By: Gus Navarro
I still remember the first time I heard Gas Mask by The Left. Apollo Brown’s beats hit hard as per usual and that’s what first drew me in. As I played the album over and over I couldn’t get enough of the lead MC, Journalist 103. To put it bluntly, the man has a way with words that few in hip-hop have today. His rhymes are laced with social, economic and political anecdotes, and are an example of why hip-hop is educative. The passion he has for music is evident in every track he’s done and is a main reason why we wanted to talk with him. Last week, I drove down to Detroit and met him at the Al-Aqabah Islamic Community Center right off Joseph Campau Street. Once I was there, we just sat down and talked hip-hop. There are many things that we touch on in this interview. We talk about his childhood, Islam, Eminem, Detroit, what hip-hop is and much more. I walked away from this interview realizing the power of hip-hop. For Journalist 103, hip-hop is something that is much more than a way to make money. For him, hip-hop is a way of life and the love he has for it shines through more than anything else. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has the same amount of passion for hip-hop as Journalist 103 and I am honored that he was willing to share his thoughts with me.
This interview was done on October, 4th 2013…
Bonus Cut (BC): What does hip-hop mean to you?
Journalist 103 (JN 103): A couple of things besides just incredibly great music. Hip-hop in itself is a culture, it’s not just music. It’s MCing, its breaking, its DJ-ing, it’s graffiti art. It’s a multitude of those things that are a collective which makes hip-hop in total, that’s what hip-hop means to me.
BC: How has your experience with hip-hop been in Detroit and what is Detroit hip-hop? Is there a difference between something like New York hip-hop, what does that look like?
JN 103: Well honestly, there’s not really a difference because when it all boils down to it, it boils down to skill level, who makes dope beats, who writes dope songs, who’s a dope DJ. We do the same thing here. I think here in Detroit it doesn’t get publicized as much due to the – I don’t know, I can’t say due to anything – but it doesn’t get highlighted as much, at least from where people inside of Detroit can see. That’s about as far as I can go with that but I don’t really think that there is a significant difference. There might be a slight difference in sound variations, if you compare DJ Premier and J Dilla (rest in peace), you really can’t compare the two. Dilla wasn’t just a boom-bap kinda guy, he was more soulful. He sampled differently so his style was a lot different. But they’re both equally dope artists and are both considered to be legends in hip-hop music. I think the only difference is the locale and maybe a few different slang terminologies, but that’s about it.
BC: Maybe some of the differences are that Detroit has the influence of Motown?
JN 103: That may have a huge significance to it because with my experience from when I’ve toured overseas, when I’ve been in Europe, various places and Canada, they really cherish Detroit hip-hop. More than Detroiters itself. Only really die-hard people who are really about Detroit cherish Detroit hip-hop. That’s pretty much the experience that I see. Motown has some type of influence with it, but I don’t think its the main influence. I think it’s the just the city itself. Whatever is going on in the city, it builds character. You’re almost looked at as an Icon when you leave out of Detroit and you go other places. People are like, “Oh my God, you’re from Detroit?!” That’s how I see it.
BC: We sat down with Red Pill a couple months ago and he was talking about this drive to succeed. Yeah, there are opportunities overseas and elsewhere to perform but he was saying how important it was for him to have an impact here. If he’s not having an impact on where he’s from, at home, then the other stuff is kind of beside the point. What do you think about that?
JN 103: That’s personal because I don’t agree with that. Let’s take Eminem for example, those of us who were in the hip-hop scene knew about him. We bought his EP’s, we bought his records and different things like that because we valued him as an MC. However a lot of other people, mainstream people or whatever, always viewed him as a white boy trying to rap. Those of us who could rap knew better. It took for him to go outside of Detroit, be appreciated by someone else, and then blow. Then when he blew there, everyone from Detroit welcomed him. In my opinion, that’s pretty whack. Everyone outside of Detroit values Detroit, except for the Detroiters. The people who are from Detroit, they don’t value us until we blow somewhere else and then when it just so happens to spill over to Detroit, that’s when we get the love from our own city.
BC: So you remember Eminem from back then?
JN 103: Yeah well him, Proof and D12 are a little older than me. I was like the underling coming up around those years. As I was hearing about them I was in high school still. Sophomore, junior year or something like that. The stuff I was hearing was just amazing because I didn’t think Detroit hip-hop existed until I met my man Strike. He took me to St. Andrews and all these different open mic spots, we started rockin’ and that’s how we were able to build a name for ourselves.
BC: What was the city like back then?
JN 103: It ain’t too much different. I think the only thing that’s more different now is that we have more technology and it connects us faster so we don’t necessarily have to be in the concrete as much. Back then I wouldn’t say there was too much of a different vibe but it just wasn’t as technical back then.
BC: Do you remember the first show you went to?
JN 103: The first hip-hop show I went to in Detroit? The first show that I remember that I attended and didn’t perform was Em and he was performing at the Paladia. It was him, House Shoes, his old girlfriend J and they was burning ICP shirts on stage and Em was performing, “I Just Don’t Give a Fuck”. He started off, “I don’t hate those guys, really I don’t. I’m just saying all of this to say, I DON’T GIVE A FUCK!” Then the song kicks in and Shoes is trying to rip the shirt up and they’re burning it and all different sorts of things. It was wild. That was the first hip-hop show that I can actually remember seeing here in Detroit.
BC: How old were you?
JN 103: That was my senior year, I was about nineteen.
BC: At that point, had you already started writing rhymes, rapping and participating in hip-hop outside of just being a fan?
JN 103: I’ve been rappin’ since I was eleven. I started doing it professionally, going to shows and marketing myself, when I was eighteen. That’s how all that started.
BC: So when you were eleven how did you get into rapping and hip-hop?
JN 103: I always had a love for music. What ended up happening is that I bumped into this video by Nikki D. She was performing, I forget the song, but I remember silhouettes of Flavor Flav, Slick Rick, the beat was hard and I just saw this voluptuous woman with gold teeth in her mouth just spittin’ raw rhymes. I was like, “YO! That’s what I wanna do!” So then around that time the TV show, Living Color, was out was they used to play all the dope joints. I would see Lords of the Underground, Onyx and I was like, “Yo, I wanna do that!” So that’s pretty much how it all started.
BC: Has the process for how you write a rhyme or verse changed at all? What is that process for you?
JN 103: It hasn’t really changed. I developed it to where it’s a part of me now but I just base it off of the music and whatever I’m going through and whatever inspires me. Artists, poets, songwriters, we have to be inspired by certain things. We can do spur of the moment stuff, it may come out good and somebody may like it but overall, our best material comes out when we’re actually inspired by something. My biggest thing is that I’m real big on beats. It has to be dope. Dope to somebody else’s standards may be different but as far as I’m concerned, it’s gotta sound good. Far too often, MC’s get a beat and challenge it or they’ll get a beat and their verse is horrible and the beat overshadows them. Make yourself one with the track, you see what I’m sayin? Don’t try to overshadow the beat or let the beat overshadow you, be one with it. Marry it and marinate in it because your voice, your lyrics are the final instrument to this beat. Once you do that then you make it into a song that the producer couldn’t have made without you. Just be one with the track. Depending on the track, the mood I’m in, what I’m going through and society is where I find my inspiration.
BC: What is a dope beat to you, what does it sound like?
JN 103: I’m a traditionalist. I’m a DJ Premier and Pete Rock kind of guy but I’m not limited to just them. I’ve heard dope beats that I would never write to but it’s still dope nonetheless. For example, Bone Crusher. When that song “I Ain’t Never Scared” came out, I remember being at St. Andrews, sitting in the corner and they played the beat for about five minutes. Just the beat and I was like, “Oh my God! What is that?” He put the perfect lyrics to that joint and it was even better when Busta Rhymes got on it when they did the remix. Busta never disappoints when it comes to doing stuff like that. Some cats think they can just make a beat if they choose to just use samples but they may not have the ear to pick the right sample. It might be some hi-hats or some boom-bap stuff but it might sound like garbage. It really just depends on the ear. You gotta have the ear for music. If you don’t have the ear for it, you’re going to ruin it.
BC: It seems like 15-20 years ago you really had to have that ear because the technology was way different. Now it seems like it’s real easy for anyone to just pull up some loops on Garageband and make it happen.
JN 103: I mean you can do it and it’ll still sound like garbage. It’s easy to make a beat, anyone can pick out a sample, but only a producer can make a beat. That’s really a gift. He precedes me so I’m going off a lot of the stories I was told, but one thing I commend Paul Rosenberg for was back in the day he used to rap. I don’t know if he was any good at it, if he sucked, if he realized he sucked or if he just thought he’d be better off as a lawyer in hip-hop entertainment than being a rapper. And shoot, Paul get money by pushing an art form that he initially loved. When you look at the artists he works with, of course he works very closely with Em, D12, G-unit and Cypress Hill. Any hip-hop head that’s any hip-hop head loves Cypress Hill because they just had something different than what everybody else from L.A. was coming with. I think it’s necessary that people really recognize their talents and embrace it. Sometimes you can’t fight it. If you’re a dope artist then be a dope artist and make it work for you. If you’re not and you’re trying to force yourself to be an artists just because you love it, it might not be the best thing for you to do.
BC: Back when you were younger, was rapping something that you did with your friends or more of something you did when you were alone?
JN 103: Man, I’ll rap anywhere. It got to the point that when I thought I was good I would just be walking home and freestylin,’ just because I knew I could. When I got in high school, I would really show off. I would grab a book, read and freestyle at the same time. That’s the kind of stuff you do for exercise, to flex your skills a little bit. I was a die-hard hip-hop head, that was just me through and through. Even Proof, he’s a prime example of that because I think he was that as well. He could look at stuff and just start rappin’ about it. He would rap about Jolly Ranchers and Mike n’ Ikes and make a story out of it, off the top of his head. That was what he loved to do. You can’t do something that you don’t love to do. If he didn’t love it, there’s no way he could be doing that and not getting a check. He would do it if he got paid or not. It the passion and desire, ya know? What would you do for free? If you didn’t or couldn’t receive any money would you still do this thing for free? You gotta ask yourself that and if that’s what you’d do for free, then do it. But you gotta be honest with yourself. Some people love the fight but they’re not good fighters. But they know good fighters so maybe they should be a boxing coach. Maybe they could show a boxer where his weak point is and you only peep this because you love boxing. Now you can’t box yourself cause you got a glass jaw. Everytime you get in the ring, you get hit, “BAM!” Even so you love it and that’s important.
BC: Were you brought up in Islam or is it something that you got into later on in life?
JN 103: I became Muslim in ‘97. Around that time, the mid 90’s, I started to take notice of it. This was back when the Five-Percent Nation was really popular in hip-hop music. To be honest, I didn’t know what the hell they was talkin’ about but the music they was makin’ sounded incredible. As I got older, my senior year of high school, I ended becoming Muslim. My old high school teacher was Muslim and he started talking to me about it and the rest is history.
BC: How has that perspective influenced you as a hip-hop artist?
JN 103: It helps my content out a lot. I’ve heard lyrics where some cats say some awful stuff, ya know? I try to be tactful in some of the things I say and try not to be offensive to my audience. Ultimately, I would love for the Muslim youth to hear my music. Regardless to what people might believe, they’re really getting off into listening, creating and participating in music. I always wanted to make something with meaning, even before Islam, so when I became Muslim that just helped what I was already thinking.
BC: Do you work with youth?
JN 103: No, not as a pastime or occupation but I know so many kids from coming up and looking up to certain people. Now, a lot of our children who we’ve raised are now listening to our music and they’re being influenced by it. Prime example, a guy hit me up on my fan page and he left me a message. He said, “I just want to let you know that I’m a big fan of your music. One of my students was listening to his headphones in my class and when I told him to take them out, he was listening to you. I told him to turn it down and I gave him extra credit.” That really made me blush, that’s dope! I really had to tell him to make sure he does his school work, don’t get in trouble with your teachers and stuff. Focus on your education because education is important.
BC: That must’ve been an incredible feeling.
JN 103: It was an amazing feeling. A million dollars couldn’t have given me that feeling. I get it all the time but again, it’s from people outside of Detroit. I get so many people telling me that they appreciate the music I make and it’s really an exhilarating feeling, really.
BC: Do you have particular people you work with?
JN 103: Well right now I’m working on my new album, and there was a producer I met when I was in Paris. His name is DJ Stretch. He’s dope. He’s really dope. Even Apollo when he heard some of his beats, he even said, “he’s dope.” Me and him, we connected and we were in it ever since. This was back in 2011. We always kept in touch through Twitter and Facebook. He’s been sending me tracks, and he’s nice man, he’s got a real clean crisp sound. He’s got what I need. This next album I really think is going to be enjoyable to the people.
BC: Do you have any idea when that’s going to come out?
JN 103: It’s kind of up in the air. I anticipate having it done, I wanna say, January hopefully. If I can have it done by January that would be dope. It wouldn’t be too much longer after January, because I’m already nine songs in, so I need another six and I’ll be good to go.
BC: How long does it take you to do a track?
JN 103: It all depends. Sometimes I can one take it. Like “Broken” I did with Proof, that was one take. I went in, matter of fact the sound you hear it’s not like it’s a reverb on my voice. Whoever was in the booth before me already had their vocals set to that, so when I just started spittin’ it sounded so good they just never changed it. That was one take. Sometimes I can one take it, sometimes I take my time, sometimes I need to be punched.
BC: Do you prefer being in a posse cut situation or do you prefer going solo?
JN 103: I mean, it can be dope depending on who you’re working with. What makes a dope posse joint is that everybody has a general love for each other and they respect one another’s art. That’s what makes a genuine joint. But if you got everybody on there who’s like trying to go against each other like an LL and Canabis situation, then you know, that joint may not be so enjoyable. But if you got a joint like a “Head Banger”, or “Symphony”, or even the new “Symphony” (2000) that EPMD and them made when Lady Luck and Method Man, oh my God that was so nuts. Even like “Protect Ya Neck”, even though they were in the same crew, that joint was perfect. You listen to that joint now, depending on what mood you’re in you’re liable to start doing 80 in a 25 mph residential.
BC: Are there any memorable collaborations that you can remember doing?
JN 103: One of the most memorable joints that I can remember doing is when Mountain Climbers originally started. It was me, Strike, my cousin X-Gov, Billy Nix and two other old members who were part of the Mountain Climbers originally. It was called “Malcom Madness”. That joint was nuts. The beat switched up, the rhymes was gutter, everything was perfect about that joint. We ended up doing another joint called “It’s Over” with me, X-Gov, Strike and my man Mood. That was another dope joint. That was just like, classic. That was dope.
BC: What year was that?
JN 103: That was ’98. Nobody was signed then. Everybody was struggling trying to do the same thing. That’s where we was at.
BC: Are you currently signed right now?
JN 103: Yeah I’m currently signed to Babygrande Records. It’s an independent record label based out of New York. They’ve been doing independent hip-hop for the past, well over ten years now. They started in 2000 I believe. They reached out to me when I did, I don’t even think Gas Mask had been out six months, their A&R director hit me up and said “yo man we wanna sign you to a solo deal yada yada yada.” I got the contract and held onto it for about a year before I signed it. So when they hit me up again and said “yo we wanna start really getting some music out on you blah blah blah” so I signed it and sent it back and started piecing Reporting Live and the rest is history.
BC: How did you decide to go with the name Journalist 103?
JN 103: That came about in high school. When I was in high school I had an old rap name, J Clip. I got that from freestylin’ with a guy and I was freestylin’ and I wouldn’t stop. They kept saying, “man he going off like the automatic clip” and I just kept going, I wouldn’t stop, I was in the zone. As I got older I was doing a report and my teacher she looked over my shoulder and she read my monitor and she said, “wow you write really well, you should be a journalist.” So that just clicked but I didn’t want to get rid of J Clip, because of the significance it had. So I just happened to be looking up at the alphabets at school and I remember looking and seeing J was the tenth letter in the alphabet and C was the third letter, so that’s where 103 comes from. So it’s how you have Journalist 103.
BC: Did writing rhymes and rapping help you writing papers?
JN 103: It does help, depending on what you’re rapping about. Personally, I like to have content in my music. I remember how I got a passing grade in my English class. We had to do a report. My topic was hip-hop and rap, the difference between the two, so I wrote the paper and I had to do an illustration of what the two was I had to explain. Because of that, it helped me be able to write, or whatever the case may be. I remember my man, I forget his name, because I didn’t have a computer at the time and he did, and he made me stay up with him. I forget his name, he was from New York, big guy. He made me stay up with him and edited the paper for me. I didn’t have a printer or computer at the time so he typed it up for me. But you know, it helps, if you have content depending on what you have to talk about, so if you ever have to do a paper or write an article you pretty much put the same intensity into it as you would if you were writing a rhyme. Because when you write rhymes, even though it’s vocal, as equally as you can read it and say “yo that’s dope,” you want people to have that same effect when they hear it, but they can only have that same effect if what you’re reading is dope. So it’s the same thing if you have to write an article. Somebody reads an article they say, “yo that’s a dope article,” even though it’s not vocalized. It’s the same process.
BC: What was the argument you made between rap and hip-hop?
JN 103: Rap is just an element. Anybody can rap. But hip-hop is a culture in all itself. You notice the difference between somebody who’s just a rapper and somebody who’s a hip-hop artist, it’s a complete difference. A person who’s a hip-hop artist, they try to combine everything that is in hip-hop into their music or into whatever it is they do. I’ll give you a prime example: I’ve never seen one break-dancer break-dance to Master P, you know what I’m saying? I just haven’t. Now what he does was an element of hip-hop, but he’s not a hip-hop artist, he’s a rapper. Like, breakers, they break to stuff, Premo, Run DMC, Souls of Mischief, Rass Kass, Xzibit, Alkaholiks, hell even OutKast, Goodie Mob, this is the kind of stuff breakers break to. It has to have breakbeats and stuff like that in it, so that’s what a hip-hop artist does, he combines all of the elements into what it is he does. A rapper sticks to exactly that, rapping. Whatever beat is funky or whatever terminology he chooses to use, that’s what he’s going to go with, and when he rapping he doesn’t even need a sound, he could have “motherfucker” in every other line, but he’s still rapping nonetheless. That was the difference between the two and what I talked about.
BC: Did you hear Lord Jamar’s comments recently?
JN 103: No.
BC: Let me pull that up. What are your reactions to this?
JN 103: From what I’ve seen so far, he sounds kind of ignorant. I don’t know man, I understand the point that he’s making as far as “we originated” and that’s true, you have inventions for everything, but I really don’t see the significance in that.
BC: Does hip-hop transcend race in the way that he’s talking about it?
JN 103: Man, let me tell you something. I don’t care nothing about what he’s talking about. 70 percent of hip-hop’s audience is white. I’ll say 65 to be nice, you see what I’m saying? White people are the ones who are going out buying the records. When I was in Europe, all they wanted was the vinyl. “You got LP’s?” They didn’t want CD’s, they wanted the vinyl. They just retro like that. With all this technology they wanted the LP’s. So I don’t care, that don’t even make sense. That’s his opinion, he’s entitled to that, but you know what they say about opinions.
But it does transcend race. Let me tell you something, I had somebody hit me up from Turkey, wanted me to teach them how to rap. Now he’s rapping in Arabic, he’s rapping in a foreign tongue to a banging beat. So I told him, “man, what do you want me to teach you? You got the formula right there.” He says he wants to be able to learn English to be able to spit and I say, “No, market it to your people, you know what I’m saying? Spit that Arabic to the people who speak Arabic, so that way they can have the love and appreciation for hip-hop and you’re gonna bash them for that.” You got somebody all the way out in another country that loves hip-hop music.
So man look, it’s 2013, racism still exists so I’m not going to say anything foolish like that because we all know it does, but not to the magnitude to where we don’t understand that we have crossed social barriers. If I meet somebody my age being racist I’m be like, “dude,” I’m going to look at him like he’s crazy, even somebody younger than me. “Man, your momma white your daddy black what is you talking about ‘power to the black man’ what the hell are you talking about?” I’m just gonna look at them like they crazy, because we’re not in that era no more. Cause now it’s about a whole another social dynamic. Now it’s about those who have and those who don’t, and usually the ones who don’t are the ones who become slaves and the ones who have are the ones who become the slave masters, they don’t care what color you are. White, black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Arabic, purple, green, blue, yellow, orange, they don’t care. “I got it you don’t, but in order for me to have it I have to take it from you.” So that’s the dynamic we’re dealing with now.
It’s amazing man, because I remember, I first recognized this, and I was high too I ain’t even gonna lie. Souls of Mischief had came out and me, A-Plus, my man J-Dub, all the Mountain Climbers, we was upstairs at St. Andrews, I think Opio was up there too. We was all getting high, we was all smoking some weed and I don’t know what kind of weed it was, but I knew it had me like fried. So we come downstairs, Souls of Mischief performing, they start performing “93 ’til Infinity”, and the majority of the audience is white. I can’t recall if I saw anybody black in the crowd. Like if you ask the average black person who was Souls of Mischief they’re gonna say “who? Who is that?” “You heard of Hieroglyphics?” “What? Hiero what?” So that’s why when this guy talking about all this black stuff and this white stuff man, it just sounds ignorant to me. It sounds like jealousy honestly, because the only other person I can think of right now that’s white that has a hit record is Em(inem). You know, Em man, Em rhymes circles around Lord Jamar. That ain’t me trying to start nothing, but the type of training that Em does. I’m saying this because I knew his man Proof. I know what type of training Proof did as an MC, so I know what Em does, cause Em got more to prove because he’s white. He’s got to go that extra mile to prove that he really can rap. He around dope spitters all the time, he ain’t rhyme with no slouches. That don’t make no sense.
BC: What high school did you go to?
JN 103: Central.
BC: Detroit Central?
JN 103: Yeah, Central High School over there off of Tuxedo.
BC: Did you play sports?
JN 103: Nah. I used to play hockey as a kid. As athletic as I get, whenever I get in the mood I’ll go hit some weights. When I get mad I fall off of it because it feels so good. It’s an invigorating feeling. I’m not much of the basketball football kind of guy. The sport that I enjoy the most is like watching a battle. I like boxing, MMA, stuff like that. If I wasn’t a rapper, I probably would have got into something like that.
BC: Do you still go and do open mics?
JN 103: Nah. Personally, me, I don’t necessarily feel like I have to. In my regard, my dues been paid, as far as setting a trend, making a name, all of that other stuff. If I put an album out today with a little marketing behind it, it’s going to start causing a little wave. But I couldn’t have gotten to this point without doing that stuff beforehand, so that stuff is important. If you up-and-coming, don’t think just because you have a laptop you can start talking “imma this imma that.” Ain’t nobody gonna take you seriously.