Friday, January 21, 2011

Jabee Williams

Local hip-hop artist raps 'to inspire children'

Friday, January 21, 2011

Local rapper Jabee poses for a photo Tuesday at Sara Sara Cupcakes in Oklahoma City. Jabee will open for Chicago-based hip-hop duo The Cool Kids tonight in Oklahoma City. (Matt Carney/The Daily)

Jabee Williams was only 7 years old when he learned the shock value of hip-hop.

"You know who Bushwick Bill is?" he asked from across the little white table in the corner of Sara Sara Cupcakes, not far from the east side of Oklahoma City where he grew up. I nodded, hazily aware of the most famous member of the Geto Boys, a depressed, alcoholic midget.

"They had an album cover — he'd shot himself — they went to the hospital and shot the album cover right after he'd shot himself," Jabee said. "You see that picture of him on the gurney, with the bullet wound in his face and listening to "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," he was talking about Halloween and stuff like that cause he was real graphic."

One of Oklahoma's most talented and accomplished rappers, Jabee has rejected gangsterism and violence in his own songwriting, a choice that's helped to change hundreds of Oklahoma City middle schoolers' lives for the better, said Masie Bross, director of Whiz Kids, an inner-city tutoring program.

"They just follow him and love him," Bross said. "You can see why; he's like a rock star to them."

Jabee works as the coordinator for The Club, the middle school division of Whiz Kids, where he spends time with at-risk children at Taft Middle School and John Marshall Mid-High School. Many of them from the same neighborhood where he grew up.

"We help them with their homework and we do a Bible devotional," he said of the program, which is partnered with a pair of churches in the area, Northwest Baptist and Crossroads Community.

He's been mentoring for eight years. "They have different activities like basketball, cooking, stuff like that," he said.

"I do it because someone did it for me, and if someone hadn't reached out to me, I would probably be dead or in jail," Jabee told aboveGround magazine in 2009.

His attitude hasn't changed much since then, as all the children got a free copy of his recent album "Lucky Me" for Christmas a month ago.

"He's so able to relate to them," said Bross ,who praised the rapper's work ethic and disciplinary skills with the children. "They really respect him."

Jabee recorded "Lucky Me" during a four-month stint away from home, working in Los Angeles and North Carolina studios.

I ask him if he feels he's really that lucky a guy. He says he wouldn't have called it that if it weren't true.

"That was the point!" he said, smiling and leaning forward to scratch his chin. Jabee reveals what has to be the coolest tattoo I'd ever seen — A red POW! on the back of his left palm stylized like traditional comic book onomatopoeia. "I've done more than most who come from where I've come from and I'm thankful for that," he said.

A sample from Kanye West's "Good Life" open "Imagination," the third track from "Lucky Me." He adopts Kanye's adolescent hopes for piled-up money and bright lights, transforming them into his own vision of a healed neighborhood: "Ain't no love in this city, I imagine that there is if I can dream it I can make it, see it I can take it."

Meeting at a cupcake shop was his idea and I wasn't surprised to see people greeting him the moment he opened Sara Sara's pink door. He didn't order one, but the girl behind the counter brought him a red velvet cupcake anyway before stopping to chat a while.

"Ah, my favorite," he grinned, eyeing the cream-colored icing and scarlet topping. People stopped to chat off and on, probably about half a dozen times in an hour. We returned to the interview and Jabee began to express himself the same way he does in his hip-hop: with frank positivism, even in dire, terrible circumstance.

Jabee lost his younger brother to gang violence in the neighborhood where he grew up, but he doesn't advertise that to bolster a gangster reputation. Instead, he acknowledged the potential everybody has for evil, himself included.

"I came from the same gun that killed my bro, grew up with the same folks that killed him though," he raps in the opening of "Don't Forget About Me," a short but standout rap from his "Must Be Nice" mixtape.

I ask him why he doesn't just record Christian hip-hop and his focus sharpens, like he's been thinking hard about just that.

"When you get saved, Christian musicians do this, they say: 'Who do you listen to?' And you say, 'Man, I listen to Mos Def'. Then they say, 'Well, the Christian version of him is this.' To me, that's whack, man. That's not original, you don't have your identity," Jabee said.

Jabee backed up a little to clarify that he doesn't have anything against Christian rap.

"Not that that's wrong — I've done that. But my purpose is different," he said.

He sees his purpose in hip-hop just the same as when he goes into Taft and John Marshall to spend time with children. He said he's not perfect, but that's not the point.

"They want somebody who understands you, somebody who's real," he said of the secular audience. "I feel like if I were a Christian rapper, I'd be fake. It wouldn't be real, man."

Jabee's nothing if not genuine. It's a big chunk of his lyrical content and how he characterizes the typically lush, soul-styled production on "Lucky Me" that's reflective of his personality.

He's got immediate plans for "Lucky Me" that include a re-up with extra songs, new songs and remixes released this summer, and a proper full-length album in the near future, as well as an appearance at South By Southwest music festival and conference in the spring.

Jabee said he's optimistic about a connection that may lead to a collaboration with El-P, a rapper/producer whom he respects as much as Kanye.

It's no surprise such a humble, happy guy's got so much going for him.

"I've got a long way to go, and I'm not where I'd like to be," he says. "But I'm grateful for everything."

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