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.
"I decide to listen to things based on what I get from them--what is there for me. Do I learn anything? Do I come away with anything positive? And when I hear some of this bullshit, I think, if somebody found this record a hundred years from now, what would they think the world was like when it was made? And you and I both know the answer: They'd think the world was full of drug dealers and killers. See what I'm saying? So that's the reason I criticize--because I'm thinking about tomorrow. And I'm making my music for tomorrow, too. Because I'm forever--and in my next life, I want shit to be set up right for me. That's why I'm doing my part today. I'm not doing it to blow up. I'm not doing it because of envy, because I don't envy anything that any man has. I'm doing it for the love of hip-hop and the love of being a black man in America who can express myself to people all over the world. That's important. That's powerful. That's the voice of the child. And the child shall lead them--but lead them to what? To either victory or death."
Such declarations come naturally to Jeru: In conversation, he refers to himself alternately as "the prophet" or "the sun." ("And there ain't no heat hotter than that," he asserts.) But he doesn't always wear these mantles lightly. At one point, he goes off on a weird tangent in which he suggests that his albums have performed modestly because of a government conspiracy. "Anything that's positive for the black man, the government's got to destroy," he says. "And you think the boys at Warner Records or whatever don't know that? Shit, it's probably their cousins who own Warner Records. And they're going to make sure that the ignorant shit outsells the positive shit--because they wish to keep you in ignorance. So they let the gangsta shit go out, and they let positive shit like mine go under. Because it wakes the people up, and they don't want the people to wake up."
Jeru's logic also gets a bit muddled when he's put in the position of defending "Da Bitchez," from Sun. Had the track appeared on a platter by, say, Ghostface Killa, it wouldn't have raised a single eyebrow; in fact, it probably would have seemed considerably less misogynistic than many of the cuts around it. But coming from Jeru, a man who otherwise seems progressive, the tune came as a legitimate shock. After first pointing out that he wasn't talking about "queens," "sisters," or "young ladies," he mouthed such condemnatory lines as, "Most chicks want diamonds, minks, a Benz/And before you end, they will fuck your friends."
The resultant controversy over "Da Bitchez" so incensed Jeru that he recorded an answer song, "Me or the Papes," for Wrath. (It's the CD's next single.) However, "Papes" is not exactly apologetic--"A queen is a queen and a whore is a whore," he insists--and neither is Jeru himself. "'Da Bitchez' was just a description of what I thought a bitch was," he asserts. "I didn't say it was anybody at all. It was just a definition, like you'd find in a dictionary. And if it applies to you, fine, but if it doesn't, that's fine, too. Some people took it that I was saying all women are bitches, but to me, the only ones who felt like that were who? Da bitchez.
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"The writers think I have a problem dealing with women. But they're idiots, because I grew up amidst women. My mom and my aunts--lots of women. I know women better than women know women."
For Jeru, this last revelation qualifies as a treasure trove of personal information--a chink in the armor of his warrior's code. On only one other occasion does he divulge so much about himself.
"One day my mom and my aunt and them were telling me not to tell my little cousin something because she wasn't old enough to deal with it," he says. "And I called them on it. I said, 'You can't do that, because she's the future--and if she's confused and blinded to reality, what kind of future is she going to have? What kind of an adult will she be?' That's why I believe that you should tell children everything--and believe it or not, when they're young, they have the pure mind and the pure heart to make the right decisions. And they're more honest than we are, too. They'll say, 'That's ugly. You stink. I don't like this.' They're not trying to front--and if you give them the chance, they'll make a good choice. But instead, we hide so much from them."
After a brief pause, he adds, "That's what everybody wants to do in hip-hop--hide. But I say no. The time for hiding is over.