When facing the assignment of interviewing Jeru the Damaja, I didn't know what to expect. I had become aware of the Brooklynite with the release of Come Clean sometime around 1993. Teaming up with DJ Premier who co-produced his first album, The Sun Rises in the East and the follow-up, The Wrath of the Math, Jeru had become a force to be reckoned with. His lyrics were conscious and he railed against hip-hop's shift to a more flighty commercial style, directly calling out Bad Boy Records, which under Puff Daddy was taking hip-hop into an uncomfortable realm. As I was becoming slightly disillusioned with rap music at the time, to me Jeru was at the very least identifying that something was amidst and therefore confirming that it was not just me imagining things. Fast forward a decade and a half later. Jeru has released three more albums, none of which have garnered the attention of the first two. The MC who said he "controlled the mic like Fidel Castro" has effectively slipped into the shadows. What will be his demeanour? I quickly realize in talking with the man that he has as much vigour as ever, motivated by newfound artistic avenues. In 35 minutes of conversation, Jeru is affable and candid. Here is what he had to say while packing up his photography equipment.
A lot has happened since you released your last album in 2007, the most notable being the election of Barack Obama. How has the election of the first black President in the U.S. affected your or not affected you?
It really didn't. It is a shame that it is 2009 and we are excited about a black president. Ireland had a black mayor before we had a black president. Barack is great for my grandmother and little kids. My grandmothers' generation saw [the struggles] of the '40s, '50s and '60s and little kids can look up to Obama and think, "I can be president." For me ― it's just another politician.
I was just listening to "Quantum Leap" from your last album on your MySpace page. You mention Michael Jackson in the track. What are your thoughts on the life and death of Michael?
I loved Michael. I think I mentioned him in some way on every album. The fact that he was a tortured soul and individual is something I can relate to. We didn't know what demons he had ― let's face it though, he was off his rocker. It's a shame he was able to do that many drugs and it's a shame that you would want to take that many drugs. He was the King of Pop, always and forever. At the same time, there are more important things going on, you got people flying from all over the world to come see Michael. All the money from those plane tickets could be used in places like Sierra Leone to stop wars.
Are there plans to start recording you're next album?
I'm working on a couple of side projects. I am really into my photography right now. I have had shows in Paris and Denmark. I keep changing my mind on subject matter because I am such an artist.
You are obviously very into photography, what do you like to shoot?
I like taking pictures of women. I have a certain admiration for the female form. It's not about nudity, it is about the appreciation, movement and lighting. It's not like taking hoochie pictures ― although I have taken a few of those.
How did you get into photography?
My grandmother ― she wasn't a professional but she could have been if she desired to be one. If I could go back in time, I would give her a single lens reflex camera to capture what she saw. She would have been one of the greats. [In terms of myself] it just popped up one day, about year ago.
Has making music taken a back seat to photography?
Music helps to fuel my photography and vice versa. Photography opens my mind in different ways. When I am in Toronto ― I am going to let it be known, my hotel room is going to be my studio even if I have to push the bed up against the wall.
Photography seems to go hand in hand with filmmaking, often people go from being a photographer to directing? Do you have any plans on this ― perhaps to direct your own videos?
I've written a few screenplays. I wrote the whole treatment for "Ya Playin' Yaself" and came up with the concept. I also wrote the treatment for "Me or the Papes" with my man Dave Faustino ― aka Bud Bundy. I also directed 99.9 percent.
Speaking of directing ― that is a good segue into my next question which involves a quote I heard from Martin Scorsese on The Charlie Rose Show. He said something to the effect of "making films becomes harder with age." Would you say the same applies for making music?
It gets harder not necessarily with age but because you've been using your ideas for so long, it's like how do stay fresh without recycling the same material. With experience you get much wiser but the passion is different. It's not impossible, it just takes a bit more time.
You've always been a conscious rapper and have spoken out in your rhymes against the negative influences on hip-hop culture. Years ago you called Bad Boy but there always seems to be a new bad guy ― the last one I can think of would be 50 Cent. Is it even worth rapping or talking about these things at all anymore?
In my old age I know when to leave it alone. Sun Tsu said, "Certain land one does not contend for." You choose your battles wisely. That was my youth talking, young soldiers don't know the perils of war, they just wanna jump right in. The best kind of information is misinformation. You give people the wrong information. You make the enemy think you are their best friend and then you chop his head off. That was the old Jeru ― I'm the older wiser Jeru.
You are coming up to host Hip Hop Karaoke ― when was the last time you were in Toronto to perform?
I was there last year but I am there a lot. I love the T-dot it's my third home.
What is your second home?
London, England and my fourth home is Denmark ― I've got a lot of homes, hommes! [laughs]
I'm sure you aware of the CityParks Concerts initiative in New York where rappers come back to their neighbourhoods and do a show. Raekwon recently did Mahoney Park in Staten Island. Has anyone ever approached you to do this?
I did Prospect Park in '08 at the band shell, it was the return of the Crooklyn Dodgers: Masta Ace, Chubb Rock, O.C. Buckshot, Ali Shaheed. Next year I'm plannin' to do Gershwin Park in East New York. My sister is actually part of the George Walker Foundation, they recently fixed up an old school house that had become dilapidated and had drug addicts sleepin' in it. Now there is a community park ― they have movie Friday's and a basketball league.
You know I have to ask this next question right?
What, Premier right?
I actually was out in Red Hook (At CityParks Concerts) and took some photos of Premier. It was Premier vs. DJ Scratch. I see him a lot. Will there be another record? Sometimes brothers get tired of each other, sometimes you gotta spread out regardless of what people on the outside think. I saw a so-called expert on an internet site say that the reason me and Primo had beef was because he gave Big the "10 Crack Commandments" beat. Initially I had recorded that for a promo for Angie Martinez and the Hot Five at Nine on Hot 97. That's why it goes ― 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. Big heard it and was feelin' it and so he asked Premier if he could have it. Primo said you gotta ask 'ru and he did. I said "you can have it" ― that's my brother.
Speaking of Biggie ― it has been 12 years since he was cut down. What are your reflections?
When Big got killed it was Primo that called me. I had a nice shorty that was with me in my bed from the night before... [sighs]. I remember it just fucked my whole day up.