If there’s a common message in the music of Active I, it’s the possibilities that exist in following one’s own path and persevering through what may come, rather than taking the path of least resistance and following the herd. The Seattle based hip-hop artist, producer and entrepreneur has forged his own unique musical sensibility and it’s one that is in full bloom on his eclectic and electric new album, The M Thesis.
Active I (the “I” is for “Ingredient”) is the brainchild of rapper, singer and producer, J. Lee, a mainstay in the Seattle hip-hop scene for the past five years. Hailing from Philadelphia, J. grew up in the sway of soul and funk legends like James Brown and Stevie Wonder until he heard Public Enemy in the late 80’s, which sparked his lifelong love affair with rap. But J’s biggest musical inspiration in becoming a musician was and remains Bob Marley, music that, as J. says, “tears through your soul.”
By the age of 13 J. was already experimenting with four track recording and in high school, while playing in rock bands (he’s also a fan of 80’s hardcore legends like Bad Brains and Fugazi), he got fully into production and sampling. After gaining experience in the Philadelphia underground club scene, J. moved to Colorado, where, as he puts it, “Got re-energized.\" Out there he DJ’d, helped produce snowboarding videos and started making film and television music. Dateline NBC, America’s Next Top Model and other various TV shows all used J.’s material. “I enjoyed being a faceless creator for productions,” says J., “but everyone kept telling me, ‘you should put out an album.’” He continues, “I\'d been waiting to hook up with a big label, but instead, decided to take matters into my own hands.”
Moving to Seattle five years ago, J. quickly began making his mark on the scene by opening his own studio and forming the well-renown hip-hop collective Top Left, a 6 MC crew that has started to create a huge impact on hip hop culture in the Pacific Northwest and has been released on J.’s label, Audiodose Records. And Active I has had several releases, including the debut, Flavors of Fusion (2001), Be Smart Don’t Think (2003), the limited edition Creation Stepper vol. XIII: Against the Brain (2005) and now, The M Thesis.
Recorded in four months, The M Thesis, which typical of J, is not an album that is easily categorized. Traces of reggae, rock and industrial are incorporated woven into the fabric of the songs, that while based in hip-hop, expand on the possibilities of what the music can be. MC\'s Auraswon and B.Smooth from Top Left help carry the record\'s message with multiple appearances, along with MC/singer Rubedog, who has been featured on every Active I release.
Lyrically, the album employs J.’s love of paradox; of what he calls, “complex simplicity.” He says, “I write about fear, greed and the discontent that’s out there. There’s an underlying sadness. But there are other sides that are more positive; and the songs touch on both sides.” “Get Up,” encapsulates that sensibility perfectly; over a hypnotic reggae beat, the song’s lyrics are both an acknowledgment of the ills of society, while also being an exhortation for the masses to do something about it. Few rappers incorporate physics theories into their rhymes, but on “Thermodynamic Death”, a track which also introduces female singer Paradame, J. does exactly that, rapping about the theory of heat transfer and how it applies to society at large. \"Our Way\", an upbeat track co-written by Canadian rapper L.Mighty, completes the album\'s feeling, with a message that imparts an unbending devotion to individuality and passion.
This is not usual fare for a hip-hop album, and it is fitting for an artist who long ago quit trying to be anyone but himself, and has created incredible music as a result. “I want this music to have an impact in people’s lives,\" J. says, \"but in an almost subversive, subtle way. I’m serious about what I do, but I don’t take myself seriously.” The M Thesis reflects that mission perfectly; music that both entertains and enlightens and provides a glimpse into a world that we can only get from J. Lee’s music.