The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الخميس، آذار ٠٢، ٢٠٠٦

Jennifer Johns: Incubation in Fire

Interview by Bella Bakrania
Flick by Matt Reamer

Jennifer Johns is a powerful performer. In front of hundreds of people at local stage shows in Berkeley and Oakland, I’ve seen her captivate the crowd and bare her soul, undeterred and in pure neo-soul fashion.  Her music is off the hook too, with fierce punches of funk, dub reggae, social commentary and raw emotion, mixed with hip-hop beats, deejay tricks, and natural percussion. 

SHOUT had the opportunity to chat with her about where she developed such a stage presence, and how she learned to tune her voice to that distinctive soul-pitch.

SHOUT: Where were you raised and where have you traveled in the world?
Jennifer:I’m from East Oakland, born and raised. I grew up singing with the Oakland Youth Chorus and I took dance classes at Alice Arts Center. I went to LA when I was 19. I performed at an ongoing event called Pure Love with Pure Love Entertainment.  As a kid I sounded like everybody else, but I developed my sound and got involved with the label Goodvibe Recordings.  I met Mystic and Spontaneous and got into more hip-hop.  That’s where I discovered my voice. 

Why did you leave the Bay to go to LA?
Everybody should go away from home for just a little bit to figure it out.  Sometimes I’m a little punk about the cold.  LA was easy and close.

What sort of music did you learn during your formative years as a singer?
Because of the Oakland Youth Chorus, I learned music in a lot of different languages - Yoruba, Cantonese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, whatever.  We performed everywhere, at shows with singers like Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack and Melissa Manchester.  We performed everywhere like the Paramount here in Oakland and at the Grace Cathedral in SF. 

Tell me more about how you developed your live performance skills.
There is so much pirating going on in music that musicians can’t survive unless you can put on a show. It comes down to what kind of showman and entertainer you are. Pure Love was a place where a lot of artists could woodshed, you know, just shedding yourself of everything.  People like Malcolm Jamal Warner, Medusa, and Martin Luther would come through and do their thing.  There were never more than 100 people there.  I peeped some game from Medusa. I got to sing backup for her—that bitch is bad!  When I did the tour with Blackalicious in Europe, we opened for Mary J. Blige and Chaka Khan.  Being under Gift of Gab’s wings was good.

Is your schedule like routine or all over the place?
Well, I was supposed to move to NY, but I feel like there’s a lot going on in the world now, in the streets, with the people. I’m really feeling folks here, and the musical renaissance and revolution that’s happening in the Town right now. We’ve got Hieroglyphics, Federation, the Team, Goapele, Femi, Ise Lyfe, so many different kinds of music coming out of here, so diverse, I can’t leave right now. I’ve been touring a bit—I just got back from Hawaii and Alaska.

Tell us about creating your last album heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop, on Nayo Movement Music.
It was awful, but it was the best too. I was shedding my experiences.  Joshua Evans was the engineer.  It was coproduced by Spontaneous. Spontaneous is from Chicago but now a part of LA’s underground hip-hop scene. He released the single Waterproof in ‘98 [Goodvibe Recordings], and Next School MCs (1999) and Reprezen’n, (2000) as well as a full-length Spur of the Moment Musik. I went to Seattle in the fall of 2003 with Spontaneous and we did that album in 10 days. We went underground.  I got hella sick.  I lost hella weight.  I had pneumonia. 

You basically blew up with your last album.  How does it feel?
I had fans in LA already.  But the music was spread by word of mouth.  And there’s continual growth.  We sold about 300,000 copies of the first EP without a record label! There’s some internet promotion, too.

What are you currently working on?
I am producing as well as singing. I’m working with other people on the new album. It’s expected to be done in spring 2006.  I’m recording it here in Oakland (in Allen Dones house studio) and Hawaii. In the studio we’re above Broadway Terrace, overlooking the Bay, it’s a beautiful place.

Where can we find your music? It is on a web site and in major stores?
You can find it in Tower and Amoeba.  Since it was released I’ve been getting a lotta love, nothing but support.  I’ve been getting some international support too.