J-Live is a living legend in the New York underground rap scene, a self-made rapper/producer/DJ who debuted with 1995's "Braggin' Writes" single, where he spit his intricate rhymes while simultaneously scratching the beat in time. The Spanish Harlem-raised former English teacher has developed his styles over the course of four full-lengths and four EPs and made a name for himself in the crowded underground as a purveyor of thoughtful, articulate lyricism. Leading up to the release of his fifth album, S.P.T.A. (Said Person Of That Ability), I sat down with J to talk about his earliest rap memories, teaching versus rapping and being a triple threat.
Do you recall the first time you heard rap?
No! [laughs] Probably one of my earliest experiences where I took to it, ironically, growing up in New York... it would have been in Indiana with my older cousins. I used to spend my summers [there] and they were engrossed in Run-DMC's Raising Hell. That was probably the first album I experienced on a road trip with them. The albums I call my own, we're talking Raising Hell, Tougher Than Leather, LL Cool J's Bigger and Deffer, Kool Moe Dee's How Ya Like Me Now, De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising, EPMD's Strictly Business, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions... So you can see my age. And I went to get their previous works. Those records right there were my humble beginnings. And growing up, I definitely credit Video Music Box, Ralph McDaniels, [DJ] Red Alert on KISS FM and Marley Marl on BLS, and their rivalry between the Juice Crew and [Boogie Down Productions], and that's the era I really took to as far as wanting to be a part of that, wanting to do that myself.
Was there one moment where you thought "Rap is something I can do"?
I guess I'm getting too old to remember that far back, but I can tell you, [I remember] going to project center parties from Metro North Houses, Cargo Houses...$11.99 mixtapes with Ron G, and Double R, Chill Will and Showtime. I remember thinking, this is dope as far as DJing. This is what I want to do, I want to learn how to scratch. Just going to the parties and watching the girls dance, but really watching the DJ more than anything. I was always a poet as far back as elementary school, so it was a natural progression from there.
What did you first sound like when you started recording?
My first recordings were in the makeshift studio in my crib. We played basketball at 1st Ave and 96th Street and some of the heads I played ball with, we would go upstairs and I would do pause-mixing on a double-deck cassette. I would basically take the radio, take four bars of an open beat, pause mix that and have that playing in the little triangle Walkman speaker. I had my mom's beltdrive turntable with the big speakers from the turntable so you can hear the scratches. Then we had a boombox recording that, one speaker playing the beat, one speaker playing the scratches and everybody huddled around the boombox to make it a complete song. So it was a makeshift four-track, all kinds of air and hiss and street traffic from outside. Those are our first recordings, and they were fun. We were just doing it to mess around.
Do you recall any of the verses from that period?
The one that stands out to me is from The Best Part, from 1999 when it was originally thought up and recorded. That verse I had the little kid kicking, he was one of my 7th grade 12-year-old students and the verse he's kicking is a verse I wrote when I was 12. I had him memorize it off the Walkman so he could kick it like he was me. So that [starts rapping] "East to West I'm a contender with the best"... that verse is actually one of those verses [I wrote back then].
You were an English teacher, kind of an interesting job for a rapper.
Teaching was my fallback originally, as an English major. I think the underlying theme of both is you have to be prepared, and with that preparation, comes confidence and mastery in what you're doing to the point where you can present it to people in a way that connects. And if that doesn't happen, you lose the crowd or the classroom, and it's catastrophic.
You made your name DJing, producing and rapping at the same time, your production company is even called Triple Threat. What does it mean for you to fill all these roles at the same time?
[Triple threat] is a common phrase in hip-hop, because you have a lot of cats who love the art to the point they produce. Because a good DJ is a good digger, a good digger is a good producer. A good MC has a feel for the music and is a good DJ. So at times these things intertwine. The best producers have a good ear, so they have to be DJs. The real meaning behind Triple Threat Productions is knowledge, wisdom and understanding. The things I've observed and been through, the times I've been jerked combined with the experience and the decisions I make, combined with my ability to look back on those decisions and decide to move forward is a triple threat of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. The obvious thing up front is producer, MC and DJ. But I wear more hats than that and that's sorta what the new album's about. I have these different talents and facets that I approach it from. This music taught me so much it's my duty to add on and teach what I can. So on Said Person Of That Ability [S.P.T.A.], the producer, rapper and DJ are personified as three different people on this record. If it's your duty to teach, you got to get on your job and do it, because a lot of these artists right there don't care what their listeners are going through. They just want to get that money. You gotta get that money to keep making the music; without the support of the fans, not just the love but the support, this might be the last J-Live record. If it is the last J-Live record, I want to leave the people with something to feel like I did when I was their age.
How does your teaching background affect your storytelling?
I grew up listening to these cats like Slick Rick... he's the best storyteller that comes to mind. In the modern era, Ghost[face] and [Raekwon] are up there. Those are the two that stand out right now. That's part of the tradition of the MC and one of the ways we choose to capture the crowd. Like, "gather round everybody, I'ma tell you like this."
Where did you get the idea for "Them That's Not"?
"Them That's Not" actually sprang from the verses from "Epilogue". The verses from "Epilogue" was the original "Them That's Not," where it was a verse about people who don't write their own rhymes, a verse about cats that bite and a verse about cats who crossover. When I heard the beat from Grap Luva, it just felt natural where I could take it and flip it into a story where it's the rise and fall of a wack MC.
What about "Wax Paper"?
"Wax Paper" was me taking a little 16 bar analogous metaphor style where every rhyme sorta related and equated to a different part of the turntable and turning it into a story about two assassins, and developing that into a bigger idea of how I went from DJing to MCing. That's to this day, one of my best works in terms of, you do a close reading and there are some many different ways of breaking it down. [That song] took years. I think I wrote the first 16 bars freshman year and finished it junior year. To give you an idea of what went into that song.
Is the writing process normally like that?
Sometimes like "All of the Above," I had that idea before I did The Best Part. "Simmer Down," from Then What Happened?, the rhymes are actually older than The Best Part. Some songs you put 'em in the crockpot, some songs you put 'em in the microwave. It's all home cooked food. There are songs on this new album and the concepts might date back to '05, '06 but I never had the beat I wanted. There are songs I didn't even know I was to write that ended up on the record two weeks before. It's really a combination of fresh and older styles.
Explain the concept of S.P.T.A. a bit more.
I get all of my titles from 5 Percenter lessons. Like The Best Part, All of the Above, The Hear After, Then What Happened, Always Has Been, Always Will Be. Said Person of That Ability is just talking about, what is the duty of a civilized person? The duty is to teach. What if a civilized person is not teaching? Then you gotta put his feet to the fire, you gotta test him to make sure he is qualified to do what you're about. It's a call of duty to carry on tradition and continue the legacy. Someone took the time to teach you so you can be upright and civilized. Put things in perspective, it's only right to do the same. S.P.T.A. originates from that but it's definitely a play on words. Because after all these years of presenting myself as a solo artist of actually being a three-man group on songs. I'm getting feedback from the radio on "Home & Away" and they're like, "I like the way these guys work together." [laughs]
They got a good chemistry together.
Yeah, exactly! So it's a beautiful thing that I can have listeners totally oblivious to the fact that I'm a solo artist. That just let me know I'm doing it right. So when you hear the album, it'll definitely drive that point home too.
Is there one song you've written that you value above all else?
Nah, it's like having a lot of kids. You love 'em in different ways but you don't play favourites. I mean, I could say, "What You Holdin" is probably the redheaded step-child. Because I put a lot into those verses and "Then What Happened" and it's appreciated but not as much as I appreciate it. There are songs like that, "The Lyricist" off All of The Above, "The Sidewalks" off The Hear After, "Don't Play" off of The Best Part, "Deal Widit" off of Always Will Be.