Monday, October 31, 2011

Hip Hop Meets Neue Deutsche Welle: Ja Ja Ja

Julie Jigsaw onstage with Ja Ja Ja. Photo: Ar/Gee Gleim
Julie Jigsaw became the first female rapper on record in Europe, and  the first rapper to record a song about graffiti in Europe, with the releases of JaJaJa “Katz Rap” and “Graffiti Artists Inter-national” in 1982.

Julie Jigsaw was my stage name with Ja Ja Ja. My real name is Julie A. Ashcraft. And I'm currently recording under the name Jigsawnovich.

          In 1980, I left Dallas for Pratt Institute in New York, and co-founded my first band, Group of Trees, there with fellow art students Ted Parsons on drums and Gregory Grinnell on guitar. I wrote all the lyrics and the melodies that I sang and played on Casiotone. Our sound was Post-Punk/No-Wave with a Surf influence. Ted later joined The Swans and Prong. Greg later joined The Toasters. 

          From 1978-1980, I saw Liquid Liquid, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits, Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart and Devo live on stage. I was one of the first girls to slam dance, or "mosh" as it was later called, in New York--while attending Bad Brains concerts with my friend John Joseph McGowan, who went on to be lead singer of The Cro-Mags. I met Steve Ignorant by chance when I wore a CRASS badge to the Reggae Lounge in New York. Steve wrote letters to me for the next year.

          The CRASS logo and the Danceteria club logo were designed by artist David King. He and his wife kindly let me crash at their place in Soho after nightclubbing, rather than taking dangerous late night subway rides back to Brooklyn. Myrtle Avenue, near my home and college campus, was nicknamed "Murder Avenue." All my art school friends had been mugged or robbed, but I had not. This may have been due to the wildly colored and patterned Mod and leather Punk Rock clothes I wore, which made me look more fierce. The dark-skinned people in the neighborhood seemed to enjoy my fashions, smiling and making remarks such as, "girl, you're lit up like a Jack O'lantern," or "hey, Sid Vicious" when I walked by.

          Boom boxes and car audio systems filled the streets of New York with the latest rap and Hip Hop breaks. On the weekends, I visited Bethesda Fountain Terrace in Central Park to watch break dancers and disco roller skaters. 

          I also listened to Chinese Opera, Yoko Ono, Der Plan, Deutsch Amerikan- ische Freundschaft, Holger Hiller, Wirt- schaftswunder, Sugarhill Gang, The Surfaris, ? and the Mysterians, The Residents, Kraftwerk, Mars, DNA, PIL, Wire, Joy Division, Augustus Pablo and Ornette Coleman. I was a radio dj with a weekly show on Pratt Radio’s original WPIR station. Fellow art student Daniel Clowes let me borrow records to play on air, and I half starved myself in order to afford new imports at 99 Records. 
          In 1980, I purchased Der Plan's Geri Reig record because the robot baby Jesus on the cover was funny! I also liked the sound of German, and tried to learn it by listening to Der Plan. I wrote them a fan letter, complimenting their artwork and asking how they made all the interesting sounds in the music. Moritz R., the graphic artist and lead singer of Der Plan, replied. After we exchanged letters, photos and cassette tapes for months, Moritz invited me to visit him and Der Plan.
          I flew to Dusseldorf, and I stayed in the guest room at ATA TAK studios, downstairs from Kurt Dahlke (A.K.A. Pyrolator) and Frank Fenstermacher. I enjoyed deep philosophical conversations with Frank and Kurt. George Gurdjieff concepts Kurt told me about, regarding "identification,” inspired me to write a poem which later became the lyrics to the "Ja! Ja! Ja!" (Yes! Yes! Yes!) song.
Cassette with Ja Ja Ja's first song, "Die Wahrheit."
          While in Germany, I heard "Maschine brennt" and "Der Kommissar" by Falco, "Rap- ture" by Blondie and "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash. These songs proved that Rap had interna- tional appeal.

          I wrote new melodies on piano and rhythms on drums, and experimented with the bass, trumpet and synthesizer in the ATA TAK studio. Frank called me a "natural talent," and Kurt introduced me to his friends, Frank Samba and Wietn Wito. The first night we met, Frank, Wito and I had a jam session. I improvised lyrics and sang, played harmonica, percussion and trumpet; Wito played bass; and Frank played drums. Kurt/Pyrolator slipped into the booth and recorded us. We chose the best parts, and Wito suggested we call it, "Die Wahrheit” (The Truth). It would be our first single, released in 1982 on the Klar! 80 Sampler, ALLES ODER NICHTS (EVERYTHING OR NOTHING).
          In the next days Frank, Wito and I created "Katz Rap"(Cat Rap)  and "Mom", which would be released as our 7" single, on ATA TAK, engineered by Pyrolator. I suggested our band name, Ja Ja Ja, and I designed and painted the Katz Rap record sleeve and label. 
"Katz Rap" featured the first female Rapper in Europe

          With the 1982 release of "Katz Rap," I be- came the first female rapper on record in Europe,and one of the earliest white persons to make a rap record. With the release of "Graffiti Artists Interna- tional" later that year, I became the first rapper in Europe to record a song about graffiti. I was one of the earliest white persons to make a rap record, preceded by Deborah Harry, Falco, and Futura 2000. The record cover I designed and painted for our album was one of the first record covers to depict a dinosaur, and it long preceded David Icke's hypothesis regarding reptilians and technology. I also painted the large dinosaur and graffiti backdrop we exhibited at our live shows. And I created a breakdancing dinosaur concept for our “I Am An Animal” video. 
The Ja Ja Ja album included the first rap song
about graffiti in Europe.
          1981-1982, I met Blixa Bargeld, Gudrun Gut, Bettina Koster, Robert Gorl, Werner Lambertz, and Andreas Dorau. I interviewed Holger Hiller for the New Musical Express, and I saw Palais Schaumburg, Einsturzende Neubauten and Der KFC live onstage. I also visited both East and West Berlin as often as possible. The vibrant politics and fiery squatter riots on the Western side contrasted with private acts of rebellion against the paranoid Stasi state on the Eastern side were fascinating. In the meanwhile the cold war nuclear arms race was accelerating, and some of the young Germans I met resented what they saw as “occupation” via American military bases. This tense atmosphere inspired my lyrics to “Habt Nicht Mehr Angst” (Have No More Fear).
Frank Samba, Julie Jigsaw, Wietn Wito
of Ja Ja Ja
          New poems I wrote in Germany, plus poems I'd written in New York, became lyrics for all the Ja Ja Ja songs. I presented deeply personal experiences and emotions in an abstract and sometimes lighthearted manner, to show a way to survive and even find joy in such intensity. I composed the melodies I sang and played, and I composed the melody that Wito played on "Destiny." He and Frank tended to play their instruments in ways that were at once rhythmic and melodic. Frank tuned his drums with great precision, and he was acutely aware of overtones and harmonics. Wito created infectious, driving riffs. Together we pioneered a dynamic new sound, and Ar/Gee Gleim’s photos of us captured our affectionate spirit.
Years before he engineered Bjork, The Sugarcubes and Kukl, Mel Jefferson was the recording engineer for Ja Ja Ja. In 1982, while we were recording our album, Mel suggested that I sing harmonies like a train in the distance, for the opening section of "Graffiti Artists International". I've always wondered whether The Pixies "Where is My Mind,” Fierce & Nico “Input,” and Hichkas "Terrorist" included samples of my voice from "Graffiti Artists International".

          Wito and Frank, and our featured guest, Henry Scott III, were tremendous musicians. Playing live was great! It was so nice seeing our audiences, and finding that such an amazing mixture of many different kinds of people enjoy our music! I remember a gig in Zurich where our audience was half leather clad Punk Rockers and half engineers/scientists wearing glasses and nicely pressed shirts! We played clubs, colleges and festivals in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium—and we attracted fans from many other countries! And Melle Mel from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five attended our concerts at the Danceteria club in New York City. John Peel played “Katz Rap” on BBC radio and we were interviewed on German Radio in Zurich. 

          I also had the pleasure of being featured on a track by Austrian musician Xao Seffcheque. His warmth and sense of humor were rare in Dusseldorf. I wrote the lyrics and sang on Xao’s track, "Julie in Germany," which was released in 1982 on the Klar und Wahr - Sounds Rettet Deutschland (Clear and True - Sounds Rescues Germany) compilation released by Das Buro.

           Although I'd written the lyrics and melodies to most of the Ja Ja Ja songs, rather than only giving Frank and Wito arrangements credits, we split songwriting credits on our singles and album three ways in order to encourage collaboration. Afterwards, Wito came to me and said he’d written some new songs, that he would dictate what I would play and sing, and that he wanted the songs credited to himself only. His proposal was dictatorial and in violation of our agreement regarding collaborative credits. Besides, Wito was focusing on Prog Jazz, whereas I was more interested in Hip Hop. 

In 1983, I moved back to New York and became involved in the New York Hip Hop movement, exploring my talents as a Graffiti Artist. I painted fifty jackets for the Allen Boys; and became friends with Revolt and Lee Quinones. My paintings and sculptures were included in shows at Fashion Moda, Danceteria and Stellweg Seguy. I collaborated on a mural with Lady Pink in The Roxy. Cey and Sharp took me down subway tunnels and we painted graffiti pieces on the sides of the train. Futura 2000 and Zephyr drew full pages in my graffiti blackbooks. Cey introduced me to Andy Warhol, Jean Michele Basquiat, and Keith Haring. My friend Martin Burgoyne, from Pratt Institute, introduced me to Madonna.

          During 1983-84 was living on Riving- ton Street, dodging stray bullets and listening to the new hard rap from Run DMC. Inspired by the danger of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I wrote new songs. Frank and I found American bassist Billy Grant to replace Wito. We toured and were well received. If only the internet had existed at that time! Keeping the group together with an ocean between Frank and me proved too difficult in the end. 

          Ja Ja Ja is a group full of joy and emotional struggles, perfection and experimentation, space and time. The combination of our souls and skills sometimes created fields of virtually metaphysical intensity and magnitude. Wito told me he saw colors rise from his bass into the air and go out into the audience. Our music has prevailed with your help, beloved listener. Thank you for your inspirational energy and your enthusiasm through the decades. 
          Frank Samba and Kurt Dahlke/Pyrolator are currently remastering our self-titled Ja Ja Ja album, which was originally released in 1982. It will be re-released in Japan soon. "Katz Rap" was re-released on the compilation CD, Grlz: Women Ahead of Their Time (Germany, Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records 2005). One of our original vinyl 7" ATA TAK pressings of "Katz Rap" is included in the Cornell University Library Hip Hop Collection, circa 1975-85, a Division of Rare Manuscript Collections. 

          I've recorded one song under the name Jigsawnovich, and plan to release a new song soon. 
~Julie A. Ashcraft A.K.A. Julie Jigsaw A.K.A. Jigsawnovich

© 2011 Julie A. Ashcraft
All rights reserved. For permissions and more information, contact Julie at jigsawnovich (at) gmail (dot) com

Thursday, May 5, 2011