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Eastown J is not one to pull any punches.
In our approximately 45-minute conversation at Billy's on the night of his CD release party for "Style By No Style" project, he didn't mince words on the failure of some things in hip hop, both locally and nationally, not to mention his occasional run-ins with those in positions of authority. At first blush, J is an Eastown-area resident who has had his share of tough breaks. But this would only be half the story, like much of the city's local hip hop talent, he has a "conscious" style that resonates with both the street and beyond.
J comes from a hardened life in Rochester, New York, where his musical start happened, and has only expanded since moving to Grand Rapids about a decade ago. It is not gangsta life that he portrays, but a real sense of struggle--struggle to be a good father of two, struggle to be heard in a saturated hiphop marketplace, and like almost any MC or producer anywhere, a struggle to make ends meet in an unforgiving and cutthroat music business.
The Eastown J mixtape, though more than three years old now, is still acknowledged by many around the area to be an influential piece on the local hip hop scene. I listened to it again, right before coming to the interview at Billy's, and it is still as solid as solid can be. I missed out on his 2008 release follow-up, but plan to give a thorough listen to this most recent project, that he was going to send to me a near finished product.
It's good to see him back as a maker of music after being one of the foremost promoter's for this city's hip hop shows and community, first as a collaborator with Grand Rapids mainstays La Famiglia, then as the one-time owner of the Fresh store on Wealthy Street in Eastown, to his relationships with so many of the local artists around town. J helped organize the broad swath of musicians and other artists that make up the Brickstreet Hooligans after his original posse, the Feral Youth Crew, disbanded. I got the sense that the struggle is starting to payoff for Eastown J judging from the show at Billy's and his general articulation of the issues facing this city's street youth and the hip hop community in general.
We talked at length about what it means to be a struggling artist in Grand Rapids and how he would like nothing more than to supplement his income that he gets from working at Hopcat with music full time. Label politics or getting signed are, though attractive to some, not on his radar, as the power of the Internet has made that route all but superfluous. Rather, he wants to be a hiphop artist and promoter that takes this city forward.
Jamaal, as he is known off stage, is a mainstay around Eastown, which is truly the heart of local hip hop, simply because of its proximity in the center of the city and the support that Billy's continues to give local artists. Pick up a flyer or check out the window of posters facing out to Wealthy Street and you are bound to see a show within a matter of weeks that features one of the many local hip hop acts. You would be hard pressed to find someone more responsible for this than Eastown J. We talked about the Grand Rapids Hip Hop Coalition's involvement in spreading the message of local hip hop through their website, http://grandrapidshiphop.ning.com/, and J would like to get something similar together that would just be the artists co-managing the effort. I wouldn't be surprised, based on his extensive contacts with Suport, Rick Chyme, Nixon, Willie the Kid, Sprites Ferocious, DJs, up-and-comers, and his relationship with La Famiglia, for J to become the kind of ceremonial CEO of an effort to band the artists together. I wouldn't be surprised to see him start an online radio station featuring local hip hop, or even starting his own label to get the music out. Beyond being an artist, he has been the organizer.
His music is approachable and easy to comprehend, even if he does consider it to be somewhat from the street. It's one of those types that has hard edges to it, mixed in with very socially aware issues for lyrics, and is something that would help the new listener of hiphop get up-to-speed on what is happening within the local hiphop community. Like Suport, who also hails from the Eastown area, J's style transfers very easily to a live performance; it is well produced but not extensively reliant on computer enhancements. I have seen him perform many times, and am looking forward to some new music, which should be at Vertigo by the time the summer hits.
Forget what you knew about hip hop from mainstream media. Eastown J and the artists he surrounds himself with are making music that is positive and has a voice that all Rapidian readers could reference. I have been following these guys for about five years and it is all starting to come together for them. Even if they have to pay the bills like all of us, they are still finding time to put out quality music and give genuine stage performances that show the future of hip hop as different than the recent past. It is time to break from the old stereo-types of street music, and welcome in a new era of hiphop, and I wouldn't be surprised if Grand Rapids became known for being at the vanguard of that movement.
winner of the 2010 Source Award from the Rapidian staff.
Reports on: hiphop
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