wild rare: my Jay Electronica interview

topics: Roc Nation, Badu, mental health, everything

Jay Electronica. I could write ten Mottos about the outlandish moments I’ve shared with this ⬆️ guy over the past decade, but let’s start with our first face-to-face, on-the-record conversation. With “Exhibit C” energizing hip-hop in 2010, I was determined to interview the elusive one for the first issue of Respect magazine to go to press under my leadership. And Elect didn’t make it easy for me. There was that autumn day I arrived at his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment for a scheduled sit-down — and Electronica literally wouldn’t let me upstairs. A few days later, though? He did. We had a three hour-plus talk in which he spoke frankly about his relationship with the legendary Erykah Badu, his own mental health, and he hinted strongly that soon he’d be signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. By the time the December 2010 issue was on newsstands — with Waka Flocka Flame on the cover— he was officially with the Roc.

The piece is below. I’m always grateful for my wife Danyel Smith — but editing my original 46-page Q&A transcript down to a provocative as-told-to goes above and beyond the call of duty. You’ve been editing me since before we ever dated! Thank you, Dany.

And: born day blessings to the good brother Jay Electronica.

HED: Do This My Way

DEK: NOLA’s Jay Electronica wants to be successful. But on his own terms. And, in his most candid interview to date, in his own words.

BYLINE: as told to Elliott Wilson

IMAGES: Anna Bauer

By the time you read this: Jay Electronica may have, at long last, landed a record deal. Or not. It’s hard to predict the future of the enigmatic MC who electrified the rap world from the end of ’09 to early 2010 with a song called “Exhibit C.” Produced by Just Blaze, who broke the record while guest-hosting Tony Touch’s Shade 45 Sirius show, the soulful sonic boom ushered in the rise of this NOLA brother with the Nas flow—captivatingly complex lyrics and vivid storytelling.

After being wooed by the record industry’s biggest execs for a year Elect is still, at press time, a free agent. But recent dealings with Mr. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter may be changing that. In his modest Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn apartment, the man born Timothy Thedford spoke for over three hours about his almost Forrest Gump-like journey through this thing called life. Aiming to do justice to his jam-packed existence, RESPECT. hosts Electronica unfiltered. Here’s a toast to a true original.

My light is brilliant.

“Exhibit C” magnified everything. Everybody was coming at one time. I’m the kind of person where if I get to a point where I can’t make this decision then I’m gonna stand still. I don’t care. I’ll stand still for two years, 20 years. I’m 34 years old. I’m still learning myself, but I know myself a little bit, so I stand still. People was telling me, “Oh, you buggin’, this is the time.”

By the time March [2010] came, it was crazy. I coulda signed any kinda deal at that time. I coulda took these publishing companies to the cleaners. I met anybody you can think of. Like, I’m gonna entertain what you sayin’, but we already have a fundamental disagreement in the way that we view the music business and the treatment of people, period. I need to feel like I’m talking to my grandmother. I need to feel like I’m talking to my sister or my mama to feel comfortable. If I’m not at that comfort level then I’m completely uncomfortable.

“I ain’t sitting on a catalogue of 80 records, if I’m sitting on a catalogue of 20 records. You better believe me that these 20 records are gonna last till 2030, 2050.”

(Universal Records CEO) Monte Lipman was the first person that visited me. He was supposed to come by himself. He came with his whole office, and Mr. Chow’s or Philippe’s. I don’t even know what that is. I was like, Is this a surprise ambush attack? He came in, walked around the apartment like he owned it. He said, ‘Yeah well we here today, I came here to make you a rich man today.’ He said them exact words. I said, ‘Hold on man, first of all, and I gave him the history of the white man 6,000 years ago to now, and let him know, wait a minute, my man, you’re in my house. You are a guest in my home.’

He seemed like a decent human but everyone got their character defects and flaws and he behaved exactly how I expected him to behave, which was unacceptable. We had a long talk though, and left on good terms, but I thought he wouldn’t ever wanna see me again. Instead he was excited. He told my man he never had a meeting like that since Prince.

I would have genuine talks with music execs. And some would agree with me on anything. I would intentionally be saying genuine things and then five minutes later say a disingenuous thing that was completely contradictory, and they would still be agreeing. That turned me completely off. I don’t wanna deal with any of that. I was just thinking about goin’ back to the plan. I started going back to Act II.

I’ve been all over the country. I’ve lived in a lot of cities on the East Coast, the Midwest, Denver. So, if I need a break—every environment is a home environment. So going over [to London] this summer wasn’t foreign. With all this music that I’ve been listening to for Act II, I wanted to go somewhere to sit down and go over it.

While we were over there, XL, the label, was saying if there was any kinda way we could work together. They were the first who approached me on a totally different level. Presented me with the best thing so far. In terms of…the money, the splits, the who owned what. They really get what Jay Electronica is. I ain’t sitting on a catalogue of 80 records, if I’m sitting on a catalogue of 20 records. You better believe me that these 20 records are gonna last till 2030, 2050.

I didn’t wanna come back to New York in September, but I did because I’m working on a lot of stuff and I got a daughter now. I still didn’t have no intentions on doing no deal with nobody. Closest thing was the XL situation. People know I fuck with Puff but nothing materialized from that in terms of record deal.

“I got the rap game singin’ ‘At Last’ like Etta James.”

One night, I bumped into Jay-Z at the Spotted Pig; it was Julie Greenwald’s birthday party.  I was like, What is it gonna take for us to do a song together? He was like, You know, if I feel the record. So, I sent it to him the next morning and later I emailed him again like, This would be crazy if you could get in on it. He was like, I’m already in ten bars. Can I go over sixteen?

The song is two parts. The first movement is ‘Dinner At Tiffany’s.’ Which is composed by James Samuel of The Bullets. He’s a filmmaker/musician from the UK. He composed the strings. We originally were trying to get Julie Andrews, but we were honored to get Charlotte Gainsbourg. That leads right into “Shiny Suit Theory” which relates directly to Puff because nobody got through to my head the way he did.

“I have a certain life that I want for myself, that I want for my children. I say my children because I have a daughter Mars, but Erykah has other two children. I’ve been in their lives for as long as they can remember too.”

Puff can make a statement like ‘Fuck the underground’ which is a blasphemous statement in rap. But he doesn’t mean that as a diss. He means ‘We’re supposed to be out here shining.’ Maybe I’m never gonna see the value of a Grammy. But for somebody to be able to show me the value of it, what it means for people to see you get that, and the inspiration of it. It’s like Saints winning the Super Bowl. Yeah it’s only a fuckin’ game but what it does for the city, what it does for the people.

So the setting behind “The Shiny Suit Theory” song, is Jay-Z and I are each talking to our shrinks. We’re going through our feelings. Jay-Z goes, ‘Went from warring to Warren (Buffet), undercovers to (magazine) covers. If you believe in that sorta luck, your screws need adjusting. In the world of injustice and Black ladies on the back of buses, I’m the immaculate conception of rapper slash hustler.’

So after we did the song, we sat down, kicked it, he started telling me what his idea of what Roc Nation was, what his goals are. It made a lot of sense, but I checked myself. It wasn’t just, Oh, I’m with Jay. We went to see the Gorillaz at the Madison Square Garden probably about a week later. More business talk. At this point, we got the lawyers trying to figure out what was the best proper, possible way for us to work.

Birdman, he reached out recently. And naturally, based on the kinda music I do, based on the trajectory of my career, that doesn’t seem like a good fit. However: If I say, I like Baby as a rapper, people say I don’t get it. People forget where I’m from. You forget how that shit is connected. But one thing about Baby is I could communicate to him in a language that he’s gonna feel me. He knows my circumstance. I told him I respect him, but I am in talks with Jay. And he told me flat out—I’ll match what anybody’s saying. I’ll beat what anybody’s saying. But the reason why I would even entertain that is not because it’s Cash Money. Aesthetically I don’t fit with that. But if we can connect, then we can get over any kind of hurdle.

“I’m back home scannin’ the land. Twenty-three million square miles of contraband.”

My family is from the Third Ward. Magnolia. Growing up in that environment, there ain’t no in-between. Either you was out there in that, or you wasn’t out there in that. I went to Catholic school, so my whole day I’m in a whole ‘nother environment, seeing shit that I don’t even know like, Oh, look two people pick him up, his mama and his daddy. Then I’m back in the projects, coming home with the uniform on. I get in a fight because I got on the uniform. Then I’m inside. I don’t really wanna go outside. Them niggas outside they wanna throw bricks in cars and, don’t get me wrong, I’ll go do it, but that just wasn’t me.

I always had delusions of grandeur, they called it, when I was little. I had a shrink when I was eight. It was always that I was just living unrealistic in my head. I tried to go to college for my mom and my grandmother because I graduated from St. Augustine High School, an all-boys school, a military school. I went to college for a semester. Northwestern State/University of Louisiana. I was pretty known on campus, used to do stupid shit, but I got caught. I got kicked out.

I came back to New Orleans and I didn’t know what to do. Everybody else was like, Oh we out here hustling. I started sniffing coke a little bit. I never shot up. Anyway, I was just lingering. I started hearing about some ‘million man march.’ I didn’t really know who Louis Farrakhan was. I was raised in a Baptist church. All of a sudden people were protesting in the city. All these pastors from the churches, whether they were black or white. On the radio they was saying [Farrakhan] was the anti-Christ and he was the devil. I’m like, Who is this dude?

“I always had delusions of grandeur, they called it, when I was little. I had a shrink when I was eight. It was always that I was just living unrealistic in my head.”

Then one day I go to Xavier University’s campus, and there was a dude who was a Muslim, he was out there talking to some people about the Million Man March and why they should go and I was like Lemme see this.  This particular man was actually living 100 percent of that word and it reflected in him. I paid for a ticket. I was on the bus and I don’t know most of the people with me, nobody except one dude, Peter. We went there. New Orleans to DC.

We went with the Muslims from my city, so they’re out there setting barricades. I was out there early in the morning with them in the front. Waiting for this thing to go down, not knowing who Farrakhan is. I got on somebody’s shoulders and looked—far as you can see: black men. That nobody was fighting, we we’re out there crying. I didn’t even hear what Farrakhan said at the Million Man March because I was so captivated.

Eventually, I went to Chicago to join the Nation. I coulda joined in Atlanta where I was living, but I always been the kinda person that asks, Where’s the headquarters! So, boom, I uprooted, left my apartment, back to square one homeless because I had to join the Nation. I went through processing class—13 weeks—moved through the ranks, became a lieutenant. I stayed out there the whole year. Then my man Peter came to Chicago while I was out there. We became roommates, and then around the time of Christmas he wanted to go home, so I said okay I’ll go home too. We went down there, and then I didn’t wanna go back to Chicago. The weather was killing me. I went [back] to Atlanta because I lived there before. Being back in Atlanta made me feel like Okay, now I’m going to New York.

I ended up goin’ back and forth there a couple of times. In New York, of course I was homeless, but it wasn’t new to me. I done went to a couple cities including Detroit and went from scratch a couple of times. Rashad “Tumblin Dice” Smith was the first person in New York that was like Yo, everybody look, lemme tell you something right here.  I’m gonna hook you up with such and such we gonna try to get this meeting.’ He hooked up a meeting with Sylvia Rhone and I met Erykah around the same time.

Tone from Track Masters was a hater. He was in my meeting with Sylvia sitting there, like, But I don’t get it, who are you? Where you from? And I’m like, I’m from New Orleans. I’m Nation, I’m street, I don’t know nothing about the industry. So Sylvia’s jammin’ to the music and he’s like: Oh I’m just saying, you’re from New Orleans, but you dressing like a New York nigga. So we had an exchange up there and I stopped hearing from them.

I just went lights out. Even after I got into a relationship with Erykah, I coulda used that, but I was under the radar. I was going through a transition, getting out of the Nation, doing things I hadn’t done in a long time. I started smoking again. I’m back in a relationship. This is the first time I’ve been in a relationship that’s outside the government of the Nation.

I just went completely personal and I just devoted my whole self—really a lot to Erykah. Traveling wherever she wanted to go, helping her with her stuff, just pulling myself. Then you know, by the time Act I came out, I was in Brooklyn at her place while she was in Dallas.

To this day, I have a certain life that I want for myself, that I want for my children. I say my children because I have a daughter Mars, but Erykah has other two children. I’ve been in their lives for as long as they can remember too, so they’re like my children—with respect to their fathers who are their biological fathers and are good fathers to them, and in their lives.

I like to drive, but I also like to be driven. I want a driver. That’s not wrong for me to say. I want a driver. I want a nice vehicle with a driver and a certain type of a lifestyle. I want a certain collection of a certain type of suits that I like to see myself in. Whether they designer or not, they fit me a certain way.

Yo, this interview is over, man.

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Danyel Smith + Elliott Wilson