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An Interview with Jean Grae

This interview was conducted by telephone in March, 2006, between College Station, Texas and New York City.

WALSH: Could you detail a bit your growing up in the hip-hop culture?

GRAE: It's kind of hard to pinpoint. I think at that time, going to high school in the early nineties, there was no way you could escape it. It was just the climate of New York, the amount of talent that was coming out was what we were looking at—the golden era of hip-hop and a lot of indie kids. It was a real interesting time. I grew up not having too much of that in the home aside from my brother who was older than me and put me on to a lot of stuff. He was a KRS fan and an Ultramagnetic fan, so that was kind of my first exposure at home to it. Beyond that, just being a normal New York teen listening to the late night radio stations and Hot 97, the huge "where hip-hop lives" station, known as the freestyle station before it was anything. Not so much radio until I got older and started listening to Stretch and Bob late night and independent or college radio. It was a thing when kids finally realized that you could put out your music yourself and you didn't have to wait around and get signed. It was possible to learn for yourself and be able to put out music on your own or on an underground level. It was kind of unavoidable to be a part of it, I guess. I wasn't rhyming at first. I was definitely writing, but I wasn't doing a lot of rhyming though I would make beats. I wanted to be a DJ and I was a really, really horrible DJ. I didn't carry around a lot of records—them coffins were very heavy, so I opted to take something that was a little lighter and I figured a pen and a pad would be pretty damn light.

WALSH: So what did you look for as far as the things that you were really into?

GRAE: Kind of a strange question, I guess.

WALSH: Meaning what qualities of what you called "the golden age of hip-hop" were the qualities of the things that you looked for the most?

GRAE: Anything different. You know what I'm saying? There was a time when it wasn't looked down upon to be different or to have your own style. You could have Kool Keith on one side and Q-tip or Kool G Rap on the other. So, there was definitely more of a variety [End Page 816] and everyone could kind of have their own thing—like Special Ed, you know, and Heavy D. You could find something that you could enjoy and dance to in the club and there's nothing wrong with that.

WALSH: And that diversity, where do you think it has gone? Why has it dissipated?

GRAE: I don't think it has dissipated. I think there's a lot of kids that are talented and creative out there. Things changed when the media and larger companies realized that this was something that you could make a lot of money on and wanted to find something in the genre that works. That's pretty much how everything else goes. If it's not broke don't fix it. If something wins, recycle it over and over again. I don't think the creativity ever really stopped. I think it's a little scary to know that if you get creative on your first project, it'll get you no attention at all. Let's say you do have a chance to be on that kind of major label and get it out there, if that first single doesn't pop off that's it. It's over for you. Is it easier to play it safe and to eat and do what you do or keep your dignity and stick to your guns? It's difficult and it's a really difficult choice.

WALSH: I read an article you wrote on and it seemed to express that frustration. By the way, I don't know if you keep up with this sort of thing, there was something written on, one of the bigger indie-centric web magazines, and they had you listed on the top ten most slept on MCs. Do you take those things as a compliment?

GRAE: Definitely. Slept on is cool. If you're not on any list at all then you might get worried, even the worst dressed list. I don't care what it is, it's something out there. I think realizing that you get a lot of respect from your peers and people that you respect is an amazing feeling. Yeah, it would definitely be nice to be recognized by a larger audience, but I think there's a way to play the game a little smarter where you can do what you need to do and not feel bad about it. At the end of the day, it's art and it's wonderful and it's lovely and I'm sure it should make you feel something. That's all I try to do. Slept on is all right. Whack, now that's a list I don't want to be on.

WALSH: So with what's "big," it doesn't seem like writing is such a large part of it. So when you were talking about how hard it is to do something different, how do you reconcile that with wanting to become a better writer and people wanting things that are easily digestible?

GRAE: I don't think people are necessarily stupid or that consumers are stupid. That's just how companies treat them and I think they dumb it down because they think they need some dumb-downed shit and "I like that, catchy tunes are great" and "I'll do that too, I like writing some catchy tune." For me, I like to know, personally, that I'm stepping up my writing game. I'd like to evolve and improve as a writer myself. That's just as important to me personally. If it doesn't end up working out in the long run, then that's all right too. You try to find a way to make it work if you can get people to listen to the album. Sometimes, you got to sneak some shit in there. [End Page 817]

WALSH: Can you give a little feedback on the positives and the negatives of being a female artist in such a testosterone-addled genre?

GRAE: It's a male–dominated business and it's definitely difficult to get your shit out there as much as possible or even be taken seriously at first glance—"Oh great, a female rapper." I can't even say that I don't pull that double standard. I would more readily pick up something that a dude gives me, even if it's a beat CD, and I think that we are all at fault for doing that. For me, the easiest way to overcome it is by staying on the road as much as possible. I think that sometimes, in magazines or media, reading about someone is all good and fine and seeing pictures, great, but unless you hear it in your face, it doesn't really matter. I can read magazine articles all day but that doesn't mean that I'm going to go out and buy their music. I need to hear it. I think that fans have become more of critics nowadays, especially now that you can be at home and say, "Well let me just download this before I actually go out and buy it and test it." It gets difficult for everyone in general. I can't really speak on a lot of cons because I haven't really seen it from any other perspective. So, it's really difficult for me. I can say that I've really been blessed to have the people around me that have never treated me as anything but equal to them and the respect level has never been anything less than equal. I don't know, surround yourself with people who aren't going to do that.

WALSH: Are there any inherent positives?

GRAE: Yes, I've got a lot of other shit to talk about. I think dudes can't handle the same topics. My thing, which apparently seems to be crowded with dudes, actually works much better as a girl.

WALSH: Does the whole sex sells theme with female artists really exist or do you just think that people force it?

GRAE: I don't think it's just rap. In general, sex just sells in our culture and that's the way it works. I'm not going to say, "No it's not true." Yeah, it does work, you know, and if it ain't broke don't fix it.

WALSH: Maybe I'm just odd, but I'll be watching videos and somebody is just wearing things and you can tell it's forced and you can tell it's not natural. There's just no way that this is truly going to help this woman sell her album . . .

GRAE: Sometimes, they actually really do. But you also got to understand these are adults and no one can make them do what they don't want to. If you don't want to then say, "Hey, I don't want to do it." If you don't think that you're talented enough to sell your product, then you should take a second look at why you're doing what you're doing.

WALSH: It seems, to me at least, that nowadays the only way that you're going to sell a record is to have girls in the video or a diss record. [End Page 818]

GRAE: That pretty much has been the thing, but then I think that there's been a lot of evolution within hip-hop and trends change and things change and there's a way around everything. You just have to be a little smarter with the game and hustle a little better, that's all.

WALSH: With all the drama that you've personally had in the game, with how've you been portrayed and such, what do you still like about it?

GRAE: I don't know. Sometimes, I have absolutely no idea [laughs]. Ultimately, there is no high like coming off the stage when you've had an incredible show or you've made a really dope song and the rush and the hype that it brings is something that I'm not ready to let go of at all.

WALSH: Do you feel that you have to market yourself any particular way?

GRAE: If you're going to be smart, you're going to have to think of some way to market yourself. Let's not be stupid and say that packaging and marketing isn't important, because it is and that's just business. Now I don't think that it should compromise your art in any way and I don't think that it should compromise you in any way, but if you're comfortable doing whatever you feel to sell your product, let's be real about it. When you're doing something, you're selling a product and you are that product. Music, yes, is art. Yes, it's beautiful and you love it, but you also have to put some food on the table. So as long as it doesn't compromise your art and you get your point across and you can go to sleep at night and your family is fine, then do what you need to do.

WALSH: Did you think of things that way when you got started?

GRAE: Of course not. I was seventeen. Things change a little bit when you have lots of bills to think about. It's easier to knock people for doing shit.

WALSH: I just want to get your take on this. I borrowed a CD from my sister, a mixed CD. I was really surprised to hear the Ying Yang twins song, "The Whisper Song," with the chorus:

Ay bitch! wait till you see my dick
Wait till you see my dick

I was shocked that a teenage girl could listen to something like that and not feel weird about it. I've talked to my female peers about this sort of thing and they'll say things like, "Well, I wouldn't listen to it by myself but I'll listen to it in the club when my girls are getting down to it." As a female and a female artist, do hits like that ever take you aback?

GRAE: To a certain extent. You have to realize where you draw the line for yourself between your self-respect and what is real and what is not. Hey, "The Whisper Song" is a [End Page 819] fantastic fucking club song. I'm not crawling around my apartment listening to that song necessarily, but I do want to go to the club and hear that. I don't want to go to the club and hear a 500 word essay. I don't. The only problem with that is that there isn't a balance. Rap is always blamed for being misogynistic. What about hair metal? What about the 1980s? What about even going back to the Robert Palmer "Addicted to Love" girls? What about that? But no, no, no—it's rap, rap, rap. So yeah, I think it's fine. It's about where you draw the line for yourself and what kind of self-respect you have. There just has to be a diversity with the music. Yeah, I like the fucking Ying Yang Twins, but I also love Pharoahe Monch. So hey, what's wrong with that? Some artists are like, "Fuck commercial music," and, "I'm not going to listen to that," but most of the artists that you love and appreciate love that shit as well.

WALSH: I understand the comparisons to hair metal and pop, but it seems that hip-hop is a lot more blatant.

GRAE: Yeah that's true, but it's not like there isn't other music out there and as a self respecting, grown up woman, I can distinguish what I consider respect for myself or my mom or any woman in my family or any woman that I give respect to. And it's a song. It's a rap song. Let's keep it in perspective.

WALSH: Are you familiar at all with the hip-hop scene in South Africa?

GRAE: Slightly, and I would love to be more familiar with it. I'm trying to go down there at the end of the year. The last time I was down there was probably about 2000 and I haven't really had the chance to keep up with too much. I would really love to, but I don't think I want to. I don't want to go down there, stay for a second, breeze in, and do some show somewhere that someone gives me tons of money for. I feel like that's not the point. The most important part is the kids who really want to go to those shows and go to those festivals. If I could spend any time there, at least make it worthwhile and not, "I just want to perform and get paid for it." That's not important to me. I know that there are tons of incredibly talented kids there who can't afford to get out there and be heard or to even think of having the opportunity to get anything out. So, I would really like to try and go when I could do something.

WALSH: Are there any scenes internationally that you are familiar with?

GRAE: Where have I been this year? You know what it is? You don't get the chance to stay anywhere long enough and you only get the chance to breeze in and out of places. I've been in and out of Spain and realized that they have some incredible shit out there. I wish I had the chance to go to Madrid or France. It's always in and out. You never really get the chance to listen to shit. You can hear people at shows and that's it. Then, you have to go back to your shit. I think that the hip-hop global community needs to be more of a global community if we are really thinking of it like that. I think that everywhere else is so much more open to music, world music, and America is still stuck on America. It's really [End Page 820] interesting every time I travel overseas and get to see videos from all over the place. The only thing that I think we have recently gotten into here is the reggaeton movement and we're so late, so damn late.

WALSH: How've you been received there versus here?

GRAE: Fantastically. It's always easier when you go overseas. You go overseas and then think, "Why am I going home again?" But it would be difficult without a challenge. Things would get boring. If I can't do it here, it wouldn't be worth doing, for me at least. I have to make something happen. I have to leave a mark. I do enjoy overseas money, so that's good [laughs]. The crowds are fantastic and their appreciation and enthusiasm for the music is much higher.

WALSH: What do you find has digressed since the golden age that you mentioned earlier and what do you think has gotten better?

GRAE: I think too many people are putting out rap albums. I think my old comparison would be that the entire audience never walks out after going to see the Philharmonic and goes to get violins and cellos and then immediately [laughs] tries to go to play in orchestras. People can't do that. Some people should definitely just be fans. No, not everyone can do this, but I do think that technology has enabled everyone to do this and I think we had a much smaller group and it actually seemed like a community at the time. There wasn't such a flooding of the market and it was definitely quality over quantity. It's much, much different now. So, you know, technology's good, especially for artists like myself when it's another vehicle to get music out there to people. I don't necessarily have radio or video play, so it's a way for me to get out there besides touring, but, on the downside, it opens everything. It definitely makes it a huge batch of cookies and you should only make a dozen. Now we have eighty dozen and we didn't change the recipe.

WALSH: Could you look at like the punk explosion of the '70s, empowering everyone to make music despite any perceived handicaps?

GRAE: Well, then, everyone is free to take, but not everyone is hot [laughs].

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