Happy 15th Anniversary to J-Live’s second studio album All of the Above, originally released April 2, 2002.
When Justice Allah “J-Live” Cadet released his second studio album All of the Above a decade and a half ago, it was barely six months after the world got turned upside down. As a New York native and resident, the psychological wounds from the September 11th attacks were fresh on his and everyone’s minds. He had recently found a way to release his oft-delayed debut album. He was coming into his own as both an emcee and producer. Now, 15 years later, All of the Above stands out as one of his greatest successes, yet it remains an underrated and underappreciated early 2000s lyrical and musical exhibition.
All of the Above came on the heels of J-Live’s debut album, The Best Part, which was caught up in major label release hell. He released a few 12”s during the mid ‘90s through the independent hip-hop label Raw Shack Records, and was set to release The Best Part through the label in 1999. The album itself was excellent, and featured production from such heavyweights as Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Prince Paul, 88 Keys, and DJ Spinna. However, things went askew with Raw Shack, and the album got shelved. J-Live then secured a distribution deal through Payday/London Records, but due to label politics, the album got shelved yet again. After cutting through lots of red tape, he was finally able to release it independently through his own record label, Triple Threat Records, in mid-2001.
Less than a year later, J-Live followed up The Best Part with All of the Above. Released through Coup d’État, it is arguably his best album. J-Live is low-key one of the more creative emcees of the 2000s, in terms of concepts and lyrical execution. And his creativity is on full display throughout All of the Above. “Satisfied?” is a thoughtful dissertation of mental stagnation in U.S. society and one of the first hip-hop explorations of life after September 11th. On “One for the Griot,” J-Live tells the story of a guy waking up in the bedroom of a strange apartment, then gives the tale three different endings.
“The 4th 3rd” is a mature exploration of a failed relationship where J looks back on the experience not with bitterness, but with maturity and understanding. On ‘Travelling Music,” he speaks on spreading his musical gospel through his travels around the world, over soaring pianos and keys. The track flows seamlessly into “A Charmed Life,” a detailed autobiographical account of life up to that point. He recorded the track with the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff’s “A Touch of Jazz” production crew (specifically P Smoovah), who provided him with an absolutely sublime beat.
J-Live also flexes his verbal muscles with great precision on All of the Above. On “MCee,” J constructs three intricate verses. Notably, nearly every word on the second verse begins alternately with either “M” or “C.” On the third verse, he switches it so that each bar alternates between starting with an “M” or a “C.” Songs like “Do That Shit,” “All in Together Now,” and “The Lyricist” aren’t quite as high-concept, but they are similarly masterful rapping clinics. “Stir of Echoes” draws influence from the film of the same name, as J-Live rhymes from the perspective of a rhyme trapped inside his head, freed by hypnosis. Overall, J-Live’s lyrical performance on All of the Above is one for the ages and among the best of the ’00s.
In other respects, All of the Above was a family affair. His (now ex-) wife recites a spoken word piece on the “I’m a Rapper” interlude, and his one-year-old daughter demonstrates her own verbal deftness on “For the Babies.” Musically, along with linking up again with frequent collaborator DJ Spinna, J-Live enlists Joe Money to produce a good chunk of the album, as well as stepping behind the boards himself.
All of the Above demonstrated J-Live’s continued growth as an artist, and earned him quite a few fans. One such fan was the musical director of The Wire TV series, who used four tracks (“Satisfied?,” “MCee,” “Do That Shit,” and “Nights Like This”) from All of the Above in the show’s first season.
J-Live says All of the Above remains his best-selling album, and he’s used its success to launch a lengthy solo career. He followed up the album with The Hear After on Penalty Records in 2005. He’s continued to drop quality albums throughout the ’00s, often on his own label (first Triple Threat and then Mortier Music) and on his own terms, including Then What Happened? (2008) and S.P.T.A. (Said Person of That Ability) (2011).
In the past few years, he’s been positively prolific, releasing the albums Around the Sun (2014), His Own Self (2015), and How Much is Water? (2015). At the end of 2016, he dropped the first installment of his At the Date of This Writing EPs and plans to release more in the future. He’s also one of the fortunate artists who owns the masters to nearly all of his recordings, with only The Hear After not available for sale on his Bandcamp page.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with J-Live about the process of creating All of the Above, including his vision for the album, the studio dynamics, and how the album helped shape his career.
Jesse Ducker: When did you start recording All of the Above?
J-Live: I want to say 2001. I had the deal with Coup d’État. The Best Part was doing well, finally released, by me, officially, and we wanted to follow it up, and Coup d’État came with an album deal, with an option. I was in the works of writing some of the concepts back then. Some concepts are older than The Best Part. “One for The Griot,” the idea was older than The Best Part. I was working on stuff and just kind of, some songs were ready, some songs weren’t.
They kind of flowed together in that regard but there was a progression as far as me doing more production. Elliot Thomas, who engineered the recording for The Best Part, he engineered the recording and mixing of All of the Above. I was working with Jazzy Jeff for the first time, even though we did “Break It Down” and “Charmed Life” kind of at the same time. I wasn’t living in Philly yet, I moved to Philly in ‘03 and lived there until ‘05, and then really got to know Jeff and A Touch of Jazz and Larry Gold Studio and The Roots and everybody, and then I was pretty much embraced. This was before that.
Then you have Joe Money, who I got with through Seven Heads, who’d done a lot of work obviously on the Unspoken Heard album. He was based out of Pittsburgh. Joe Money did “Like This Anna” and “One for the Griot.” It was good times, man. It was Fast Forward Studios, which was kind of I guess Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 20s on the West Side. Different people would fall through, that’s why you have DP-1 and Wes Jackson’s voice on “Like This Anna” at the end. Joe Money’s voice is at the end of “One for the Griot.”
JD: This is the first album that you really got more into the production side of things.
J-Live: Yes! Here’s how it happened. I always wanted to produce. I’ve been rapping since I was 12. I’ve been DJing since I was 12, so you’re talking like ‘88. I had DJ equipment, but I didn’t have production equipment, so when I was working with Raw Shack, as far back as doing “Bragging Rights” and “Longevity,” I was learning the s950 and the Creator program on the Atari computer, I was learning how to dig, I was learning about records and jazz history and drum machines and things of that nature. Then when I was in college, I had some experience on the ASR-10, but I didn’t really have my own beat machine, so I didn’t want to consider myself a producer until I had my own tool. Not until 2000 did I get an MPC-2000XL, and that’s really when I started making beats. You don’t really hear me on the beat machine until the official pressing of The Best Part. I did “Epilogue.”
JD: I know there had been label drama when it came to putting out The Best Part. Can you explain that, and how it affected releasing All of the Above?
J-Live: Yeah, basically long story short, we were halfway through it and then the guys at Raw Shack kind of just bounced, and then I had to start over. And then Payday [Records] left and then I had to start over. And then London [Records] split from Polygram because Universal and Seagram’s had this merger, and then it was like this constant re-do. By the time the record was released to press, it had like four mics in The Source, but it was shelved indefinitely. So then we had to go back and redo it again, and then kind of revamp certain things and work with some of the same producers to make the version that finally came out in ‘99 and 2001.
That was the drama behind that, and then for All of the Above, it was much, much smoother sailing, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to do a third, Joe Money’s going to do a third, Spinna’s gonna do a third, oh we have this Jazzy Jeff track we’re going to put on there,” and then boom. It came out really well.
JD: What were the lessons you learned from doing The Best Part that you applied though working with other record labels?
J-Live: I’ve been independent ever since, I guess that was the lesson. I never really sought after a major label deal after that because I was kind of doing my thing independent, and I was enjoying that freedom, not so much creatively, because I always had my creative freedom, but the freedom to not have to...There’s this old Black Moon record [Total Eclipse], but Buckshot starts the album he goes, “The difference between me and you, is when I do an album, it’s coming out.” That was kind of the advantage of being indie. It’s like I don’t have to worry about is the record going to be shelved or what? If we were running things…It’s a big fish in a small pond as opposed to a small fish in an ocean. You spend less, you make less, but you spent less to make it, so it’s cool.
JD: It’s more profitable.
J-Live: I don’t know about more profitable, it’s just more controllable, because if there was a big marketing budget behind these projects, I’d still be reaping those benefits now, and that’s kind of the conundrum that I have. I own my masters but my masters are only worth as much as the marketing was worth at the time, and the marketing wasn’t worth much. It’s a tradeoff.
JD: The process of going from working really hard to get that first album out and then dropping a new one right after must have been an interesting process.
J-Live: Yeah, we called All of the Above the “second first album.” It’s funny because some people say, your first album you’ve been doing your whole life, and your second album is just time in between, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I feel like your second album you’ve been doing your whole life, and like I said, the way concepts are staggered. I just put out a project called At the Date of This Writing last December. I’m working on Volume 2 because I want to do it like volumes and just kind of throw these things out there without necessarily the proper set up time or the proper release of vinyl and everything. It’s kind of like a creative outlet.
As I’m working on Volume 2 there’s things that I knew I was going to be writing about now, because I knew where my life was. It’s kind of like a journal. At the same time, with All of the Above, with The Hear After, with Then What Happened?, it’s still a compilation of my whole life and certain things I reveal. I just won’t touch on them the same way that I touched on them in a previous album, looking at it from a taller, older perspective.
JD: How was the process different, production-wise? You said The Best Part represents 20 years of work with different producers. But with All of the Above, you said you tried to plan out in advance how much each producer was going to do. Was that process better or worse or the same?
J-Live: It was more cohesive I’d say, and plus, I had the experience of finishing a record. The Best Part was really my first record. If I had to choose between the two of them, I don’t know, I think I like my performances on All of the Above better. I like a couple of the beats on The Best Part better just because they were so unique in terms of DJ Premier using like a jug sound [on “The Best Part”] and Grap Luva speeding up and slowing down a track [on “Them That’s Not”]. They were different babies. I love all my babies but they were different.
JD: Putting together the All of the Above album, did you have a vision in your mind like, “This is how I want this album to sound. This is how I want the album to progress.”
J-Live: I usually do. It’s weird, like, you have certain artists…I used to hear about how 50 Cent would do 30 songs and then pick the 12 banging-est songs and make that the album, right? A lot of people follow that process. I follow more like a book writer, so I might write the intro and then halfway through I’ll write the outro, and I’ll have concepts that I’m trying to fill in. And then beats start to match the concepts and then rhymes start to match the beats, but I’m crafting each song to be a part of the whole, you know what I mean? There’s usually not extra songs laying around, like a lot of times we finish an album and back in the days before the internet really killed the speed of light in terms of releases, it would be customary where you would make a couple extra songs for Japan, so they’d put their record out first, so that they would have like...to keep the bootleggers at bay. It would always be a struggle to have extra stuff, because there might be 17 tracks on a record because I meant to do that. If there was an 18th song, it wasn’t good enough for the album, [and] it’s not going to be good enough for a throwaway either. So that’s kind of how it worked out.
JD: Do you want to do the whole Brian Coleman Check the Technique thing where the artist breaks down each track?
J-Live: We could do that. Name the song, I’ll tell you a little something.
JD: Okay, “First Things First.”
J-Live: “First Things First” was cool because it was my first real attempt at producing a scratch sentence, where I was rhyming through cuts. That was a lot of fun. I think Bobbito [Garica] told me he was really impressed with the arrangement, and I was very proud about that. I like the way I used the filters and I was proud of that rhyme. I was starting my show with that for years. I would come out to that, but it would just take a long time for the instrumentals to bring in the drums because of the scratch sentence.
JD: “How Real It Is”
J-Live: Joe Money did “How Real It Is,” and it was actually supposed to be this James Brown thing. We were supposed to sample “It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World,” but the label was scared to clear it, so we ended up going a totally different direction. And I had Elliot Thomas and Eric Krasno playing on that, so it kind of made for a more cohesive record between them playing on different songs, but that was a sick chop that he had on “A Man’s World.”
The drums were built around the chop, and we ended up having Kras and Elliot play on it and come up with a whole original composition, but really you can tell the way the drums switch up. You can only imagine how the sample was chopping and switching up to; it was pretty crazy. There’s like three sections. There’s that middle section when I’m not rapping where we were just wilding out. There’s this old Redman skit [“I’m a Bad” from his 1992 debut Whut? Thee Album] where he’s like, “I could do whatever the fuck I want / Come on shake it, come on shake it.” That was kind of an homage to that.
J-Live: The second verse was all about September 11th, the first verse was just about America in general, and the third was kind of bringing it home. I always remember I was in Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] and there was like rappers using the twin towers as punchlines, and I was like, “What the fuck?” And it hit me like, “Yo, if somebody’s going to rap about this, they need to do it in the tradition of emcees being news anchors.” We grew up on Chuck D and Ice Cube telling the news or doing the Op-Eds, so that was kind of like my Op-Ed. Spinna did that [beat]; I was there when he did it. It was amazing. Then we had a dude named Ticklah come through and played the melodica, so that made it really special. The melodica’s all live. I’ll tell you one other thing: that’s me and Spinna singing in the background. Trying to get our Wailers on.
JD: “I’m a Rapper”
J-Live: Natalie wrote that. It was supposed to be a rap actually, but I felt like it sounded really good over just the flutes and the horns from “Do That Shit.” We were going to put it before that. I had her spit it like spoken word and it came out real dope, and then she came back rapping on “The Listening” on the next album.
JD: Was it originally going to be an intro to “Do That Shit?”
J-Live: No, I knew I wanted to put it in there, but I kind of like having elements of one song that you come back to, some more familiar.
J-Live: It was basically I had the idea just to chop up the letter M and C. It’s always fun performing it because I always do the second verse acapella, so people can really hear all the MCs back to back, like “master of ceremonies making a comeback, moving a crowd with mad charisma.” That was still very much experimenting with a lot of styles, like I did on The Best Part…I would do little things just to impress myself. “MCee “was along those lines, where it was like, I’m going to take every line and make the words M and C, and then the third verse I’m going to start each bar with M and C. It was fun.
JD: “Like This Anna”
J-Live: The concept is as simple as I wanted to write a song talking to a girl named Anna and telling her what it’s like, but so many different people have used that saying, like this Anna, like that Anna, so we just kind of flipped it around. The beat is kind of in 6/8ths, which is new for me. That was a lot of fun, doing that different time signature, so that was cool too. Joe Money killed that.
JD: “One for the Griot”
J-Live: That kind of speaks for itself. I just kind of had the three alternate endings for the song. The beat was one of my favorites on the album, that’s again Joe Money, and then having everybody’s reactions in between was a lot of fun between DP-1 and Wes and Joe Money.
JD: “Stir of Echoes”
J-Live: “Stir of Echoes” was basically, the idea was off the movie, like what if I was hypnotized and came up with just, what would I be? What if I was a rhyme in my head trying to get out, how would that sound? It was a fun concept.
JD: “Interlude 2 (For the Babies)”
J-Live: That’s my daughter. Obviously she’s 16 now, and we play that for her sometimes just to troll her, just to mess with her. I play it for her little brother and her little sister like, “This is what your big sister sounded like as a baby.” It’s kind of cool. She’s actually a great poet now too.
JD: She gets that from her father?
J-Live: No, I’d say more from her mother really. Her mother’s a brilliant lyricist as well.
JD: “Do That Shit.”
J-Live: “Do That Shit” was just kind of me talking to all of the rappers that were trying to be in the top 10 list, the top 40, just drug dealing, getting money, even if they weren’t really about that life.
JD: “All in Together Now.”
J-Live: “All In Together Now” was just conceptually, I’m talking of a verse where every other, like the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth lines go together, like the second, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth lines, and then I’ll do them in that order and then put them together to show you how it goes. I was just trying to impress myself at the time, I was just playing around with different styles.
JD: “Nights Like This”
J-Live: Yeah, that’s I think probably one of my favorite verses, just because as a Five-Percenter, growing up having a whole lot of nights where brothers just get together and build and you’re dealing with a lot of elders, and the elders would really put you on to certain wisdom and just really open up their perspective and show you how they’ve seen the world. A lot of people say, “If I knew what I knew at your age...” And it’s like, all right, I’m going to tell you what I know at your age. It makes for some very, very special nights.
JD: “The 4th 3rd”
J-Live: It’s based on a true story. I was going to college, I was studying to be a Five-Percenter at the time, and I was dating a Seventh Day Adventist, and they’re a very, very devout specific denomination of Christianity, and she found herself unequally yoked. It was like that; she would go to church, we’d break up, we’d get back together, spend the night, and then she’d go to church and then we’d break up again. It was like a vicious cycle. It was co-produced by Eric Krasno and Elliot Thomas. That’s Eric Krasno from Soulive playing the guitar. There was this Bill Withers sample that we didn't want to clear, so I had people coming to play it over.
JD: “Travelling Music”
J-Live: “Travelling Music” was just making a list of all the places I wanted to go, including some of the places I’d been, but I hadn’t been to that many places. It’s cool, I’ve been knocking off cities from that list ever since. I still haven’t been to Abidjan. I’m sure there’s a few I haven’t touched yet, but there’s some on that list that I’ve been to that I didn’t even think I’d go. There are some that’s not on that list that I’ve been to, I should say. I think Reykjavik is on that list. I think Moscow is on that list. I’ve been all over, that’s a whole other interview. I’m going back to Croatia in May DJing for a couple of weeks with the next level hip-hop program.
JD: “A Charmed Life”
J-Live: P Smoovah [produced that]. Basically, this was the time when A Touch of Jazz Studios was in Philadelphia. Jazzy Jeff was working on The Magnificent, and we had picked “Break it Down “to do and then had the “Brady Bunch” beat at the time. But then the thing was, he had all these different producers in his camp just working on different stuff, and he was going to put “A Charmed Life” on The Magnificent as an instrumental, but I was like, “Yo, you need to let me write for that.” I did, and then we ended up putting it on both of our albums, but it was just kind of like a bonus for the thing, so it worked out really well
[P Smoovah] was working on, I believe the ASR-10 and he just kind of does stuff if I remember well. He’ll do stuff and not even track it, but just have it on file, and this is back when you had little floppy discs and all of that. What happened was, he did it and he didn’t save it, but he just recorded a draft, so what you’re hearing on “A Charmed Life” is actually a two-track of his initial rough. It was just that clean that we were able to record to it. I wrote actually to the arrangement as it was, that’s why sometimes I’m following the rides, a few times I’m following the hi-hat, sometimes I’m following the snare and the kick, even though it was kind of a jazzy snare kick, it’s not the typical boom-bap on that song. That was pretty magical how it went down in Philly.
JD: “All of the Above”
J-Live: Yeah, that was just me getting introspective, esoteric and fake deep and just talking about how hip-hop is kind of spiritual in the process and very scientific and as they say, as above so below. So the way your eye is shaped like the universe or certain spirals that you see in every living being, every cell.
JD: “Happy Belated”
J-Live: What I did was I spit the rhyme offbeat so that the echo could come ahead of the verse. That was the idea, and it’s like, the execution was really cool, but then for it to be the last song, for me to be able to plug that shit and still pull it off was pretty fun… I feel like I should’ve made that longer so it felt more like a real song than an outro, but that’s one of my favorites. It’s a lot of people’s favorite track on the album and it’s kind of like I only did one verse and I probably should’ve done more and treated it like a full song as opposed to just an outro. It felt like a good way to end the record, so I like to keep the outro short at the time, that was my formula.
JD: “3 Out Of 7”
J-Live: That was a play on words, like three cats that were on 7 heads, so like 3 Out of 7: Me, Asheru, and El Da Sensei. It was technically a remix of “MCee.”
JD: “The Lyricist”
J-Live: Yeah, “The Lyricist” was on Richy Pitch’s compilation, he did that, and I was just going at that typewriter beat. That was the concept of his album, they just threw it on as a bonus to sweeten the deal.
JD: So what’s up with the album’s cover?
J-Live: The artwork was very special to me just because [John Coltrane’s] Blue Train was one of the first jazz records I ever was exposed to by my uncle. It was Blue Train and [Miles Davis’] Sketches of Spain, so to be able to do an homage to that John Coltrane cover. The cover was pretty cool.
JD: So how did All of the Above affect your career going forward from when you recorded it?
J-Live: It was a best-selling album, it really impacted and showed that I was relevant in the industry and not just off the bootleg of The Best Part. It legitimized things and really was like a springboard as far as actually having a proper setup, a proper budget, proper marketing, proper distribution, proper publicity, and I’ve been chasing that ever since. Just following it up with record after record.
JD: Is that your main takeaway from the album? Was it like the end of your beginning?
J-Live: Yeah, I would say end of the beginning is a good way to put it, and it’s funny because people know that The Best Part is classic, and then they kind of caught up to the fact that All of the Above is classic too, so it’s nice to have at least two classics under my belt. I think Then What Happened, if it gets the recognition it deserves, it’ll probably be another classic. I wouldn’t call all of my albums classics, but I think those three and S.P.T.A. and Around the Sun. Around the Sun I’m pretty proud of too.
JD: Where would you rank All of the Above in terms of your whole discography?
J-Live: Personally? Probably 4th. Career-wise, probably 2nd.
JD: Why would you say it’s fourth in your own personal opinion?
J-Live: I consider myself improving with every record, so if I had to grade them, I wouldn’t put At the Day of This Writing at number one, just because of the means of production. So taking everything into account as far as my growth as an artist, I would probably say Around the Sun, then S.P.T.A., then Then What Happened?, then maybe All of the Above. But I would stick it in there just out of respect, as I’m always going to like my later stuff more. I don’t listen to my older stuff that much. I listen to my later stuff way more. It’s kind of like growing up, the rhyme books, you start to put them down, you put them away. You don’t pick the same rhymes from your old book. You have new rhymes in the new book you don’t really go back. You go forward.
JD: What are your five favorite albums of all time, at least at this moment right now?
J-Live: Ice Cube’s Death Certificate (1991), Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), The Roots’ Things Fall Apart (1999), De La Soul’s Stakes is High (1996), and OutKast’s ATLiens (1996).