Jabari Evans has long been an overachiever. Having published his first book of poetry at only 16 (The Straight Jab), and having graduated from an Ivy League university (Penn) before he was of the legal drinking age, Evans has plenty of scholarly deeds to boast about. But he doesn’t bother. While this MC known as Naledge is bright and proud of it, his experiences growing up in the South Side of Chicago and living all across the county have taught him just as much as the many prestigious schools he attended.
The opening bars of a recent track “Never Forget” best capture the other side of Naledge’s education: “Heart of a champion / Mind of a prodigy / Graduated Chi state of mind / majoring in South Side philosophy / Street life could have been a part of me / but parents guarded me / Still everyday I saw my people live in poverty — the dichotomy / Took CTA everyday / It wasn’t hard to see.”
Taking a ride on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses and trains for just five minutes and you can be transported from one divergent neighborhood to another, from middle-class blocks to neglected housing projects. Even in contrast to his middle class upbringing, hanging out within his own area of South Shore also exposed Naledge to those who face strife daily.
“I know people from all walks of life and I feel like that’s where my strong point is as an artist — that I can relate to people who are way at the top, people way at the bottom [and] people in the middle and their problems, and their struggles,” says Naledge.
[Naledge with DJ Double-O.]
Living in Philly for four years while in school, L.A. for a bit and Atlanta for six months only added to his multifarious encounters with America. “That understanding alone makes me a little bit more versatile than most artists,” he says. But when it comes to his hip-hop, Naledge often takes listeners deeper into life on the South Side than the many other MCs who call Chicago home.
As half of the group Kidz In The Hall with DJ Double-O, he proved to be as much of an avid storyteller as his hometown counterparts on the duo’s debut, School Was My Hustle (released in late 2006 by Rawkus). Cuts on this LP like “Dumbass Tales” — a true account about middle class city kids who got caught up in the drug game — show that Naledge can expose an often glossed-over reality. And with “Go Ill”, Naledge takes listeners through a typical day of his on the South Side, which includes blowing herb with “university nerds,” going to the barbershop on 63rd, and stopping for wings at the renowned eatery, Harold’s Chicken Shack.
“Everybody can understand city life and a lot of people can even understand the particulars of Chicago city life, but I just don’t feel like a lot of rappers have been able to visualize it in words and put it down in the correct way until now,” he explains. “You got Lupe, Rhymefest, Kanye, myself, Common — until recently you only heard one of side of the coin as far as Chicago goes. It was more like the West Side, pimp/gang type of culture.”
Throwing himself in the same sentence as those abovementioned established Chicago artists is no doubt a bold move, but Naledge has already befriended and worked with Rhymefest and Lupe. And according to the recording industry, he’s supposed to be the next incarnation of Kanye and the rest of these acts.
“There were days before I had the deal (with Rawkus) where every meeting I took it was kinda like, ‘Can you do what Kanye’s doing?’ — Literally,” recalls Naledge. “That was what was hot at the moment. And that’s the only frame of reference they had about Chicago. And then Lupe came out and it was, ‘Can you do what Lupe’s doing?’ Or, can you be a young Common?’ I listen to record executives like they’re Charlie Brown’s mother like, ‘wah wah wah wah wah wah.’”
Tuning out record label heads was easy for a while, but these past few years reality has set in amid his deal with Rawkus. There has been talk about Naledge’s yet-to-be–released debut, Naledge Is Power (once called The Broke Diaries) since the spring of 2006. But as of the late fall 2007, his solo debut may not be out for another year.
“I’ve been anxiously waiting to put material out the same way people have been anxiously waiting to hear it,” he says. “People ask me when it’s coming out. I tell them to ask [Rawkus owners] Brian (Brater) and Jarret (Meyer) at this point,” he laughs. “We talk but if people put it to them that this needs to come out, then maybe they’ll see my vision the way that a lot of my fans do.”
In the meantime, Naledge has over 200 stockpiled tracks ready to be heard. But he’s not waiting around letting the material become stale. In addition to the Kidz In The Hall EP, Detention (available exclusively on iTunes), the freestyle-heavy Naledge Is Power mixtape is available as a free download on Naledge’s MySpace page while their LP, The In Crowd was released on the respected and always growing Duck Down imprint in conjunction with Major League Entertainment.
As Naledge says, “For me, to put out material, it’s nothing, ‘cause I believe in myself as an artist and I always feel like my next song is my best song anyway.”