Battle stations, damage control

Jeru the Damaja aims to save rap from itself

Most '90s celebrities understand that baring their souls comes with the territory. Your average personality mag is brimming with profiles of famous people who disclose their deepest, darkest secrets as casually as they cash their royalty checks--and the few who don't are viewed with suspicion. Eddie Vedder's reluctance to share boyhood memories with every scribe in sight provoked Rolling Stone to dispatch a team of investigative reporters to discover once and for all whether or not he had a good time at his high school prom.

Kendrick Jeru Davis, aka Jeru the Damaja, is among the last holdouts against this rash of self-exposure. Other than acknowledging that he's from Brooklyn, New York, this hip-hop comer keeps his past behind him, and attempts to loosen his tongue on the topic are met with bared teeth. "I don't tell everyone about myself," he snaps. "I don't know everything about you--and if I tell you everything about me, that makes me vulnerable, right? I mean, what do you know about a ninja--except that when you see him, he could kill you? That's all you need to know. That's it."

Since neither of Jeru's albums--1994's The Sun Rises in the East and last year's Wrath of the Math, both issued by Payday/FFRR--dabbles in autobiographical specifics, the rapper's closed-mouth policy keeps him cloaked in mystery, and that's just the way he likes it. What matters more to him than dredging up previous experience for media voyeurs are the philosophies he's advocating today--constructive philosophies that his hip-hop contemporaries would do well to adopt without delay.

Not that either Sun or Wrath are dry, bookish, or pedantic. Thanks in large part to the contributions of DJ Premier (of Gang Starr fame), both discs sound great; their beats are fluid and imaginative, their hooks are plentiful, and their mixes are tough without seeming in the slightest way stereotypical. But what lifts the recordings still higher are Jeru's words, which refuse to capitulate to the greed-and-blood ethic popularized by the Death Row axis on the West Coast and the Wu Tang Clan on the other side of the continent.

Moreover, he's not shy about taking his peers to task for the messages they're transmitting. In Wrath's "Ya Playin' Yaself," he complains about "all these so-called players up in the rap game/Got brothers on the corner selling crack cocaine"; on "One Day," he disses the acknowledged kingpin of East Coast rap, Sean "Puffy" Combs, by name; and during "Scientific Madness," he muses, "What is it if a man gains the world/And loses his own soul?" Jeru confronts this last possibility on "Tha Bullshit," in which he does a spot-on impression of hardcore jive. He portrays a wealthy crime boss who's "on some exotic island/Smilin', the sun shinin'/Off all my diamonds/Sippin' off martinis/With hookers in bikinis." Then gunshots ring out, waking Jeru--the real Jeru--from a nighttime reverie. "That was a scary motherfuckin' dream," he mutters. "That was bullshit. I'd never say no bullshit like that."

The voicing of such sentiments in the current music scene isn't just rare--it's practically unprecedented. Rather than gripe about the Tupacs of the world, hip-hop practitioners with more defensible aspirations tend either to keep their opinions to themselves or to offer up the public-relations mantra of the rap world: "It's all good." But not Jeru. "Who likes a yes man?" he asks. "I don't want a yes man on my side, because then I'm sure to fall. Because then everything would be yes, yes, yes. Like if I asked, Should I go sell some crack? Yes. Should I rob a bank? Yes. That's crazy--and if saying that makes me different, then I'm different. To me, knowing about something but not doing anything about it is worse than not knowing at all. So fuck not saying something. If you don't like it, just say you don't like it.

"If you have the power to command a certain army, why would you command them to jump into the river instead of leading them into war? At one time in this country, we weren't allowed to read and write freely and express things. So now that we're allowed to do those things, we need to speak up. I'm not telling these other people to do better; I'm telling them to do something instead of nothing. And what they're doing is basically nothing, because it only destroys. They get a lot of money for themselves for doing it, but so what? Anybody can do that. I could kill and get a lot of money for myself for doing it, but is that positive? You know, people try to measure everything with money, but that's not the way it should be. I don't measure life by the dollar, and I never will."

In many ways, these sentiments dovetail nicely with those expressed by virulent anti-rap politicos such as former secretary of education William Bennett. It's an irony not lost on Jeru. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he's trying to save hip-hop, not sell it out.

"Look at all the people who want to ban rap because of the people doing bullshit," he notes. "That by itself is a reason why they should start saying something. Because this is a crucial problem. If they ban rap, then you won't be able to say shit. Which is why I'm saying to the brothers out there, you need to make some changes, or they are going to take this away from us. And from me, too. I'm a part of this--I'm not on the outside looking in. I don't exist by myself, and neither do they.

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