The Studio in Northern Liberties has played host to nearly every recording session by The Roots and their closest associates.
And if Questlove, Black Thought and co. are up to anything, Karl Jenkins — aka Dice Raw — is there.
Jenkins holds down the Philly fort for the band, whose members now spend the majority of their time in and around New York for their day job as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Lately, though, Jenkins has been busy at The Studio doing his own thing, recording his new, most politicized album yet, Jimmy’s Back.
“It’s like home, where I belong,” says Jenkins. He’s talking about The Studio, but he just as easily could be describing his relation to Philly’s hip-hop game or to The Roots themselves — or even the explosive content of his new album, which deals with Jim Crow laws and black-male incarceration.
His connection to The Roots is deep. Jenkins was discovered by one of The Roots’ first producers, Kenyatta Saunders, aka Kelo, who brought him to MC Black Thought’s (Tariq Trotter) attention. He had a new-wave trip-hop group, Nouveau Rich, with another of The Roots’ mixologists, Khari Mateen. He has written, produced, rapped and crafted elements of every Roots album since they met and continues to be essential, not only to Black Thought, but to everything the Roots camp does. “He’s not just a featured vocalist and my writing partner,” says Trotter. “Dice has an equal say on what we put out under The Roots’ brand, and for all intents and purposes, he’s our A&R man, sifting through all the dense material we have to help us be more efficient.”
The band’s recording process is as manic as a roller coaster in Trotter’s estimation, and Jenkins is the guy steering the wild ride. “I’m 36,” says Jenkins, “and sometimes they make me feel like a young knucklehead since they’re, like, 5 years older than me.” He chuckles. “But, unofficially or officially, I am one of the engines that make that thing move.”
Some think, however, that The Roots have cast too wide a shadow for too long over Jenkins’ work. His solo output consists of one full-length album he’s not fond of (2000’s Reclaiming the Dead), a mixtape series that was supposed to yield three albums but only produced one (2011’s The Greatest Rapper Never), two EPs with Nikki Jean and Nouveau Riche and now Jimmy’s Back.
But Jenkins likes to remind the haters that he’s always writing — Jill Scott’s turn on Young Jeezy’s latest album, TM103, for example — and that he’s got 200 new-ish songs in the can and another several hundred written for The Roots, in addition to the 30 that have been released.His biggest pet peeve is when people ask him what he’s been up to.
“For Dice, anything that he does apart from us has got to be about finding the happy medium between Roots Dice and raw-life, real-life Dice,” says Trotter. It’s a process of “achieving creative independence without it being a complete departure from what fans who associate him with The Roots brand have come to expect.”
Those fans’ expectations include incisive, smartly written lyrics. Still, Jimmy’s Back could be a shocker, a possibly polarizing effort that’s as dynamic and forceful as Cornel West’s work. The album was inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness and was named for his friend, the late Philly rapper Jimmy Davis (aka Jimme Wallstreet), who was gunned down in June 2013.
With his smart, hard, socially conscious lyrics and mellifluous, singsong-y voice, Jenkins is a singular entity, unique and easily recognizable. He’s not been eclipsed by The Roots, but instead basks in their light while doing his own solo thing when he chooses. “I never felt as if I was ever in their shadow to begin with,” says Jenkins. “That said, The Roots’ shadow is not a bad place to be standing in. I’ll tell you that much,” he says with a laugh. “If I had any crew to stand as a part of, I’d still pick them, because they promote creativity. How many bands truly inspire people in their circle to do something whenever they have something to say? Not a lot.”
Jenkins always had something to say.
Jenkins grew up in the Logan Valley area near 11th and Wyoming, later moving to 17th and Diamond. While much of his street-savvy lyricism has come from growing up in North Philly’s Badlands, Jimmy’s Back’s origins are specifically culled from the comings-and-goings of Diamond Street.
“This album is a constant reminder that at any given point in your life, in your day, someone you know is going to get locked up,” says Jenkins. Among Alexander’s book’s statistics: One in every 14 black males is incarcerated in the U.S., compared to one in 106 white males. “It could be you. It could be somebody like me who doesn’t do crime. Look, I still fear the police and getting incarcerated. I have to ask myself, ‘Why?’”
Part of that fear stems from his time selling drugs in his old neighborhood. Jenkins didn’t have to — not for money. His parents never had problems keeping the lights on. “I didn’t come from the perspective of struggle. I didn’t want for anything at age 11, but it was such a popular thing to do, I felt as if I should try it. It was like having a summer job — a lemonade stand.”
His fears are palpable on the song “Wake Up,” about a rapper named Wal-Lo from Philly’s famed Major Figgas, who’s been in jail for 21 of his 34 years. “He’s had home passes since he was 13 years old,” says Jenkins. “He said to me one day, ‘Dice, I’ve never had a driver’s license or a girlfriend. I never had my own apartment or went to a restaurant to have dinner. People take that for granted, Dice. Don’t. I gave my life to the street when I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into.”’ For Jenkins, too many rappers glorify the life without ever acknowledging the realities of lonely 17-year-old kids crying themselves to sleep in prison. “That nobody cares about them — no rapper tells that side of the story,” says Jenkins.
For Jenkins, the story was different. At 14, the Frankford High student was competing and freestyle rapping in talent shows when he got spotted by The Roots’ main man Kelo, who made Jenkins a part of his next endeavor, work for Bell Biv DeVoe’s Mental Productions in L.A. There, Kelo had a Kid ’n Play-like act that Jenkins wanted to rap for, but Kelo had other plans, instead making the rapper a writer for his up-and-coming act.
“Kelo kept telling me that my rap was too underground — not commercial — but that my writing instincts were spot-on,” says Jenkins. “That was no fun. I wanted to be the guy who got my picture taken with Snoop Dogg and Ice-T.”
Still, Jenkins wouldn’t have to wait long for attention. When The Roots got a label deal in 1994, Kelo — who produced Roots tunes like “Distortion to Static” — returned to Philly and brought Jenkins with him. “We had a studio set up in the Chinatown Ramada Inn on Eighth Street,” recalls Trotter about the recording of Do You Want More?!!!??! and the first time he met Jenkins.
“There were these five hotel rooms,” says Jenkins. “I didn’t even know The Roots were there. I just walked into a room with a bunch of people smoking weed, sat down, started eating my sandwich and Tariq saw me. I had braces, was a little fat, looked nerdy, but told him I worked with Kelo and that I rapped. He laughed and said he wanted to hear something, so I obliged. Next thing you know, he’s inviting me into the recording room, and I stayed for four days.”
What made him a good fit for The Roots, where Trotter was (and is) concerned, was Jenkins’ smooth verbal flow. (“I have a beautiful singing voice,” says Jenkins. “I don’t sound like Gerald Levert or anybody black. I sound like a white boy.”)
“Dice had a unique sound to his rap, a vocal quality that probably has something to do with him being asthmatic, especially when he was younger,” says Trotter. “He just sounded different, breathier. That grabbed you. Still does; that and the fact that he was the first person that I worked with who could walk into the studio and just start rapping off the top of his head. All of his initial stuff with us that he jumped on, he wouldn’t write any of that stuff. He’d just go into the booth and let it rip.”
When Jenkins wasn’t busy playing “Robin to my Batman,” as Trotter puts it, he released his solo debut, Reclaiming the Dead, in 2000, an album he calls “my Titanic.” In 2005, he formed the Portishead-like Nouveau Riche with co-vocalist Nikki Jean and Khari Mateen, but that eventually broke up due to romantic conflicts: “Bandmates should never sleep together,” he says simply. His solo mixtapes of 2011 were sharp and wriggly, but he grew restless. Besides, his role within The Roots, musically and organizationally, had grown. “Dice has become our go-to guy for kick-starting the recording process,” says Trotter.
Jenkins might not have loved his first solo album, but this new one is something different: It’s his fullest and most impactful statement yet. In its inception, Jimmy’s Back had a lyrical arc ranging from the dehumanization of the prison population (“Animal”) to those neighborhood guys who were made heroes by incarceration (“Over”).
Then Jimmy Davis, Jenkins’ pal from Frankford High who renamed himself Jimme Wallstreet, was fatally shot on June 21. Jenkins had just reacquainted himself with Davis last year, after having not seen him for 10 years. “We were different than the other cats in school,” says Jenkins. “We were more mature and spoke and dressed differently than everyone. We were clean in our Eddie Bauer and Tommy Hilfiger gear.” When the two started hanging again, they smoked weed and listened to each other’s tracks. “His narrative wasn’t my cup of tea. He catered to radio and I don’t think he let himself be as creative as he could have been. But who knows where he was headed?” The case is still unsolved and Jenkins can’t imagine what motivated the murder, but its violent randomness also influenced Jimmy’s Back thematic preoccupations.
“The way I paint pictures now is slightly different than I always have,” says Jenkins. “It’s like a Renoir. Sometimes you’ll focus on the trees in the foreground, sometimes the ducks on the pond.” He pauses. “Only it ain’t ducks I’m talking about.”
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