‘Pray Daily. Love Openly. Live Simply’: The Sound of Crown Heights Rapper ScienZe


Crown Heights’ ScienZe, born Jamal Monsanto, became fascinated with hip-hop at nine years old, when he first heard his older brother — nine years his senior — rap with his friends in their family home. From then on, a young Jamal took to writing lyrics in his head, something he believed to be normal for everyone. Jamal’s brother was his real inspiration to pursue rapping; as Jamal began to take rap more seriously, he first went by the name Warlock. He then teamed up with his brother to form a producer duo called the Brudaz Grymm. After a while, Jamal went solo, landing on the name ScienZe, which stuck with him.

ScienZe made the move to a full-time rap career in 2009 by dropping his debut project, The DopeNESS Vol. 1. Since then he has released seven solo projects and one collaborative effort (as Divine ScienZe), and now he’s set to drop his latest solo work, #BringBackElla, on Tuesday, October 21. Tonight, ScienZe performs at the Red Door’s CMJ Showcase with King I Divine as the duo Divine ScienZe. Before his show, we spoke with him about his Ella movement, positivity in hip-hop, and the movie 500 Days of Summer.

See also: The Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time: The Complete List

You like to say that you’re not hip-hop, you just make music.
At a point in time, I didn’t really like being put in a box in terms of creating things, creating music. So of course it’s hip-hop if you have to classify it, but I don’t really like putting myself in that box, so to speak. I don’t know my future in music, but I know I’m gonna keep close to hip-hop — I’m not saying I’m going to pop or some crap like that — I just don’t know how I want to evolve, and I don’t want to put myself in a box with glass ceilings.

Can you tell me about the concept behind your project Ella and the follow-up, #BringBackElla?
I wanted Ella to be something small in terms of the music, but I wanted to start a movement of love in hip-hop, and also uplifting women in hip-hop. And that was supposed to be the movement, like the music was supposed to be the last thing — it was supposed to be a small, little project.

Then after a while I started getting all these types of production; after getting such great production and seeing where it was taking itself and doing these little songs that kept turning into such big things, in my eyes at least, I decided to make an album. I thought about the name Ella because I needed a strong woman’s name, and I thought Ella was great.

I remember one day I was sitting in the studio with a bunch of friends and letting them hear the tracks, and I was telling them I wanted to dive into the whole relationship thing. I don’t think anybody really does that in a story form and actually has a storyline like it in hip-hop. I told them what I wanted to name it, and one of my friends was like, “That’s dope — Ella in Spanish means she, if I’m not mistaken.” I was like, well, the stars aligned. That’s pretty fuckin’ dope.

For #BringBackElla — I just wanted to have a sort of resurgence of Ella. It was, like, one of my favorite projects ever done. I guess a lot of my projects don’t really start out as ideas to make projects, but #BringBackElla started out as a hashtag because we just got a deal with HHV Distributions in Germany to put Ella on vinyl. I was trying to hashtag #BringBackElla to get people ready for it. Then I started getting production again and I said, you know what? Let me try to make another story. This would remind people about Ella, and that’s where #BringBackElla came from.

Who would you say Ella represents?
Ella represents every sort of relationship that one can relate to. Ella represents, like, a queen, but a queen that’s not perfect. I wanted to kind of mesh the two together, like what people portray queens as, and actually letting them see that we all make these sort of mistakes, especially when dealing with love and relations. Ella represents every woman, in my opinion. She wasn’t really inspired by one relationship I had or anything like that — it was a whole bunch of relationships coupled together. I feel like I wanted to make her something better and relatable for everyone, whether you’re male or female listening to the project. I think I really was able to convey that.

What kind of storyline does Ella have?
The storyline is basically about Jamal, who is me, and how my girlfriend at the time breaks up with me at a soundcheck, which is kinda corny. Then me and Ella end up seeing each other on the scene from time to time. Me and Ella hook up, naturally, and we get into a relationship. And the album is basically us in our relationship, the ups and downs and the different situations that might make you want to break up — the breakups and the get-back-togethers.

Does #BringBackElla also follow a storyline like that?
#BringBackElla is kind of like we are not together anymore, but it’s like what I’m learning as I’m getting older — relationships don’t always have to end the same way, like you can be cordial and cool with whoever you were with, especially if you have or shared love with the person.

I think on Ella, I got to tell my side of the story and a lot of hers. I think this one is kind of more geared towards a man who misses or didn’t really wanna get out of a relationship, but the girl felt like it was time for that to happen. Basically just voicing that, and really expressing how one would feel in that situation of a breakup that they didn’t really want to happen but it happened.

This is like the other side. I’m real smooth on Ella, I’m taking it like this is what it is, I wanna get back with you, we get back together. But #BringBackElla is kind of like the B-side of that.

I feel like the underlying theme in your music is love.
Honestly, yeah — it’s the biggest inspiration. I love how love feels, I love when I think about it, how I feel when I think about it. I feel like it’s something that is very constant and will be here when we’re not even here anymore. I feel like love is very powerful and very relatable. And necessary; we need it.

You’re part of the duo Divine ScienZe with King I Divine. Does your sound differ with him?
I don’t think so. King I Divine did some of Ella. I don’t think it’s very different in sound, really, but in content, he brings out a certain type of rap from me. It’s not like I get to do the beat selection and things of that nature. I love his production, and I don’t know, it’s really natural when I’m writing it, he brings out a certain type of rap.

What kind of rap?
Not flexing rap, but just not necessarily story rap all the time. It’s rap — I don’t know how else to explain it. Put it this way: When I did Ella, it was like I was so caught up in the theme of Ella and making this story go together and speaking about love and being kind of smooth with it. But with King I Divine, I needed to do a Divine ScienZe album because I get to just put all that down and just rap naturally. Not thinking so much about what I’m rapping about, if that makes any sense. Sometimes a rapper just has to rap.

How would you say Brooklyn factors into your music?
A lot, a lot, a lot. I think Brooklyn caters to [my music]. [Brooklyn] isn’t what I build my music on, but I think it has a lot to do with it, whether I know it or not, but I do. I grew up here, I’ve been here all my life, and I feel like Brooklyn is in everything I do.

How would you describe your sound?
An ice-cold glass of lemonade.

What does that mean?
[Laughs] It means it’s not even really something you can say. It’s more of a feeling you get when you do take that sip of an ice-cold glass of lemonade on a hot day, and it may not really be the same thing for everyone.

I read that you’re involved in an after-school music program, the Hall Pass tour. What makes you so passionate about this?
It’s the kids. I can’t even explain. It’s like you feel like you’re actually making a difference, as corny as that sounds. I feel like we have to — we all have a job to do in terms of trying to make our society better, our world better. We all want to complain about how the world is doing, but I feel like it starts really small and it starts really personal, and it starts really intimately. And I feel like with the Hall Pass tour, we’re able to touch people in that way.

Your website says, “Pray Daily. Love Openly. Live Simply.”
That’s my mantra right there.

Where’d that come from?
It comes from me; it comes from what I believe we should be doing every day. God is foundation, all praises due, and I pray daily. I believe that human beings have a way of complicating things and that’s where the ‘live simply’ comes from. And ‘love openly’ is kind of like self-explanatory — you gotta spread that.

Living simply is pretty difficult.
Nobody says it’s easy. But once you got it, you got it. [Laughs] I’m trying to live simply, every day. But it’s like about those simple moments that make you feel really good. Like you realize, it’s hardly ever anything real complicated. It’s like that lemonade that’s refreshing on a hot day — it’s real simple. Sometimes you gotta step back and look at things in that way and be very grateful.

You like to say that you make organic music. What do you mean?
My approach to music is it can’t be forced. I can’t go into the studio and force it. I have to listen to the right beat, I have to get the right feel, and what goes down, goes down. I seldom scratch out lyrics and rewrite verses because I take my time to sit with it. Every song on that Ella joint, everything, brought that out. Whatever the content may be.

So did it take you awhile to finish Ella?
I think it took me awhile, not because of the finding of the beats, but because I really enjoy diving into projects like that. So it probably took awhile because I wanted it to take awhile. I sat with this for a long time; there was a lot of thought behind it prior to even making it. Like, I watch movies and do research; I watched 500 Days of Summer like mad times, just going over it and going over it; see how I can apply some of that to the album. It does take awhile sometimes, but I feel like once I find the right production, in terms of the music itself, it doesn’t take too long. Just everything else around it might take awhile.

What did you like about that movie?
[Laughs] That movie, I just feel like it was real simple and to the point. I feel like my first time watching it, I really liked how they did the days, that were going backwards and forwards and I feel like that gave you different reactions, more reactions from what’s happening. I don’t know if I’ve been through that type of relationship but I can very much relate to everything that he was going through, or I know people who went through the same thing. So we got to see him at his highs and lows with this girl, and we got to see him build himself back up. I studied that movie, to be honest with you. I loved it.

What’s your goal with your music?
To spread the message, whatever the message may be. Whatever type of music I’m doing, there always has to be some sort of underlying message to do music, and be that guy doing that music and do so much more with that platform. With music, I’d love to spread the message, make people feel good. Be somebody that sings a song that makes them feel really good. If I can give somebody that, that’s pretty dope.

I feel like nowadays, that has to be a really conscious goal, to be positive.
I’m me, that’s one thing. I don’t take time off to build a certain type of foundation. I’m me offstage, I’m me onstage, I’m me in the studio, I’m me everywhere, so it’s like I’m a positive person so that’s how it’s gonna be. That’s how the music is gonna be. I don’t really bother with how negative people can get, especially in hip-hop.

You can’t be positive all the time.
No, but you can strive to be. There are times when you gotta be real, but you always have to find that positive outlook. Sometimes it’s harder to find. I get you; you can’t always be positive because when some things happen, you can’t be positive. But I’ll tell you when I can be, I’m gonna be.

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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 21, 2014

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