In this month’s episode of “Hey Look! A Music Review”, I’ll be reviewing the debut album of East Coast rapper Jeru The Damaja: “The Sun Rises in the East”. Born in 1972 under the government name Kendrick Jeru Davis, Jeru The Damaja (‘cause Kendrick the Damaja is clearly not a proper rap name. I mean – KENDRICK?! What kind of a rap name is Kendrick?! Ninja, please!) is a Brooklyn MC who first caught the ears of hip hop heads with his collaboration with the late, great rapper Keith “Guru” Elam (one half of the producer/rapper duo Gang Starr) on the classic 1992 Gang Starr album “Daily Operation”. For his first album, Jeru enlisted the assistance of the second half of Gang Starr, LEGENDARY hip-hop producer Christopher “DJ Premier” (or Primo for short) Martin – responsible for some of rap music’s greatest instrumentals – to provide beats to do….well….damage on.
Prior to the recording of “The Sun Rises in the East”, Gang Starr had undergone a musical maturity from the jazz influences of their 1989 debut album “No More Mr. Nice Guy” to the rugged, stripped-down lyrical and musical elements of 1994’s “Hard to Earn” (an album which celebrated its 20th anniversary on March 8th, and one I promised myself to write about, but didn’t thanks to Father fucking Time getting in the way of my blogging schedule) to reflect the evolving sound of East Coast rap music. Though Guru continued to fuse hip hop and jazz music with his “Guru’s Jazzmatazz” trilogy of solo projects, Gang Starr continued their musical progression with 1998’s “Moment of Truth” (arguably the BEST Gang Starr album EVER recorded, and one of my all-time favourite albums), the compilation album “Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr” (which spawned the SMASH HIT “Full Clip”, a song that radio stations literally blasted the shit out of during the summer of 1999. Ahhh, those were the days) and 2003’s “The Ownerz”. Two years later, Gang Starr unfortunately broke up (for what reason, I really don’t know) and five years after that, Guru passed away at age 48 from cancer.
But back to Jeru. “The Sun Rises in the East”, released on May 24th 1994, received critical praise for both Jeru’s unique, poetical lyrical dexterity (reflected in his portrayal on the album as a highly-educated, knowledge-spitting, ignorance-battling ghetto prophet) and DJ Premier’s brooding boom-bap instrumentation. Like Nas’ “Illmatic” before it, the LP is fairly short (39 minutes) and has one guest appearance – Afu-Ra (one of the most underrated rappers in hip-hop history), member of the hip hop collective Gang Starr Foundation (which included Gang Starr….DURRRH!!….Jeru, rap duo Group Home and female rapper Bahamadia (more on her later) among others) and founder of the supergroup Perverted Monks. And like “Illmatic”, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” and rap trio Black Moon’s “Enta Da Stage” (another favourite of mine, and one that you should DEFINITELY listen to if you’re a true hip hop head) preceding it, “The Sun Rises in the East” is regarded by many as one of the most significant albums in East Coast hip hop – even if the album cover does depict the World Trade Center on fire one year after the infamous 1993 bombing of the North Tower.
But 20 years later, does it still hold up? The album that is, not the tower. In a manner of seconds, we shall soon see.
1. Intro (Life) – If you’re a fan of the 1986 anime movie “Fist of the North Star” (of which I’m not. Ultra-violence aside, the wannabe-“Mad Max” story, dated animation and CHEESY English dubbing didn’t bode well with my enjoyment of the overall film), then you’d recognize the opening narration that Jeru uses as the intro to this album. Jeru literally sounds like a ghetto philosopher on Primo’s atmospheric instrumental, as he talks about the dynamic opposites that encompass our life (Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark, Coke vs. Pepsi, Pre-paid vs. Post-paid etc. etc. etc.). Not too long to be pretentious and not too short to be considered unnecessary on the album’s playlist, “Intro (Life)” works as an unconventional, but really quite good, opener to the album, and an introduction to Jeru’s “prophet” persona.
2. D. Original – I LOVE the harsh, dusty drums and discordant piano chords on this beat. Over the fantastically grimy instrumental of “D. Original”, Jeru raps about life in the streets of Brooklyn (“Walk, like a ninja, on the asphalt / Here talk is cheap, you’re outlined in chalk / And there’s more hard times than on “Good Times” / And most n****s dedicate their life to crime”) and how he tries to stay positive and righteous even when society deems him a “dirty rotten scoundrel” (as the well-chosen vocal sample from Gang Starr’s “I’m the Man” implies in the chorus). EXCELLENT track!
3. Brooklyn Took It – Primo puts his skill of picking great vocal samples to good use as he selects a line from South Bronx rap veteran KRS-One’s iconic diss track to Queensbridge’s MC Shan “The Bridge is Over” (“Brooklyn keeps on taking it”) and applies to a beat which Jeru uses to represent the Brooklyn borough. Similar to “The Bridge is Over”, Jeru warns fake MCs to tread lightly – fuck it, DON’T tread at all – when it comes to challenging Brooklyn in the rap game. Point is, Brooklyn took it and they don’t intend to give it back any time soon. Deal with that shit!
4. Perverted Monks in tha House (Skit) – No, this isn’t a martial-arts themed black sitcom. More of an interlude than skit, “Perverted Monks in tha House” is the compulsory 1990s rap album posse shout-out / opportunity to verbally and violently threaten any and every hater out there track. Jeru admittedly sounds awkward and a bit drunk (“We studied the manuscript for years and years and years”…..ummmm…..yeah) while playing tough over a Primo beat that fucking KNOCKS!! This moody, nocturnal instrumental is the type of shit to listen to when you’re cruising the street at night in your car, nodding your head, wondering where you’re going and why you’re actually out driving with no idea where you’re going. Look at the music video for The Roots’ “What they Do” (and almost every rap video set at night) and you’ll understand what I mean. Man, if only I can listen to the instrumental without hearing a ‘drunken’ Jeru. Sigh.
5. Mental Stamina – Afu-Ra joins forces with Jeru on a song that truly lives up to its title. From the second Primo’s BANGING instrumental comes on, the tag team of Jeru and Afu-Ra unleashes bar after bar of fierce, fiery and highly intelligent lyrics (“Watch the style but also peep the lyrics, my lightning, my thunder / Way back I stomped out Hera-ca-les / But now I stomp out MCs / Can’t chill, because the Sun don’t freeze”) so quickly and so direct that you – the listener and not the person trying to recite their raps – will lose your breath trying to decipher everything being said. Guaranteed.
6. Da Bichez – No folks, that’s not a typo. That’s how the title is spelt. Jeru uses a smooth, jazzy instrumental, with a drum kit courtesy of the Mary Jane Girls’ smash hit “All Night Long” and bluesy horn solo thrown in for good measure, to address the issue of bitches in today’s society. But then again, what would you expect from a song called “Da Bichez”? Don’t be fooled however: this track is far from misogynistic. The hook which opens the track establishes the fact that the song is not about the “queens” and “young ladies”, but the bitches. And the three verses that follow describes the difference between a real woman who stick with her man through thick and thin and a gold-digger who’ll dump a guy in a heartbeat for someone else with more money. Once again, what would you expect from a song called “Da Bichez”? Two pimp thumbs way up!
7. You Can’t Stop the Prophet – Hands down, one of Jeru’s greatest songs! “You Can’t Stop the Prophet” tells a lyrical allegory of the battle between Jeru’s “super-scientifcal” powered Prophet character and his arch nemeses Mr. Ignorance, Deceit, Hatred, Jealousy, Anger, Despair, Animosity and Envy (the eight deadly sins, apparently). Primo’s energetic beat and Jeru’s vivid lyricism, along with some intentionally campy dialogue from certain side characters, help give the song the feel of a ghetto superhero comic book story come to life. Matter of fact, the music video for this track (which you should check out – along with that Roots video I mentioned earlier) is exactly like that. Oh, and check out the Pete Rock remix as well – since it knocks just as hard as the original version.
8. Perverted Monks in tha House (Theme) – Why thank you for answering my request in Track 4! You guys are so cooool!
9. Ain’t the Devil Happy – Deep, profound lyrics over a dramatic string-assisted Primo beat with a scratched sample of Wu-Tang founder RZA’s creepy-ass laugh from “Tearz” off the “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” LP? The devil isn’t pleased at all.
10. My Mind Spray – In the fifth millionth rap song to sample jazz arranger Bob James’ “Nautilus” (‘cause it’s so awesome), Jeru literally lets his “mind spray”, as he fires bars of braggadocious lyrics with the force of an automatic weapon. Like “Mental Stamina” before it, Jeru switches lyrical cadences on this track, from his normal medium pace to a near-frenetic delivery. Jeru’s wordplay on this and “Mental Stamina” always reminds me of another Gang Starr affiliate, Bahamadia, a female rapper who, on her impressive debut album “Kollage” (which you should really check out, by the way), exhibits the same medium-to-fast lyrical pace of Jeru….and thanks to her monotone vocal delivery, sounds like the female version of Guru. Take a look at her music video for the still-banging “You Know How We Do” and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. See? That’s THREE music videos I recommended, and I haven’t even reached the end of my review – as yet.
11. Come Clean – Not to be confused with the Hilary Duff song of the same name (like anyone remembers that shit), “Come Clean” is Jeru’s MAGNUM OPUS. From the hollow, Chinese water torture image-conjuring sound effects of water drops that open the track to the scratched hook which uses a line from the rap group Onyx’s hit single “Throw Ya Gunz”, this song immerses you in its dark, cavernous ambience and leaves you there to find your way back out. Primarily a verbal warning to wannabe thugs, gangstas and tough guys to step correctly when they come to Brooklyn, or else, one way or the other, they WILL get fucked up (“You wanna front, what, jump up and get bucked / If you’re feeling lucky, duck, then press your luck”), Jeru delivers brash, witty and insightful lyrics that successfully blur the line between “book sense” and street knowledge (“Malignant mist that’ll leave Kant defunct (Kant being a reference to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant – according to rapgenius.com)/ The result’s your remains stuffed in a car trunk”. Primo’s hard-knocking beat will have your head nodding from the moment the drums kick in, and Jeru’s expertly-written and performed lyrics ( “Got a freaky, freaky, freaky, freaky flow / Control the mic like Fidel Castro” is one of my favourite lines on this track) will lodge themselves into your subconscious and STAY there for the rest of your life! Trust me on this. Well deserving of its praise and “classic” status, “Come Clean” is a bonafide hip-hop masterpiece!
12. Jungle Music – It takes a while to begin, and it takes a little longer while to end thanks to its obviously-looped “jungle” animal noises, but “Jungle Music” bumps. The drum kit doesn’t knock as hard as ¾ of the album, but it blends well with the pleasant vibraphone arpeggio layered on this beat. Jeru sounds really good on this track, as he spits some complex and thought-provoking Afrocentric-themed lyrics, which may go over some listeners’ heads or compel them to listen to exactly what he’s saying. Not the best Jeru song in the world (that honour already goes to the previous track), but it is a pretty good way to wind things down.
13. Statik – The project concludes with a low-key, minimalist track consisting of a murky drum kit layered on top of some creatively looped hisses and pops, and some more lyrical boasts and threats provided by Jeru (“Electromagnetic beam, I get charged / Rhymes I run right thru ‘em like a big box of Trojan large”). It doesn’t end the album on a high note, unfortunately, due to the lack of energy and punch it contains compared to the preceding tracks. But within the grand scheme of the album’s “Prophet” theme, “Statik” would make for excellent end credit music as Jeru’s character returns to the shadows, Batman style, waiting for his arch nemeses to rear their ugly heads so he can launch his “super-scientifcal” attack! Or you can simply accept it as the end of the album and move on with your lives. Whatever works for you
MY THOUGHTS: It’s a shame that Jeru’s other albums never matched the success of his debut album. His 1996 sophomore album “Wrath of the Math” (also produced entirely by DJ Premier and also guest-starring Afu-Ra) was critically well-received (thanks in part to its hit single “Ya Playin’ Yourself”), but unfortunately, it was a commercial flop. And after recording that album, Jeru had a falling out with DJ Premier (for what reason, I also do not know), resulting in their parting of ways. With his two subsequent albums, 1999’s “Jeru the Damaja Presents Supahuman Klik – Heroz4Hire”, 2003’ “Divine Design”, and 2007’s “Still Rising”, he tried to prove to the hip-hop community that he was still a great MC, even without the help of DJ Premier or the Gang Starr Foundation. But none of those albums could ever match “The Sun Rises in the East”, since his debut album is still his finest work. From a technical level, Primo’s beats are masterfully produced and truly represent the boom-bap sound of East Coast hip hop in its purest form, and Jeru displays versatility, charisma, wit, intelligence and a deep-rooted self-awareness of who he is as an African American trying to stay virtuous on the gritty streets of New York. It may be too intellectual for some, and the musical production may distract others from the messages being delivered by Jeru, but “The Sun Still Rises in the East” is still a solid debut hip-hop album and still holds up to this day. If you’re a true fan of 1990s East Coast rap music, then you should already have this album in your collection. If not, then…..why? If you’re interested in 1990s rap music in general, I strongly suggest you give this album a listen. And while you’re at it, also check out Bahamadia’s “Kollage” and Gang Starr’s “Hard to Earn”, since they are really worth checking out
Speaking of “Hard to Earn”, allow me to atone for my ineptitude in not reviewing that album two months ago with the following music video for Gang Starr’s hit single, and without a shadow of a doubt, one of the BEST RAP SONGS EVER RECORDED IN HUMAN HISTORY – “Mass Appeal”. Which reminds me. There’s a 10-hour video on YouTube of a guy playing a saxophone, but there’s not a video for “Mass Appeal’s” instrumental (which still fucking BANGS) being looped for 10 HOURS! For what reason, I wish I knew. Matter of fact, instead of sitting on my ass writing about why that video doesn’t exist, I’m gonna sit on my ass and CREATE that 10-hour video! Yeah, I said it! Think I’m lying? Watch me!! But first, watch this video – and bask in the awesomeness that still is Gang Starr.
LAST WORDS: R.I.P. Guru. Gang Starr forever. Jeru and DJ Premier, please do another collaboration. And the sun still rises in the East. That’s astronomy 101, yo.
MY RATING: 4 ½ out of 5 stars (“Definitely listen to this album”)