Jay Electronica's Exhibit C: The End of “Genetically-Modified” Hip-Hop?Monday, January 04, 2010 10:30 AM | 32 comments
“Up in them five-star tellies, saying two-mic rhymes/
Be them average MC’s of the times/
We craft gems/”
—De La Soul ft. MF Doom, “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” The Grind Date, 2004.
Call him Jay Electronica or “Jay Elec-Hannukah” or “Jay Elec- Yarmulke.” By mid last month, though, most came to know him as the man who could turn on its head the dynamics of commercial, for-profit radio, and forever change the way fans listened to Hip-Hop. With one song: “Exhibit C.”
The hard-hitting, 5-minute cut, recorded in July ‘09, set ablaze the internet, surrendering bloggers and fans alike at the mercy of one of Hip-Hop’s most prolific wordsmiths. Upon hearing it, many popular bloggers were convinced no one else could do the instrumental—which was released via iTunes—justice. Better left untouched. They complained the impeccable cadence of Jay Electronica’s 3 verses, rendered hookless, was matchless and peerless, and any MC or rapper who attempted a remix or freestyle would be playing a dangerous game with their careers. Of course Hip-Hop artists are hard-headed by nature, so a few still felt the need to take the beat and do something with it—in spite of, and perhaps because of, the bloggers’ warnings.
Artists like Jasiri X, Hasan Salaam, and Joell Ortiz were among first responders; some with considerable success, others far from the cut-off grade. But none attained the level of perfection Jay Electronica maintained from start to finish as he transcended rhythms and realms in what is sure to become his signature song.
Jasiri X rightly described it as “bar after bar of consciousness, something that is sorely missing in today’s rap landscape.” Indeed. More than that, it ran laps across fields of the autobiographical (“When I was sleeping on the train/ Sleeping on Meserole Ave out in the rain/ Without even a single slice of pizza to my name/ Too proud to beg for change, mastering the pain/”), the philosophical (“Fighting, shootin' dice, smoking weed on the corner/ Tryna find the meaning of life in a Corona/ Till the Five Percenters rolled up on a ni**a and informed him/ ‘You either build or destroy, where you come from?’/”), the historical (“That Reverend Run rockin’ Addidas out on Hollis Ave/ That F.O.I., Marcus Garvey, Nikki Tesla/”), the spiritual (“Question 14, Muslim lesson 2: Dip diver, civilize a 85er/ I make the devil hit his knees and say the ‘Our Father’/”), and the phenomenological (“I'm bringing ancient mathematics back to modern man/ My momma told me, ‘never throw a stone and hide your hand’/”). It also brought much to bear on the geographical (“Shout out to Baltimore, Baton Rouge, my crew in Richmond/ While y'all debated who the truth was like Jews and Christians/ I was on Cecil B, Broad Street, Master, North Philly, South Philly, 23rd, Tasker/ 6 Mile, 7 Mile, Hartwell, Gratiot/”) and the anthropological (“Where ni**as really would pack a U-Haul truck up/ Put the high beams on/ Drive up on the curb at a barbecue and hop up out the back like, ‘What’s up’/ Kill a ni**a, rob a ni**a, take a ni**a, buss up/”).
Put it simply, more than a song, “Exhibit C” is a monograph.
In recent times, I can think only of one other such project it stands in the shadow of—Canibus’ “Poet Laureate II,” off his 2003 album, Rip the Jacker. In terms of delivery, passion, and vocal stamina, both Jay Electronica and Canibus square of as equals. “Poet,” it seems, is simply a longer and more expansive version of “Exhibit.” But there’s another noticeable difference between the two songs. When Rip the Jacker was released, reviewers favored it Canibus’ best work to date. “Poet” received even greater acclaim. To date, I consider it the best literary work in the Hip-Hop canon. But no mainstream or commercial DJ even thought once about playing it on radio, let alone promoting it for its ingenuity. It was assumed the listening public could never follow a 7-minute, hookless song without being bored or intellectually fatigued. It still remains the best kept secret amongst underground Hip-Hop fans; but millions, who could have been exposed to what lyrical virtuosity really sounds like, were denied the opportunity.
6 years later, however, much has changed. Jay Electronica raps on Exhibit C:
“That's why when you talk that tough talk I never feel ya’/
You sound real good and you play the part well/
But the energy you giving off is so unfamiliar/
I don't feel ya’/”
And Just Blaze provides amplifying echo—“We need something realer!”
The last 6 years have been brutal for fans raised on commercial radio. Like drones, program directors at these stations only relied on a few 5-10 (similar) songs, circulated ad nauseam, almost to the point of nausea. And, of course, consequently, ratings took a sharp hit. Many listeners stopped listening in and started turning more to satellite radio and internet radio, where greater creativity and complexity was welcomed and entertained.
For this reason, DJ Enuff, of Hot 97, announcing his decision to crown “Exhibit C” the “Heavy Hitter pick of the week,” didn’t come off erratic or shocking or even mind-blowing to some of us. Before making up his mind, Enuff expressed, openly, on his blog, some of the disappointment he felt in seeing a song “so good” not being appreciated on mainstream radio—particularly on the station at which he works. “I think it’s lyrical and the production is solid,” he wrote. “Reminds me of some early Nas stuff.” And then a series of crucial questions: “Why is it not spinning on the radio? At least during my time slot? Is it because there’s no dance tied to it? Is it because it’s not yet on BET’s Top Ten Countdown? Does it have to be a Club Banger?” In a stunning condemnation of the sensibility with which stations like his have operated for the last few years, he writes: “The radio isn’t a club.” Another question: “So why not Good solid Hip Hop?” Then, Enuff betrays the powerlessness of many commercial radio personalities—a theme I’ve explored countless times in months past: “I have it on my website. I battle myself all the time when it comes to the radio. The job I love so much. I could make it the Heavy Hitter Pick of the week with no problem.”
Most of us don’t have the moral luxury a DJ of his caliber can spin around seamlessly. If we feel something is right, and we happen to be placed in a position to make right happen, only God and Lucifer should be capable of stopping us from doing it. Not investors. Not program directors. Not Attorneys. Not P.R. personnel. Not label executives. Not nobody. No mortal should posses such power over our souls as to make us complicit in the perpetuation of evil on earth. Thus, if a truly conscionable DJ hears a song like “Exhibit C,” and seeks to find a flaw preventing it from mainstream circulation, and is unable to find one, there should be no inner-battle that puts at odd the flesh from the spirit.
To Enuff’s credit, he ended up making good on his promise. But, then, it evokes the decade-old Chris Rock routine of Black folks (or “ni**as” as he put it) demanding credit for jobs already expected of them—fathering babies, providing for families, not shooting up movie theater screens, etc. I’m not sure one who depends on the patronage of everyday Hip-Hop fans to remain successful should be commended for simply satisfying their requests. And, in a hubris-laden post, “Jay Electronica Wins the heart of a Super Star DJ,” Enuff validated my qualms en masse. But that’s what happens when a dominant demographic has been so dumbed-down, and stripped of all sense of agency and autonomy, to the point of dependence on those who serve them. “Exhibit C,” by the way, made #10 on iTunes a couple of weeks back.
Now, many mainstream DJs across the country are following suit, giving the song the second or first chance it never had. Even Diddy, who is hardly the back-pack aficionado (though I should add a personal friend of Jay Electronica), provided full support for the record last week, writing, “It deserves to be play[ed] on the radio!”
I’m suggesting here that more than cult worship of personality, we come to terms with what this moment represents—in short, why “Exhibit C” counts. In fact, it’s not even about Jay Electronica anymore—it’s about a sea-change, a dynamic realignment, arevolution of values. It bespeaks the power of the people when activated. When popular DJs like Enuff weighed, publicly, their internal battles, an overwhelming outpouring of support for “Exhibit C” showered down. Point made: The era of genetically-modified Hip-Hop is over. The end—near.
Fans have their minds made up.
The tasteless, unnatural, artificially-flavored sound that dominated mainstream Hip-Hop for a full decade is being rejected by fans and even artists worldwide. This is a crucial moment which must be seized with seriousness.
A week ago, I predicted a maturity amongst artists in the coming decade, and with the response to Jay Electronica’s offering, all indicators suggest, as Talib Kweli might put it, “the era of the bullsh** MC is over.” Meaning, artists are tightening their belts and reducing distractions, in preparation for the great awakening about to take place.
Fans also sense their responsibility—to keep pressure on always, to never relent in challenging their artists into maturing and excelling.
The ripple-effect on radio can’t be overlooked. Stations are shutting down, DJs are feeling anxious of the future. And this might be their last opportunity to represent the Hip-Hop they grew up listening, but appear uninterested in introducing the young generation, to. This might be their last opportunity to live up to the militant mottos branding their stations—“Where Hip-Hop Lives,” “#1 destination for Hip-Hop,” etc.
Of all, however, the most critical feature “Exhibit C” reveals might be a theme about which I never tire writing—the end of major labels; or, least still, the reduced significance (if not entire valuelessness) of major labels in making hardworking Hip-Hop artists successful. Speaking December 22, 2009, on SIRIUS Satellite Radio’s “Toca Tuesdays,” hosted by the legendary DJ Tony Touch, Jay Electronica, who to my knowledge is signed to Erykah Badu’s Control Freaq Records, explained the revelationhis newfound success has brought him: “I had such an experience trying to get into the industry, in terms of a getting a major deal, where, now, [I’ve] had a chance to see the process, [and I‘ve found out] it’s no longer necessary. … [In addition], a lot of times, majors—not to take shots at nobody—don’t really seem to know what’s going on.” Not even Tolstoy’s tongue could have uttered more poetic words to my ears.
It’s about time artists start gripping hold of reality and understand what the future presents in terms of independence. Can anyone confidently argue that if “Exhibit C” was dropped on the desks of any—and I mean any (!)—marketing executive at any—and I mean any (!)—of the big 4, they would do more than fling it back at the A & R and curse him or her for wasting precious time on a niche-driven record with no “crossover appeal”?
Memorandum to artists in 2010: Always trust your instincts. The bosses don’t always—and, in fact, most always don’t—know right from wrong. Ralph Waldo Emerson was more poetic: “Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant. … [But their] knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form which is exercised for amusement or for show.”