At the recent Roskilde Festival I had the opportunity to interview MC and producer Jneiro Jarel for Rapspot. Jarel has been in the game for well over a decade, but took his act to the next level last year with the so-called Shape of Broad Minds project and the album Craft of the Lost Art.
His third solo album (the first two were Three Piece Puzzle, 2005, and Beat Journey, 2006), it’s a showcase of his eclectic musical talents in both production and rapping. In fact, he himself, makes up most of the musicians on the album under different aliases: producer Dr. Who Dat? instrumentalist and MC jAWWAD, as well as the MC Panama Black and the singer Roque Won. It’s a sprawling album sounding alternately reminiscent of the experimental alternative sound of such early 90s groups such as The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, classic Atlanta hip hop of the OutKast/Goodie Mob/Dungeon Family stripe and contemporary experimental production in the clipped-up combination of layered samples and live instrumentation of a MadLib, with whom Jarel has often been compared. But most of all, it’s a smorgasboard of fresh-sounding hip hop from a notable talent in rapid creative development.
On his European tour, and at Roskilde, Jarel was joined not only by guitarist Kiva, but Goodie Mob veteran Khujo Goodie, with whom he’s at present finishing a new album, Willie Isz, to drop later this year. This collaboration promises to take the Southern elements of his sound further and will probably simultaneously provide Khujo with a strong platform to creatively develop in new directions.
The interview was conducted in collaboration with my colleague Esben Bøgh from the Danish hip hop site Flavourz. Marie Zia shot the photos.
Esben Bøgh: What do you think of the European hip hop scene? Is it different?
Jneiro Jarel: Different from the US?
JJ: Yeah, it’s different. It reminds me of the US back in 92. The vibes were just really good back then. I’m glad to see that, for Europe, that energy is still relevant. Not that it’s not relevant there [the US], but it’s just not that open anymore.
Kiva: Put it this way; the end of November when we did a tour last year, our last show was in Paris and after the set our DJ was running tunes and you had, like 400 kids there, a lot of them don’t even speak English, but they just knew the lyrics to every tune — they knew the lyrics to MF Doom, to things I don’t even know. You’d be hard pressed to find an audience like that in New York. It’s a different environment there right now; it’s a lot, like, who your sponsor is and things like that. Everyone’s about who their network affiliations are and the music is pushed to the background a little bit, so it’s good to see a place where people are all about the music first.
MW: You mentioned the early 90s, and your music does seem to be…
MW: Yeah, slightly reminiscent of the early 90s. Also, the whole vibe of what you do. I was wondering what your take on hip hop in America today was.
JJ: Well, we’re with a pioneer here: my man Khujo Goodie, who was in that early 90s hip hop with the whole OutKast/Goodie Mob, and when you came up from that, it’s never going to leave. At least for me. That passion for the music that everybody had at the time. Now, it’s not as passionate as it used to be. It’s all about making the money…
MW: And sales are dropping.
JJ: And sales are dropping, right, because I think people are realizing that a lot of what’s on the radio is not true creativity; it’s recycled music. Back then you had The Pharcyde, Digable Planets, Goodie Mob, OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, I could go on, and you could tell that it was coming from a very creative place. ATLiens, he got it right on his arm [points to Khujo’s ATLiens tatoo, Khujo chuckles], OutKast — that record…
MW: Yeah, that’s an amazing record.
JJ: With Shape of Broad Minds, what we try to do is to still keep that vibe, but in a futuristic way. We also try to keep that ATL/Dungeon Family vibe, but bring it in a new way.
MW: Something that strikes me as interesting in hip hop today are the regional scenes. Places in the South obviously, but also the Bay Area. [To Khujo] What’s your take on the development of Southern hip hop and where it is today? It’s the big thing.
KG: Yeah, it is. You know how it is, man, hip hop was born in New York, and for a minute, we were looking at them, being influenced by them. Then hip hop grew legs and marched over to the West Coast — that’s were you had NWA, Ice-T, King Tee, all the greats. And then it moved to Texas, where you had UGK and Geto Boys, and then it came right here to Atlanta where we’ve been influenced by all the other regions in the United States. And here we are trying to not to sound like nobody else, developing our own music, really diggin’ in the crates to go back to the old days, to the forefathers who did this music, like the Commodores, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, all those cats — diggin’ into the crates, really what kind of vibes they had back in the 60s and the 70s, and in turn, Organized Noize used their youthful vibe, put together with the old vibe…
JJ: Curtis Mayfield.
KG: — Curtis Mayfield, and just made a whole other type of music, man — what’s now known as the Dungeon Family. And I think that’s how southern hip hop got its roots, man, just being influenced and doing it.
MW: Why do you think it’s blowing up now?
KG: We were the last. It’s like the scripture says: The First will be Last, and the Last will be First. We were the last to really get recognized in hip hop. For a minute, you couldn’t hear a Southern hip hop song in New York, no way in hell — or in California. So we had to really earn that, and since then there’s been so many brothers coming out in the South with talent, it’s almost like it’s overflowing now. That’s what happens when you keep people back — it’s going to be a whole crowd of people coming. There’s so much talent down there, and they want to be part of this musical history, man.
EB: Who would you say is bringing it on the hip hop scene today?
JJ: What do you mean? Rhymewise? Because nowadays it’s hard to say — you got producers…
EB: I mean the whole package, like what you’re doing.
JJ: I don’t know, Khujo?
KG: On the West Coast, I’ve got to say I like Game — he’s paying tribute to hip hop and he definitely wants to bring the West Coast back up. And I’ve definitely got to take it back to the Southwest — Bun B, he’s definitely snappin’ on that new album, the Trilla album, aw man.
JJ: Yeah, yeah.
KG: And I’ll even go to Florida man, I’m diggin’ Rick Ross’ new album, it’s jamming pretty hard — and Lil Wayne. He’s putting out a million records in a week.
MW: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. He seems to be bringing in the types of flows that, previously, you’d only hear from underground acts likes the Freestyle Fellowship and things like that.
KG: Yeah exactly.
JJ: I love them cats, and it’s so funny you’d say that because yesterday I was in a car with a friend of mine and she was playing me Lil Wayne’s album, and he was flowing, just going off on some Freestyle Fellowship — he’s bringing it back to that! Another cat I gotta give credit to is Radio G. He’s actually interested in collaborating with me. He’s on 106 and Park, which is a really big deal in the US, and I could tell that he really knows real hip hop. He told me he really liked what I was doing and was like ‘Man, I don’t do your average type of music.’ And Khujo: I asked him about Freestyle Fellowship, The Pharcyde and he was like, ‘Oh, man Pharcyde is my favorite group!’ These guys know what time it is, it’s just the listeners that don’t know what time it is. People know more than we think.
MW: And now this kind of thing is poppin’ in the mainstream.
JJ: Yeah, this Freestyle Fellowship thing is actually cool to do now! And when did it come out, 1992? Anyway, I was really impressed. A lot of times, people don’t want to admit they were influenced, because they want to act like they came up with it, but this was cool.
MW: And it would be easy to appear as if you invented it, because nobody’s heard of Project Blowed.
KG: Right, right.
JJ: And Radio G is actually funny — he’s bringing comedy back into hip hop, like how Humpty Hump did, and Pharcyde — “Your Mama.”
KG: Yeah, yeah.
JJ: You know, something fun again, so that’s cool. Now, on the underground tip, there’s a cat… I still want to hear more of his stuff, but a lot of people are talking about Jay Electronica. I think he’s one of Erykah’s artists.
EB: I think he’s actually her lover.
JJ: [Laughs] That’s what I heard; I didn’t want to believe it — I was like “really?” It’s not just Andre doing it [laughs], anyway, that’s another story. I was digging the stuff I heard by him, and I’m very hard to please. As far as MCs, I’m not saying I’m the hottest MC around, but it’s hard — I think my man Khujo; I guess because I heard his new record [Khujo laughs], I’m on it. One of my favorite MCs right here man, and I’m not saying that because he’s my boy — I reached out to him because I was a fan.
On Shape of Broad Minds, I got a song called “Buddafly Away” — that’s a tribute to the Goodie Mob’s “Fly Away”, and I didn’t know how to reach Khujo, so I was doing the chorus like him [imitates Khujo rapping] “Y’all need to buddafly away/ I’m not playin’ these games wit’ you, make no mistake.” I tried to get a little of that growl in it, but it ain’t nuthin’ like his, so to get with him after the fact is amazing, you know what I’m saying. OutKast, Goodie Mob, they inspired me a lot, along with A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde…
“OPR8R” is also on that Dungeon Vibe [begins singing the chorus] “Operator..”, that would be Cee-Lo or Andre — that’s who I wanted on the song! But at the time, I could hardly reach out to these folks and I figured I’ve got to do it on my own. Now, I’m an alumni to the Dungeon Family, so it’s really cool.
MW: Did you have an overall concept, in terms of sound, for the Shape of Broad Minds album?
JJ: I didn’t really have any concept, except for wanting to bring a deeper element to my production up front. I like Thee Piece Puzzle a lot, I dig Beat Journey, I like my albums, but I wanted to do something that was not so typical of me at that time. There was a lot people comparing me to J-Dilla, and of course you’re going to find vibes like him — obviously J-Dilla affected the game a lot, I’m not gonna front on that, but…
I don’t even know how to put it in words, when making that record I think it was just the content that started me. Like “Buddafly Away” is about these people who are coming in the game early, and I’m not gonna name any names, but they start getting a little shine and all of a sudden they think they’re too cool — that they’re the kings of production or emceeing, and it’s like man ‘you can come in a claim this or that, but I’ve been making music since 89, production since 92 and got released from 96 on.’ My whole point is, look how long it took till I could sit down with you and rock at Roskilde. You’ve got to pay your dues before you start jumping on these bandwagons. There are a lot of people who are talented, but then a year later you don’t hear about them no more.
MW: Because they don’t build their fanbases slowly?
JJ: Right, it’s about longevity, and that’s what the song is about — y’all better fly away, if you’re coming at me with all that trendy type stuff. And “There for Me” is talking about hip hop, how hip hop was there for me — it may not be there for everybody, but it was there for me. And then we got “Dedication”, to my son Thelonius, because I was a brand new father at the time — he was nine months old when I was writing it.
MW: So would you say these thoughts about longevity account for the slight retro feel on the album that we talked about earlier. That kind of conscious vibe… I don’t know how to describe it.
KG: It’s life, man.
JJ: No, I hear you. That’s what I want people to think, I want them to feel like, ‘yeah that transition kind of reminds me of Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde,’ or in recent times, people have been like ‘oh yeah, it got the kind of energy that Doom had when he first came out with MadVillainy. And I thought, ‘oh, that’s interesting, I never thought about it like that.’
EB: Did you consciously go for a Southern sound, like Goodie Mob, or did want to develop more of a new sound?
JJ: It’s not even like I wanted to develop… it’s a state of being. I wouldn’t make that album right now, I would make a totally different album — this is just how I was feeling at that moment. And if you go back to Three Piece Puzzle, I got a song on it called “Let’s Get Wit’ It,” with my boy Athua, and the way I’m rhyming on there was definitely influenced by that southern sound, I always had a southern influence, you know [rapping]: “Sipping on that Captain Morgan Coke-Coke/ I’m not a drug, but they say that I’m dope-dope.”
EB: You always get labeled with J-Dilla, MadLib, MF Doom and I guess that’s what people are going to expect when they see you in a minute.
JJ: Right, right, I’m going to surprise them. I’m going to start out with the stuff they’re familiar with, the “Big Bounce Theories”, the “Do Your Thangs” — the stuff that a lot of hip hop heads really like every time I perform, and then I’m going to ease them to what were doing now, and we’re going to be doing a whole lot more singing, and if you know about Three Piece Puzzle, the one that came out over here [in Europa], I have “Stranger They Come”, which has a punk rock type of vibe, “Black Cinderella”, those songs. I’m trying to represent that side more, the stuff that was always associated with ATL — Andre 3000, who of course was never scared to venture out on his own. So I don’t mind being compared to that, you know what I mean? I’m not doing it, but I don’t mind being compared to it.
MW: But is it not frustrating to be compared with MadLib all the time?
JJ: It used to be, it used to be : I got over it though. It used to be ‘MadLib, MadLib, MadLib’ because of all the aliases, but I’ve been doing aliases forever. If you go back to my earliest stuff, before I even heard of MadLib, you’ll find it — my inspiration for aliases was Humpty and Shock G.
MW: Kool Keith?
JJ: Kool Keith, and Wu-Tang clan with their different names.
MW: It’s a big thing in hip hop.
JJ: Yeah, it’s a hip hop thing, characters.
KG: You’ve got to have an alias.
JJ: Yeah, Big Boi is Sir Lucius Leftfoot, and the Daddy Fat Sacks.
KG: Hot Tip Tony.
JJ: Yeah, Hot Tip Tony : Andre 3000.
KG: Three Stacks.
JJ: Yeah, Andre Three Stacks. So the people that say, ‘Oh, MadLib”, it’s because that’s all they listen to.
Kiva: If that helps them get into the right solar system for your music, that’ll work.
JJ: Yeah, but at the end of the day, I’m from so much more. A lot of the young heads just know that stuff and not what came before; and they don’t know that I really, really aspire towards J-Swift as a producer, more than JayDee. I really love J-Swift, even though you don’t hear much from him anymore.
MW: What’s next for Khujo and the Goodie Mob?
KG: Jneiro and I got the album Willie Isz coming out and it’s going to be a time-traveling trip that you must check out. And I just dropped a new album on iTunes; it’s called G-Mob Godfather, it’s on Rap City too — I’m just putting that stuff in the cyberworld right now, and hopefully we’ll be doing another Goodie Mob album, probably like next year, and whether we do or not I’m going to continue putting new music out.
I got groups down in Georgia, I got a group called the Color Station and they can’t wait to come out. I got a brother called Diligent, I think he’s the best freestyler I’ve ever heard — that Eminem-type style, but really get at you, make you angry-type style, and I got a homegirl named Diamond V, man, the South is just blooming with all types of talent. Georgia is most definitely waiting to get that big blow. So just look for me putting out more music, videos, clothing line — I was born in hip hop, and I just love it.
MW: Isn’t it hard being a veteran in a game with so many new artists?
KG: Well, in the industry it is, because you’ve got people at the radio stations who’ll be like ‘urgh, he’s old’, but with fans it doesn’t even really matter, because a dude may come up to me and say ‘I was seven years old when your album came out and I’m seventeen now,’ and I’m like ‘wow!’ you know what I’m sayin’? I’ve got kids too, and I could see how that could be true, my oldest kid is like nine, so I can see that. But those people up in the radio station, they’re just about making money off of young artists that don’t know nothing, but if you’ve got a veteran who knows about all this, you can’t really get over on him.
MW: It’s just that longevity has been such a problem in hip hop. You see older artists…
JJ: Fall off.
KG: That’s because of us, because we treat our elders in hip hop like that. You get rock : they don’t treat their elders like that, you hear ‘Whoa, the Grateful Dead, wow! Aerosmith, hell yeah!” [claps], ‘Khujo Goodie : BOOOOH!’ [laughter]. That’s what our people do — we need to get right. We need the type of real fan who’ll be saying, ‘man, I’ve been following this dude from, like, 87, and I don’t even care whether the group is no longer together, I’m going to go check for him.’