From the moment she picked up the microphone in the early 1990s, hip-hop aficionados have proclaimed the genius of Jean Grae. Her in-your-face raps were fueled by literary lyrics and visceral imagery. Her rise to stardom seemed assured, but the limelight eluded her. Despite putting out several acclaimed albums and earning the respect of the most-respected of her rapping peers, Grae was still waiting for major success a decade into her career.
Raised from Musical Roots
Jean Grae was born Tsidi Ibrahim in Capetown, South Africa, in 1976 to Abdullah Ibrahim, a world-renowned jazz pianist, and Sathima Bea Benjamin, a jazz singer. Both of her parents traveled worldwide, performing with legends such as bandleader Duke Ellington. Regardless of their musical stature, Ibrahim and Benjamin were blacks during the dawning of apartheid in South Africa, and therefore second-class citizens. In protest, they joined the African National Congress (ANC)—the anti-apartheid party led by Nelson Mandela—but when the ANC was legally banned in 1960, the Ibrahims found themselves facing possible arrest. As oppression increased, they decided to go into exile.
Grae and her family arrived in New York City in 1977. The Ibrahim household became a destination for both exiled South Africans and worldclass musicians. "I grew up in a home full of music," Grae recalled on her Web site. As independent artists, both Ibrahim and Benjamin struggled to stay true to their musical identities while forging careers. "I remember [my mother] doing her press kits and taking me around to the pressing plants to press up her own records and start her own label, to be independent and make the music she wanted to do," Grae told Jive Magazine.
Grae's mother taught her to read by the age of three, setting off a life-long love of reading and writing. The cover photo for Grae's 2004 album, This Week, featured her surrounded by books, writing. Grae also began dance classes at a very young age. At 13, she became the youngest dancer ever to earn a spot with the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, the second company of the famed modern dance company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Meanwhile, Grae excelled in school, soaring through an advanced junior high program and landing in the LaGuardia School of the Arts as a vocal major where she learned to read and arrange music. By the age of 16, she felt she had learned enough and, with her mother's support, she dropped out. After earning a GED, she took a six-month music engineering course and then enrolled in New York University as a music business major. After two months, Grae quit, telling herself, "I've lived this all my life...why is my family going to waste the money on this?," she recalled on her Web site.
Forged Career of Cameos
By her early teens, Grae had begun to hang out in New York's West Village, home to musicians, poets, and emcees. Grae recalled on her Web site that there were "beats everywhere," giving rise to some of rap's most respected performers, including Mos Def and Talib Kweli. In the early 1990s, Grae formed rap group Ground Zero and changed her name to What? What?. She left in 1996 to join Natural Resource. The group's self-produced 12-inch single "Negro League Baseball" went to number one on the college radio charts. The group also launched the record label Makin' Records and Grae produced tracks for local artists such as Pumpkinhead.
After Natural Resource broke up in 1999, Grae was determined to pursue a music career. "I wanted to start over and establish myself as a solo artist, and pretty much just as a grown woman," she told Eye Weekly. However Grae would not go solo just yet. Instead she earned the nickname "cameo queen." "I threw myself into any studio that I could get into for the next couple of years, doing appearances whenever asked," she wrote on her Web site. In 2001 she recorded three tracks for the album Pity the Fool by Mr. Len. Though a commercial flop, the album was critically acclaimed. It was also a turning point for Grae. "Len's album gave me the push to stop waiting for that perfect song in my mind and just put myself out there," she wrote on her Web site.
During the years of appearing on other people's albums, Grae earned praise for inserting uniquely female perspectives into the gritty realm of testosterone-driven rap. "She was a protective lover on Masta Ace's 'Hold U'; a covert assassin on Immortal Technique's 'The Illest'; a chillingly rendered molestation victim turned psychopathic schoolyard killer in Mr. Len's epic 'Taco Day,'" wrote a reviewer for the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages. "With these characters, Grae demonstrated her ability to tell stories male MCs couldn't, lending a voice to the heavier elements of the female psyche that hip hop rarely ventured into."
Found Limited Recognition, Maximum Frustration
Early in 2000, Grae adopted the name Jean Grae, based on an X-Man comic book character who possessed telekinetic powers. Grae released her first solo album in 2002, Attack of the Attacking Things. Recorded in her tiny New York apartment in just two weeks, the album was rough around the mixes. Nonetheless the lyricism of the songs came through loud and clear. "What it lacks in flam and polish," wrote a Village Voice reviewer, "Attack makes up for with the determined and singular power of a compelling personal vision." The album struck a chord with those lucky enough to hear it, and despite no promotion, barely any radio play, and scant representation in even the most independent of record shops, Attack managed to sell over ten thousand copies.
Grae's way with words continued to impress on her second album, produced in 2003, The Bootleg of the Bootleg. "Grae's lyrical skills are deft in every sense of the word, period," wrote a reviewer for Vibe. The reviewer continued, "[Grae] employs tongue-twisting, gut-wrenching metaphors and with sheer ferocity declares that she's back on the scene with a vengeance." Grae also showed emotional diversity moving from the fury of "Hater's Anthem" to the soul-searching of "Take Me."
At a Glance...
Born Tsidi Ibrahim in 1976, in Capetown, South Africa; took the name Jean Grae, 2000; daughter of Abdullah Ibrahim (jazz musician) and Sathima Bea Benjamim (jazz singer). Education : Attended New York University, music business, 1992.
Career: Rapper, producer, 1990s–; Group Zero, rap group member (as What? What?), 1990s; Natural Resource, rap group member, 1996-99; Makin' Records, co-founder and producer, 1996-99(?);
Awards: Plug Independent Music Awards, Female Artist of the Year, 2004.
Addresses: Publicist— Biz 3 Publicity, 1573 N. Milwaukee Ave., #452, Chicago, IL, 60622. Web— www. jean-grae.com.
Grae described the album to Vibe as "dark." In it she lashed out against the recording industry and rap in particular. In the song "My Crew," she chanted, "Rap's dead, rap sucks, and thanks to y'all for killin' it // Grillin' it down and spillin' its guts and fillin' it back up with trash // Wait, I mean cash." It was a common theme for Grae. She felt immense anger at the recording industry for praising her music while at the same time refusing to represent her.
Poised to Become Future Rap Star
In 2003 Grae's career arced upwards. She did a successful tour with hip-hop heavyweights, The Roots. "It was incredible to get on the road and just be out there with so many talented people," Grae told Prefix Magazine. "[Having] a live band and hearing your music replayed. It just gives it a totally different feel, a totally different emotion." The following year Grae appeared on The Roots's hit album The Tipping Point.
Grae released This Week in 2004. A musical crawl through a week in Grae's life, it gained immediate praise in the urban culture press. In contrast to the hard-hitting venom of Bootleg, This Week featured danceable raps such as "Going Crazy" and tender tracks like "Supa Luv." However, her characteristic fury was still present in songs like "Whatever." Grae also used the album to apologize for the anger she had spat out for so long. Of the song "P.S." she told Prefix Magazine, "[It's about] the difference from the first two albums, which would be sort of holding a grudge and having more of a negative outlook on things and realizing that when you get older it doesn't pay to keep those feelings."
By 2005 Grae was busy touring, both as a headliner and with other artists. The venues were still small, the record sales still limp, and the struggle for recognition still uphill. Yet, there was hope. Her fourth album Jeanius received heavy pre-release buzz and Grae was voted Plug Independent Music Award's female artist of the year. After a decade of performing, Grae was still the next-big-thing, waiting to explode into mainstream, MTV consciousness. She was okay with that. "I've come to terms with the fact that no matter how many times I proclaim quitting, get frustrated with measly financial compensation for my work, or just plain hate what I do some days, this is what I was put here to do," she wrote on her Web site. "Music. It's the only thing that can bring the most beautiful or horribly ugly emotions out of me. Anything that can do that has got to be worth loving, worth fighting for and worth living passionately about."
Attack of the Attacking Things, Third Earth, 2002.
The Bootleg of the Bootleg, Babygrande, 2003.
This Week, Babygrande/Orchestral, 2004.
"Amazing Grae," Eye Weekly, www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_05.15.03/thebeat/extended.html (March 11, 2005).
"Biography," Jean Grae, www.jean-grae.com (March 11, 2005).
"Grae's Anatomy," Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, www.citypages.com/databank/24/1194/article11599.asp (March 11, 2005).
"Jean Grae: Going Against the Grain," Jive Magazine, www.jivemagazine.com/article.php?pid=2281 (March 11, 2005).
"Jean Grae: Growing Pains," Vibe, www.vibe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=519 (March 11, 2005).
"Jean Grae, She Wants to Move," Prefix Magazine, www.prefixmag.com/features.php?t=interview&f=Jean_Grae_%20PartOne (March 11, 2005).
"Jean Grae X-ecutes the Competition," Vibe, www.vibe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=137 (March 11, 2005).
"Not Your Superwoman," The Village Voice, www.villagevoice.com/music/0238,allen,38392,22.html (March 11, 2005).
Born Tsidi Ibrahim, Jean Grae spent the first three months of her life in her native South Africa. She told the Jive Magazine website, "It's not an impact of living there, but the impact of not living there, I think has changed my life in a way I'm sure I couldn't even possibly fathom." Grae's family moved to New York when Grae was three months old, and she would spend the remainder of her childhood there. The daughter of jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin and jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, the youngster quickly developed an appreciation for the arts, training as a dancer and opera singer before beginning her career as an emcee. She was constantly encouraged to locate her artistic voice and pursue her musical aspirations. Grae attended the Fiorello LaGuardia School of the Arts and Performing Arts, where she excelled as a vocal major. After graduation she was accepted for admission to New York University's music business program. She quickly decided, however, to forego her formal higher education in order to devote more time to her rap career.
Grae began her rap career in the mid-1990s on the underground circuit, performing under the name What? What?. In 1997 she was recruited by rapper Ocean to help form the group Natural Resource. The group, which founded its own label in 1997, released the underground classic "Negro League Baseball," as well as several other 12-inch singles. While performing with the group, Grae also began to produce records for other label artists, including Pumpkin Head, Don Scavone, and The Bad Seed. Although Natural Resource broke up in 1998 due to personal and creative differences, Grae's reputation continued to spread throughout the rap world. She changed her name from What? What? to Jean Grae, named after the telekinetic heroine from the X-Men comic book series. Grae began making guest appearances on numerous projects, including Herbaliser, High & Mighty, Da Beatminerz, and the Mumia 911 Project.
In 2002 Grae released her first album, Attack of the Attacking Things, which featured Da Beatminerz, Mr. Len, and Masta Ace. The album received consistently high praise from critics and fans, who appreciated the album's dark, honest feel and content. In a review of the album, Harry Allen of the Village Voice described Attack of the Attacking Things as "Jean Grae, after dozens of similar cameos over several years of underground records, finally battling demons on her own turf, trading on both her unaltered gift for lyrical delicacy, and her distinctive, deliberately understated vocal style."
By 2003 Grae had begun work on her next full length LP, but did not want to lose the momentum gained from Attack of the Attacking Things. After signing to independent label Babygrande Records in conjunction with Orchestral Entertainment, she decided to quickly release the EP Bootleg of the Bootleg. The six-song EP, which also featured a 45-minute bonus track of Grae freestyling over popular rap beats, was highlighted by "Hater's Anthem" and "Swing Blades," featuring the underground group Cannibal Ox. The album was well received, and created a larger buzz for her follow-up LP. Nate Patrin of City Pages lauded Grae's artistic development on the album: "Grae's flow becomes the true highlight of her arsenal. Her voice boasts the sort of self-assured smoothness Erick Sermon carried in '88, retrofitted to adhere to the multiple-assonance virtuoso techniques of the post-Shady underground."
Soon after the release of the album, Grae prepared to embark on a 30-city tour with Cannibal Ox. The tour, which Grae hoped would bolster her reputation and help promote Bootleg of the Bootleg, ended abruptly when Cannibal Ox disbanded at the outset of the tour. Although the breakup and cancellation of the tour was a blow to her career, Grae continued to perform in small venues for little money in order to increase the exposure for her next project.
Grae's underground work ethic began to reap benefits by the end of 2003. She began to work with hip-hop super-group The Roots, and briefly performed on the winter OkayPlayer tour. By the beginning of 2004 Grae had accepted a full-time spot on the spring OkayPlayer tour, and made a guest appearance on The Roots' Tipping Point album. She also appeared on the song "Black Girl Pain" with Talib Kweli, which appeared on his commercially successful Beautiful Struggle album.
In September of 2004 Grae released her third album, titled This Week. The album's title alludes to its overall concept, which is to capture a week in the life of an MC. She told Vibe.com, "I tried my best to kind of not think about the other songs on the album that much when I was recording the next one. It's more of a range of emotion and every song is different and that's pretty much what it feels like to me. You know, every day is totally different." The album provided Grae with the biggest commercial and critical success of her career. According to Billboard magazine, "Jean sounds more ready for prime time than ever. To say there isn't one bad track on this album would be a drastic understatement."
Despite a wealth of support from hip-hop's lyrical elite and her ever-growing popularity, the emcee hailed by Rolling Stone as "New York's best-kept secret" has no intention of abandoning the underground for the lucrative commercial world. She told BallerStatus.net, "If I ever got an offer from a major label I would never take it. I've put enough into this not to compromise anything right now."
For the Record . . .
Began rap career performing under the name "What? What?" in the group Natural Resources, 1997; Natural Resources broke up, 1998; performed with artists including the Herbaliser, Masta Ace, and Mr. Lif, late 1990s; released debut solo album, Attack of the Attacking Things, on Third Earth, 2002; released EP Bootleg of the Bootleg on Babygrande, 2003; performed in Okayplayer tour with The Roots, 2003; released second solo album, This Week, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Babygrande Records, 8033 W. Sunset Blvd., Ste. 1038, Hollywood, CA 90046, website: http://www.babygrande.com. Website—Jean Grae Official Website: http://www.jeangrae.com.
Attack of the Attacking Things, Third Earth Music, 2002.
Bootleg of the Bootleg (EP), Babygrande, 2003.
This Week, Babygrande, 2004.
Billboard, September 23, 2004.
Mugshot, October/November 2004.
URB, November 2004.
Village Voice, September 18, 2002.
"Babygrande Records," HipHop-Elements.com, http://www.hiphop-elements.com/article/print/4/6335/1/ (December 21, 2004).
"Grae's Anatomy," City Pages,http://www.citypages.com/databank/24/1194/print11599.asp (December 21, 2004).
"Jean Grae: Bringin' Gritty New York," BallerStatus.net, http://www.ballerstatus.net/underground/read/id/16672686/ (December 21, 2004).
"Jean Grae: Going Against the Competition," JIVEMagazine. com,http://www.jivemagazine.com/article.php?pid=2281 (December 21, 2004).
"Jean Grae: Growing Pains," Vibe.com,http://www.vibe.com/print.php?sid=519 (December 21, 2004).
"Jean Grae X-ecutes the Competition," Vibe.com,http://www.vibe/com/print.php?sid=137 (December 21, 2004).
—Marc L. Hill