by Jeff Niesel
A Cleveland native who now lives in Oakland, MC Jahi just recently published Things I’ve Seen: A Decade of Hip-hop, Education and Life, a memoir about his hip-hop career. The book starts with his recollection of writing rhymes as a kid while growing up in East Cleveland and continues through his experiences performing on MTV and BET and touring Europe. In his intro to the book, Public Enemy’s Chuck D calls Jahi “a master teacher of the hip-hop and rap music craft.” We recently sat down to talk to Jahi, who came into town to attend his son’s high school graduation. The book is currently available through Jahi’s website and other online retailers, but it will also be reissued later this year with photos and an accompanying DVD.
When did you start thinking about a book and what kind of challenges did writing an autobiography present?
Originally, I was writing journals about everything that happened. At a ten-year point, I looked back. I had been going and going and going. In 2006, I came back to the United States after I had gotten my deal in Europe and lived in Copenhagen. I wanted to be closer to my kids and initially, I was going to write my autobiography but my uncle said I hadn’t lived long enough for that. But I wanted to write a memoir. I gave it a go and realized it was not like writing an album. I don’t know a lot of independent artists who started in Cleveland and then put out records and toured internationally and nationally. The book is a reflection of a ten year span that encompasses some incredible experiences. I’m a black kid from East Cleveland, Ohio and I was never supposed to leave Cleveland.
How did Chuck D encourage you?
He told me that if we don’t write our stories, who will write them for us?
Is there an educational element to the book?
My biggest goal would be that it would be required reading for someone interested in the music industry, whether you’re a musician or an engineer. My goal would be that a few schools use it. I do have a documentary film that I produced that is being used at Howard University for an African-American studies class.
In the book, you fast forward from the ’80s to 1997. What happened in between?
I became a father. I was only 22. I’ll give you a timeline. From ’82 to ’83, I was rapping on street corners in East Cleveland. In ’85, we had breakfast battles at Shaw High School. Why did have perfect attendance, because I wanted to battle cats every morning. In 1989 when I graduated from high school, I was supposed to get a wrestling scholarship to Eastern Michigan and reinjured my shoulder. My dad gave me an open ticket to Jamaica where he was living. From ’89 to ’92, I was living outside the United States. That’s when my spiritual and religious consciousness started happening. That’s when I started reading Malcolm and listening to Fela. I had a rap group. I became a dad and had two children by the time I was 24. I loved music and we all wanted to have careers but I had to be practical. I was trying to go to Tri-C but I was trying to find jobs so I could provide for my family and help my wife get through Case Western Reserve University. The idea of trying to be a musician was over. It wasn’t until I got a job working at AIDS Task Force that things started to change. I was the first person to use hip-hop videos to teach teenagers about sex.
When did you get back into recording?
In 1998, my friend had a recording studio. I stayed at his spot for about three months and decided I didn’t want to stay in the non-profit world. I kept hearing the people in that world talking about what they could have or should have done. I didn’t want that for myself. I started doing shows at the old Grog Shop and at the Rhythm Room.
Your hip-hop career takes off after that. What was the key thing that made you think you could make a career out of it?
In 1998, a friend of mine had a recording studio in Cleveland. It wasn’t for Guru, I have to pinpoint him, I wouldn’t have been attuned to what was going on. Something told me to go to his house and I wonder. I was back and forth about three months. I just decided I didn’t want to stay in the non-profit world. They were so unsatisfied. They kept saying what they wish they could have or should have done. I started doing little shows at the old Grog Shop and the Rhythm Room. I was going to give it a try.
You make a number of references to in the book to Bone Thugs N Harmony. Talk about their legacy.
I was an instructor for midnight basketball and those guys were in the class. That was at Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center. We didn’t completely cross paths but I have to give it up to them because when I saw them blow, up until that point there was nobody else that you say had done that. They gave me a kick in the ass.
When did you move to the Bay Area?
I first moved in 2002. I had realized the Bay Area was really progressive though Too Short had an independent spirit. If you had a record and you had hustle, you could really make it happen. I had met [the hip-hop group] Blackalicious in D.C. and they told me to give them a call if I ever got out to the Bay. Dwayne Wiggins from Toni! Toni! Tone! had a place in Oakland called Java House. Finding that place let me know where the writers and musicians were centralized. It was a fire hazard, there were so many people living. Oakland is more home to me than Cleveland now. It’s the people. There are a lot of progressive people and there’s always new music.
You have a day job?
I run my own company. It’s called Microphone Mechanics. I do partnerships with other non-profit organizations. 51 Oakland is one my biggest clients right now and that’s the non-profit arm of Yoshi’s, the legendary jazz club. They have a vision of saving art and music in Oakland public schools. The whole idea is to identify schools that don’t have music programs. My daytime is doing those types of things. I hope to not have to ever work for anyone again. I want to people to know that socially conscious, primarily profanity free hip-hop has a life and that you can go around the world and do that and people will understand you. If we don’t have more people like myself telling those stories, it’s going to be a hell of an imbalance.