0ne of J-Live's all-time favourite quotes is spoken by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. A noteworthy MC and producer quoting Mr. Hanks seems the antithesis of cool but let's set that aside for the time being.
J-Live says, "Tom Hanks is walking with his squad and they're wondering why he doesn't bitch and moan about things and he says, 'Gripes go up, not down.'"
As the owner of his own business and record label, Triple Threat Productions, J-Live has no one to gripe to, above or below. It's just him. And anyway, his casual optimism has served not only him but also his audience, which has praised him for quite literally keeping hip hop real with a series of thoughtful and intelligent albums rooted in the celebration of the art form rather than bling and misogyny.
But it hasn't been the easiest ride. Prior to graduating from university, the Brooklyn-born MC (born Jean-Jacques Cadet) signed a deal with Payday Records and recorded his debut album, The Best Part , which featured production by legendary producers DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Prince Paul. It was set for release in 1999 and the initial reaction from the press was very positive.
Then the bummer struck. Warner Bros bought out Payday's parent company, London Records, and The Best Part was lost in the shuffle, shelved indefinitely. It was finally released in 2001 but by that time the hype had diminished. In the years that followed, J-Live's debut was dubbed one of the greatest albums never heard.
"You can always ask yourself what would have been but what would have been if it weren't released to press?" he asks. "I'm just happy that people heard it to the point where I'm still performing songs from that album all over the world, every day."
Since then, he's released four albums and as many EPs. He's deeply respected in underground hip hop while virtually unknown in the mainstream, despite working with some of the biggest names in the business. He's a crusader whose discography demonstrates that hip hop is as viable a creative pursuit as it ever was.
"Hip hop has always been alternative music as far as being an alternative to the norm, being an outlet and vessel for the urban voice," he says.
"In that regard, even though it's been adapted by the corporate world, it hasn't changed. There's always going to be a lot of music out there that represents that and is true to its roots. It's just a matter of finding it and enjoying it."
He says he's been carving around the politics of hip hop to chart a more creative path and to allow his fan base to grow naturally. He plays small headliner shows between huge concerts alongside The Roots, Wyclef Jean or Wu-Tang Clan. He tears a Brooklyn club apart in video posted on his website of his opening for Talib Kweli earlier this year. His following increased steadily over time without ever scoring a single big hit.
"I wouldn't say I've always been comfortable (as an underground performer) but there comes a point, maybe it's maturity or whatever, where you lose the false sense of entitlement and you realize that the people that want to hear your music and spread the word about it will be there for you. If it's meant to be bigger than it is, it's going to be determined by the amount of hard work and determination that you out into it combined with a little bit of luck," he says.
He's putting the final touches on his new record, SPTA, due out this fall. It's the first to be released under the Triple Threat imprint and he's approaching the music as a three-man group - as MC, DJ and producer - rather than a solo artist. RJD2 and Diamond D help out on production as well.
He's wary of describing the album's sound before it's released, saying he'd like "the world to judge" instead of himself but it will be a natural progression of the jazz and Afrobeat-flavoured East Coast hip hop that he's known for.
"My hopes are that I'm giving something that will impact them on first lesson, but will find greater depth in if they come back to it. It should have staying power," he says.
"I don't really try to design hits, like songs that will blow people and chart. I just try to make songs that are works of art that will stand the test of time, that people will look on as contributors to my catalogue."