Interview: J-Dawg


J-Dawg is a rapper from Hollygrove, New Orleans. He’s best known as a member of Black Menace (along with Threat and DJ Jaz), as well as for his 1997 solo records The Dawg House and Smokin’ & Rollin’.

What was growing up in Hollygrove like?

It’s changed a lot over the years, you know what I’m sayin’? We got a lot of new people back here now, but at first it was pretty much family-oriented. Now, younger couples, younger people - not necessarily couples because they ain’t married or nothin’, a lot of different people. New faces, you know what I’m sayin’? So I just kinda stick to myself.

What’s your first memory of New Orleans hip-hop specifically?

My first memory was being enamored - that’s us, that sound like us. Local hip-hop, we ain’t had too many national people outside of Wayne, Juvenile. Everyone else was on a local level. The Cheeky Blakks and stuff like that, MC L. It was a lot of old school rappers that stood out to me, from the ‘90s when I was comin’ up.

I got started listening to New York hip-hop, thinking “I can do that too." Listening to Dana Dane, the way he told stories and put words together. Just instrumentals off records, I didn’t have no producer or nothin’ like that when I first started.

It seems like there was a split between people following that New York school and people who wanted to give you their day-to-day without a filter.

I always wanted to come across as being a lyrical cat, I wanted to be recognized for my craft and what I did to put the words together. I prided myself on lyrics, prided myself on how I said things and what I wrote down. I picked up on the fast rappin’ one day in the studio, workin’ with Big Boy Records. I had to do a little freestyle, it wasn’t no beat or nothin’ yet, so I wrote a little something down that was kinda speedy. Kinda fast, like “whoa!" You know what I’m talkin’ about? Once I got the reaction from that rhyme, I just went forward with there and kept writing with that style. It started a cappella and then moved into the style that people know.

How did Black Menace get formed?

Two neighborhood kids, pretty much rappin’. He was his own individual and I was mine, then we came together, had a conversation, decided to form a group. Just neighborhood friends, “let’s do a group." It wasn’t thinking that I could do better with a group, or without a group, I can stand up either way. “Black Menace" was just the culture that we grew up in, that’s what we were. Bein’ black young men growin’ up where we grew up at, the way we was looked at was bein’ a menace. Kinda like correlatin’ everything that we had been through and seen into a name.

What brought you to Big Boy?

We used to do gong shows around the city, we’d win first, second place. One day Cise, he knew Big Boy. He came to us and said he had somebody who might wanna be interested in talking to y’all about doing some business or woopty wop. Set up a meeting, he came through and said he liked what we was doin’, and from there it was history.

I keep hearing about these talent shows - what were they like?

It was Bobby Marchan, he’s died now but he used to put on shows where they’d have a club full of people and a panel of judges. Each artist would get a chance to get up there and do they thing, and at the end of the performance the crowd judged who they wanted to win. We used to get up there and win every week, no exaggeratin’. People would do rap, r’n’b, whatever talent you had. It was the gong show. Whatever you did, you could come do it. You used to have five or six different spots around the city where we would do our thing. No record out, just known by the live performance.

What were you performing then?

Off Too Short’s beat “I Ain’t Trippin’." Whatever rhymes we wrote the week before, it wasn’t no same thing. We kinda catered the performance to the venue and the area we was in to try and get the crowd on your side. That’s what it was about, back then it was a lot of the crowd participation. They’d get into it, and then the judges would grade you on how the crowd was actin’. So we catered the song to the neighborhood we was in, the different bars and clubs.

You had a couple really early records on, I think, Hollygrove Records and Prime Suspect.

Hollygrove was my partners, some neighborhood shit that we tried to stand up and do somethin’ for ourselves, you know what I’m sayin’? Me and Threat was rappers, we didn’t have the backing of a label or anything. Some neighborhood friends who had, I guess you could say drug money, put up some money and started a label and ran with it from there. It was tapes, we used to send off for ‘em and wait for them to come back.

Prime Suspect was Gary [Holzenthal], the guy who owned Odyssey Records. That was after Hollygrove Records, we felt like we had ran our course with them. We wanted to upgrade to something bigger, and he was in position because of his position with the record store and his connection with people in the industry. It was a cool little run, we didn’t do a whole album with him but we did drop two singles.

So even then, you had some larger ambition for the group beyond being the neighborhood crew?

At the time, we was just goin’ through the motions. It wasn’t like we had a big vision; we did music. Did a record with Hollygrove, did a record with Prime Suspect. It wasn’t ever no big ambition, it was what it was. Every artist aspire to do bigger things, but we didn’t have nobody we looked at in particular to say we wanna do like this.

I imagine you were getting some money from it at some point, but what specifically inspired you to rap?

Just the creativity, just bein’ able to create something from nothin’ and at the end of the day have a finished product. That was inspiring more than the money was, and to have the awe-inspiring reaction from people. That did something to me, people saying “yeah, that was dope!" I kept that with me throughout the career.

Were y’all working in your own lane, or did you feel like you were in competition with other people around the city?

I didn’t no competition and shit at all. During the run with Big Boy, we had the situation with Cash Money where they was doin’ they thing, we did our thing, one-uppin’ them, but before that it wasn’t nobody we lookin’ at like “we gotta do better than this."

How did you and Threat work out tracks together?

If he had an idea for a record, he’d come to me and sti down to talk to me about it, tell me what he thought about it, and woopty wop. And vice versa, you know what I’m sayin’? It was always what you feel like, how you feel on that, and we would go from there. Threat was aggressive, he was more of the in your face, rah rah rah. Whereas I was more lyrical, always lookin’ for new ways to re-invent certain things. Do something different, stay ahead of the curve.

There’s no shortage of record deals gone bad down here, but people seemed to love Bad Boy and the Boot Camp Clicc - how do you think the label got so much loyalty and such an identity from its artists?

I think it was a combination of two things - the talent was that good, and they wasn’t scared with they money. They would put the talent out there. The Boot Camp was a collaborative effort through artists from different parts of the city all on one record label. We got Black Menace, we got Mystikal, we got G-Slimm - all that under one hat.

How was it working with those guys?

It was cool, it was different. Mystikal didn’t work like a average artist worked. His writing was kinda weird; if you look at the paper he wrote on he didn’t write in order. Say you write like this here? He would write on the side right here, then turn the paper and do some more over there. The stuff down here come after this here, then he jump down there. As far as the vibe, it was good. Coming together and being one, it was always good to be in the studio with dude.

Everybody was different - Slimm’s creative style was what it was, what you heard was what you got from Slimm. He was that little quiet gangster, he got caught up in the West Coast lifestyle and went what he went through with the gang-banging, but as far as the music he would show up to the studio and work. He was diligent, man, he worked hard.

Did you feel like you had a good relationship with the label heads?

It was cool, it was love from top to bottom. Chuck ran it, Chuck and Cise, but they didn’t position theyself where they was too high to be contacted. We was in the mix together.

Cise produced all of those first Black Menace records, right? How did those beats end up with y’all specifically?

We’d go in there and pick - “gimme this one, gimme this one." It wasn’t like he sent us different records, we’d go in the studio and pick from ‘em.

What were you looking for a beat?

I guess it depended on what we was doin’, I always looked for something I could tell my story on. Something that was warm, with the strings, with a nice beat. I wasn’t nothin’ like “mmm!" You’re looking for the right connection, I don’t know.

What was changing for you between the first, the second, the third Black Menace records?

They did change, because in between each one of ‘em I grew as a man. Obviously they changed because my outlook on life became different, but just advancin’ every time. Growin’ up, taking on more responsibility, having children. That put things in more perspective, because when you’re out here and you ain’t got no kids you really out here for yourself. But when you bring kids into the picture, you gotta know what you doin’ and why you doin’ it. You gotta be a responsible parent and an artist, put more thought into the moves you’re making. Doing something different, more creative. And the outlook on music became more like a job than a craft, or a hobby. The older I got, the more I got into it, got more serious as far as the way I approached it. It wasn’t like “I might go to the studio today," it was “we gotta go to work."

Did moving to solo records affect your process at all?

No, not at all. When I did those records, it was a matter of this is what we have, now the project finished. So I just put both out instead of waiting one after the other, that’s the kind of work ethic I had. I was doin’ something different every day, whether it was my project or the next person’s project. Everybody that was involved in the Big Boy process, I was involved in those projects too. It was collaborative, we used to work with each other to make the record what it was. Everybody who was in-house put their head together, and this is what we came up with.

Now, it ain’t so much of the lyrics - it’s more swag-like. You gotta find a way to marry both of those. Be you, be lyrical, but not as much. You still gotta put the little twang on there, alter it a little bit to fit in with what’s goin’ on out there. A lot of stuff now, they have singin’ in it; they have Auto-Tune and stuff like that. I wouldn’t necessarily use Auto-Tune myself, but at the same time I still kinda want to conform to what’s going on where I can still be relevant. Not all the way singin’, but just puttin’ that in your flow a little bit. But at the end of the day, if you’re not bein’ true to yourself, why are you doing it?

Would you say that you still don’t take breaks?

Well, I mean I had a stroke about two years ago. So I haven’t been as active as I’ve previously been, I’m really just getting back into it and back on my feet. But I don’t believe in taking breaks; you can rest when you’re dead. I’m ‘bout to get back up out the house and get involved in another studio; until I’m dead I’m gonna keep on going bro, I gotta go hard.