Revisiting Jeru the Damaja’s ‘The Sun Rises In the East’: A 30-Year Retrospective

A landmark album in East Coast hip-hop, the Brooklyn native delivered a classic in tandem with the legendary production of DJ Premier.

During the mid-90s, a resurgence in rap music took place in New York, the epicenter of hip-hop culture at the time. Described as the “Golden Age,” following the unprecedented success of the West Coast rap scene and the pending pronouncements from Southern rap hip-hop. New voices and producers emerged from the “concrete jungle” that would spark a wave of new music that would forever shift the landscape. 

From 1992-1996, many seminal albums were released that would redefine the sound and texture of rap music for years to come. Of all the albums of that period, undoubtedly, one of the finest was The Sun Rises In the East by Jeru the Damaja.

Born Kendrick Jeru Davis, his origin story began in Brooklyn, where he was born and raised in the East New York neighborhood. In the late 1980s, he formed the rap group Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and linked up with Boston native Keith “Guru” Elam, who adopted Brooklyn as his second home. Jeru would even appear in Gang Starr’s first video, “Words I Manifest,” in 1989 from their debut project No More Mr. Nice Guy.

After honing his craft for years, Jeru was a featured guest on "I'm the Man," a track from Gang Starr's 1992 album Daily Operation, along with  Lil’ Dap of Group Home. He also appeared on "Speak ya Clout" from Hard to Earn. Jeru’s adept lyricism garnered enough buzz in the underground rap scene that he eventually landed a deal with Payday Records.

Released on May 24, 1994, The Sun Rises In the East was the first project released by a member of the Gang Starr Foundation, which was co-founded by Guru and Big Shug and would boast several affiliates, including Group Home, Afu-Ra, M.O.P., Freddie Foxx, and others.

With prophetic rage, Jeru adroitly addresses topics such as whack MCs, the forces of evil,  Five Percenters’ ethics such as knowledge of self, the commercialization of hip-hop, personal righteousness, and his verbal wizardry with a style all his own. With visceral boldness, he puts fraudulent MCs and those who refuse to be authentic in the culture on notice that he has arrived to spit ill bars and spread the truth, according to his perspective.

The album's production, which spans 13 tracks, was handled by DJ Premier, who was in top form with his innovative boom-bap sonic landscape. Well on his way to becoming an iconic producer, his work on the album impeccably demonstrates why he is regarded as one the best ever to do it as he experimented like a mad scientist on each track. In 1994 alone, Preemo had a prolific year as he produced every track on Jeru’s debut, the entirety of Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn, contributed tracks to Nas’ Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G's Ready to Die.

From the first few seconds of ‘Come Clean,” you know that you are listening to an instant classic. Released a year before the album dropped, the track became an underground hit, a college radio staple, and the LPs first single.  With Premier chopping the intro of Shelley Manne’s percussion on “Infinity,” the epic track gives an inside look into the sound of  Chinese Water Torture, which is alluded to in the video for the song, adding to the aura of the record.

Jeru raps, “I'm a true master, you can check my credentials/'Cause I choose to use my infinite potential/Got a freaky, freaky, freaky, freaky flow/Control the mic like Fidel Castro/ locked Cuba/So deep that you can't scuba dive/My jive's origin is unknown like the Jubas/I've accumulated honeys all across the map/'Cause I'd rather bust a n*t then bust a cap.”

“Come Clean” eventually peaked at 88 on the Billboard 100 chart, a surprise entry for an underground artist, and landed at number 10 on the Hot Rap Singles chart.

“D. Original,” the album’s second single, featured a seemingly out-of-tune piano sample and off-beat drum pattern the Premier cooked up to make another boom-bap banger. The track would become one of Jeru’s signature songs.

The third single was "You Can’t Stop the Prophet,” and the synergy of Jeru and Premeo continues on this exceptional track. Jeru unleashes his rapid-fire, wisdom-induced lyrics about Black empowerment and avoiding the pitfalls of societal ignorance.

The album’s only feature is from Afu-Ra, who makes his debut appearance on “Mental Stamina.” Another exhilarating track; both MCs trade punchlines, insightful metaphors, and witty verses. This is the ultimate track for lovers of unadulterated lyricism.

“Ain't the Devil Happy” is a Preemo masterpiece and arguably one of the best-produced tracks of the era. With haunting strings and slapping drums, Jeru warns about the pathways that lead to degradation and self-destruction, which pleases the “evil one.”

Upon its initial release, The Sun Rises In The East was hailed as a stellar body of work, with Jeru’s raw lyricism and Premier’s sample-rich production being a winning combination. Although The Sun Rises In the East did not put up enormous commercial numbers, it was never Jeru’s intent. His vision was to embody the essence of MCing and DJing in its purest form. 30 years later, many of Jeru’s prophecies have come true as he rapped that “the ignorance is contagious,” as it is often argued that hip-hop culture today is lacking the intelligence factor that it once displayed more of.

Speaking with Moo Kid Music, Jeru, who was 22 years old at the time of the album's release, explained his thought process during the creation of the project.

“I mean I was young, I was arrogant and I thought I could save the world, right? So that’s what it was about. I thought I had all of the answers and it turns out I didn’t know sh*t,” Jeru said. “But the good thing is, I did what I was supposed to do, as far as me being a part of positivity and a positive catalyst, you understand what I’m saying?

In a Rookie Class of 1994 that saw the release of timeless solo debuts like Illmatic, Ready To Die, Outkast’s Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Method Man’s Tical, Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises In the East is an unquestioned classic that had a major impact 30 years ago and should be included in the discussions of the best debuts of the 90s.

Three decades later, it still ranks among the best of the era and has left an indelible imprint on hip-hop.

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