Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X goes beyond the politics on national debut 'Ascension'

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"I'm a talk about poppin' champagne forever/I'm a go to the club and make it rain forever/I'm a spend my rent money on a chain forever."

That's Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X from his new album "Ascension" and if you know anything about Jasiri X, you might be wondering if he just went crazy or if he's selling out big time.

The answer is neither.

The song is "21 Forever" and while it kicks hard like a club banger, it's Jasiri's sly attack on the culture of refusing to grow up, or think, or take responsibility.

It's a consciousness rap song but it's also a twist for Jasiri X, who made his reputation with political songs like "What if the Tea Party Was Black," "Occupy (We the 99"), "Trayvon" and "Candidates for Sale."

On "Ascension," he steps away from the headlines and creates something with more shelf life and a more spiritual/personal side, an album that speaks more generally about living in these times.

"I felt like I could always drop a topical political thing," he said in an interview last week. "I just put out a song like literally five minutes ago kind of talking about Kimani Gray [the Brooklyn teenager whose shooting by police prompted riots last week]. I always have a lane for that. So I wanted to make a real album that kind of had a theme and stuck with that. The title 'Ascension' is kind of like me saying I want to take hip-hop to a higher level."

Jasiri Oronde Smith is a Chicago native who grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood there before moving with his mom to Monroeville in the '80s and graduating from Gateway High School at 16. He started college with the intention of being a lawyer, first at the University of Maryland, and then at the University of Pittsburgh, but dropped out.

He started doing spoken word performances, and then, inspired by Louis Farrakhan, he joined Nation of Islam and became a social activist working out of a mosque in Wilkinsburg.

Since dropping the song "Free the Jena 6" in 2007, his focus has been on spreading the word through hip-hop, and he's traveled the country doing shows, lectures and seminars, mostly at colleges. His 2010 debut album, "American History X," which won Album of the Year at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards, was loaded with topical tracks from his YouTube channel and online show "This Week with Jasiri X."

"Ascension" is his debut album for Wandering Worx, a Vancouver label that launched in 2010 and has a roster that includes Rel!g!on and Planet Asia. Rel!g!on expands Jasiri's horizons musically by producing tracks, with real instruments, not samples, that are as polished and heavy as the mainstream rappers.

"I think the production is really well done," Jasiri says, "so you can put certain songs that I have right next to songs from A$AP [Rocky] or songs from Wiz [Khalifa], because a lot of times people are drawn by the melody, drawn by the hook, and then you realize that I'm saying something a little bit deeper, a little bit stronger. I tried to make an album that musically could reach beyond my core audience, beyond the people who are interested in just politics."

Jasiri and Rel!g!on met online, and the relationship began with Jasiri appearing on the Canadian rapper's album "Revelationz." The "Ascension" project started with Rel!g!on sending him a beat for what became the song "Lost in a Virtual Reality." It was part of a group of songs Jasiri wrote in 2010 when he was struggling with his direction and social media identity.

"Now you're addicted," he raps, "a slave to the toxin/gotta keep typin' to keep your name poppin'/now your grave is a box in a screen on the site/where you're far more important than in your real life."

"When I first began to do 'This Week With Jasiri X,' " he says, "I kind of had this, I guess you would say, virtual fame. People began to know me, but it was online. I started to take this online interaction really seriously," he says laughing. "I was like, 'Whoa, this is cool, wow.' But then I'm walking the streets of Pittsburgh and nobody knows me, but people online were throwing me so much love. I got to the point where I had to go offline in early 2010 for three months. I had to put it in perspective and say, 'Dude, calm down. You have a real life.' "

In a similar vein, "TV Land" is a song about the influence of reality TV creeping into people's own reality. "Ascension" is a dreamy, atmospheric track about finding the light spiritually. "Pillars," with an old school Public Enemy vibe and the verbal riff from "Rapper's Delight," challenges gangster culture with, "To the drug dealers and killers/we the foundation, we the pillars."

"By Any Means," featuring Rhymefest and a Malcolm X sample, is a hard-hitting call for political/economic justice: "So many sons dead/I wanna take every drop of bloodshed/and paint the White House blood red/'cause every time we go to court, we face Judge Dredd/while these billionaire bankers get sent to Club Med."

And then there's "The Wheel," a rare entry in the category of rap songs about UFOs. This one deals with the Phoenix Lights and Lake Erie UFO sightings in 1997 and 2010, respectively, and it allowed Wandering Worx, also a movie production company, to create a cool sci-fi movie video starring Jasiri.

"So, Rel!g!on sends me the beat and he's like, 'I want some real conspiracy-type stuff.' At that time the story about Lake Erie UFO sightings was a big story. If I was on a major label, they probably would have been like, 'Nah, this is crazy.' Then, they were like we have to go to the Mojave Desert in California. They came up this whole idea of hunting UFOs."

These are songs that don't have the same expiration date on the label, like a Tea Party song, and they also show a different side of his poetic command.

"I talk about this on the song '42 Bar Thesis,' because people hear me rap politically, but there's a part where you want to show 'I'm skilled on this mic,' " he says. "People always want to label you and put you in a certain box. When you create a song for that time or that moment and that moment goes ... I mean, certain songs, I don't do anymore. Songs like 'What if the Tea Party was Black' and 'Republican Woman' [about Sarah Palin], they're not even relevant anymore. They're good songs, but that moment is gone. I wanted to create timeless music, because when you listen to A Tribe Called Quest today, it's like 'This is great music.' "

His next challenge is to go out and promote "Ascension" to a hip-hop market that's mad for party songs. Nonetheless, he sees a lot of hopeful signs.

"What was the most significant hip-hop album of 2012? It was 'Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City' [from Kendrick Lamar]. In my opinion that was the most important hip-hop album since 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." There was so much consciousness in this album, I was literally blown away, and he sold more than 2 Chainz."

He also points to Nas' "Life Is Good" and Killer Mike's "Rap Music" as successful albums with something to say.

"Real lyricism, people saying things, that's back. The younger generation are looking at popular music and saying 'This is garbage, I want more of this.' When I see all of that, I think it's my time. People want to see more. We're coming around to real hip-hop with consciousness in it, and it's going to force other artists to change, too."

"Ascension," released Tuesday, can be found on itunes or at wanderingworx.com. A CD release show is in the works for Pittsburgh this spring.

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Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.


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