By Jef With One F
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Always near the forefront of conscious hip-hop, Brother J and X-Clan sat poised to take over the world 18 years ago. Their Afrocentric LP To the East, Blackwards, thrived in that time of heightened social awareness, addressing issues of race, stereotypes and socioeconomics like few had before. Eventually it would be named one of the 100 best hip-hop albums ever by the Source and several others.
1992 brought Exodus, another messenger album quietly acknowledged as revolutionary. To those in the know, the Clan had quickly become a lyrical vehicle of civil disobedience and an indispensable audio cog of the Black Nationalism movement.
Then they disappeared. Until now.
The Press recently sat down with Brother J at S.H.A.P.E. Community Center, after his address to a group of youths, to discuss what brought him to Houston, the difference between racism and racial pride, and his thoughts on penning one of the most provocative lyrics in hip-hop history.
Houston Press: What are you doing in this neck of the woods?
Brother J: I'm just recording. Trying to get some talent down here on some of the music we're doing for the future.
HP: For those who don't know, give us a brief history of X-Clan.
BJ: X-Clan is one of the pioneer groups in conscious music and hip-hop. Other groups in the genre some of the newer generation might identify us with would be along the lines of Public Enemy or even Dead Prez. We founded our group in the late '80s and were with the Blackwatch Movement.
HP: And that is ...
BJ: An activist program that combined hip-hop elements [and] brought youth and elders together. Our music reflected what the union was about.
HP: So that's basically, like, black people are awesome and if you're not black you're not awesome? That's how people saw you all anyway, right?
BJ: The purpose of X-Clan is really to put down a message of freedom, justice and equality which I think everyone relates with, no matter what [ethnicity] you are. But because of our look — we have an indigenous look when we move around with our crowns and our beads and things of that nature — I think [people] just felt that we were all about black people. I think our message was kind of misconstrued, that it was pro-black.
HP: So what happened in the mid-'90s? You were at the front, fighting the battles, and then poof, you're gone.
BJ: The era changed. I think the corporations started to gear themselves at a more simple market with more jingles and catchy hooks, not lyricism. Our society is based on violence and anger; if you're selling a soundtrack to it, you can make a lot of money. X-Clan wasn't doing that. It became a thing where you don't fight the market and say, "accept me, accept me." You bow out gracefully and go study and improve.
In the middle of that I lost [X-Clan co-founder] Sugar Shaft. That hurt me a lot. That taught me that you have to be rock-solid to finish a product and not let anything throw you off. But I refused to hear any of that in the face of losing my comrade in battle. I wasn't gonna fight. All of X-Clan didn't want to bow out, but myself and Shaft started X-Clan so it wasn't anybody else's decision.
HP: You released Return from Mecca last year, and you're in Houston working on a new LP. What can we look for on that, and why record it in Houston?
BJ: I came out here to work with artists I respect. I respect [KPFT's "SOS Radio" host] brother Zin; his radio station captures a higher level of music. So I said, "If I record an album with someone with that flavor, and he gathers musicians in that genre, I think it's a great union." I think it's also a great example for other artists to be able to reach out for others that are of a like mind.
HP: Kids today aren't used to messenger albums that address topics. Do you think what you're saying is going to win over the kids?
BJ: When R&B crossed over into hip-hop it was a serious thing, and lyricists lost. And now to see a generation raised in that, I look at it from the perspective of "We lost that battle and look at the effect." It's like a bomb dropping in your neighborhood. They don't even get a taste of the good era that we had in hip-hop. They don't know about digging through crates of records. They'll never see Aretha Franklin. They'll see her name on LimeWire, but they'll never see her beautiful face.
I can't blame them, though, because we didn't monitor things. Like, we look at Kanye and say, "Oh, he's positive. He doesn't look like he's talking about bad things." But he is, and it's just as bad. The woman that he's telling you to slap on the ass is still a woman that we're supposed to learn how to respect.
HP: So if the kids are conditioned to that, then they're probably not going to buy what you're selling, right?
BJ: I'll tell you this: I'm not trying to win over kids. I make soldier's music. If your kids happen to be mental to that, then they'll love X-Clan. If they love that lollipop thing, I'm not stooping there. I don't feel I have to put my art down there.
Marcus Garvey taught us to link with black businesses, you know what I'm saying? Reach out to others of the same mind. I'm not going back to become a slave to the wheels of corporation. If people want to support me, I can give back more. If not, I'll struggle, but it's no big thing. We live in the struggle.
HP: Last thing, and you may be kind of surprised to hear this, but race is a sensitive topic for some people.
HP: You wrote one of the most discussed lines in hip-hop history back on To the East. What exactly was going through your mind when you wrote the famed line, "How can polar bears swing on vines with gorillas?"
BJ: I'm glad that that comment causes so much controversy, but it wasn't written like that. It was made for people to understand that you had to play your position, you feel me? At that time it was very deep for white kids in hip-hop to imitate us. My whole thing was, people have built careers on that, and I was trying to make a nice statement. Not like, "Step outta hip-hop! You're not invited!" It was more like, "Be you."