On Second Thought
Jeru the Damaja - Sun Rises in the East

lthough hip-hop was (and is) largely a genre of dance and party music, the rise of X-Clan, Brand Nubian and Public Enemy in the latter half of the 1980s signified a significant shift—the pro-conscious, pro-black rhymes and accompanying Africa medallions were not simply leftovers of the post-civil rights black power movement—they were symbolic of a larger rising political awareness. Although Jeru the Damaja came at the tail end of this brief moment, The Sun Rises in the East proved to be a definitively original and atmospheric “conscious” NYC hip-hop album, from its gritty breakbeats to Jeru’s stern prophecies—meditations on race, spirituality and discipline in a world of temptation.

The language throughout is clearly inspired by the 5%er movement, a Nation of Islam sect that had a massive influence on hip-hop during this period. Jeru drops knowledge, science, and math, and talks about being “struck by knowledge of self.” It starts in the intro where he informs us that “life is the result of the struggle between dynamic opposites…” and that this is how “the balance of the universe is maintained.” This conflict comes to define the album. In “Can’t Stop the Prophet,” Jeru the “prophet” fights his mortal enemies, “Jealousy,” “Mr. Ignorance,” “Hatred,” “Envy” and “Animosity.” This inner tension between good and the evil is cleverly narrated as if it were a cartoon. The personifications of the “devils” he fights are somber reminders of the threats posed to black urban America and Jeru himself. Even Jeru’s flow seems a victim of this internal battle; although his vocals are precise and confident, his flow also has a stoned, behind-the-beat quality that emphasizes both the strain of temptation and the self-discipline he espouses.

Train cars careening down the tracks and the rattle of chain link fences somewhere in the distance, sneakers squeaking on basketball courts and boom boxes blasting from open tenement windows: this is what I picture when I listen to DJ Premier, especially circa Sun Rises in the East, arguably his best album as producer. Although the record was released in 1994, its leadoff single, 1993’s “Come Clean,” had set the stage much earlier for Premier’s rapidly developing sound. “Come Clean” was in many ways a throwback—minimalist boom-bap production that presaged “Grindin’” by nearly a decade. The production was skeletal and came to define Premier’s tunnel-banging drum style: aqueous-sounding percussion, perhaps the sound of dripping sewage pipes, rattled over a neck-snapping breakbeat. “HEADS UP CUZ WE’RE DROPPIN’ SOME SHIT!” was the scratched chorus, an Onyx lyric that helped “Come Clean” become the anthem for hip-hop heads throughout the 5 boroughs and beyond. This was a reinvention of Premier’s style, the point at which he moved from the jazzy loops of Gang Starr’s first classic albums into an entirely new arena of inventive bangers. It was also this album that vaulted Premier to super-producer status; he would soon work with Nas and Notorious B.I.G. on some of their strongest recordings. By stripping his sound down to its barest, most minimal elements, Premier redefined New York hip-hop on Sun Rises.

A Premier drum kick ignites the furious “D. Original” as we enter Jeru’s world. With the heavily chopped gut-punching fury of Cecil Taylor-like intervals, the beat alternated dissonant, banging piano chords with terse tremolo strings. On songs like “Brooklyn Took It” and “My Mind Spray”, the samples become pure noise, rather than musical instruments. Premier would often let the superfluous sample elements remain, which created a simultaneously cacophonic and claustrophobic mood. His programmatic sampling sonically imitates the clamor of the urban environment.

Jeru ups the ante on “Ain’t the Devil Happy” thanks to Premier’s ominous production. Dark, haunting strings roil below one of the most driving, aggressive drum breaks in hip-hop history. Jeru is a prophet once again, touching on familiar 5%er themes— “Devil got brotha killing brotha, it’s insane…positivity, balance it with negativity, until then, ain’t the Devil happy.”

In fact, it’s only the unfortunate misogyny of “Da Bitchez” that blights this otherwise flawless release, although even this track features impeccable production and Jeru’s fierce rapping. Sun Rises concludes with the one-two punch of “Jungle Music” and “Statik”; the former giving insight into how hip-hop was viewed by a country that both rejected it and avidly consumed it. The latter was the final showcase for Permier: over the scratched chorus—“and I can rock a rhyme with just static!”—Jeru spits verse after verse, accompanied only by a heavy drum break, hints of a bassline, and of course the crackling sonics of a dusty record needle.

By: David Drake
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