Interview: Jelani Lateef

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Jelani Lateef is unlike most rappers. Instead of throwing dollar bills and spitting about bitches, he avoids the overblown clichés in today’s hit-orientated hip hop market. What you hear is his actual voice.

This may sound general but it’s rare. His latest album Cold Days and Dark Nights (stream below), features crisp tracks on aggressive beats that fuss about the devil trying to steal your soul, the misguided strive for fame and reading the signs (“even when you didn’t”).

His music company Manhood Entertainment is about guys handling responsibility (imagine that!). Lateef would know. In 2010, the mother of his daughter died of cancer, leaving him a single parent. That experience leads to some deep-cutting lyrics draped with an old school vibe, which has shaped the maturity of his lyrics over the years. We chatted about storytelling in hip hop and the grind.

Local Suicide: Book of Life is the most authentic song in terms of storytelling. What events in your life created that track?

Jelani Lateef:Book of Life” was written during a time of reflection and frustration. I was at a point in my life where I was frustrated with the music business. At the same time I was going through a bad relationship. The combination lead to that song.

Storytelling in hip hop has evolved, or disintegrated, into something quite different than what was happening 20 years ago. What’s your take on it?

Rap music is primarily about making hit singles now. Unfortunately, storytelling isn’t a part of that formula. I’ve always been a fan of storytelling because I see it as another level of creativity. To create a song that a person can close their eyes and follow along with, and feel like they’re going through the experience is pretty incredible. Rappers like Slick Rick, Kool G Rap, Scarface, Nas, and Eminem inspire me in that way.

In my experience, I find it frustrating that people are saying that if you don’t jump on the new school trap train, you get left behind. Is it important to play to the market, stay true to who you are, or both?

That depends on your goal. If it’s to try to cash in quick, then jumping on whatever is the “hot” sound is likely the way to go. If it’s to build a career with longevity then I believe staying true to who you are is the best way to go. When you’re being true to yourself there’s a certain passion that will come out in your music, and people will connect with it in a deeper way than if you latch on to what everybody else is doing.

If you really look at the rappers who have had longevity, there’s a lot of authenticity to what they’ve done. You identify with them and their story. Jay Z, Nas, T.I., Lil Wayne, Kanye, just to name a few, all brought something different to the table musically, and it typically connected back to who they were and where they were in real life. Meanwhile you’ve had a lot of one hit wonders who came and went because they sounded to much like somebody else. Hopefully they cashed in during their five minutes of fame.

I’ve chosen to stay true to who I am, and now I’m trying to connect to the audience that relates to my story, or at least likes the sound of something different than what’s in the main stream.

What should young rappers entering the game today keep in mind – both male and female rappers?

The first thing is “looks can be deceiving.” A lot of young rappers hear these songs and see these videos with cars and jewelry and money being thrown around and think if they become a rapper that’s what’s waiting for them.That’s far from the truth. Most of these rappers aren’t as rich as they try to lead you to believe, not “legally” anyway. LOL.

Secondly, the music biz is a grind. Unless you’re lucky enough to know some heavy hitters, it takes time to build the kind of buzz that can lead to financial success. In the beginning, you’re not going to see much of anything. In a case like mine, where you have your own company, you’re going to spend a LOT more than you’re going to receive early on. Bottom line is, like anything else in life, you’re only going to get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a rapper?

I became influenced by hip-hop culture at a very young age, but I didn’t decide to become a rapper until after high school.

Which rapper do you look up to the most and why?

Rakim has always been a huge influence on me as a rapper. I’ve always loved his dedication to the craft of lyricism. He was hardcore but positive and conscious at the same time. If you think about it, he’s used little to no profanity throughout his whole catalog. I admire that.

How do you keep your flow in times of stress?

I try to channel the stress into the music. There’s no better form of therapy or stress relief for me than making music, except maybe the gym. I said in Book of Life “I can’t complain cause the pain made the best songs.”

What is your definition of manhood?

My definition of manhood is strength, courage and sense of responsibility. I believe when men are representing these values in their family and community, positive things happen.

What do you have upcoming this year?

I dropped my most recent album “Cold Days and Dark Nights” back at the end of April. I’m working on a few collaborations with other producers and DJs, so I’ve been writing and recording like crazy the last few months. I’m doing spot performances this summer, but this fall I’ll be hitting stages pretty heavy​​. My goal is to start performing with a live band. We’ll see how that goes.

Check out Jelani Lateef on Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp and iTunes, www.jelanilateef.com.

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