Jel - Anticon Founder's Time to Shine

Rappers will give up their dignity and tape their mouths shut to keep a seat in Entertainment Heaven

Feature by Bram Gieben | 15 Feb 2006

Jel is the mastermind behind Anticon Records. Since its inception, Anticon has been considered a cornerstone of the underground hip-hop scene, with classic releases that have brought Odd Nosdam, Doseone, Slug, cLOUDEAD and Themselves from the Oakland area to international acclaim. The Anticon sound is sinister, layered, and atmospheric, their lyrics intense, personal and psychedelic. In the increasingly commercial world of US hip-hop, this young label is more than a curiosity, more than an upstart - it is a standard bearer for an old-school hip-hop aesthetic which values community and creativity above all else. Jel has produced many of the Anticon solo and group projects, 'Soft Money' is his first solo LP.

Can you tell us about the LP title - what does it mean to you?

Well it's definitely derived from the political term, and all the 'under the table' style of campaign financing. But it also related to me being a musician under the radar of the mainstream cash flow of cold, 'hard' cash. So it's an acceptance of my position in the world of corrupt music business.

You have collaborated with Wise Intelligent of the Poor Righteous Teachers. What was it like working with one of your hip-hop heroes?

It was a shot in the dark for me. I have had two MCs that I have wanted to work with for a long time now. Mainly because I've been listening to their music constantly for over ten years now. They are Brother J of X Clan and Wise of PRT. I actually had a meeting with J about doing some music through Mush records about a year and a half ago. That never panned out, and J was one of the most humble people I've ever met. I was honoured that he would even give me an afternoon of his time. So with Wise, my friend Kevin Beachum in Minneapolis, of the Rhyme Sayers family, had given me the information that Wise was running Rap Snacks out of Philly, and I had just picked up some Master P and Bell Biv Devo chip bags at the local Grocery Outlet in Oakland. I called the number on the back of the package and asked for Wise... and what do you know: "This is Wise, who's this?" and it all worked out from there. To me, Wise and J are two of the most underrated MCs in the world of hip-hop. They both strive to battle ignorance and positively uplift their communities with no compromise. Wise has to be one of the most technically gifted rappers, and I hardly ever hear any MC on television or magazine ever giving him props. So I wanted to extend my hand, and Wise gave me a solid hand shake. Plus, one of the first things Wise had told me on the phone was: "Look Jel, I am one of the most commercially unfriendly rappers you can work with," and with that said, I knew it was going to be good.

On your first single, WMD, Wise Intelligent raps about artists being dropped from their labels for being against the Iraq War. In Scotland, hip-hop is a small, underground scene - as such the war has been a hot topic in recent releases. Do American artists suffer more from censorship than their European peers?

Well, yes of course, when it comes to the politics of the US administration. And not just the present one. I feel this song dates itself with names and topics, if you listen to music like that. But the story of the Bush administration has been an ongoing saga for decades now. I feel that WMD is a brief, up to date description of how the United States does business internally and abroad. And what Wise is saying is that rappers/DJs/producers/what have you, will quickly give up their dignity and tape their mouths shut to keep their seat in 'entertainment heaven.' Or stop being a bitch and use your power to change your community, city, and world for the better.

Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface, on the Wu-Tang Clan's song Rules, rapped: "Who the fuck knocked our buildings down?/Who the man behind the World Trade massacres, step up now/Where the four planes at, huh, is you insane bitch/Fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits/No disrespect, that's where I rest my head/I understand you gotta rest yours true, my people's dead/America, together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I'm in charge of the war." What is your view on certain famous rappers who have come out vocally in support of the war, post 9-11?

I don't know anything about the Ghostface pro-war stance. But I have a brother in the military, my father was in the military, and his brother was killed in Viet Nam at the age of 19. So I see and understand how people can believe in war and how that helps them deal with death and paranoia and faith. So I don't know, Ghost might have a family member in the service. But he could also be trying to save face, and get a gig at the White House one day. I don't know. But I thought he would have been a little more concerned about the climate of Islam against Christianity throughout the world. But what do I know about being famous?

Anticon seems to defy the concept of borders - Christ. remixed some stuff for you (he is Scottish) and you have worked with a German artist, Steffi Bohm. Was it intentional to look beyond US borders for collaborators?

Well of course every artist wants their music to be heard everywhere. But we didn't have a mission to infiltrate the European music scene. It all just happened. I've found it easier to just be open about playing with all types of artists, and letting relationships build out of camaraderie. We are just lucky to meet artists who like our music much as we like theirs.

Who else do you rate highly among your European peers?

Well mainly all the people we have worked with. Hood, Boards of Canada, and Christ. in the UK, then we have Germany- The Notwist, Lali Puna, Ms. John Soda, B. Fleischmann and their whole extended family. In France, TTC, General Electrics. Iceland, Mum. Italy, Mike Patton. And The Czech Republic has Slug of Atmosphere. I think Sage is Moroccan.

As hip-hop becomes more mainstream day by day, is the pressure mounting for Anticon to go corporate?

Naw... in Anticon, individually people struggle with different opportunities dealing with 'corporate' business, whether it is a remix or something else, but Anticon has no vision of following hip-hop into the mainstream. We will take their money but they won't take ours.

Although you have appeared on the majority of Anticon projects, you have a lower profile than many of your label mates. Did you intend to stay behind the scenes for so long?

I guess I would like to see myself as the DOC did in his early NWA years. I'm confident in my talents and I'm just waiting for my time to shine. In the mean time I will do all I can to help and be a part of any project I'm needed to be a part of. But I don't think I have been completely on the sidelines. I think my name is at a good place to put this solo project out in 2006.

You were rumoured to be collaborating with Mike Patton of Faith No More. Did that ever happen? What was he like to work with?

Mike had contacted me through Dax of Subtle, through Kid 606 about two years ago. He is sequencing the first instalment of his LP 'Peeping Tom' to be released tentatively in May 2006. Mike asked if Nosdam and dose wanted to be involved too, so we all became a part of the project. Nosdam and I were a beat-making tag team for about a year and a half, and Dose layed some vocals when we had the tracks up to par. But Mike had given us, like, thirty songs to choose from. With DJ Muggs, The Melvins, Kool Keith, The Executioners, Kid Koala, Bjork, Amon Tobin, Dan The Automator, Nora Jones (no shit), Dalek, and probably like fifteen other super stars all adding to Mike's creation, I think the project is going to go well. All in all, Nosdam and I did, like, seven or eight songs for the project, and Dose is on two or three songs.

Your European tour will bring you into contact with a lot of new fans. Any special surprises or guest MCs for us? Will the show be similar to the Themselves show, with multiple vocalists?

Nope, just Jel on beats and vocals. But you never know what could happen.

You play live loops on your SP1200 when writing, giving a more organic, 'messy' sound to your work. MadLib seems to be going down a similar route with his 'Lord Quasimoto' project. Can you see the influence the Anticon sound has had on other MCs?

Yeah I don't know if MadLib is or has ever been influenced by Anticon, but we use the same machine, and both listened to and wanted to make hip-hop music during the same time span - late '80s into the '00s. I'll believe I have influenced someone when they cite me as an influence. Or if they are just shameless biters, then I know.

Where do you see yourself and Anticon in five years time?

I will have become the King of Anticon in five years. Or the one-man cLOUDEAD.

What inspires you lyrically?

What inspires me lyrically is television conversations and dope MCs.

Jel - 'Soft Money' (Anticon), out now. Check for more info and tour dates, and subscribe to the famous 'Anticon Propaganda' newsletter.

keywords / jel Ð anticon Ð odd nosdam Ð doseone Ð slug Ð themselves Ð cLOUDEAD Ð buck 6