August 13, 2019

Jeru the Damaja - The Hammer (EP) (June 17, 2014)



Jeru the Damaja’s discography consists of five full-length albums chock-full of East New York holier-than-thou bluster released since 1994. Now, as the hip hop head I assume you to be if you’re still reading today’s post as opposed to waiting until I write about Drake’s Views or something, you’re forgiven if you can only recall the first two of those projects: his debut, 1994’s The Sun Rises in the East, and its follow-up Wrath of the Math two years later. Now there’s a reason why you two only ever bring up those first two albums whenever Jeru comes up in conversation, but it isn’t exactly what you think.

Okay, it’s because DJ Premier produced those first two projects in full before Jeru had a falling-out with the Gang Starr Foundation, allegedly after Preemo slept with his sister or something? The details are murky and, hopefully, aren’t as problematic as what I just mentioned. But the lack of Premier beats isn’t the issue as much as it is that the last three albums Jeru released just don’t have very good music mixed underneath his rhymes. Bar-wise, he’s always been scattershot with the pen, managing some greatness in between bouts of misogyny or bullshit or just plain bland rhymes. Jeru isn’t the best rapper out there, folks, but it isn’t for a lack of trying as much as it is the lack of a proper editor. When he connects with subject matter, he makes magic happen and can flow with the best of them. But without good instrumentals, the man is lost.

Jeru’s third album, 1999’s Heroz4Hire, was self-produced, as though he thought he learned everything he needed from Preemo and didn’t need anyone’s help anymore – aside from a handful of decent songs, the album was a major disappointment. The follow-ups, 2003’s Divine Design and 2007’s Still Rising, didn’t fare any better, although at least he was smart enough to keep away from the boards, having figured out that his rapidly-diminishing audience didn’t want to hear that much Jeru influence on his projects.

So when the EP The Hammer was announced in 2014, I was pleasantly surprised. It featured eight tracks with three skits, which seemed superfluous, but three of those five actual songs were to be produced by artists whose names you’ve actually heard of? It sure as shit seemed like Jeru the Damaja was offering a mea culpa to fans as a way to celebrate the twenty years that had transpired since his debut album, admitting that he wasn’t able to turn just any beat into a proper decent song: he needed folks with actual skill aiding him in his quest. So when I read that those three songs were to be handled by P.F. Cuttin’, Junkyard Juju, and motherfucking Large Professor (!), suddenly I started to give a shit about what Jeru could sound like again.

So it’s my own damn fault, I know.

1. INTRO

2. POINT BLANK
Producer O.S.T.R. provides our host with an instrumental that orbits around your brain while Jeru tears into a one-verse wonder that shows more signs of life than his last three full-length albums combined. That isn’t to say that “Point Blank” is a return to form, however: the beat is more spacey than hardcore boom bap, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I wanted to make sure your expectations were set to a realistic level. Jeru comes from a generation where the ultimate insult was to refer to a man as being “effeminate”, apparently, and two such “insults” appear on “Point Blank”, which immediately date him as a rapper unstuck in time, but not as one whose beliefs have ever had any shot at evolving over the past decade or two. So that was disappointing, although it was nice to hear him giving a good god damn about his craft again.

3. SO RAW
The Damaja’s bars are written and delivered as though he were still living in the year 1996, but while that may be fine for the typical boasts-n-bullshit seasoned with pseudo-intellectual musings he’s usually conjuring up, what isn’t okay is the man’s bizarre obsession with homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and, once again, attacking men for being effeminate (the fact that he still relies on this old workhorse says a lot about the evolution of his writing throughout the years). For example: “So Raw” contains the lines, “N----s more bitch than a she-male / All that rah-rah, you’d probably be a girl in the cell”; “I make you wanna quit rap and take up ballet / Tinkerbell-ass motherfuckers”; and the most egregious, “When did M.C. stand for maricón”, which you just fucking know our host thought was clever as shit when he chiseled it into the stone slabs he reads off of while in the recording booth. This is incredibly frustrating, not just because this goddamn dinosaur has no grasp on how the world has changed since “Come Clean”(which was also pretty homophobic, as you two may recall), but because Jeru’s flow and focus is exactly what his fans have wanted to hear from the man since Wrath of the Math. P.F. Cuttin’s production is bluesy boom-bap thanks to how he twists and loops the sample, and our host’s in-your-face proclamations of mic dominance are otherwise engaging and believable, But you can’t just leave the baggage “So Raw” brings with it on the carousel and Uber away, folks. That’s just irresponsible. By now rappers should be able to come up with newer, fresher, and much more shrewd ways to insult those who they feel to be inferior to them – that’s kind of how this game works.

4. ATTACK THE WACK (SKIT)

5. A.R.M.E.D. (FEAT. THE BEATNUTS)
Now this is more along the lines of what I was hoping to hear from Jeru the Damaja in 2014. I will admit that our host’s willingness to play ball, delivering mostly unpretentious boasts-n-bullshit with a dash of self-awareness regarding his own treatment of women, was likely driven by the need to share “A.R.M.E.D.” (the acronym is never explained nor defined, at least not in any manner that I could catch) with both halves of The Beatnuts, who specialize in that kind of breezy, brash, goofy shit-talking, but the man doesn’t sound neutered or watered-down in the least bit. Far from it. Juju’s instrumental is a simple loop with a vocal sample repeated throughout the track, but it drives the performances through the night to their final destination, and I was kind of hoping it would somehow last even longer. Psycho Lester is the dude who quickly sees through all of the artifice, delivering a funny verse where he was clearly enjoying himself, possibly because he didn’t have to handle production on “A.R.M.E.D.”, while Juju sounds colder than ever during his contribution. Our host doesn’t have the best verse on here, but he’s no slouch behind the microphone, either. Kind of wish every song on The Hammer was a collaboration of this nature, really – when paired with the right people, Jeru the Damaja sounds reinvigorated.

6. SOLAR FLARES
You two are going to be so mad at me, but I felt “Solar Flares” was fucking terrible. The instrumental, provided by Large Professor, a fact that likely drew you in to “Solar Flares” in the first goddamn place, is alright, but unimaginative loops do not a good song make. Our host’s three verses explore the depths of the pseudo-intellectual philosophy his more pretentious work (read: the vast majority of his catalog) traffics in, none of the bars managing to stick as his performance of said bars is akin to reading in a dull monotone during a school assembly without ever looking up from the sheet of paper balanced precariously on the podium. There was certainly potential for this song to have worked in some timeline, but it’s never realized in this one. I understand there is a remix of “Solar Flares” produced by Juju floating around somewhere, but I haven’t listened to that version, so I’m standing behind the opinion that this track is very much a waste of time and effort on the part of all involved parties, including myself for having to write this, and you two for getting far enough into today’s post to still be reading this claptrap.

7. THE HAMMER
Meh.

8. DR. FREEDMAN (OUTRO)
Well, that was unnecessary.

FINAL THOUGHTS: With The Hammer, Jeru the Damaja proves all of the naysayers wrong: you see, he is capable of fucking up a project even with actual brand name producers behind the boards. The concern is that the man just doesn’t seem to be all that committed to his own cause anymore: when he feels inspired, Jeru can rap like a motherfucker, but that muse has been taking its sweet-ass time returning to his vacant gaze, rendering his boasts-n-bullshit throughout this EP a fine showcase of wasted potential. I’m not typically one to believe that all rappers have a shelf life and should hang it up before start writing rhymes about fighting over pills at the nursing home and spitting game at the hot new seventy-two year old widow that just checked in, but while hip hop may not necessarily be a young man’s game, it is a hungry man’s game, and Jeru’s been eating three squares and a midnight snack every night since The Sun Rises in the East. The Hammer seemed like a good idea on paper, but the man wasn’t even into it enough to warrant releasing a full-length project. What does that tell you? And don’t tell me that he was just testing the waters – his last three projects didn’t come with any sort of precautionary measures such as that. And the fuck is up with three skits on an eight-track project? How is that going to be worth anybody’s time? The flashes of promise that are displayed when the Damaja teams up with The Beatnuts are few and far between, but their mere presence forces our host to actively care about not being upstaged on his own shit. While that tactic didn’t really work, it does introduce the idea of a project where Jeru raps alongside his friends, both old and new, to see if he can get his groove back. Or, honestly, he could always sit down with DJ Premier and figure out if there’s any spark left in that relationship, or if that ship has long since sailed. Until either of those outcomes comes to pass, if you absolutely must listen to Jeru the fucking Damaja, you know which two albums are worth your valuable time.

BUY OR BURN? Nah. Don’t pick up this Hammer. (Sorry, the joke was right there.)

BEST TRACKS: “A.R.M.E.D.”, but you can really take or leave































My Gut Reaction: Jeru the Damaja - Dirty Rotten Demos (March 2016)


In 2016, Slice-of-Spice, a Brooklyn-based indie record label specializing in hip hop rarities and the like, released a twelve-inch called Dirty Rotten Demos. Allegedly, this three-song effort consists of demos Jeru the Damaja recorded that were shopped around and ultimately sold to Payday Records, the company that released his first two DJ Premier-produced albums.

I figured I’d throw this one into the mix tonight for a few reasons. First of all, I’m still disgusted by the taste The Hammer left in my mouth (yeah, I know that sounds like a bad dirty joke, but I’m leaving it in just because), so I thought maybe jumping back in time would help me to feel better. Secondly, incorporating Dirty Rotten Demos into today’s post in turn makes this a longer article, which can’t be all bad, right?

But the main reason I wanted to explore these demo songs with you two today is because they were all produced by the late Guru. You see, Jeru wasn’t really Preemo’s artist, he was Guru’s: along with Big Shug and both halves of Group Home, Jeru and Guru were a part of the Gang Starr Foundation, a crew that only sounds like a nonprofit, a collective that offered entry to DJ Premier after they had already established themselves. Preemo, in turn, produced the first album from Group Home and the first two from Jeru on the strength of his bond with his Gang Starr cohort, who was a famed producer in his own right. But it wasn’t always going to be that way: these demos prove that the artist formerly known as MC Keithy E was ready to do everything he could to help make it happen for his boy Jeru.

1. GOD OF RHYMING
So delightfully nostalgic that it’s motherfucking charming. Guru’s instrumental posits an alternate path for Jeru the Damaja, one where he made his bones and talked his shit over jazz-inflected boom bap as opposed to the DJ Premier beats that propelled him into the upper echelons of the hip hop community in the 1990’s, and although it’s quite easy to dismiss his hungry, focused performance as being a byproduct of “hey Max, you fucking moron, this is one of Jeru’s demo songs, obviously he would have been aiming to impress someone here,” that doesn’t take away from his verses, which hearken back to a time when our host simultaneously promoted himself as the “God of Rhyming” and still felt the need to sell the general public on his skill set. Aside from a horrific miscalculation on Guru’s part during the chorus (the sound of tape rewinding before each instance of the vocal sample grates on the eardrum and sounds so fucking awful that it takes one out of the song entirely), “God of Rhyming” was enjoyable, a track that easily could have appeared on any pre-The Sun Rises In The East album back when Jeru the Damaja’s career was guided by Marley Marl or some shit in this ridiculous hypothetical timeline, as there is no way this could have ever hung out at the same party as “Come Clean”, the single that pretty much defines Jeru in song form – the contrast would have been too jarring. I will admit, though, that my issue with the hook almost torpedoes my enjoyment completely, so it’s for the best that this was never officially released until now.

2. THE DAMAJA
Conversely, “The Damaja” could only have appeared as a bonus track on Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena, as its overall sound (and Jeru’s own voice, interestingly enough) lend itself almost too well to a Guru piece. (There’s too much boom bap-iness for this to have fit on any proper Jazzmatazz project.) The instrumental’s overuse of the same Average White Band “Love Your Life” sample that mobilized A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime” is most distracting, lending our host’s performance to an unfair comparison beyond his control. (It’s not as though any sample that has already been used once is now off-limits or anything, but it can be difficult to separate the loop from the classic rap track. Just ask Lupe Fiasco and Pete Rock, or Jay Electronica and… Pete Rock.) His bars are playful boasts-n-bullshit, nothing that special, but what’s most fascinating is the man’s overall demeanor: Jeru the Damaja sounds far too happy and content for an artist that chose that particular stage name. That would, of course, change for him rather quickly, but hearing the man seemingly smiling his way through his verse is quite the experience. Guru’s production isn’t nearly as good as it was on “God of Rhyming”, and as such, “The Damaja” isn’t really worth the ticket – it’s good to know it exists, but one doesn’t need to hear every single goddamn thing the Damaja has ever recorded.

3. DIRTY ROTTEN DEMO
More of a curiosity piece than a full song, “Dirty Rotten Demo” represents truth in advertising, as it presents to the listener the first verse of what would later become The Sun Rises in the East’s “D. Original” over a Guru instrumental that can’t help but sound far inferior to what DJ Premier would ultimately give Jeru, but it’s important to note that had the album version never existed, this could have been an acceptable substitute. The Damaja’s confidence is in full effect here, as Jeru’s performance is essentially the same as what we ended up hearing  later in 1994, and his boasts and shit-talking are convincing enough,. Sadly, it ends after the lone verse, but he leaves you wanting to hear more, which is kind of the entire point of a demo tape in the first place, right?

THE LAST WORD: In contrast to The Hammer, which, admittedly, this project wasn’t really supposed to ever be compared to, Dirty Rotten Demos is a pleasant time capsule from an alternate universe, one where we missed out on the likes of “Come Clean” or “You Can’t Stop The Prophet” in favor of a Jeru the Damaja raised on a steady diet of jazz and tightly-written bars. I’m not entirely convinced that his career would have panned out in a similar fashion had the Preemo connection not been made early on, but after hearing Guru’s production work here, I think we could have gotten at least one solid album. The Jeru featured here obviously isn’t the jaded asshole tenured professor we’re used to in our timeline, as life hadn’t yet beaten him down to a pulp, and it’s nice to hear something approximating optimism in his young voice. This isn’t required listening for anyone aside from the hardcore Jeru prophet, and I will say that the album version of “D. Original” beats whatever Guru was going for, but I’ll give the dude some credit: at least he isn’t trying to create his own fake DJ Premier beats on here. You may feel the need to listen to these once and then never again, and I’d accept that, as that’s likely what I’m going to do. But it’s nice to have the option to listen to these demos, I suppose.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Welp, the Jeru the Damaja catalog is now complete. Click here to catch up on any posts you missed.


6 comments:

  1. If I recall correctly, the label that pressed the reissue of Jeru's demo was selling it for like $75 or something obscene like that. It's cool, but I wouldn't pay much for it.

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    1. I agree. It's nice that it exists, but at the same time, who is the audience, really?

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    2. The audience is scalpers hoping that maybe one day some chump will buy it from them for hundreds of bucks. Same for all the other records they've put out.

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    3. Bet you at least 50% of buyers were people planning to flip it on eBay.

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    4. Let's be real, you're not wrong

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  2. Just listened to these. Track 3 is basically a waste of time. But the first 2 are pleasant (if flawed). I personally think Jeru fits the beats surprisingly well. Makes me wonder if he ever could've had more potential with the right producers in the post-Premier era. Though honestly, I highly doubt it. This vibe could probably never work for him after the first two albums. Still, hearing these tracks is both nostalgic and kinda refreshing.

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