The hip-hop MC and producer discusses Eminem, image, and sex-change operations.

Jean Grae looks like someone. I can’t really place it. Is it an elementary school classmate, someone I see on the train everyday, or a kid from a former television family? Janet Jackson in the role of Wilona’s adopted daughter, Penny? No way, that’s not it at all.

She bears no resemblance to Miss Jackson post–Good Times, or any other mainstream pop diva for that matter. The underground hip-hop MC-producer and all-around cool lady is concerned more with expanding her grae matter and maintaining creative control out of respect for herself and her audience. It’s never really crossed her mind to expand her bra size or surgically control her waist measurement to get people to listen.

Jean Grae is not about image—so much so that her anti-image has become an image in itself. Major-label reps of course tried to get her to sex it up a bit. And then there was a rumor going around the offices of big-time indie label, Matador, that she was a man (supposedly, Grae was joking with the label’s owner that they needed to speed up the signing process because she had to pay for the “operation.”)

“Apparently, he took it to heart,” Grae laughs. “Which is stupid. So yeah, they never wanted me to get sexy [like some other labels]. They just thought I was a man. Which is that much better.”

Matador didn’t end up signing Grae. She put out her first full-length, Attack of the Attacking Things on micro-mini indie Third Earth Music. Frustration with not getting signed inspired some of the sharpest rhymes and tightest tracks on the record: “They still want chicks with tits and ass out / My respect is worth more than your advance cash out.” If the label heads heard these songs, she might’ve had more luck. Then again, probably not. She’s got a definite underground sound and attitude—a smooth funky flow over skittish beats and a mouth full of no-hold-back poetry: “And a big f*** you to bitch Chris Lombardi at Matador / And every A&R that turned me down / Props to kids who stayed loyal since “Baseball” dropped / And copped the underground / See, the barrel was facing me / Now I’ve turned the gun around / And it’s got unlimited ammunition / I dare you to question.”

Born to exiled South African jazz musicians, Grae grew up in New York and was a vocal major at the High School of Performing Arts. She also developed a love for writing and production and studied music business at New York University. After a semester, she dropped out of the classroom and hopped into the field. Since then, she’s emceed and produced with Natural Resource, produced singles for Pumpkinhead and The Bad Seed and worked with The Herbaliser. She’s provided countless cameos, including a track on Mumia 911, Apani B Fly’s Estragen, and Mr. Len’s Pity the Fool, which included the disturbing and brilliant “Taco Day,” a track that inspired more than a few “female Eminem” references. Now in her mid-20s, she’s released her first self-written and –produced full-length and has plenty more in the works.

There aren’t too many women doing what you’re doing right now, at least independently. Is it a lonely place to be, or do you think it’s changing?
I definitely think that on the underground scene, there are a lot of females, such as the Anomalies and Apani, who are really trying to push for a change in the music industry. But as far as mainstream goes, it’s hard to break through, not because of the audience is ready for, but pretty much what the label is willing to invest their money into. They’re still into an image and a “sex sells” sort of thing, so it’s a little more difficult. I’m just thankful that I’ve been getting the love from the media that I have been, for doing a record with no budget on a label that nobody’s heard of and being able to compete with people who have million-dollar budgets. And I don’t necessarily even think of it as a female issue, but just almost a change in music coming around. People are starting to be like, OK, there’s got to be something else out there other than what the media has been force-feeding them. I think the doors are definitely opening, especially to underground artists right now.

You’ve said before that you don’t like being called out as a female MC or producer—even to the point that you’ve said you’re a woman second.
It’s not that I’m a woman second. It’s very obvious in the way that I approach the music. I’d like to be promoted as an artist first more than anything. Definitely, I wouldn’t say I’m more of a feminist. I would say I’m more for people being themselves, being individuals, and pushing their creativity first. I think that’s important. I think that a lot of young female artists coming up, especially in the mainstream, it’s just the same thing over and over again—a pretty face, but really, what’s behind it? I think if we’re going to push ourselves as female artists, then we have to do it in the right way.

You’ve put out songs before under names that are non-gender-specific (What? What?, Run Run Shaw). And Jean is still kind of ambiguous because spelled differently, Gene, it’s a male name. But there are female associations with it, specifically, the X-Men character, Jean Grey. Do you think you’ve reached a point where your skill has been established and you don’t need those names anymore to get people to listen without immediately “genderizing” you? 
You know, I never even really thought of it like that. I didn’t know I was. When I did What? What?, I didn’t even think of it. That’s very interesting. It was kind of just where I was at the moment. And Jean Grae, it’s the X-Men character, so I don’t know. That’s a very interesting question. I’ve never been asked that before. Good work.

Even Grae has somewhat ambiguous connotations. As a color, it’s not black or white. It’s kind of blurred.
I didn’t want to have a name that was Miss something and obviously, I’m not little, so there’s no Lil’ Grae. Actually, the first name I had was a DJ name I used, Cleopatra Jones. I never really thought of it as if I were being ambiguous with the name. That’s very interesting. I’m going to think about that later on today.

How are you liking the independent route so far? Are you doing it again with the next record?
I’m guessing it’s going to be independent, because no major has stepped up to the table as of yet. It would be nice to have something that had a little more financial backing, but for right now, having the creative control is beautiful. I can do what I want. And I know that there’s a definite fan base who’s gonna go pick it up. If we don’t have the money for video budgets and everything like that, that’s fine. The first album I don’t think was necessarily radio-friendly, but then again what’s radio-friendly is changing from day to day now. So yeah, the next release is probably going to be pretty much as independent. I’m actually working on it right now. I’m trying to get it out by December, January.

Is that the one called Boo This Woman?
That’s actually the third one. The second one, I’ve decided to work with a production company called Magic Fingers. I wanted to step away from doing producing and everything and focus on the writing. It’s kind of like the one-and-a-half record. It’s just going through a group of producers that are incredible, and they’ve all got a different sound. This one is Involuntary Inebriation.

How did you get into the space to write and record “God’s Gift” (a song on Attack told through the perspective of a male playa)?
I think “God’s Gift” took the least time to write. Masta Ace had given me a tape with some beats on it and I went through them and picked three of them and I kept listening to that one. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I usually don’t have an idea until I start writing, and as soon as I started writing, it came out from that perspective and it was so easy to write that way. I think it’s a lot easier for me to jump out of my own skin and put myself in another character and write from that perspective.

Last year, Tori Amos put out a record of covers written by men. There’s a pretty chilling one of the Eminem song where he raps about killing his wife. Have you heard it?
I heard about it, but I’ve never heard it.

What do you think of being called a female Eminem?
I’ve heard that before. I’m flattered. At least it’s not the female MC Hammer. It’s cool. ’Cause who wants to be that? But I think the only similarity possibly is that a lot of lyricists aren’t really focused on doing concepts and telling stories anymore. I think he would be the No. 1 person to point out as, “all right, he’s doing conceptual things and she’s doing conceptual things.” Sometimes I do tend to get a little violent with the concepts. But it’s not necessarily me. It’s just telling a story. I’m an Eminem fan, so it’s flattering.

Like on “Taco Day” (where Grae tells the story of a prom queen on a murder spree)?
Yes. That was the big female-Eminem song. But I wasn’t trying to copy him or do it in any way. It was just the way it came out. That song is interesting because I wasn’t even jumping out of my perspective (as a woman), but I was rhyming out of voice and everything and trying to put myself as far into the character as I could.

But unlike Eminem, your overall message is pretty positive. Who are you trying to speak to?
There are certain songs on the album that are definitely directed to certain groups. I think “Block Party” is toward a young audience and not necessarily black, for lack of a better word, people of color. Not even just in America, just worldwide. We’re at a point where things have gotten extremely stagnant and everybody seems to be settling for what they’ve got and I think we’re missing out on a lot of opportunity. I know that my audience is a mainly white audience. And I definitely appreciate the fans and everything, not to take anything away from that. But I think it’s important that if I have an ability to have a captive audience of people who listen, why not say something positive to these kids? Nobody else is. And if they are, it’s kind of getting lost in the other messages that are put out there. It would be nice if I could widen my audience to include them because they kind of don’t know I exist. It’s not necessarily their fault. But I think a lot of stuff on this album is directed to a younger black urban community.

So what’s next? The one-and-a-half album, Boo This Woman. Anything else? I heard something about you working with Mr. Len again on a project called Brickface and Stucco.
Oh yeah, Brickface and Stucco, myself and Mr. Len. We should probably try and start working on that. Thank you for reminding me. Myself and MURS from Living Legends are also trying to work out doing an album, but it’s difficult because we’re on different coasts. I think we’re really going to try to find a time that we’re both traveling. And I guess whenever we can get it done, we’ll get it done. The next single should be coming out … and then a little white label in between. And hopefully an EP before the album.

I know. I’m crazy to be doing too many things. But I’m not running out of music anytime soon, so why not?