I was at Jerry's Records in early 2009, sifting through one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of crates of hip-hop records. At a time when Rostrum Records and Wiz Khalifa were starting to put Pittsburgh on the national radar, I began my quest to re-discover the earlier music that shaped hip hop in Pittsburgh.
The first unfamiliar Pittsburgh record I found was an EP by a group called Concrete Elete. A Google search led me to a single photo of the group of six men, dressed in NFL jerseys, all but confirming the assumption I'd made upon listening: that the record had been released in the mid-to-late '90s. There was one familiar face in the photo: Jasiri X.
Jasiri X is best known now for his viral videos (like "What If the Tea Party Was Black?") and political commentary. The path he's taken from his early work with Concrete Elete to his current success, though, has had its detours.
After spending his early youth in the south side of Chicago, Jasiri, born Jasiri Smith, moved to Monroeville in the late '80s; there, he attended Gateway schools -- and got into music.
"I got involved with hip hop very simply, with a friend of mine becoming a DJ and telling me to write a rhyme," he explains. "To me it's like playing an instrument. Early on I was terrible but I kept going and kind of developed my own style."
In the mid-'90s, Jasiri teamed up with five fellow hip-hop artists, all hailing from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to form Concrete Elete. Although several of his partners-in-rhyme appeared more interested in crossover appeal, Jasiri was already working on the reputation he has today as a conscious MC.
"Because I was somebody who wanted to do what you would call 'conscious hip hop,' I actually quit," he says. "I kind of believed the idea that you couldn't do conscious hip hop and be successful."
Jasiri became a full-time activist in 2005. He began organizing for the Millions More March that took place in Washington D.C. that year, on the 10-year anniversary of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March. (Jasiri is a student coordinator with the Muhammed Study group of Pittsburgh, a nation of Islam affiliate.) Prior to leaving Pittsburgh, he was introduced to Paradise Gray, of pioneering hip-hop group X-Clan, who had moved to Pittsburgh.
"I was trying to get a ride to D.C. on one of the buses that they had, and Jasiri was like, 'Nah brotha, you gon' ride with me,'" says Gray. "That gave us a chance to have some really good conversations, and I really got to dig him. I found him a lot younger than I expected for the amount of intelligence and consciousness that he had."
The relationship Jasiri developed with Gray would revive Jasiri's gift as a lyrical, socially conscious MC. Gray recalls Jasiri's visit to his recording studio in 2007.
"It was a 2Pac tribute album that some friends of mine were doing. I was like, 'Yo, let me hear you spit on this track right here; I heard you can rap,'" he says. Then he adds with a laugh: "It was kinda funny 'cause he had on a suit and a tie."
After years away from the recording studio, Jasiri was re-introduced to his passion of rhyming with a purpose. His role as an activist and community leader became a platform for his music, and vice versa.
"I did the song 'Free the Jena 6,' and it was played all across the country," says Jasiri. The song refers to the case in which six black teen-agers in Louisiana were convicted of beating a white classmate. Many deemed the charges to be too harsh. "I got messages from so many people who were emotionally connected to that song and saying that they wanted to hear more like it, that I was like, 'Wow, I could actually make music and talk about this activism that I'm doing. And people would be interested.'
"I was able to meet the Jena 6 … It's something that was a powerful moment. I didn't do the song thinking that it was going to become the anthem to that movement."
Shortly after came the release of "Enough Is Enough," which recounted the case of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old New York City man who was shot to death by police. The effectiveness of Jasiri's socially and politically relevant music in reaching the public spawned the "This Week With Jasiri X" music-video web series, cataloging news stories that were, in his opinion, under-covered by media.
If you need your news weekly /
I'm the hip-hop David Brinkley /
The Keith Olbermann of street soldierin' /
I spit at you, a hard ball like Chris Matthews
-- From Episode 1 of "This Week With Jasiri X"
The 18-song series covered many issues, including the 2008 presidential election, the economy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The series garnered the attention of several high-profile hip-hop reporters, including Davey D of the Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner blog, and AllHipHop.com founder Chuck Creekmur. With attention to his work at its peak, Jasiri continued to influence the world with activism through music, most often in the form of videos.
"When I did 'What If the Tea Party Was Black,' one of the first people to respond was Tim Wise, who was the inspiration for the song," Jasiri recalls. "He's a white author-activist that deals a lot with white privilege, and he wrote a blog [entry] titled 'Imagine If the Tea Party Was Black.' He couldn't believe somebody made a rap about his blog; he was really touched by it.
"It almost came full circle with the song for Troy Davis. When people talk about how a song moved them to tears, or it moved them to get involved with the action, it's a really humbling experience."
In 1991, Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, Ga. He was executed in September. The song "I Am Troy Davis" staked a claim for Davis' innocence, with a video featuring clips of former witnesses and jurors recanting their original statements against him.
"It's one thing to hear about Troy Davis, but it's another to see him," Jasiri says -- "and to actually see these witnesses talking about how they were forced into their testimony."
In the current "right here, right now" world of online content, Jasiri and his team have thrived. The Whole World Is Watching, a CD/DVD compilation including his most recent political music, will be released Dec. 15.
"He can take an idea and turn it into a hook and a song in no time," says Gray. "We could come up with a concept on Wednesday; by Friday he's written the song, by Saturday the song is recorded, by Monday morning he's memorized the lyrics and he's ready to shoot the video. We can have a concept turned into a video on YouTube in less than a week."
A demand for content expressing his perspectives has given Jasiri the opportunity to combine his roles as an activist and as a music artist, taking both to new heights. As a mentor and friend, Gray appreciates Jasiri's professionalism.
"The thing I really love about him is his humility. He understands the hard work and dedication it takes to be an artist and to support yourself by doing it, so he handles himself like a businessman."
The Whole World Is Watching will serve as a prequel to Jasiri's first label release, Ascension, set to be released by Wondering Worx in February 2012.
"The Whole World is Watching is what people know me for: doing political, topical hip hop," Jasiri says. "Ascension is not that, so it'll be interesting to me to see if the audience that I've cultivated, doing the music that I do, will follow me as I take a turn in a slightly different direction."
JASIRI X CD RELEASE. 7 p.m. Thu., Dec. 15. August Wilson Center for African American Culture. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. 412-258-2700 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org