Jeru the Damaja Interview: ‘I thought I could save the world’

For a movement that’s in constant flux there’s still an obsession with marking out hip-hop’s greatest year, and 1994 is a popular choice.

The year had some mythical albums – Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die and Nas’s Illmatic are already preserved in glass cases, and 1994 also delivered The Diary by Scarface, Outkast’s Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik and Method Man’s Tical. And you never need an excuse to give Regulate a shout-out.

Jeru the Damaja’s debut LP The Sun Rises in the East is another hip-hop heavyweight that’s firmly lodged in all the top 10s for the year. Produced by DJ Premier – who was trading beats with Jeru and Nas in the studio at the same time – The Sun Rises is still an East Coast classic, an album that’s forged on the street, but manages to sidestep lazy gangsta rap shortcuts.

From East New York in Brooklyn, Jeru got his first break going toe-to-toe with MC Guru on Gang Starr’s I’m the Man in 1992, and promptly borrowed Premier to produce his whole debut and its follow-up Wrath of the Math. More recently he released Dirty Rotten Demos, a previously lost collection produced by Guru around 91-92.

But even though Jeru hit the road two years ago to perform his first two albums back-to-back, he’s not sitting with his feet up dining out on past glories.

A regular visitor to Ireland, in recent years he’s appeared in Dublin with Gang Starr Foundation and the Beatnuts, and he moved to Berlin so he could play more gigs in Europe. His regular Do the Right Thing night in Amsterdam has started to tour other cities and he’s hosted acts like Pharoahe Monche, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Afu Ra. He’s also hooked up with Psycho Les to form his latest rap tag team the Funky Pandas.

“I like Berlin, it’s very central. I can get mostly anywhere from here in like an hour and for like 50 bucks,” Jeru says over the phone from his adopted city. “It reminds me of New York in the 80s and 90s, how New York used to be, lots of shit going on, things popping.”

I’ve caught him just as he’s getting off the U-Bahn train at Frankfurter Tor but he’s good to talk – about the early New York rap scene, playing chess with the Wu-Tang Clan, Guru’s guidance, and trying to be a positive “self-contained unit” with both eyes on the future.

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The Sun Rises in the East is informed by the street but it feels more like frontline reporting. How did you resist the temptation to go down the gangsta rap route?
I’m just a thinker, you know what I mean, I’m a positive person, I don’t have to talk about the gangster life, I lived it. I don’t think the youth should be exposed to it in that way, it shouldn’t be glorified.

I’ve been in shootouts and armed robberies and all types of crazy shit but I wouldn’t talk about it like that – what do you get from it, really? Unless I’m telling you what not to do, it makes more sense to talk about that shit.

A lot of artists in the 90s would’ve been glorifying crime when they weren’t really involved, were you trying to flip this a bit with a positive message?
I mean I was young, I was arrogant and I thought I could save the world, right? So that’s what it was about. I thought I had all of the answers and it turns out I didn’t know shit.

But the good thing is, I did what I was supposed to do, as far as me being a part of positivity and a positive catalyst, you understand what I’m saying?

But you can’t save the world, it’s impossible. I mean, for me at least I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the billion dollars. But I thought I could win, and it was good for my growth because it made me the man I am today. You have to stand for something, you have to have some type of moral value, some type of footing, some type of grounding.

Even by you worrying if you have a moral value or a moral focus, it kinda automatically suggests you do, in a way…
Of course. Things are different now, the way I see the world is different. People I called my enemies I don’t necessarily think are my enemies, or people I thought were my friends I don’t necessarily think of my friends now. Perspective… life is perspective.

The thing about age is, it’s not because you get smarter. No, you just get more experience, you’re able to detect some bullshit quicker. You’re able to avoid things, you’re able to avoid shit that before you would’ve got right into.

When I was young I was constantly fighting, fighting for everything… fighting for truth, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. I don’t fight anymore, I just create harmony. If I can’t fight something, I move it, if I can’t move something, I go around it it, if I can’t go around it, I climb it, you know what i’m saying? If I can’t do something I just go the other fucking way and just say fuck it.

But is it not hard to stay calm when you see the state of America, the hysteria around Trump, does that not piss you off?
Not at all, that shit don’t bother me because now I know that it’s all fake. I don’t get upset at the distraction, that’s distraction. The focus should just be on building yourself and making yourself a better human being, and this way that’ll run off on the people around you, right? So that’s what I’m trying to do now.

You mean you just see it as bitching and moaning?
Oh of course… I mean that’s part of the whole shit, you know, moaning and bitching. Like I woke up this  morning, I have all my fingers eyes, legs, toes, all my good parts work, right? So why bitch about it? My mother didn’t let us bitch about shit, she gave us three options – you either do something about it, you accept it, or you walk away from it. Why bitch about it?

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I was listening to an interview on a recent podcast, you were also chatting about your mother’s teaching, and also your aunt…
Yeah it was a real matriarchal set-up, 21 women or something like that. My aunt taught me how to rap when I was about eight.

What kind of rhymes were you coming up with when you were a kid?
I mean, stupid shit, shit that kids talk about, rhyming colours, what I’m having for dinner, shit like that, nothing really deep. The deepness started coming around 12-13, that’s when I really started getting good at it, then… boom…

When did you realise you were writing more serious lyrics?
Honestly, I was always rhyming about stupid kid shit until I started on my first record. Before that I was just rhyming about street shit, things that were going on in the street. Then I started getting a little more knowledge of myself and reading books and found a place where I wanted to tell people things.

I’m bossy, so I like to tell people how to do shit, or how to not do shit. Because basically before that I was preaching, I wasn’t really teaching, you feel me? Like some people got the message but I see 20 more effective ways I could do that nowadays.

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Around this time is it true you worked in McDonald’s with Masta Killa?
Yes sir, when we were about 16, we went to the same high school. We are all from the same neighbourhood, myself, Masta Killah, Afu-Ra, Blase Blase, the Fat Boys, a bunch of other groups were from my neighbourhood back in the day. So we grew up as kids and we worked in McDonald’s. I guess I was about 15, he was about 16-17.

So you would’ve been hanging out the the Wu-Tang guys back then?
Yeah I was hanging out with Wu-tang, it used to be me, the GZA, True Master, Afu-Ra… Ol’ Dirty Bastard came around a couple of times. I guess I was about 19 when we were hanging out.

Was it mostly partying or did you ever end up playing chess with the Wu-Tang?
Ah yeah we were partying, hanging out. We were playing chess in the park, we had a book stand. Like if you ever go to New York City on 6th Avenue, in front of Urban Outfitters there’s a bunch of guys with books, we actually set up the first book stand there. Myself, True Master, Afu, we used to sell books, and talk and play chess and smoke weed.

There’s this cliched idea of young rappers acting like gangsters on street corners, but you’re actually selling books and playing chess – it’s a great image…
I know, I know, but don’t get me wrong, we were doing it in a wild environment. It’s just that we came to that point where we thought we knew who we were, and who we wanted to be like as individuals. We didn’t wanna deal with savagery and all of the things that were going on around us.

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Jeru with Guru

This was also the time you started hanging out with Guru, who was a lot older. What was it like having him guide you?
Well I mean the funny thing is he wasn’t guiding us, we was guiding him! Like he got a different perspective on certain things — he was just a big brother, getting into all the shit we were getting into when he should’ve been telling us how to do things.

So it wasn’t like some big brother thing, it was like he missed something innocent and he was holding on to us. It was like he preserved our lives, a life preserver. He kept us out of the street and gave us some place to be and shit to do.

I mean, I can’t ever, ever, ever say how much I appreciate that. You know, I’m sitting in Germany right now in my apartment talking to you because of Guru, because of what he saw in me. Yes, it’s what I did, but he could have easily not had me around, there was other dudes hanging around but he took a shining to me.

Did you understand how important this period of your life was, or were you just a teenager going with the flow?
We were just hanging out and getting high… you only realise things  later, that’s why they say hindsight is 20:20 vision, because you don’t realise what shit is until it’s in the past, you know, until you don’t have it all.

Back to the present, even if there’s a touch of nostalgia about it… what’s the idea behind your Do the Right Thing shows?
I just wanted to do a party that was based on what I like, like the old parties, some music, some funk and soul, some hip-hop, some breakbeats, maybe someone to come on the mic, like a block party. So I took my boys and said we should do a party. That’s what happened two years ago and since then it’s getting pretty big, we just did a five-city tour with DC shoes with my new group with Psycho Les the Funky Pandas, yeah it’s an incredible journey…

Like a broader celebration of hip-hop culture? I see you DJ at the Do the Right Thing shows as well…
Yeah and I can break, I can pop lock, I write graffitti. I’m hip-hop. I’m hip-hop meaning I’m the culture of hip-hop, not just the rapping. I’m all of that, I’m part of that, and that’s what made hip-hop so powerful. That’s also what got it hijacked, because it was the most powerful tool. Hip-hop is a global culture. If you’re from England, your culture’s English, if you’re from America your culture’s American but you could be from anywhere and your culture could be hip-hop because hip-hop is the way you go about your daily dealings.

Producing, DJing, rapping, promoting shows, is that also a way to help you stay independent?
Yeah, I own all my own equipment, I’m a photographer, I edit film, I do it all. The biggest thing about me is I like to be self-sufficient, I like to be self-contained, I’m a self-contained unit, so if the whole industry stopped right now, I would still be able to do what I wanted to do.

I know you’ve been writing for film for a while, can you give any hints what you’re working on at the minute?
Well myself and Psycho, with our new group the Funky Pandas, we’re actually putting a movie out, and an album which is the soundtrack to the movie.  We haven’t figured out the whole movie yet, it keeps changing on a daily basis. Like, ‘This is what the movie is’, then three weeks later it’s like, ‘Um, yeah I got a great new idea bro…’

I mean it’s about us, so that’s it… Doctor Love Panda and Black Panda, but yeah other than that, I don’t know cos it was one thing before and now it’s constantly changing. Until it hasn’t changed for two months, then I’ll be satisfied with the idea.

One way to look at it is at least you’re able to adapt…
I think that’s my greatest quality, my greatest skill that has helped me make it this far in life, adaptability. I can adapt pretty well to most situations.

Just look out for the Funky Pandas album, it’s called Certified Bamboo. It’s gonna be coming out on my new label Maximum Warp Entertainment. There’s great things in the future, man. It’s all about being creative, being positive, and not letting life beat you down. Fortunately I’ve had some ups and I’ve had some downs but it hasn’t turned me into a bad person, or a bitter person or a hateful person… and I love Ireland, if you see me in Cork hit me up and we’ll have a couple of Guinnesses.

  • Jeru the Damaja plays Townland Carnival in Macroom in Cork tomorrow – for line-up and ticket details check