After decades in the game as a team player, a Boston rap icon finally breaks solo
It’s the middle of the 1980s, not yet known as the crack and rap era but fast earning the rep, and a young Jaysaun just moved to Boston from Connecticut.
“I’m like 11 and a rock kid,” he says all these decades later. “At the time I’m into Kiss, the Police, AC/DC.”
Hip-hop has been migrating up north from New York City for a couple years, but the music hasn’t made a major impact on him just yet.
“The first rap record that really grabs me is ‘What People Do For Money,’” Jaysaun fondly recalls. The 1984 track by the group Divine Sounds is a fitting influence; though not as well-known as giants like Melle Mel who broke before them, to everybody who came up on the heels of the first generation, the Brooklyn trio’s undisputed royalty, well known as a unit that actually tackled topics before most MCs of their day even wrote their rhymes ahead of time.
Reminiscing on the seminal Divine Sounds cut, which asks, “You rob the bank and make big cash / But tell me how long does that life last,” Jaysaun has a moment.
“As a kid at that time,” he says, “that really moves me.”
Shortly after his arrival in Dorchester as a middle school preteen, Jaysaun begins hanging with a cousin and new friends who school him on the budding local hip-hop scene and expose him to hands-on-mic experience.
“I remember, I’m at this underground party in Mattapan and there’s a legendary Boston group there called the Slaughterhouse Crew,” he says. “This one guy there, MC Fantasy, raps over the turntables for like two hours.
“That shit blows me away, and I want to try it. My cousin’s already fucking with the vinyl, and so now I start rapping.”
As schoolyard battle wins evolve into more serious studio sessions and demo tapes, Jaysaun dips in and out of the industry, never backing out completely, but not exactly swinging for the fences either. As events often unfold amidst the ’90s gold and platinum rapper rush, in which artists from all over are offered enticing predatory contracts that in many cases wind up crippling careers before they start, Jaysaun keeps his name known on the Boston scene, always staying far enough out of the shadows to maintain a presence as his voice matures from high and adolescent into the pitch-perfect mix of rasp and whistle. At the same time, he watches more established acts like Edo G and the Almighty RSO build the scene.
Prospects mount for Jaysaun heading into the aughts, beloved among Hub rap diehards for the era’s strong commitment to a lyric-heavy sample-driven sound. Along with Big Juan, DJ G-Squared, and XL, he begins making a mark with the Kreators, a crew that boasts Mass roots but that has larger plans and aspirations, as they map out on their biggest hit, “Foreign Lands.” In addition to dropping a string of singles that earn them a fan base beyond Boston, the group makes a significant lunge toward the mainstream, even taking on investors to help push their music. But after several years without a major deal coming to fruition, the Kreators split.
“I actually recorded my first solo album in the middle of all that,” Jaysaun says, “but they picked it apart to finish the second Kreators album.
“I didn’t cross over, I didn’t eat my integrity, but I didn’t get to put something out with just my name on it either.”
Around the time, Hub rap stalwart Edo G is in talks with storied New York beatmaker Pete Rock to record a full-length. It’s a huge deal at a moment before rappers are resigned to just emailing verses to producers and working remotely; rather, Edo travels to New York for every session, and in Jaysaun he finds a road dog and accomplice through the process.
When Edo G and Pete Rock’s My Own Worst Enemy finally drops in ’04, Jaysaun features prominently on four tracks. There’s clearly hip-hop chemistry between them, fans want more, and so begins the pair’s development of Special Teamz. They rotate through a couple of different lineups, one of which includes the Lawrence rapper Krumb Snatcha of Gang Starr Foundation acclaim, but eventually recruit Slaine, a rogue MC whose dark, aggressive rhymes perfectly complement those of his teammates, to fill the third and final spot.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the Special Teamz official full-length debut, Stereotypez, which drops in 2007. Still considered by many to be the best rap release in Boston history, it’s put out by the influential New York label Duck Down and showcases the skills of all its members, both individually and as a unit. They tour America and Europe, and become a go-to supergroup and fixture on the Hub scene. Until they aren’t. By 2010, Slaine is heading to Los Angeles to act in movies and pursue his solo projects, while Edo is continuing the grind he has been on for decades, recording and touring extensively. Jaysaun, meanwhile, begins to deal with life on the homefront, which in the coming years provides the serious fodder for his debut opus.
“I get to the point where I shut down and avoid my phone,” Jaysaun says. His 2009 mixtape, Game of Breath, demonstrates a raw ability to write spit relentlessly all on his own. But with tribulations that come in the wake of Special Teamz, he discovers a new side of his rap personality that in time fuels his long-awaited solo project, Kill Ya Boss, which he finally drops in late 2018.
“When I’m writing these songs, I’m in the middle of a divorce, I’m on drugs, I’m sitting there at the table trying to figure out how I’m going to pay all these bills,” Jaysaun says. “Everything on this record is true. This is an autobiography of my life. My wife really left me the message on that ‘Divorce’ song. And people really do come up to me and tell me that I am the best rapper in Boston, and then I’m back at home trying to figure out which pack of Ramen noodles I want to eat, the chicken or the beef.”
The entire process amounts to much-needed therapy.
“It’s like on my song ‘Suicide’ … I’m telling you two ways I want to kill myself because I’m tired of the bullshit. But at the end, in the third hook, I’m talking in the third person, and I’m warning people. There are times you have these suicidal thoughts, you have these homicidal thoughts, and I want to give these kids who are acting on it a chance to hear my message. We all have these thoughts, but in the end, you’re the one who’s going to be visited.”
As for the Kill Ya Boss concept …“I’ve had it for a long time,” Jaysaun says. “Ninety percent of us work for someone who is stupider than us, but who uses their power because they’ve been given it. It’s controlling people.
“It’s not to encourage people to do that kind of shit, but to shed light on mental illness. People suffer from that, including me. If you watch the video, when I kill the boss, the boss actually turns out to be me. I’m trying to give a warning—you can go that route if you want, but I don’t recommend it.”
In the end, the horrors of divorce and drug use yielded something that none of his career highs with the Kreators or Special Teamz directly led to—a solid solo effort, all in his distinct voice, with Jaysaun digging himself out of ruts and emerging with the kind of amazing album that his fans knew he could execute, even if the artist second-guessed himself along the way.
“When you don’t have anything else, and you start going through this self-doubt shit, you don’t know where it’s gonna end,” Jaysaun says. “Things have already changed since I put this out, though—for one, I’m getting messages from people saying that this record kept them alive.
“I had a lot to prove because of the delay and what people were expecting, but what I figured out was that the best shit was the real shit.
“I just write exactly what’s going on. That’s what people gravitate to.
“That’s what’s gotten the biggest response.”
JAYSAUN W/ EDO G, KRUMB SNATCHA, REKS, BLACASTAN, REEF THE LOST CAUZE, LORD WILLIN, DJ STRESS, AND DJ DEADEYE. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. WED 1.30.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.