JERU THE DAMAJA
THE SUN RISES IN THE EAST
The geographic superiority phase of the rap wars is over, and everybody won. In all the precincts that were part of the conflict–east coast and west coast; Long Island and New York City; Mount Vernon and New Jersey; Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens; Compton and Oakland; Houston and Los Angeles; Atlanta and Miami–the race now is to get the Range Rovers to the bank’s preferred-customer window. In hip hop parlance, everybody is mad phat with crazy money.
But the second phase of the competition, aesthetics, is only beginning. Many critics see the battle now raging between the good guys, those thoughtful bohemian types, like P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development, and the glib thugs, like Dr. Dre’s Death Row posse and the South Central Cartel. While nobody with a functional brain would dispute the vast expanse between the Death Row version of streetwise buppiedom, “Say it loud, I’m rich and I’m proud–once again, say it loud, I’m bad and I’m proud,” and Arrested D’s “the revolution will be user friendly” syllabus, the musical terrain within those borders is being widely mischaracterized. Many music journalists are assuming any vehement declamations and aggressive beats is gangsta, ignoring the context of the music. Thus many fine recordings that are essentially the ghetto cousins of Arrested D’s rural positivism are wrongly lumped in with mindless gangsta rap. This tendency reached its nadir recently when Rolling Stone described Treach of Naughty by Nature as a gangsta rapper, which is like calling U2 a hard-rock band.
These labels ignore hip hop’s roots. The music was born in the poorer sections of New York (both Queens and the Bronx claim the birth), and its implicit credo was by the ghetto, from the ghetto, for the ghetto. It was a loud “stay black” response to assimilationist tendencies among many blacks in the late 70s and early 80s. The resourceful creation of a music with only some borrowed sound and one’s wit was a way of affirming the vitality of ghetto life, an alternative to seeking validation in the “mainstream” world.
These roots are claimed by hip hop’s most vibrant mainstream representatives. New Yorkers like Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth; Angelinos such as the Pharcyde and the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics posse–Casual, Souls of Mischief, and Del the Funkee Homosapien–have all built their sound on a ghettocentric foundation–hard, sparely appointed beats and fluid, low-key declamations. None of them needs to pump out his chest to prove his manhood, and they all sound like they’re rapping on a street corner.
Two recent debuts, Nas’s Illmatic and Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East, follow closely in their footsteps. Both performers are from New York, both rap in a matter-of-fact tone, and both speak graphically of the violence around their way, though neither does it as an endorsement.
Nas (born Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones) is one of the hottest acts in hip hop. Illmatic sold 60,000 copies in its first week and is still selling well. His fluid rhymes were first featured on the sound track of the movie Zebrahead (if you blinked, you missed it), which attracted hip-hop’s leading producers, Pete Rock, Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), the Large Professor, and DJ Premier of Gang Starr, who have sculpted a stark urban backdrop for Nas.
The rapper wastes no time getting to the point. His “N.Y. State of Mind” bears no resemblance whatsoever to Billy Joel’s 1975 ode to Gotham’s hardscrabble chart. In Nas’s New York assault weapons outnumber cars, and violence is just a shout away. “Bulletholes in peepholes,” he raps. “It’s like the game ain’t the same / Younger niggers / Pulling the triggers /Bringing fame to their name.” Unlike the gangstas who recount similar circumstances with a party-ready funky beat (suggesting, if not outright announcing, a celebration), Nas has a somber tone and stark musical backdrop that imply a very different point of view. If hip hop is, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once proclaimed, “the CNN of the black community,” then Nas is its Christiane Amanpour. He maintains his flow on “One Love,” a letter to an imprisoned friend that details the emotionally draining aspects of gang life. His brief moment of optimism is found on “The World Is Yours,” which encourages youth to look beyond the hood. And he’s put his newfound money where his mouth is, buying a house in a black suburb of New York.
Despite his silly name, Jeru the Damaja takes a more high-minded approach. His raps tend to moralize and accuse. In “Ain’t the Devil Happy” he raps, “What’s the matter? / Why every time I look around another brain gets splattered / What are we accomplishin’? / Nothin’.” He also takes some interesting gambits. “Da Bitchez” goes to great lengths to separate “the sistahs” from the women who hang around him for his money. And typical of the Brooklyn attitude toward gangsta rap (“If these guys did half the things they say they did,” says Guru of Gang Starr, “then they’d be hiding somewhere, not boasting about it”), Jeru blasts the “malignant myths” of the subgenre in “Come Clean.” The record is brilliantly produced by DJ Premier, whose beats are so atmospheric they’re almost ethereal.
The aggressive sonic roar of these records shouldn’t obscure their striking qualities. Both records are anything but “gangsta.” And if they seem a far cry from Arrested Development’s approach, consider that both Nas and Jeru are among the dozens of major New York hip hop figures who were at the New York record-release party to help Speech and his crew celebrate the release of Zingalamaduni. Covering the first phase of hip hop required only an atlas and a Billboard chart. The next phase will demand a deeper understanding of the music rather than reliance on convenient labels.