Jahi: No Filler
By: Todd Davis

Ten years is a huge milestone, especially in Hip-Hop. In the past decade, many artists have come and gone, but Cleveland, Ohio, by way of the San Francisco Bay Area, resident emcee, Jahi, is still standing. The socially conscious, highly intellectual artist is celebrating this victory with the release of his seventh studio set, the thought provoking, appropriately titled, Less Is More…

When did music actually become your calling?

Um…Well, I’m not gonna take it way, way back, I’ll just say that I started probably like most emcees rapping on street corners, block parties, street battles, you know. I’m from East Cleveland, Ohio, and in East Cleveland we had a lot of rap crews. We used to have these things called “Breakfast Battles,” and that’s kinda where…That’s where if you thought you wanted to be an emcee, that’s where you found out. If you wasn’t an emcee, that’s where you found out, too! But, I’ll say that professionally, 1998 is a good point of where I started deciding I wanted to take my writing skills and really get into Hip-Hop, and just started finding my way to open shows for a lot of different larger name groups that were coming through. And then, (I) released a…Kinda like an underground Cleveland hit called ‘It’s All Good,’ and things started from there. I released my first record, Higher Elevation, in 1999, and I was one of the first Cleveland acts to actually get a chance to perform at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and on that show was Slick Rick. That’s where I (also) met Public Enemy for the first time. It was PE, Slick Rick, Outkast, Goodie Mob, and…I think Nas was on that bill. So, for being in Cleveland, you know, really I’ll say…The early years that I’m talking about, the street battles, the “Breakfast Battles,” you know, nobody was trying to get deals or pursue music. It was just (that it was this thing) we just loved. The same thing that was happening in New York was happening in my neighborhood; breaking up cardboard boxes and break-dancing, and rapping over beats. But, fast forward into that whole, that show in particular, and getting a chance to get on that bill kinda set off the start of my career from Cleveland, to take off to all of the things that I’m doing now, so…

Who do you consider some of your biggest musical influences?

Uh…You know, Um…I’ll have to say Run DMC, just because how big they took it. What Jay Z is doing right now, Run DMC did that in the eighties. So, definitely Run DMC, Rakim, KRS, you know. I have to say those, and then…But, I also have to say The O’Jays, (The) Commodores, The Whispers, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, because I grew up in a household that soul music was more important than the television, you know, so…

What prompted your decision to move out to The Bay Area?

Well, you know, The Bay…Initially there was a brother by the name of Tony Coleman (who) was doing a movement called the Third Eye Movement. They were doing some protests and actions, community actions, against Prop 21, which was the building of more prisons out here in the Bay Area, and I had a song called ‘Power Moves 2000’ that Davey D, on KPFA, had just really (been) blowing up and playing, and Tony Coleman got a-hold of my CD, man, and just invited me out. I had never been out to the West Coast, and we did a community concert in (Crissy) Field Park in San Francisco, and I really fell in love with The Bay, man. I like the weather, the independent energy, the community activism, so it all kinda spoke to me. And, you know, man, it really was a leap of faith. You know, I knew I wanted to…I was still in the East Coast, (and) I was still doing music and pursuing some things in the East Coast that I knew I wanted to change. I knew I wanted to position myself in a place where I could, if I was gonna remain an independent, socially conscious, Hip-Hop artist, I wanted a platform and a place to be able to do that, and The Bay was very conducive to what, you know, my musical goals (were). And then, just for me, personally, it’s a leap of faith. I came out here and I had an album called Window of Opportunity that I was selling while I was out here, and then things just kinda progressively took off. What I did was I just hit a lot of open mics. Java House is definitely, you know, Dwayne Wiggins’ spot, Java House, is definitely one spot that kinda confirmed for me that I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right type of music, ‘cause it was just such a great response there, and that started off The Bay.

What type of category do you put your music in?

You know, right now I’m calling it organic Hip-Hop, soulful vibes, and conscious music, and I say “Organic Hip-Hop,” because, you know, it’s like, “You can buy bananas from Safeway and they cool, but if it has the organic tag on it (that) just makes you understand that maybe it was some extra care put into that particular product, or some fresher fertilizer went into making it,” and I think that really describes the type of music that I’m doing. Because it’s like profanity free, it’s really uplifting, it’s talking about images and landscapes in Hip-Hop that sometimes don’t get enough visibility, it has some integrity to it, you can still dance to it (but) it’s not freaky. So, I definitely would have to (say) the organic Hip-Hop is what’s been sticking mostly to the label of what I do as far as music.

Was it always a conscious decision to remain independent?

Well, you know, my last release was actually released on a major through EMI, but I was out of the United States. It was in Denmark. So, I did release one album on a major, and, you know, quite honestly I set out to see what was happening in the market-place, find where I could kinda either blend in or stand out, and just make good music. I never said that I’m just gonna be an indie artist and forget the majors, or I didn’t say I want to be on the majors and forget being indie, I just set out a course to create bodies of work that I thought were quality, had purpose and meaning, and I’ve been open to all different roads of (opportunity). I think every artist wants to get their music out all over the world, so it wasn’t that I was against majors or tried to stick to be indie. The fact that I remain indie, I feel there’s a lot of advantages to being independent. You have a little more creative freedom and control, but there’s pros (to it)...Now that I’ve released a record on a major label, I could say there’s pros and cons to each. If you’re an indie, there (are) good things and there (are) challenges. If you’re on a major, there (are) great things and then there (are) challenges as well. What I’ve tried to do in all of this business aspect, is to make sure that at the end of the day I’m making quality music, and try and be as creative and as open as I can be to make sure I get the music out to as many people as possible.

Less Is More is the name you chose to call this new project -- Explain?

Well, you know…A couple things. One, I think a lot of artists are making albums with 17, 18, 19 tracks. It’s like, you know, on a first date, don’t tell me everything. Don’t give it all (up). It’s like, man, you know, it’s like, way too much I think. And, even with as much as I love some major artists, I think that we’re in a digital age, everything is moving fast, it’s new albums coming out every five seconds, MP3’s are the new 45’s. It’s just a constant bombarding of images and messages, and I think in Hip-Hop some emcees just go overboard with it. So, I figured I would do the opposite. You know, I come from, you know, just again, the school of Hip-Hop that I come from is, you gotta be aware of everything that’s going on, but then after you see that, you have to be original. You have to find your place, (but) you can’t copy. You have to find your own style. So, I’ve been seeing a lot of people going overboard on their album covers and artwork, with super color and diamonds and bling bling, so I said, “Okay, my cover will be black & white.” A lot of people putting 18 19 songs, (and) I got 7 songs. It’s straight to the point, real beats and real rhymes, no filler tracks, you know. And then, also, it’s a subliminal message, ‘cause less is more can be used in a lot of different ways. You know, less using of the electricity, more opportunities to have a better earth. You know, less driving, better for the environment. So, I can take…That title is significant of my record, but it’s also a subliminal message that I’m allowing people to put their own meaning behind it, too.

How does this new release differ and/or compare to previous Jahi efforts?

I just think it’s a continuation in the spirit of Jazz artists, which I study and really respect. You have to continue to create bodies of work, and I think this record…Sometimes people say, “This is the best record I’ve ever made.” You know, I’m not gonna say that. I’m just gonna say that I’m a musician, I’m an artist, I’m an emcee, and I’m true to that, and this is just a continuation of my journey in music. I’m really happy with this project because I think it’s very cohesive. I was inspired by just being back in The Bay, ‘cause I had moved overseas to Europe for a couple years and released music over there, and (it) proved that I wanted to come back to the states. And, just being back here and everything, getting back to that signal of organic Hip-Hop, everything happened organically; (from) the musicians, the tracks, (and) the songs. Everything just kinda happened in such an organic form, and it’s a new continuation. And, I think that people who appreciate my music, who have somehow someway found out who I am and what it is I do, I think they will appreciate it, and it feels good, it feels good.

Congratulations on 10 years in the game! What has been your secret for sticking around so long?

I think, you know, the key to my longevity is just no matter what, I just don’t give up, man. I think that self determination, you know…I’ll say this, man, Bob Marley was 36, and then when he passed he had 13 albums. That gives…I think about that a lot because…And in those 13 albums, 5000 years from now somebody’s gonna be playing a Bob Marley song. So, just to be able to know that there’s been musicians before me, shoulders that I stand on that have created music that can stand the test of time, I believe in that, I feel that. So, I think that kinda goes in my work ethic of what style, and what kind of music I’m gonna create, and speak about topics and issues that years from now people can still appreciate. And then, you know, just quality music, man. You know, I guess, sometimes, you really can’t speak for your longevity. I just…I’m celebrating ten years of Hip-Hop this year, and when I look back if I had to say one word that describes, like, why I’m still here still doing music, it’s just faith…Faith, man.

Are you planning to branch out and do anything else following on the heels of Less Is More?

Well, you know, the other aspect I think of recording music that’s becoming a lost art is live performances. So, it’s kinda the extension of this music is that I’m really gonna concentrate on one particular area and cover it very well. I’m in The Bay, I’m in California, so if I have to say branching out, it’s taking this music off a disc or, I guess, off an iPod, and bringing it in front of people live is the next thing and creating this experience. I want people to leave shows like, “Wow, that wasn’t just another rapper spitting, it was an experience. It was meaningful.” And then, I work in the community, man. I work at a youth center. I work with youth. I want to continue to do that. In the next five years, I hope to be able to open up youth community centers in a few places that focus on Hip-Hop history and culture, technology, and life skills, and those types of things, you know. Yeah, as much as I have some other ideas, I think right now I’ve had this renewed love with music, so I think there’ll be a lot more within the music that I will do. Instead of a lot of people, it’s the normal thing, “I’m gonna try to act, and do this and do that,” and those things are cool, but I think that where I’m at right now, I think the extension of this particular project just will be more music. You may catch me playing bass in a Go-Go band in DC or something like that. You never know.

You are also working on your first book, correct?

I do have a book called A Journey in Hip Hop - Volume One, and there will be a couple volumes coming out. The first volume has the Public Enemy experience, the Blackalicious experience, and then Destination Copenhagen. And, it’s kind of a musical memoir of my travels and my experiences, because I don’t think a lot, you know…The one thing I will say is that I don’t think a lot of people who are independent artists, without attachments to labels and those types of things, have been able to perform, for example, at Wembley Arena with Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. I don’t know a lot of people (that) can say that, and I think all too often we don’t tell our stories. So, there will be some books coming out. It’s called A Journey in Hip Hop - Volume One, (and) that’ll be out later on this year, and then there will be subsequent volumes coming out 2009 and (so forth).

Tell me something about you that everyone doesn’t already know?

Um…You know, that I care -- I care about life, I care about world peace, I care about the environment, you know. I care about people coming together in peace. You know, I think you will hear that in my music, but even outside of my music (that’s) the type of person that I’m trying to live my life (to be). If I could motivate and inspire anybody just by living, living positive, living in a holistic kinda way…People may catch that, they may not catch it, ‘cause I like to have fun and party in my music as well, but I think at the end of the day that defines who I am, the kind of person (I am).

What do you like doing for fun?

Probably playing chess, you know, reading a good book, you know, kicking back. I mean, if the sun is out, you know, just taking time to appreciate the fact that…Going back to The Bay, I mean, we in the Bay Area. People save up all year so they can come to places like this, so they can have a vacation. Take advantage of the beauty that’s around me. So, you’ll definitely see me doing that.

Seriously, how do you feel about today’s Hip-Hop music?

You know…I have to say this, number one, the word Hip-Hop, when people say Hip-Hop music it has become so ambiguous that I have to say the same problem still exists, and it’s an issue of imbalance. If you, in terms of the diet, if you eat potato chips and pop all day everyday, I mean, that could be your diet, but it’s not a balanced diet. So, in turn, your body is gonna be affected by what you eat. So, I’ll apply that to Hip-Hop, that…I love Hip-Hop, I am Hip-Hop, I do Hip-Hop, but there’s a huge imbalance in terms of the messages and the images, and the artists that we see. And, until there is balance, there will always be problems. And, even in those problems, I still love and I’m a part of it. But, you know, again, what I do is organic Hip-Hop, what I do is socially conscious Hip-Hop, what I do is…I do Hip-Hop that speaks to women without disrespecting them, and just looking at them as being sexual objects. The type of Hip-Hop I do is motivation music. It’s rebel music. It’s, you know, liberation type music. So, when I think about that style of Hip-Hop, I’m excited because I know that there’s a lot of people that are in that lane that are doing great music, that just because we don’t see and hear ‘em on the mainstream outlets does not mean that we don’t exist, and that we’re (not) doing good work. So, in that particular aspect, I’m excited about Hip-Hop. In terms of like the mainstream, I just think, again, it’s a matter of balance. I mean, I’d like to see anybody try and walk around all day on one foot, you know, so…

What has been your most memorable career moment?

Hmmm…Um…You know, I’ll just have to say this…You know, I was fourteen years old, man, and heard Run DMC, Rakim, and KRS and all these cats, and it effected me, man. And, the first time I picked up a microphone and realized that I had some oratorical skills. To be able to go from that moment to right now, and, you know, been able to see the world and perform on a lot of stages, and meet a lot of great people, I would have to say the culmination of all of that is the great experience. I couldn’t really pinpoint one thing. It’s the totality of my experiences that would be…I would have to say that the fact that I’ve been able to do those things, and without all of the things that people say you gotta have, “If you ain’t got a million dollar budget and all those types of things, you can’t get into the game.” I’m a living testimony that with determination and passion and, you know, challenging yourself and pushing yourself hard, man, dreams can come true. I’m living my dream right now.

What’s next for you, Jahi?

5 years down the line, you’re gonna catch me taking these young emcees to task on stage! I mean, for real! You’ll catch me still performing. I’ll probably be talking to you about what I’ve done in the last five years in terms of projects that I’ve put out. I would also (say) in 5 years, at least two of the youth centers that I’m looking to establish will be functioning by that time. And, still being a continuation of this music, man -- Still on the journey, man.


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