In 1995, J-Live released “Braggin’ Writes,” an extended battle-rhyme laced over a simple guitar riff that was scratched and juggled, as rumor had it, by Jay himself as he rhymed. The 12” sold an impressive 13,000 copies and won a coveted spot on the first volume of the Beat Junkies’ mix-tape series. But this wasn’t your typical battle rhyme about chopping heads or squashing foes. Here was a student, a sophomore at SUNY-Albany, with a flow that was as linguistically adroit and metaphorically adept as it was fluid. “I display my credentials over instrumentals/And my potential increases at a rate that’s exponential/It’s detrimental fucking with my thesis/The penetration’s exact like amniocentesis.” And just like that, hip-hop had a new luminary poised to carry the torch into the millennium.
That’s when the collective record industry shit hit the proverbial fan. Jay experienced a string of bad luck, being shuffled between Raw Shack and Payday/London Records and eventually dropped, leaving his first album, The Best Part, lingering in distribution limbo. Late in 1999, the album began to appear in various forms on the Internet, along with a few vinyl pressings of questionable origin. So the myth of J-Live expanded, and crowds began rapping along with the emcee at shows despite his inability to officially release a body of music to the masses.
“If you hadn’t heard it off of the computer, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he said, following a concert at Wash. U.’s Gargoyle on October 30. “The only time that a bootleg really fucks with you is when you’re putting it out at the same time, and people aren’t buying your shit, they’re buying the bootleg. When you can’t sell it and it’s shelved, you need that promotion to keep you going.”
Earlier this year, karma caught up with J-Live. The Best Part finally found its way into the hands of his fans and the emcee signed to Coup D’état, leading to the release of his sophomore LP, All of the Above.
For the man who had spent the majority of his hop-hop career waiting for the success he so clearly deserved, redemption couldn’t have been sweeter. “Hell, yeah, it feels good. It’s like waiting for a bus and then two come at the same time. Hopefully, people can hear my growth on All of the Above. It’d be real easy to just get jaded and be mad at the industry, but I’m just happy that people are enjoying my music right now.”
Suddenly, where there was once an agonizing dearth of J-Live music available, there is now abundance. Two distinct, full albums, each with enough certified bangers to qualify as a hip-hop must-have. However, though they share Jay’s distinctive voice and creative approach to lyricism, the subject matter between the two is vastly different. Whereas The Best Part is primarily concerned with answering one underlying question (what does it take to be a great emcee?), All of the Above is far more expansive, touching on subjects both pragmatic and philosophical.
““Braggin’ Writes’ came out at a time when I was predominately just writing battle verses. I’ve developed my style to the point where I’m more of a songwriter now, not just a verse writer. That’s a really good asset. That’s why it means something when people come out and say that they appreciate the concepts and the messages in the songs.”
Messages like those in “Satisfied,” a reggae-influenced reminder to those who want to believe the events of 9/11 brought America together: “That shit is real tragic but it damn sure ain’t magic/It won’t make the brutality disappear/it won’t pull equality from behind the ear.” Or, on “The Fourth Third,” where Jay laments his mistakes in the realm of romantic love: “Too dumb to persist/too smart to be persuade/Too heavy to push aside/and too strong to stay.” These are not the rhymes of a hungry kid eager to prove his worth in the rap game. Rather, what we see on All of the Above is a lyricist who has grown into himself while at the same time turning his sights to the pressing issues that surround him.
It is a change Jay attributes not only to artistic progression, but individual maturation. “In 1995, I had no real knowledge of the world or business at all. I was just a kid, you know, second year of college, down with somebody from school, putting out records. From 19 to 26, you grow as a man.”
This growth is taking Jay into areas of hip-hop he didn’t initially know he wanted to be a part of. He produced a third of All of the Above and plans to continue producing in the future. “There are a few cats I’m trying to work with right now. Ideally, I’d like to find and cultivate talent from where I’m at. Try to give them the opportunity I was given.”
That’s not to say that a J-Live show is no longer the wild-out hip-hop scene it once was. He said, “We don’t get blatantly ignorant but we still know how to have fun, and that’s really what the important thing is.” At the Gargoyle, he balanced his set between selections from both The Best Part and All of the Above, swinging from “Them That’s Not,” a multi-tempo chronicle of one hubristic emcee’s accent and eventual downfall, into “One for the Griots,” a playful story rhyme told with three possible endings. And, yes, he even climbed behind the turntables for a few songs, performing “Hush the Crowd” and “Braggin’ Writes” while wearing a headset microphone to free up his hands for scratching and juggling.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a liberal arts school, a large university, a club in Brooklyn, whatever the place. We just gotta come out and give a good show. That’s the whole point,” Jay said, shaking hands and signing albums for the few stragglers lingering in the Gargoyle. “If they have a demand for J-Live, then I’m going to come out here and rock for them.”