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J-Live on personal and musical development
words & images Sven Carlsson
Meet J-Live, a 1970′s baby whose craft was formed in the influential and particular environment that the New York hip-hop scene created for itself in the 1990′s. But despite being moulded in that golden era of hip-hop, J-Live’s music continues to trace his personal development in innovative form; therein lies his relevance today. Beatnik caught up with J-Live in his native New York City at the end of a pulsating and humid summer day.
Opposite me in the basement of SOB’s on Lower Manhattan, New York, sits J-Live. He has squeezed so comfortably into the end of a sofa that has accommodated countless hip-hop greats that there is no question whether he belongs there. Its white leather has been torn by anyone from Pete Rock, Guru, DJ Premier, Black Star, Prince Paul to DJ Spinna – while in their prime, too – and Justice ‘J-Live’ Allah fits right in. Hell, most of those cats were on his first album The Best Part.
While unquestionably in his element holding this corner of the room down, catching up with new and old faces in the New York scene as they pass by, J-Live does not intend to remain static. His illustrious, thought-provoking body of work renders him worthy of a statue, perhaps in the same spot he sits in during our chat, but his fans will know that J-Live’s music is as much about what’s ahead as past experiences, as much about summoning up life to date as beholding the new day.
“[My music] has evolved in the sense that the goal is to re-affirm the idea that while I do have this catalogue and this history, those are not the laurels that I rest on,” says J-Live, reclined in the sofa, slightly sedated after flying accross the country gigging and promoting his new single The Way That I Rhyme b/w Poetry in Motion.
“I do interviews and people ask me about The Upgrade, The Understanding or What You Holdin’ [all from J's fourth album Then What Happened?, 2008], which proves that I’m not here because of 1998 – 2002, I’m here because of 2006 – 2010. If that weren’t the case I’d be doing something else and looking back on my old stuff.”
Eager to find out what I think of the new single (“You heard the new record? What you think?”), it’s clear that J-Live’s hunger and passion for releasing new music remains unfettered. The Way That I Rhyme, his new single, has him in a new environment.
Now living in Atlanta and a proud father of three children, the “prety good kid” from 96th St. and 2nd Avenue in Spanish Harlem has new experiences to account for. His loyal followers know not to fret, though; J-Live’s knack for storytelling, delivering lyrical food for thought and riding out beats is still there.
Later on, when J-Live treats the crowd to new and old material at Spec Boogie and Homeboy Sandman’s joint album release party, he’s been introduced to the crowd by Peter Rosenberg as one of the iconic independent artists he would travel to New York to scope out in the radio host’s teenage years.
J-Live’s set brings us The Way That I Rhyme and Poetry in Motion, before he reverts to Braggin’ Writes from his 1990′s debut album The Best Part, which was finally released in 2000. Displaying his trademark skills as a simultaneous MC and beat-juggling DJ, the man sure has one or two things to teach today’s hip-hop artists.
Homeboy Sandman, bouncing off the walls in excitement on the release day of his new album The Good Sun, is more than happy to note J-Live’s presence, and takes the time to thank him for the advice he has received from his elder peer.
Whether through his music, as a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths or as an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn in the early 2000′s, J is a teacher at heart. Having decided to quit formal teaching before the release of All of the Above, his acclaimed 2002 sophomore album, he is still reaping the rewards of the trade in various ways.
“Oh yeah!,” he exclaims when asked whether the fulfilment of teaching is felt through his music. “I’m thankful for being able to influence others the way I’ve been influenced through music. The KRS’s, Ice Cube’s and Rakim’s of the world shaped my worldview, and apparently, from what I’m told by my supporters and my fans I’ve been able to do that through them. So it’s a beautiful thing.”
A few lessons have been learned by J-Live, too, especially concerning label politics and the struggle faced by independent musicians. At this stage, he has turned his own Triple Threat Productions into a fully-fledged label, hoping to evade a few music industry obstacles in the process.
“Triple Threat has been my corporate identity since 1999. I’ve always had the aspiration to develop it into a label, but, you know, life gets in the way. It’s always been a sort of production company next to the label; next to BBE, Penalty, etc. Now it’s just Triple Threat, it’s my label.”
And your work?
“Yes, I feel like now, I’m finally in a position to do it the way I want to do it. All dues have been paid, all lessons have been learned. I have a wealth of knowledge of what not to do, which allows me to identify what to do. You know, watching people fuck up [laughs].”
But you’ve always had creative control?
“Always. That’s the one thing that’s never been called into question. But now I am also able to invest into an artist the way their music deserves. Managers and labels have multiple artists and artists have only themselves.”
Hoping to circumvent industry bullshit, J-Live intends to carry on his development as a person and artist, the lines between which have always been blurred. “My personal growth is so intertwined with my music that you can’t dsitinguish between the two,” he says. “People identify me as J-Live as much as they identify me as Justice, you know?”
“[At this stage in my career,] I’m an elder not just in going from student to teacher and from son to father, but going from new artist to well-respected elder, you know what I mean? Being a representative of what’s considered a golden era, the independent movement of the early 1990′s, you know?”
Right. But you couldn’t have made records like ‘The Understanding’ at any other point in your life…
“And therein lies… it’s kind of like The Five Heartbeats? It’s a movie that takes a group that comes up in the 1950′s, they’re doing their thing in the 60′s, re-establish themselves in the ’70′s and come back in the 80′s. And you see all these trends in music pass by with this group. That’s what I meant by my first single, “Longevity”. That wasn’t just a passing thing; I really meant that.”
And as you say, the person is inseparable from the music, so not only is there a development of the sound but of the person, too.
“Yeah, you watch the growth, in the person and the music.”
In that way, then, do you see it ever stopping?
“Not any time soon. There’s a lot to be said, a lot to be done. And I’m still damn good at it.”
J-Live on Twitter