The following is an interview with the West Virginian rap artist/teacher-counselor/business-owner, Deep Jackson. We discuss his most recent album It Just So Happens, how he encourages young people to dream, and some of his influences. Transparency: Deep Jackson and I grew up together in McDowell County, WV—we’ve known each other since elementary school. And I’m moved by the way he writes about our shared environment.
SD: What I love about your work (and it can be heard over the course of your albums) is your reverence to the culture of hip-hop and your acknowledgment of hip-hop as a source of education. And I definitely agree! I had no idea who Steve Biko was until I heard it in A Tribe Called Quest’s song. So, in what ways specifically do you feel that hip-hop has educated you?
DJ: I have been around Hip-Hop damn near since its inception. I remember it starting off positive and more party oriented. My older cousin, Shanita, used to be the typical 80s girl, with the side ponytail, braces, and the phone with the cord wrapped around her finger talking about her high school antics. She would have it on VH1, MTV, BET, and it was immediate love at first sight when I saw Big Daddy Kane’s style and heard him rap on “Ain’t No Halfsteppin’.” So I credit her for falling in love with Hip-Hop at 6 years old. It was about being proud of your roots then, with X-Clan sporting the African medallions, and who could forget the posse cut “Self-Destruction” where all the big rappers at the time came together to address the crack epidemic that gutted our neighborhoods? So early Hip-Hop helped set the tone for me to be proud of my black skin, a sentiment I still feel today. I’m still proud to be black and always will be. I credit the OGs for teaching us about self-identity and self-empowerment.
SD: I’m glad you mentioned the posse cut “Self-Destruction.” I use that as one of my examples when some white people say that black people shouldn’t be upset about cops killing black people because black people aren’t upset over “black on black violence.” We’ve been addressing violence in our own communities for decades in churches, community groups, in our homes, and in our art. Speaking of that, you’re continuing in that tradition on your song “Maintain” by addressing systemic racism while showing empathy in a few lines: “This a special salute to all my black fathers / keep navigating / through this white man’s world and yeah we keep graduating / from the private school of hard knocks / there’s more ways out than serving white hard rocks…” Can you talk a little more about that sequence, maybe what else is behind those lines for you? What have you seen or heard that pushed those lines to the forefront?
DJ: Just being where we are from, the options are limited in McDowell County or West Virginia period, so just a need to reinforce to the youngsters that it’s more ways out than the easy route. I stress to them that you should consider trade schools. I tell them don’t go looking for a job because if you have a specialty people will always come looking for you. Just because they set traps up does not mean we have to get caught in them.
The only options we had growing up were either coal mining, go to the armed forces, or being overly religious and join the church clergy. If you weren’t a dreamer, there is no way you could escape the systematic economic oppression that is McDowell County. We are the poorest county in the entire union but we have the best people in the nation. Many of my peers’ records were ruined before their 18th birthday with parole, probation, or actual jail time. I saw firsthand what they call the school to prison pipeline with my own eyes. So in “Maintain” the message I was trying to convey is don’t dig yourself in a deeper hole than the one you already find yourself in and keep your record clean, use good manners, and research your passion until you dream of getting out of that place.
SD: Thanks for that. Dreaming in those conditions we grew up in can be difficult, so I’m glad you’re spreading that message. I want to go off path a little, but it’s still related. You mentioned recently that you will be starting a position as a teacher/counselor at an academy for at-risk youth (ages 13-18), and that you plan on using music as therapy. What will be some of your strategies for doing that? Do you currently have any songs/albums in mind that you want to use, and if so, are there any particular therapeutic qualities you hope the students get from it?
DJ: In this new position I hope to teach them different coping methods that are more productive than the way they are currently handling their situation. I want them to know that nobody cares about your situation until they get to know you. If you come with your guard up and exude a confrontational tone then that’s what you will receive back. You get what you give. For every action there is a reaction. Everyone has a backstory and I want to instill that into them. You have to make people care. I grew up in an unhealthy environment with my mom and step pops beefing. I used music and television to help me dream of getting out of McDowell.
So I want to introduce the kids to classic albums we grew up on that taught us about how to handle life. Every month I want them to break down a classic album or song, whether it be hip hop, rock or r and b and give me their interpretation of what the message is that they hear. Everyone is not going to get the same message so I want them to learn how to interpret other people’s experiences and learn a bit of empathy. If the whole world were taught empathy we would all be in a much healthier place.
SD: That’s wonderful, and I love the focus on empathy. I would’ve loved to have something like that when I was a teenager. I wish I could sit in your classes one day and be a student, just listen and be a part of whatever conversations your students are having. So, I wanna turn back to your album for a second. Like you would ask your students, could you give me a short breakdown of your album, and maybe what other messages you heard or wanted people to hear? I know you discussed one song, but I’m curious about how you view the album as a whole.
DJ: It Just So Happens is my most pure Hip-Hop album. I really tried to capture the essence of our childhood music with this project. I only wanted beats that had that 90s feel to them. I honestly feel it’s my most cohesive and concerted effort to date. Lyrics are a reflection of how I feel about society today. The first thing fans tell me is that it sounds like the golden era that they grew up in. I am extremely proud of this project. I feel as if it’s timeless. At least that’s what I strive for.
SD: And you know I gotta ask: What are your Top 10 albums?
1. The Chronic — Dr. Dre tied with Aquemini–OutKast
2. Phrenology — The Roots
3. Bad — Michael Jackson
4. Reasonable Doubt — Jay Z
5. It Was Written — Nas
6. Where I Wanna Be — Donnell Jones
7. Life After Death — Biggie Smalls
8. Makaveli — Tupac
9. Nevermind — Nirvana
10. Diary Of A Mad Band — Jodeci
Deep Jackson regularly performs in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Atlanta, GA. He’s had tracks produced by DJ Premier and 9th Wonder. His albums are It Just So Happens (2017), Sense of Urgency 2 (2015), Middle Finger Music (2012), Pretty Deep (2011), Chin Music (2011), and Sense of Urgency (2009). https://soundcloud.com/deepjackson