Jeff Atkins, a.k.a. Ja Rule, grew up the only child in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Queens, N.Y. After years of learning the difficulties of the music industry (and a few arrests for small weapons and drug charges) with the New York-based rhyme crew Cash Money Click, things finally fell into place for him. In 1998, he wrote the hook for fellow rapper Jay-Z’s club hit "Can I Get A," which was the breakthrough that led to his debut last year, "Venni, Vetti, Vecci." The album went platinum nearly immediately, carried by the single “Holla Holla.”
On the cover of "Venni, Vetti, Vecci," Ja Rule stands before the gigantic Christ in Rio de Janiero, his head back, hands folded in prayer. The album starts with a call and response prayer:
Lord, can we get a break? (Lord, can we get a break?)
We ain't really happy here (We ain't really happy here)
Take a look into our eyes! (Take a look into our eyes!)
And see pain without fear (And see pain without fear)
But those looking for Ja Rule in Christian hip-hop are in the wrong section. Part of a group of rappers called Murder Inc, along with Jay-Z and DMX, Ja Rule articulates the harshness of street life, using the strong religious imagery instilled in his youth. Despite his signature cry, "Murder!" on his back is tattooed the name of his sister who died as an infant, complete with a halo and angel’s wings.
Ja Rule's second album, “Rule 3:36” (360/Def Jam), is a clear reference to John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” Ja Rule has changed this to read: “He who believes in Ja shall have everlasting love. He who does not shall not see life, but the wrath of my vengeance...Pain is love.” As I waited for the interview, Ja Rule sent an assistant out to make sure I had listened to the last track, “What If God Was One Of Us,” which is inspired by, but does not sample, the Joan Osborne song of the same name.
"One of Us" is the best and cleanest track on an excellent album, though full of profanity and violence. Ja Rule asks the question differently from Osborne. As one who has struggled with the strictures and perceived hypocrisy of organized religion, he wonders if God himself would be able to live up to the heavy yoke that religion places upon people.
PR: So you were raised Jehovah’s Witness?
JR: Yeah, that’s a tough religion. You don’t have birthdays, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, you know, because that’s not the day Christ was born. So there’s no need to celebrate. I would get like a gift a week after Christmas or a week before Christmas, because all the other kids would have stuff and then it would be like, "Why don’t I have nothing?" So my mom and grandma would get me stuff.
With Jehovah's Witnesses, you kind of go out and knock on doors, right.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Did you do that?
Its called field service.
I used to do field service when I was young--8. I used to do it younger than that, but I remember the years when I was 8, 9, I really--we use to always try to skip field service, because sometimes you had to knock on your friends’ doors. That was embarrassing, to be in your suit and to knock on the door. You’re cool in school, and now you’re knocking on a door in a suit. Everybody in my family was Jehovah's Witness. My father was, too. I was never baptized, but my mom was, and she got disfellowshiped.
My mom had friends from work; they would hang out with her girlfriends and co-workers and they would have drinks and stuff, you know regular stuff, you know what people do, normal stuff.
And she got caught doing that stuff and then they disfellowship you. My mom, she was kind of tired of living like a double life, because she felt these things she was doing weren’t wrong like in regular society. She says she called them and she told them, and they disfellowshiped her. Now when you get disfellowshiped, nobody is allowed to talk to you--not even your family. My mom, she was real hurt by that. That’s how I kind of got like a cold feeling towards the religion and religions in general. Because I said I don’t think that is something God would want. I don’t think God would want to separate families.
Obviously there’s a lot negative there. What was positive in being Jehovah's Witness while you were in that?
What happened was, when I got into junior high school, I had this friend. His mom was heavy into religion. She was Christian, and I used to go spend the night at his house a lot. This was when Mom was already disfellowshiped, so I had outside worldly friends. I used to spend the night and weekends and stuff, and his mom used to always make us go to Sunday school. Now, you know I did not tell my mom at first.
She might be upset if she thought you were going to a different Sunday school?
Yeah, so I didn’t tell my mom at first because I was kind of scared. But I was curious. My religion was so crazy and strange and weird, I thought, well, maybe let me explore religions. So I started going to church with my friend. It was basically the same, not too much different.
You are about 11 now or--
About 11 or 12. But when I got older, I start hearing lots of this about Jehovah's Witness, the people I used to go to the Hall with. Such and such son just went to jail, she was selling drugs and not this regular-family s--t going on. You know, regular human problems, brother such and such hit his wife and he’s getting demoted from being an elder now. I’m seeing all these things happening in the Christian churches too. So now I’m looking at it as, you know, it's not just the Christian religion. The Jehovah's Witness used to make it seem that all the outside religion is f---ed up and they’re the best religion. But it's not everyone else, it's you too. I mean, everybody has their problems, because we are all human.
Now I am going to high school and its cool to be Muslim, five-percenter. So we start getting into that, so they made me preach hate the white man. I start getting into Malcolm X. I learned that he started feeling different about the Muslim religion because of the foul goings-on he saw. And I’m like, Well, damn, every religion there’s something foul going on, there’s foul play going on everywhere. I’m 20 here, and I’m thinking maybe religion is the problem. Because religion is some man-made s--t. It’s a man who said, "OK, you should go to this church every Sunday, you should go to the Kingdom Hall and go out to field service, you should go to the mosque. You should do all these things, this is what you should do. Who the f--- told you? In the Bible God said come as you are. Who made these laws, that’s what I want to know. So that’s why I wear two crosses now. I call it double cross. I believe in God and not religion, because I believe religion is the double cross. Because I’ve been double crossed by three religions, so I think I can safely say that religion--there is maybe something wrong with religion. Every temple that’s put up may not be a holy one, so watch out.
No, its funny--a lot of people think that, but JA is my initials. My name is Jeff Atkins.
Come on, you never considered--
I mean, it all made a good, it made a parody, whatever you want to call it. I didn’t think about it first, first. I thought, JA--that’s cool, you know it means Jah Rastafari, "God."
Now tell me about the title of the new album: "John 3:36." He who believes in JA rule shall have everlasting love?
Obviously, that’s on a play on John 3:16: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” How do you fee that people are going to react to that? What do you think Christians are going to say to that
? I don’t care what Christians say.
OK, that’s fine. So what do you want out of that title? What are you trying to say?
It’s a message to the world: Believe in me, no fake love. I don’t need people coming up and smiling at me and being my friend for now because things are going well. You don’t got to be my friend now, you got to be my friend when I’m cold, you know, we don’t have to have a friendship if its not genuine, understand what I’m saying, and that’s basically what the statement is about.
And tell me, give me some words about the “One of Us" song. It’s a great song.
One of us--it’s a thought, what if he was?
How did you find the inspiration to write this song?
I’m gonna be very honest with you. I was watching "Austin Powers," and it’s a song on there.
Yeah...if God was one of us, and it was like, wow, that’s a powerful thought. What if he was, what would he do? Would he fall victim to his own sins that he calls sins, because its kind of rough down here to kind of follow all God’s laws and not slip. So I was just flirting with the question. If God was here, would he slip? Of course he wouldn’t: He’s God, he’s perfect, that’s what everyone’s gonna say [laughs]. But who knows?