Depending on your level of hip-hop immersion, J-Live is either the best MC you’ve never heard of or the most underrated rapper on the planet. The 39-year-old native New Yorker, born Jean-Jacques Cadet, has collaborated with legendary golden era producers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, and DJ Spinna. His 1995 single, “Braggin’ Writes,” marks one of the fiercest debuts in all of American music. “The Truth,” from 1999’s So … How’s Your Girl? Handsome Boy Modeling School compilation, qualifies as one of the most slept-on gems in the hip-hop canon. And even though it took nearly five years, four labels, and enough industry backstabbing to kill a lesser man, J-Live’s first full-length, The Best Part, was (and still is) a bona fide classic.
Surprisingly, everything that’s come since — seven more LPs, four EPs, countless singles and jaw-dropping guest appearances — has maintained J-Live’s high standard for intelligence, consciousness, and ferocity. Imagine if De La Soul’s social commentary was stripped of its goofiness, A Tribe Called Quest’s languor was intensified, and KRS-One’s staccato edges were rough-sanded — the result would be a good approximation of J-Live’s flow. For years, he’s been describing it as “true school” — not to sound condescending or cater to a specific audience, but to further hip-hop’s role as an educational, entertaining, and edifying art form.
But make no mistake: The world almost never got to hear from J-Live. While majoring in English at University at Albany SUNY, he got a rare write-up in The Source’s then-influential “Unsigned Hype” column, which led to a deal with independent label Raw Shack. On the strength of his first few transmissions — “Longevity,” “Braggin’ Writes,” “Can I Get It,” and “Hush the Crowd” — famous and soon-to-be-famous producers came to him to contribute jazzy, hard-hitting beats.
J-Live wrote and recorded The Best Part while finishing his degree, and had all intentions of releasing it in 1998 just before graduation, so he could build on the hype and tour it around the world. But after Raw Shack’s budget fell through, he moved to Payday Records, whose parent company, London Records, subsidized the imprint; after moving to London, its parent company, Polygram Records, was dissolved, London was bought by Universal Music Group, which was bought by Warner Entertainment, which resulted in J-Live getting lost in the system as the old-school label dynasties broke apart, thanks to Napster and the advent of online streaming.
So J-Live did what any sensible college graduate would do: Got a job teaching high school language arts in Brooklyn. However, press versions of The Best Part began circulating on hip-hop’s underground market, becoming one of the hottest bootlegs of 1999 and proving that the soft-spoken man with the scholarly glasses, the confident delivery, and the stunning ability to manipulate meter, rhyme patterns, flow, and breath control had a bright future in hip-hop. Listen to “Them’s That Not” — which volleys between a rapid-fire clip and a hazy, laid-back vibe — on YouTube and try to keep up.
Of course, by the time The Best Part saw its official release in 2001, rap music as a whole was splintering into a million pieces, making J-Live’s golden-era-New-York vibe feel anachronistic and backward-looking to mainstream audiences hungry for the next regional micro-trend. But that didn’t slow the prolific artist down: Over the next three years, he released two more excellent LPs, 2002’s All of the Above and 2005’s The Hear After, along with a 2003 two-EP set that paid tribute to his roots as a struggling rapper, Always Has Been and Always Will Be.
In 2008, he did what to many New York rappers would signal a career death knell. He moved to Atlanta to step outside his comfort zone and see how he handled a challenge to his hip-hop identity. But since then, he hasn’t stop producing: five more solid LPs, including two in 2015 alone, How Much Is Water? and His Own Self. That second record is so named because J-Live literally did everything himself: Wrote it, performed it, produced it, mixed it, arranged it, mastered it, and even marketed it.
And yet, unlike many hip-hop purists who claim to know the one true path toward creativity and authenticity, J-Live remains open to new sounds, new paths, and new ways of thinking. In a 2014 interview with Vice, he refrained from bragging on his adopted Atlanta home and spoke with humility and grace about the music as a unifying force. “Look at Killer Mike [and El-P of Run the Jewels],” he said. “Quintessential Atlanta hip-hop paired up with quintessential historically New York indie hip-hop. That’s a beautiful pairing. To me, that just typifies how you can strip away all the labels and, at the end of the day, hip-hop is hip-hop. And people are people … We all want a lot of the same things: to feel good to the music we listen to, whether it’s escapism or the state of the union.”