When J-Live dropped his debut "Longevity" b/w "Braggin' Writes" 12-inch in 1995, it was a different era for hip-hop. Respect came in droves for the Spanish Harlem-bred MC when the single sold 13,000 copies. His follow-up full-length, The Best Part, languished in label limbo for more than five years. When bootleg copies showed up in record stores, people speculated that he'd pressed them himself. Despite one-off releases with Fat Beats and Penalty/Ryko, a stable record label home never materialized for J-Live. This year, his sixth album, Around the Sun, released via his own Mortier Music imprint, finds the Decatur-based MC, DJ, and producer raising the bar on an already high standard for hip-hop songwriting. J-Live's signature boom-bap sound plays out over a cosmic song cycle, as Around the Sun blazes with righteous, old-school grooves. Songs such as "Top of the Food Chain" (feat. Rome Supreme and Ekundayo), "Not Listening," and "Hang on Tight" (feat. Homeboy Sandman) are as pragmatic as they are philosophical.
On a Sunday afternoon at a coffee shop in Virginia-Highland, J-Live (born Justice Cadet) discussed everything from his place as an Atlanta transplant to the deeper meaning of a life spent revolving around the sun.
Where do you see yourself fitting in with Atlanta's music scene?
I am one of many transplants. I know a lot of people here and only a few of them are from here — Clan Destined hails from North Carolina, Dillon Maurer is from Florida. Even at the album release show: Boog Brown's from Detroit, Waking Astronomer's members are from all over the place. The Atlanta music scene is a cool salad bowl full of transplants. That's where I fit in. People from all over the place end up here.
You've been steeped in hip-hop culture since the mid '90s. What sort of perspective has that experience given you when assessing your own career?
You can look at that one of two ways: Either I haven't come as far as I should have, considering how much time I've put in. Or I've seen a lot of people come and go and I'm still here. I'm not satisfied with where I'm at, but I'm grateful for where I've been.
Do younger artists hold you in high regard?
Higher than themselves? I doubt it. Some of them, if they didn't grow up listening to my stuff they grew up around someone who did. There's respect that comes with that, but it's like I'm a senior statesman among indie hip-hop. It's a little trippy because I respect their work so much. Every time I meet Dillon he's like, "Yo!" And I'm like, "Thank you!" I'm a genuine fan of his. Nothing but respect.
Do you pay attention to Atlanta's mainstream hip-hop?
I hear the Rich Homie Quans, Migos, and Young Thugs on the Internet. The fact that they're from Atlanta is an afterthought to me. They could be from anywhere. Like Young Thug's "Danny Glover," I enjoy songs like that on a different level. It's more comedic to me. Before I take it seriously I'll be like, "That's hilarious!" Then it crosses the tipping point and I'm like, "Oh, that's the song we were talking about the other day!"
Can a Southern rapper get away with more than a New York rapper?
New York radio stopped playing New York hip-hop because New York radio is corporate radio, just like everywhere. Corporate radio started catering to the South because that's the direction the marketing dollars went. If you're keeping score by marketing dollars, then yeah, Southern hip-hop can get away with more because the machine is behind it. If you're about the machine, follow the machine. If not, use your own Ouija board to gravitate toward what you gravitate toward. The tone of this conversation is focused on Southern hip-hop, but I don't categorize it like that. If you're talking about hip-hop that's wack, call it wack hip-hop. I won't give wack hip-hop its own subgenre just for being wack. What I deem wack could be from anywhere.
It transcends generations, too. You have older cats saying, "When I was your age we had substance!" But for every "Hey Young World" there was "Treat 'em Like a Prostitute." For every "Young, Gifted, and Black" there was "Pimpin' Aint Easy." What's lacking now isn't substance. It's a lack of diversity in the mainstream; a lack of contrast. Being a New Yorker in the South, it's important to me to take the focus off of the "where" and put it more on the "why" and the "how." With the why and the how, you get into whose interests it serves to keep hip-hop from having diversity and contrast.
Whose interests does it serve?
Stalin understood that if you control the art, you control the culture. If the powers that be want people of color and lower classes listening to stupid music and doing stupid things to further feed the machine, then there you have it. But it's the nature of the art to do things differently, complicate things, and push the envelope. It's the industry's nature to streamline and make things easy to reproduce. If you create an assembly line to feed the radio you can project what kind of money is made. You can look at it as a diabolical scheme: "I want to keep black people stupid so they only finance stupid black music." Or you could say, "Stupid black music is so easy to sell that if we keep it simple we'll ride this gravy train for years!"
What sets Around the Sun apart?
I was in a place where I wasn't sure what to write about. I was in a writer's block kind of funk; sick of everything. Everything was kind of pissing me off. That's where "Not Listening" was born. I wasn't feeling a lot of music I was hearing because X, Y, and Z.
"Worlds Apart" and "Money Matters" came about because of what I'm dealing with in life; trying to do music but people telling me to get a real job. If they knew the kind of hours I put into this, and if they paid attention to the economic landscape, they'd know that the only real jobs out there are the ones you create for yourself. It's not just a selfish artist perspective, this is essential to survival.
I'm talking about a lot of Five Percent signs as far as just the philosophy of what does it mean that the sunlight that hit us is eight minutes old. The sun is the "Top of the Food Chain," so whether you're a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore, you eat energy generated by the sun. The moon revolves around the earth. The earth revolves around the sun. The sun revolves around something that's so far out of our scope we don't concern ourselves with it. The sun wasn't always here and won't always be here. But what the sun, the moon, the earth, and the stars are made of is symbolic of your place. Some people look at how vast the universe is and see themselves as insignificant. But you can go the opposite way; wrap it up into a fun song. That's what makes the album different because that's the direction my music has been growing.