In 1997, Jeru Rapped For The Love Of Hip-Hop, Not The Paper

In the mid-1990s, Brooklyn, New York was steadily delivering legions of the lyricists to the Hip-Hop masses. From seemingly every section of the borough, representing just about every style of Rap, names like Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes, GZA, Buckshot Shorty, JAY-Z, RZA, M.O.P., Foxy Brown, Non-Phixion, AZ, East Flatbush Project, and so many others permeated the Rap industry.

East New York’s Jeru The Damaja was one such illustrious MC who broke in the game. In 1992, the Dirty Round Scoundrels representative made his debut on Gang Starr’s “I’m The Man.” The Daily Operation appearance alongside Group Home’s Lil Dap poised ‘Ru (who had grown up around Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa) to become the first artist out of Gang Starr Foundation to secure an album. By 1994, Jeru started the year with another stellar Gang Starr appearance on Hard To Earn (see: “Speak Ya Clout”). He followed a handful of weeks later with his debut, The Sun Rises In The East. Guru, who had been developing The Damaja’s demo recordings since 1991, and DJ Premier deeply involved. The duo had secured a deal with Payday/FFRR/London Records, who would go on to release material by Group Home and other projects from Guru and Preemo.

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Two years after the Sun rose, a lot was changing in Rap music. By late 1996, The Telecommunications Act altered the business of radio forever. Meanwhile, much of the music media seemed driven to cover a perceived East Coast vs. West Coast beef in lieu of skills and positivity. As releases like The Fugees’ The Score and Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me skyrocketed up the charts, labels were shifting their priorities to get in on the action. An artist like Jeru The Damaja could have easily felt pinched in the process of changing tides.

Nimble on the microphone, the MC born Kendrick Jeru Davis has seemingly always been one to knuckle up against the system. On his sophomore set Wrath Of The Math, ‘Ru pulled industry cards. He called out a lot of the things he did not like, with a second DJ Premier-produced LP that very much captures the tug-of-war between art and commerce. “This album was created to SAVE Hip-Hop and the minds of the people who listen to it,” wrote the artist in his liner notes. The substance of the disc matched that mantra.

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In addition to provocative video single “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” “Me Or The Papes” was another example of Jeru’s condemnation against materialism. Keeping in line with 1994’s “Da B*ches,” ‘Ru used the idea of love vs. money in the context of courtship to illustrate his principles on the subject. He does so over a drum track and some Jazz piano.

Notably, on the 12″ single, Jeru and Preemo went back in for an a la carte companion piece in early 1997. “Me, Not The Paper” uses a more ominous piano entirely. In this remix, Jeru shifts his narrative to speak about Hip-Hop, not romance. “I made it this far because of Divine design / Diamond-flooded chains the sun still outshines / I get you drunk off my drink like that champagne wine / As long as there’s breath left, I father the fatherless / If sh*t was real, Brooklyn would snatch that chain off your chest / Don’t fess, we know why you rock that vest / Hard on records, but really p*ssy, check it / I do this for me, and not the paper, strictly 100%,” he raps. The bars reference what would eventually be Jeru’s fourth album title, Divine Design, while suggesting that padding yourself with material wealth makes it hard to stay connected to one’s roots.

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In the second verse, ‘Ru makes it clear who and why he rhymes for. “It started way before ‘Super Rhymes’ / Peace to mom dukes for enduring hard times / God bless all the victims of my past life crimes / I do this for the ghetto youth living like Good Times / Flipping rhymes saved me from the obvious traps/ In ’97, studio hustlers push crack on wax / And breaking backs, but faking jacks / If it wasn’t for contracts, they wouldn’t bust caps / So, destroy your people and collect huge stacks / Fat Ac’s, and platinum plaques / Come bring it back, rewind it that old gangster bullsh*t  /Got the youth running around criminal minded / Not a player hater, just don’t chase the paper / Got a little deal so some heads caught the vapors / So stupid motherf*ckers throw your guns in the air / To all my ni**as who ain’t make it past their 19th year / I do it for me, and not the paper.

Jeru The Damaja took chances with his career for the cause he believed in. Twenty-two years later, this MC seemingly never wavered from his principles. It was about him, not the papes’.

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#BonusBeat: Check Jeru’s recent appearance on Planit Hank’s “Life In Crooklyn,” featuring Buckshot and AZ: