Jeru the Damaja: “It Feels Like the Nineties Again for Me”

Hip-hop survivor Jeru the Damaja arrives at Townlands Carnival this weekend with nearly thirty years of tunes at his disposal. Speaking with Mike McGrath-Bryan, he touches on hip-hop’s golden age, his own experiences, and the challenges that await him in the future.

The sign of a relevant artist is one that refuses to rest on their laurels, always looking forward with the knowledge that you’re only as good as your last idea, especially in an increasingly hectic music industry. Emerging in the early nineties in collaboration with Gang Starr cutman DJ Premier, and running with the legendary duo’s Foundation group at various intervals over the years, New York rapper Jeru the Damaja has his sights set on his future. After a legendary solo career, including 1994 magnum opus The Sun Rises in the East, he’s headed in a new direction with collab funk/hip-hop project The Funky Pandas, alongside longtime consort Psycho Les. In good form and clearly optimistic about it all, Jeru gets into the spontaneity behind the project. “We toured a lot… We’re friends, and have been friends for such a long time. We were in a bar in Berlin, having a few drinks, smoking a little chronic, making a few jokes about getting a group together. Next day we were in studio, we did, like, five songs, and that’s how it began.”

The duo’s debut long-player drops early next year – the result of a relaxed and collaborative creative process, liberated from the constraints of Jeru’s own legacy and either man’s previous stylistic leanings. He’s quick to inform us of what we can expect. “I mean, if you’re expecting Jeru the Damaja, you’re gonna be disappointed. It’s all-new. It’s The Funky Pandas, Black Panda (Jeru) and Dr. Love Panda (Les). But it’s very good quality, very creative, real hip-hop. Just feelgood music. It’s gonna be fresh, it’s gonna be funky. I think it’s gonna be the reinvention of what people our age and our generation, fans of that golden era, early nineties are gonna like, but also new people are gonna like it.”

This being festival season, attendant crowds, including those at Townlands Carnival this weekend, will want to be hearing his classics. It’s a balancing act between entertaining longtime fans and briefing new recruits on his work, and one that he sets out to accomplish, considering his urgency to continue creating. “I’m gonna do all my classics. I love doing the old stuff, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a long career and that’s the reason I’m able to do The Funky Pandas, because of the things I’ve done with Premier, and R.I.P., Guru, and I’m thankful for that.”

Last year also saw Jeru, alongside former stablemates Big Shug and Afu Ra reassume The Gang Starr Foundation mantle, sans live involvement from Premier, to go on tour around the continent. How was it to see audiences around Europe receive that work and the legacy of Gang Starr live? “I mean, it’s great. The fact that something you did twenty years ago, almost thirty years ago now, and still to this day, people love and respect it… it shows that it’s good music, it’s to the point, it stands the test of time. I couldn’t imagine anything else, the way music is today, I didn’t think it’d be like this, so… generational, where ‘we don’t listen to this’, or ‘we only listen to this’. When we grew up, we listened to everything. I grew up listening to my mother’s music, y’know?”

That period of his career is framed within the context of hip-hop’s golden age: from running with innovators like Gang Starr, to testy interactions with performers that became staples of hip-hop mythology, like Biggie Smalls and the Fugees. A lot surely goes through his mind now, when he looks back on that period of his career, in the early 1990s. “It was a great time. You gotta realise that (hip-hop) was super, super-new back then, y’know what I mean? Hip-hop was barely twenty years old, so it was fresh. But for me, as a youth, I was twenty, twenty-one years old, it was the best part of my life at that time, because I was innocent, I was naive. Y’know, I thought the world was the way that it wasn’t. The joy and the wonderment you have when you look at it is there because you’re not jaded yet. I try to keep that point of view nowadays, everything fresh, like a child.”

Speaking to him, you get the sense that Jeru’s wide-eyed wonder is the result of a lot of thought on his own part, especially when he touches back on the matter of what is arguably hip-hop’s first generation gap, emerging in recent years as phenomena like so-called “mumble rap” and its own DIY-inspired sentiment have taken the fore in the genre’s mainstream. When questioned on who gives him that same feeling, he stops to consider it carefully. “I heard someone who’s really good, but they’re older, their record’s out now, a guy called Ransom. I’m all about the lyrical. I like beats, but I like clever wordplay. I like to consider myself a wordsmith, and I haven’t found anyone like that (lately). I listen to some stuff, but I’m on the road so much, it’s hard. I’m in a bubble.”

Jeru’s last solo E.P., The Hammer, came out in 2014. After a period of semi-retirement following his critically acclaimed first pair of LPs, Jeru’s self-released material has taken a back seat, with sporadic extended-plays and albums finding their way to shelves intermittently. Surely an itch is there, then, to be scratched for fresh kill, amid all the current activity? “For sure. I have another record done, pretty much. I’m just prioritising now with the Pandas, ‘cause it’s fun. It’s fun. I’ve been doing Jeru my whole life. It’s fun to deal with another MC and another producer, you guys get in the studio and come up with some crazy ideas. It’s that old feeling: it feels like the nineties again for me. I know what my past is, I know what my successes are, what some people might consider failures and what I might consider a failure. But you only move forward. You only go back if you kinda forgot something and have to go get it (laughs).”

Jeru the Damaja is playing Townlands Carnival this weekend, something of a coup for a fest in its relative infancy, and after twenty-five years of coming here while on tour, is no less enthusiastic about turning up and showing the Rusheen Farm crowd what he’s about. “Oh, man, Ireland is always good! I’m just gonna rock the house, man, I’ve been coming back here since 1992, Gang Starr. It’s always been a good time, it’s never disappointed. I can never say I’ve come to Ireland and been disappointed. I’ma party hard, and the show is always super-good, super-energetic, and fantastic.”

Jeru the Damaja headlines Townlands Carnival this weekend at Rusheen Farm in Macroom, performing on the Main Stage at 6.30pm on Saturday. Last few tickets are left over at townlandscarnival.com.

Richie Ramone: Animal Boy Comes to Cork

He’s travelled the world as part of arguably the foremost exponents of punk rock’s velocity and fury, a vital component to its longevity and a cornerstone of the band during some of its most turbulent times. Richard Reinhardt, today a percussionist and composer, his reprised the moniker of Richie Ramone for a new body of solo work, including new album Cellophane and a long-running tour that winds through Cork on Wednesday the 14th, at Cyprus Avenue.

Richie first joined the Ramones under the name of Richie Beau in ’83, following the departure of Tommy Ramone. Hopping behind the kit just before Subterranean Jungle was released, he took the Ramone surname shortly thereafter. An active session drummer in his own right, the gig came along at just the right time, according to Richie. “I was hanging out with Little Matt, Johnny’s guitar tech, and he told me that the Ramones were auditioning drummers. I told him to put in a good word for me, and he got me an audition. The next week, I got a call from Monte (Melnick), their tour manager, and the rest is history. From that moment on, my life changed.”

Richie spent four years with the band, penning songs and becoming the only drummer to sing lead vocals with the Ramones. An infamously volatile working arrangement, fans these days can only wonder at how the band managed to co-exist for as long as it did. Vocalist Joey, although legendary for his personable nature, would eventually be diagnosed with OCD, which presented numerous logistical challenges on the road. Guitarist Johnny was a strictly-regimented road general whose discipline informed the band’s attitude and dealings, while Dee Dee, on bass, would become a law unto himself while battling with what we now know as bipolar disorder. Yet, for all the discord that went on, when it came down to brass tacks, they all knew what to do. “I spent four years and ten months in the band. When it came time to do a record, we all brought our songs to the management office, and voted on which we would do. Joey took me under his wing right from the start, and made everything easy for me.”

Foremost in Richie’s contributions to the eighties Ramones canon was Somebody Put Somethin’ in My Drink, a mean, grimacing bubblegum tale of spiked drinks and ruined social plans. What brought the song about, and did Richie think it would stick with people the way it has done all these years later? “I told Dee Dee the story, about how when I was a kid and had no money, we used to steal drinks in the nightclub when people got up to dance. One night, I started feeling really weird, and soon realized one of the drinks had been spiked with LSD. He told me I had to write a song about it.”

Perhaps the sorest test of the band’s working relationship with Richie on-board was when he was tasked with remixing the entire Halfway to Sanity album by Joey, apparently much to Johnny’s chagrin. When questioned on the challenges the situation presented technically or creatively, Richie holds his cards close to his chest. “Joey called me in the middle of the night saying he wasn’t happy with the mixes, so I went and remixed half the record. It went quite smoothly and everyone was happy.”

Richie took his leave of the band in 1987, stating in the End of the Century documentary film that it was business differences that caused him to split from the Ramones. It begs the question now of what Richie makes of the original members’ estates’ vast merchandising and intellectual-property empire surrounding the band’s infamous logo and early album artwork. “(New York venue) CBGBs and the Ramones are two of the most iconic logos in the world. I think it’s great that kids still want want to wear the legacy, although the band is no longer around.”

As of recent years, Richie has been involved in music again, composing in different genres and oeuvres, from classical (in Suite for Drums and Orchestra, a piece based vaguely on West Side Story, no less), to reprisals of his punk roots. He’s very straightforward when asked about his relationship with music today. “Nothing has changed, just the music business itself is different.”

While touring again under the Ramone pseudonym, he’s also been returning to Dublin, working closely with local agents on Irish touring. It’s a bit of a shift from his memories of mid-Troubles Ireland, when the band crossed the border to the North, a commitment few other major touring acts would undertake. “Back in the eighties, we played Ireland all the time. We were one of the only bands who weren’t put off by the IRA. I remember that some of the hotels were behind barbed wire fences. The crowds were always great.”

With a year of touring and recording behind him and the band, Richie is focused on winding things down for a bit, ahead of next Spring’s live activity. “We toured extensively this year, and I want to take a month or two off, then we start touring in March again, in support of the new album, which is out now on DC-Jam Records.”

Richie Ramone plays Cyprus Avenue next Wednesday, the 14th, and tickets are on sale now, at cyprusavenue.ie and in the Old Oak. Support from The Grunts and Tequila Mockingbyrd.