The popular discourse has turned against Jay Electronica. Over the last 10 years, the blogosphere’s attitude towards the emcee has gone from adulation to frustration to outright resentment. “Jay Electronica has completely squandered his career,” one recent headline read. The people feel differently—you’ll still find many who claim that bar for bar, he’s one of the best MCs, period—but those whose profession is to reduce works of art to numbers on 10-point scale call his recent impeccable features “long-winded…clumsy…groan-inducing.”
In April, I wrote about why such a mentality is shortsighted. Spoiled by the rapid album release cycle, overdosed on the attention economy, we demand much from artists: badgering them for new content, then disappointed when the rush job sounds uninspired.
After DJBooth published the article, I spoke with Mike “Chav” Chavarria, a producer and engineer known mostly for his work with Jay Electronica, but a veritable hip-hop legend himself. Chav has executive produced two of Erykah Badu’s albums and worked with Eminem, The Game, and Snoop Dogg. He also built J Dilla’s studio in Detroit.
Chav still lives in Detroit. I live in Cleveland. One afternoon, I drove up the freeway to spend a day with him. Chav has long dark hair pulled behind his ears, a youthful face of indeterminable age, and an easy demeanor, induced, likely in part, by an affinity for weed—in “Act 1: Eternal Sunshine,” Jay Electronica’s legendary project from 2007, Jay raps “Chav says ‘F that, roll the sack.’”
It’s been almost seven years since Chav’s last interview, but he’s stayed busy. Apart from his recurrent work with Jay Electronica, he recently formed a record label, Astrolabe Records, with Sons of Yusuf, a Kuwait-based hip-hop duo with an international hit “One Time” and a forthcoming debut album, Shayk The World, that features Jay. Over several hours at a few different restaurants, we discussed his career to date—much of it has to do with Jay Electronica—Dilla, Badu, and D12.
Hopefully, our conversation connects some dots—about how D12, Eminem and Jay all seem to mysteriously know each other; Jay’s movements across the country before “Act I” dropped; and why Jay’s anticipated album “Act II” never came out.
On Meeting J Dilla
The first day I met Dilla, he was working on Common’s Like Water From Chocolate. My friend Johnny from Guitar Center said, “Yo, James Poyser [from The Roots] is in town working with J Dilla, let’s bring him some guitars.” We went to Dilla’s studio in Dearborn, Michigan. Dilla was playing the bass drum—a real bass drum with a mallet—smoking a blunt. And Common was sitting on a couch eating Chinese food.
Dilla was building a studio. He asked us “Can you guys do this for me?” And me and Johnny were like “Yeah!” After that, I was in Dilla’s house every day. That whole process took a year and that’s what got me back into hip-hop again. I got to see firsthand, “This guy is on some other shit.”
When I started to see what Dilla was doing, I remember immediately thinking “I need to find a rapper.” Because I wanted to bring the more experimental side of what I was working on to hip-hop. It almost felt like Jay was summoned. I put that thought out there, and it fucking happened.
On Meeting Jay Electronica
My friend Johnny, he had mentioned Jay before. He was like “I met this guy Jay Electronica in Atlanta…I don’t know where he is, but once we find him, we’re good.”
And then one day, Jay was living in Philly. He was in a barbershop with some Nation of Islam people. This girl we knew from Detroit heard Jay, and she was like, “You sound like my friend Johnny from Detroit!”
Jay was like: “Johnny from Detroit? Does he have a brother named Jamal?” And she was like “Yeah!” And Jay was like, “Get him on the phone right now.” So that’s how they found each other again.
Within days, Jay was in Detroit. I met him at night. One of the first things he said to me was, “Aw, Chav we’re gonna be best friends!” He’s always been exactly the same. He’s a really charismatic person. He had a beat CD, he just started working and stayed up a few days rapping. The first time I heard him, I was like, “That dude has it. He’s the one.”
On Building with Jay Electronica
It always felt like a slow build. We met around 2002. Act 1: Eternal Sunshine came out in 2007. In retrospect, it’s like, “Damn, what was happening during those five years?”
But what would happen is, he would come to Detroit for a few months and then he would disappear. I wouldn’t know where he went—if he was ever coming back, or how to get a hold of him. He had a new phone number every time you talked to him.
He’d always show up on the Greyhound. I’d get a call in the middle of the night, like “Chav I’m at the bus station right now, come pick me up!” I’d be like, “Okay, here we go again.” And that’d be followed by long days and nights of working. We had a couple of other artists that we were working with and whenever Jay came in, we would drop everything and all be focused on what he was doing.
With him, it’s never all “work,” it might be watching movies or just talking shit. This was right after the World Trade Centers came down. That was a big thing that we were always talking about. We were definitely political. I wouldn’t say we were interested in one side or another, but just very aware of the shit that was going on and the lies that we felt were being told.
I guess it’s the same shit today. The same mission is to expose the lies—the lies of everything. When he first came, he was on some militant, punk rock, Nation of Islam kind of shit. But over time, his music became way more introspective. I feel like it went from exposing the lies that are being told to us, to exposing the lies that we live and tell ourselves.
On Jay Electronica Meeting J Dilla
This was 2003. We had been working for a minute. We had the "War with the Dragon" stuff pretty much done. I had been in contact with Dilla, we did a second wave on his studio, he bought a bunch of keyboards and a drum set. I took Jay over his house and played Jay’s music for him. And Dilla was literally like, nodding his head, “Oh yeah…yeah, you ready.” So we were like, “Okay sweet.”
The whole shit really changed when Dilla died. He was supposed to be a part of everything. The week that he died, I went to the hospital for the last time. Jay had reconnected with Dilla through Erykah, and they were supposed to go to the studio together. It never happened. Shit would’ve been totally different if that went down. Dilla was a big part of the plan of how we were moving.
On Introducing Jay Electronica to D12
I had got in deeper with Denaun Porter from D12. We started working on D12’s album. I was in the studio with him and Eminem every day. It got to the point where sometimes I’d be at Denuan’s house. And I got comfortable enough where I was like, “Yo can I bring my friend Jay? He’s dope with the camera.” Because he was—Jay had had a good eye and a good camera. So I’d bring him with me, and he was the cameraman for Denaun and D12. Jay’s so personable and charismatic, you bring him into the situation and everyone loves him. It’s never a problem with him. We’d go to Denaun’s house, and eventually the studio with D12. Nobody knew he rapped back then.
So we were hanging with Denaun, we got the blessing from Dilla, then one day we played Jay’s music for Denaun. This is probably 2007. Denaun was like, “So what do you want to do? Let me help. I want to sign you.”
But Jay wanted to sign to Bad Boy. That was always his mission from the very beginning. His reasoning was, “Puffy’s the only dude who can walk across the street to CNN and go sit down on Larry King Live anytime that he wants. He’s the guy that made Biggie.” Those were the rappers he looked up to—Nas and Biggie, I would say.
On Trying to Get Signed to Bad Boy
We got beats from Denaun, we had beats from Dilla. We pressed the demos onto CDs, put it in a case, and drove to New York. We printed little pieces of paper and we went and dropped hundreds of them everywhere around the Bad Boy building.
Eventually, this intern picked one up and came over to us and said: “Is this you guys?” And we gave her the demo. A few hours later she called us and said that somebody at Bad Boy wanted to meet with us. We set up a meeting and some bullshit happened with the timing. Then we left New York. They wanted us to come back and we didn’t come back.
At the time, it was like, “Damn it! This is a total fuck up.” We would get to one place. We’d think we were right on the edge of breaking through, then nothing would happen. Then Jay would come back to Detroit, we’d work some more, and the cycle would continue.
It was like this: he would leave, come back, and something crazy would’ve happened. He’d come back: “Yo I met this dude, Rashad Smith, he produced Biggie’s shit.” One time he came back, and he was like, “Yo, Erykah Badu’s my girlfriend now.” We were like “Yeah, whatever, okay.” And it would be unbelievable at first, but the more times that it happened, it was like, “Oh shit…he’s for real!”
Then I started to realize like ‘Oh man, all the shit that we’ve always been thinking about him, I guess we were actually right! Cause everyone sees this in him.”
On Creating Act 1: Eternal Sunshine
Act I only took a week or two. He recorded the first song, “Eternal Sunshine,” into a laptop mic. He put that out on Myspace and got a good response. He came to Detroit two weeks later. He was like, “We’re going to make a whole project out of this.” Originally it wasn’t only going to be the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, we played around with a couple of different tracks [Editor’s note: this is one of them]. We worked on it for a week, maybe a little longer, and it was done.
On Working with Erykah Badu and Sons of Yusuf
That’s why Erykah Badu wanted me to work with her, it was [Act 1]. She wanted that Jay Electronica shit [laughs]. I was the beneficiary of having worked on it, I brought my own texture to it I guess.
Engineering itself was never really my thing. It did become my thing—that was my foot in the door. I’m a musician and a creative person first, but I’m also really technical. I enjoy engineering, but it doesn’t really interest me like developing artists does. Working with artists on the development [side], like with Jay, and now with Sons of Yusuf, is what excites me the most.
Sons of Yusuf are dope. They’re the first to really do hip-hop in a big way from Arabia. They want to do good things in the world and bridge the gap between cultures. They have a lot of the same ethos as Jay—they’re students of the game for sure. I’m not Muslim but…I seem to have an attraction towards music with that kind of note to it. I relate to it even though I’m not even religious.
On Jay Electronica’s Rise to Prominence
Jay started to get out into the industry and the world and forge his own way. He would just say shit, set his mind to it, and do it. He did that all the way up until he was doing shit that nobody could have even imagined that he would do. I remember we were in my house after Eternal Sunshine dropped, and Puffy called him up on video chat and we were just on iChat video with Puffy and Cassie.
And the next day he went to Miami. That’s the line from “Shiny Suit Theory”: “Me and Puff, we was chilling in Miami…” And we were like, “Oh shit, this time it’s going down for real!” The whole time I met him, it was always like “This shit is going down!”
Like…we were right at the edge. But then it became this illusive thing—the closer you get the finish line, the farther it gets moved. And then it started to become a blurry thing where—I can only speak from my point of view—you ask yourself, what is the finish line?
What were we trying to accomplish? We never really set out to get No. 1 records, we never had those kind of conversations. Everybody thinks about how you should define success—you get the record deal, you put out the album, you get rich, you get famous. But I think that kind of stuff gives you the means to do other shit.
On Jay Electronica Haters
You see people out there talking shit, saying that [Jay] wasted his opportunity. The climate is that it’s easy to be negative. Anybody can write some shit.
And that makes me think there’s a lot of mad people out there. Why are they so mad? I just imagine what that kind of energy would make you feel like, coming from all these places around you. That’s fucked up.
What makes people even do that? Well, he tapped into something that inspired people to a degree where people felt like they needed him. Like he was the savior of hip-hop. I never heard him say he was the savior of hip-hop or the savior of anybody in particular. But that’s what was put on him.
In my view, the shit that makes people love him is the same shit that makes people mad. He had that opportunity for everybody to fuck with his music and love him for the same reasons that he’s not doing what everybody thinks he should do.
I know other people from the outside would not look at it like that. But what makes the music great is that it comes from a genuine place. When you start to put all these other factors, like money, being in the public eye—how do you keep what you came to the table with? How do you keep doing the shit that got you there? How do you stay true to yourself and make great art?
On Jay’s Unreleased Album Act II
I’ve heard the album to the extent that everyone else has heard it, plus a handful of songs more.
When he first gave it to me, he called me from New York, this is 2012. He had just gotten back from London. I went out to New York, I met him at a hotel and he gave me all of the songs. We listened to it together. Some of the stuff I had already heard.
I remember the first time I heard it when LaTonya Givens came on at the end of “Better in Tune With the Infinite,” and it was like “Oh shit.” It was such a beautiful tear-jerking moment.
“Letter to Falon,” which came out two years ago, was always my favorite one from the album. That and “Better in Tune with the Infinite.” There was also…“Memories and Merlot.” That shit is so, so dope. [Author’s note: Jay, drop that shit!]
Me, being the person that works on unfinished music, when I heard it for the first time, I could experience it like it was done. I could hear where he was going to go with it. And maybe people feel like they were robbed of the chance to sit down and listen to it in one go. But it’s not like he could just release that, you know? It actually has to be finished.
And if he loses his desire to finish those particular songs…maybe it was premature to release a track listing, but people do that all the time. And you know, he had every intention of doing that, but circumstances and shit happen to make you question along the way—whether or not that’s what you want to do.
Along the way, it started to make me question everything too. Because it was frustrating at a certain point, to be like: “Damn, we were right there!” To get so far and to not see how it go how you imagined it would go, developed a part of me that made me actually question my own motives, like: “What do I really want? How can myself and other people looking from the outside try to imagine what he wants? As an artist, as a human being?”
I don’t ask him, “So why didn’t you finish that album?” We don’t really talk about shit like that. But from knowing him and other artists, you can only work on shit for so long before you get tired of it. Most artists don’t even listen to their music after it’s done. There’s a window where your interest is in it, and once that’s gone, you’re not going to go back and finish it. So I get it, the window passed for that.
But from the other side of it, if it wasn’t gonna be up to his own standard, what’s the point of even doing it? Because then people would listen to it and say, “Ah well, it wasn’t shit anyways.” Or they’d say that it sounds unfinished.
So he released what he thought could stand on its own. People have heard at least 70 percent of it, I would say.
On an Eventual Jay Electronica Project
I would imagine he does release a longer project, because life is long, and he works on music all the time.
I mean, Act I went fast. That was done in a week. So I think that at any point again, it could go fast. I know it’s completely within the realm of possibility.
Maybe people are like, “Oh it’s too late for him, he missed his chance.” But I don’t think he ever really missed his chance, and I think he realizes this, you know? He doesn’t care. He just does what he wants to do. And you can’t count him out.
I feel like he’s a good example… It may not be the popular example, but there’s young artists that are paying attention and see the value in what he’s doing. It’s not like he’s the first to do this. There have always been a lot of artists who’ve taken long hiatuses and come back and been great.
And every time I hear him do some shit I still get the same feeling from it.