August 6, 2018
Released On October 15, 1996
Released By Payday & FFRR Records
Jeru The Damaja was a super hero. He was, as his own music will tell you, a prophet. The problem with a prophet’s message is that it’s usually believed only by an ominous few. The rest of us bear the burden of the consequences later on. And that’s what Wrath Of The Math is all about: a prophet’s message ignored, and chickens coming home to roost. You see, Wrath is very much a sequel to Jeru’s classic debut The Sun Still Rises In The East. We know this because of so many cues back to the previous release — the interlude/skit music, the titles (“Physical Stamina” is a direct link to the previous “Mental Stamina“), and even explicit callbacks to previous songs like “Da Bichez” on “Me Or The Papes,” or “Revenge Of The Prophet (Part 5).” Most importantly, we can tell from the lyrics. We (hip hop culture) did not heed Jeru’s previous warning, so now you (punk MC’s) must deal with his wrath, set to some of DJ Premier’s finest work.
So why was this album so important? Because of the great schism of 1997, that’s why. Note: that’s not a “real” thing, per se. I just always thought historical schisms were funny to read about, so now I’m making up my own. By 1997, Notorious B.I.G. was the undisputed King of New York (and hip hop as a whole, by proxy). Sean “Puffy” Combs was dominating the radio with a seemingly endless string of glitzy hits, sampling lazy loops from your favorite pop hits of the 1980s. This is commonly known as the “Shiny Suit Era.” This era was against everything that underground hip hop stood for, and so this schism was a division between the have’s and have-not’s. Between those who sipped Cristal and those who sipped Hennessy. Versace shades vs. Champion hoodies. The Dark Side vs. The Jedi. The problem was that B.I.G. was such a superior MC with a machine behind him, that nobody from the underground had the gall nor the means to mount an assault; except Jeru.
Because this wasn’t a publicized “beef” splattered all over the front pages of the media at the time, it may sound like I’m reaching, or connecting dots where there is no connection, but this exchange between lyrical heavyweights was quite real. Let’s examine a few key points in the altercation. Biggie was so on fire in 1995 that a major label let him put together a group of his childhood friends, most of whom weren’t even artists, and cut an album as “Junior M.A.F.I.A.” Their lead single was a tune called “Player’s Anthem,” which featured a sample of “You Are What I’m All About” by New Birth. In seemingly direct response, Jeru’s lead single for Wrath was “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” a lyrical (and visual) tirade against all that glitters. He just so happened to have a beat from DJ Premier sampling the exact same New Birth record. Coincidence? Hardly. If that’s too much of a reach for you, then Jeru cuts out all the guess work on “One Day,” calling out B.I.G., Puff, Bad Boy, Foxy Brown, and Suge Knight all by name. Understand, in 1996, you did not, under any circumstances call out Suge Knight by name!
So what did Biggie do? To the mass public, it seemed like he just let it roll off his back, but to the trained eye/ear of any hip hop head, he got his shots in as well. B.I.G.’s next album came out a year later in 1997. Perhaps one of the most memorable cuts from Life After Death is “Ten Crack Commandments.” It’s literally a step-by-step booklet on the crack trade over one of DJ Premier’s all-time greatest sample flips. It’s a masterpiece, both lyrically and musically. But B.I.G. wasn’t the first person to rhyme on that iconic track — Jeru was. The beat was originally used for a radio promo for Angie Martinez’ Hot 97 radio show. Puffy heard the beat while doing an interview at the station, a call was placed to DJ Premier, who then called Jeru, and the rest is history. In fact, DJ Premier would further play the middleman on “Kick In The Door,” in which B.I.G. subtly addresses the situation by asking Premier: “son, I’m surprised you run with them? / I think they got cum in them, cuz they / nothing but dicks / trying to blow up like nitro in dynamite sticks.”
I re-hash all of that to say this: this was hip hop at its absolute best, no matter which side you were on. These were two of the most skilled lyrical veterans of the day, going at each other over the best production of the day. Sometimes they addressed each other in coded, subliminal messages, other times directly. But it was up to us, the fans, to figure it out, put the pieces together and appreciate it for how damn entertaining it was. Remember, this is before social media, so trolling meant planning things out months, if not years, in advance. Wrath Of The Math should be on everyone’s radar because it’s got everything — socio-economic commentary, vivid storytelling, sinister beats, immaculate rhymes, a subliminal Fugees diss (go back and listen to the first few bars of “Black Cowboys“), and a mission. Wrath isn’t just an album, it’s a manifesto. Now how often to we say that about a rap album?
The underground prophet and dogmatic guardian of ’90s hip-hop.
In honor of DJ Premier, the Mount Rushmore-worthy producer who supplied the musical backbone for the entirety of Wrath Of The Math, I thought a WhoSampled deep-dive might be a fitting contribution to this week’s conversation. (In case you haven’t yet downloaded WhoSampled to your phone — and you 1,000% should — it’s a mind-bogglingly interconnected database that compiles information on how samples are used throughout the hip hop universe. I think I paid like two or three bucks for it, but it’s priceless.) Browsing the songs on Wrath Of The Math, you’ll find that DJ Premier is especially adept at incorporating jazz, with repeat appearances by Ahmad Jamal, who shows up in “Me Or The Papes” and “One Day,” as well as the late, great Miles Davis. In fact, the very first thing you hear on Wrath Of The Math is a phrase from a song of Davis’ called “Will o’ The Wisp” — an expression of brassy tension that easily could have soundtracked a pregnant moment in an episode of Adam West’s version of Batman. (That feeling typifies Davis’ Sketches Of Spain; it’s simultaneously beautiful and stressful throughout in a way I find spellbinding.) Premier also pulls from Birth Of The Cool, as “How I’m Livin’” takes a page from “Venus De Milo.” This exercise in following musical breadcrumbs could feel terribly academic, but consider this: My WhoSampled binge gave me an excuse to dust off my vinyl copies of Sketches Of Spain and Birth Of The Cool during Sunday’s dinner prep, and what did I find on the same side as “Venus De Milo,” just two tracks prior? A song called “Jeru.” Goosebumps kicked up immediately. Is that where Kendrick Jeru Davis got his stage name? Is that why Premo sampled the song? Part of me wants to stay frozen in this moment of harmony without knowing if it has broader meaning. The connection certainly has meaning to me. Great DJs make music about music, like a spiral you can wind down infinitely. DJ Premier certainly did that here.
I remember Jeru The Damaja. Back in the early ’90s, during my abortive two-year tenure in college, I was slowly but surely disconnecting from school and campus life in favor of hanging out with a bunch of hardcore kids I’d met at shows. They were into a ton of current hardcore groups, but they were also surprisingly well-versed in underground hip hop of the era, and one of those kids, who became my roommate for a while during that time, had the first Jeru The Damaja tape, The Sun Rises In The East. I heard quite a bit of that tape while driving around town with those kids, but it still took months before I figured out that the last word in Jeru’s name was pronounced “Damager,” not “dah-MAH-zhah.” I guess you can take cool hip hop misspellings too far, huh? Anyway, I never heard any later Jeru releases til now — which makes sense, because any quick overview of his career shows that his still-revered first album did way better than any of his subsequent releases. His sophomore album, Wrath Of The Math, makes me wonder why it, at least, did not receive similar acclaim as his first album. After all, like The Sun Rises In The East, Wrath Of The Math is entirely produced by DJ Premier, who was known in the ’90s as one of the best beatmakers in the hip hop genre (and is still seen that way by a lot of people to this day). Jeru The Damaja’s lyrical skills and subject matter are consistent with those of his first album. Songs like “The Frustrated N***a” and “Revenge Of The Prophet (Part 5)” continue the first album’s mission of mingling radical social commentary with intricate flow — the latter track is even a direct sequel to Sun Rises In The East‘s “,a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrDgMp4BS5Q”>You Can’t Stop The Prophet.” If anything jumps out at me here as different, it’s the multiple tracks dealing with beef in the hip hop community. “Tha Bullshit” attacks hip hop that ignores positive social messages in favor of irresponsible lyrics about selling drugs and turning your back on your community. “One Day” takes direct aim at the major players in the East Coast-West Coast beef, mentioning Puff Daddy and Suge Knight by name and accusing them of holding “real hip hop” hostage in order to make money. And then there’s “Black Cowboys,” which shoots back at The Fugees after that group’s Lauryn Hill criticized Jeru’s Sun Rises In The East track, “Da Bichez.” She called it misogynist, and she had a point; now on this track, Jeru’s first insult in response to the criticism from the Fugees takes a misogynist shot at the group because “a female is one of their strongest men.” The misogyny gets thicker on back-to-back tracks “Not The Average” and “Me Or The Papes,” the latter of which is a direct sequel to “Da Bichez.” Both talk in detail about the many women who haven’t been good enough for Jeru. The first does so in episodic fashion, dismissing women for being promiscuous or having stalker exes; the second is a less specific litany of complaints about women who are supposedly more interested in money than sex. It follows “Da Bichez” into evocation of the Madonna-whore trope, with a woman being placed in the latter category an excuse for saying all sorts of hateful stuff about her. To be frank about this subject matter, none of it is a very fun listen, and it’s sad to see Jeru fall victim to an issue that arises quite often in hip hop — rappers who care about elevating the black community and rapping about intelligent topics also tend to have strong socially conservative views. “Scientifical Madness” pivots from conservative social messaging into outright conspiracy theory, implying that the government created Ebola to kill black people and that poisonous gases are pumped into the air, again by the government, to keep the people (particularly working-class black people) down. It’s hard to take Jeru’s more intelligent lyrics seriously when he’s rapidly veering from misogynist attitudes to straight-up Infowars shit. It’s too bad, because this album is a solid listen on the whole, and Jeru is definitely gifted in flow and wordplay. But upon closer examination of those lyrics, it seems much clearer why it didn’t do as well as his debut — and from my point of view, that is for the best even if it’s at the expense of some quality instrumentals and vocal rhythms.
Wrath Of The Math is a series of deeply felt sentiments, wrapped in a punctuated rap delivery (no pun intended) and intended as a vehicle for educational awareness on an assortment of topics Jeru The Damaja finds of the utmost importance with regard to public discourse and subsequent action. Chief among the sounds and words heard on this album are sentiments and questions revolving around the current (as of 1996 when this was contemporary) relationship between artists, the public, and black culture. Jeru wastes no time setting the stage of this record with the somewhat vague, but ultimately riveting, spoken word title track, which that acts like a brief foreword of sorts and ties together everything that comes thereafter (“Let us now discuss the mental attitude / The mental must always stay calm / You must let nothing move you / Be it good or bad”). The declarative way he makes his initial point rings out with an almost scholastic or philosophical like feel to it. Even if that were all a person was able to listen to before needing to stop, no one would doubt that this album is out to tell the world something and thus, is purpose driven in a way that goes beyond just making a catchy beat or dropping lots of expletives. The canon of hip-hop and its accompanying history, to say nothing of the even bigger complexities behind black history, are no undertakings of light exploration. No single record can encompass the grandiosity of either topic but it never hurts when an album, so devoted to breaching both, elicits a fascinated and actively engaged response, which it did for me. Jeru has so much to say that the sheer volume of words encourages a backtrack but even if you can keep up with the volume of lyrics, the scenes they paint are equal parts emotive, creative, and urging elaboration; like a dramatic cliffhanger. I was particularly struck by the personification of hip-hop in the later track, “One Day.” (“We have Hip-Hop hostage with guns to his throat / Do the right thing and we might let him go / But if you call the police, that’s all she wrote / You know what the motive is / it’s all about dough.”) The combination of things like old school studio piano, vinyl scratching, and compressed drum sound samples often serving as the musical background to Jeru’s rhymes give Wrath Of The Math a sonically vintage aesthetic. Each track has its own instrumentally surprising qualities, as opposed to Jeru choosing to take the route of sonic repetition in order to put the lyrics entirely, and understandably at the forefront. Beyond musical intrigue however, the wordless half of this album helps to break up the intensity of the spoken half. Not only are the stories told meant to make a heavy impact but the literal delivery thereof is sharply given and might be difficult to consistently stay attuned to, if it were absent the variation. It’s like picking up a 300 page book that’s front loaded with 50 pages of non-stop exposition. Even if what’s there is crucial to the overall story, that kind of delivery method can leave whatever else is there feeling hard to digest. Wrath Of The Math exudes a sense of careful balance between the intent to say things of value and placing those messages in a musical vehicle that is quirky enough to truly foster an interest in knowing and understanding what’s being said. The logical conclusion to that is likely to be a few repeat listens to gain a solid grasp and for an artist that Kellen clearly feels deserves more awareness and recognition, such would be the perfect outcome, would it not?
I knew I was gonna like Wrath Of The Math as soon as I read “all songs produced by DJ Premier.” Among so much fantastic work, he made my favorite Illmatic beat (“N.Y. State Of Mind”), and together with Royce da 5’9″ made one of the best pure hip-hop albums of 2018 (PRhyme 2). He’s been A+ for three decades. This is not to take anything away from Jeru, of course. The social politicking of “Scientifical Madness” and the extended hostage metaphor in “One Day” are brilliantly written and performed, and make Wrath worth checking out by themselves. But, man — Premier is a legend. Unsurprisingly, his beats throughout the album are top-notch, even the sorta out-of-place “Physical Stamina” which feels more like Wu-Tang Clan than either Jeru or Premier. And then there are the samples throughout. Most of the artists I’d already heard, or at least heard of: James Brown, Pink Floyd (!), and Rufus Thomas. But some — maybe a few more than I’d like to admit — I had not: Ahmad Jamal, Q65, and Jimmy McGriff. But even among the (few) songs I was intimately familiar with, it was a surprise to hear how the always-inventive Premier used them — like only using the cash register from Pink Floyd’s “Money” to to emphasize the power of, well, money. To that end, this week’s OYR pick served as an introduction to several artists, not just one. And that’s a rabbit hole I don’t mind getting lost in.
Because why not take down a shaolin syndicate while rapping about derisive hip-hop culture?
Even before I realized DJ Premier produced this whole album, I was remarking to myself just how amazing it sounds. Right from the intro, which very tastefully samples Miles Davis playing Manuel De Falla’s “Will o’ The Wisp,” I knew there was serious musical knowledge behind what was about to follow. Premier made his name as one half of duo Gang Starr, masterfully manipulating jazzy licks, rich, reverberant bass, and sharp drums into hypnotic tracks perfectly constructed for his partner, the late Guru. Any rapper who could get the attention of a producer like him, no less engage in such tight collaborations as the first two Jeru The Damaja albums, is immediately demanding of a close listen if not instantaneous respect. So why did it take me this long to actually hear Jeru, even though I was very aware of his activities during the so-called Golden Age of Hip Hop? It comes down to the siren song of Trip Hop and other British music that pulled me away from what was right in my own backyard, combined with the sheer lack of an easy way to hear everything I read about. I’ll probably be catching up for the rest of my life! In any case, while Jeru is not the most dazzling rapper, his indomitability more than makes up for his workmanlike voice and metrically basic flow. It’s hard not to picture Jeru as a tank, rolling over everything in his path without a care for the destruction in his wake. One of his most lethal weapons is his vivid storytelling ability, which shines through in nearly every song. Between startling images like “Ride the pale horse, triumphantly / Put a saddle on his back, take him to hell and back” (from “The Frustrated N***a“) or word play like “You got static? Get grounded, cause I’ve mastered electrical / Mostly mental, but don’t sleep on the physical…” (from “Whatever“), Jeru is always catching your ear with indelible phrases. As for the content, if you’re not prepared to be at least slightly offended, you probably don’t like hip hop in general and nothing I can say will convince you otherwise. I will go as far as to argue that Jeru seems like an honest guy who cares about the standing of African-Americans in general while also making it plain to his haters that he’s a damned good rapper whose self-esteem is well-earned. If that includes an “n-bomb” or three, so be it. Less easy to reconcile are the occasionally retrograde statements regarding women, which should be written off as due to the context of an earlier time. If you read a few classics of Beat literature — and you absolutely should — you will likely confront attitudes far more despicable than anything Jeru drops. So give this “dignified bastard” a chance. In the meantime, I will be backtracking to his debut album, which is supposed to be even better.
Though a complex album, at its core Wrath Of The Math presents an album with a pretty clear distinction between two disparate factors. First, you have the mathy sound the album title harkens to. Famously produced by DJ Premier, the rhythms and sound are phenomenal on the record, feeling exploratory and innovative against Jeru’s sometimes off-beat rhymes. Juxtaposed against the sound are the utterly honest lyrics expressing Jeru’s disillusionment with the rap and hip hop industry. Seemingly disgusted and dismayed by the brutalism encasing the rap industry during that time, particularly the East Coast versus West Coast violence and the monetization of that battle. Virtually all the tracks drip sarcasm at what Jeru sees as a perversion of the purpose of hip hop, given in a mostly upbeat, sometimes humorous manner. Knitting together those parts is the implicit awareness of how hip hop should be done, given Jeru’s message of disdain is delivered via hip hop album. If the album reads pretentious at times with Jeru’s self-assured method of producing hip hop underlining his disgust, then the excellent sound and flow of the album redeems the message.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Jeru The Damaja’s Wrath Of The Math takes an eloquent and poignant look at the toxic forces seeking to take the soul out of hip-hop. Although the album came out in 1996 and makes references to key players at the time, a lot of what is said on the album is applicable today. The brilliance of this record is that Jeru The Damaja embraces ideas of purity within the genre, opposing meddling record labels and money hungry pretenders. On tracks like “One Day” and “Tha Bullshit,” Jeru deliberately calls out commercial hip-hop for what it was becoming, a product to be sold en-mass. He calls out labels for glorifying the pageantry of “thug-culture” and embracing a warped and violent reality devoid of introspection. He urges for a preservation of hip-hop’s eternal soul, which is both heart-warming and empowering to all the true artists struggling out there trying to make an impact on their audience. An emotive lyrical experience is not all that this album has to offer either — the music on the album is classic ’90s hip-hop at its finest and flows so effortlessly underneath Jeru’s warm and percussive vocals and you know what, the album cover isn’t half bad either. So, if you’re looking for something more meaningful to listen to, this album should definitely be on your list.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
“It’s the educated field n***a, trained in guerilla / Warfare plus equipped with mental hardware”
The amount of hip hop that I’m unfamiliar with despite being from Brooklyn is almost embarrassing. You would think that just by growing up here that I would have at least been slightly aware of someone like Jeru The Damaja, but you would also be wrong if you think that. But even though this is my first exposure to his music, I feel oddly comfortable putting this record on (okay, so I’m not listening to an actual record but you know what I mean). I partially attribute this to the record scratching that appears throughout the album (it’s almost everywhere, present from one of the first tracks, “Black Cowboys” to the very final song “Invasion“), which take me back to when camp counselors of mine would put on their ’90s hip hop mixes on repeat. But what I think really drives this record home for me is Jeru’s lyrical themes, rallying against the commercialization of hip hop and keeping the love of the music alive. I may not know a lot about hip hop specifically, but I do know a thing or two about feeling like the music you love most has become corrupted by the mainstream, and hearing Jeru express his love for music through, well… music makes Wrath Of The Math a stunning listen. The obvious “must hear” track is “One Day” where Jeru tells the fictional tale of the physical manifestation of hip hop being taken hostage by some of the more well-known names in mainstream hip hip at the time, but I personally think that you’d be doing yourself, and this album, a disservice if you also didn’t give “Tha Bullshit” a listen. The song is much more blunt in its message, but during the second verse, Jeru plants his tongue firmly within his cheeks and launches into an over-the-top critique of things, from expensive cars to non-stop drinking to exotic islands, that had cheapened his culture. It’s scathingly funny, but it’s also driven by the kind of passion that only comes from a place of love. Wrath Of The Math is for music lovers made by a music lover. What more could you ask for?
Seems like I must have been doing something else in 1996. Jeru The Damaja is a notable figure in hip-hop history and his debut record is considered by some to be among the top hip hop records of all time. Second to that is his 1996 record Wrath Of The Math, and I’d never heard of either of them. Despite considering myself a fan of hip hop going back to Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and De La Soul, I confess that Jeru The Damaja was new to me when I first heard this record in 2018. The year it came out I was busy with Tool’s Aenima, Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, and Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire. I was likely embroiled in hormone-fueled outrage at the state of the world and my place in it. Jeru’s laid-back, matter-of-fact approach to brutal rhyme-schemes wouldn’t have been visceral enough to appeal to me at the time. Jazz and anger seemed oddly opposed and even more oddly juxtaposed. I even slept on The Fugees’ legendary The Score. But it’s nice to know you can eventually catch up. So many years later, being introduced to Wrath Of The Math reveals a rich collection of boom-bap hip hop produced by DJ Premier — their last collaboration together. On top of this masterful production execution, the Damage lays down provocative and hard-hitting lyricism in which he takes other hip hop artists to task, and is not shy about tearing down the symbolic idols of the day. In 2018, we endure an arms race of autotune and gold dental bling which seems to overshadow and indeed to render futile any real attention to saying things with heavy rhyme schemes. I miss guys like Jeru. Though it may have seemed trite at the time, there’s far too few of him now. It’s straight truth from bar to bar and together with the jazz-oriented simplicity of the beats, this record now takes its place among my top collection from the era where it belongs.
This album took a couple of listens for me to connect with it, and I tend to worry that if an album doesn’t connect immediately, then maybe it isn’t for me. I’m normally wrong. Most of the albums that I rank among my favorites took a little bit to get into, and albums that I loved from the first listen will often not hold up to long-term repeated listens. I’m excited by Jeru The Damaja and I’m sad that I didn’t hear this album back when it was coming out, because the message about authentic, non-pop oriented hip-hop (with Puff Daddy as the avatar for pop oriented hip-hop) feels very important. I think there’s a place for both kinds, but back then, the non-pop oriented side often got lost in the “I’ll Be Missing You” of it all. The song on this album that I like the most is “One Day,” but it is one of many songs that tell clear stories that are vividly related. “Invasion” and “Not Tha Average” stand out in my mind as well. All of this goes to show that there is an almost endless trove of hip-hop to explore and it’s important to never stop learning, and to never look at the most popular songs on the radio as the be all, end all.
As editor, I have to start this off with glowing praise of DJ Premier’s work here, and make sure to point you all to OYR‘s second issue back in 2016 which covered Moment Of Truth by DJ Premier’s most recognizable association, Gang Starr. But we’re here to talk about Jeru The Damaja and there’s a lot to talk about that I’m going to condense into three sections: his skill, his beefs, and his subject matter. On his skill, it’s not flashy and it’s not otherworldly, but Jeru is definitely a flow master, something that proves true as you listen more and more to his work. Depending on what Premier has thrown his way, Jeru’s capable of a silky smooth flow that unfurls like the finest velvet, or more than eager to punctuate a hard beat with staccato declarations that will seize your attention. And once he has your attention, he reveals the album’s most appealing aspect for ’90s hip-hop fans: beef. Jeru’s grievances with the hip-hop elite are all over this record, from valid complaints of Bad Boy Records (“One Day“) to cheap pot-shots at Lauryn Hill (“Black Cowboys“), and even a preemptive takedown of Will Smith (“Ya Playin’ Yaself“). (Maybe Jeru was a prophet after all.) There’s never enough here to make Jeru’s feuds crack a top ten list, but there’s more than enough to dissect and some decent back-and-forth with his “enemies” that makes it worthy for inspection to anyone who loves to unravel the complicated webs hip-hop feuds had become by the mid-’90s. And then there’s the subject matter which is… well, good and bad. Like most underground rap, he leans in hard on elevating the community, taking down twisted hip-hop culture that seemed to marginalize itself with ugly stereotypes and dangerous parables. His points here are valid, well-made, and surprisingly deep at times, but they all run concurrent with some rather shaky subject matter about women. I don’t want to go into too much detail, mostly because I think it’s unfair to criticize Jeru for something he was hardly alone in doing at the time (or even now), but let me just mention one specific moment, where the self-proclaimed prophet comes off unhinged as he implies a woman at a bar must be a gold digger for asking what he does for a living, instead of, you know, just making standard small talk. Though some verses on here could double as mantras for Incels today, there’s still plenty of quality hip-hop here in the vein of the Golden Age that missed the cut by only a few years. With quality beats courtesy of DJ Premier and some impressive emcee dexterity from Jeru, this is a perfect example of everything that made underground hip-hop so appealing and enthralling in contrast to its shimmering contemporary that was tearing up the charts.
Our Generation by Tokio Myers
Chosen By Chelsea Kostrey