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The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0 (Part II)

 

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

In Part One of this interview, Oakland-based educator and rapper Jahi talked about how he became the lead emcee in PE2.0, a musical and cultural initiative created by Chuck D, Professor Griff, and the Public Enemy organization, which aims to revisit the group’s legacy while pushing forward for a new generation of listeners searching for consciousness, sanity, and dignity in rap music. In this continuation of the discussion, Jahi breaks down some of the specific songs on the new album People Get Ready, and the connection between himself, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, the Black Panther Party, and the city of Oakland.

Oakulture: Let’s talk about some of the original PE2.0 songs, like “Mind For Malcolm.” What are you dealing with on that song?

Jahi: “Mind for Malcolm” is actually not on the album, “Mind for Malcolm” is kinda like how you shoot a flare, send a signal. The fact is, if you know Public Enemy’s history, I believe it was Chuck or maybe Keith or Hank, they were out promoting, and they put up a poster of Malcolm, and somebody said, ‘who is the dude with the glasses?’ Or something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing.  What Chuck realized is, wow, not only could we make music, but we also could lift up some messages and really say something that matters.

"Mind for Malcolm" single

“Mind for Malcolm” single

So when Malcolm [X]’s birthday was approaching, I reached out to Chuck and asked if it was okay, if I took that track, name the song “Mind For Malcolm,” and use it as a signal to let people know that PE2.0 was coming. So that’s where “Mind For Malcolm” came from. So that was really like, one of the first, you know, I had recorded maybe 7 or 8 records, and none of those records ended up on the final cut of the album, but “Mind For Malcolm” stuck so we sent it out as a signal on Malcolm’s birthday.

Oakulture: What inspired “People Get Ready”?

Jahi: Ah, man. “People Get Ready” is not a song. It’s not a song. What it is, is a call to action to save the people. Get ready, ‘cause you might have to physically fight for your freedom. We were trying to decide on some album titles, and Chuck hit me with “People Get Ready,” and I was like, I mean, number one, Curtis Mayfield, he’s probably in my top ten of all time. And just thinking about Mike Brown, thinking about Marlene Pennock, thinking about Eric Garner, thinking about all these things, and not just current events, but historical events. And, it just feels like, it needs to be said that sometimes, we slip.  Sometimes we so social with having good times, partying and kicking it, that we not ready, we be getting blindsided, and the idea of… my grandfather used to say,’ it’s time to get ready.’ That means you organize yourself, you prepare yourself, you get things in order.  So you’re able to handle the task, and right now, the task of freedom, justice, and equality, we need to be ready.  And, the more we are not ready, the more we put ourselves at risk of losing our lives at this point.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

So, “People Get Ready,” once we diagrammed the album and just be thinking about… here’s where I’m at: if you think about it, I’m really not rhyming, it’s really a mantra, it’s really a chant, it’s really a meditation. Chuck comes with the rhyme. I’m not busting bars at all. But Chuck is. And then there was also a little play on that and Chuck said it.

Oakulture: “Panther Power” obviously references the legacy of the Black Panther Party. As an Oakland resident, how do you see that legacy shaping up in 2014?

Jahi: Well, “Panther Power” really first is a tribute and ode to Tupac Shakur, because on his first record, 2Pacalypse Now, he did a song called “Panther Power,” and in the chorus, he was actually cutting part of Chuck’s voice. So, the first part of it really was for him, for ‘Pac. Which connects to Oakland. I mean, the reality of it is, that in 2014, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, their beliefs, in terms of what they wanted for the community, in terms of the community services they wanted to provide, the cultural unity and pride, those are things that I feel like are as much alive now as they were then. I don’t look at the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense like they in a museum or something like that. I feel like it is very active in our lives and part of my job, as an emcee, is to attach to that. So, you know, I also got to say Rickey Vincent had a lot to do with it too, I gotta shout out to Rickey Vincent, because he wrote that book…

Oakulture: Party Music …

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Jahi: Party Music, where he talked about the Lumpen band. So if you hear my second verse, We talking 1968, Jah called on Tommie Smith, the band in Oakland, giving the soul mix. I mean, that comes directly from Rickey Vincent. Once I got turned on to the Lumpen band, it was like, yeah, it really informed the rest of that record. And then, originally Griff was supposed to be on that record, but he wasn’t able to get on it. But we had this concept of taking songs, and putting speeches inside the song. I got plenty of quotes at the beginning and end. But in “Panther Power” in particular, Kwame Ture, when he first said Black Power, I took that whole clip and put it in there. To give a context of just that spirit. It wasn’t about freedom, he said, we’re not talking about freedom, we’re talking about power. And right now, as much as we need freedom, justice and equality, black people, we need power.  And when you say Black Power or Panther Power, there’s a certain energy that comes with that. So I wanted not so much to resurrect that, but to continue it in 2014, to inspire a 9 year-old or 8 year-old, as well as a 40 year-old.

Oakulture: There’s some cultural authenticity there too. It’s not like you live somewhere else. I mean, you’ve been an Oakland resident for 15 years, right?

Jahi: That’s right, that’s right. I live here. When I said, writing rhymes late night in the home of the Panthers, I was in Oakland, California when I said that right there. When I felt like I had a first draft, I actually was watching sunsets at Merritt College. Like, these are facts. We in a time when most people’s rhymes are so fantasy. Sometimes, we be getting in metaphorical and lyrical exercises, nah, this is like right in your face. I mean, I’m in Oakland, and I’m thankful that I’m in Oakland. I lived a lot of places, I moved around a lot of places. But I’m thankful to be in Oakland, I’m thankful of the history here. I know that I’m standing on shoulders of ancestors. I don’t take it for granted. You know, just being in Public Enemy stands on the shoulders of the Panthers. You know what, I couldn’t have been in a better place anywhere else in the world to be able to do this first project.

Oakulture: “What They Need” is another strong one. What are you addressing with that one?

Jahi on the set of "What They Need"

Jahi on the set of “What They Need”

Jahi: Mmmn. “What They Need” is a revisit, give the people what they need was [an] original lyric by Public Enemy. So I really like how they did the chorus, cameras, lights, action, look out, human rights, whiplash, po-po, Fed killers, killing kids. I mean, we are experiencing that right now. So, I think about kids, if you say here’s some ice cream, or here’s a home-cooked mean, you know, beans and rice and all of that. All of the kids will go pick what they want, they’ll pick the ice cream. But the reality is what we need is more wholesome and important for us. So “What They Need” was really kinda diving in to say that, you know, there’s a certain level of lyricism with emcees that are around the world, and represent a particular lane. And that lane is socially-conscious. It is aware. It is forward-thinking, and it is life-affirming, it is revolutionary. And I wanted to send a signal that, I’m not dissing nobody in nobody else’s lane, but I’m in my lane. And my lane is just as valid as anybody else. And when you look at it from a world perspective, you realize that. So, in mentioning “What They Need,” don’t just be social, be committed and vocal. It’s some ancient context. I said, we giants, we not just talking baseball, we talking ancient scrolls that was left on the wall, that best represent the renaissance people. We are still those renaissance people. It’s almost like a reminder back and a push forward at the same time.

 

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The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0

Jahi as PE 2.0 on the set of the "What You Need" video

Jahi as PE 2.0 on the set of the “What They Need” video

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.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

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.

Jahi performing live. Photo credit: PE2.0

Jahi performing live. Photo credit: PE2.0

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.

Jahi on the set of the "What We Need" video

Jahi as PE2.0 on the set of the “What We Need” video

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.

People Get Ready is available here and here.