Born Tsidi Ibrahim on November 1, 1976, in Cape Town, South Africa; moved to New York, NY, 1977; daughter Sathima Bea Benjamin (a jazz singer) and Abdullah Ibrahim (a jazz pianist). Addresses: Record company--Babygrande Records, 8033 W. Sunset Blvd., Ste. 1038, Hollywood, CA 90046, website: http://www.babygrande.com. Website--Jean Grae Official Website: http://www.jean-grae.com.
Born Tsidi Ibrahim, Jean Grae spent the first three months of her life in her native South Africa. She told the Jive Magazine website, "It's not an impact of living there, but the impact of not living there, I think has changed my life in a way I'm sure I couldn't even possibly fathom." Grae's family moved to New York when Grae was three months old, and she would spend the remainder of her childhood there. The daughter of jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin and jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, the youngster quickly developed an appreciation for the arts, training as a dancer and opera singer before beginning her career as an emcee. She was constantly encouraged to locate her artistic voice and pursue her musical aspirations. Grae attended the Fiorello LaGuardia School of the Arts and Performing Arts, where she excelled as a vocal major. After graduation she was accepted for admission to New York University's music business program. She quickly decided, however, to forego her formal higher education in order to devote more time to her rap career.
Grae began her rap career in the mid-1990s on the underground circuit, performing under the name What? What?. In 1997 she was recruited by rapper Ocean to help form the group Natural Resource. The group, which founded its own label in 1997, released the underground classic "Negro League Baseball," as well as several other 12-inch singles. While performing with the group, Grae also began to produce records for other label artists, including Pumpkin Head, Don Scavone, and The Bad Seed. Although Natural Resource broke up in 1998 due to personal and creative differences, Grae's reputation continued to spread throughout the rap world. She changed her name from What? What? to Jean Grae, named after the telekinetic heroine from the X-Men comic book series. Grae began making guest appearances on numerous projects, including Herbaliser, High & Mighty, Da Beatminerz, and the Mumia 911 Project.
In 2002 Grae released her first album, Attack of the Attacking Things, which featured Da Beatminerz, Mr. Len, and Masta Ace. The album received consistently high praise from critics and fans, who appreciated the album's dark, honest feel and content. In a review of the album, Harry Allen of the Village Voice described Attack of the Attacking Things as "Jean Grae, after dozens of similar cameos over several years of underground records, finally battling demons on her own turf, trading on both her unaltered gift for lyrical delicacy, and her distinctive, deliberately understated vocal style."
By 2003 Grae had begun work on her next full length LP, but did not want to lose the momentum gained from Attack of the Attacking Things. After signing to independent label Babygrande Records in conjunction with Orchestral Entertainment, she decided to quickly release the EP Bootleg of the Bootleg. The six-song EP, which also featured a 45-minute bonus track of Grae freestyling over popular rap beats, was highlighted by "Hater's Anthem" and "Swing Blades," featuring the underground group Cannibal Ox. The album was well received, and created a larger buzz for her follow-up LP. Nate Patrin of City Pages lauded Grae's artistic development on the album: "Grae's flow becomes the true highlight of her arsenal. Her voice boasts the sort of self-assured smoothness Erick Sermon carried in '88, retrofitted to adhere to the multiple-assonance virtuoso techniques of the post-Shady underground."
Soon after the release of the album, Grae prepared to embark on a 30-city tour with Cannibal Ox. The tour, which Grae hoped would bolster her reputation and help promote Bootleg of the Bootleg, ended abruptly when Cannibal Ox disbanded at the outset of the tour. Although the breakup and cancellation of the tour was a blow to her career, Grae continued to perform in small venues for little money in order to increase the exposure for her next project.
Grae's underground work ethic began to reap benefits by the end of 2003. She began to work with hip-hop super-group The Roots, and briefly performed on the winter OkayPlayer tour. By the beginning of 2004 Grae had accepted a full-time spot on the spring OkayPlayer tour, and made a guest appearance on The Roots' Tipping Point album. She also appeared on the song "Black Girl Pain" with Talib Kweli, which appeared on his commercially successful Beautiful Struggle album.
In September of 2004 Grae released her third album, titled This Week. The album's title alludes to its overall concept, which is to capture a week in the life of an MC. She told Vibe.com, "I tried my best to kind of not think about the other songs on the album that much when I was recording the next one. It's more of a range of emotion and every song is different and that's pretty much what it feels like to me. You know, every day is totally different." The album provided Grae with the biggest commercial and critical success of her career. According to Billboard magazine, "Jean sounds more ready for prime time than ever. To say there isn't one bad track on this album would be a drastic understatement."
Despite a wealth of support from hip-hop's lyrical elite and her ever-growing popularity, the emcee hailed by Rolling Stone as "New York's best-kept secret" has no intention of abandoning the underground for the lucrative commercial world. She told BallerStatus.net, "If I ever got an offer from a major label I would never take it. I've put enough into this not to compromise anything right now."
by Marc L. Hill
Jean Grae's Career
Began rap career performing under the name "What? What?" in the group Natural Resources, 1997; Natural Resources broke up, 1998; performed with artists including the Herbaliser, Masta Ace, and Mr. Lif, late 1990s; released debut solo album, Attack of the Attacking Things, on Third Earth, 2002; released EP Bootleg of the Bootleg on Babygrande, 2003; performed in Okayplayer tour with The Roots, 2003; released second solo album, This Week, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Attack of the Attacking Things Third Earth Music, 2002.
- Bootleg of the Bootleg (EP), Babygrande, 2003.
- This Week Babygrande, 2004.
- Billboard, September 23, 2004.
- Mugshot, October/November 2004.
- URB, November 2004.
- Village Voice, September 18, 2002.
- "Babygrande Records," HipHop-Elements.com, http://www.hiphop-elements.com/article/print/4/6335/1/ (December 21, 2004).
- "Grae's Anatomy," City Pages, http://www.citypages.com/databank/24/1194/print11599.asp (December 21, 2004).
- "Jean Grae: Bringin' Gritty New York," BallerStatus.net, http://www.ballerstatus.net/underground/read/id/16672686/ (December 21, 2004).
- "Jean Grae: Going Against the Competition," JIVEMagazine.com, http://www.jivemagazine.com/article.php?pid=2281 (December 21, 2004).
- "Jean Grae: Growing Pains," Vibe.com, http://www.vibe.com/print.php?sid=519 (December 21, 2004).
- "Jean Grae X-ecutes the Competition," Vibe.com, http://www.vibe/com/print.php?sid=137 (December 21, 2004).