Being asked to be a part of your favorite group is a dream come true for a music fan. That rarely happens in real life, but it happened for Oakland-based emcee Jahi, who was asked by rap icon Chuck D to be the lead emcee in PE 2.0, a continuation of the legendary hip-hop outfit Public Enemy. The chess-like move made sense: there was a need to update the PE formula for a new generation of listeners, and Jahi—who’s been making conscious rap music for more than fifteen years, and is a father and educator who works with youth to boot—fit the bill to a tee.
With the release of People Get Ready, the first PE 2.0 album in a planned trilogy, the dream has become reality. On the album, Jahi swerves between faithful remakes of some of the lesser-known, but still relevant, classics in the PE catalog, and new songs which update the PE ethos. Recently, Oakulture founder and Editorial Director Eric K. Arnold spoke with Jahi about the project, which not only rebrands PE’s movement politics-over-beats-and-rhymes-style for the 21st century, but also entailed a number of inherent challenges for the emcee, who was passed the torch of a historical and cultural legacy and expected to run with it. In the first part of a lengthy conversation, Jahi runs down the story of how PE 2.0 came about, and how he approached the task of making People Get Ready.
Oakulture: What’s the concept behind PE 2.0?
Jahi: The concept is two-fold. One, my job is to go inside of Public Enemy’s catalog and find songs you haven’t heard that still have power and punch, and either cover those, or what we call revisit. Where I may cover a portion of it and write some new material. Second part is, I create brand new songs over either Bomb Squad production, or the new production team we have within PE 2.0., which also really is a part of the Public Enemy family. So, it’s those two things, but the goal is, when you do something with Public Enemy, you find it’s a tree with many branches. And the trunk is the main part, but also it’s a lot of other things. The other thing I want to add is songs, movement, and mindsets. We’re trying to create strong songs, in the spirit of Public Enemy, which could either be the soundtrack to the movement, or allow our music to create movement, and ultimately to create better mindsets. PE 2.0 is just another branch on the tree that is Public Enemy. Over the next five to seven years, PE 2.0 will slowly emerge into the core of Public Enemy. Chuck D is not retiring, he’s an elder statesman, meaning that so instead of doing a two-hour show, he can do a one-hour show, but you still get a two-hour experience, because PE 2.0 is myself as the lead emcee, but it’s the rhythm section of Public Enemy currently.
Oakulture: So you had access to the entire PE vault then?
Jahi: I do.
Oakulture: How did this come about? What was the discussion between you and Chuck D?
Jahi: Hmm. Well, the discussion kinda started, it started on the 20th anniversary tour of Public Enemy, where Chuck had kinda said, James Brown, Bobby Byrd. I was like wow, cause he wanted me to emcee the tour and host, and also perform, so he hit me with that concept and I understood what he meant: the call and response, the connection between James and Bobby so, if you know that history… I knew exactly what he was saying. Over a period of time, we have just been talking about how to extend Public Enemy and how I can become an integral part. We bounced around a couple of ideas, but we landed on PE 2.0 because it represents the second generation. I’m the second generation, right under Public Enemy. Chuck and I have known each other for fifteen years. I have to say, the main way that PE 2.0 really took off was, I got a call from [Professor] Griff, and Griff was like, we gotta make this happen, this is an opportunity, get on it. I had already bought into the idea with Chuck. But I didn’t know how to address some of the songs. I’ll give you an example. “Yo” was the first record to come out in Cleveland by Public Enemy. So when Chuck was like, revisit that, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was like, I can’t say nothing else on this, ‘cause I just hear the original version. But it just took a bit of time, and us having conversations that just really mattered. You know, Chuck is very strategic, this is not a rap group, this is a strategy. And a lot of those conversations about what the strategy would be and all of that, we realized, you have to get out of conversation stage and simply start, and this is the starting point.
Oakulture: What’s it like for you now to play the Public Enemy #1 position, as someone who came up during the Afrocentric era, during the height of the 1.0 version?
Jahi: You know, one of the biggest words is humble. Humility, honored, appreciative that I’m in this position. Not so much for me individually, but what I can bring to the table that can add—repave the lane of Public Enemy. We know that Public Enemy in the ‘80s was really our voice, you know, for social, conscious, political, black movement. And I think we are at a time and space where we continue to do that, and I’m just humbled to be a part of it, and have the Public Enemy brand, and I guess more than brand, the Public Enemy overstanding, the Public Enemy energy and spirit to guide my work as an emcee.
Oakulture: How did you approach this project from a lyrical standpoint?
Jahi: I have to say that in my career, this is one of the two toughest challenges I’ve had as a lyricist. This would be number one, because there’s only one Chuck D, you’re not dropping Chuck D, you just have to accept that. Chuck D is a one on one. In terms of covering, I was with Blackalicious for a while, and trying to cover Gift of Gab was definitely not an easy task. So that was kind of my proving ground. But the way I approached this lyrically was, number one, what would Chuck say, number two, I’m not trying to be an imitation of somebody, but also bring my own voice. Pay attention to what’s happening. In my own way, I had my own ministers of information over the years, giving me information or saying, oh you should come to this, you should talk about this. Because that’s part of the Public Enemy formula. Griff and Chuck, Hank, Keith, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, they would have a lot of conversations and put a lot of things on the table. And out of that is where a lot of those songs came from. In a lot of ways, I tried to use that same energy and spirit, I mean, Chuck counselled me a lot, just on… I wouldn’t say counselled like go back and say this or change this, but Chuck set a standard, and I did my best job to meet that. So lyrically, it took some time. The longest time I’ve ever taken to write an album. Ever.
Oakulture: Some of the songs are faithful remakes, like “Rightstarter.” On others, like “Yo!,” you add your own lyrics. What was the process like in choosing what PE songs to update?
Jahi: “Rightstarter (Message to the Blackman)”, Chuck was able to get the original instrumentals to Yo! Bum Rush the Show, he hadn’t had those instrumentals in over 20 years. So when they were unearthed, immediately, I just knew I was gonna cover “Rightstarter (Message to the Black Man),” because number one, it was an incredible challenge, number two it was a song that in the ‘80s really set my consciousness: mind over matter, mouth in motion, can’t deny it cause I’ll never be quiet, let’s start this… I really had freedom of choice to some degree, and then there were certain times, when Chuck was like, yo, I want you to cover this. Like “Yo” was a song, the record was almost done, but like you need to go and do “Yo.” Like, yo, pay attention. So, it was part freedom and part guidance. When I did “What Side You On,” to me that just felt like a complete Public Enemy moment. Just the whole way the record comes in. So I wanted to have healthy challenges. And then the other thing is, I can’t do “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Shut Em Down,” “Fight the Power,” those are Public Enemy staples. You can’t touch those. So it took me a while to go through the catalog. But I wanted to be intentional: let me go to this period. Ok, let me go to this. Let me get away from It Takes A Nation of Millions to a large degree, and let me go to these other spaces and places. Because again, you gotta think about a 28-year catalog of music Public Enemy has. So, you know, and then the other thing I understood is that this [next] record comes out February, and the next record comes out this summer. So we’re doing a trilogy before we come up for air. So I also understood, ok, I didn’t get to that one, but I’ll get to it on the second record, or I’ll get to it on the third record.