Die Jerm Die Mixtape
By Chet Betz | 25 November 2009
Jermiside is making my own little dream for his development as a rapper come true. In my ’06 NBH introduction to the MC with the Red Giants’ (his group with producer Brickbeats) self-titled debut I reveled in his “wordplay,” “convoluted references,” “silly cleverness,” “punchlines to punchlines,” and “breath control” but lamented the somewhat tired concepts and undieness of it all. I was a bit encouraged by the direction he took on the Red Giants EP released earlier this year, finding Jerm’s raps not as busy but “more open” and in that sense even more evocative than they were before. Well, on this mixtape DJ Low Key presents either the transitional middle ground between Jerm’s subtly different two M.O.s, or—and this is what I hope—documents how Jermiside’s rapping now comes off in the context of a full-length. I mean, as far as mixtapes go, Die Jerm Die is astoundingly conceptual and well thought-out, Jerm’s introduction on the Bandcamp site (where you can download it) touching briefly upon how the title plays to Jermiside’s purpose in name of destroying the “germs,” the taint of an imperfect world that exists both without and within, and how those germs in turn exist to destroy Jerm. He also talks about how the project started at a time when he was going through a “rough ass patch” and he didn’t want to do music any more—then when things turned around it became a “snapshot” of that state of mind; the height to which Jermiside drives this collection by its conclusion casts it as a sort of less opus-styled, mixtape equivalent of a spiritual successor to Illogic’s Celestial Clockwork (2004).
Which is to say there’s definitely something “spiritual” about the succession; on “Crisis Times,” first leak from this tape and aptly reviewed by our Colin McGowan, Jermiside proclaims: “I ain’t spiritual, I’m lyrical.” It’s kind of ’94, kind of Illmatic (”...but not bisexual, I’m an intellectual”) with a different background, and one can only assume per all the other references throughout the tape to God and faith, to meditating on the Bible and the Qur’an (“Push It”), that the implication of this choice line is that Jermiside’s brand of spiritual expression is purely lyrical as opposed to the typical “spiritual” means. Awesome. Another similarity to Illogic’s masterpiece is the way Jerm finds synchronicity between his low place in the rap game and the upward climb of life at a much deeper level than vocation. There’s something rightly righteous about the approach Jerm takes in observing from this position; he doesn’t condemn so much as convict and confess, spending a bulk of his commentary dealing with his own struggles and scoping out the vast gray area that surrounds all of us. But, I mean, there’s holy audacity in his balls when on opener “Die Jerm Die” he calls some of his contemporaries “pedophiles” and then acknowledges that all of us support their perversity in the form of hit records about daughters “stripping tit-naked,” then casts that and a dozen other vices under a morbid pall. Jerm shocks our moral sense back to awareness, helping us not feel fine about R. Kelly. It’s some real wages-of-sin-is-death type shit.
Beyond the crusade it’s just a fun mixtape to debate about, innocuous as it initially may seem. Of course it can’t hope to match Weezy on that point but isn’t Weezy the only person not yet a bit tired of talking about Weezy? I tired just typing that. On this record colleague and fellow rap fiend Clayton Purdom opines that Jermiside is a little too “self-consciously smooth,” “stereotypically underground,” too much about “finesse” and “REAL hip-hop” (Clay makes finger quotes for a living); and that while Die Jerm Die is obviously dope overall, Clay pines for some “rough edges” to Jerm’s flow. To which I say, Clay, you like the Drake mixtape. That’s my most pertinent rejoinder, really, but here’s the second: if Jermiside’s purpose were to call attention to himself or even just to stand out, then I would totally agree that this shit is too smooth. But Jerm’s gradual progression from where he was on The Red Giants is making me realize that his purpose is, simply, to communicate. And he does that here with the proficiency of a network download at NASA. So, this is a fun mixtape to debate because it becomes a conversation about what underground hip-hop pigeonholes itself into and then what underground hip-hop can be if it views the world from within that pigeonhole and then brings us inside. Is Jerm’s flow “too smooth” or is it stream-of-consciousness immersive? Is the content “stereotypically underground” or is it painfully trill?
That’s for the listener to decide but let me just say that here there is rapper’s rap where all the extended metaphors and elaborate styles prove to be utterly on-point. Framed between Jermiside’s verses (i.e. fearless barrages of vocab, sculpted scheming, and ceaselessly rhythmic cadence), the sad cliché of “REAL hip-hop” invoked on the the hook of “Like Never Before” is endowed with new life. So this is what backpackers are on about. With “Here I Go Again,” “Everyday,” and “Skyscraper Paper” Jermiside acknowledges that he is an underground rapper in a way that makes it empathetic to anyone who struggles with a grind. And Jerm’s dissection of the underground rapper identity itself is bluntly incisive, somehow making the very idea of underground rapping interesting in what it entails practically (“dead presidents are presidents over all things”), artistically (“on some different shit / rhythm arithmetic / picture it / in the mind / double time, triple it / infinite / possibilities / pop soliloquies”), and, hell, existentially (“is it infinite? / or limited? / put my blood in it / but it’s sharks that I’m swimming with / talk to death calling nigga back / so I’m living it”). While most underground rappers try to deny what they are, Jermiside reminds us that rapping has roots in the poetic venting of the disenfranchised, at its heart both an evolution of oral history and music’s most intuitive lyrical outlet for catharsis. The hooks on Die Jerm Die are mostly throw-aways, probably meant that way so rap heads have easier access to the tight coils of heavy rhyme. And there are few spectacular beats, which is likely for the best since Jermiside’s flow hurtles right through all of them, tearing free of their categorical boom-bap atmosphere and, again, communicating with us.
That’s the crux: Jermiside’s rapping ultimately distinguishes itself by ripping us out of our own heads and pulling us into his, a place where we become enraptured by the vivid fireworks of his arcing synapses. And should one of those thought-sparks score a direct hit with you, the loaded charge of eloquence might just strike you down, bowl you over, blow you away as it ripples through all the particles of yourself that feel the same way. For me one such moment in Die Jerm Die is on “Heaven,” Jermiside’s own mini-“B.I.B.L.E.” wherein he describes the maturation of his life philosophy as he experiences life; Jerm raps: “And after we dying flying at high fahrenheits / tragedy strikes in life when you think you fair and nice / They say it’s the cost of living / I can’t pay the price / Born in ’81 / with punks wearing their hair in spikes / Christ paid for my sins / The charity’s nice / but I need more than ends on these perilous heights.” So it seems a bit of a non-sequitur, the “born in ’81” and punks bit, but all the detail serves to illustrate that dude’s feeling his age. This places Jerm, for our reference, at a crucial point in his life where he can choose to follow a path that denies himself or he can continue to gratify base wants and chase Icarian ambitions. Born in ’82, I’m starting to feel the same transition in my marrow. It’s a life or death decision, the positive choice itself a process of finding a way to shape the very contours of one’s person—and I’m not sure that’s something one can do so much as continually ask to happen.
Jerm further elucidates on beatific closer “Turning Point”: “feel like I’m following the wrong code / and will I know before I’m all old? / And will I love before I’m all cold? / Warmed up in the snow / reached up / and thrust away the load.” Jerm determines that the only way to push his self towards something transcendent is to live life on the basis of belief in that transcendence, to choose to see light in the midst of a “Black Cloud” (another great track, by the way). This is both calm acceptance and bold defiance of reality; it’s having eyes wide open while knowing that a wide-open mind goes beyond that. “I ain’t spiritual, I’m lyrical,” yeah? This is the most lyrical release of the year.