Roots & Branches 10: J-Live

Justice Allah “J-Live” Cadet is an underground legend.

First coming to prominence in 1995 with his classic single “Braggin’ Writes” and later with his equally well-received 2001 album The Best Part, he has been producing music and performing as both an MC and a DJ (sometimes simultaneously) for over twenty years.

But what many people don’t know is that during much of that time he also worked as an English teacher in the New York City public school system. That combination obviously made him an ideal choice for Next Level, and in this edition of “Roots & Branches”, we talked with him about how his Next Level experience has influenced his ongoing exploration of the relationship between art and the cultivation of knowledge.

“I have aspirations to be a lot more involved in Hip-Hop Education,” he says, “I have a few years’ teaching experience out of college, but for the most part it’s been all music. And I definitely teach through my music, and take every opportunity to build, and I’ve been working with a lot of younger artists on the come up, in terms of producing and things of that nature.”

“But specifically teaching workshops - or public speaking from the perspective of an artist, rather than a teacher - that’s something that’s very important to me and very dear to my future plans. So Next Level was one of the first-of-its-kind experiences for me in that regard. It was very reaffirming, very enlightening. Knowing that what you aspire to do - while it’s still very innovative and new - there are people out there doing it all the time. That was huge for me.”

The Next Level experience didn’t only connect him with other people on a similar path, it also placed them in an environment where they could exchange ideas and develop new insights and strategies.

For example, working with a diverse range of Croatian hip-hop artists – from beginners to professionals - forced him to offer something that went beyond the history and practical skills that he might otherwise focus on. “That was a real challenge, but also reaffirming. Hand skills come with practice and time. The history comes with research and time. But what I can offer is perspective.”

 “So, like, I’ll focus on the importance of the downbeat. And you might have been deejaying for years and not really looked at it that way, and that might open up a door to help you in different ways. Or just basic music theory and how it applies to deejaying in terms of time signature and tempo and things of that nature.”

“It’s the same thing with emceeing. One of the first lessons I like to teach is how the tempo affects the delivery of what you’re writing. So when you write for tempo, it can be the difference between dope and wack.” *

“So, along those same lines, without getting too deep into the minutiae of everything, it was really cool to be able to apply those principles in a classroom setting. And it’s very unique to what I do, and who I am as a deejay. So that kind of reaffirmed that this is not a situation where you could just plug in anybody with experience. This is what I specifically have to offer.”

That emphasis on individuality, he soon realized, was something that actually connected his work as a musician with his work as an educator. “It’s almost like how test prep takes away from real understanding,” he points out. “If you’re going to have a set way to teach something according to somebody else’s standards, then you do yourself a disservice. Because the creativity that you bring is what’s really going to make the connection and help things be relatable. And help get the understanding across. It’s the importance of bringing your individuality to the lesson, to allow someone else to explore their own individuality. Rather than try to mimic what you’re doing.”

“It’s the importance of teaching people how to learn, instead of just teaching people raw material.”

As it turns out, these were lessons that he himself had learned from hip-hop in the first place. “Critical thinking and thinking for yourself and not going along with the status quo and questioning authority. Those were pillars and recurring themes and messages that the artists that I grew up listening to basically prepared me for. Be it Brand Nubian or BDP or Big Daddy Kane or Public Enemy. Even EPMD. You know, all of these artists. Geto Boys, NWA, later on.  All of these artists were like, ‘Think for yourself. Do not just accept what they give you.’ So that was always the underlying message that I received from all of those artists. So – fast-forward - when you’re using that music to teach, it just kind of comes naturally.”

At the same time, he says, being an idealist about hip-hop doesn’t require that you withdraw from the modern world and only look back to the golden era. If anything, it makes it all the more important that you bring what you have to offer to modern audiences.

“As a quote unquote ‘purist’ - or ‘former purist’ or ‘purist adjacent’ - it’s one of those things that you always talk about. You know, when I was coming up, the meritocracy was about skill. And then somewhere along the line, with the commercialization, the meritocracy became commercial success itself. And then the commercial success wasn’t contingent on skill. So where does that leave the quote-unquote ‘purist’?”

“And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and a certain level of recognition and humility to say, ‘OK, well, even if the meritocracy is about commercial success, it might be a different skill set, but it’s still a skill set.’”

“You might not value the deficiencies in other places, but the constant is that there’s a craft to it and there’s a certain amount of hard work that comes into it, and a certain amount of smart work that comes into it. If you want to be technically proficient, if you want to be all about content and message, if you have a certain code of ethics, the only way to reinforce all of that is to master the skills, in this environment, to get your music heard.”

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Check out J-Live’s new song “Hating” on Bandcamp (NSFW):

https://realjlive.bandcamp.com/track/hating

And for more information on J-Live’s music, performances and upcoming projects, visit his website at:

https://realjlive.com

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* For an example of J-Live’s creative use of tempo in emceeing, listen to his song “Them That’s Not”:

Joe Schloss