By Daniel Paiz
Clichés aren’t always wrong when it comes to describing a situation. For example, organic growth at the core of Jamo Gang is one of these instances. Producer J57 and emcees El Gant and Ras Kass have all crafted extensive catalogs over the years. Now as these three work together, the rest of Hip-Hop might need to take notice of yet another rap group in 2020. I’m all for that and I think many other listeners are too.
The formation of Jamo Gang
This is actually my first time interviewing a rap group, but it was full of all kinds of interesting tidbits here and there. It might be kind of impossible to include everything that was discussed. However, let’s jump into my favorite parts of our often interrupted interview (courtesy of internet connection and Zoom).
Figuring out how these guys came together was my first task, and I was hoping my guess that DJ Premier put these three together was correct. Let’s see how close I was, and meet J57 and El Gant (Ras Kass likely had technical issues worse than mine, as he was unable to make the interview).
Cypher Sessions (CS): So I was doing my research and trying to figure out how you all came together, and was it DJ Premier who introduced you, or how did you all meet and decide to become a group?
J57: I wish, that’d be such a cool story if Premier introduced all three of us (J57 and El Gant laugh).
El Gant: You guys are a group now, and he just commands it (laughs).
J57: He sits us down, “you guys are a group now”, and turns around back on the mixing board (laughs).
El Gant: And I would’ve been like alright, yeah (J57 in background “Okay yeah that works”).
El Gant: Yeah, but no how it really went down is J and I have known each other for a long, long time. I met him in, what was it…2004?
J57: Yeah I had just started interning at Fat Beats before I got hired, yeah it was ’04.
El Gant: And we stayed in touch and I’d visit him at Fat Beats…we did a record in 2010 with Tek from Smif-N-Wessun on a track called “Problems” that J produced…so we were always cool; and then Ras and I have been cool for a long time too, we had the same manager briefly in like 2007. In 2014 I was touring with Ras at the time, kind of just backing him up and going around and opening for Ras.
*Editor’s note: both of these guys know a LOT of people, so it was really cool getting to hear just how connected so many different artists are to one another. Interview continues below!*
El Gant: J had just produced a joint for Method Man featuring Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, and they were shooting the video for it, and he heard Ras was in town so he invited him too. We kind of just went, and I introduced J to Ras and they got along really well. That night we talked about going to the studio and we thought “hey we should do some work together”.
The next day we just met up and the three of us had really dope chemistry and we pumped out a good amount of joints that day. We were kind of off to the races from there.
J57: I really liked your rumor of, Premier being like you guys are a group now, I liked that a lot; but, he did say to us individually that “yo, you guys should make this a priority”.
Cosigns and COVID
It has to wild to find out that a legendary guy like DJ Premier cosigns your work before the group is really even underway. That slight push led to one of the most refreshing albums of 2020. What’s even more refreshing is that this group has taken their time to put work out, and haven’t rushed the creative process.
A funny piece of trivia from this interview is that Jamo Gang and Blu & Exile were supposed to drop their projects at the same time in October 2019. However due to COVID and necessary artistic adjustments, each project dropped in 2020. The organic method of making this album work has paid dividends for the newly minted rap trio.
CS: 2020 feels like the year of rap duos and trios. With Run The Jewels, Felt, Blu & Exile, you guys; did you see these other groups dropping and plan the album release, or was it just unplanned good timing?
J57: I gotta be honest, we didn’t time anything. Everything with Jamo Gang has been organic, which has been a blessing and a beautiful situation. And when the album was done, the album was done. We actually cut a few songs from the album, and they were really good, we were debating…we just wanted to make sure everything was right and we took our time. We had patience with it.
Digging into Walking With Lions
Skits are something that are fairly uncommon on hip-hop albums these days. One of the first things that endeared me to this project were the skits and how nostalgic they felt; they were cohesive and had a point, unlike other skits I’ve heard recently. I had to ask about them and about one other part of Walking With Lions.
CS: So the skits brought me back to albums I grew up on in the 90s and 2000s; was there a focus of having skits to add some nostalgia, or just something to add to the project?
El Gant: I don’t think that we planned the skits, we weren’t like “man this album has to have some skits on it”. We just got to talking about it, and some people ask us if it’s about tekashi69 and it’s not even about him, it’s about where the game has gone at this point. Like this game is so ridiculous right now that there’s probably going to be a dude that comes out named Lil Snitch. We started playing around (laughs) and before you know it, we had these really kind of funny skits that we were doing.
J57: Yo you know what’s funny man, is that we realized this is probably the only album in history, and I could be wrong I have to check Drake’s Scorpion album again to see, but this is probably the only hip-hop album in history where a Premier beat follows up a trap beat. Gant asked me to pull up a trap beat, I pulled this one first and he’s like “yup I’m going in the booth, let’s do this!” (J57, El Gant & myself all chuckle).
CS: How does this project differ from anything you’ve worked on prior to this album?
El Gant: If you go back to my underground catalog, it’s a lot of straight-up lyrics and scratches, and ya know. I think that this was more growth, but it was very natural because it’s a three-person group I had a lot to do with the direction it’s supposed to go in. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to just like, rappin’ for 35 minutes, and ya know not giving people complete songs. That’s how it’s different for me.
J57: What Gant just said made me remember, we started off doing regular, bigger sounding boom bap, and then it turned into them picking beats for me. I’d get a little ballsy and be like “here’s a couple of stadium boom bap beats that I made” and I figured they wouldn’t pick them but I thought they’d like ’em.
And both of ’em were like these ones are the ones and so again it’s another organic example of anything that has to do with this group. They let me produce them, they let me be a producer. It was honestly all of us together thinking of every outcome possible, and then ego outside of the room every time for all of us.
Sharpening one’s skill set & advice for those new to the music game
Discussion about this album could go on and on; however, I’m curious to inquire about how artists keep themselves sharp. In particular I want to hear how rappers keep their freestyle and pen games strong. I found out what I was hoping to hear.
CS: Do you all cypher together, or is that more of a thing saved for the studio? I’m always curious to hear how artists sharpen their skill sets.
El Gant: I do a lot of writing at home in my space, but as far as rhyming I came up freestyling. You had to as an emcee to be able to go off the top. A lot of times when I’m around my team we literally just drop a beat and just start going off the top. It keeps your swords so sharp. It’s a different side of your brain that you’re using when you’re rhyming off the top versus when you’re writing stuff. I feel like I have to do it in order to write dope music.
J57: Here’s the difference, Gant is like a battle champion, I grew up freestyling and beatboxing and battling too. But he was like on TV doing it (laughs) and I’m like in Long Island at some keg party battling somebody in front of 50 people, and maybe we fight after (laughs).
But at the same time we’re cut from the same cloth. It was a big no-no to spit a written. I found so many old freestyles of me and my friends from back in the day, on these old VHS tapes and I finally got a VHS player so I could watch them from 2001. Our fallback line was always “in the cypher it’s never written!”, (Gant & J57 laugh) that’s like one of our big callbacks. We’re like dissing people we know were spitting writtens (El Gant in background laughs, saying “yeah, like how dare you!”) like that’s how taboo it was. Like it was so fucked up to do that back in the day. And now it’s like the norm.
CS: You’re so right and it’s awful writtens are the norm now! Smh. So, a question I like to ask every artist I interview is this: what advice do you have for new artists starting their careers right now?
El Gant: If you’re not prepared to be determined, and you’re not prepared to take losses, then don’t even start (laughs). Because there is so much disappointment, but the payoffs are huge; but if you’re one of those people that gets easily discouraged, then this business. Is. Not. For you. I’d also say do it for the love first. When I did it when I was more passionate about it as opposed to thinking I had to “blow up” or be part of a business, that’s when the music got better. So if you rush it, shit’s gonna suck, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Be determined.
J57: I couldn’t say it better, man. I hate being the guy in the interview that says that, but I can’t say it better. I really hope somebody that wants to do this shit hears those words and really understands it. Because what he said is real. And we can attest to that (laughs). You gotta eat a lot of shit before you get anything good in this game.
El Gant: I’ve had more success later on in my life than I did then when signed to a major label early on. Now I’m not where I wanna be yet, but I get to hang out with my heroes every day. I get to make music with such a dope team of people that I look up to and respect, like the sky’s still the limit for me; because I never took no for an answer and I’m still not taking no for an answer. We’re all forging on.
J57: Gant was like you know what, it’s gonna be an uphill battle but I’m gonna do it. And now look at him. Now you’re in a emcee duo, a trio really, but an emcee duo with Ras Kass, and everyone is like you guys are dope together. You gotta really take that into consideration, because that’s a tough spot to be in. That’s very easy for everyone across the board to be like I’ve been listening to Rassy for twenty-something years, whoever the other guy is he’s whatever, but Ras kills it.
But everyone across the board, there hasn’t been one person saying that even anonymously. Across the board they’re like “holy shit, these guys can fucking rap, and these beats are hitting me in the face.” And we’re like okay, we did our job. We never gave up on our vision.