For an aspiring hip-hop artist, being unsigned must be incredibly frustrating. But imagine if an artist was signed to a record label that did little to nothing in terms of producing an album. Now imagine if that artist moved to another label, completed an album, but the label just let it collect dust.
Jamal Gray, better known as The Last Emperor (named after the 1987 Bernard Bertolucci film), has been in all of these situations. The West Philadelphia native, who has been rhyming for 18 years, is not a typical emcee. While he possesses very impressive lyrical ability, his ability to tell stories and tackle complex issues have earned him a large underground hip-hop fan base.
The graduate of Overbrook High School (whose alumni include Will Smith and hip-hop pioneer Steady B), started rhyming with his friends as a 12-year-old. When his friends “moved on to other things,” he “stuck with it.”
By the time he reached college (at Lincoln University, where he graduated with a degree in political science), he took part in talent shows, but he still considered his performing to be just for fun. In 1996, one of his friends arranged for him to perform at New York’s legendary Lyricist Lounge. After his performance, he realized that he might have a future in hip-hop.
Another friend from Lincoln gave his demo tape to Dr. Dre while working on one of his videos in Los Angeles. Dre was impressed by the tape and decided to sign The Last Emp to his fledging Aftermath Records. However, Dre had “bit off more than he could chew” and neglected The Last Emperor and others (such as fellow Philadelphian Eve, then known as Eve of Destruction) by providing limited studio time and not developing his artists. While he left amicably (Dre may do projects with him in the future), he felt there was “no room for upward mobility.”
Instead of disappearing from the scene, The Last Emp only enhanced his reputation as a lyricist. “C.I.A.,” his collaboration with KRS-One and Zach De La Rocha, on Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 and his single, “Secret Wars, Part One” (in which rappers battle cartoon superheroes) made his full-length project highly anticipated among his fans.
When The Last Emperor signed to Rawkus Records in 2000, underground hip-hop breathed a sigh of relief. But Rawkus (the home of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoah Monch) has been sitting on his completed album for a year now. They first promised a release date of May 1, then October, and now it is slated for release after Kool G. Rap’s album. After his experiences with Aftermath, The Last Emp is “watching them carefully,” to make sure they follow through on their promises.
Whenever the album is released, it should be outstanding. It features production from the likes of Diamond D, Set Free (from the And 1 Mix Tape series), and Prince Paul (who is also the executive producer), as well as guest appearances from the Rza and Trugoy of De La Soul.
Viewed by many as a “conscious lyricist,” surprisingly, DMX is the emcee The Last Emp “respects the most right now … because he deals with the basic grim reality.” He feels that “hip-hop has a responsibility to address issues.”
As far as the debate on what is “real rap,” he states that “artists limit themselves with imaginary brackets … hip-hop is very cliquish, like high school.”
On the current music renaissance in Philadelphia, he states, “It’s long overdue.”
Just like his album.