Jadakiss / Photo courtesy of Def Jam
If there were a museum of rap—like, serious Smithsonian, Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art shit—one would hope that there would be a hallway of statuary. There would be ‘Pac, with a stone bandana. And over here Biggie, with a bronze cigar. Maybe the entire Wu-Tang Clan spread out through every one of the museum’s 36 chambers. And somewhere in there, not unlike the main hall in Dublin’s Trinity Library, arrayed in front of the combined vinyl collections of every great producer, a series of busts of notable rappers. One of which, naturally, would be the already very real bust of Jadakiss that he brought to the VICE offices on a recent afternoon and that you can also find prominently positioned on the cover of his new album, Top 5 Dead or Alive.
Does Jadakiss belong in that hallowed shortlist that dominates the imagination of rap fans, that people bring up almost reflexively any time they need to prove a point about someone’s lyrics? His album will tell you yes, quite explicitly, in about two dozen different ways—i.e. he’s within two spots of third place on either side. It also makes a case more implicitly, with vivid turns of phrases like “watermelon over the pump / the hood silencer,” and songs like the dark, grimy, New-York-as-all-hell “Jason,” with Swizz Beatz, which is equal parts stick up music and Eric Garner tribute. On the other hand, if you’re not from New York, someone telling you Jadakiss is in their top five might prompt a simple response: “Why?”
Here’s what’s certain: Jadakiss has lasted two decades—as part of the LOX, as one of Diddy’s ghostwrtiers, and as a solo artist—as a rapper making the kind of sharp-tongued, punchline-filled rap songs that will give you whiplash the moment you figure out what color the whip is. And he’s done it without going up his own ass and becoming a grumpy old man (although there are two jabs at skinny jeans within the first five minutes of his new album), instead adjusting for whatever the commercial sound of the moment is without compromising who he is. He made “Knock Yourself Out” and also, in that song’s video, made the paper towel bandana a thing. He made a song with Chief Keef and Kanye West. His laugh is among hip-hop’s most iconic sounds. Jadakiss has the type of menacing, once-in-a-generation voice that instantly commands your attention on a track. You’re never mad to hear Jadakiss.
Maybe that voice alone makes ‘Kiss a top five rapper. It certainly makes him sound larger and more imposing than the average-sized guy who came by the office dressed in a Raekwon-themed purple jacket and sneakers. That Jadakiss was happy to crack jokes about basketball and explain that he’s been quiet the last couple years because he’s been running his Juices for Life juice bars in the Bronx and Yonkers (“It’s just bringing health awareness to our neighborhoods. They’re cluttered with fast food, liquor stores.”) and being a father to newborn twins. But that Jadakiss was also, as usual, as hard as it gets—and full of great insight and stories about rap history. Seriously, when that rap museum opens, let’s hope Jadakiss gets some time to offer some opening remarks.
Noisey: What would you go back and tell like a young Jadakiss, just starting out?
Jadakiss: I would tell a young Jadakiss to learn, as nice as you got in rhyme, rapping, try to be that, keep a parallel on learning the business. Just as much as you want to be a critically acclaimed rapper or producer or a strong pillar in the hip-hop industry. I don't think people educate themselves enough. ‘Cause you just be so passionate and so thirsty to want to ink a record deal, or you want to get on TV, or you want to be heard. You’ve probably been grinding and struggling for so long that when it finally happens you really don't—even if the contract is bad, you don't care because you’re that thirsty, or you don't even take the time to get all in depth with it. And then it hurts you in the long run. I would tell a young Jadakiss, learn the game as much as you learn how to rap, as seriously you take a 16-bar verse, take every contract and every meeting and every opportunity to listen and learn, you know what I'm saying. Keep that at a parallel.
You’ve outlasted half the people you came up with. How do you stay fresh in the business?
I try to stay fresh in the business by just being out there. Sometimes you’ve got to be somewhere you ain't invited to and be a fly on the wall, even though it's hard for me to be a fly on the wall because somebody’s gonna recognize me and want to bring me to their section. But you’ve got to be places, you’ve got to embrace the new stuff, you’ve got to see what's going on out there, incorporate it somewhat into what you do, without compromising what you do. And be open minded. And know that it's not the same—when I go into a party now, it ain't gonna be like when I went to the Palladium with Big. You can't expect the same things that were so vainglorious in my heyday—I still feel like I'm in my heyday, but you know, like, young 'Kiss.
The time is different. It was more privacy for one, ‘cause it was no iPhones and Androids, and you couldn't upload someone doing something stupid right there and then to the world like that, so, that was definitely probably a plus more than anything. You’ve got to adapt. One of the hardest things now probably from artists that came in with me is it’s not just rapping or making songs. You’ve probably got to get a whole new digital staff now. You’ve got to learn the underworld of the digital, learn that circuit and marketing. It’s like being in college almost, and they switched a course you was prepared to take and they switched it all around and you gotta learn it or fail. You can't hate on it because you need it, so learn it or get out of here.
What about musically? Like, Atlanta rap is the hottest right now, and a lot of people are wondering how New York rap might adapt. What do you think?
You’ve got to adapt. I’ve got a song with Future. It sounds more like a nice mixture as opposed to it sounding more like a Future song. And you’ve just got to be able to make that marriage when you do them features. I could rap on a down South beat, per se. And it still don't lose none of what you want, what you were looking for from me. Rap's the only music that they categorize like that. That's one thing that I hate, like, down South rap, or up North rap. Country is just country rather than wherever it's from. R&B, you don't call it Atlanta R&B, you know what I mean. So that's already like a shot at our culture. But for the most part it's on you to know how to do what you do and adjust. And that's it. There's nothing wrong with working with TI. There's nothing wrong with working with no artist from any type of demographic, but you’ve still got to maintain what you do on whatever track it is.
You’ve got to do what you can. You're damned if you do, your'e damned if you don't, so at the end of the day it's really about doing what pleases you. When you in a business where you selling something to people—your art or your craft is your niche or your sales pitch or what you’re actually trying to sell—you’ve got to cater to the consumer to some aspect. Not all the way where you're uncomfortable or you sound different to what they initially loved you for, but that's why it's called a job. That's why it's called a gamble. That's why it's a challenge. If it was that easy, everybody would do it.
You mentioned going to the Palladium with Big earlier. Tell me that story.
Uh, I happened to be in the Palladium with Big one day. Nothing too crazy. Actually, it was probably a historical day in hip-hop. Hov—Jay-Z—was performing, probably Reasonable Doubt music. So hits off Reasonable Doubt, some cuts off there, then he actually called Big up to do “Brooklyn's Finest” with him. That was like an authentic, raw, organic priceless free performance you get that I’m just happy to say I was there. Watching Hov, sitting there with Big watching Hov, and then Hov calling Big up to do “Brooklyn's Finest.” That was a nice night.
What was your impression of all of that while it was going on? Who did you look up to when you were starting out?
Looked up to everybody. Looked up to all of them. Looked up to the Lord for letting me be there at that time. And be able to be a sponge and soak all of that up. That's priceless. Not to even spark up none of that, but the whole thing with what was his name? The young guy that was going at it with N.O.R.E. that said the 90s was overrated?
Oh yeah, Vince Staples.
Yeah, like, something like that night makes that statement null and void for me. To just be in one of them moments—I’ve got a million more of them, but just in the heart of the 90s, that I was with Big watching Hov and then watch him go up there, and rip the Palladium. So right there I don't have to entertain that idea because I know what it was. Sometimes you misinterpret or you don't understand or you wasn't there or you ain't got the knowledge.
Well, a guy like Vince Staples would have been like three when that happened. He didn’t experience it the same way. Do you think young people have an obligation to care?
It depends on how much you’re into the culture, how much you’re into hip-hop. And if you appreciate the web, where you’ve got the opportunity to go back and hear music, and see what was going on. But even if you don't: I was born in ‘75. Who am I to diss Melle Mel and those guys? Just because I wasn't there and I didn't experience some of it? It would be disrespectful for me to say the 80s was overrated, that I think they give it too much credit. As me, as an artist, that's disrespect. And I was probably three when “The Message” came out or something.
Maybe new artists feel like it's up to them to make their own thing.
I love that. I love all the new artists. I never feel threatened, or never feel like this is getting out of hand where I can't be in the loop in this. I feel like I could get in the ring with any one of them, you name it. I think it’s marvelous. But respect is something you’ve got to have no matter what type of success you got, where you from.
One thing you said that was interesting earlier was that you were focused on writing something that was critically acclaimed. Which is an interesting way of putting it. I think a lot of people have this mindset of, “I want to make music that's popular.”
I was trying to write incredible verses. But like I said, the times change. Now you don't have to be super lyrical. You could get a song that sticks if it's catchy, if it works in the club, if it works at parties or works in the strip club. If the kids like it, it can go. It could catch fire, and you can be very successful. It's a society of artists that's in that lane, and you can't be mad at them. They’re making money; they’re being successful.
But there's also a section of the culture that do want to hear lyrics and catchy punchlines and stuff that makes you think. It's on the individual. Everything always gets topsy-turvy when it gets one sided. From the beginning of time, you had the Native Tongues rap, you had hardcore, you had all of that, but it was still a space for all of them to rock with each other. Now, when it leans, it gets crazy. But hip-hop is a big ferris wheel that's just spinning. And it's gonna pass and it's gonna keep going, and the hard part of that is staying on the ferris wheel.
Do you have any brothers and sisters?
I have a sister, I have one sister from my father. Stephanie. What’s up Steph! She’s older, she grew up in Tennessee, so I grew up the only child in my house. Spoiled brat.
That's how you develop, how you want to become an artist, right? You need the attention?
Not really. I used to be in my room writing raps, listening to pirate radio, trying to come up with some rhymes
What was pirate radio like?
I guess that was mix show before mix show. Late night you would have to stay up to hear some of the grittier rap songs that you wouldn't hear throughout the day. Have to get your tape ready, cover the holes, push record, push pause for the commercials. I'm from that element of hip-hop. When you come from that deep in it you might always bump heads or conflict with a younger dude that's just going to a site and hearing this song or running to YouTube, or streaming, or however the new way of doing it is. He probably don't even know nothing about covering up a tape and putting it on. Radios and recorders, them kind of things are extinct. I don’t know if
Do you have any favorite songs on the album?
My favorite songs keep switching. I love all of them. “Youthful Offender” is a song featuring Akon where I'm talking about some of the younger dudes from my neighborhood that had some bad incidents in life that led them to be locked up.
I got my brother Nas on there, a song called “Rain.” Concept song, just about, um, I feel weird in the rain. I just don't like going outside, or I don't have the same energy sometimes. I'm different when it rains than when the weather’s nice, or even when it's cold and not raining. A lot of things run through my mind when it rains, so I just wanted to try to bring that to life.
Got another joint with Diddy called “You Don't Eat,” where he's doing one of his Instagram rants, and I'm like the soundtrack for his Instagram rant. He's telling dudes to go harder, like I gave you the blueprint, how to get successful, and you still want to sit on your phone all day on Instagram taking selfies, complaining and crying.
What's it like hanging out with him these days?
Beautiful. You’re going to do something you would have never did if you wasn't hanging out with him. Something that's gonna make you say holy shit. You might be in the air eating lobster. You might be getting escorted by the police force down the Vegas strip.
I’m also curious about that “Don't Like” remix with Kanye and Chief Keef. I was living in Chicago when that came out, and it was a huge deal—
‘Kiss on that joint right? That was like out of left field. I love that joint. That's a great song to perform. You can do it a few times. The crowd damn near performs it for you.
I feel like that's an example of what we were talking about earlier, where Chief Keef is an artist people don’t take seriously as a lyricist, kind of the opposite of what they like you for.
See the thing about that is some people are, like, why are ‘Kiss and Chief Keef doing music together. Because that's what the culture is for! Like, to blend what he does with what I do and make a beautiful entree. As opposed to saying, nah, I rap like this, and he rap like that, we can't rap like this. You put the mindset out there, and it screws up the culture, when you're supposed to do songs with everybody.
You get screwed up sometimes. Especially when money gets involved, everybody gets a nice couple dollars, your ego's big now, you don't want to answer for certain people, it’s got to be the top five dudes on the Billboard, those are the only people you want a feature with, and this and that. Then it becomes corny. That ain't what music is for. It’s to make good music and represent the culture and keep going. You start, you start putting a bad mindset out there it just travels, and keeps going, and it becomes bad for everybody. That's why Top Five Dead or Alive is going to null and void all of that nonsense.
Who is in your top five dead or alive?
Top five dead or alive is really a good conversational piece, because if you love hip-hop you really have more than than five rappers that you love. That little top five thing is like a religious conversation or a religion argument because it can go on all night. We could sit here, everybody, and keep going around and around about your top five. You really need more than five slots to categorize your best rappers. My five always changes depending on how I'm feeling, or what mood I'm in at that particular time. But it's always usually Big, Nas, Hov, Styles P—my brother—and either DMX, Eminem, 2pac. The five is always scrabbled around different, but it's usually them type of brothers
It goes off your age, really, of what you grew up listening to. And that's where the argument comes, ‘cause when a dude don't have Nas, or when Hov and Nas and none of them is in it, and it's something that you might think is farfetched, you're like 'how the hell is he saying that?' But he grew up listening to Chief Keef and this and that! But it's all love. It will always be an argument. It will always be a good conversation. It will always go on.
Kyle Kramer should be in your top five Noisey editors dead or alive. Follow him on Twitter.