Born and raised in the Tribeca section of Manhattan, Jesse Abraham has developed quite a reputation in the city’s underground hip hop scene –partially because he’s rocked a lot of live stages across town and much like his counterpart Homeboy Sandman, Abraham is one of the more intelligent and inventive emcees around. Certainly, Abraham’s nomination and eventual winning of the 2011 Underground Music Awards Best Lyricist Award should confirm that fact.
January 29th will mark the release of Abraham’s latest and perhaps most inventive and honest album to date, I Am Water. 100% – yes, that’s right 100% – of the album’s proceeds will be donated to Charity Water, a charitable organization dedicated to bringing clean, potable water, one of the most important resources known to man, to those who most desperately need it.
In this Q&A, Abraham discusses the new album, how he got involved with Charity Water, his beliefs on championing social causes and a lot more. After my conversation with Jesse Abraham, I found him to be sincere, intelligent and just an all-around admirable guy. I think from reading this one you’ll say the same.
WRH: How did you get into music?
JA: New York City was like a parent to me, and I immediately absorbed the city’s culture. As a kid growing up in lower Manhattan in the early 80’s, hip-hop was all around me. Breakdancers and graf artists were ubiquitous, and my initial understanding of music was birthed within this atmosphere. Rhyming appealed to me as a fan and as a participant at an early age, and as I grew the genre grew as well. My passion for it never dwindled, and my participation became enhanced once I gained access to outlets like open mics & eventually the web.
WRH: Who are your influences?
JA: Literally every person, occurrence and notion acts as an influence on me. My artistic influences are just as substantial as my everyday influences, and I really value every element with which I interact. Whether it be family, teachers, authors, composers, musicians, historical figures, pigeons or the flu, it all has an impact on me.
WRH: What are you listening to right now?
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
WRH: Like a lot of hip hop heads, you’ve been obsessed with hip hop since you were a kid growing up in Tribeca. I read in your bio that you were 9 when you recorded your first demo, and that you were known to recite KRS One and A Tribe Called Quest lyrics while roaming the halls of your Hebrew school. Have you found that as an artist your perception of the music has changed at all, once you see the business end of it?
JA My perception has changed a little I suppose, but less due to business and more so due to me understanding the nuances of creating a project. As a kid all I thought about were lyrics – I didn’t give two seconds of thought to production, engineering, mixing, marketing or promotion. Rap to me was exclusively about rhymes. Now as a listener I have my eye out for all elements while checking out a song or an artist. But I’m still wide-eyed and impressionable if presented with the right product.
WRH: At a rather young age you lost several close family members and you found refuge through art and being creative. Some of your poetry was published when you were 15. Are there any plans to get more of your poetry published at some point? What does art and being an artist mean to you personally?
JA: I believe that every human has the capacity to be an artist. We’re all artists, either in action, spirit or potential. To create is a godly act, and it is our natural inclination to make. Produce. Do. Personally being an artist just means being myself and staying true to my priorities & values. The more I accept all features of myself and my existence, whether they be positive or negative, painful or pleasant, the more fully I can appreciate life overall. And that’s what art is, in a way: an expression of a precise appreciation for life.
WRH: You have a new album dropping on the 29th, and the proceeds from the album will be donated to a charity that works on getting clean, potable water to those who most desperately need it. How did you get involved in the charity?
JA: I’ve given all my previous projects away for free, but when I started mapping this one out I immediately decided to request some form of compensation in exchange for the eventual product. But I like giving, particularly that which I create out of joy. So I figured I might as well use my music as a direct means of helping people. I had the album title down before I recorded any of the tracks, so looking for a charity related to water was not a difficult decision. My friend mentioned Charity Water, I did some research, met with them, and it was exactly what I was looking for. No nonsense, no middlemen, no mysteries – just people helping people gain access to the most basic object of necessity that we require.
WRH: As an artist, how important is it for you to champion a social cause and to get others to get out and do things?
JA: I’m a firm believe[r] in the notion of being first and doing second. My main interest isn’t to achieve peace, it’s to be peace. I’m not trying to make balance, I’m trying to be balance. I’m championing the notion of selfless thought & universal love – the actions that stem from these personal achievements will inevitably put society in the right direction. It’s just a matter of when. When will we as individuals love ourselves enough to equally love one another? This album is a manifestation of that idea.
WRH: How does I Am Water differ from your previous efforts?
JA: Every other tape I’ve put out I created while working on another project simultaneously. They all overlapped. I Am Water is the first project I’ve done that started off with a clean slate, and allowed me to focus on it as its own exclusive entity all the way through. It’s nearly a concept album, as certain themes, tones and perspectives remain consistent throughout the entire project. I approached this album almost like a film or a novel, whereas my previous projects were simply a collection of songs that had very little to do with one another. Plus, I loosened my filter on this album. Making songs is like breathing to me – sometimes you contract and sometimes you relax. I was pretty relaxed for the majority of this album process.
WRH: Early in your career, you were in two groups – BTU who once opened for Public Enemy at BB King’s and Preacherfunk while you were attending Emerson College, in Boston. And of course at this point, you’re a solo artist. How does the creative process differ when you’re in a group compared to being solo?
JA: All three of experiences were completely different from one another, so they’re pretty tough to compare. I was in BTU when I was 18, and we were just 3 friends havin fun, rocking shows on campus and buggin out. But I took the writing pretty seriously – I wanted to make people’s heads explode back then. Preacherfunk was a band, and we didn’t even have real songs. I was writing a ton, but we mostly improvised and jammed for hours at a time during our shows, with me spitting verses and freestyling throughout. But for the most part being a solo artist gives me more control over the songwriting and thematic elements, whereas with a group all I was concerned about was spitting a hot 16 and making a fun hook.
WRH: I remember that in the A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Q-Tip practically says at one point that being a solo artist after being in a group was liberating. Was it the same sort of thing for you?
JA: I wouldn’t say it was liberating, because I always felt free to be creative and have my voice heard. It certainly is empowering to be a solo artist though, because I can explore any whim and employ any concept.
WRH: In 2011, you won the Underground Music Awards’ Lyricist of the Year Award, and have been making a name for yourself for quite some time before that. What advice would you give to other independent artists and aspiring artists out there trying to make a name for themselves?
JA: Don’t drink milk. Do yoga. Stand out and be outstanding. Write rhymes as if your 7th grade crush was watching. Feel love.