Jay Electronica Bio (2007)
by dream hampton
The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs." -Nikola Tesla
Jay Electronica is a wildly inventive Master MC who bends and shapes language to his will. His rhymes dazzle; metaphors stacked upon similes, narratives sprouting spontaneously from abstraction. His flow swarms a beat, rendering hooks optional. Were he simply a rhyme stylist, an MC committed to mere aesthetics, he'd be a mammoth talent, the "finally" true hip-hop fans have been rain-dancing for the better part of the 21st century. As it is, he's way more than a rhyme stylist; he's an exceedingly brilliant thinker, an organic intellectual student from the hood whose appetite for knowledge is matched by his ability to transmit knowledge. He's the child of an American Third World ghetto who's concerned with global community. He's an MC who gives a fuck. He's a throwback whose life was changed by hip-hop and believes still in its transformative, magical properties. He's on some serious shit, mysterious shit, an artist whose conscience mandates he be conscious. But as he likes to say---the facts, jack.
Born in New Orleans and raised with his sister by his mother and grandmother, shuttled between the Magnolia Projects and the 17th ward, Jay Electronica was a pre-teen comic book geek who was mesmerized by mythic superheroes. He'd spend whole summers with his collection, memorizing supernatural attributes as he wrote his own parallel stories in his head, complete with his mind's illustrations. His mother had an eclectic collection of vinyl and would spin Steely Dan, Prince, Al Jarreau, and the raven-haired country star Crystal Gayle one after the other. His grandmother had her eyes on the sparrow and hummed along to her gospel favorites, Mighty Clouds of Joy and Shirley Ceaser, as she performed babysitting duty.
When he was nine years old Def Jam's first superstar changed his life. "When I first heard "Radio" I can picture it so clearly...my neighbor was outside washing his car, he had it blasting, I just stood there and froze I said to myself 'That's what I'm doing!' After that I would be in the house writing stories in rhyme and drawing pictures."
While LL served as the catalyst, it was a talent show sensation, Dr. Blue, that brought out the gladiator in our young hero. "My older cousin Mook came home from this talent show at school saying how dope Dr. Blue was and I was like 'Man, Fuck Dr. Blue! I'm better than him!' So I put on a show right there in the living room. I would take my tape recorder, loop the tape and do my little show. I'd be saying my rhymes and then I'd break from rhyming and just start telling a story, right in the middle of my rhyme."
As anyone who's every downloaded his cyber classics "Eternal Sunshine..." or "Dimethyltriptamine" knows, Electronica's penchant for digression is still very much a part of his repertoire. Jay will pass the mic to Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (his favorite movie), the child actors from the Iraqi film ""Turtles Can Fly, or include a vintage Honorable Elijah Muhammad speech, stretching a song beyond its commercial confines.
In an effort to get his skills up, he began studying the rap game with the same scholarly discipline he'd once applied to comics. He'd videotape Yo' MTV Raps! or rally his neighbors to place simultaneous orders on Video Music Box. Premier's work with Gangstarr and later RZA's with the Wu would later influence his work as a producer. Too Short, NWA, especially Ren and Cube, The Geto Boys, particularly Scarface, and Dallas's D.O.C. were his rap education. "With each new important release I would realize I needed to go and get my game up, that I needed to vibrate on a higher level."
At 18, like a young Ronin, Jay began roaming. He'd trekked to D.C. for Farrakhan's historic Million Man March after meeting a clean and sober Muslim (his first) on Xavier's by the environment." When he returned home, New Orleans had become a size too small. So he boarded a Greyhound and set out on a path towards greatness. "I had a bus ticket, a chunk of change and some clothes in a bag. I was like 'I'm about to be a rapper, I'm headed to New York, you know, 'RapLand'."
Instead, he noticed that more than half the passengers discharged in Atlanta. He too got off the bus during the break. He noticed signs posted, advertising jobs. The Olympics were coming to town and businesses wanted help. Jay retrieved his duffel and learned Atlanta. He lived in shelters, worked in the kitchen at Morris Brown. In the men's shelter he met a fellow hip-hop head named "Q", Quinn Gilbert. They'd walk around Atlanta, Q beatboxing, Jay freestyling, no need for equipment. One day, in downtown Atlanta's Underground, a late 80s, early 90s gathering spot for the city's teens, Jay came across his first cipher.
"There were so many dudes gathered around that I knew they were either gonna fight or rhyme. So I went up to them. They were debating Farrakhan's speech from the march. Half of them were gods [Five Percenters] and the other half was Nation of Islam. The gods were arguing that it was allegorical, while the clean, NOI guys were saying it was both---allegorical and literal."
The minister's four-hour Million Man March speech had been heavy on mathematics, measuring galactic distance, the sun's circumference, man's metabolic composition.
"Because of who I am, I felt such a strong connection to the scientific aspect of the doctrine. I tapped a Five Percenter brother on the shoulder and was like 'that right there, where can I learn that? What book do I need to read to learn about the planets and all that?!'
Jay got his 120 in Atlanta and set out for a short-lived stint in Chicago, where he returned tot he NOI and rose to Lieutenant in the Fruit of Islam. "People who had been killers---guys who when they walked into a party emptied it out because everyone knew they were there to shut it down---I'd see them completely change. Not in terms of becoming robots or bean pie salesman, but real, life saving changes. When I was young and homeless it was hard. I got robbed, I did things I wasn't proud of, thugging it out to get by, to see these men change, I knew it was in me too."
The teachings of Elijah Muhammad, and the organization that Malcolm grew and Farrakhan kept relevant, was the last organized doctrine Jay adhered to but his pledge of allegiance is largely supportive, and from a distance. If you ask him today if he's a Muslim, he'll answer yes. If you ask him if he's a Christian, that answer too is affirmative.
After a Christmas break home in New Orleans, Jay returned to Atlanta. "I knew Atlanta backwards and forwards at this point, I knew the AU campus kids, I knew the homeless people from Buckhead to Bankhead." He met his future best friend, a brother named Johnny (Audible) from Detroit, coming from the masjid one Friday after juma.
"Johnny started a record label with money he won from a legal settlement. When I bumped into him he asked me to come to this spot with him and I ended up getting on this track with this hood superstar named Cool Lace."
Later Jay recorded with Gip from Goodie Mob and hopped on beats by Sol Messiah, the producer who Dallas Austin leaned on for TCL's massive hit "Waterfalls". He finally made it to New York, but by then it was the late 90's, Biggie and Tupac had both been assassinated, and hip-hop's birthplace was struggling to remain relevant. New York didn't feel like the 'RapLand' he'd boarded the bus for years earlier.
He ended up resting in Denver for a minute, after his mom moved there. "There were so many jobs in Denver, you could get one on your lunch break." He learned how to camp in the wilderness, had his first, true friendship with a white guy and celebrated Juneteenth with the Colorado's tight-knit Black community.
In any great hero's journey there are supporting characters who arise like angels to push the protagonist along on his journey. For Jay Electronica these supporters were made manifest in Junior Mafia producer Rashad "Tumbling Dice" Smith who passed Jay's music along to Just Blaze, the super-producer who'd served Jay-Z some of his hottest beats. Just was inspired by Electronica's willingness to take risks, to "go all the way left with it." Then there was Supanova Slom, who after Dave Chapelle's Brooklyn taping of "Block Party" introduced Jay to the maverick singer Erykah Badu, who was so inspired by Jay Electronica's talent she decided to launch her label Control Freaq in 2005.
Badu's wingspan was both angelic and pragmatic; she loaned him her rent controlled Brooklyn apartment and one night he finally settled in and watched Michel Gondry's innovative film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its entirety. "...for some reason every time it would come on I'd catch it while Jim Carey was regressing into a child, the scene where he's cramped under the table. I thought it was some silly Jim Carey shit. But this one night I actually watched the whole thing."
The scene where Kate Winslet's character Clementine whispered "Don't forget me on Valentine's Day" had a spare piano riff that stayed with Jay. He went online, downloaded the soundtrack and in a fit of inspiration looped it and recorded his own rhymes over the score on Garage Band. "I played it for my boy and he was like 'This is garbage, no one's gonna like this. It started out ok but you always gotta go left...' I was like 'fuck it', I posted it to myspace and the response was incredible. It went from 200 plays a day to a million times that."
Jay had experienced a certain amount of positive response on the Internet before; his "Hard to Get" was ripped so many times by his core fans, each dub degrading the sound quality, that he relented and made the track downloadable. But the response to ESOTSPM created traffic that was so overwhelming that Jay, who'd written the codes for the myspace page he'd designed himself, made the decision to shut down the page altogether. Bloggers carried the momentum, creating fan pages, maintaining a buzz that landed him on the cover of URB's next 100. "My myspace page played a HUGE part in my career, I'm not gonna knock it, but ultimately I had to delete the page to preserve the integrity of my project, to present it with continuity."
Jay considers the current state of hip-hop to be nearly posthumous, he likens today's popular hip hop to "dead fish, on the beach stinking."
His vision for his own project is wide. He imagines live shows that read like dinner theatre. "I want a set that's like a pop-up book, upright piano, an orchestra in the orchestra pit..." He wants the kind of continuity and pageantry that Public Enemy maintained from song to video to concert, a consistent threat that makes you "feel the way you do when you read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment."
Like a yound Cassius Clay calling his fight against the Goliath Sonny Liston, Jay has his future mapped out. He's reconnected with his man Johnny from Detroit, who did indeed build the studio he dreamed aloud about when they were in Atlanta. The D is Jay's second home; he was on Detroit's west side when the government-erected levees were breeched, failing to protect New Orleans from Katrina. He collaborated with the legendary J Dilla a couple times before the genius producer died. He builds bombs in the lab with his comrade Denaun Porter, "Mr.Porter" from D12.
Eventually the songs he's laying now will serve as material for his second and third suites. Jay has given himself assignments to complete. Inspired by the great scientist Nikola Tesla, who believed the Earth's electromagnetic field could be harnessed for energy (and whose radical ideas consequently threatened the existence of at least a half dozen industries) and the movie about Tesla, The Pledge, Jay plans to unveil his music in the three acts. Act I and the cyberspace sensation that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Jay Electronica's version of "The Pledge". Act II will be his "Turn." The plan is to make the third act, "The Prestige", his commercial reveal, his offering to the marketplace.
"I'm just a human being. I look at shit and I'm like 'Here's the history of nations, here's the history of geography....' I don't want to waste oxygen", Jay Electronica humbly submits. Then asks himself aloud, as if he's checking his mic: "What's my purpose? How am I perfecting things?"