As it stands, Brooklyn phenom-female MC Jean Grae may be one of hip-hop's most interesting personalities as well as one of its most gifted rappers.
After the recent release of her DJ Drama-hosted mixtape, Cookies or Comas, which is stockpiled with Jeanie's belting verses and razor-witted lines, she's been touring the continent in anticipation of her fourth album, Cake or Death. She makes her final stop in Raleigh on Sunday at the Southland Ballroom, where she and longtime friend and DJ, Mr. Len (of Company Flow), will hit the stage with celebration, love-thirst and Jean Grae's twisted charm. From her tour bus in Vancouver, Grae briefly spoke with us over the phone about awkward hugs, Katy Perry and, uh, glockenspiels?
Independent: The first time I ever saw you perform was at a bowling alley in Chicago, several years ago. Any bowling alleys this time out?
Jean Grae: Yeah, I remember that. That was a crazy show; apparently, it was a real indie rock-kinda spot, but it was actually a great show. Now that we have Brooklyn Bowl [a bowling alley/ performance space] in New York, I definitely still perform at bowling alleys.
How has the tour been so far?
It's been a whirlwind. The shows have been really interesting. It's been really personable. I've been giving out a lot of hugs and some of them have to be the kind where you tilt your toughness back like, "OK, it's not that kind of hug." But everyone has been sweet.
On Cookies or Comas you had "cult status obscurity," but your reputation and popularity seems to span pretty wide. And you seem to get a very excited reaction out of people at your shows.
I think it's because my persona/ personality is not made up, it's honest and vulnerable. From choosing what I wear every day to my tattoos—I try to be inappropriately appropriate. I just genuinely try to be a normal, approachable person, also maintaining the fact that I know I'm an asshole and I don't like stupid people, or rather stupid people that choose to be stupid. That may be most of the draw.
Without beating to death the topic of you being a female emcee in a male dominated industry, over the years, has seeing other more commercial female artists made you ever deliberately try and make a pop song just to see what kind of reaction you would get?
I think it's more about being smart about your audience and capturing an emotion from people. I hear songs and immediately hear someone's brilliance. The first time I heard Katy Perry's "Firework," I was immediately a fan. It's a motivational song that can reach kids and adults. Rick Ross' "Hustlin'" is another one. It doesn't necessarily have to be about the drug game because everyone is hustling every day.
You've also been singing for a while; not a lot of this is showcased on Cookies or Comas. You said in a recent interview that Cake or Death will not be a "typical rap album." Do you plan to revisit your singing background?
Cake or Death is "music heavy." It's a lot of vocal arrangements, a lot of string arrangements and horn arrangements. It's a much bigger album than things that I've worked on in the past. It's one of those things where you come out in the end with 300 tracks and 96 of them are vocals, and you're like "yay." You hand them to the engineer and he's like, "Oh, God." It's just got a lot of melodies and singing, and rapping and ... a glockenspiel. I call Cookies or Comas "rappity-rap" and I wanted to get that out of the way, but Cake or Death is rap heavy in a real personal sense. It's an uncomfortable album, and I felt like I need the backdrop of all that music. To actually rhyme over all of that stuff and not get lost in it is a challenge in itself.
Talib Kweli just released the new video for the track "Uh-Oh," which features the two of you acting out vigilante roles. You're also known for making songs with storylines, in addition to the self-published literature on your blog and fascination with Scrabble. How important is the creative writing process and being well read?
I think it's important for everybody to take it seriously. Not to say that I don't want to hear ignorant music and fist-pumping music while I'm in the club. Please do not read me a fucking sonnet while I'm in there. But it's important for everyone to be articulate and to be able to pick up a book. That's why I get kinda angry when people ask me questions that they can look up for themselves. It's right there. You don't even have to have a salesman come to your house and sell you encyclopedias anymore. You can look it up on your phone.
Your Twitter activity and your interaction with your fans is one of the most interesting things about you as a musician. How has your Twitter presence impacted your career at this point?
Social networking is something that I found has worked really well for me. Not necessarily Facebook though. I think the private, in-the-moment feeling of Twitter is what works. There's a ton of people who follow me on Twitter who have no idea what my music sounds like and I think that's very interesting. I'm able to say things in short form and for me, beyond the study of music, I love stand-up comedy. I love certain comedians and their delivery and I love short one-liners, whether it's Mitch Hedberg or Steven Wright. Finding a way to put that into a form where I didn't actually have to get onstage and do that was very interesting. Because I've been branded as this "female hippie rapper" and I don't understand where people get that idea from. So, since I don't have the radio presence or that video presence, it's [Twitter] been a way to promote myself the way I want to.
Explain your relationship with Mr. Len and why it made sense to take him on tour with you.
Len and I met years ago before "Taco Day" [which they recorded together in 2001], when we were kicked out of a studio room because we were being assholes. So they made us go to the next room and it was an immediate bond and friendship from then on. He was always someone who would come to me with crazy ideas and we always had that feeling of creative freedom with each other. When I was starting to work on Cake or Death and realizing that I was going to go out on tour, I told Len that I needed him back. I needed my brother behind me. He's so brilliant at being quick. I don't have to think about anything other than doing my job. I usually never turn around (onstage) unless we're drinking or making some sort of ridiculous joke. So it's great to have that kind of energy back.