Jeru the Damaja vocalized underground agony before RZA declared that R&B stands for "rap and bullshit," before Dead Prez blasted "monotonous material," and way before Immortal Technique announced that he would soil a Def Jam development deal. The seminal pro-black Brooklyn stalwart humiliated Puff Daddy, wrestled the Versace shades off Foxy Brown's busted dome, and brilliantly satirized cornball hip-hop. More important, he threw surreptitious jabs that put guilt-ridden sellouts in defensive postures despite their not being lambasted by name.
So imagine my reaction when DJ Knife from Fresh Produce alerted me that Jeru has signed on to DJ at Good Life this month. Personally, I'm always down for sample-heavy true school, throwback scratch tactics, and misanthropic rhymes galore. But my concern was for the dance-shoed boogie nighthawks who frequent Fresh Produce and who, I presume, don't enjoy spending Saturday evenings acting tough with their feet planted and heads nodding. Fortunately for them, Jeru isn't the incendiary hater that I had good reason to believe he was.
"This is what people don't understand about me," he says. Turns out he's been rocking DJ gigs worldwide for about three years now. "I might talk about wack MCs, but I also grew up on shake-your-ass records. Father MC had those songs, and I loved some of them. If it's corny, it's corny, but it depends on what your purpose is. My purpose on the ones and twos is for people to have a good time."
Although Jeru still rhymes — and he released a disc as recently as 2007 — he spends a lot of time criss-crossing planet hip-hop as a laptop jockey. He's not alone: J-Zone, Biz Markie, and Large Professor — who are renowned for rapping (among other things) — have taken similar career paths. It makes sense: they have the tools and the knowledge, and retreating behind decks is much more rewarding than retiring behind a desk.
"The first thing I bought when I got my deal 15 years ago was two turntables, a mixer, an amp, and big-ass speakers," says Jeru, who still lives in Brooklyn with his entire family's record collection. "Every day I would go buy records and just DJ at the crib. Back then, guys like PF Cuttin and Roc Raida were around. Roc told me to start scratching with both hands, and I took his advice, so I have to give him the props for teaching this to me."
Jeru isn't exaggerating about his vinylphilic habits — growing up in New York City, I often saw him fingering selections at Fat Beats on Sixth Avenue. He says that was his regular routine until he learned digi-wax technology like FinalScratch and Serato Scratch Live — developments that allow him to avoid the embarrassment of lugging record crates, and to drop needles on random pop gems that cats hardly expect to hear vibrating off his wheels.
"The club isn't the place for acting all tough and hard-body. In Europe, I always want to go to the jiggy spots, and everyone around me — with their backpacks on — is like, 'Nah — no way.' I have to tell them that underground rap is cool, but not for getting ladies."
That said, when Jeru steps through Good Life this Saturday, hardcore ice grillers could get their fix after all. "I might spin some Jeru songs at the end, but it would be cheesy to play them before that. You never know, though; sometimes I surprise everyone and grab the microphone."
JERU THE DAMAJA | Good Life, 28 Kingston St, Boston | May 23 at 9 pm | 21+ | 617.451.2622 or www.goodlifebar.com