"We're going to take you to the future," says Omar "Jneiro Jarel" Gilyard on "Light Years Away." A shape-shifter on par with MF Doom and Kool Keith, Jneiro produces and raps under multiple guises -- Panama Black, Dr. Who Dat, Rocque Wun, Capital Peoples and Mel Owens. His music, captured on Shape of Broad Minds' recent CD, Craft of the Lost Art, sounds as if it descended from outer space.
But for Jneiro, the future lies elsewhere. On this late-summer afternoon, he shares drinks with Khujo, the baritone-voiced veteran from Goodie Mob. Superficially, the two seemingly couldn't be more different: Khujo is a pioneer of homespun ghetto-spiritual music from a decade ago, and Jneiro is a purveyor of bleeding-edge bohemia. But Jneiro is an ardent Goodie Mob fan: "BuddaFly Away" from Craft of the Lost Art pays homage to Goodie's "Fly Away."
Jneiro first reached out to Khujo over MySpace in July; he was surprised when the rapper actually responded to him. "I was really impressed," says Khujo of Craft of the Lost Art. "I could tell it was hip-hop with a Southern feel to it because of the thick bass he had in there. And then he was using crazy-ass synthesizer sounds. The shit reminded me of some Organized Noize, OutKast and Goodie Mob-type shit."
The two first worked together on the remix for Shape of Broad Minds' "OPR8R" single. Now they're developing a project that, if all goes well, will be released through U.K. imprint Lex Records and distributed worldwide by EMI. "I don't want people to think that Khujo and I are getting together just for the sake of doing it," Jneiro says. "We want it to be something timeless: the content, the lyrics and the way we're gonna approach it."
While Khujo is an Atlanta native, the 32-year-old Gilyard is a wandering soul. Born in New York, he bounced around with his mother, who worked in the Army, to Atlanta, Phoenix, Baltimore and Houston. He launched his production career in New York under the guise Jneiro Jarel, and currently splits his time between Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Some people try to compare Jneiro's music to glitch producers such as Prefuse 73 and Autechre, but he says, "I never got into electronic music like that." His roots are in hip-hop, and he loves rock, jazz, psych-rock and Brazilian tropicalia. He finds common ground with broken-beat, nu-jazz, Afro-beat, house and future-soul artists such as IG Culture, Fertile Ground, Matthew Herbert and New Sector Movements. It's that difficult-to-categorize scene that embraces Jneiro's work: 2005's Three Piece Puzzle; the all-instrumental Beat Journey, issued under the guise Dr. Who Dat; and Shape of Broad Minds, a group formed with Houston multi-instrumentalist Jawwaad Taylor.
Meanwhile, hardcore rap fans have been slow to accept Jneiro Jarel. Some accuse him of being derivative of the late J Dilla and Madlib, two of the most influential hip-hop producers of the past decade. "You're always going to get compared to somebody until they hear enough of you," he says.
Others simply don't know who he is. He's gotten coverage in major international magazines, from Britain's Hip-Hop Connection (he was featured on its cover) to the Source and URB in the States. However, his songs don't get played on the radio or video channels such as MTV.
Jneiro doesn't have a mainstream profile, but he doesn't see himself as an underground artist. Throughout Craft of the Lost Art, he sounds bemused at how people "sleep" on him. "Three Piece Puzzle, Beat Journey, dog/You can sleep if you want while I creep through the fog," he raps on "BuddaFly Away."
"I literally came up from nothing," says Jneiro, noting that all of his albums and singles have been released on small imprints. "I think this project I'm doing with my man Khujo will be that record" that brings him to a wider audience.
Goodie Mob's last album, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show, dropped in 2004. Two years before, Khujo lost his right leg in a car accident. He now uses a steel prosthesis that causes him to move slowly and sometimes awkwardly. Last July, he released a second solo album, Mercury, to little notice. He compares his situation to Dungeon Family alum Witchdoctor, who faded from view until Williams Street/Turner Entertainment signed him this year. "We was laying in the graveyard, waiting to be resurrected," he says.
Khujo seemingly has nothing to do with a discussion about postmillennial beat culture. But his history as a straight-talking rapper who addresses the African-American condition without intellectual pretension continues to inspire relatively newer artists such as Jneiro. As they embark on their new collaboration, the two will be equal partners, a mix of classic, thought-provoking raps and future beats. With luck, the world will notice.
"A lot of stuff that Goodie Mob dropped back in the day was stuff that made you think," Jneiro says. "Now, we've got issues like Jena 6 and a lot of stuff that people are ignoring. ... I don't want the whole album to be based on some political, superspiritual rap shit. But those things need to be addressed."