Born into music and trying to rebirth it in her own
way. Jean Grae (p/k/a What?What?) is a different breed of emcee.
Forget being a different type of female emcee which is painfully
obvious at first listen, she is trying to take the game to a next
The daughter of jazz greats and South African exiled parents, Grae
was born in South Africa but is a New Yorker at heart. Moved at the
young age of 3 months, the young Jean grew up around all different
kinds of music and learned to appreciate the ingenuity and creative
driving force of being an independent musician and all around free
spirit very quickly. Both her mother and father took a lot of care
in exposing her to the openess and freedom of jazz and the free
flowing expression of living a musicians life.
Attending the High School of Performing Arts as a vocal major, the
experience of further learning to read and arrange music as well as
learn classical and choral arrangements, enabled the young
performer to have a broad knowledge and appreciation for all
musical tastes. Equally inspiring were the English classes that
Jean would excel in and choose to go to when deciding to skip the
Grae decided on leaving high school in her senior year and after
earning her G.E.D after 3 months. She then enrolled in an
engineering course at Sam Ash Music Institute, a fledgling break
off comprised of former Institute of Audio Research teachers and
earned a degree in a short 6 months. Only 16, and out of school
already, her mother suggested applying for New York University. "In
[high] school, I had decided not to take my S.A.T's because I
didn't think I would be attending an academic college, so I just
dismissed it. My mom suggested NYU, but their policy is that if you
didn't take your S.A.T.'s you couldn't be admitted unless you
scored a 98 or above on the admissions test. I figured ok, make mom
happy, take the test... I didn't think I would get in." But Grae
did, and attended NYU for a semester, before realizing that the
money her parents were spending to put her through school as a
Music Buisness major was wasted when she could learn so much more
from learning hands on in the real world. Grae had since long been
trying her hand at production since 13, and was already immersed in
the "hip-hop" culture through associations. "There was always a
cipher, I never got in it. Everyone was emceeing, I would never
rhyme in public but I was always writing, and making beats at home.
I would rhyme for a couple of people, but I didn't really think of
taking it too seriously. I think I wanted to be more of a producer
and writer. The emceeing just kind of evolved out of that."
Through friends, Jean was introduced to Ocean, a Brooklyn emcee who
had already formed a group Natural Resource.. "I was already in a
group at the time," says Grae. "It was myself and a dude named
Rhythm, we named ourselves Ground Zero, and did a few tracks. The
producer had sent it to Unsigned Hype in The Source, and to my
surprise they printed it up, people were feeling it. I wasn't
really happy with the group though. My partner was cool but I
wasn't as gung-ho about it as everyone else involved in the
project. I don't regret it at all, it was a learning
The break up of Ground Zero almost overlapped Jeans alliance with
Natural Resource.. The group had quickly become a family of emcees,
and the idea that grew on the phone about doing a skit about Jeans
former moniker "What?What?" grew into the song "Baseball". "We were
talking about the Abbot and Costello routine 'Whats on first...whos
on second,' and for some reason, myself and Meat Pie (of OBS)
thought maybe we should turn it into a song with a few emcees.
Originally the lineup was going to be about 7 or eight people...but
it turned out to be just the 3 of us." The young rappers put out
the song "Baseball" with the flip side "They Lied", and it took
"We had no idea people would take to it that well, we didn't even
put our names or pictures on the record, it was the cheapest art
ever! DJ's would play it and ask on air if the people who made the
record would please call up the station. It was crazy."
The next few releases from Natural Resource garnered worldwide
attention and the small group grew to be part of an underground
conglomerate Makin' Records. Jean continued recording with all
Makin' artists, producing debut singles for the label’s artists
Pumpkinhead and The Bad Seed. While recording as part of "Makin'
Fam", she also traveled out to work with UK producers, The
Herbaliser for their 1997 release Blow Your Headphones, steadily
gaining credit as an emcee to listen for.
With the break up of Natural Reource in 1998 due to "creative
differences", the group split amicably, each departing to pursue
solo projects and more. Jean started recording as a solo artist and
had the name change from the former What?What? to the now in use
Jean Grae. "I just wanted to start over again, to introduce myself
as a solo artist. I just didn't feel like anyone had really gotten
a chance to hear what I had to say."
Over the next couple of years, Jean imprinted her stance as the
coined "cameo queen" on a variety of independent releases. The High
And Mighty's "Hands on Experience", featuring Kool Keith and
Bobbito, the politically charged "Mumia 911" and "Hip Hop For
Respect" projects, Apani B Fly's "Estragen", and the overlooked
solo joint "Keep Livin'" released on The Lyricist Lounge's 1999
Tour album, just to name a few.
She continued to record a catalog of music, traveling overseas to
her native South Africa with Mr.Len and Bobbito Garcia to become
the first New York hip hop artists to perform there, months before
the much publicized trip of Dead Prez.
Back in New York, Jean continued to record and work with producers
like Mr.Len, evade, Masta Ace and Da Beatminerz, to try and create
a sound for herself while constantly trying to always have releases
or appearances out to keep the name hot. "I'm really happy that I
never stopped working. There isn't a time where someone can say
'Jean Grae? Yeah I haven't heard anything from her in awhile'.
There's always a release or 2, or 3 out that I'm on somewhere. I
think it's incredible that I can have such a loyal fan base without
ever having a single, EP, or full length release. How many artists
can say that?"
Ms. Grae has indeed kept us listening for her. On Mr. Len's "Pity
The Fool," Jean finally got a chance to shine, with 4 cuts on the
album that showcase her versatility and storytelling abilities.
“Taco Day”, in some hip-hop enthusiasts mind, was the track that
really put Jean Grae on the map. This Carrie-like story showcased
her storytelling abilities combined with her lyrical skillfulness,
increasing her fans and solidifying her stay in the industrry.
She followed her Len appearance up with a full length that
impressed all that heard it entitled, "Attack Of The Attacking
Things." In late 2003, she followed up with another head-turning
EP, "The Bootleg of the Bootleg" EP. This was the first of her work
on Babygrande and working with the production company Orchestral
and marked the beginning of her relationship with The Roots. A
short stint on the winter OkayPlayer tour turned into The Roots
asking her to tour with them and be on their new record as well as
inclusion on the OkayPlayer spring 2004 tour. Along with the tour
in 2004, Jean released “This Week”, her second LP featuring
production from Midi Mafia and 9th Wonder.
How has 2006 been to Jean Grae? This year has already brought Jean
to Blacksmith Music, the label under Warner Bros. Records that is
run by Talib Kweli and Corey Smyth. You will soon find the official
release of Jean’s “Jeanius” record with her and 9th Wonder followed
by another full-length album proving that she’s not just a female
emcee, she’s an emcee—period.
Featurette from Allhiphop.com
The state of women in Hip-Hop is terrible. All the top chicks
appear to be a variation of the same person. Even if they aren't
the same chick, there is one that is boldly different. The problem
is, Jean Grae was unable to get any real traction in the rap game
even though she had the illest wordplay, a cute face and an the
critical acclaim beyond sales. She's appeared on this website and
even had a column that had readers tickled pink. Well in the last
few years, the mixtapes, the hype and the AHH column are all gone.
Most fanatics like myself know that Jean inked with Talib Kweli's
Blacksmith Records, but will the support be there in force like the
love? Will the rap music industry allow for a new cog to enter the
machine even though it doesn't quite fit? Only time will tell, but
if she gets in she is going to give every rap chick a run for their
This Week release 2004 — babygrande
Attack of the Attacking Things — release 2002 Third Earth Music
The Bootleg of The Bootleg 2003 — babygrande
Big Money talk/ The Jam 2005 — Decon
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