Grae's first hip-hop exposure came as a member of the Natural Resource crew, which delivered a minor classic in the '90s with the song "Negro League Baseball." Shortly after going solo with her new moniker, Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim) began receiving praise from critics who labeled her "a tougher Lauren Hill" and "the future of female hip-hop."
A fierce MC and cameo specialist, Grae impressed with her writing skills and deftly tailored vocal flow that echoes, and occasionally surpasses, heavyweight commercial stars from New York such as Jay-Z, an obvious influence on her style.
But so far the big breakthrough hasn't happened.
Grae is still logging hours around the underground club circuit without a major label deal. Although she used to publicly criticize the music business as unfair to women, she says she's since grown more thick-skinned.
"It's hard not to be affected by the hype," says the soft-spoken Grae by phone. "With time, though, I've learned to brush my shoulders off and not care what anybody thinks as long as I'm doing what I enjoy and think is right."
Grae admits that the business is tough for females whose looks are not marketable, much less a hard-spitting MC like herself who might listen to the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite.
"The industry wants to label you, but you can't be afraid to be yourself. ... Media and marketing matter, but it's up to the artist to stick it out and build your own category," she says. "And that's not easy."
When asked how her musician father influenced her, Grae talks about the environment. "Growing up in a family of crazy artists," she says, "it was an open, creative place, and I learned appreciation for all kinds of music."
Regardless of mainstream success, Grae continues to move forward with steady critical acclaim, guest spots on numerous hip-hop albums and a recent stint with The Roots' Okayplayer crew.
"[That tour] was beautiful. I learned a lot about musicianship and live performance and was able to reach a whole new audience," she says. "The hotels were lovely, too."
Her latest album, "This Week," plays like a week-in-the-life tour through Grae's many voices: former alcoholic, sensitive poet, lady thug, old-school romantic and confident stage veteran.
Grae says she's excited about several upcoming projects, including her highly anticipated "Jeanius Album" with Jay-Z producer 9th Wonder.
"This last year was really about rediscovering what made it all fun in the first place. Now I know what I can do, and I'm ready to push the envelope next year." S
Jean Grae kicks off her tour at the Nanci Raygun Jan. 12 with Diverse, Dollars and Pounds, and Sound Proof. The show is for 18 and older and starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 at Plan 9 or $12 at the door.
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