“We Tied Together the Old and the New:” An Interview With Jahbaz of Justice System

Pete Tosiello speaks with the founding member of the New York rap group about leaving the major label system and competing against Big L at a talent show.
By    March 10, 2019

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It nearly defies belief that the members of Justice System were just out of high school when they recorded their major label debut Rooftop Soundcheck, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Sharing a release date with Ready to Die, the album landed as an immense feat of visionary scope, realized precision, and masterful engineering from the six-piece band, making for one of the overlooked jewels of New York’s golden summer.

The first single “Summer in the City” neatly captured their unique appeal, blending elements of funk, jazz, and hip hop. It kicks off with a smooth instrumental intro by the group’s rhythm section, twin brothers Coz Boogie on bass and Eric G on drums, before Mo’ Betta Al’s soaring tenor sax kicks the track into gear. Vocalists John “Jahbaz” Dawson and Tom “Folex” Foley, the band’s frontmen, paint lucid scenes of a Saturday afternoon in New York City, and the track gently amasses energy, building into an essential entry for the picnic playlist. But in spite of their freewheeling live show, Justice System aspired to be more than mere party-starters, as evidenced by Rooftop Soundcheck’s deep cuts. Folex and Jahbaz bear a deep reverence for the Bronx’s hip hop pioneers, and the production tactfully separates each instrumental layer, eschewing the wall-of-sound approach which seized mid-’90s alt-rock.

Justice System parted ways with MCA in 1995, and Jahbaz briefly left the group to pursue a legal career before joining back up on 2002’s self-released follow-up Uncharted Terrain, an ambitious set exploring avant-garde tempos and mature writing; tracks like “Dawn of the Apocalypse” and “The Fuzion” played loose with structure, but the band was tighter than ever. The Mobilization compilation, featuring greatest hits and b-sides, followed in 2003, before the band went on extended hiatus.

2019 supplied a pleasant surprise for fans from the tri-state and beyond: the group reconvened for the eight-track effort Basement Tapes, featuring the first new Justice System recordings in sixteen years. Even with Folex’s fresh production approaches, the group’s viscous grooves are immediately identifiable on “Beads” and “Where We’re From”; as ever, Folex and Jahbaz’s cityscapes are at once familiar and celestial. Once they’d shaken off the rust, it was clear Justice System hadn’t lost a step.

Given the long gaps in their discography, it’s easy to wonder what might have been for a band as talented and inspired as Justice System. Yet each of their LPs is such a fulfilling musical experience, they’ve hardly left fans gasping for more. Calling from his current home in Northern California in late February, Jahbaz privileged us with the untold story of Justice System, New York’s hip hop band, now thirty years strong. — Pete Tosiello

I was hoping we could start by discussing Justice System’s origins. You all went to high school together in Westchester? What sort of musical opportunities did you have as a group growing up?

Jahbaz: Yeah, we all went to elementary school together, actually. I was born in Mount Vernon, lived in Mount Vernon until I was seven or eight, and then my parents split up and I moved with my mom up to Greenburgh. Everyone else in the band was growing up in this town of Greenburgh, which is incorporated in White Plains, New York—it includes most of White Plains, all of Hartsdale, and a couple other little villages.

Our town’s school system, back in the fifties, wasn’t united at that point—we had all white schools in Hartsdale, and mostly black schools in the White Plains part of Greenburgh. One of the Warburgs—of UBS Warburg, the banking family—she died and bequeathed like, ten acres and a ton of cash to the school district of the town of Greenburgh, along with this beautiful Warburg mansion. They took that money and these ideas and they ran with it, and put together one of the first truly integrated school districts in the North. That was one of the conditions of the bequest of the property, that this was going to be one school district, white and black, all together in this area where her mansion was, right between White Plains and Hartsdale.

You had this beautifully rich culture. The high school’s called Woodlands High School, they made it out in the woods. The sociology at the time was such that people thought that if you put kids from different ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds in a sylvan setting where you had essentially floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking outside, and school colors that were green and white that supposedly helped mollify racial tensions, then all this would provide a really encouraging environment for racial harmony, straight up.

So we grew up in this, and it was like something out of seventies hippies’ heaven. We really had this ridiculous utopia where those kinds of typical divisions in other towns were by and large erased. With that also came the fact that Greenburgh was almost like a black Beverly Hills for jazz musicians, comedians, actors, and actresses. You had people like Cab Calloway, Ossie Davis, Roy Campanella, lots of famous upper-middle class black professionals and artists. And then you had white people who were down with the civil rights movement, activists, mixed-race families moving in like, this is the place to go. Because of the local arts community, obviously there were kids growing up there who had artists and musicians as parents, so our school system got jacked—in a good way, in terms of an overabundance of talent in the student body.

Music, from day one, was a huge part of the school district. From second grade, when I moved up there, through senior year, it just got better and better and better. Bands like Atlantic Starr, they went to our high school. They’d come back and those were our assemblies, they’d give us free concerts. Cab Calloway came to our middle school. The high school was grades seven through twelve, so I got there as this little twelve-year-old kid and there are like, nineteen-year-old dudes, the white burnout metalhead kids wearing Iron Maiden jackets, and they’re badasses. There were black gangs and they were hard as hell. You basically had to be cool with everybody not to get your ass kicked in seventh and eighth grade. Everybody was by and large friends, generally speaking, but in the older grades it gets a little crazy, people want to punk the young kids. So the love of music became part of not just who we were naturally, by virtue of our community, but it became a way to assimilate in the school really quickly with likeminded people, who then had your back or could respect what you were doing and what you were about.

We were allowed to have independent studies as seniors, and my senior year I did music. I was able to make records in a studio, research writing—the whole second half of senior year, basically, I focused on that. Same thing with Coz and Tom, their senior year, they did a project together on music. And the school’s like, this is awesome, keep it coming, because they knew the cycle of talent that came through and how people would give back.

Tom, Coz, Eric G, Chris, and Mo’ Betta Al were all a year younger than me. We knew each other from baseball teams, Boy Scouts, middle school jazz band. Before Justice System they were in a hardcore band called Inside Out that toured extensively. They saw me as an MC, they’d seen me battling kids at school. They got me to come out and do a run on one of their songs early on, and they naturally got into hip hop over time. They liked the rhyming, and they naturally migrated that way because that’s what all our friends were into at that point by ‘88, ‘89.

I understand you competed against Big L in a Zulu Nation talent show shortly thereafter?

Jahbaz: Yeah. By the time ‘91 rolls around, it’s a little bit after high school for me, I write the song “Dedication to Bambaataa.” Tom is dating this girl who’s friends with the girlfriend of the head of Zulu Nation security, Muhammad Islam—also known as Big Mu, he’s referenced in Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.” So Muhammad Islam hears the “Dedication to Bambaataa” tape through Tom’s girlfriend, and he’s like, who are these guys? The MCs are mostly white, it’s a mixed-race band, I gotta meet these kids. So Tom and Muhammad Islam hook up, we then start getting managed by this dude Amad Henderson who was part of the Soulsonic Force, and we start hanging out in the Bronx River Projects going to Zulu Nation chapter meetings. They loved what we were all about and started to shop us around.

This talent show comes up, early ‘92. Lord Finesse shows up—and we love Finesse, we’re like, holy shit—and he brings this kid who turned out to be Big L. And they’re not smiling. We’re hanging backstage with Prince Messiah, who was the radio cohost with Red Alert on 98.7 KISS at the time. We’re in the green room because we were one of the bigger acts, we were managed by the people putting the show on, we were in a good place. They come in the room it’s like, oh shit, they’re strictly business. We’re like, Finesse is the king of punchlines, so if Finesse is walking this guy around, he’s not gonna be bad, he’s gonna be nice with it.

Big L goes on before us, and he goes right to the center of the stage. Skinny dude, long black coat, just jumped right into it over a beat. Front and center, just looking like a fucking dragon. We had played a lot of shows, we were confident, but we would sometimes pace the stage to check out the people in the back, on the right and left. We saw Big L and what he was doing, and it changed the way I approached performing: stay front and center, that’s your fulcrum, command the crowd from that point. If you’re straight MCing, everyone’s going to be focused on your words, on your punchlines, on your flow. That’s what he was doing. He came in first, we came in second, and he got signed to Columbia really soon after.

So Justice System’s deal with MCA must have come together after that?

Jahbaz: By early ‘93 I’m 21, Tom’s 20, and we were in a holding pattern with MCA. We hadn’t signed, but we knew who our A&R was, we knew what our budget was, we knew what our first single was—“Summer in the City,” they picked that out of the CMJ New Music Monthly. We were pushing that, and we had a pretty strong following in New York City. We weren’t technically signed until the end of ‘93, but we just had to wait for people’s contracts to run out. Our A&R guy left from Relativity to go to MCA, so we had to wait, which gave us a lot of time to write and get ready.

As a young, tight-knit band, what sort of A&R experience did a major label offer?

Jahbaz: The best aspect of the A&R was the choice of studios. Getting to work at Electric Lady, getting to work at Sear Sound. We ended up bumping Lenny Kravitz, who used to basically book ten days at a time on the regular. The sound we were going for was a really warm sound. There were few studios in Manhattan that had that setup to maximize what we were trying to do, to bring out a soul-jazz sound through a modern hip-hop lens.

The problem was our A&R dude booked the big room at Electric Lady, not the little room. One of the smaller rooms probably would have been better in terms of trying to make a warmer sound, but it’s cool—we only did the “Summer in the City” single in there.

Do any tour experiences stand out from the Rooftop Soundcheck run?

Jahbaz: We did twenty-seven cities across North America with the Fugees and Us3. We were on tour right when the Salaam Remi-remixed single of “Nappy Heads” went gold. They were just coming into their own, they were still trying to find their footing, their expression, that combination of live music with programmed samples, rhyming, MCing, singing, and how much you can incorporate and still be seen through the lens of hip hop—as opposed to strange and hard-to-classify.

‘Clef would come out, rock his acoustic guitar, and he could not have been nicer. Lauryn was actually super cool with me. I went to Tufts undergrad, and a girl I knew at Tufts went to the same high school as Lauryn. And Lauryn was still going to Columbia undergrad at the time, working toward her degree. So she and I had this respect, like, it’s hard enough to get through four years of undergrad at a serious school where you’re trying to maximize academics and do music at the same time. And she was doing acting on top of that, so she really had her shit together. But she was super cool with me and with our road manager at the time, this kid Troy. Troy was this kid we grew up, super smooth, and he very politely would be hitting on her and she’d very politely laugh it off, but she tolerated it, it was funny. We found out later what was going on in terms of the band’s dynamics.

But just chilling with them, trading VHS horror flicks between our tour bus and their tour bus, building with them, and the challenge and excitement of doing something original. Our whole thing, they had it too. It’s the idea, like KRS-One said, you gotta have style and learn to be original. That’s what they were doing, that’s what we were trying to do. They just killed it, they figured it out. We became friends with them, did one big tour with them and then spot dates with them after the tour, it was super fun.

Did Justice System remain together after the Rooftop Soundcheck run? How did the group decide to go independent for Uncharted Terrain?

Jahbaz: We’re signed to MCA Records, which was part of Universal. The deal is basically drafted in ‘93, but we have to wait ‘til the end of the year for everyone to ink it. At that time Uptown—Andre Harrell’s label that Puffy had been running for years—was killing it with R&B, it was like a mint printing money. Universal/MCA had so much money because of the R&B side. We signed a really big deal. It wasn’t a million-dollar advance or anything like that, but it was a healthy advance, great recording budgets. Pretty much all our money, by the way, went to the studio and sample clearance, and we were six dudes—we didn’t make any money. The point being that MCA as a business was living off the largess of Uptown Records’ R&B.

When our single drops—“Summer in the City,” May ‘94—our product manager, the guy who works the single, he gives notice that he’s leaving to go to Aftermath. At this time, Dre’s killing it with Aftermath/Interscope, they’re now making money hand over fist, and people in L.A. where the MCA headquarters was started to move over to Interscope. Interscope was local, and it was a lot cooler. MCA Records at the time was Fine Young Cannibals and the Elton John catalog, Puffy was about to go off and do his own thing with Bad Boy at RCA. I think people saw the writing on the wall.

For Justice System what that meant, practically speaking, is we were the favorite artists on the label for many of the senior VPs and department heads, but the staff was leaving to take different jobs and there was this weird in-between phase that we got caught up in. The senior vice president was getting divorced from the head of public relations right when our record was coming out. It was like, one dude would quit, another thing would be on hold, it was like total chaos there. And they felt bad, so they were like, yo, here’s more tour money. After the Fugees and Us3 we went on tour with Public Enemy, which was obviously incredible, a dream come true.

Then they wanted us to tour again and we were like, eh, timeout. You guys put like, no money into our video for “Summer in the City.” We’d been touring sites with Hype Williams—he did a whole treatment for it, but he wanted a six-figure budget, and they couldn’t justify it. They were like, let’s start smaller and we’ll grow bigger. Well, it just never happened. With “Dedication to Bambaataa,” they were like, we’ll give you money for the Diamond D and Beatnuts remixes, but maybe let’s talk about the next record and the next tour, let’s keep you on the road.

We were like, yo, this is dysfunction defined. So rather than double down with a label with all kinds of unrest and untimely departures of key staff, we were like, yo, can you give us a plan as to what you would do? We know that our music was hard to market in some ways, because we’re not straight hip hop, we’re not alternative rock, we’re not straight pop either. But by the same token, there’s plenty of other bands that are hard to define and the labels figure out how to make it work. We weren’t really hearing much in that regard.

Tom didn’t want to tour anymore. I was cool with touring more, I just wanted to make sure things were lining up, and we couldn’t agree on that. So I applied to law school as a backup and that’s when I stepped out. By middle of ‘95 they get dropped—they basically asked to be able to walk. While I was in law school they added Sug, who we grew up with, as another MC. Then two-and-a-half years later, I joined the group again, trying to do a day job and music both.

So Uncharted Terrain arrives in 2002, followed by Mobilization a year later which was packaged as a compilation of both old and unreleased material. What was the story behind that project?

Jahbaz: So, we had recorded five or six of the songs for Uncharted Terrain and were going to record labels. Post-Napster it was hell—the industry had changed so much since we were on MCA, it looked like a shell of itself by virtue of consolidation. So we were like, alright, it doesn’t look like any of the labels have much to offer. They thought our music was hard to market, so we decided to put it out ourselves and see what happens.

I was friends with Peter Adarkwah, the co-founder of BBE Records—I was doing legal work for them. So Pete put out “Dawn of the Apocalypse” and “Freedom…Let It Ring” as singles on BBE. Then Handcuts Records in Japan wanted something, but they wanted some new stuff, which was the raison d’etre of Mobilization coming into being—a bit of the Uncharted Terrain record with a bunch of new stuff, and some solo joints I had done with Victor Axelrod, “Dirty Jungle” and “Le Mistral.”

What side projects were the group members working on during these years?

Jahbaz: Basically, we bring three-quarters of a finished Uncharted Terrain record to a bunch of label heads and A&Rs, and they were like, this is cool, but we’re not gonna be able to do anything with this. So Coz and Tom were like, fine, and started Ill River Muzic. When they weren’t focusing on their label, they would write stuff and submit it to VH1, to MTV, to Oprah. They figured out the sync license game to keep checks coming in while they figure out what’s gonna be the next project. That’s how they stayed sharp musically, by getting together regularly and producing and writing.

Eric G and I had kind of checked out by ‘04. I had a daughter, I was ready to focus on family given all that had happened in the industry. That’s pretty much what went on for about eight years. I’d still write a little bit here and there, but Justice System was more or less on hiatus. We’d stayed really tight—doing Uncharted Terrain in 2001, we were good as gold—but between life, family, industry being kinda wack, that’s what happened until around 2012.

How did the full reunion for Basement Tapes come about?

Jahbaz: So Tom moves from New York to Miami around 2012. While he’s down there he ends up working at Apple, running an Apple store down in Miami while managing some artists and producers on the side, and he helps co-manage this dude’s studio down there. The studio features a lot of R&B, hip hop, a lot of Latin music. By 2002 he’d become a true gearhead and engineering fanatic in terms of frequency, range, how to fight distortion, make it the warmest sound possible, really breaking stuff down, getting things to sit well with separation in the mix. It became this incredible pet project of his. Through his process of managing producers and managing the studio, and then helping engineer stuff, he got better and better and better. He was working with some serious cats, learning—it basically snowballed.

Basement Tapes is really because of Tom, because he became psychotically good in the studio, with his engineering and mixing chops. At the tail end of my time with them at MCA, we started writing songs that could have been the second record. We had like, four solid songs, some material that hadn’t made the first record and then some new stuff. One I remember, Mo’ Betta Al loved it, we called it “Spinning Out of Control.” There was this club in Manhattan called the Bank, I remember rocking it in ‘95, and this song was insane, the people went nuts. What I didn’t know was around 2013, Coz, Mo’ Betta Al, and Tom had been going over our old tapes from that time period—’92 through ‘96—as well as tapes they’d made when I wasn’t around. They put their finger on that “Spinning Out of Control” song. That became “Bring the Justice” on this record.

Tom got Kokane to sing the chorus on “Pretty Lady.” When they asked me to come lay vocals, I said I’d do it on one condition: that my daughter—she’s really into music—could come to the studio, try some things out, so I could teach her the process. And they were like, absolutely.

So we did it, and this was my first time recording in a studio in a decade. I liked my verse, but Tom was like, Listen Jahbaz, it’s too lowkey, too mature. My voice has gotten deeper because of adult asthma. Then they start telling me they came up with all these other old tracks. Listening to them, I was floored. They hooked me through one song, to come back to the studio, and then we switched to some other songs: “Where We’re From,” “Bring the Justice,” a few others. But we didn’t have enough re-recorded at a caliber that was album-ready.

Through Tom’s management, working with producers, he had access to like, fifty tracks that he was trying to place, and he was producing some too. So I was like, send me ten or fifteen, and I picked out what became “Bronxian Bauxite,” “Maritime Blues,” and one that he had programmed, “Righteous Sons.” Before long, we had enough for an album, just through them literally going over our old basement tapes.

I started going over my old rhyme books from 1991 to 2003, and “Bronxian Bauxite” is something I wrote in a rhyme book in 1992. I was writing a paper for an African politics course in college, junior year I think, on colonialism in West Africa. Something about “Bauxite” and “Bronxian,” the alliteration, one day went into my rhyme book—I used to write all kinds of screeds. I always loved the line, I just couldn’t find a place for it when we were making Rooftop Soundcheck. Going through my book, thinking about “Bronxian Bauxite,” I thought about what it might mean: breakbeats. Bauxite is raw material, a natural resource from which aluminum is produced, very often produced by companies which don’t have any tie to the local community. That’s like breakbeats from the Bronx—teams of DJs pooling together money to find vinyl back in ‘74 and ‘75. That’s what “Bronxian Bauxite” is about.

That’s how we tied together the old and the new. Because of that, there’s this original ethos which permeates the record.

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