Jean Grae Knocked With The Hardest Bars & The Industry Opened The Door (Audio)
Jean Grae was a refreshingly honest and forthright MC when she first emerged out of the New York City underground scene in the late 1990s. Previously known as What? What?, Jean made it abundantly clear to all within an earshot that she was bringing that raw spit. Known to share an intimate detail about her life just as quick as she is to drop an ill punchline, this South Africa-born rapper has continued to evolve during her 20-plus years in the game. With a collaborative album titled Everything’s Fine (March 30) with fiancée Quelle Chris on the way from Mello Music Group (including a new video single below), it seems fitting to take a look back at her 2002 debut, Attack Of The Attacking Things.
While late ’90s Hip-Hop was in its “poppin’ bottles in the club” phase, Grae was part of the underground wave that also gave us Black Star, Rah Digga, and El-P. The only daughter of South African Jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (f.k.a. Dollar Brand) started gaining attention with a trio called Natural Resources. When the crew disbanded after only a couple 12”s, she shed her What What? alias and took the name of one of Marvel Comics’ most powerful X-Men, Jean Grey.
The first thing listeners tend to notice about Grae is her intelligence and wit, and on her Third Earth Records (Juggaknots, Wale Oyejide, Roosevelt Franklin) LP, she put both front and center. The effort was so packed full of chuckle-worthy punchlines, painful admissions, and poignant social commentary that it still stands up today. This was an MC (who was never afraid to sing) in her prime slaying tracks with a vulnerable rawness in the ilk of Ghostface Killah or Tupac Shakur.
“Knock,” produced by Company Flow co-founder Mr. Len, is emblematic to the out-of-print (and not on Spotify) album’s charms. Built around a Grateful Dead loop that does not sound like one, Jean finds her pocket to vent immediately. “Yo, this sh*t keeps weighin’ me down, beatin’ me up / Like every day’s governed by Murphy’s Law / It never drops, but inside I’m, tied up / In stress knots and chains and bills that ain’t paid / I damn near work for Dun & Bradstreet / Keep a bank card and a wallet for show, I hate empty spaces / Fill ’em with MetroCards that’s been already took me places / Fun Passes, loose changes, gum wrappers, maybe numbers / Battery covers to CD players, and that’s it / I got some plastic / But can’t even use it, the bad credit’s so drastic / Ask me, bastard, if I’m signed, I rhyme sick / But ni**as is quick to turn they back on spitters with clits / Hit ’em with this, and ridiculous phrase flow that exit my lips / Hey yo, I mean my face, though / They still want chicks with t*ts and ass out / My respect is worth more than your advance cash-out / I’m f*ckin’ you right in the ear / If these chicks did it, you’d be catchin’ gonorrhea.” Like a diary entry, Jean clears the table with bars that sizzle the state of the Rap game and release her own hunger-pained frustrations. In the second verse, Jean goes on to address her mother’s support, attack the A&Rs that passed on her demo, and let Heads know that if they were not with her, they were against her.
Besides Len, the DIY album featured production by iconic names like Masta Ace and Da Beatminerz, not to mention Jean’s production alter-ego “Nasain Nahmeen,” who had some of the album’s best beats. Reviewer Thomas Golianopoulos wrote in The Source, “Even the 20th-century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo would be proud of the vivid self-portraits Grae created for this album.” Approaching its 16th birthday, those portraits have proven to be gallery-worthy.
#BonusBeat: Jean Grae & Quelle Chris’ “Gold Purple Orange” video, including cameos from Hannibal Buress, Eric Andre, Denmark Vessey, Anna Wise, and more:
Everything’s Fine releases March 30.