By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
In the last ten months, the public image of the New York Police Department and former mayor Rudy Giuliani have undergone makeovers as drastic as those performed on tawdry daytime talk shows, where delinquent reprobates turn into model citizens with the help of some cosmetic rehabilitation. This point is not lost on New York City rapper J-Live, who says that the public's memory of some of the NYPD's most controversial actions -- including the shooting death of innocent African immigrant Amadou Diallo and the toilet-plunger sodomy of detained suspect Abner Louima, both of which occurred during the Giuliani years -- has become as hazy as now-familiar photographs of the city's beleaguered September skyline.
"Now it's all about NYPD caps and Pentagon bumper stickers/But yo, you're still a nigga/It ain't right them cops and them firemen died/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 your ear," J-Live raps on "Satisfied," the first single from his superb new record, All of the Above.
"People kind of forgot about all of the problems," he says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "After the tragedy, people were like 'Amadou who? Abner who?' The fact that Abner Louima's case is overturned and those cops [the officers who witnessed the attack] are looking to get their jobs back is another example that, in the wake of the tragedy, you have a lot of people that are just like, 'Big up, America,' but who are not being American in the sense that you can be critical about how the government represents you."
Political, powerful and just about to pounce on the world of independent hip-hop, J-Live has been hitting savvy heads with streetwise insights for years. Since beginning his career as an MC in the mid-'90s, he's built a reputation as one of New York's most articulate rappers, albeit one virtually unknown outside that city's thriving underground scene. Some may recognize his smooth staccato delivery from recordings by Handsome Boy Modeling School and J. Rawls, on which he's made cameo appearances. His much-bootlegged debut, The Best Part, has become a prize among more dedicated album-seekers and crate completists. Unfortunately, a round of music-industry shakeups prevented the album from receiving a proper sendoff. The story of The Best Part's erratic journey from the studio to record-store bins has become something of an urban folk legend, with some claiming that J-Live bootlegged the record himself.
"When the label [Payday/London] and the distributor parted ways, the record was shelved for quite some time," says J-Live, who released The Best Part on his own imprint, Triple Threat, late last year. "But because it was released to the press, a lot of people decided to bootleg it because there was a high demand for it. It also got good reviews, so it took a few years to clear all the red tape." The situation, "got on my nerves," he adds. "But if I was bitter, I might get jaded and frustrated to the point where I would stop doing it. I could never let that happen."
All of the Above, released this spring, had a smoother entry into the world and should serve as J-Live's formal introduction to a wider audience. Issued on the independent label Coup d'Etat, the album displays the talent first suggested back in 1995, when J-Live's "Longevity"/"Braggin' Writes" single led The Source to choose him as an Unsigned Hype Artist. (Previous Unsigned Hype alumni include DMX, Biggie Smalls and Common.) All of the Above pairs J-Live with DJ Spinna and producer A Touch of Jazz and illuminates his diversity as an MC. The disc also includes several banging beats provided by J-Live.
J-Live's distinctiveness as an MC lies largely in his ability to tell a good story. The skill first crystallized on The Best Part, in which he used vivid details to tell the street tale "Wax Paper." On All of the Above, J-Live stretches out on a wide range of topics, from politics (the ragga-influenced "Satisfied") to himself (the autobiographical "A Charmed Life"). "One for the Griot" details a man's salacious and strange encounter with two women, with J-Live playfully providing a few different endings for listeners to ponder. (He cites the "Choose Your Own Adventure" story series as an inspiration for the song.)
J-Live learned a little about narrative techniques while in school at the State University of New York at Albany, where he majored in English and business before graduating in 1998. "Having an English major gives you that much more exposure to the kind of work that will help you develop as a songwriter, whether it be poetry or prose," he says. "Looking at different writers in the way they approach literature, and also expanding your vocabulary and things of that nature, helps you in the way any education would help you in any career."
Education is a subject the rapper knows something about. Prior to the release of All of the Above, J-Live -- or Mr. Cadet, as he is known to his students -- taught junior-high English in the Brownsville and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn. He draws parallels between his role as a teacher and a hip-hop artist.