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In Search of the Real MC

[whitespace] MC Jamal
Pioneer Palaya: Legendary MC Jamal created the first major cross-over track to bridge the reggae and hip-hop scenes in the U.S. and abroad.

Jamal tears up the San Francisco underground

By Amanda Nowinski

It is a foggy saturday morning on Haight Street, and Jamal does not seem to be in need of more caffeine. A boyish sprite with dreads piled high on his head like a crown of coiled octopi, he darts into the cafe and brings two more pints of steaming coffee to our outside table. "I'm taking a break from drinking and smoking," he explains. "Coffee is my only drug right now." I nod and add three packages of sugar to my cup.

I am here to confirm rumors of a legendary hip-hop MC past--of performing with KRS-1 and touring with Massive Attack. But as I examine Jamal's wide-eyed face in the broad daylight, I swear he can't be older than 19. "I grew up in the embryonic stages of hip-hop," he insists. "Before it was put onto plastic, when it was just live and direct." He pulls out photos of his latest video, "International Love," a ragga-jungle track on Secret Broadcast Records, and continues to prove his age. "When I was a little kid in New York City, people would plug their sound systems into the streetlights--they had figured out a method to power the speakers and turntables. It was all about cutting and scratching back then."

"I'm from the culture of hip-hop that has nothing to do with rap or the music industry," he continues. A former "electric boogie kid" (break dancer) and graffiti artist, Jamal was weaned on sounds of the Zulu Nation and motions of the famed Rock Steady Crew. "I was obsessed with hard-core music, too," he explains. "I liked Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and all the darker classic rock & roll--Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd." But at age 14, Jamal started to take deeper notice of the Jamaican presence in his Upper West Side neighborhood and from then on "became totally obsessed with reggae music."

"When kids would be out free-styling in the parks--using the human beat-box--I started coming up with the Jamaican styles and mixing them into hip-hop rhythms," he recalls. Soon, Jamal began to MC in hip-hop clubs around New York, and in 1991 his big break came when he hooked up with the "original metaphysical teacher" of hip-hop, KRS-1 of Boogie Down Productions. Appearing on the Boogie Down Productions Edutainment album (1991), Jamal toured with the band and months later went on to perform on the Jive Records album BDP: Live Worldwide Hardcore.

"After certain people like KRS-1, Just Ice and Heavy D, I consider myself one of the pioneers in combining reggae with hip-hop," Jamal says. In 1993, Jamal released his first solo track, "Jump, Spread Out (Let's Do It in the Dancehall)," and became an overnight underground success. Produced by Bobby Konders, the song immediately sold more than 200,000 copies and became the first major crossover track to bridge the reggae and hip-hop scenes in the U.S. and abroad.

Months later, Jamal signed with Columbia and released a full-length hip-hop/reggae album, Roughneck Reality. Full of "weird samples, lots of flutes and sitars," the album led to MTV videos and numerous collaborations, including appearances on the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Syndicate (Delicious Vinyl) and on Dee-lite's second album, Infinity Within (Electra Records). The in-house MC for the famed Giant Step (from which Groove Collective formed) club in New York, Jamal became an instrumental tie-in to the reggae, hip-hop, acid-jazz and house-music scenes.

But in 1996, Jamal packed his bags and left the cold East Coast winters and the pressures of the music industry behind. "San Francisco is not the best for a newly established music career, but it's a good place to live. I'm a native New Yorker, and I reached that point in my life where I needed to be closer to the mountains and the trees. A lot of good things have happened to me since I've arrived. The West Coast is slower, but this year has been particularly good."

Indeed, 1998 has proved an active time for Jamal; in addition to releasing two dance tracks with the (recently deceased) British house producer Wild Child for Ultra Records and several tracks on the Secret Broadcast compilation album, Jamal also appears on Positive Sound Massive's Time's Up compilation. "I'm also playing with a lot of local bands, like Resin, the New Dealers and Soulicisous--all kinds of Latin-jazz/hip-hop-oriented styles."

"There's a lot of sincere talent here in San Francisco," Jamal explains. "There's a lot of room for creativity here, and this city isn't full of people just trying to make it in the music industry for the money. There's also a mad underground scene here, especially for electronic music. San Francisco is big on turntablism--utilizing the turntable as a tool. The Invisibl Skratch Picklz, DJ Apollo and a lot of other DMC music champions come from here."

Since he is an MC, Jamal performs most of his nonstudio shows alongside DJs in nightclubs. "There are basically two kinds of MCs," Jamal clarifies. "A real MC is someone who can rap lyrics live and direct to vibe up the crowd. The second kind is the one who comes to promote himself strictly."

Originating in Jamaica as a way to announce the record and to excite the crowd, MC-ing "evolved into singing or rapping over the beat--in other words, MC-ing evolved into hip-hop. My lyrics are a mixture of vibing the crowd and being politically conscious--like in hip-hop."

In a musical Jamaican tone, Jamal launches into a track from Roughneck Reality: "Ronald Reagan was a piece of shit, David Duke is a piece of shit, Oliver North is a piece of shit ..." He emits a charming laugh and continues, "Here I talk about narrow-mindedness and political oppression, but this is also party music."

To catch Jamal in party mode, look for him chatting away on the mic at 111 Minna St., Saturday (Nov. 7), along with DJs Mei Lewn of Solstice, Rolo 1-3, Romanowski and Billie Culture.

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From the November 2-15, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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