From The Vault: Jeru The Damaja Drops Three Lost Dirty Rotten Demos

Grappling with Jeru the Damaja's legacy upon the release of his early demos.
By    February 16, 2016

the sun rises in the east

Dean Van Nguyen is the Greek God of boom bap.

Will history absolve Jeru The Damaja? I want to believe our descendants will be rap omnists, safeguarding every hero of ’94 from falling through the cracks. A perfect vision of the future sees portraits of King Tee and Ice Cube hanging side-by-side over grandparents’ fireplaces. A statue of Easy Mo Bee towers outside the Brooklyn Museum. Oil paintings of Jeru and Nas sit next to each other on the high alter of hip-hop. But the passage of time can be either cruel or kind to a legacy. What will the children be told about Kendrick Davis, who made one of the greatest albums of all time but followed it up by feuding with everyone around him?

The inclusion of his DJ Premier-helmed debut The Sun Rises In The East on The Village Voice’s “10 Best Forgotten New York Hip-Hop Records” a couple years back was harsh, that’s undeniable. But it’s true that Jeru has never wielded the same kind of notoriety as those he should consider his contemporaries. He fell out with Gang Starr. He took shots at both Bad Boy and Death Row. And he refused to play the commercial game on any terms. There won’t be a Hollywood depiction of Jeru’s story. There’s no annual Damaja day. He doesn’t have his blue tick on Twitter right now. One of New York’s finest remains shrouded in mystery, perhaps doomed to be lost in time like Roy Batty’s tears in the rain. But if rap historians are someday going to piece together his fractured biography, then they’ll need to have all the evidence.

Like Athena, the Greek goddess of intelligent activity, Jeru arrived fully-formed. Recorded between 1991 and 1992, Dirty Rotten Demos pre-dates his early Gang Starr appearances and solo debut, but there’s nothing developmental about his flow. Guru serves up three bass-heavy, knock-around, back-to-the-block beats—further proving there was no shame in being Gang Starr’s second best producer—and like a rap Pernell Whitaker, Jeru bobs, weaves, and makes angles to throw lyrics in packed clusters. Syllables come in swarms. One-liners pepper you like a series of hard double jabs.

Had Juru dropped it in ’92, “God of Rhyming” would have been a hell of a warning shot. It’s a full-blooded declaration of supremacy, with the rapper beating his chest, calling out the west (“Heard many tales about the land of Compton/But I don’t give a fuck ‘cause Brooklyn brothers stompin’”) and running through his credentials as a rap deity. Track 2, “Damaja,” lays down a challenge to anyone who dare argue with him (“I strike like a fatal disease/I don’t take pity so don’t say please”) as Guru flips the same sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime,” proving once and for all that the concept of multiple discovery is truth.

The short set ends with the less-than-90 second “Dirty Rotten Demo”, Damaja’s ode to the East New York, Brooklyn streets that birthed him. He breathes in the thick air, hat-tips the local hustlers, and blends in with the “manic depressive psycho murderers” that populate the block he stayed loyal to when rap stardom was just calling out to be courted. That wasn’t his path, that’s okay. Dirty Rotten Demos re-affirms that few others made ‘90s New York hip-hop as good as Jeru. This is music for the children. Archive and preserve it for all time, so history remembers.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!