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We had a conversation with one of the most forward-thinking names to pick up a mic. Jeru the Damaja discusses his philosophies on how to deal with what life throws, plus why he moved into photography.
“My understanding of life now means I try to create harmony. If I don’t like something, I don’t beef about it, I move it. This way they don’t bother me.”
Kendrick Jeru Davis was, and remains, one of the most unique voices in hip hop. A self-confessed ‘weirdo’, Jeru owned the early-90s underground rap scene in New York, solo and with his affiliations with the likes of Gang Starr.
While the United States and the rest world were starting to really take notice of the ‘phase’ that was hip hop, Jeru was staying true to himself, a quality that has lead him to one of the longest careers anyone in hip hop has ever carved out.
After visiting Berlin on and off for 25 years, it’s now the place he calls home and according to him it’s no longer just saturated purely with techno. It’s a place where “one night there’s Big Daddy Kane, the next night it’s Smif-N-Wessun, it’s always popping”.
I rang him as he was leaving the set of shooting a video for his new project The Funky Pandas (alongside Psycho Les from the Beatnuts). Everything that came out of Jeru’s mouth was considered and sincere, but a truly awful phone connection meant I missed out on what I can only imagine were a rake of insightful thoughts.
I feel you were exploring weird flows and rapping over weird beats before hip hop even needed that refreshment. The genre was still so raw when you were making those more obscure sounds. Why did you feel hip hop needed something different, even in its relative infancy?
I’m just a weirdo. You need to do shit differently. You know what it is? From my generation, we all wanted to be different. The new generation, everybody’s style the same, everybody dress the same.
I was watching an interview with you from a few years ago and you said you made ‘Come Clean’ because you were tired of the state of rap music, that even back then there was a lot garbage. Is there more or less bad music now?
We have the internet now. There was probably the same amount of garbage back then, but now you have access to all the shit.
It’s not shit because it’s new, it’s shit because it’s shit. I’m not one of these old rap guys saying “what we were making was better”, I mean it was… But it’s not for those reasons, because there is good stuff now.
In that same quote you said that the A&R didn’t want to create trends, they wanted to follow them. Do you see anyone today actually creating trends?
The Funky Pandas… Most other people are just following trends. People are afraid.
How do you combat that?
Jeru today at age 46 is different to Jeru at age 22. I was trying to combat everything, I was trying to fight for right. I was trying to stop certain things.
Now I’m a lot calmer. If something is not where I want it to be, I move it. I don’t complain about it, I do it. That’s the difference, but that was the spirit of youth. It was a good thing though, I’m glad I did that, but now I’m in a position in my life where I look around and think, why should I fight? Fighting is not going to get it. It doesn’t mean that you lay down, because you still have to stand for something. I still stand for most of the same things, I just understand now that it’s not black and white.
My understanding of life now means I try to create harmony. If I don’t like something, I don’t beef about it, I move it. This way they don’t bother me.
Is that philosophy why you’ve been able to tour for so long?
I’ve been able to tour for so long because I make good fuckin’ music.
True, but a lot of people who make good music they burn out really quickly because they don’t have a strong mentality.
Here’s the thing, when I was young I was arrogant, but I was never a dick. So, I keep relationships, I have a good repertoire with the crowd… Over 25 years you learn how to rock, but I do more than that. I fuck with people, but I don’t do it for everybody, I do it for the people that like it.
If I’m in a room of 100 people where 80 people like it and 20 people don’t, I’m a winner. You don’t have to do everything for every body, and I’ve learned that.
A friend of mine went to the My Mind Spray Exhibition in Berlin last year, and I was really intrigued because I didn’t know you did photography. It was interesting because I felt like your photography work really clicked with your music, the aesthetic and the sound matched up. Was that an intentional thing?
It’s just who I am. Whether I’m making a film, recording music or whatever, it’s across the board, so it’s always going to match up.
Even if what I’m doing is the opposite of what I usually do, people say, “this is really consistent with who you are”.
Like my new record with The Funky Pandas, even though it’s quite different it’s still really consistent with who I am. Ultimately, I’m just honest.
And how do you choose the subject matter for your photography? With music it’s more in your hands, but with photography you’re relying on other factors…
I like people and I’m a good judge of character. A lot of times I take photos of people I know, whether they’re famous or not.
People who know me are honest with me, their eyes are honest. If I take a picture of Erykah Badu what she gives me is going to be different to what she gives other photographers. I’m going to get a bit more honesty because I know her. When you’re with people you don’t know your guard is up, but when that comes down you get a peak at who they really are.
Photographywas just something I wanted to explore, but I’ll never be fulfilled in my creativity.
Jeru The Damaja plays at Townlands Carnival, Cork from July 21-23. Click here for tickets.