Jay Electronica’s Exhibit C: The End of “Genetically-Modified” Hip-Hop?

 The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.   “Up in them five-star tellies, saying two-mic rhymes/ Be them average MC’s of the times/ Unlike them/ We craft gems/” —De La Soul ft. MF Doom, “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” The Grind Date, 2004. Call him Jay Electronica or […]

 The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.


“Up in them

five-star tellies, saying two-mic rhymes/

Be them average

MC’s of the times/

Unlike them/

We craft gems/”

—De La Soul ft.

MF Doom, “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” The Grind

Date, 2004.

Call him Jay Electronica or “Jay

Elec-Hannukah” or “Jay Elec- Yarmulke.” By mid last month, though, most came to

know him as the man who could turn on its head the dynamics of commercial,

for-profit radio, and forever change the way fans listened to Hip-Hop. With one

song: “Exhibit C.”

The hard-hitting, 5-minute cut, recorded

in July ‘09, set ablaze the internet, surrendering bloggers and fans alike at

the mercy of one of Hip-Hop’s most prolific wordsmiths. Upon hearing it, many popular

bloggers were convinced no one else could do the instrumental—which was

released via iTunes—justice. Better left untouched. They complained the

impeccable cadence of Jay Electronica’s 3 verses, rendered hookless, was

matchless and peerless, and any MC or rapper who attempted a remix or freestyle

would be playing a dangerous game with their careers. Of course Hip-Hop artists

are hard-headed by nature, so a few still felt the need to take the beat and do

something with it—in spite of, and perhaps because of, the bloggers’ warnings.

Artists like Jasiri X, Hasan Salaam, and

Joell Ortiz were among first responders; some with considerable success, others

far from the cut-off grade. But none attained the level of perfection Jay

Electronica maintained from start to finish as he transcended rhythms and

realms in what is sure to become his signature song.

Jasiri X rightly described

it as “bar after bar of consciousness, something that is sorely missing in

today’s rap landscape.” Indeed. More than that, it ran laps across fields of

the autobiographical (“When I was

sleeping on the train/ Sleeping on Meserole Ave out in the rain/ Without even a

single slice of pizza to my name/ Too proud to beg for change, mastering the

pain/”), the philosophical (“Fighting,

shootin’ dice, smoking weed on the corner/ Tryna find the meaning of life in a

Corona/ Till the Five Percenters rolled up on a ni**a and informed him/ ‘You

either build or destroy, where you come from?’/”), the historical (“That Reverend Run rockin’ Addidas out on

Hollis Ave/ That F.O.I., Marcus Garvey, Nikki Tesla/”), the spiritual (“Question 14, Muslim lesson 2: Dip diver,

civilize a 85er/ I make the devil hit his knees and say the ‘Our Father’/”),

and the phenomenological (“I’m bringing

ancient mathematics back to modern man/ My momma told me, ‘never throw a stone

and hide your hand’/”). It also brought much to bear on the geographical (“Shout out to Baltimore, Baton Rouge, my

crew in Richmond/ While y’all debated who the truth was like Jews and

Christians/ I was on Cecil B, Broad Street, Master, North Philly, South Philly,

23rd, Tasker/ 6 Mile, 7 Mile, Hartwell, Gratiot/”) and the anthropological

(“Where ni**as really would pack a U-Haul

truck up/ Put the high beams on/ Drive up on the curb at a barbecue and hop up

out the back like, ‘What’s up’/ Kill a ni**a, rob a ni**a, take a ni**a, buss


Put it simply, more than a song, “Exhibit

C” is a monograph.

In recent times, I can think only of one

other such project it stands in the shadow of—Canibus’ “Poet Laureate II,” off

his 2003 album, Rip the Jacker. In

terms of delivery, passion, and vocal stamina, both Jay Electronica and Canibus

square of as equals. “Poet,” it seems, is simply a longer and more expansive

version of “Exhibit.” But there’s another noticeable difference between the two

songs. When Rip the Jacker was

released, reviewers favored it Canibus’ best work to date. “Poet” received even

greater acclaim. To date, I consider it the best literary work in the Hip-Hop

canon. But no mainstream or commercial DJ even thought once about playing it on

radio, let alone promoting it for its ingenuity. It was assumed the listening

public could never follow a 7-minute, hookless song without being bored or

intellectually fatigued. It still remains the best kept secret amongst

underground Hip-Hop fans; but millions, who could have been exposed to what

lyrical virtuosity really sounds

like, were denied the opportunity.

6 years later, however, much has

changed. Jay Electronica raps on Exhibit C:

“That’s why when

you talk that tough talk I never feel ya’/

You sound real

good and you play the part well/

But the energy

you giving off is so unfamiliar/

I don’t feel ya’/”

And Just Blaze provides amplifying

echo—“We need something realer!”

The last 6 years have been brutal for

fans raised on commercial radio. Like drones, program directors at these

stations only relied on a few 5-10 (similar) songs, circulated ad nauseam,

almost to the point of nausea. And, of course, consequently, ratings took a

sharp hit. Many listeners stopped listening in and started turning more to

satellite radio and internet radio, where greater creativity and complexity was

welcomed and entertained.  

For this reason, DJ Enuff, of Hot 97,

announcing his decision to crown “Exhibit C” the “Heavy Hitter pick of the week,”

didn’t come off erratic or shocking or even mind-blowing to some of us. Before

making up his mind, Enuff expressed, openly, on

his blog, some of the disappointment he felt in seeing a song “so good” not

being appreciated on mainstream radio—particularly on the station at which he

works. “I think it’s lyrical and the production is solid,” he wrote. “Reminds

me of some early Nas stuff.” And then a series of crucial questions: “Why is it

not spinning on the radio? At least during my time slot? Is it because there’s

no dance tied to it? Is it because it’s not yet on BET’s Top Ten Countdown?

Does it have to be a Club Banger?” In a stunning condemnation of the

sensibility with which stations like his have operated for the last few years,

he writes: “The radio isn’t a club.” Another question: “So why not Good solid

Hip Hop?” Then, Enuff betrays the powerlessness of many commercial radio

personalities—a theme I’ve explored countless times in months past: “I have it

on my website. I battle myself all the time when it comes to the radio. The job

I love so much. I could make it the Heavy Hitter Pick of the week with no problem.”

Most of us don’t have the moral luxury a DJ of his caliber can

spin around seamlessly. If we feel something is right, and we happen to be

placed in a position to make right happen, only God and Lucifer should be

capable of stopping us from doing it. Not investors. Not program directors. Not

Attorneys. Not P.R. personnel. Not label executives. Not nobody. No mortal

should posses such power over our souls as to make us complicit in the

perpetuation of evil on earth. Thus, if a truly conscionable DJ hears a song

like “Exhibit C,” and seeks to find a flaw preventing it from mainstream

circulation, and is unable to find one, there should be no inner-battle that

puts at odd the flesh from the spirit.  

To Enuff’s credit, he ended up making

good on his promise. But, then, it evokes the decade-old Chris Rock routine of

Black folks (or “ni**as” as he put it) demanding credit for jobs already

expected of them—fathering babies, providing for families, not shooting up

movie theater screens, etc. I’m not sure one who depends on the patronage of

everyday Hip-Hop fans to remain successful should be commended for simply

satisfying their requests. And, in a hubris-laden post, “Jay

Electronica Wins the heart of a Super Star DJ,” Enuff validated my qualms en masse. But that’s what happens when a

dominant demographic has been so dumbed-down, and stripped of all sense of

agency and autonomy, to the point of dependence on those who serve them.

“Exhibit C,” by the way, made #10 on iTunes a couple of weeks back.

Now, many mainstream DJs across the

country are following suit, giving the song the second or first chance it never

had. Even Diddy, who is hardly the back-pack aficionado (though I should add a

personal friend of Jay Electronica), provided full support for the record last

week, writing, “It deserves to be play[ed] on the radio!”

I’m suggesting here that more than cult

worship of personality, we come to terms with what this moment represents—in

short, why “Exhibit C” counts. In fact, it’s not even about Jay Electronica

anymore—it’s about a sea-change, a dynamic realignment, a revolution of values. It bespeaks the power of the people when

activated. When popular DJs like Enuff weighed, publicly, their internal

battles, an overwhelming outpouring of support for “Exhibit C” showered down. Point

made: The era of genetically-modified Hip-Hop is over. The end—near.

Fans have their minds made up.

The tasteless, unnatural, artificially-flavored

sound that dominated mainstream Hip-Hop for a full decade is being rejected by

fans and even artists worldwide. This is a crucial moment which must be seized

with seriousness.

A week ago, I predicted

a maturity amongst artists in the coming decade, and with the response to

Jay Electronica’s offering, all indicators suggest, as Talib Kweli might put

it, “the era of the bullsh** MC is over.” Meaning, artists are tightening their

belts and reducing distractions, in preparation for the great awakening about

to take place.

Fans also sense their responsibility—to

keep pressure on always, to never relent in challenging their artists into

maturing and excelling.

The ripple-effect on radio can’t be

overlooked. Stations are shutting down, DJs are feeling anxious of the future. And

this might be their last opportunity to represent the Hip-Hop they grew up

listening, but appear uninterested in introducing the young generation, to.

This might be their last opportunity to live up to the militant mottos branding

their stations—“Where Hip-Hop Lives,” “#1 destination for Hip-Hop,” etc.

Of all, however, the most critical

feature “Exhibit C” reveals might be a theme about which I never tire writing—the

end of major labels; or, least still, the reduced significance (if not entire

valuelessness) of major labels in making hardworking Hip-Hop artists successful.

Speaking December 22, 2009, on SIRIUS Satellite Radio’s “Toca Tuesdays,” hosted

by the legendary DJ Tony Touch, Jay Electronica, who to my knowledge is signed

to Erykah Badu’s Control Freaq Records, explained

the revelation his newfound success has brought him: “I had such an

experience trying to get into the industry, in terms of a getting a major deal,

where, now, [I’ve] had a chance to see the process, [and I‘ve found out] it’s

no longer necessary. … [In addition], a lot of times, majors—not to take shots

at nobody—don’t really seem to know what’s going on.” Not even Tolstoy’s tongue

could have uttered more poetic words to my ears.

It’s about time artists start gripping

hold of reality and understand what the future presents in terms of

independence. Can anyone confidently argue that if “Exhibit C” was dropped on

the desks of any—and I mean any (!)—marketing executive at any—and I mean any

(!)—of the big 4, they would do more than fling it back at the A & R and

curse him or her for wasting precious time on a niche-driven record with no “crossover appeal”?

Memorandum to artists in 2010: Always

trust your instincts. The bosses don’t always—and, in fact, most always

don’t—know right from wrong. Ralph Waldo Emerson was more poetic: “Those who

are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some

knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for

whatever is elegant. … [But their] knowledge of the fine arts is some study of

rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form which is

exercised for amusement or for show.”

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on TheDailyVoice.com and

other online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.