audiences, back when I was 12 or 13. We probably should not have been allowed in those clubs, but it was New York at that time and nobody cared. And I thought that it works for me, and again, it was immediately pulling emotions out of people. What words am I using to get to the emotions of people?
Have you had any kind of formal schooling in poetry? For instance, the metrics and accents of iambic pentameter, or anything like that?
I think I had great teachers at school, great English teachers, who actually focused on some of these things and I was really, really lucky to have that and be able to translate it to music, and be like, oh okay, this is the same thing. Good teachers who understood that those things were important.
So when you bring accent to a rap, it matters where they fall?
Absolutely, and it comes from having in my early career been super monotone about things, that I was reliant a lot on rhythms and accents but not necessarily doing it with my voice. Not on purpose, I think I was generally young and literally had not found my voice. So yeah, I think all of that forced me into it. It’s learning how to do stuff with a blindfold on, and then when you’re good enough you take the blindfold off, you’re like, “Oh shit! Well now I can fucking play around.” This would have been around “Attack of the Attacking Things” [from 2002], and going back and listening to it, it doesn’t sound young material-wise, but voice-wise, I can hear it. I didn’t really know what to do. I was definitely playing around more in the poetry world than the rap world. Really, really breaking rules and rhythms in a real conversational tone, and definitely not as technical, even just starting with the next album, “This Week” [from 2004].
Would you see “This Week” as a transitional album then, in terms of delivery and technical side of things? I’m thinking of songs like “Style Wars” – monotone, technical, as compared to the song “Going Crazy”, where you’re delivery is sing-songy almost.
This Week was a transitional album, just learning how to play around more. It was just having things in my head that I was kind of afraid to do. Sort of letting go of that fear, and being like, “Oh no you can totally play around, it doesn’t have to be one thing, not one sound.” It established that I knew what I was doing. You have to take it out of the level that came before. I was really happy about learning how to evolve.
On “Attack”, you had songs like “Live For You”, with a focus on poetry, almost like a book: there were characters, plot development, and resolution. But then a song like “Style Wars” from “This Week” has no linear narrative. There are people and places that are alluded to, but these things may or may not be real. What went on between those two albums? What led to that shift? Was it just opening the toolbox you have open to you?
General life just happened…when I change in life and go through more experiences, my writing has to evolve. It has to! If you haven’t done anything in those 2 or 3 years, and learned new lessons, met new people, formed new relationships, and you’re writing the same shit, the same way? I can’t do that.
How much of your rhythms at the microphone are improvised, or is it the same take every time?
Interesting for me, because it’s so new for me when I get in there, it just happened, so it depends. A lot of times where I go in and I absolutely nail it first take, and sometimes when you do that first take you go back and listen to it and you’re like, “Nope, don’t change a fucking thing.” Even though there are some imperfections, there’s magic in there. Usually, it’s a couple times, like 4 or 5. Just to kind of play around with it and get the energy right. I think that’s what it is, trying to figure out what I already have. I know the words are there, I know what it’s supposed to sound like, I can hear it in my head. But I try to justify the words, give them the life they deserve. You don’t want to let them down now because they look so good on the page. Not much editing or revising is going on though, generally really small stuff…figuring out vocally what I need to do. You put Frankenstein together, and bring him to life!
So when you start to write, you always have the beat first?
Yes, I definitely need the beat first.
How does that play out over the whole recording process? For instance, once you have the beat, do you just add the rap to it? Or will you go back and forth between the two – start with the beat, add rap, change beat to fit, then change the rap, and so on? How much do you coordinate with the production side of things?
I am really involved on that side. It’s a continual back and forth, not changing the beat, but definitely adding things…again, probably things that the general public doesn’t notice a lot. When we’re picking drops, even if you’re just dropping off the snare, or the hi-hat, or the kick, or everything for a second, it’s a huge part of constructing a song. It’s the backdrop, it’s the reason you’re going to feel the way about something, it’s the reason you’re going to take a breath and then come back in when you’re listening. And adding instruments, live instruments, or whatever sounds right…there are times when my manager comes back in the studio, and they’re like, “Yeah, Jean put a glockenspiel on it”, laughs, and he’s like “Really?” and then he’ll listen to it and he’s like, “This is why I hate you, because you’re right! Now it feels better.” It’s just wanting to have the right ear. If I’m going to add something, what is it going to be, where is it going to go, and how do I arrange it so that I’m pulling the same emotion that these words are driving at? So I’m really, really involved as far as that goes.
So you won’t ever mix and match raps to a beat?
Sometimes there’s a great moment when that happens. You might have something that goes with a certain beat…I don’t really write a lot of extra stuff, because I’m not just writing to write, but there are definitely times when you’ve written for something else and it might not ever get used or come out, and then you hear something, and you try that over that beat, and you’re like, “Oh shit, it’s perfect! Absolutely perfect! I” think that’s the only time that happens for me just because I don’t have a surplus of rap.
Sometimes, you listen to an entire verse from a certain rapper, and you just get the feeling that it was put together piecemeal. The first 4 bars all fit together, they’re a unit, they all go together musically, thematically…
[Cuts in:] And then something else happens, and you’re like wait, what? That doesn’t go there!
Yeah, and you wonder how that jump got made…to me, that just means the creative process was they carry around a book, put together a lot of one or two liners, until you get a full 16 bars.
Sometimes, that happens. I definitely know rappers who do that. I sometimes call it “rappity rap” – you’re just rhyming cat with hat, nursery-rhyme stuff. I don’t do that. No, for me, everything is tailor made, with that really small exception that I can’t remember the last time that happened. I thought of that today, I had a verse, and I was like, “I’m sorry that song never came out”, but for me it’s different, because then I can go and create a different beat for it. But you know there are a lot of emcees who do that. I think there are some rappers who are better at doing that seemlessly, because I don’t know 2 people who write the same. I write differently than Kweli, and Pharoahe…I go in and if I’m in the studio session, I’ll be like, “let me see how you write.” And there are people who write in paragraph form, using ABCD phrasing. It’s really interesting to see everyone’s writing process, and even if they don’t think it’s a process, it’s fascinating.
So much discussion of rap centers around flow: what it is, how to create it, who has it, and so on. What is good flow to you?
Flow is different for each particular person – everybody has their own flow. What doesn’t work for one rapper might work for another. You have to get to know your voice as if it was an instrument. Know what you can get away with – how you sound, almost what the frequencies of your voice are. I hear beats that I really like, but pass on them because I know my voice won’t fit. I hear other rappers say certain words and raps that I really like, but I know that I couldn’t get away with it. It’s like certain accents, like Southern, can use certain words that others can’t. I think rappers should think more about what words they can use in a certain order. For instance, if you change the rapper of a verse, but keep the rhythms and words the same, the feel of the verse completely changes.
What is the first advice you’d give to a start rapper music-wise?
Learn an instrument, it doesn’t matter which one: recorder, piano, whatever. You need that different musical perspective in your work. Always rap a loud too – some things that look good on paper might not work in performance.
What is the future of rap musically? Is there any corresponding trend you see today that will continue into the future, like Rakim’s internal rhymes?
I think things go in 20 years cycles…what you’re hearing today kind of mirrors the early 90s. I’ve got no problem with that, because it’s like the people now never heard that stuff back in the 90s, so they can recreate it. But as far as specific things, I don’t see it right now. I haven’t had a moment in a while where I’m like, “I’ve never heard that before!” Andre 3000 is great at doing that.
Alright, let’s try a small composition experiment. I’m going to give you a line and you tell me how you’d continue it. How about the final line of your song “Style Wars”: “Slit your neck open from your chest/ who’s next to duel?”
I actually don’t think that was the end of verse, I think I cut it off for the song. I would do the obvious thing and continue that 3-syllable pattern, “next to duel”, which I was doing right before that point on the song, with lines like “Catch you hiding in a darkened VESTIBULE”…Maybe mix it up by using 2 words to fit that 3 syllable pattern, just like vestibule was 1 word for 3 syllables. Eminem is great at doing stuff like that.
How about a line you didn’t write: “Give me some more reason to have the women in your mama’s church…” (From “Oh No” with Pharoahe Monche, Mos Def, and Nate Dogg”)
Well, the words that stand out are “gimme”, “women”, and “mama”…I’d probably continue the pattern of the m sounds. I like when Mos sticks in one place for a while, which he doesn’t do too often…his verse on “Thieves in the Night” [from Blackstar] is one of those times.
Do you have any other favorite verses?
Pharoahe’s on “Extinction Agenda” [from Organized Konfusion’s album “Stress: The Extinction Agenda.”]
Who do you think is the best rapper ever?
Ooooo…um…I can’t tell you that.
You can’t tell me, or won’t tell me? Even off the record?
Yes, I have someone in mind. I do, but I can’t.
Can I ask why you won’t tell me?
Probably because…I’ll just say no, because that’d give it away too. I probably have a top 2 or 3.
Can I hear those?
Nope. Maybe I’ll tell you on my deathbed.
If you had to make a single recommendation of one Jean Grae song for someone to hear that had never heard your stuff before, which would it be?
I think it’s changed for me, and I think it’s difficult to say. Right now, it’d probably me, “You and Me and Everyone We Know”, because I think there’s a lot of evolution of things on there. But then there’s a downside to that, which is introducing that, with the reaction of, “Oh, okay, you’re more of a laid back type of rapper”, and “I;m like no, not really,,,go check me out on Assassins.” It’s difficult for me to do that, but I do get that question. What happens is that that becomes the perception, and then they go listen to other stuff.
Could you pick an album?
I think it’s a really slept on album, I actually went back and listened to it the other day, because there’s a lot of shit on there…I think of rap as a snapshot as what I’m learning at the time. I’d pick “This Week”, for a full, complete thought.
Are you always running ideas through your head in the course of your normal day?
My brain doesn’t ever stop working. I operate in terms of writing, just everything: dialogue during the day, different ideas…it absolutely never stops and there’s no way I’d be able to get all the projects done that come up in my head every hour.
Do you ever get tired of it?
I am exhausted right now. I just finished the Christmas album, and I’m simultaneously working on this video, writing, directing, editing, and then working on “Gotham Down”, the next album out the 22nd, and I’m producing, and mixing, and writing, and then my show, “The Life of Jeanie”…my mind keeps jumping around to so many things, and I enjoy the business of it, but it was like 9 o clock this morning and my eyes just hurt! I just wanted to go to sleep! So I kind of had to force myself to sleep. It’s a lot, it’s an interesting time of year…but I think when there’s this great creative overflow of stuff, you have to take advantage of it. You know, the scene in old school where he does the debate team and he comes on, and he just fucking blacks out for a second, and then he’s like “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!” and then comes back, that’s kind of how it works for me.
Do you have any pets?
No…I love animals, we grew up having a lot of pets in the house, hamsters, mice, snakes, frog, fish….but not right now because I travel. It’s something else to take care of, probably not a good idea right now. I don’t have any pets because I like pets. They don’t deserve that!