Happy 25th Anniversary to Jeru The Damaja’s debut album The Sun Rises In The East, originally released May 24, 1994.
If you consider the greatest emcee-producer pairings active during the early to mid 1990s, you’d have to say that Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth take the cake. They delivered not one, but two all-time great hip-hop albums in Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992) and The Main Ingredient (1994). However, you also have to give a ton of props to Chris “DJ Premier” Martin’s notable pairings. In 1994, he orchestrated two all-time great albums with two separate all-time great emcees: Hard To Earn with Keith “Guru” Elam (as Gang Starr) and The Sun Rises In The East with Kendrick Jeru “The Damaja” Davis.
A well-rounded emcee, Jeru The Damaja grew up in the rough environment of the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn. As a member of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in the late ’80s, he had connected with Guru when the Boston-born emcee had migrated to his home borough. He appeared in Gang Starr’s first video, “Words I Manifest,” and began to get down with the fledgling Gang Starr Foundation soon after.
Jeru’s first major label appearance was on Gang Starr’s “I’m the Man,” along with longtime friend and fellow Brooklyn resident Lil’ Dap (soon to be of Group Home) on Daily Operation (1992). Jeru had the song’s blistering final verse, and caught a lot of attention in the process. By the time he led off “Speak Ya Clout” on Hard To Earn, he had a record deal with Payday Records and released “Come Clean,” a wildly successful single that resonated throughout the hip-hop underground and college radio scene. By then, the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had morphed into the Perverted Monks, at least partially due to the arrival of “gangsta” R&B group DRS.
With The Sun Rises, Jeru gives a performance that is steeped in both street-wise, rugged rhymes and a healthy dose of righteous aggression. His rhymes are laden with references to Kung-Fu flicks like Man With The Bronze Arm and anime like Fist Of The North Star. His delivery is unconventional, with its constant shifts in tempo, riding Premier’s beats in an unorthodox manner.
Earlier in 1994, DJ Premier may have begun to make his case for best producer out there with Hard To Earn, but he cemented his case with The Sun Rises In the East. While Primo rewrote the book for hardcore boom-bap production the former, the latter remains his most creative endeavor. The tracks he crafts for Jeru are the products of hours and hours the duo spent pouring through his crates, research that ultimately yielded his most left-of-center constructions, in terms of his sound and approach.
“Come Clean” is an example of this creativity, in that when it dropped, it seemed completely different than anything out else there. Premier chop and re-flips the intro of the percussion break from Shelley Manne’s “Infinity” into something that sounds akin to Chinese Water Torture. He pairs it with a pounding drum track, turning it into one of the hardest beats of the mid 1990s. A bare-bones basic track and a perfect vehicle for lyrical ass-whoopings, “Come Clean” was a frequent staple of radio and live show freestyle sessions.
Jeru’s performance lives up to the gritty rawness of the beat. He targets fake gangstas on record, who talk big trash on the mic about their street credentials, but can’t back it up. His “freaky flow” follows the track’s dips and dives, as he raps, “Real, rough and rugged, shine like a gold nugget / Every time I pick up the microphone I drug it / Unplug it on chumps with the gangster babble / Leave your 9mms at home and bring your skills to the battle.”
“D. Original” was a fitting follow-up to “Come Clean” as The Sun Rises’ second single. The song is even more off-kilter musically, as Premier cobbles together a slightly offbeat drum track to go along with what sounds like a sample of someone hitting all the wrong keys on a piano simultaneously. Jeru gives his best performance on the album, flowing while still giving momentary pauses and stops and starts. He raps, “Father of all styling, I be wilding on wax / We hack shit up like Big Ax and Little Ax / Don’t need toast to make you jump like bungee / Tracks real muddy like Brooklyn’s real grungy.”
“Brooklyn Took It” is a hardcore dedication to both the borough of Jeru’s birth and its residents. He reminisces on experiencing hip-hop for the first time through Brooklyn park jams, and testifies to the bona fides of the denizens of the “land of the crooks.” Jeru describes the sheer blunt-force power of the track, as “drums numb your ears, rhymes swell up your lips.” The highlight of the track comes from the production end, as the beat features some of Primo’s best drum programming, as the kicks and snares continually shift throughout the song’s duration.
Some of The Sun Rises’ strongest moments surface when Jeru decides to fight against the forces of evil. On “You Can’t Stop The Prophet,” the album’s third single, Jeru fashions himself as a righteous soldier, battling the forces of ignorance, deceit, hatred, and jealousy on the street level, ducking in and out of sinister dens of vileness. The beat is another one of Premier’s masterpieces on the album, as he expertly flips the last few piano notes of The Crusaders’ “Chain Reaction.”
Jeru continues on his righteous mission with “Ain’t The Devil Happy.” He channels KRS-One and Chuck D, attempting to educate others on how to live right and avoid the perils of violence and self-destruction. Another superior entry is “Jungle Music,” where Jeru testifies to the power of music. Over a shimmering vibraphone sample, he recounts the history of his ancestors and their involuntary journey from Africa to the United States, exploring how music has always played a central part in the evolution of African-American culture.
“My Mind Spray” is some pure emcee shit. Jeru alternates his style on each couplet, flowing simply on the first bar, then packing the second bar with as many words and syllables as it can hold. The song also showcases Premier’s skill as he expertly flips a sample of Bob James’ “Nautilus,” giving it its own unique feel.
For the most part, Jeru holds down The Sun Rises on his own, turning his deep vocal boom into an imposing presence. However, on “Mental Stamina,” he does enlist his mentee Aaron “Afu-Ra” Phillip, who makes his first appearance on the brief song. The pair contribute an impressive exhibition of lyrical gymnastics and “vernacrobatics” (vernacular and acrobatics), as Jeru and Afu-Ra pass the mic both and forth, their styles complementing each other. Jeru was awarded the “Rhyme of the Year” award in The Source magazine in 1994 for kicking lines like, “Deviant monks attack the mic, it’s mental pandemonium / And then some, you go for your hand gun / Psychokinetic forces proceed to smash in your cerebellum / Phonetician with more stamina than a Christian.”
The album ends strong with “Statik.” As the title suggests, Premier uses a simple loop and leaves the static and pops on the record itself untouched, giving the song a dirtier, grimy feel. Jeru dispenses lines like, “The Neba, but not Caneza / It’s the toucha, no gun or God can protect ya / Neither the scripture, choke like a boa constrictor / This is my house and I’ll evict ya.”
Jeru would continue to embrace his righteous trajectory on his follow up album, Wrath Of The Math (1996), positioning himself as the protector of hip-hop’s soul, fighting vigilantly against the forces that he perceived were threatening it. This would cause him some controversy as he began to overly target Bad Boy and Death Row Records, earning the ire of some of their artists. Premier returned to produce that entire album and did an admirable job. While Wrath Of The Math is a strong follow-up, it isn’t nearly as good as The Sun Rises.
Though Premier would continue to produce “irregular” sounding tracks, he never produced a complete project that sounded as weird and experimental as The Sun Rises In The East. In an era defined by its meat and potatoes approach to hip-hop, both Premier and Jeru went off the beaten path and delivered a timeless classic. It’s refreshing to see ingenuity make such a lasting impression.