Interviews | Music

Rita J: Her Art, Her World

The MC on gender, the mainstream media, and her future in the music industry

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Chicago artist Rita J is a fifteen-year industry veteran. She released a fifteen-track LP called “Tree House Rock” in 2003 as a part of the nine-member Chicago hip-hop collective Family Tree. In 2009, she dropped her solo debut, “Artist Workshop,” in which she tackled a bevy of issues ranging from the lack of female representation in hip-hop to the materialism that pervades the mainstream music industry. On January 15th, 2014, Miss J released “Lost Time,” her thirteen-track sophomore album. We sat down with her to discuss the origins and goals of a woman who is far more than a rapper and even further from being finished—and whose fearlessly distinctive voice is apparent in both the words she speaks and the art she creates.

I read a quote from you that said, “There is no female rap industry. There is only one game, and we are just not being represented properly.” Growing up as a hip-hop fan, I had the same issue in that I saw very few artists in my favorite genre that were of my own gender. Can you elaborate on that quote?

It got to the point where I’d been to so many shows, the only girl there, that I thought: “Could that be me?” I started putting myself there, and really, it’s like, be the change you want to see. That’s the mentality you have to have, because no one else is gonna do it. It’s even hard now. These young girls don’t have too many female artists to look up to besides Beyonce and Rihanna, but as a female MC, it’s still shaky.

And everyone asks me this question: “Why do you think that is?” I’ll just clear that up now. I don’t have the answer, first of all. But I think, like anything else, the media and the people that own the networks—they don’t want to see it. Because they control what we see. On TV, on the radio, let’s just be honest. There’s a program to all of this. It’s like a male game, it’s like a football team. I just saw this movie called “The Girls in the Band” and the women were saying the same thing: “The men didn’t want us in their club.” They don’t wanna deal with it. They only want us to be the vixen, the sexy girl, go get my things and do sexy things for me; not compete, not be above me, not, you know, “get this money.” They don’t want it. When you ask men about female MCs, they’re always like, “I don’t wanna hear a girl rap.” I’ve heard that, and I’m like: “Well, why not?”

There are female MCs. They exist. I know tons of them. But what does that mean? We’re not getting any exposure, any press, any push—that’s intentional. It’s not because they’re not around. And I don’t think it’s so masculine that we can’t be showcased. It’s not a dude thing. It’s music and words.

What got you started in hip-hop? Why’d you choose it?

My dad was a total music-head. He’s into all types of music; back then it was soul music, funk…and then hip-hop emerged. As a youngster, I just kind of picked it up. I’d be in the basement with my dad watching videos and listening to songs and it was basically whatever my dad was into, I’d be into. Eventually, I grew with it and it was natural for me to embrace it because it spoke to me. I thought, oh, they look like me, they feel like me, they act like me. Artists like MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Brand Nubian—the Golden Age is where I got rooted. I felt like it spoke to me personally because it was of my generation, of my time. To this day, it’s still the number one genre of music that I’m into.

Are there any other genres you dabble in besides hip-hop?

I definitely listen to other artists. I love Björk, Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey…but I didn’t start getting into other music until my teenage years, so growing up it really was just hip-hop and soul and pop; you know, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Janet—all the stuff that was on the radio was in my brain. Then I just ventured off a little bit and got into different types of music, and now I’ve started listening to music from different countries. Maybe I don’t understand the language or the words—like I don’t know what’s going on—but something about it is speaking to me, still. African vibes, Jamaican vibes, French hip-hop…I’m open to all types of music.

How did your career get off the ground?

For college, I went to Southern [Illinois State University], in Carbondale, Illinois. I was interested in radio and television in high school, and I tried to continue that in college. So I took this audio engineering class, and I had a project where I had to engineer a song or two for a group, and they were like “Man, you write poetry and stuff—get in the booth! Let’s see what you got.”

So I got in there, did it, they loved it, and I was like “Oh, wow.” So I just went back home and kept practicing writing—writing poetry. I was going to poetry slams, spoken word, and I had a lot of friends that were just inspiring me. I was like, wow, they can get up in front of people and just let it go? That’s awesome. Something about that made me interested to see if I could do it too. So first, it was poetry. Then I was like, “What if I could write to a beat, instead of just speaking words? What if I could put it to music?” So I started writing over instrumentals. I tried reaching out to other rappers to see what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong, how do you write bars, how do you write a hook—how does it all make sense?

After college, I moved back to Chicago. I went to a club called Slick’s and met Tone B. Nimble, who was a legendary DJ in the city. He ran an independent label called All Natural. Himself and another guy called Cap D are also a group called All Natural, an MC and a DJ. They said, “Let’s get in the studio and see what you got.” So I kind of got ushered into a collective called Family Tree with maybe four or five other guys, and we put an album out called “Treehouse Rock” in 2003. That was my first exposure on an album.

Over time people grow, so groups disperse, unfortunately. I was young, and I was like, “I want a solo album—I’m not going to be in this group forever.” So I kept that in mind and worked towards an album, but it took five years for it to finally come out. I would say part of it was because they were really trying to develop me. That doesn’t really go on anymore—people just try to get on overnight, but you really have to develop a person that doesn’t know anything about how this goes.

So I had to just wait that whole five years and it was super frustrating, but I honestly want to say that it was perfect timing when it came out. It was 2009, “Artist Workshop”, my first solo project, and since then, I feel like I’ve been just…going. That path has just kept me going. I’m thankful that they took the time to wait. They really took time.

For your debut album, “Artist Workshop,” did you have a theme or a vision in mind? Was there one specific idea you were channeling it towards?

Only the title. I was in my bedroom, working on the album, looking out my window, and everything I needed was in my room. It was my little workshop—an artist’s workshop! Also, I’m an artist. I’m not only a rapper. So that just gives me more room to explore whatever it is I want to explore.

Did you have a similar moment for “Lost Time”? Why did you choose that particular title?

So my first album came out in 2009. This is now 2014. That’s four years. That’s a long time, dude! I just felt like I lost that time. I’m never in a rush, though, to put music out. As competitive and crazy as it is in this industry, especially with me being an indie artist—I’m never in a rush. Whenever that next project is done and I feel good about it, it’ll come out. So I just felt like, damn, lost time, I can’t get that time back, so I’ll just keep moving. It’s not really too deep; both albums, I would say, were collections of songs. I wasn’t trying to make certain points or messages. I was just recording, and I picked from the best songs that I liked. I tried to make it as cohesive as I could, made sure it made sense, but it wasn’t that structured.

It’s nice to see an artist who doesn’t feel pressure to fit into a particular timeframe for music releases.

Oh, man. I see so many artists do it. Some people put a song out every week! I mean, that’s cool. But I just feel like you need to give people time to breathe, time to receive what you’re giving them. Unless you’re not talking about anything and it’s just playful. But if you’re really trying to say something and you care about everything, the album, the music, the arrangement, then you should take your time. People can feel that. I can feel when something’s rushed or somebody just threw it out. If they’re just trying to make money off the new whatever, I can tell. Just take your time.

What were some of your favorite things about growing up on the South Side? What did you find challenging?

I had a great childhood. My parents did a great job trying to get out of the city—not all of it is bad, but they grew up there and they didn’t want that for their children. Dolton, where I grew up, is the first suburb outside the city. When I was young, it was real suburb-y. Now, it’s not the same. And people would try to tell me, “You’re not from Chicago! You can’t represent the city because you’re from Dolton.” But that’s so stupid. Whatever.

There were really no bad things about it. All I can say is that I’m disappointed in how it is now. It used to be a beautiful town. But this is twenty, twenty-five years later. I had a great time growing up, but the last time I was there, my car windows got broken out. It was completely random. When I was young we could leave the door open, we could be outside.

So you think it’s gotten more dangerous?

Oh, a hundred percent. I don’t feel comfortable at my own house. When I go there, I’m paranoid. It doesn’t feel safe. In Chicago now, there are so many different neighborhoods. You could be in the same neighborhood and have a good block and a bad block. Like, on this block, three people just got shot. This other block, it’s got mansions, people going to school. I wouldn’t say the whole city’s dangerous, but there are definitely some bad neighborhoods and bad blocks.

I’m not trying to get away from it, because I know it’s everywhere, but on a daily basis? That’s just not the kind of energy I want in my zone. I’m testing this “living in the city” thing out right now, but we’ll see what’s up next year, because I’ve been thinking about moving to France. It’s a big move for me. It’s kinda serious. But everyone’s been like, “No, it’s not, you’ve been there so many times, just go.” It’s something that’s definitely on my brain. It’s just been France, France, France.

Last year was my biggest year yet. I got to tour with a group called C2C—they’re a pop group in France. I met two of them on my first trip, and over time, we connected. I sent them a little verse, and they ended up using it on an album that actually went platinum. I’m like, “What?” So then they said, okay, you’re on the album, would you like to come on tour with us? Uh, yeah! They’re huge.

So they were doing arenas that, like, Jay-Z would do. The biggest ones, sold out. Fifty thousand people was the biggest crowd I rocked last year, and I was just like, this is bananas! I met Sting, I met Run DMC, I’m backstage with these guys and they’re right there and I’m right here and I’m like, “What is my life doing right now?” It’s not magic. I met these guys and they were just cool—like me and you, right now. Then three years later, you never know. You just gotta be good to people.

That’s amazing. I think it’s so important to have role models like that—people who aren’t afraid to get out there and confront those kinds of challenges, who can ask themselves the same questions that their listeners are asking.

Thank you. It kinda works like that—someone once asked me, what do you want people to think or say when they hear your music? Well, I just want them to be happy. Whatever reason they like it for, I just want them to have that. When they see me, or they hear me, I just want them to be like “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about!”

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