Jean Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim, November 26, 1976), formerly known as What? What?, is an American hip hop recording artist from Brooklyn, New York City. She rose to prominence in the underground hip hop scene in New York City and has since built an international fanbase.
Jean Grae was born Tsidi Ibrahim, in Cape Town, South Africa, on November 26, 1976. The daughter of South African jazz musicians Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim, she was raised in New York City, where her parents relocated after her birth. She studied Vocal Performance at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, before majoring in Music Business at New York University. She dropped out after three weeks of class.
1996-98: Career beginnings:
In 1995, she was discovered by George Rithm Martinez, when he recruited her for a five-song demo under the name of his group, Ground Zero. Their demo was critically acclaimed and earned the duo "Unsigned Hype" honors in The Source in March 1996. She later joined a hip hop group called Natural Resource, along with fellow rapper Ocean and disc jockey James "AGGIE" Barrett. In 1996, they released a pair of 12-inch singles called "Negro League Baseball" b/w "Bum Deal" b/w "They Lied", and "Bum Deal (remix)" b/w "They Lied (remix)" b/w "I Love This World", on their own label, Makin' Records. She also appeared on singles by fellow Makin' Records artists Pumpkinhead and Bad Seed, as well as on the O.B.S. (Original Blunted Soldiers) double 12-inch single alongside crew members Pumpkinhead, Bad Seed and Meat-pie, and produced much of the material released on the label under the pseudonym Run Run Shaw. During this period she established strong ties with the Brooklyn Academy crew, with which she would appear throughout her career.
1998-2004: Solo career:
Natural Resource dissolved in 1998, after which Ibrahim changed her stage name from What? What? to Jean Grae, a reference to the X-Men character Jean Grey. Under her new moniker, she released her first LP--Attack of the Attacking Things--in 2002, and followed it in 2004 with This Week. Throughout her career she has also recorded tracks with numerous major hip-hop artists, Atmosphere, The Roots, Talib Kweli, The Herbaliser, Da Beatminerz, Phonte, Mr. Len, Masta Ace, Vordul Mega, C-Rayz Walz, Mos Def, Styles P, Pharoahe Monch and Immortal Technique among them.
Grae has recorded an unreleased album with celebrated North Carolina producer 9th Wonder, of Little Brother fame, entitled Jeanius. This unfinished record was leaked on the internet, and subsequently work was stopped on this album. However, at the release party for 9th Wonder's Dream Merchant Volume 2 album she stated that Jeanius was still going to be released. This album was eventually released first through Zune Live Marketplace two weeks before its disc release on July 8, 2008. Her rapping on the album was described by Robert Christgau as "remarkable for its rapidity, clarity and idiomatic cadence. The writing has a good-humored polysyllabic literacy." Elsewhere, it's been reported that her proposed fourth album, provisionally titled Phoenix has gone into production. It has been reported by several camp insiders that 9th Wonder will handle the lion's share of the production duties with unknown UK producer Passion hifi, English producer DJ SonicBass and NY resident Clinikal providing a beat each.
2005-2008: Blacksmith Music:
Previously signed to Babygrande Records, she signed a deal in 2005 with Talib Kweli's Blacksmith Records. On April 28, 2008, Grae posted a blog entry on her MySpace page saying goodbye to her fans. She later cited disenchantment with the music industry and desire to start a family as the reasons behind the "retirement" and said that she was working on new material and still wanted to continue in music: "You know what? I need that Grammy. I think I might be able to stop after that." In July 2008, Talib Kweli posted a blog entry explaining Grae's album, mentioning that she was not retiring. The blog ends encouraging fans to purchase the album, referring to Grae as "one of the last true MCs left." Grae returned to doing live performances later that year.
On September 18, 2008, Jean Grae posted a Craigslist ad offering her creative services for $800/16 bars. On her MySpace blog, she stated, "I don't wanna complain anymore, I just wanna change some things about the way artists are treated and the way you guys are allowed to be involved, since it IS the digital age." Since that time, all of her music has been self-released through her website and Bandcamp.
On June 23, 2011, after a three-year break, Grae released a free mixtape entitled Cookies or Comas, which features guest appearances from Styles P, Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch; it also includes the highly praised tracks "Assassins" from Monch's W.A.R. album and "Uh Oh" From Talib Kweli's Gutter Rainbows. This was followed on January 2, 2013, by the 10-track Dust Ruffle, featuring unreleased songs from between 2004 and 2010. Of the album she says: "It's such an interesting retrospective project because I get to actually hear myself evolve from 2004-2010. Snapshots of life." Between October and November 2013 she released a series of EPs entitled Gotham Down Cycle 1: Love in Infinity (Lo-Fi), Gotham Down Cycle II: Leviathan, Gotham Down Cycle 3: The Artemis Epoch. In December 2013 she combined the releases into one, entitled Gotham Down Deluxe. In an interview on Judge John Hodgman late in 2012 she foreshadowed that her next full-length album would be called Cake or Death.
More recently Grae has branched out from music, releasing the audiobook The State of Eh, in January 2014, and writing, directing and starring in the online sitcom Life with Jeanie.