Jean Grae’s Attack Of The Attacking Things: An Oral History

Jean Grae's debut album 'Attack Of The Attacking Things' put the renowned artist on the map. Jerry Barrow dissects the album from the mouth of Jean Grae herself, among other players.

It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it.”

The phrase “for the culture” has become a ubiquitous catch phrase in rap circles, but it really applied to the actions of hotel owner Stanley Bard. For five decades, he stood sentry over the famed Hotel Chelsea, a New York landmark built in the 1800s and purchased by his father in 1940. Bequeathed to Stanley in 1957, the 250-unit tower at 222 West 23rd St became a commune and incubator for artists from all walks of life. Eccentric bold-faced names like Robert Mapplethorpe, Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur Miller walked the ornately decorated halls and called The Chelsea home, due in large part to Bard’s lax leasing policy, which gave creative minds room to flourish without the stress of possible eviction. Its magnetic appeal was undeniable, but the legend was nurtured as much by the lives that expired between the walls as the ones who lived in it.

“That’s where Sid Vicious allegedly murdered Nancy Spungen,” Jean Grae says matter of factly of the infamous relationship between the late Sex Pistols bassist and his girlfriend. “So for the decade I was living there, the elevator on the right would always randomly stop on the first floor and we’d say, ‘Hey, Nancy, get in.’ So while I’m very hip-hop, I’m very DIY about everything, which is also very Punk. I’ve seen all of the gentrification. It doesn’t get any harder gentrification than that.”

It was in this environment that a twenty-something Tsidi Ibrahim embarked on what is now called adulting. The South African native had been living in Brooklyn—recording and performing as part of the trio Natural Resource but took over her family’s apartment in The Chelsea. Her mother, jazz singer and anti-apartheid activist Sathima Bea Benjamin, had moved back to South Africa. Her brother, pianist Tsakwe Brand, left behind a treasure trove of production equipment, and the emcee/singer, who was now going by Jean Grae, was ready to spread her wings as a solo artist.

“I think it was the culmination of me living alone, really coming into being an adult and deciding what that was going to look like, as well as my musical voice,” she says of her debut Attack Of The Attacking Things, released on August 6th, 2002 by indie label Third Earth Music. “The great part about it is that I had this amazing recording studio in my bedroom so I was making beats and recording my own stuff everyday. And then Kimani Rogers approached me and said let’s make an album. That was the beginning of what became a theme for me. Someone asks, ‘Hey can you do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yup.’ Then walk away saying, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”

Kimani was an artist and label executive who met Jean’s friend and co-conspirator Mr. Len in the late ‘90s when he interviewed Company Flow for his indie hip-hop magazine Off The Top. It was the group’s first interview, and he and Len remained friends afterward. While recording and performing with his group The Masterminds, Rogers made the rounds in the Giuliani-era New York hip-hop scene and met Jean through Len.

“With rap you got to Wetlands a lot and I met Jean at one of the Lyricist Lounge shows,” Rogers recalls. “She was still [going by] What? What? And that’s around when we were starting Third Earth Records. At one point I was like you’re featured on all of these records, what are you doing? She lived at The Chelsea Hotel back then, so I went back there and we’re sitting in the lobby talking about what she wanted to do. And she was quite open to doing an album.”

Attack Of The Attacking Things was a declaration of independence written on wine-stained papyrus. Pliable, enduring, and a little out of place, its mere existence was as much a testament as the stories held within in. With a distinctly monotone brush, Jean painted an aspirational portrait of herself and her community. Less preachy than it was cautionary, she communed with both distilled and ethereal spirits over sparse and disciplined drums. It was the diary of a Xennial trying to bridge the canyon between her infinite potential and the instability of the world she inherited, but remembering to laugh along the way. She fought, fucked, and fermented feelings—assuming more faceless personalities than Arya Stark in order to capture as many angles of the human experience as possible.

“There was a lot of smoking of cigarettes and drinking,” she remembers of her recording sessions. “Just sitting at that desk a lot. I called it Project Heat Studios because it was a big building with old radiator systems, and you can’t control the level of heat coming out. You can’t open the windows so you just have to sweat. It was hot and loud and the best thing about being in the Chelsea was that you could turn up your fuckin’ speakers and nobody is gonna complain about it. Something happened in the middle of recording and I may have blown out one of my speakers, so I couldn’t fully mix it the way I wanted it. So there should be a diagram to mixing it in the CD booklet. I was always ridiculous.”

But more than just an album for the sake of an album, Attack was a meeting of like minds who shared a cynical view of the world.

“She was different and she was weird,” says Kimani. “That’s what it was. Being weird, quirky and odd fit into Tarik [fellow Mastermind’s emcee] and I’s personality. It felt like a natural fit.”

Fifteen years later, Jean appreciates the work she put in then, but knows that she has come a long way from her copious similes and “creatively” mixed beats (thanks to a blown speaker).

“There are things on there that make me cringe,” she confesses. “But there are also some things on there where I’m like these are some really interesting choices. Like waiting so long for something to rhyme. I was finding myself, but I was really comfortable with who I was in a very conversationalist kind of way. I wasn’t technically as good [as I am now]. I was literally trying to find my voice and play around with things. I wasn’t here yet at all.”

But looking back helps you appreciate the progress you’ve made and with at least ten different projects released since then and an Extendo clip full of guest appearances, it’s only right to pay homage to where it all began for Jean Grae the soloist: Attack Of The Attacking Things.

ARE YOU STARING AT MY TITLES?

Jean: I work on music backwards from the future. The project is already done in my mind, and I’m just here to fill in the blanks. I’ve always worked like that and abandoned the idea of linear time, especially when it comes to art. It works for me. [So] I always kind of start working on titles first and then work backwards. There were a few original titles. The first one was Prom Night because I had a terrible prom night. It sucked balls. I didn’t actually graduate from LaGuardia High School, but I’m in the yearbook. So I wanted to do it over again and the vision was the album release party would be prom, etc., but I did not do that. The second title was supposed to be Whatever Becky, which stuck for a long time. But I decided against it at the last minute. Faces of Death was popular and When Things Attack was popular, so I was like Attack of the Attacking Things, and it made me laugh. I’ve been making jokes for a long time. My first rap moniker was created as a joke because I wanted people to do an Abbott & Costello routine every time they announced me. So it was interesting to take an album that was conceptual and talking about life and saying, “Eh, don’t take yourself too seriously.” I was trying to give an all around idea of who I was.

The Album Cover Art:

Jean: The designer’s name is Venus. I think in retrospect, I felt like that was the beginning of me really being, “I do all of these multiple things.” This album is not just me [rapping]. I’m producing it. I’m engineering it, the artwork, the marketing. I’m not just doing one thing, so it was important for me to get that point across. But I don’t think anyone cared. It was so blatant. The imagery couldn’t have been any more direct, but all of those things get ignored.

I really enjoy weapons. I love weapons. I used to bring a lot of weapons to the club. I had a cane that opened up into a sword. I used to go to the club so much no one would question me. I wore ninja stars on my neck as chains. An arm strap that had darts in it. But the juxtaposition of knives and flowers is something I’ve always stuck with. I want something structured on one side and organic and the other. I’m extremely pragmatic and operate off of logic, but you have to use your imagination to get those things done. [I was] doing these hard-ass technical raps, but being vulnerable simultaneously. With me coming into adult womanhood and understanding relationships and where I was, I was thinking about what kind of woman I was trying to be. Snakes are cool. I fuckin’ like snakes. Then years later, when I got my right sleeve done there are flowers, a serpent, and the idea of understanding that you can be all of those things as a young woman. And do all of those things.

Kimani: I remember taking the artwork down to Caroline’s to get it printed and they were like, “What is this?” and I said I don’t know what it is. It’s going to look weird on the light box at Fat Beats on 6th Avenue, but that’s what she wants, so that’s what it’s going to be. To me it was genius.

The Skits:

Jean: I probably went to recording skits before I did anything else. In my mind—in albums that I love—if there aren’t any skits in there to tie it together, then it doesn’t make sense to me. So I wanted to have Apani and Lyric (now known as Sara Kana) on the album having conversations on the phone. That was my life at the time, so I wanted to present that snapshot. So I think that’s the first thing I wanted to work on.

“What Would I Do” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I’m a huge fan of The Wiz. It never stops being a theme in my life for anything I do. For the last six or seven years I’ve been ending my show with “Ease On Down The Road.”  “What Would I Do ( If I Could Feel)” was Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man singing in the junkyard. The imagery of it is amazing. I wish we could have done a video, but we had no budget. It’s so melancholy that he’s crying over his wife who crushed him. Clearly he has so many feelings over it but he’s like, “I can’t feel.” It’s me [sharing] my feelings…knowing that I really want to pursue this career [but] I kind of have to be numb about it. The idea of putting myself all-in and being hurt that it’s not being received the way I want it to, but still enjoying it so much and loving it so much. What would I do if I could feel all of my love for this?

Mr. Len: I made that beat in my apartment in South Orange after watching wrestling. Pre-Pro Tools days. I had the beat on a mini disc when I let her hear it. Both that and “Knock” were on that disc and both beats ran for 3:42. I do a weird OCD thing sometimes. I liked the idea of sampling The Wiz and did try sampling it for the hook. It just didn’t match right with the sample. 

“God’s Gift” produced by Masta Ace

Jean: I remember Len and Lord Sear had a great night at Joe’s Pub. We spent a lot of drunk evenings there having a good time. Except Sear started pulling the fire alarm when he didn’t like the crowd and shut the whole night down. I remember being on the stage and Ace was there and I said hey I’m working on this album and he said he’d be interested in doing a beat on it. So he gave me a beat tape—a cassette tape—and I picked one.

It’s very Jay-Z “Big Pimpin.” I like the idea of being able to step outside of myself and be someone else. The other song that I wanted to work on that I never got to do was a carjacking song, but I wanted to be the car and give the perspective of someone breaking into you. I spent so much time recording the album that I never got to do that song.

Block Party” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Jean: Nasain Nahmeen was [my production alias] after Run Run Shaw. It made me laugh and it sounded super Muslim. If you got the joke you got the joke. The hook was “get out your house, get off your block” because I’ve had the privilege of seeing the world, but it started from me not being from here. Being able to go on the road with my mom and my dad or by myself. I was touring with Natural Resource when I was 17 or 18.

I made “Block Party” as a response to a Jamie Foxx comedy special, where he talked about going to South Africa and when he got off the plane the thing that hit him was the “terrible fuckin’ smell.” And that isn’t true at all. Why would you, as this Black man from America…you see Africa and you come back and perpetuate this idea of what it is? I wanted to punch Jamie Foxx in the face so fucking bad. You have an audience and a platform. You have a responsibility to not do that, so why are you being a shitty human being? It was about making it possible to travel and for the people who do travel, you have a responsibility. You can do better.

“No Doubt“ produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen)

Kimani Rogers: “No Doubt” was one of my favorites. It knocked a little bit—and at the time Len and I created [the group] Roosevelt Franklin so Len was DJing for What? and there were often times where I would play hype man for her. That was one of my favorite songs to do live, because it was angry.

“Thank Ya” produced by Jean Grae (Nasain Nahmeen )

Jean: I’m sure I had been digging somewhere and was extremely happy when I came across the [Allen Toussaint “Worldwide”] record. It was the beginning of the idea of re-recording vocals and hooks to make them seem like they were already part of that song. But people tend to disregard all of the harmonics and arrangements, and the 20,000 tracks of vocals I’m doing. Or people are like, “I didn’t know you sang” and I’m singing all over the album.

I understood what the album was gonna be, and clearly I’m not making a record for the clubs. I was in clubs every night and when I go I want to hear club music. I don’t want to hear myself; I’m fine with different music being for different things. I do think of songs about what time of day or which speakers you’ll be in front of, or if you’ll be in a car. There are certain songs I call “sunset/sunrise” driving over the bridge songs. That’s a very specific sound. Or there’s your “walking to the supermarket music.” Although my life was very party-oriented at the time, that’s not what this album was.

“Lovesong” produced by Da Beatminerz

Jean: I went to their house and worked on the beat there. I wanted to write something that could help people understand more about relationships. It was inspired by one of my favorite love songs of all time, The Cure’s “Lovesong.” That song is so short, but it’s so emotional. To be able to convey that level of emotion with just his voice and that hook…I wanted to do my version of what that would feel like—to pull emotions out of people and starting the story in third person, and by the end of the song I could say it was me.

DJ Evil Dee: I always have fun working with her. Jean is a genius when it comes to recording stuff with her. I also remember I was sick and she bought me some tea, some ginger and orange so I could feel better. I made that beat specifically for her. I was just trying to be different.

Jean: When I finished recording the song I said, “This feels like it’s not enough. I want to go back and add [the original of The Stylistics’ “Stop Look And Listen”] to the beginning of the song.” Kimani was like THIS IS GONNA BE A PROBLEM LATER, but they were really great about it. We didn’t have to pay a shit ton of sample clearance.

Kimani: We got a letter from The Stylistics’ lawyer basically saying we’re very thankful you guys chose this song. However, you’ve used way too much of it without contacting us. So they said we had to pay a small amount of money and chop the intro off any future pressings. They recognized that we weren’t selling millions of records or anything. I don’t think we had to pull them off the shelves. That was the only time we got anything close to trouble over samples.

“Get It” produced by Jean Grae/ Nasain Nahmeen  

Jean: As a huge M.O.P fan, I wanted something that felt really soulful, but slow and dirty. You walk really slow down the street to it, but you can also get in a fight. It sounded like putting someone in a sleeper hold, but dancing while you were doing it. I always wanted M.O.P on the “Get it” Remix.

“Knock” produced by Mr. Len

Jean: I just wanted to rap. It felt like there’s at least four people in the car and nobody’s talking and you’re probably high. There’s a lot of New York head nodding at a stoplight. Let’s just go drink some Hennessy.

Mr. Len: The sample is “Help On the Way” by The Grateful Dead.

Truthfully, didn’t have any plans for that beat. Jean heard it and said, “I’m taking this one.”

“Live 4 U” produced by Ev Price

Jean: Ev Price is from Brooklyn Academy family. Block McCloud, Ev Price, and Metaphor we were spending a lot of time out in Staten Island, and Ev always had like 80,000 beats. When I heard that one, it sounded really delicate, and that’s what I wanted.

I remember that it had to pull emotions out of me. I gotta cry while I’m writing it or I didn’t nail it. My mom was always incredibly supportive of whatever I wanted to do, especially my music career. But I wanted her to know how much it meant to me. Her not being present during the recording of the album, I wanted it to be a snapshot for her to know and understand. She sacrificed so many things to raise us and not fully fulfill all of [her] musical destiny. She liked it. You never knew when she was going to cry about something.  The sequencing of the album was important to me, and that song doesn’t work as a number two or three. It’s weird if you open a conversation with talking about your parents.

“Fadeout” Produced by Koichiro

Jean: That’s a terrible way to end an album. I should’ve had some kind of resolve after that. Younger me thinks it’s a good idea, but older me thinks maybe not end on your best friend’s death. Koichiro was married to Apani for a time; Japanese dude who had a lot of dope beats. I remember being over there thinking, “You should do something for this album.” And again this album was done in such a short time, thankfully I was around so many talented people I’m like, “Yeah, that beat, lemme take it. Gotta finish this album.”

Right before I’d started recording, my best friend Demetrius—a very talented dude, friend of the family but no intimate relationship—was moving to Miami and we didn’t get a lot of time to hang out. It was one of those things where I should be talking to this person more, but you put it off. Then I got a call one day from someone saying they were looking for me. They told me Demetrius was at a party and either fell or got pushed off of a 27-story balcony. And then they said 1) I was difficult to find and 2) Nobody wanted to tell me. So I spent a few weeks distancing myself from the world. Because that happened before the album, when Kimani asked me to do this, it was the driving point for me to do it. So I wanted to end the album with that song because it was the idea of coming full circle and doing those things. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, so you have to create your own destiny and keep up with it.

EPILOGUE

Jean: I think my general idea about doing things is I enjoy money and you should do it as best as you fucking can, but I wanted to do [this album] for me. And I just wanted to make really good art. The sad part for me is it did just fall under one thing. It’s sad that it took this long to talk about this album, the production, why I wrote it. I went into it a bit naïve, thinking that it would be received as just a rap album where you could talk about those things and it not be a “Female” rap album. I believe what I tried to do with this first album was say, “Here are all of these sides of me.” But when it gets out, you can’t control it. No one is able to look at you as a full human being with all of these facets and feelings.

Mr. Len: I was cool with how the songs came out. I wished I could have mixed them, but then she couldn’t call them “dirty mixes.” The album title still gets a giggle and headshake from me. It’s a very Jean Grae title. Looking back, I still see it as a solid record. Like a lot of projects from that time you question how much better the reception could have been with a bigger budget. But the budget, or lack thereof, is the reason it sounds like it does.

Kimani: I, for better or for worse, generally let people do what the fuck they want to do. I’m a big fan of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He was unorthodox and did weird shit and it was kind of the same thing with Jean. She was really off. But it made sense to me. If someone has to actually tweak the knobs [to mix the songs], that’s funny. Who cares? Probably no one did, but she was the artist. I was an artist, too but I was like do whatever you want and I’m gonna try to get people to listen to it. Everyone has free reign so it was mixed “creatively,” but I didn’t care because I was happy we had a Jean Grae record. It gave us some credibility as a record label and made me happy as a fan of hers that she was putting a record out.

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