Cause yo, I got the hairsplitting, self-written unbitten style
That leaves the competition running scared and shaking in their pants
You're best to set it off cause, black, it ain't no second chance
Once I'm open
All you doing is hoping
That the Live one
Will put the mic down, but son, don't try to snatch it after:
The laughter won't cease from the comparison;
How dare you, son,
Step around the booth when I'm on?
The microphone magician says "poof", you're gone With the wind. There's no trace of your friends
Cause you don't know where the beginning ends
Or where the end begins,
But you see that's the difference, you get sold, I get paid
Black I told you, get paid;
If you're broke I'll have to rain on your parade.
You belong in Special Ed if you think you Got It Made
J-Live with the mic is like the chef with the blade
Cause suckers get sliced and sautéed
Yeah, you thought your joint was fly but the flight was delayed
As I demonstrate in Quotīdiē from time to time, contemporary Hip-Hop has some incredible wordsmiths (most of whom most people have never heard of, although it's good to see Common breaking into the mainstream). When you get to the cream of Hip-Hop lyricists, it becomes very hard to start working out who's really the best. How does one compare
- Talib Kweli with Big Boi?
- Mr. Lif with Apani B Fly?
- Evocalist with D-Wyze (both of B.U.M.S.)?
- Ty with Klashnekoff? with Roots Manuva?
- Saul Williams with Black Thought?
- Chali 2na (of Jurassic 5) with Skillz?
- Wordsworth with El- P?
- Common with Jean Grae?
- Boots (of The Coup with Mos Def?
And that's just rappers in English (Passi, en français, anyone?), and that's off-head, so I'm definitely forgetting some people. These folks are all clustered at the acme of lyrical skill. So where does J-Live fit in? I think it's enough to say that there isn't a better lyricist than J-Live, in any genre of music. His mastery of words is just amazing. A friend once marveled at how J-Live worked "amniocentesis" so effortlessly into "Braggin' Writes", but I maintain that it's not just J-Live's vocabulary that earns him the laurels (after all, he is an English teacher: he should command the language), but more importantly his effortless command of flow, Hip-Hop's prosody. (As the chorus of "Braggin' Writes" states: "everybody's rapping, and only few can flow".)
The "Braggin' Writes" quote above is ample example (and again you have to hear it to really appreciate it). Just to touch on one point, the line
You belong in Special Ed if you think you Got It Made
Works fine as direct (uncapitalized) statement, but is also a clever allusion to old school rapper Special Ed's song "I Got it Made".
I’m your idol, the highest title, numero uno
I’m not a Puerto Rican, but I’m speaking so that you know
And understand I got the gift of speech
And it’s a blessing, so listen to the lesson I preach
I talk sense condensed into the form of a poem
Full of knowledge from my toes to the top of my dome
I’m kinda young--but my tongue speaks maturity
I’m not a child, I don’t need nothing for security
I get paid when my record is played To put it short: I got it made.
—Special Ed—from "I Got It Made"—"Youngest in Charge"
Last night I went to the Fox Theater see "The Best Damn Rap Tour", headlined by J-Live (although it's mostly in support of Vast Aire's new albumThe Best Damn Rap Show). It was a long line-up of underground hip-hop stars. The kind of MCs and DJs who rule the ears of rap nerds like me, but who can't seem to get on first base in the unfriendly game of record label baseball.
Vast Aire is best known as front-man for underground sensation Cannibal Ox, and his counterpart Vordul Megilah was first up, spitting classic Can Ox in his trademark cadaver-focus style. Up next was C-Rayz Walz with tracks from his new joint Year of the Beast. I've heard of C-Rayz Walz, but had never listened to him. I definitely have to cop that album. And the man definitely has more energy than he knows what to do with: he stomped, stalked, swaggered and staggered all over the stage, often telling the DJ to cut the track so the crowd could hear his lunatic lyrics. Vast Aire was up after that, and again based on his set I'll have to cop his new album (The month's salary goes all to music, at this rate).
The crowd was a bit slow to get into the mood, which is unusual for Boulder. When J-Live came out to start his set, most folks in the front row had gone off to get drinks, or to hang with the earlier acts, who all got off stage to mingle. It only took the duration of the first song before it became a proper audience for J-Live, though. He did his amazing thing, rocking "MC", "Like this Anna", and "Satisfied?" to the jumping delight of the crowd (and me), there was an impromptu competition in the front row with folks trying to rap along to "One for the Griot". But the highlight of the night was when J-Live did something I've only ever seen him do (I saw him do this trick once before (with Chime and Davina) when he came to CU with Talib Kweli and others for a free concert). He rapped "Braggin' Writes" while dee-jaying the track at the same time (for the track he used Nas's "Thief's Theme", only the most banging beat of the new millennium), which hardly seems possible. And he didn't just prod occasionally at the wheels of steel: no, he was scratching and cutting almost throughout the song, without missing a beat in his rapping. Amazing!
I've already mentioned how down to earth all the acts were. J-Live was manning his own merchandise stand before the show, lounging in the same jeans, white tee and open red and white button-down flannel shirt in which he'd later perform. I asked him about "The Best Part", his first album, which never saw its way to stores because of record label troubles, and bought the last copy he'd brought along (duh! I should have had him autograph it). I considered asking him who his favorite poet was, but I didn't want to bug him before his performance.
One more quote to leave off with. This one Vast Aire's from an AllHipHop.com interview. He was asked whether he disliked that most of his fan base is white.
I don't even care about all that racism, it's all bulls..t. It’s a trick! It’s a demonic trick and it's disgusting. It separates people. Come on, remember Blondie? F..k Eminem, look at Blondie. F..k Vanilla Ice and Snow, look at Rick Rubin. When you wanna think about White people in Hip-Hop, think about the Beastie Boys. White people have already proven themselves in this. There should be way more White rappers, and way more woman in Hip-Hop today. But you have the powers that be. Hip-Hop is dominated by Nubian and Latino men. Where are the women at? All the women that are out now are damn near veterans, and that is sad. So I don't like any of that. I grew up in uptown New York. I grew up with a bunch of Latin and Nubian kids. Eventually, we got cool with two White kids, this kid Ralphie and his cousin, which was my first experience. And ever since that day, White people were more than Superman to me. At first, a White person is Superman, He-Man, a cop, or a bus driver. At first, you don't know a White kid. You have to meet and get cool with one, meet their family, and the next thing you know you have a friend. You are not looking at color then. And that is what happened to me. That kid was poor, that is the color we were. F..k all this racist bulls..t, we are the same color. So technically, we bonded because we were in the same class. It's class that truly brought us together. And I imagine the same thing happens to White people. A Black person has to be more than just Mike Tyson or Michael Jackson. You have to meet them, and invest time in them.
Co-sign (bowdlerization by AllHipHop.com, not me). Interesting to mention that in my list of top lyricists above there is one white guy (EL-P) and two women (Apani B. Fly and Jean Grae). Two other women (Bahamadia and Rah Diggah) are near misses. I don't go as far as to say "fuck Eminem": he's very talented, but he's just not in the same class as the folks I mentioned. It's a very tall barrier to be a top Hip-Hop lyricist.