"Exploration" is an apt way to describe Jae's musical experimentations, in every sense. His raw, unbridled music will take you out there, dipping toes in the philosophical abyss, brushing shoulders with the cosmos. And just as you embark on a fantastical voyage into far-reaching dimensions, he'll drop you right back into reality with a hilarious sample or a candid quip about day-to-day life (as in "$easons," where the chorus flips the verse: "Must be the seasons, and I know we all here for a reason / Must be the reasons, and I know we're all here for the season"). With a hip-hop backbone, his electronic vignettes fuse freeform composition with the disorienting feel of avant-garde noise. Imagine the crate-digging of Madlib merged with the brash experimentalism of Aphex, the dream-telling feel of a Flying Lotus record, and the quirky and haunting imagery of vintage David Lynch. That, all bound with a sense of universal truth a la Sun Ra and Lil' Wayne's stream-of-consciousness abandon.
Hunched over a table inside a coffee shop in Chicago, his attention is momentarily stolen by a Top 40 hip-hop track playing in the background. It inspires the producer/rapper to break down his beef with commercial hip-hop. "The technology is here and people like to make beats now. You see so many kids rapping over millions of beats, but they all sound the same. What's missing is a certain substance that connects and communicates with people in a positive and spiritual way," he muses. "The same with some rappers—I'm not entirely into the motives or messages. Many rappers try to remain relevant, and even trendy, so that they can stay popular and make money."
Jeremiah Jae's beatless "Raw Tape$" is proof of his unorthodox stance, with his flow woozily floating off-rhythm over The Chakacha's "Jungle Fever" guitar riff: "Killer of the Year, everybody cheers / Pop champagne, we all try to play the game." Bypassing the braggadocio and materialism, he's opted to set his artistic path towards that word he keeps emphasizing: communication. His lyrics and densely layered productions unlock mysticism that's as accessible as it is profound, weaving coded messages that are left to the listener to decipher.
Sitting with the 22 year-old, he's equally slow-burning in person. Some interviewee's lay all of their cards on the table, hiding behind a thick layer of charisma and one-liners. During our chat, however, Jae comes across as understated and quietly profound. Even so, the best way to fully tap into the universe of Jae is through his work: Jae's freely distributed DXNCE EP is a good start. A diamond crystal ball in the rough (and one that reveals more with each listen), every track on the EP feels like a different beast entirely: "Money Huggers" holds the hazy feel of a '70s funk movie, while "Spaceman" feels more like a soaring plane ride into Technicolour.
It was his abstract Eating Donuts & Other Refined Foods mixtape—a dedication to Dilla—that got the hip-hop community all aglow however. The same with the eye-opening hip-hop he created with his Young Black Preachers crew. His Lunch Special series was a new take on the art of a mixtape, laced with humorous skits and the most absurd lunch-related samples he could find—including Petey Greene's musings on watermelon, obscure cooking shows and even clips from news reports about lunch rooms.
something on a computer and try
to make it sound handmade and raw."
Jae's name has also been found, quite often, in association with the venerated Brainfeeder imprint: his Rappayamatantra EP was released last year on the Los Angeles imprint, and his associations with Fly Lo's empire have grown since. He's just come off his second European tour with label mate Teebs, for instance. "It's cool to be a part of a label that respects you to be whatever you want to be," he says with a small smile. "I met Steve [Flying Lotus] online but then I met him in person about a year later, around 2007. I flew out to LA and stayed out there for about six months, so I met everyone on the label."
"It's really cool to rap with him and hear his perspective on things whenever I can. He gets it," says Steve Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus. "Someone—I think it was Samiyam—passed me the Lunch Special mixes that he'd done, and his Young Black Preachers stuff. It takes me a while to really pursue an artist because I feel like everyone's got at least one tune in them. But in his case, I was just blown away. I got used to him sending me an EP of tunes every month!" He laughs. "He freaked me out a little bit. [His DXNCE EP] felt like something that I'd been trying to achieve in my own work."
In Jae's productions, chanted vocals, echoes and whispers, discordant sound effects, tough reverb and clattering percussion are all peppered with bizarre soundbites from retro infomercials, horror movies and TV and radio announcements. But there's a real sense of cohesion to it all—his beats almost feel collaged. "I like expanding and experimenting with all platforms of sound," he tells. "I'm into organic types of sounds that you can create from instruments or from a sample, or a sample of reality. I like the challenge to create something on a computer and try to make it sound handmade and raw." A multi-instrumentalist, he also plays all instrumental parts on his records.
Carrying a different air than the average Chicagoan, it's instantly clear that Jae's not from the trendier parts of the city (case in point: he'd never been to the legendary Gramaphone Records, a few blocks from our café in Lakeview). He grew up in Jackson Park on the South Side, "a nerd that kept it fresh" in an area of the city that will thicken anyone's skin. "The South Side is my home," he says. "Family. Love. Hate. With my music, I try to relate what I can to the ears of the streets, through what my own eyes have seen growing up and presently. My families had difficult times. We had to make something out of nothing."
With music that incorporates so many details, textures and colours, it feels almost intuitive that Jae doubles up as a visual artist. Walking into Gramaphone Records, he seems just as caught up in the posters and flyers inside the store as the rows of vinyl. "That was the other love of my life growing up. I was in school for visual art. I was back and forth. My art's always been pretty DIY, but I'm actually trying to do an art show soon. Hopefully my girlfriend and I can do one together. We make t-shirts too," he says, pointing to the tee he's wearing.
Besides his visual art projects, he's also created all of his own cover art and music videos. His "Vertical Pupils" video is a slightly disturbing voyage into a tripped-out Russian art cartoon world, while "Eating Donuts" is all graphic surrealism. "I like to try new things," he explains. "I'm influenced by places, people, music, art, even sports. Sometimes my whole focus may shift into a different medium or activity."
His open mind and sharp focus is due in part to his father, Robert Irving III. A deeply spiritual jazz composer and musician, he served as Miles Davis' musical director and worked with all manner of musical legends (ranging from Santana to Ramsey Lewis to R. Kelly). Jeremiah lights up: "He's a hard working cat and has been blessed in his life to work with some of the greatest, yet he stays so connected to the energy and love that the planet can provide you."
Though inspired by his father's musical path, growing up Jae's classical piano and guitar lessons never quite suited him. "I taught myself how to play the drums. I played in a few bands here and there. But when I discovered hip-hop and beat-making, it kind of bridged the gap of all my interests." On top of his own sonic experiments (created in a self-built studio in his bedroom), as a teenager Jae teamed up with his god-brothers Tre Smith and Aaron "Projeck" Butler to form Young Black Preachers. Their collective vision culminated into several EPs that brim with optimism. But the YBP story isn't an easy one to tell. "We grew up together," he says. "Aaron passed away last November. Tre and I have still continued. Tre makes beats and DJs, he's always working on a lot of music."
Jae's own cerebral soundworlds are somewhat demanding. They're not meant for passive, background listening. And they probably won't make sense on first listen. "It has been a challenge for some people to get it," Jae agrees. "It's not challenging just to be challenging, but definitely to open up something new." Tre of YBP relayed a similar idea in a recent interview: "We kinda want the listener to do a little bit of work, too...for me personally, with the kind of music I like, I want to have to be like a detective a little bit, just to try to figure it out."
Jae's latest solo project, the eagerly awaited Lunch Special 4, leaves you with that detective-like curiosity. But it also finds him sounding his most spirited and confident yet. In the past, he admits, a slight feeling of reluctance has always tugged on his vocal delivery. "Emceeing developed over time, with me hating my voice for many years. Now I use the fears and insecurities to add texture to it, rather than trying to polish it up to where it's not me anymore."
As we walk past a few Brainfeeder records hanging on Gramaphone's wall, he informs that his debut album should be out on the imprint by the end of the year. "Dreams are the central theme of the album," he says. "It's a bridge between the waking life and the dream world. In the waking life you are struggling trying to make money, or are pressured by gang activity, or a job. The dream you is living in an obscure zone, where fragments of reality are met with infinite possibility."