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Gaming Made Me: Jean Grae

Where Hip Hop Meets Q*bert

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Rock, Paper, Shotgun was recently honoured to find itself referenced in the latest track from hip hop artist, Jean Grae. Kill Screen, a track initially inspired by the documentary King Of Kong, includes a web of intricate references to all manner of subjects, frequently referring to gaming and comic culture. (You can hear it at the bottom of this post.) Which intrigued us to learn more. So we spoke to Grae to find out about the role gaming plays in her life, and how it influences her music.

“It’s really hard for me not to play a lot!” laughs Grae, as I chat with her over Skype. I had wondered whether gaming might be a nostalgic thing for the artist, something she no longer has time for, but it seems that it’s quite the opposite. “When I’m working on projects, and new games come out, I’m like, ‘If I get this, how much of my actual career am I not going to get done?’”

Jean Grae is the long-time moniker of the New York-based rapper, previously known as What? What?, and born Tsidi Ibrahim in Cape Town, South Africa. Moving to the States shortly after her birth, Grae grew up with a brother six years older, ensuring she was playing games from the earliest possible age. Living next door to a comic shop, and with two Atari 2600s in the house, Grae explains that as a little girl her life was pretty much videogames and comic books.

“I guess I was competitive,” she reminisces. “I still am very competitive. And I think that’s really what drove me. A six year older brother, a brother who’s trying to murder you all the time, it was my way of being, ‘I can totally fucking fight back this way, if I win!’” When I ask Grae which games she remembers especially fondly from that time, there is no hesitation. “The Atari was all Q*bert, Othello, Adventure and Pitfall!”

The passion for gaming was consistent with Grae, and in her teens she found a love for fighting games, especially Tekken. It became an important game for her, breaking down barriers she would encounter as she entered the rap scene. “When I started recording stuff, going into studios, you usually had things like Tekken or Virtua Fighter. Me walking in, it was my ice-breaker. Grabbing the controls and being like, ‘I’m going to fucking whoop your ass.’ So immediately I’m able to step in on a different level. They say, ‘Who is this?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, also I’m going to rap now, and I’m going to kick your ass at that too.’” Gaming had changed its role, it became a means of establishing relationships. “I think in my late teens, early twenties, it became something different for me,” she adds. “It became an interesting dynamic.”

As Grae talked, I got the impression there was a sense of more than gaming simply being something she had in common with other rappers. There also seemed to be a sense of glee that she would win. I wondered if she ever hustled. “Definitely,” she enthuses. “Most definitely! There was this pool hall called La Cue in New York, and they had Virtua Fighter in there, and that was definitely one of my favourite things to do. While I was hustling pool as well.”

Gaming now seems to have changed its role for Grae once again. It’s something she does in between work, and something that absorbs her when she should be working. “I get so into the game and try to finish it,” she explains. “I get stuck in role-playing games.” And they get stuck into her as well, it seems. “Whenever the Grand Theft Autos come out I just go away for a long time,” Grae tells me. “When you start playing games like GTA you go outside, and everything looks like the game. It’s really difficult to not look at things and think, ‘Wow, I could do a really good rampage here!’ Or there are cities I’ll drive through, and I’ll see an alleyway and I’ll be, ‘Please, let’s check if there’s some armour or some health in the alley, because it looks exactly like there should be.’”

Other games have similarly occupied her. “For a year or so I got really, really addicted to the Sims,” Grae continues. “I would be outside looking at furniture not for my home, but for the homes I was building in the game.” However, this isn’t something that so successfully worked in reverse. A couple of months spent with Second Life didn’t integrate quite as well. “I enjoyed living my own little life,” Grae explains of the multiplayer world. “But I didn’t want to talk to people. And I thought this probably defeats the purpose.” She wouldn’t talk to anyone else, and in reaction other players decided they disliked her. “I’m being socially awkward in Second Life. So, that’s not going to work out! I thought, okay, well, that’s the end of that. You can’t be socially awkward in a videogame.”

The name Jean Grae came from the Marvel X-Men character Jean Grey. I wondered whether creating a stage persona shares any similarities with creating an RPG game persona. It’s actually more involved than that.

Jean Grey’s X-Men adventures was a story arc Grae liked, and one she has been spotting similarities with in her own life and career. “As years have gone by, in life progression, not even musical progression, I’ve taken a lot of things from the entire story, and seen how they correlate to my life,” she explains. And a big part of that is the motif of dying and being reborn. “I’ve come to understand it more as I’m getting older,” Grae adds, at only 35. “But gaming characters are more like rap characters, or the character I have to get into to be able to perform a song. I really go into things wanting to know motivations. I go into their back-stories, what their childhood was like, even if I’m just doing it in my head.”

Jean’s tracks seem to divide into two distinct types. Those she describes as ultra-violent, where she’s more heavily in character, and those that are “super-honest and vulnerable, and a hundred percent me.” But both are portrayed through characters. Her next album, Gotham Down (from which Kill Screen is taken) will go further into the darker places, but is actually the continuation of a more personal story from the as-yet unreleased but completed album, Cake Or Death. “It’s interesting,” says Grae, revealing just how much of a backstory there is to it all, “because it should be the album that comes after Cake Or Death, storyline-wise. It’s super-dark – it’s set in New York in the not-so-distant future. It runs from 2013 to 2020. If you haven’t heard Pharoahe Monch’s Assassins, I’ve taken the character from that song, and these two albums are based off of that character – which is me. Me going through, in Cake Or Death, love and relationships, learning to find yourself and deciding to become this superhero.”

But before we get there, we’re going to find what happens next, first. Grae continues the story of this character – “Going into Gotham Down, she’s finally becoming this superhero, but finding something goes horribly wrong. She becomes an assassin, decides she wants to rebel against them, goes rogue, and the story goes completely dark.” It eventually will reach a sort of temporal redemption, employing a recurring theme in Grae’s work of not accepting the linearity of time. This fallen hero will have the ability to go back and live her life differently. It’s hard not to associate these themes with those of all manner of games and comics.

I asked Grae whether there’s a stigma that comes with being open to discussing gaming in her lyrics. Whether labels like “nerdcore” are ultimately unhelpful. “Yeah, any labels are just fucking stupid to me,” the rapper expounds. “Just let it be what it is, let people enjoy it. I looked at Complex Magazine, and the headline was, ‘South African Nerd Rapper’. I wrote back to them and said, ‘That has to be the funniest thing I’ve seen all day! What now makes me a nerd rapper? Are you serious?’ And then I was like, I guess it’s not “femcee” so… fuck it!” It seems this touches on quite a passionate area for Jean Grae. “Labels in general are retarded,” she adds. “I think people have got to the point where they are so diverse that even in their hobbies and their loves and their TV shows and gaming… it’s always been retarded, it’s more retarded to do it in 2012, and part of my – maybe my only mission – is to get people to stop doing that.”

However, it seems a lot of the time this can be to do with media coverage just looking for an angle. Hello! Grae believes that listeners just listen, and don’t so quickly distinguish. “I think it gets weird when it gets to media, and journalism, and they turn it into something else. I never felt any different from my peers until the journalists started saying, ‘This is what it is, this is what she talks about, these things are different,’ and I’m like, they’re not really. You should just diversify your friends.”

Instead, referencing gaming and gaming culture in her music is part of Grae’s philosophy of their being no rules in life. (“I don’t wait on line. I’m the person who travels with zero photo ID. People ask, how did you get on the plane? I’m like, just because you can. You’ve gotta try harder!”) Making an exception for baking (“Because you can’t really switch up the ingredients. Keep that traditional.”) the same applies to what’s in her lyrics. “I think ignore the audiences for everything. Especially being a black female, a woman of colour, it’s not really thought about [the fact] that I’ve been watching King Of Kong, or that I want to talk about other things on records. I think it doesn’t have to be one target audience, it can cross genres, it can cross boundaries, and cross continents. That’s the way I like to deal with life, and I guess it translates to the music.”

Right now for Grae, games are on a hiatus. She needs to get the albums finished, and is currently fighting off the urge to buy games that will distract her. They’re the reward for when she’s done, she explains. “Then I can veg out and be like, nobody talk to me, nobody call me, I’m going into my world, leave me alone!”

But in the meantime, Grae’s taking hits where she can get them. “I went over to my friend’s house, it was kind of a date-esque thing, and he was already playing Batman, and said he’d turn it off. I said, ‘No! No no no no no! You can leave it on, I’m not that kind of person.’ If I can’t get to play it, at least I get to watch it. So let me enjoy it like a movie, and then let me figure out how much of my life I need to set aside to be able to buy this game.”

I wonder whether once there’s time again, whether there will be games from the past she’ll also go back to. “I’m a Tekken girl,” she says with pride. “That’s been my plan as soon as I finish this album.” But Grae also plans to go back further than that. “I want to take my Atari 2600 out of storage and bring it back to my living room. It’s not the most intricate, and it’s not the most complicated, but I’m going to sit for hours and play Pitfall, because it’s going to be fucking awesome. I don’t know what conditions my joysticks are in, that could be a problem. I don’t know – I can see my childhood bedroom when I start playing games like that – it’s like comfort food.”

You can listen to Jean Grae’s latest single, Kill Screen, right here:

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