Jeru The Damaja - Biography

East Coast hip-hop reacquired the limelight in the early to mid-‘90s with the emergence of a string of artists toting gritty, hardcore lyrics and grimy beats. One such artists is the fierce MC Jeru the Damaja, whose martial arts metaphors never pull back on their thumping impact. Throughout Jeru’s career, one of the defining characteristics of his delivery is his devotion to the art of rhyming. Never has the Brooklyn-born rapper ever shown a glimmer of interest in pop music and has often verbally condemned hip-hop artists whom he feels sacrifice their integrity for commercially lucrative music. Consequently, Jeru’s outspoken and specific defamation of noteworthy hip-hop artists may have alienated him, but this verbal fulmination has also established him as one of hip-hop’s most dedicated and uncompromising MCs.

Brooklyn, like many of New York’s boroughs, had become a hotbed for hip-hop in the late-‘80s. Lyrical competitions were held like clockwork on the street. This is where Kendrick Jeru Davis began to develop his flow. From the age of ten, he competed with other fledgling rappers at block parties. While in high school, Jeru linked up with a producer and DJ named Christopher Martin, who would later go on to become DJ Premiere — one of East Coast hip-hop’s most influential architects. Jeru began calling himself Jeru the Damaja, for his ability to figuratively damage the microphones he’d rhyme into. Meanwhile, DJ Premiere had established himself with his group Gang Starr, which was comprised of himself and the gravely-voiced MC Guru. Gang Starr gave Jeru the opportunity to showcase his combative flow on the track “I’m the Man” from their 1992 album Daily Operation (EMI). Jeru’s debut was a hard-hitting and brag-tinged tale.

DJ Premiere and Jeru the Damaja continued to collaborate, with Premiere producing Jeru’s debut album, The Sun Rises in the East (Polygram), released in 1994. Often considered Premiere and Jeru’s watershed project, the album’s dusty soul samples duel with Jeru’s zeal and became a pivotal cornerstone in the resurrection of East Coast hip-hop. The album ranked among other early-90’s triumphs such as Nas’s Illmatic (1994 Columbia) and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers] (1993 Loud). Tracks like “Statik” and “Jungle Music” balance typical bragging with didactic scolding of over-commercialized hip-hop. Jeru’s track “Da Bitches,” which scolds what Jeru describes are women lacking self-respect and class, attracted criticism for what was perceived as misogyny. One such critic was rapper Pras from a fellow progressive hip-hop group called The Fugees. Pras took aim at Jeru’s liberal use of the world “bitches” and at his self-aggrandizement as a profit in the song “You Can’t Stop the Prophet.” Pras attacks both of these issues in the song “Zealots” from The Fugees’ 1995 album The Score (Columbia). Jeru lightly responded to Pras’s criticisms but there was no full-blown dispute between the two camps. The cover of The Sun Rises in the East also drew controversy, depicting the World Trade Center burning — a symbolically appropriate image for Jeru’s tendency to attack the establishment.

DJ Premiere and Jeru again joined forces in 1996 for Jeru’s second album, Wrath of the Math (Polygram). Jeru continues his harsh criticisms of the materialism and blatant debauchery of commercial hip-hop, just as he had on his acclaimed debut. Jeru, not afraid to name names, rips into Puff Daddy and Foxy Brown on the track “One Day,” a song that hypothetically explores the consequences of what would happen if the world acted out the excessive fantasies portrayed in the music of the two subjects criticized. Jeru also takes aim at the ubiquitous West Coast hip-hop label Death Row Records for their glorification of violence. A zealot of the preservation of his beloved genre, Jeru boldly stated several times that his hope with Wrath of the Math was to save hip-hop. Jeru remains remarkably staunch on this issue throughout the album with songs like “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” which urges his fellow rappers to abandon their marketable gimmicks for the sake of hip-hop’s integrity. Production-wise, Premiere’s mastery shines through once again. However, despite a fairly positive reception, Jeru the Damaja’s second album is widely considered to have fallen short of living up to the hype of his debut album. It’s been stated that Jeru and his longtime collaborator DJ Premiere were not on good terms after the release of Wrath of the Math and the pair put an end to their widely-lauded collaborations. Wrath of the Math would also be Jeru’s last album on a major label and each of his subsequent albums would be released through independent record labels. Jeru’s leap from major labels to smaller labels only gave cred to his criticism of corporate-controlled music.

Jeru’s indie career began in 1999 after a three-year hiatus with the release of his third album, Heroz4Hire (Knowsavage). The album is produced entirely by Jeru and is a further effort in championing the sovereignty of hip-hop. Heroz4Hire also features Jeru’s protégée Miz Marvel on several tracks, whose biting feminist rhymes give Jeru’s progressive ideologies a female spin. While Heroz4Hire was his first album that did not yield any chart topping singles, it is still held in fairly high regard. However, many fans and critics felt that the absence of DJ Premiere’s studio wizardry left a gapping hole. Although Jeru had insisted that he and DJ Premier parted ways due to artistic differences, the song “99.9%” is said to be a verbal attack on his former friend and producer.  

In 2001, Jeru collaborated with London-based electronic group Groove Armada on the song “Suntoucher” from their acclaimed album Goodbye Country [Hello Nightclub] (Zomba). Somewhat eerily, considering the album’s title as well as the cover of Jeru’s The Sun Rises in the East, Groove Armada’s album was released on September 11th, 2001, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2003, Jeru returned with Divine Design (Ashenafi Records). Though Divine Design was significantly ignored both critically and commercially, loyal fans still embraced his fourth release, which is his first album without any guest appearances.

Jeru continued his campaign of disdain for the commercialization of hip-hop with his fifth album, Still Rising (Ashenafi Records), released in 2007. The cover features Jeru raising his fist while suited individuals look on disapprovingly. The image is a direct tribute to Tommie Smith and John Carlos who raised their fists in a nod to Black Power at the 1968 Olympics. Still Rising was not a commercial success, but it received primarily good reviews and is a further expression of Jeru’s pleas for hip-hop to reclaim its integrity. The album proves that, despite sacrificing commercial gain, Jeru continues to dedicate his music towards causes that he values.

Jeru the Damaja is hardcore, in every sense of the word. Never allowing the limelight to tempt him, he has always placed his values before everything else. Tearing into soulful beats with reckless abandon, Jeru the Damaja’s verbal attacks stand as some the most ferocious and progressive in the short history of hip-hop.  

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