Spitting Venom 

Oakland MC Jahi balances his "conscious" image with righteous political fury.

Success in most hoods requires a thick skin and a limber spirit -- that we already know. But sometimes, these qualities play second fiddle to the gift o' gab.

Flashback to Do the Right Thing-era East Cleveland, where East Bay hip-hop MC Jahi grew up. In Jahi's hometown, rhyming was part of the daily grind: Kids would get to school at 7:30 for breakfast battles and stay on the playground ciphering for hours after class let out. At barbecues and block parties, freestyle raps were more ubiquitous than Frisbees. If you wanted to get with someone, you'd spit her a flow with your phone number in it. If you wanted to say the hotdogs were ready, you'd have to say it in rhyme. "Cats would breakdance on cardboard boxes, bump Run-DMC mix tapes, and floss hats with their names tagged on," Jahi says.

Which isn't to say Jahi grew up in environs as temperate and healthful as the settings of Car Wash or Cooley High. Even when the 31-year-old MC waxes nostalgic, he'll admit that hood life was no picnic in the age of Reaganomics. Though Jahi doesn't want to be shoehorned into the ghetto-chic thugworld of every rap-loving suburban kid's fantasy, he recalls that East Cleveland festered from poverty, overzealous law enforcement, and the crack epidemic to boot. If this were the setting of an '80s-era Dickens novel, Jahi would be a hip-hop Oliver Twist.

"At 22 I was doing grown-up stuff," he says. "I was married, raising a son, running a nonprofit daycare center, and working a part-time job. I'd already seen crack come into my neighborhood and mess up folks' lives."

It was only a matter of time before Jahi's chutzpah and political ardor would propel him to the East Bay, where hip-hop culture oscillates between the ghetto gold-earner lineage associated with E-40 and the seditious bent of KPFA's Hard Knock Radio. Bruised from the crack epidemic and recent waves of gentrification, Oakland -- like Cleveland -- is a community in constant tug-of-war, as plucky hip-hop activists vie with the decidedly unfunky mayor Jerry Brown for access to public space and control over artistic resources.

Jahi moved to Oakland last year at the behest of Tony Coleman, who founded the Mindz Eye Collective -- an organization that promotes consciousness about civil rights, resisting police brutality, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. It didn't take much behesting: Jahi was eager to infuse hip-hop into the movement, using beats and rhymes to flesh out his political lyrics.

It's a tough balance to strike, though, between preachy and catchy. Surly and groovy enough to appeal to architecture grad students and Kangol-hatted kids alike, Jahi's music has the funk-driven, piquant, moderately breezy quality of forerunners such as the Roots, and other local acts like Crown City Rockers or Felonious. His band, Jahi and the Life -- featuring bassist Kevin Lofton and drummer Maurice Miles of Kofy Brown fame, along with local stalwarts Brian Hill on guitar and Mike Myers on keyboards -- is part of a new strain of live instrumental hip-hop seeking to combine rap with the armchair styles of new-school jazz and neo-soul.

Still, E-40's much-vaunted Yay Area (his term for the burgeoning local hip-hop community) is ground zero for an underground MC whose politics align with local rapper Paris, and whose platitudes most closely resemble the upliftment rhetoric of Huey Newton. When Jahi isn't leading "Know Your Rights" workshops in Oakland schools, he's hobnobbing with Blackalicious, who he met while filming the hip-hop documentary Redefinitions in Washington, DC. He fell in with the group and expects to drop a single on their label, Quannum, next year.

The association gives Jahi plenty of cred in the indie rap sect -- surely no MC wants to come across as a capitalist hawking Tupperware raps, which is why many cats stick by their underground sensibility. While Jahi doesn't want to be pigeonholed in the underground, he views the mainstreaming of hip-hop with a healthy skepticism. He likens pop rappers to the politicians who try to curry favor in his hood with bromides about the war on poverty: "One day they're shaking hands and plastering the town with flyers, the next day they're gone."

On the other hand, taking potshots at hip-pop is part and parcel of Jahi's "conscious MC" image. And granted, he acknowledges the mercenary side of his music: the drive to make cheddar and gain a large following. This self-described "real hip-hop" MC may be ill-suited to the pimp gambit -- a boon for commercial rappers like Jay Z and Snoop Dogg -- but he definitely has crossover appeal. The cuts on Jahi's forthcoming album, Songs from the Next Level, are alternately sensitive guy-ish and hot under the collar. It's kind of a patchwork affair for an artist still trying to develop a concrete persona beyond the shopworn "conscious" image he promotes so effusively. On the smooth groove tip, love ballad "Get Away" has the soft-and-warm Quiet Storm vibe of a dude tapping into his inner Stevie Wonder. But Jahi tempers the album's slow jams with convincingly rankled numbers like "Sirius," in which he decries Clear Channel's hip-hop milking cow, 106 KMEL.

Admittedly, Jahi's version of hip-hop agitprop isn't as groundbreaking as that of Mr. Lif, whose I-Phantom contains tracks about alienated labor and the Chomskian pipeline theory. But Songs has enough blow-your-gasket stuff to convince us he's putting it down for hip-hop. Jahi's eyes are perpetually serious. The hard-knock life has infused this MC with an unflappable, if moderately pissed-off, sensibility. He describes himself as having a gangsta mentality -- not a Glock-totin' gangsta of the 50 Cent strain, but an O.G.-style hustler. If the American dream is passé, then the hustler m.o. is as close as we get, these days, to an Adam Smith brand of old-school capitalist zeal. No wonder Boiler Room and Don DeLillo portray white corporate hucksters as avid hip-hop listeners.

Like hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons -- who says he garnered his business acumen as a small-time drug dealer -- Jahi is an opportunist. "I can connect with people in the drug trade, because hip-hop is also an underground economy," he says. And it's all about peddling your wares: "If someone called me tomorrow about a hip-hop opportunity, I'd be a ghost: gone."

This kind of get-up-and-go might explain Jahi's scattered history. Ten years ago, members of the X Clan shambled into Cleveland's Denise McNair Community Center, where the erstwhile MC was working as a youth program coordinator. Jahi had barely begun to get his schmooze on when he overheard the cats complain about how they lacked security guards for their tour. That day he went home, threw some clothes in a duffel bag, and left Cleveland for three months with the group. Never content to play the lackey, Jahi became a kind of X Clan apprentice, and wound up opening shows for them.

Once the ball got rolling, everything fell into place. In 1997 Jahi dropped his debut album, Come Inside My Mind, on his label Keepers of Culture. As the title indicates, he was already cobbling together an MC persona, enlightened but still a little hokey. That paved the way for 2000's more grandiloquent Higher Elevation, which earned Jahi respect and currency in the Yay Area two years prior to the MC's permanent East Bay relocation.

Fast-forward to May, when Jahi opened for KRS One, wooing a crowd of activist-chic, delusion-filled twenty-somethings with "Shine Your Light," in which the MC raps, "I put my headphones on/Observin'/Watch the world as it spins/Statues collapsin'/But we're still wonderin'/Where in the hell are the weapons of destruction?" Elsewhere, the song leveled a simple but resonant critique: The American dream is mere fluff, exclusively for quixotic Joe-or-Sally-Sixpack types. Even those hangers-on are bilked by larger forces of manifest destiny, which run roughshod over "freedom" and "democracy" as they continually fuck up the domestic economy.

Spitting lyrics about the dubiousness of US foreign policy, Jahi comes across as an edutainment zealot in the lineage of KRS, Flava Flav, and Poor Righteous Teachers. He's the MC who will give soccer moms and Republican senators a run for their money, should he cartwheel into the mainstream. Jahi is fond of saying that "had Harriet Tubman lain low on the Underground Railroad, we'd never have learned her story."

Perhaps it's ambitious to compare hip-hop's struggle with undercutting corporate manifest destiny and Top 40 schlock to the Underground Railroad. But it's fair to say that hip-hop artists won't achieve much by hiding out in the underground: They've got to be outspoken, acerbic, and more than a little pissed off. Jahi, with his anything-but-discreet way of presenting things, might be a new kind of firebrand. After all, piss and vinegar, like the gift o' gab, are qualities he has in spades.

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