Jay Electronica: Man or Myth?

jay-electronica-spin.jpg
Photograph by Anna Bauer

Hip-hop's greatest new MC gives his music away, tweets his baby's birth, and rhymes his name with Hanukkah. Is this guy for real? [Magazine excerpt]

Jay Electronica lives in a third-floor walk-up around the corner from a street lined with bodegas, liquor stores, and hair salons in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one of New York City's last neighborhoods untouched by gentrification. Barefoot, wearing a white polo T-shirt and gray sweatpants, the rapper rummages through what he calls his "bedroom-slash-studio-slash-cave," i.e. a small, nondescript office next to the living room.

He lights a cigarette, takes one drag, then leaves it to burn down in the ashtray. Tiny scars cover his fingers. "+ god –" is tattooed cryptically behind his left ear. His girlfriend, the neo-soul superstar Erykah Badu, described him thusly on his 2007 mixtape Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge): "[He's] a weird-looking cat. His ears are kind of pointy. He has a square head. He looks like he's an alien...but in a very beautiful way. Like some kind of mythical creature who would have a bow and arrow on his back and wings under that bow and arrow."

Jay eventually settles onto a futon, and I ask him to explain the lyrics of his breathtaking 2009 single "Exhibit C," which hint that his path is destined. "I used to get dizzy spells, hear a little ring / The voice of an angel telling me my name / Telling me that one day I'm-a be a great man."

"Yeah, it's funny," he says. "You write these things, but you never expect to be questioned on them." A nervous laugh is followed by a long silence. "I can't say this. This is going to be absolutely crazy if I say this. If I told you, it would have to be off the record. Matter of fact, you are going to have to sign a nondisclosure agreement and then I can tell you. This is personal personal. People will be like, 'Oh, that nigga is crazy.'?"

I think he's joking. But suddenly, Jay gets up and starts poking around purposefully in the closet. Nothing but four pairs of sneakers and a charcoal-gray suit. He scans a table. Just a digital camera, candles, and a pair of dice. He moves to the living room. No agreement. Jay never finds a hard copy, so he punches it up on his iPhone. (Yes, the document actually exists.) Alas, he decides against me even reviewing it, saying that if I read it out loud, the entire interview will be off the record.

"I'm hearing that he is kind of a weird dude," says DJ Enuff of New York City's Hot 97 FM, speaking diplomatically. Enuff is credited with breaking "Exhibit C" on commercial radio. "I've met him twice. He seemed cool to me. But I hear that he's out there."

Here is why people think Jay Electronica is "out there": He goes on spiritual retreats to the Pashupatinath Hindu Temple and the Bodinath Buddhist Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. He and Badu Tweeted during the birth of their daughter, Mars Merkaba, in February of 2009. (Sample: "I see the head, full of hair.") He is a former homeless drifter.

From Biz Markie to Kool Keith to MF Doom, extraordinarily talented eccentrics have always populated hip-hop. But none ever stood on the verge of stardom like Jay Electronica. He combines the presence and aura of early Rakim with the smoothly assaultive flow of Illmatic-era Nas, and his recent success is proof that one song can truly alter a career.

Jay Electronica went from blog curiosity to budding sensation after the release of "Exhibit C," a head-snapping banger built on a sample of Billy Stewart's "Cross My Heart," with no inkling of a hook but a profusion of deep lyricism. (The deft wordplay -- rhyming "Electronica" with "Hanukkah," "yarmulke," and "Asalaamica" -- has already been immortalized on T-shirts.) "The hairs on my arm stood up," Enuff says, of the first time he heard the song.

When the record debuted in iTunes' Top 10 and was later added to Hot 97's rotation in January, a major-label bidding war began to intensify. Since then, he's headlined a European tour with sold-out London shows and opened for N.E.R.D. But as of now, Jay Electronica remains unsigned and uncompromising.

"Labels know that they have to deal with my terms," he says, without ever specifying what those terms are. "I recognize that it's a blessing. I'm not saying it in an arrogant way. It's just, the rules do not apply."

Jay Electronica, born Timothy Elpa-Thedford Flowers (he's also gone by the name Je'Ri U. Allah), is a 33-year-old native of New Orleans' Magnolia Projects. His family has lived in Magnolia since the 1940s, and one of his earliest memories is of accompanying his mother to a neighborhood bookstore called the Little Professor. He read widely, but the book that had the most impact was the Bible.

"I grew up in the Baptist church," says Jay. "It's New Orleans, it's the South. My mom would ask me, 'What does this scripture mean?' I didn't look at it as boring. A lot of times, it scared me. For a long portion of my childhood, I was afraid at night. It wasn't the boogeyman; it was, like, the Devil. That kind of shit. Religion had me scared."

Inspired by LL Cool J's Radio, he started rapping at ten years old. He also played free safety on his high school football team, but like many New Orleans kids, gravitated to the band, bouncing from color guard to baritone horn to tuba. After graduation, he attended Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, but only for a semester. "That was the end of my schooling career -- until I went to Harvard for two years," he says, then pauses. "I'm just fucking with you."

Back home, he worked at a French Quarter café, but quit to attend 1995's Million Man March in Washington, D.C.; he soon became fascinated by the Black Muslim sect the Five Percenters. After returning to New Orleans, though, he was rocked by the brutal murder of a close friend.

So on January 1, 1996, Jay Electronica -- he chose the moniker because it sounded like a female superhero, and he felt hip-hop was too macho -- left home to seriously pursue a rap career in New York, except he got off the bus in Atlanta. "I saw all the now hiring signs because of the Olympics," he says. He got a job in the kitchen at Morris Brown College, but it didn't pay enough to cover the rent. "They didn't have a Covenant House in Atlanta, so I ended up homeless." He lived at a shelter, but if he missed the 7 P.M. curfew, he slept in parks or at a train station.

"I remember having the overwhelming fear of 'How is my life going to turn out?'?" he says. "Then, I realized that I was becoming a man." Afterward, he bounced around to New York, Denver, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia, always participating enthusiastically in each city's hip-hop scene. Eventually, he moved to Detroit, where he worked with the late producer J Dilla and Eminem cohort Denaun Porter. In 2004, The Source picked him for the magazine's "Unsigned Hype" column, but he still remained on the industry's fringes.

Then, a friend introduced him to Just Blaze, the producer behind hits for Jay-Z, Cam'ron, and many others. The duo released the brooding head trip "Exhibit A" in November 2008 (a remix featuring Mos Def also exists) and a year later, "Exhibit C" ("Exhibit B" remains unreleased). There are now about 50 Jay Electronica songs floating around the Internet -- compiled on the Style Wars EP, mixtapes like What the Fuck Is a Jay Electronica and The Jay Electronica Project, plus one-off collaborations with Nneka, Zed Bias, and others.

Although the two "Exhibit" singles are his only official releases, Jay still commands awe among his peers. "He's a brilliant guy, a brilliant thinker," says Denaun Porter. "Just imagine a guy with the knowledge of a professor -- with a gun. It's a rebelliousness, a breaking of the chain, a rage against the machine, that is what he embodies. What Jay does, no one can touch him at it. And he's just scratching the surface."

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