When I first heard the classic J-Dilla instrumental on Boston Hip-Hop Artist, Bakari J.B.‘s “Purple” I knew he was an MC to pay attention to. The 2:46-second song features Bakari weaving in clever bars over silky smooth production. His reference to one of the most memorable scenes in 8 Mile really caught my ear, “Struggling trying to smother me I’m pressing just to get it off/Told you to go out there and break a leg/You went and Cheddar Bobbed.”
Bakari’s sound radiates with 90’s hip-hop vibes. Impeccable beat selection and lyrics with substance fill his growing discography. His debut album Fear and Desire takes you on a journey exploring how concept of “fear” and “desire” being two sides of the same coin.
As an extension of his artistry, Bakari is also the Founder of Hoop-Hop, an annual basketball tournament bringing together the Boston Hip-Hop community.
With an impressive body of work and dedication to growing the Boston music scene, I needed to find out more. I recently sat down with Bakari J.B. to talk in-depth about his development as an artist, going on tour in Europe, and the creative process for his album Fear and Desire.
Get to know Bakari J.B. and his incredible sound in the interview below.
Sonic Selects (SS): How did you get started with music?
Bakari J.B.: My dad is a jazz musician and my mom is a writer. She wants to be a novelist but she hasn’t completed that part of her dream yet. Both writing and music were built-in from my parent’s desires.
From what I was influenced by growing up, I was listening and playing jazz music. My dad used to make me play the keyboard. I got really good at that but then I turned eleven and wanted to go to the NBA.
I was like, ‘leave me alone with this keyboard’. I’m going to go to the court and try to be Kobe.
SS: Music wasn’t the focus early on?
Bakari J.B.: My focus definitely was sports and basketball early on. But music in high school became this competitive, cool, thing to do. Lunch table, the “Grindin’” beat, everybody was freestyling.
We used to have a notebook that we would pass around at the beginning of the day. By lunch time we were either reading diss tracks that somebody wrote for somebody else or just comparing verses. It was competitive. There was always the challenge of who’s going to come up with something more clever.
SS: Who were the MCs that influenced you growing up?
Bakari J.B.: Influentially speaking, Nas. I grew up on a lot of East Coast rap. I was really into Joe Budden at one point. I think he raps in the way that I like. I’m less into Joe Budden now but one of the lines he says, “But I had to see my mom in tears/When pop went to the store for them Newports/That he must ain’t find in years”.
For some reason, that line stuck with me. He painted such a beautiful picture of that struggle. It’s something so simple and he gave it to you in a circular way where you connect the dots as a listener.
That’s what I try to do, leave those nuggets in my raps. Hopefully, when you listen a second and third time you get replay value. I hope you to hear things in my music that you didn’t hear the first time.
SS: What do you latch onto when you first experience a record?
Bakari J.B.: When I was younger, music was a little different what I expected out of it. I was very lyric oriented. A lot of East Coast rappers I like are very concerned with the words that they use, the things that they say and how they say them.
That’s everybody from DMX, Jadakiss, and Style P. Nas was a poet with the pen. Jay-Z isn’t as crazy with the pen but he cared more to say things that were very real. Some of his most quotable lines are some of the most simple, “I’m a hustler baby I can sell water to a well”. It’s so simple but it’s so applicable to life.
In terms of experiencing music, I cared more about lyricism. I listen for content that I can learn from and replay?’
Now, I think an additive to that is vibes. I think when I first hear I record it’s more about the vibe of the record. Where does it put me? What am I supposed to feel? A lot of artists have done an exceptional job of becoming able to set you in a mood with their records. Chance the Rapper will give you a vibe on Coloring Book. Kendrick will put you in a zone of where you think this dude is emotionally.
Even on an individual record basis, some artists can channel a mood for the listener to be in as well as give them some substance.
SS: There are two songs on your first project Fear and Desire that really create a mood for the listener, the title track “Fear and Desire (FAD)” and “Gets Better”. Both add to the overall story of the album but the two tracks have different vibes. How did you develop the album as a whole and weave in the concept of creating a vibe with lyrical substance?
Bakari J.B.: This is my first major project. It came out in 2013. From where I sit in 2017, I think about the project coming out in 2013, that means I wrote and recorded a lot of things in 2011.
I don’t think I’ve made my best music yet. I feel it’s still on the way. As far as Fear and Desire is concerned, I feel it was me testing the waters with certain sounds. I’m much more “Purple” than I am “Sasquatch”. But, I really like both sounds and instrumentals. I’ll get on a record, play with it and see where I can go, what I can do.
For the title track “Fear and Desire (FAD)”, I needed that to embody to what the album is about. The album is this umbrella concept of “fear” and “desire” being two sides of the same coin. That can be taken however people want to take it. You can look at it in terms of relationships, you may want to get married. That’s something someone desires but it’s still a scary thought. It’s the thought of “I want to be with this person for the rest of my life but do I want to be with this person for the rest of my life?”
Everything that you desire there’s a gamble.
SS: What was your thought process behind the decision to pursue the concept of “fear” and “desire” as your first project?
Bakari J.B.: I think it speaks to the decision to pursue music seriously. I’m 31. I very much think that music is a young man’s game. As are a lot of things, like sports. To tie those two concepts. If I’m in the NBA or the NFL, I’m done. In music, it’s less impressive to do anything at the age of 31 compared to if I was 21. You’re viewed differently.
Although I was very good when I was 21. I wasn’t as driven. I wasn’t as focused. I didn’t have the outlets that are out here now. No complaining but it’s the reality of it. I can hear a kid in Alaska that’s 21 overnight because it’s possible. It was less the case when I was starting out.
Fear and desire became a concept I needed to represent. I decided to go forward with music and I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. That’s what the “Wazir Gray Interlude” is all about.
I would prefer to make my commitment to something not knowing the outcome and potentially fail than succeed doing something for a remainder of my life and have that nasty “what if” that plagues us all the time.
I was working at JP Morgan Chase. I was making some good money. Better money than I’ve made. When I was 24/25 I looked myself in the mirror and asked myself, ‘if I do this for the rest of my life, would I be happy?’ And my answer was, ‘no’. Music was that itch that never got scratched.
That’s a part of where Fear and Desire comes from.
SS: Can you talk about the how you approached the creation of “Gets Better”?
Bakari J.B.: That track is towards the end of the album. It’s the close out. I wanted the vibe to be positive and uplifting.
That was the goal. From the time we come out of the womb there’s uncertainty. Everything is uncertain. You can try to plan your whole life out (and you should) but there are still no guarantees.
“Gets Better” is that reminder. That record takes the same path as the album itself. There will be struggles but it will get better and turn around for you.
SS: “Fear and Desire (FAD)” features a variation of the chorus from Nas and Kanye West’s collaboration on “Still Dreaming”. Can you tell me what the track means to you?
Bakari J.B.: That line “some dreams stay dreams/some dreams come true”, I remember Nas already being established but I remember Kanye just coming out. I remember him being that dreamer. I remember people saying he can’t rhyme he can only produce. Those two artists are
Those two artists are an inspiration to me.
SS: What did you learn about the packing and presentation of Fear and Desire?
Bakari J.B.: I learned a lot when releasing this project.
I had a good friend of my, who I met working at JP Morgan. He was trying to get me into the blogs and social media heavy. I’m still not that good at it. I realized that there’s so much more I could have done with the rollout. I think I was very grassroots. My mind state was to get out in the Boston scene, network, and meet as many people as possible.
I had an album release for the project. There were about 150 people in the building and I sold a good amount of copies. It was very hand-to-hand. I got a lot of respect. The respect you get in real life is very different from what you get online.
With all the time and energy, I spent on a city level, in hindsight, I look back and think had I spent that year cultivating relationships with blogs and finding my online market how much more impactful could that have been for the release of my project. Forging a relationship with anybody takes time, energy and effort. There’s still nothing like a plug.
A co-sign goes as far as anything can go. For Eminem, it was Dre, for 50 Cent it was Em. Everybody that comes up is getting a co-sign at some point. For Kendrick it was Dre, for Chance it was Kanye.
SS: You’ve also extended your artistry to an annual event the Hoop-Hop Tournament, which brings the Boston community together in the name of music and basketball. How did the tournament come together?
Bakari J.B.: From what I remember, the Boston music scene was completely different from what it was 10 years ago. Albeit, in a lot of ways, I was too young to be around certain things. I’ve been out since I’ve been 15/16. There would be different hoods showing up, gang deep for raps. That can be problematic in certain ways.
Everybody had the individualistic mentality about how to be successful from Boston and they want to be the person who makes it.
It’s different now.
There’s a lot more comradery than what I’ve seen before. I think that’s going to do wonders for the city going forward. The landscape is going to change.
The concept around holding an actual tournament. We put together a few teams. It’s more like the celebrity all-star game. I thought about creating an event that would give back to the city that could be around even after I’m gone. That can be something that brings artist’s and the community together.
I try to do something where I try to grow Hoop-Hop every year. I currently have a board. We’ve had help from the Roxbury YMCA, Spoke urban apparel have sponsored us. It’s a lot of work. I spend months at a time curating it. That’s a big part of the reason why I haven’t even really released anything since Fear and Desire. It takes months to plan this annual event and do it correctly. No just slap it together.
It happens the 3rd weekend in August at Washington Square Park. There are some things that are happening. I’m still looking for more.
SS: What impact has Hoop-Hop had on the Boston hip-hop scene?
Bakari J.B.: You have Ed O.G., Termanology, Reks, Esoteric who can teach a young artist like a Casso or Jefe Replay. All these younger artists can gain something from talking to an experienced artist.
I think it’s good to have unique events that have growth potential. Artists playing in Hoop-Hop have met other artists that otherwise they never would have met. Some of these artists have done records and shows together.
If nothing else you should know what’s happening around you. If you’re a 20-year-old rapper and you have an aspiration of selling records. You have dudes who have sold thousands of records in your backyard. You should learn from them if nothing else.
For Boston, we need to do a lot of work for ourselves. It’s up to us first to achieve the comradery. I think Hoop-Hop is a special way to help that.
SS: You also went on tour in Europe. There is a different affinity for hip-hop over there compared to the States. What did you take away from your tour experiences?
Bakari J.B.: Big salute to Reks, Ed O.G. and Artifacts. The whole Reks movement was a very interesting movement.
When I was 24 I hadn’t been performed in a long time. I looked in the mirror thought I could conquer the city. In order to do so I needed to figure out what do I want to receive from other people? I want people to listen to me, decide if they like it then act accordingly. I needed to do that for myself first.
I would go out to shows. If I thought someone of dope, I would make sure to let them know I would follow them and listen to their stuff. Reks was someone who I met through performing in the Boston scene. It’s small enough that you’re going to cross paths with somebody.
He’s a very lyrical artist. I guess he took a liking to me. He came up to me and told me, “Yo, I think you’re super nice.”
He came up to me and told me he was going to tour in Europe. He said, ‘If you can pay your way to Europe you can roll with me.’ I was like ‘hell yeah!’
The more lyrical rap style is not as popular here as it once was. There was a time where East Coast rap was the joint. It’s not that people over here don’t appreciate lyrics. Because they do. But we are also spoiled in a way. Big Daddy Kane overseas means so much more than over here just because we have Big Daddy Kane over here.
If you came up in New York, you know Kane. You’ve heard Kane and might have seen him a few times. If you live in London or Japan, you’ve probably never seen him. You know who he is. You know he’s a legend but you don’t get a chance to see that.
Over there it’s different and you can tell by the way people receive you. Going on that first tour in 2015, with Reks was very enlightening. We did probably 8 shows in five different countries.
The second tour in 2016, I went on tour with Reks, Ed O.G., and Artifacts. Reks brings the Beantown Bullies with him (Lucky Dice, Spenda, King Phillip and myself). We are rolling squad deep on the second tour. We end up meeting these other artists when we are out there.
SS: You’ve made comparisons to sports and music, especially the competition levels in sports compare to music. Do you still bring that competitive mentality when you are performing?
Bakari J.B.: For sure. You especially have to do that when you are performing with a Reks and the other legends. If I am the headliner on the bill and people come to see me I need to bring it.
What Reks did year one of the European Tour, that I really liked was we didn’t open up for Reks. Reks set off the show. He did four or five songs then he would introduce Lucky Dice. Lucky Dice comes on and he does three records. Spenda and I are on the last record so it was all three of us performing. Then it’s back to Reks and Spenda.
That show you got an hour and a half of quality music and you never felt that these guys are the lesser because these guys are performing before the headliner. It was all one body of work. You still need to bring it though because the crowd knows these Reks songs.
It’s almost a new level of pressure because I’m not opening. At least if I’m opening and bomb, respectably you were just the opener. With this tour, I was embedded in the set, you have to keep the energy high.
SS: What are you working in 2017?
Bakari J.B.: New work from me is still on the way. I think it’s going to be a combination of smaller projects while I work on something to follow-up Fear and Desire seriously.
There’s new music on the horizon. I think it’s going to be multiple EPs. At this point, I’ve met so many people that I’m interested in working with.
In terms of something, Fear and Desire level, that’s still coming. I know what I want to put into a body of work and I don’t think it’s going to be that in-depth. I’m focused on getting the machine back working again. Let me get my pen going, play around with some concepts.
SS: Finally, what should someone expect to hear when they hear Bakari JB for the first time?
Bakari J.B.: Expect to hear amazing lyricism, honesty, and something thought provoking.