What Went Right With… The Sun Rises In The East by Jeru The Damaja?

A review of Jeru The Damaja's album The Sun Rises In The East by What Went Wrong Or Right With...? for

In 1994, Jeru The Damaja released his début album ‘The Sun Rises In The East’ produced entirely by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. Jeru’s monotone voice accompanied by his naturalistic, slow flow (which paused mid-sentence) was his trademark style. When he declared that “[I] got a freaky, freaky, freaky flow” in his track ‘Come Clean’ he wasn’t bullshitting, Jeru’s sound was distinctive, it was his style and his style alone.

The first track from ‘The Sun Rises In The East’ is ‘Intro (Life)’ and it begins with Jeru stating; “Life is the result of the struggle between dynamic opposites; form and chaos, substance and oblivion, light and dark, and all the infinite variations of Yin and Yang. When the pendulum swings in favour of one, it eventually swings in favour of its opposite. Thus the balance of the universe is maintained”

Even though this dualistic concept pre-dated The Underachievers by over two decades, in this album’s case, this idea of opposites was a statement about black people being oppressed by white people. But, like day and night, there would come a time when minorities would become the majority and stop being persecuted and subdued. This became a theme for the majority of the album, there was gritty lyricism that many people would mistake for typical East Coast street-centric Hip-Hop but Jeru’s raps were something entirely different. He mixed black empowerment with Boom Bap beats, people were nodding their heads but unbeknownst to some of them, they were listening to political and social commentary. As he states in the song ‘My Mind Spray’ (which samples the line “My mind spray” from Jeru’s own track ‘Come Clean’) “I’m not a sexist, don’t have the power to be a racist. I’m a scientist, and an activist”.

During a time when Gangstaism and violence were adding to the ongoing degeneration of Hip-Hop, Jeru The Damaja wasn’t afraid to buck the trend. He had a plethora of original, anti-gangster lyrics in this LP including; “I’m the mack so I don’t need to tote a Mac. My attack is purely mental and its nature’s not hate, It’s meant to wake ya up out of your brainwashed state”

Tackling the way the black race is seen by many white people, songs like ‘D. Original’ (which samples Gang Starr’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” line from ‘I’m The Man’) contained lots of social commentary. Jeru raps over a dirty piano and a simple drum pattern; “Dirty, because of the skin I’m in, the fact I have melanin, automatically, makes me a felon. Even though I’m righteous, rotten’s what you’re yelling, but I’m not chain-snatching or drug-selling”

This was one of the aspects of this LP that made it original in a genre that was heaving with Gangsta Rap and tales of violence. In fact with songs like ‘Ain’t The Devil Happy’ he made his sentiments very clear. Rapping over an eerie string sample and between choruses that sampled RZA’s laugh from Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Tearz’, this was a song that commented on black on black crime and self-hatred without demonising his own race and culture (which a few rappers seem to inadvertently do in contemporary Hip-Hop). This is lyrically one of the stand-out tracks, just peep this verse…

Niggas are in a state of nothingness; hopelessness, lifelessness. If you’re in range, I hope you hear this, and try to change this, cause it’s disastrous. Who gets the most loot, who gets bust? Dollar bill y’all, is the god we trust. The days blow by like dust, even Men of Steel rust. We’re out here acting ridiculous, when, only we can save us. Mentally enslave us for little or nothing, kill our neighbours. Animalistic, cannibalistic behaviour. Look to the sky for your Savior, He won’t save ya, He didn’t save your forefathers. Why bother, brothers? You must discover the power of self; know thyself or find thyself, hating thyself, killing thyself, while he collects the wealth, that you sit back and murder for. Ain’t the devil happy?”

‘Jungle Music’ is another song filled with social criticism and empowerment. A nice head-nodding beat with a xylophone sample, this song is in the same vein as Dred Scott or Ras Kass, this was back when a pro-black song didn’t sound clichéd…

It started on the sand of the land of the mother, word to mother, king like my father. My style survived slave ships, whips, and chains, hardships. Still through all this, the praise roll off my lips. Bring your guns, chains and tongue, force your religion, on me, cut my hair, the vibes still exist. To destroy the molesters of my heritage. But they conceal the drums reveal, my royal lineage. King of Kings, God of Gods, like my ancestors’ drums I beat the odds. More mics killed than slaves during the middle passage, who rapes and ravages and calls us savage? Jungle bunny, I’m not mo’ funny, I’m mo’ deadly. They know one day we’ll learn how to use it, that’s why they fear… our jungle music”

That’s not to say that the entire album is filled with racial, political, and social analysis. There’s some fun to be had on this LP too. ‘You Can’t Stop The Prophet’ for instance is a song with a unique narrative telling a story of Jeru navigating a world filled with the personification of various emotions. As he anthropomorphises mental states such as “ignorance”, “hatred”, and “jealousy”, the track takes the listener on a journey as Jeru battles these feelings. Thanks to DJ Premier, there’s an accompanying head-nodding beat, okay so this isn’t the greatest story in terms of plot but the ascribing of human features to emotions was highly original and there was the memorable video featuring cartoons which added to the vibe of the song…

Now I, run through the ghetto, battling my arch nemesis Mr. Ignorance. He’s been trying to take me out since the days of my youth, he feared this day would come. I’m hot on his trail, but sometimes he slips away. Because he has an army, they always give me trouble. Mainly; Hatred, Jealousy, and Envy, they attack me, they think they got me, but I use my super-science and I twist all three”

‘Da Bichez’ was another song where Jeru attempted to divert from the album’s usual themes. With its relaxed, trumpet-infused vibe, this song spoke about gold-diggers decades before Kanye “Overrated Lame” West. This song came in for some criticism, groups like the Fugees even sent a subliminal diss toward Jeru. I assume this was because the song could be misconstrued as misogynistic, however without over-defending the song, it’s quite clear that Jeru wasn’t speaking about all women. He even says in the song “I’m not a misogynist” and to me, the hook is self explanatory; “I’m not talking about the queens, but [what?] the bitches. Not the sisters [what?] the bitches. Not the young ladies [what?] the bitches”.

I have to also point out that mainstream-approved artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg never got much flack for their misogynistic content (remember the lines “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, lick on these nuts and suck the dick”?). But any instance of underground or credible Hip-Hop using words like “bitch” and everybody is quick to denounce it. All that aside, this song also contains some comedic lines such as “My man had a chick and thought she was finger-lickin’, I knew her style that’s why I’m vegetarian”

‘Come Clean’ is a classic Hip-Hop track, it features an echoing sound like something dripping in a Sci-Fi film and the chorus samples Onyx’s ‘Throw Ya Gunz’ (“Uh Oh, heads up ’cause we dropping some shit”). The line “When the East is in the house” was in turn sampled by Blahzay Blahzay for their classic track ‘Danger’ and the song contains the line “Blow up spots like the World Trade Center” pre-dating The Notorious Big’s line “Blow up like the World Trade” by a few months. Speaking of the World Trade Center, along with The Coup, this album’s artwork foreshadowed the 9/11 attacks, and although there was a bombing of the WTC in 1993, that particular explosion was in the basement parking garage whereas this (and The Coup’s album ‘Party Music’) shows the top of the building on fire. If anything, this album shows that people weren’t afraid to reference recent events in art and music including acts of terrorism, after September 11th however, everybody turned into pussies, but I digress.

The album closes with the track ‘Statik’ which sports some actual vinyl static forming the basis of the beat used to great effect by Primo. Following on from this concept, the chorus samples Positive K’s ‘How The Fuck Would You Know’ with the sampled line “And I could rock a rhyme with just static” making for a great hook. The album then ends with the record static fading out.

Coming in at under forty minutes ‘The Sun Rise In The East’ is a short album containing only thirteen tracks, if you ignore the skits and interludes there’s only ten songs. But with that being said, it’s a positive thing that you’re left wanting more rather than overindulging and wanting the album to stop (which happens many times in Hip-Hop music).

This album, despite its underground aesthetic and political themes, made it into the charts (as high as number 36 on The Billboard 200) and it even received “Four Mics” from The Source. This was a well received album by critics and the public, one of the few occasions where a great album wasn’t slept on and simultaneously an album that actually deserved the praise it received.

This LP was released after Nas’ début ‘Illmatic’ but it fitted nicely into the rap music scene in 1994, a time when consciousness and street-stories collided. ‘The Sun Rises In The East’ was a blend of Nas’ introspective and extrospective lyrics mixed with more grittier sounds from Brooklyn, New York. This was yet another album that revived and reinvigorated East Coast Hip-Hop making the five boroughs the dominant force in rap for almost the rest of the decade. This LP followed on from the other great débuts by Black Moon, Onyx, and Lords Of The Underground, making a hardcore, gritty, street soundscape the zeitgeist of the golden era.

‘The Sun Rises In The East’ was a 100% pure Hip-Hop album; no R’N’B singing, no Pop samples, no attempt at crossing-over, this was undiluted East Coast Hip-Hop back when MCs weren’t ashamed to drop a 100% unadulterated rap album. But, unlike releases from his peers, Jeru’s offering contained more reflection and much deeper lyrics, touching on racial issues and black empowerment, making this a unique album. Despite ‘The Sun Rises In The East’ being slightly political however, this isn’t an LP that slaps you in the face, it’s all very steady and never shakes the listener, instead it tells you how it is and lets you judge.

The stand out songs are ‘D. Original’, ‘You Can’t Stop The Prophet’, ‘Ain’t The Devil Happy’, ‘My Mind Spray’, ‘Come Clean’, and ‘Jungle Music’. The album is close to being perfect but there are a few relatively “weaker” songs on the first half. From the mid-point to the end however (from ‘You Can’t Stop The Prophet’ onward) it’s almost flawless but the skits do break up what otherwise would be a great flowing album. Remove the unneeded skits and this is possibly a 10/10.

‘The Sun Rises In The East’ still to this day conjures up scenes of graffiti on decaying brick walls, fires in trash cans, dimly-lit New York streets, this is the embodiment of 90s East Coast Hip-Hop with some social commentary thrown into the mix. This is without a doubt a classic album and for me, it remains Jeru The Damaja’s best work to date.

The Sun Rose In The East.

Beats: 9/10

Rhymes: 9/10

Overall: 9/10

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